Friday, 18 April 2014

Sumerian History: 3500-1940BC

Marshes of southern Mesopotamia
When the heavens above did not exist,
And earth beneath had not come into being—
There was Apsu, the first in order, their begetter…
“Enuma Elish”, Babylon c. 1700BC

Looking back through the blogs I realised that while I had written a post about the ancient Sumerian culture I had omitted to give a decent timeline of this impressive civilisation. So, while my overall general thoughts on Sumerian culture can be found in the previous post, this one will focus primarily on just giving an overall timeline of the events of this culture. Due to the chronological issues (to be dealt with in a later post) all dates are given in short chronology and should be treated as subject to academic debate.

After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu.
In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years.
Alalgar ruled for 36,000 years.
Two kings; they ruled for 64800 years.
“Sumerian Kinglist” (from a translation of a prism found at Larsa, c. 2000BC)

Artists impression of Eridu
Sumer is not a particularly ancient place of settlement by Neolithic standards. The land in the southern region of Iraq was primarily a marshland that was unsuitable for large scale settlement, so settlements like Catal Huyuk and Jericho predate Sumer. While there is no clear distinction between town and city, these earlier settlements would have been very small with populations that probably were no more than a few thousand at absolute most: pastoralist settlement isolates in a sea of nomads. There was a culture in the centre of Iraq known as the Halaf culture but this culture appears to have been primarily village based and leaves few traces. The first real city seems to have been Eridu in southern Iraq. While it is now quite inland, in that period it would have been on the coast. Around 5000BC there is evidence of a settlement there. This was very (very) gradually extended until the city had a dock, palaces and the first evidence of multi-storied monumental temples. Other smaller towns surrounded Eridu and Eridu’s prominence may have been due to the fact that it had ritual significance. Eridu was built on a fresh water marsh and the original mound the city was built on was believed to be the first dry land when the world was created out of the waters, (this was referred to as Apsu, later personified as a god in Babylonian mythology).

“Enmerkar’s speech was very grand; its’ meaning very profound. But the messenger’s mouth was too heavy, and he could not repeat the message. Because the messenger’s mouth was too heavy, and he could not repeat it, the Lord of Kulab (that is, Enmerkar) patted some clay and put the words on it as on a tablet. Before that day, words put on clay had never existed. But now, when the sun rose on that very day — so it was! The Lord of Kulab had put words as on a tablet — so it was!”
“Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”, lines 500–06, Ur, c2100BC (after Vanstiphout 2003, p. 85): Mesopotamian account of the origin of writing

Ruins of Temple of Inanna in Uruk
Around 3000BC the irrigation of the hinterland of Eridu had drained most of the marshes in the area, leading to salinity poisoning of the crops and the emigration of the fishing population of the surrounding area. The centre of culture moved northward to Uruk, which was far larger than Eridu had been and depended on the river Euphrates for irrigation rather than the marshlands of the coast. The population of Uruk was about 20,000-50,000 (un-disputably a city) and it was at this period that the proto-writing of signs and tokens developed into a full-fledged script to deal with the complexity of administering this burgeoning civilisation.

En-me-barage-si, the king, built the Iri-nanam in Enlil's temple. Aga, son of En-me-barage-si, made the Tummal flourish and brought Ninlil into the Tummal. Then the Tummal fell into ruins for the first time.
“The History of the Tummal” 1-6: Documents of En-me-barage-si, a supposed contemporary of Gilgamesh

Around 2900BC a dynasty of heroic figures, Meshki-Angasher, Enmerkar, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh supposedly arose in Uruk. Their exploits became legendary (the Sumerian equivalent to the heroic age for the Greeks). It is unclear if they actually existed but the fact that some of their supposed rivals were historical figures allows the possibility that these heroes may have some basis in fact. The main point is that Uruk is no longer dominant around this time. Other cities have emerged, such as the Sumerian cities of Lagash, Larsa, Isin, Umma, Kish, Nippur and Aratta (Aratta’s location is unclear but it was probably not Sumerian and probably located to the east of Sumer). Larsa was quite close to Uruk and the two were often in competition but the other cities were further north.

Ceremonial dagger from Ur
Uruk he defeated.
Ur he defeated.
Kiutu he defeated.
Iriaz he destroyed,
and its ruler he killed.
Mishime he destroyed.
Arua he obliterated.

Before Eannatum,
the one nominated by Ningirsu,
all the lands trembled.
The Eannatum Boulder c. 2430BC

Warfare is described from this period and the Elamite civilisation to the east provided a worthy adversary to the Sumerian states. Unfortunately the Proto-Elamite script is as yet undeciphered so the accounts of battle are one-sided. Eannatum of Lagash created a tenuous empire around 2500BC and erected what is known as the Stele of Vultures to celebrate a victory over Umma, as well as numerous other monuments. Bows, helmets, body armour, shields, formations and chariots are all in evidence at this time. It should be noted though that the chariot was likely pulled by onagers rather than horses, which were not domesticated in that area at that point.

Ceremonial spears
from Ur

Around this time a city called Ur rose to prominence. It had been a settlement since the Ubaid period but had never been powerful. While it was to become significant later it was as yet a minor power compared to the cities of Lagash and Kish. Like the Pharaohs of later times, the rulers of Ur went down to the grave in splendour. However, there were also servants who followed them into the afterlife, either through poison or blows to the head. The rituals were carried out and the servants lay entombed with their gilded masters for four millennia before being unearthed.

The quantity and quality of the grave goods is quite astonishing and, while these items were mainly ceremonial, it is testimony to the skill of the Sumerian craftsmen that they were able to create such works. I have attached two pictures of the grave goods of Ur. Photo credit is from so do head over to that site for more incredible pictures. It is interesting to note that one of those buried (Puabi) may have been a queen, but also that she may not have been Sumerian. Another people group coexisted with the Sumerians in the south of Iraq but they spoke a different language; a Semitic language afterwards called Akkadian.

In those days, although writing words on tablets existed, putting tablets into envelopes did not yet exist. King Ur-Zababa despatched Sargon, the creature of the gods, to Lugal-zage-si in Uruk with a message written on clay, which was about murdering Sargon.
Sargon and Ur-Zababa: Description of the rise of Sargon; in this extract his master sends Sargon to his arch-rival, hoping his arch-rival will kill him.

Sargon of Akkad
Around 2270BC, an Akkadian speaker called Sargon launched a coup against King Ur-Zababa of Kish and defeated the hegemon of the Sumer at that time Lugal-Zagesi. There are legendary accounts giving Sargon a birth legend similar to the later tales of Moses. His capital was the city of Akkad (or Agade), a newly founded city by Sargon that gave its name to the Akkadian language but which ironically does not appear to be an Akkadian word. Sargon’s empire encompassed all of the Sumerian cities and the cities of Mari and Ebla to the north in Syria. The campaigns against the Sumerian cities appear to have been quite brutal. He installed his daughter Enheduanna as High Priestess of Nanna (or Nannar) the Moon-God of Ur, as a method of controlling the elites in the Sumerian cities.

Akkadian rule was strongly resented and there were numerous revolts against Sargon and the kings that followed him (Rimush, Manishtushu and Naram-Sin). During one of these revolts a Sumerian called Lugal-Ane (lugal may be a title here) took Ur and stripped Enheduanna of her priestly title. A surviving hymn of Enheduanna (most probably the world’s first named author) gives a lament to Inanna (the Sumerian name for the goddess Ishtar) about her loss.

I, Enheduana, will recite a prayer to you. To you, holy Inanna, I shall give free vent to my tears like sweet beer! … In connection with the purification rites of holy An, Lugal-Ane has altered everything of his, and has stripped An of the E-ana. He has not stood in awe of the greatest deity. He has turned that temple, whose attractions were inexhaustible, whose beauty was endless, into a destroyed temple.
The Exaltation of Inanna, by Enheduanna c.2250BC: Description of the revolt against the Akkadian Empire.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
Naram-Sin, the grandson of Sargon of Akkad was able to restore order to the empire and embarked on a series of campaigns that brought the empire to its greatest extent, leaving stelas and monuments in his wake. His successor, Shar-kali-Sharri held the empire together for over ten years after Naram-Sin’s death but the empire rapidly disintegrated thereafter. An expressive document, grimly named “The Cursing of Akkad” speaks of the will of the gods turning against Akkad describes the collapse, although it inaccurately places the collapse at the time of Naram-Sin. The empire collapsed and a new people group called the Gutians moved down from the Zagros Mountains into Sumer. Whether or not it was an invasion is unclear but the Akkadian Empire was no more.

The life of Akkad's sanctuary was brought to an end as if it had been only the life of a tiny carp in the deep waters, and all the cities were watching it. Like a mighty elephant, it bent its neck to the ground while they all raised their horns like mighty bulls. Like a dying dragon, it dragged its head on the earth and they jointly deprived it of honour as in a battle.
The Cursing of Akkad, c.2000BC: Description of the end of the Akkadian Empire

King Gudea of Lagash
While the later accounts of this time describe this as a Sumerian Dark Ages where the barbarian Gutians oppressed the land this may be a feature of later propaganda and lack of sources than an actual Dark Age. Accounts exist from the city of Lagash of a king called Gudea who appears to have had a relatively prosperous and peaceful reign. Lagash seems to have become independent in the later years of the Akkadian Empire and they subsequently extended their influence over much of Sumer.

"When you, true shepherd Gudea, really set to work for me on my house, the foremost house of all lands, the right arm of Lagash, the Anzu bird roaring on the horizon, the E-ninnu, my royal house, I will call up to heaven for humid winds so that plenty comes down to you from heaven and the land will thrive under your reign in abundance."
The Building of Ningirsu’s temple c.2130 BC

The reign of the kings of Lagash was effectively ignored by the later rulers of Ur. Utu-Hegal a king of Uruk defeated the Gutians but his leadership was usurped by Ur-Nammu of Ur. Ur-Nammu and his son Shulgi led a renaissance of Sumerian culture with an empire that across all the cities of the south and initiated a program of rebuilding in all the cities. The Great Ziggurat of Ur reached its current form under the reign of Shulgi and the vast amount of documentation produced makes it one of the best documented periods of history for administrative affairs. The law codes of Ur-Nammu are some of the first codifications of law in history.

"O Utu, Enlil has given Gutium to me, may you be my help!" He laid a trap … behind the Gutian. Utu-Hegal, the mighty man, defeated their generals.
Then Tirigan the king of Gutium ran away alone on foot. He thought himself safe in Dabrum, where he fled to save his life; but since the people of Dabrum knew that Utu-Hegal was a king endowed with power by Enlil, they did not let Tirigan go, and an envoy of Utu-Hegal arrested Tirigan together with his wife and children in Dabrum. He put handcuffs and a blindfold on him. Before Utu, Utu-Hegal made him lie at his feet and placed his foot on his neck. … He brought back the kingship of Sumer.
The Victory of Utu-Hegal (grandfather of Shulgi) c. 2100BC

Ziggurat of Ur
Shulgi was succeeded by Amar-Sin who continued the building program, even attempting a massive ziggurat in the now moribund city of Eridu. Shu-Sin succeeded Amar-Sin but now the empire was disintegrating and a new people group speaking a Semitic language moved in from the West (they were called the Amorites: Amurru means “West” in Akkadian). Ibbi-Sin was the last Sumerian king of Ur and his continuation of the fortifications of his father Shu-Sin was of no help in staving off the end. Elam had previously been subject to Sumer but now the king of Elam attacked Ur. The tribal attacks had previously weakened Ur to such an extent that it had lost control of the food supply and the famine-stricken city surrendered. Ibbi-Sin was taken and died in captivity. The Amorites took over the cities of Iraq. Their language was similar to Akkadian so they were able to assimilate rapidly and soon new heights of civilisation would be reached. But after the fall of Ur in 1940BC the use of Sumerian as a spoken language began to go into irreversible decline and it would only survive as a scholarly language (like Latin in the Middle Ages).

Mother Ningal, like an enemy, stands outside her city. The woman laments bitterly over her devastated house. Over her devastated shrine Urim, the princess bitterly declares:
"An has indeed cursed my city, my city has been destroyed before me.
Enlil has indeed transformed my house, it has been smitten by pickaxes.
On my ones coming from the south he hurled fire.
Alas, my city has indeed been destroyed before me.
On my ones coming from the highlands Enlil hurled flames.
Outside the city, the outer city was destroyed before me,
I shall cry "Alas, my city".
Inside the city, the inner city was destroyed before me,
I shall cry "Alas, my city".
My houses of the outer city were destroyed,
I shall cry "Alas, my houses".
My houses of the inner city were destroyed,
I shall cry "Alas, my houses"."
“Lament of Ur”, 254-264, c.1900BC