Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Gardener Who Became King

Map of Mesopotamia around 1800 BC
In the year 1861 BC, in the small city of Isin, in what is now southern Iraq, the astronomers and priests were worried. They lived in an independent city, which was ruled by a king upon whom the government relied. The educated classes were priests and scribes who built great towering temples from which they could study the stars and use their starry measurements to try to predict the future. There was one particular celestial event that worried them. We don’t know exactly what it was, but they believed that this heavenly sign meant that the king would die.

If the king died, the priests feared chaos would break out on earth. There must always be a king. Kingship descended from heaven and must be preserved at all costs. So, the contingency plan was set in motion. In the past the priests had attempted to alter destiny to preserve their kings. They would ritually strip the king of his kingship, send him into hiding, crown a new king chosen from the commoners, wait until the heavenly sign had passed and then kill the substitute king. This would fulfill the prophecy but keep the real king, who was subsequently re-crowned, alive.

A Mesopotamian King
The priests searched for a suitable commoner and finally settled on a gardener by the name of Enlil-Bani. The astronomical conjunction did not happen frequently so it is unknown if he would have been aware of his fate, but even if he did not know the specifics, he surely must have been aware that something very unusual was going on when he was plucked from obscurity and inducted into the kingship. But he was powerless to resist.

The days passed and Enlil-Bani’s fate approached, until a very prosaic event provided an extraordinary rescue. The king (a man known to us as Erra-Imitti, who was then in hiding) apparently and improbably choked to death while eating (according to the tale it was a bowl of porridge, which would be quite difficult to choke on). The ruling classes were in a quandary but the gardener seized the moment and refused to step down from the kingship. He had been crowned and he presumably argued that the events had been ordained by the gods. The prophecy had been fulfilled and the king was dead. Long live the king.

Cuneiform writing used for records
The old dynasty passed away and Enlil-Bani founded a new dynasty, restored the temples of Isin and was generally remembered as a good king in the chronicles of clay kept by the scribes and priests. I have always loved the story, as it was a moment where a member of the downtrodden who was doomed to death instead became the head of state who ruled justly over those who would have killed him.

Now that I am older and more cynical I sometimes view the tale differently. The city of Isin was in trouble at the time. Neighbouring cities had been threatening their water supply and the old dynasty had been unable to preserve Isin’s power. The old dynasty itself was failing. The previous kings had had very short reigns and Erra-Imitti himself may not have been from the direct regal line. Perhaps the priests used the opportunity presented to them to murder the previous king. Perhaps Enlil-Bani realised the situation and persuaded them to murder Erra-Imitti instead of himself. Possibly, in what must surely count as one of the most audacious coups in history he had been in contact with the astronomers and planned it all from the beginning!

There is also the possibility that the entire tale is much later. An Assyrian king from the 7th century BC named Esarhaddon, had a tendency to use this ritual quite frequently and it is possible that the story of Enlil-bani and the death of the original king was a way of protesting the practices of Esarhaddon. I am quite sceptical of this interpretation, but I have heard it mentioned.

A Ziggurat: A temple that was also used for astronomy
We will never know the true story. It is a three thousand, eight hundred year old (possibly murder) mystery. Take whichever version of events you feel is most plausible but remember that, unless we discover more detailed records in the ancient sites of Iraq, that the other versions are equally valid. 


  1. I am studying for an exam on Ancient Mesopotamia and this was very helpful .Thank you, I appreciate the information.

  2. You're very welcome! I'm glad you found the blog helpful and here's hoping the exam went well! What aspects of Mesopotamian history are you studying? It is quite an intriguing subject.

  3. Dear David. Thank you for this useful post, that helped a lot for me, because I write a homework to the university. I have to choose a mesopotamian king and write an essay about him and I choose Enlil-bani, because he has the most interesting story. Sorry for my bad english.
    Thank you again: Boglárka from Hungary :)

  4. Thanks! It's an interesting topic indeed. Other kings used the same ritual, most notably Esarhaddon (a much later king in Assyria). Some of the letters pertaining to the ritual have been translated by Simo Parpola and are worth a read.