Reading History #7 – Akkad and the Origins of Empire c.2350-1950 BCE

Copyright @2015 Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider:

  1. What do you make of the story about Sargon’s childhood? Does it tell us anything about the relationship between rulers and religion? (that is between the rule on earth and the rule beyond)
  2. What does the story of Nimrod tell us about the origin’s of Babylon?
  3. Why would the last of the Akkadian kings invest so much in the renovation of religious structures?
  4. What is the legacy of Hammurabi?

Clay pit, clay, you are the clay pit of Anu and Enlil, the clay pit on Enki, lord of the Deep, the clay pit of the great gods; you have made the lord for lordship, you have made the king for kingship, you have made the prince for future days.

– Sumerian Ritual Protection Spell

The ancient city of Ashur

U.S. Soldiers from Crazy Horse Troop, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment provide security for the Provincial Reconstruction Team and representatives of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization visiting the ancient city of Ashur, the site is now known as Qalat Shergat, Iraq, Nov. 21. Ashur is one of three areas in Iraq that is a World Heritage site.

The inimitable American author O’Henry begins one of his stories this way:

Twenty-five years ago the school children used to chant their lesson. The manner of their delivery was a sing-song recitative between the utterance of an Episcopal minister and the drone of a tired sawmill. I mean no disrespect. We must have lumber and sawdust.

I remember one beautiful and instructive little lyric that emanated from the physiology class. The most striking line of it was this: ‘The shin-bone is the long-est bone in the hu-man bod-y.’

What an inestimable boon it would have been if all the corporeal and spiritual facts pertaining to man had thus been tunefully and logically inculcated in our youthful minds! But what we gained in anatomy, music and philosophy was meager.

The other day I became confused. I needed a ray of light. I turned back to those school days for aid. But in all the nasal harmonies we whined forth from those hard benches I could not recall one that treated of the voice of agglomerated mankind. In other words, of the composite vocal message of massed humanity. In other words, of the Voice of a Big City.

O’Henry goes on to ask, “who can comprehend the meaning of the voice of the city? Tell me, what does this big — er — enormous — er — whopping city say? It must have a voice of some kind. Does it ever speak to you? How do you interpret it’s meaning? It is a tremendous mass, but it must have a key.” More and more scholars have over the past twenty years or so turned their attention to thinking about the meaning of big cities, searching across disciplines for the key that unlocks the secret strongbox containing the answers to more pressing questions of modern life: How will we maintain a global population of 12 billion? What energy resources and infrastructure are necessary to keep mega-cities healthy and functioning? What effect will climate change have upon the urban environment? Are some cities doomed already? How might the urban habitat become more resilient and sustainable? Academics and experimental engineers are tackling these crucial questions that will continue to demand more attention as the 21st century progresses. Cities are strategic necessities for sustainability. The mesmerizing, seductive voice of the city has been speaking for some six thousand years.  Perhaps we have only recently begun to take seriously what it has been saying all these years because we have only recently awakened to the fact that our future survival depends upon maintaining this uniquely human thing.

It may seem obvious, but we should bear in mind that city walls were built to keep people out, not keep them in. For the most part cities are places that, for a variety of reasons, attract immigrants. Cities have always been oases of opportunity, honey-pots of luxury, refinement, excess, sin, and salvation. In the Middle Ages, living in a city conveyed special rights that did not exist beyond the walls. If a peasant could manage to reside for a year within a city, he earned his status as a freeman. Healthy cities always have more people moving in than moving out, a necessary factor for sustaining a population. City dwellers, therefore, have asked themselves from the get-go how do we keep this very special thing we made? How do we preserve order within to ensure that the good things continue to be available? How do we control surrounding lands to maintain peace and keep the ingress of necessary resources to feed the needs and desires of the urban population? What the gods had granted was too good to lose to the barbarians at the gates. It was in the interest of self-preservation, then, that Sumerians developed new institutions capable of regulating the world of men.

Order and control go hand-in-hand with preservation. Public order is necessary for keeping a large and densely packed population content and productive. The basic means for maintaining good public order have not changed much over the centuries. They are: 1) authority figures who determine policy and law, 2) a special group of enforcers, loyal to the established authority figures, that implements policy and metes out violence, both domestic and foreign, in the name of the state, 3) a foundational myth (story) that explains why things are the way they are.  As individual Mesopotamian cities evolved and their interests expanded, their systems of public order also had to evolve.

While we do not have the records that might allow us to see the process clearly among the first Sumerian cities, we can engage in some informed speculation based upon archaeological evidence. The earlier priest-dominated city-states gave way to regional authority structures that were capable of marshaling greater resources to ‘protect and defend’ the great man-made structures and dazzling culture of the city. This required equipped and motivated armies, which did not come cheaply, and cultivating effective war leaders. We can image that cities pooled resources in order to maintain the effectiveness of their defenses against other cities that were doing the same.  These regional confederations, which could amass larger and better-equipped armies for their common defense, are the first political empires of the ancient world. By the mid-3rd millennium BCE we see clear evidence that war leaders and their armies have assumed special status in the political world of Mesopotamia; they have carved out special precincts for themselves in their cities, i.e. constructed palaces and barracks, and become important enough to mention by name (previously only the names of gods had been important enough to record). What emerges by c.2500 BCE is something that looks much like the fully-formed political state, something larger than a single city, with a secular leader devising and enforcing policy through the use of military force. Internal propaganda reinforced the idea that beyond its borders lurked the destructive forces of the wilderness, the eternal chaos of troglodytes, the barbarians who neither share refinement nor culture.  The authoritative and pompous voice of the king  becomes increasingly clear in an age that featured continuous war and destruction.

The transition from theocracy (rule by priests) to monarchy (rule by a single person) was a long process, but once the Sumerian kings appear in written records as individuals who wanted to boast of their great deeds, our foundations for understanding ‘what happened’ in ancient Mesopotamia become more secure. The word king comes from the Old English word cyning, meaning from the family or kin. This suggests that a king is one who leads his own people or tribe. Sumerians, of course, did not speak Old English and had their own word for king, lugal, which literally means ‘big man.’ If Gilgamesh is the prototype, and he is considered by many scholars to represent some form of an early king in his city of Uruk, then kings were big men indeed. His friend Enkidu points out that, while Gilgamesh has been given amazing powers, he also has certain duties:

The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny. Because of this do not be sad at heart. He has given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. He has given you unexampled supremacy over the people, victory in battle from which no fugitive returns, in forays and assaults from which there is no going back. But do not abuse this power, deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before Shamash.

The king worked on earth under the special gaze of the gods.

Sumerian kings, not considered divine themselves, did, according to state propaganda, enjoy special relationships with certain gods and ruled as their representatives on earth. One early document from the region addresses the Sumerian king as “son of Anu” and states that “your commands, like the word of a god, cannot be reversed.”  Claiming to speak ‘like a god’ was a fine bit of political ideology that satisfied the masses who ‘knew’ that serving the gods was a right and proper thing to do in order to secure the benefits of their favor. Sumerian priests, as interpreters of the natural world and earthly attendants to the great gods, of course continued to play important social and political roles in Sumerian society, but it was the kings who became the real movers and shakers, the makers of history. From the origin of the institution, kingship involved protecting the people, establishing justice, and pursuing war against state enemies. The kings created armies to use against neighboring states and led them in battle; they issued proclamations and devised courts; they designed and supervised public construction projects, and they organized labor to maintain the vast irrigation systems upon which all life in the city depended. All of the people surrounding the royal family, including priests and scribes, formed the elite social group (a distinguishing feature of a hierarchical society) of Sumer, comprising at most 2% of the entire population. An aristocracy (‘rule by the best’) had arrived.

The first hereditary kings appeared in Sumer around c.2900 BCE and became thoroughly entwined with the Mesopotamian conception of an advanced state. In Sumerian mythology the great god Enki, who established the first city of Eridu at his life-given spring, controlled a variety of attributes and techniques that identified an advanced civilization. Each one, called a me, was thought of as almost a physical object. Enki’s horde of mes, the building-blocks of civilization, included kingship, the crown and scepter, and royal insignia and the throne. Eventually, these ‘qualities’ were distributed, along with all of the other attributes of civilized living, from his residence at Eridu to all of the other cities of Mesopotamia.Cities, according to Sumerian cosmology, quite literally possessed the divine qualities for life on an entirely separate level.

The period of the first kings has been named, appropriately enough, the Early Dynastic Period (c.2900-2350 BCE) which covers the emergence of recognizable and named kingdoms and leaders. We know scattered bits of information about the period due to the preservation of various text fragments and a manuscript known as the King List which dates from about 2600 BCE, some one thousand years after the emergence of civilization in the region. Consider for a moment the fact that one thousand years ago the Vikings were still plundering Ireland and the Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England was still 50 years in the future; that’s how far removed the first named ruler is from the initial emergence of civilization in Mesopotamia.  Before about 2350 BCE or so, Sumerian kings with names such as Lugal-kinishe-dudu, Lugal-Anne-Mundu,  and Ur-Nanshe ruled from the cities of Lagash, Ur, Uruk, Umma, or a handful of others and waged incessant war against each other. They conducted diplomacy, confronted rebels, built up and tore down, terrorized populations (their own as well as the enemy’s), appealed to the gods, and even in some instances made the people of all the lands live in peace as in a meadowand conferred the benefits of civilized life upon their people.1

We know relatively little about the early Sumerian and Akkadian war machines, but fragments from a commemorative marker, known as a steele, discovered in southern Iraq and dating to c.2525 BCE provide a glimpse of organized war during the Early Dynastic Period. Known as the ‘Steele of the Vultures’ for the carved images of vultures plucking at the severed heads of corpses that appear with the inscriptions, the carved limestone tablet depicts the king of Lagash leading his army into action against Umma. The king carries a socket ax and rides a chariot of sorts. Troops equipped with shields and helmets and armed with spears advance in phalanx formation across the bodies of their enemies. The helmet itself was a major technological innovation that, according to scholars at the U.S. Army War College, marks a defensive response to the killing power of the war mace when used against an unprotected skull. The mace subsequently disappeared from the battlefield.2

Archaeological evidence indicates that the earliest helmets were made of leather and copper, but during the Early Dynastic Period Sumerian smiths discovered that adding tin to the copper created a much harder metal alloy: bronze. Only the very wealthy and powerful could afford the new technology —  tin was extremely rare in the Ancient Near East — so those capable of equipping themselves and their armies with bronze armaments formed an elite class of powerful warriors. The Bronze Age, therefore, coincides with the first age of kingship in Mesopotamia.

Šarru-kīnu: ‘The True King’

We know little concerning the background of Šarru-kīnu a.k.a. Sargon, but one legend states the following:

My mother was a priestess, my father I knew not. The brothers of my father came from the highlands. My city is the wilderness herb fields, situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed the lid. She cast me into the river which rose not over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was his gardener, Inanna granted me her love, and for four and fifty years I exercised kingship. The black-headed people, I did rule and govern.

Sargon, from a humble (but priestly) background, built himself a disciplined army and with it, and the blessings of Inanna, conquered the world’s first discernible empire.

The Early Dynastic Period comes to an end, therefore, with the emergence of a new type of political state, one that fused a handful of formerly independent kingdoms into a single super-state ruled by one of the more important ‘big men’ of ancient Mesopotamia. Sargon (c.2350 BCE) conquered more territory than any previous war-leader, most of modern Iraq and Syria, and ruled the first ancient empire.  To later generations Sargon, who far exceeded the power and fame of any earlier ruler, was the very model of the great king. We know from surviving inscriptions commemorating his victories that Sargon “vanquished Uruk in battle and smote fifty governors of the city.” He likewise “vanquished Ur in battle and smote the city and destroyed its fortress.” His war machine also flattened Lagash, Larsa, and Nippur, then rolled north until he “restored the territory of Kish” (his birth-place) and united Akkad and Sumer. Sargon’s empire ultimately stretched from the waters of the Persian Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea where “he stationed his court officials and ruled in unity the tribes of the lands.”3

The Akkadian Empire, which included both Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and lands westward to the shores of the Mediterranean (i.e. modern Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan), established a precedent of far-flung rule over all of the territories between the Taurus and Zagros Mountains. Sargon’s empire, however, is not only historically remarkable for the extent of its territory, but also for its composition. Sargon ruled from the city of Akkad, which was probably near the city of Kish, his birthplace, but his rule extended well beyond populations that might in any way be considered close kin groups. The novelty of this multi-ethnic state demanded the construction of a novel city, Akkad, “a city associated neither with Semites nor Sumerians; a city founded, not by a god, like others, but by the Emperor Sargon himself.”4  Today, Syrians, Turks, Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, and Arabs still fight bitterly for hegemony in the region – the United States, too, since the mid-20th century has become engaged in the region.  Sargon’s imperial rule from 2334-2279 BCE set the standard. Ambitious kings, tyrants, war-lords, mullahs, presidents, and shahs, have tried to emulate the Akkadian Empire ever since; few have succeeded in maintaining control over the entire region.

In 1992, a year after his defeat in the First Gulf War, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein announced that he was reviving the so-called Babylon International Festival “as a symbol of defiance against the United States and its Gulf War allies.”5 Two years before Hussein had staged his festival at a monstrous and absurd recreation of Babylon, a type of open-air movie stage reminiscent of the very worst of Cecil B. DeMille. His multi-day political orgy of self-praise included a spectacular tableau-vivant celebrating the birth and rebirth of the Iraqi state. At the height of the extravaganza a bevy of white doves was released from a palm tree standing amidst the fake marshlands, and ‘baby Saddam’ floated down the river in a wicker basket while thousands of costumed ‘Akkadians’ prostrated themselves before the ‘true king.’6  It is hard to miss the political point Hussein wished to hammer home with such charades. After nearly 4500 years, Sargon continues to cast a shadow over the politics of Mesopotamia.


Sargon’s new city of Akkad was the first true capital city, founded to serve the administrative needs of men. If you take a look at a map of ancient Mesopotamia, you should be able to figure out why a city constructed on that site would make sense as an administrative center. Akkad was residence, government, military garrison, commercial center, and cultural gem all rolled into one. A unified system of weights and measurements facilitated trade to far-flung parts of the empire and, according to a later verse, the goddess Inanna helped fill the city with gold, silver, copper, tin, and blocks of lapis lazuli. Court bureaucrats, by using cuneiform script and a single language, Akkadian, universalized the language throughout the entire Near East for a thousand years. And of course, Sargon and the line of kings that followed spread Sumerian civilization throughout the empire, a cultural inheritance passed to successive generations of ‘dwarves’ resting upon the shoulders of giants. Though Akkad collapsed and disappeared under the sand and marshes, the man who built it,

The Third Dynasty of Ur

The Third Dynasty of Ur

Sargon, the ‘true king’ and giant, is remembered still. During his era individual men became central figures of history, agents of their own destiny worthy of praise and deserving of curses. The gods still visited temples and made demands upon the poor slobs who served them, but it was man who shaped the earthly kingdoms.

Those who came after it, and feasted upon its carcass, tell of a time when the Akkadian Empire had once brought stability and promoted culture:  ‘All foreign lands rested contentedly and their people experienced happiness.’ But despite all its wealth and power, or perhaps BECAUSE of them, the Akkadian Empire could not endure the pressures of internal revolts and rivalries or stave off the incursions of covetous tribes along its frontiers. It managed to survive for only a handful of generations — four rulers followed Sargon — before breaking apart into smaller units. Taken as a whole, the Akkadian kingdoms lasted for about three hundred years in all ( roughly c.2300-2000 BCE), about the same life-span that the Ottoman Turks or the Romanovs in Russia managed in modern times. Despite relatively strong centralized authority, rebellions seem to have been endemic. And in the end, Akkad’s material success proved too tempting to outsiders who wished to share the bounty.

One only need read the international news today to see similar migratory forces in play. Fleeing war, persecution, economic and environmental collapse, waves of people are attempting to migrate to wealthier and more stable states, though it should be pointed out that the vast majority of them never reach North America or Europe. The U.N. reports that refugee numbers have, for the first time since World War II, exceeded 51 million. If displaced persons had their own country it would be the world’s 26th most populous, about the size of South Korea. The scale of the crisis is straining the ability of relief organizations to provide effective aid. As a result, lawlessness, violence, and gansterism is on the upswing in states with large refugee populations (these are mostly ill-equipped developing countries). While we should be wary of interpreting contemporary events as exact copies of what has gone before — despite the old adage, history never repeats itself — our own global crisis does shed some light on the destabilizing forces that brought down the Akkadian Empire six thousand years ago.

Knowing, as we do, some of the basic assumptions inherent in Mesopotamian cosmology, those who recorded the collapse attributed it the wrath of angry gods. We’ve heard it all before: men come together to improve their lot on earth and, while having a good time of it, forget what it was they were supposed to be doing, namely, serving the gods, and find themselves on the wrong end of a lightning bolt or tidal wave. According to a later Babylonian text called The Cursing of Akkad, the great god Enlil frowned and ‘the life of its sanctuary was brought to an end as if it had been only the life of a tiny carp in the deep waters.’

The city of Akkad was systematically destroyed sometime around the year 2000 BCE; its remains have yet to be found.

The final flowering of Akkadian kingship occurred during the Third Dynasty of Ur (c.2112-2000 BCE), when kings went to the city of Nippur to receive their crown and scepter (symbols of kingship), but governed from the much larger and wealthier city of Ur. Perhaps as a way to stem the atrophy and return things to the way they were in the ‘good ol days,’ the last handful of Akkadian kings took serious interest in renovating religious structures in their cities. They initiated massive building projects throughout Sumer, including an exceptionally large ziggurat and temple precinct at Eridu.

Figurine of Amar-Sin of Ur showing the king as a builder with a basket on his head. (Louvre, c.1975 BCE)

Figurine of Amar-Sin of Ur showing the king as a builder with a basket on his head. (Louvre, c.1975 BCE)

When archeologists uncovered the remains of the temple complex at Eridu, they discovered the following inscription upon the bricks from this twilight era: ‘Amar-Sin, king of the four quarters built for Enki, his beloved king, his beloved Apsu.’  King Amar-Sin ruled but briefly, 1981-1973 BCE, and died by a scorpion bite. His attempts to infuse spirit into his people and return order to the system fell flat.

By about 1800 BCE, many of the old the religious centers were neglected and abandoned. Even the huge ziggurat dedicated to Enki at Eridu, the one King Amar-Sin had personally worked on, fell into disrepair.7 Environmental factors, particularly desertification in the north and salinity of the canals and rivers in the south, played their part in the unraveling of the Mesopotamia kingdoms. But by far the greatest damage done to last kings of Ur was inflicted by men, invasions of foreigners from both the west (modern day Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan) and from the east (modern day Iran). The entire region was invaded by ‘barbarians’ who had been living on the fringes of Sumerian civilization, most significant of which were the Amorites, known popularly as the Babylonians.

The Cursing of Akkad leaves us with a grim image of the times:

Messengers no longer traveled the highways, the courier’s boat no longer passed along the rivers. Prisoners manned the watch. Brigands attacked the highways. The doors of the city gates lay dislodged, and all the foreign lands uttered bitter cries from the walls of their cities. They established gardens for themselves within the cities, and not as usual on the wide plain outside. As if it had been before the time when cities were built and founded, the large arable fields yielded no grain, the inundated tracts yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, the thick clouds did not rain, the macgurum plant did not grow. Those who lay down on the roof, died on the roof; those who lay down in the house were not buried. People were flailing at themselves from hunger. Near Enlil’s great place, dogs were packed together in the silent streets; if two men walked there they would be devoured by them, and if three men walked there they would be devoured by them. Noses were punched, heads were smashed. Honest people were confounded with traitors, heroes lay dead on top of heroes, the blood of traitors ran upon the blood of honest men.

The unknown Amorite poet responsible for giving us this vivid glimpse of the ubiquitous disorder in Mesopotamia as the last of the Sumerian kings foundered should be applauded for the effectiveness of his verse. What more need we say to emphasize a serious breakdown of law and order than ‘noses were punched, heads were smashed’?

Lapus Lazuli

Lapus Lazuli

Inlaid lapis from Ur

Inlaid lapis from UrINTERESTING:

INTERESTING:     Discoveries of the gemstone lapis lazuli at Mesopotamian archaeological sites are important for estimating the extent of trade carried out by Sumerian merchants. Deep blue lapis, which is only found in Afghanistan, was favored by high-end Akkadian and Babylonian craftsmen. Lapis lazuli was also used to adorn temples and was discovered in profusion in the Royal Tombs of Ur, along with decorated ostrich shells and mother-of-pearl from modern day Bahrain and Oman. Stone vases have also been matched to vessels in India.


  1. According to a fragmentary inscription attributed to Lugal-Anne-Mundu.
  2. (Metz and Gabriel, “A Short History of War.” Accessed 31 July 2015.
  3. The quotations are from inscriptions translated in Podany, pp.40-43 and Kriwaczeck, p.108.
  4. Kriwaczek, p.110.
  5. The Independent, 21 Sept 1992
  6. Kriwaczek, p.112.
  7. See Leick, Mesopotamia, pp.18-19.

MAP: ‘Mesopotamia During the Third Dynasty of Ur,’ based on based on Garelli, Paul, ‘El Imperio de Ur y su herencia,’ in El Próximo Oriente asiático. Barcelona: Labor, 1974; modified into English by Chiam, 2010.


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