The Incredible Sumerians part 3
The recovery, peaceful times, lugals (Sumer's great kings)
and, finally, empires before Sargon of Akkad.
Towards the end of the Uruk period (around 3100 BC) the Sumerian civilisation collapsed from the combination of continued climate change that brought both a terrible prolonged drought and a Great Flood (in southern-most Sumer). This catastrophic, once in a thousand year, flood inspired the biblical legend of the great deluge.
It was followed by a dark age, continuing at least for a couple of hundred years, but in many regions far longer. It would take almost seven centuries for the entire region and its surrounds to reach a full recovery.
During this period, trade dried up, larger settlements shrank and smaller settlements were poorly developed.
There would be two periods remaining when the Southern cities of Sumer would rise again and be powerful.
The first of two periods was called the ‘Early Dynastic Period’ (2900 BC- 2270 BC) named after the same period in Egyptian history. The terminology is a little confusing when applied to Sumer. Unlike Egypt, Sumer did not have a single 'pharaoh' or a single capital.
In between the two final periods where Sumer was dominated by the south, was the Akkadian Empire which was centred in the northern region.
The final period for a powerful Southern Sumer is called 'the third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III)' lasting little more than a hundred years 2112 BC – c. 2004 BC. After that Southern Sumer’s wealth, population and power wealth collapsed and it increasingly began to return to desert.
Kish and the north of Sumer
For millennia, Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions were dominated by the great cities of Southern Sumer, especially Uruk.
During the dark age and the early recovery, there was one region that managed to keep the flickering candle of Sumerian civilisation alive.
It was in the north, the ‘Uri region’, where the Tigris and the Euphrates emerge from mountainous gorges to first run on the alluvial plain. In many places there, the great rivers run above the level of the plain. It can still flood, but at different times to the south.
While it is not immune to the problem of drought and salinity, it is far more resistant than the then heavily irrigated South or the rain fed lands agricultural lands in the north and it has remained very productive through till today.
It only ever had one dominant city.
One day it would host the Akkadian Empire, centred on Akkad. Much, much, later it would be called the region of ‘Babylonia’ named after that ancient city. Finally it would become home to Baghdad, the second largest city in the whole Arab world.
But this was five thousand years ago and Akkad and Babylon were small, unimportant towns.
This was the time of the great city of Kish.
Kish not only survived the dark age, but thrived in the early after-math and around 2900 BC gained hegemony over all of Sumer. It defeated enemies from both Elam and the highland region of the Zagros mountains.
|Ishtar's temple, Kish (Osama Amin).|
In one way this would prove to be a vision of the future, as Sumer declined due to climate change, but that process would take another 900 years. For the moment, Southern Sumer was nowhere near finished.
The Kish Civilisation
A place as great and enduring as Sumer had several ethnic minorities, especially in border towns.
The greatest ethnic minority was in the north of Sumer. They spoke the now extinct ‘Eastern’ Semitic languages (which included Akkadian).
One Archaeologist coined the term ‘Kish Civilisation’ to describe the shared culture of the Northern Sumer, Northern Mesopotamia and the Northern Levant, but that term is highly misleading.
The people of Kish obviously interacted and traded (and sometime fought) with their cousins to the north. They did indeed share aspects of a culture that had incorporated both Semitic and the Sumerian culture and the culture of the advanced Neolithic peoples that had preceded both of them.
However, Southern Sumer had been the dominant culture of the region for millennia. The closer one moved towards it, the greater its influence over culture, mythology, language and politics.
Politically and culturally, the people of the Uri region were southern looking. They didn't see themselves as part of their northern neighbours.
There were differences between the north and the south (which would contribute to friction later) but they and the rest of Sumer saw them as part of Sumer.
2600 BC: Widespread Recovery, Kish loses hegemony.
By 2600 BC the whole region (Southern Sumer, upper Mesopotamia, the Northern levant and Western Iran) were beginning to recover.
Kish could not maintain its economic and political dominance over its increasingly powerful and wealthy neighbours and while they increasingly thrived, it, for a time, contracted.
The great cities of Southern Sumer recover.
By 2600 BC powerful city states such as Uruk (especially) but also Ur, Lagash, Adab and later Umma emerged to compete with one another (for trade and prestige).
It was a great time.
Sumer had a massive agricultural surplus (especially date, barley and vegetable oil). It exported wool, linen and finished goods like pottery, leather goods, baskets, wool, textiles and jewellery. It was short of almost everything else, even wood and stone.
Busy caravans and ships plied to and fro. Its merchants travelled into the neighbouring lands in search of resources and trade, and to set up trading colonies.
They didn’t yet have domesticated camels and the smaller horses of the time were not popular. Their best form of overland transport, when it was available, was via Sumer’s intricate canal system.
Boats can transport far more than carts. Barges hauled by mules and donkeys (being slowly led along ‘tow paths’) might be able to carry (slowly) a massive fifty times what they could with a cart on a dirt road.
The climate (for a period) was kinder for the whole region, and one new nearby civilisation to emerge in the east was the Indus Valley Civilisation.
At its peak (around 2500 BC) it far exceed Sumer in population and area, but sadly it was destined to suffer the same fate as Sumer. By 1900 BC it had succumbed to the drying climate of the larger region and the influx of nomadic herders (in its case Aryans).
But that was in the future.
Recovery to the North, a Tale of two cities,.
Ebla was in the northern Levant and was partly
protected from the events at the end of the Uruk period.
It recovered earlier, building its first royal palace around 2700 BC. At its height, it controlled a relatively vast amount of territory, almost half the size of modern-day Syria.
Mari (on the Middle Euphrates), had a similar ethnic population and began life as a planned city (around 2900 BC), designed as the most northerly river port, strategically placed to capture the overland trade. It was briefly abandoned before being built again on old foundations around 2500 BC, after which it grew rapidly.
Both cities dominated their neighbouring settlements and had periods of prosperity and reverses, but they became particularly strong around 2500 BC ... and they were headed for a showdown.
Mari, the upstart, launched a war against Ebla around 2423 BC which lasted back and forwards for a hundred years. It often had the upper hand, until it was defeated by an alliance of Ebla, Nagar and Kish around 2300 BC.
More information , but still huge gaps
For Sumer’s long and early history (before 2600 BC) we have only have the results of limited excavations (as explained) and legendary accounts of hero-kings like Gilgamesh of Uruk, written many centuries after the events they describe. Added to this we have terse and unreliable entries into the Sumerian Kings list(s).
After 2600 BC, the Sumerians left lots of clay tablets, many unfortunately looted or damaged and grave goods (especially Ur). The also erected stêlai (stone monuments) mostly recording victories and they also deposited celebratory stone vases in Nippur, the sacred city and home of Sumer's prime god Enlil.
We have some idea of Sumer's laws , literature, music, wisdom-literature and royal correspondence but there are major gaps, especially in our understanding of their political and military history.
It is probably fair to credit the Greek Herodotus as being the world’s first historian around 430 BC.
So Sumer had lots of literature but no historians, and the greatest pre-occupation of the industrious Sumerians was commerce.
Were Sumerian Cities constantly at war with each other?
Sumer, for its time, was highly urbanised and the most densely settled region in the world, it’s city-states often separated by little more than boundary stones or canals.
For this reason, early archaeologists assumed that Sumerian city states would be ‘constantly’ at war with one another for dominance and land and water rights. This is supposition has been repeated so often that it has passed into accepted fact.
The truth is a little different.
While the evidence is scant, it suggests that throughout most of Sumer’s very long history it was remarkable peaceful. Battles did occur between Sumerian city states but they were relatively uncommon, often smaller in scale and any destruction to cities or infrastructure was mostly minimal.
Lagash versus Umma, 2450 BC
This is the single conflict that is usually referred to when claiming Sumerian city states were constantly at war with each other.
At the time, it was certainly a major battle.
|Lagash spearmen |
Stele of vultures
Umma was unhappy with this settlement. The rent was rarely paid, and Umma finally attacked Lagash around 2450 BC.
Lagash (perhaps in alliance with the lugal that ruled Uruk
and Kish) imposed a devastating defeat on Umma, perhaps by using a phalanx
formation. It was still a relatively small affair by more modern standards as
the cities were only 25 miles apart.
Still, Umma was said to lose 3,600 of its citizen/soldiers which was an unbelievable catastrophe for that time. It was enough for the city to revolt against its énsi’.
At the conclusion, Lagash’s énsi made Umma pay tribute and celebrated by erecting the famous ‘Stele of the Vultures’.
This was an intricately carved limestone monument telling the story, including the role of the gods and showing vultures feasting on Umma’s dead soldiers. Sadly only fragments survived, preserved in the Louvre.
More on this in a minute, but unless there is more evidence, we must challenge the supposition that the Sumerian City states were constantly at war throughout most of their history.
Things did change towards the end of ‘the Early Dynastic Period’ (in the last couple of centuries) and continued into the Akkadian Empire with almost constant rebellions followed by devastating retribution meted out by the Akkadian overlords.
How might the Sumerians have avoided destructive conflicts?
Sumerians could not have survived in that hostile land if they did not learn to co-operate and share at all levels. It had to start that way from the beginning, or they would have learnt very quickly.
Co-operation and order was steeped in the Sumerian DNA.
The task of building and maintaining the complex system of canals against erosion and silting made it imperative. Historians may find it hard to credit, but sometimes the achievements of the ancients really are amazing.
Hierarchy of cities
How could they manage this without a central authority?
The government of Sumer over millennia was centred on their temples. Religion was the glue that united the deeply religious Sumerians.
|from Osama Amin|
According to the ‘Sumerian Kings list’, there was usually a single city (most often Uruk) that held hegemony (more or less) over all of Summer even before the Great Flood.
The term ‘lugal’ (‘big man’) may have had an earlier meaning, but it came to mean the (or a) dominant ruler.
The leading one was invested in a ceremony in Nippur, the sacred city, at the temple of Sumer’s prime God (Enlil).
Exactly how a senior lugal was chosen is not clear.
If a senior city lost a battle with another large city, it was said that the ‘kingship’ was ‘carried off’ by the victor to their city. Presumably this was a sign they had lost favour of the Gods, but this didn’t seem to be the main mechanism, at least not until the time of later troubles.
The lugal did not need to conquer all the cities of Sumer to gain hegemony, most often he didn’t have to conquer any. There must have been some other mechanism of gaining consensus amongst the cities and temples.
Hegemony would tend to remain in one city (or at least one dynasty) with the agreement of religious and other leaders. The Sumerians saw this as the natural order of things (for them such a lugal was chosen by the Gods) .
It was a very prestigious position, and likely involved some tribute.
There would be a number of local duties such as maintaining the city and its temples. Any great city and its lugal or ensi would also have lesser cities and towns under his direct control.
He also had to mediate in disputes, dispense justice (and prevent conflict) sometimes involving cities outside his direct control.
If there was a period where one city did not have hegemony over all of Sumer, there were still a small number of strong cities (or religious centres) with a lugal that managed to exert considerable prestige in resolving disputes and preventing war.
The leadership within each city was predominantly hereditary, though the populous could chose another leader if one was unsuitable. A lugal might appoint an ‘ensi’ (governor) to a subordinate city (especially if that city had became subordinate after losing a battle).
It was a system that served the Sumerians well until late into what we call the ‘Early Dynastic Period'
From earliest times, life in a Sumerian city was centred around the temple complex. Records and the all important storage and management of grain and other goods was under the control of priests and priestesses.
As explained, lugals (‘kings’) in dominant cities and ensi (‘lords’) in lesser cities began as priest/rulers and only slowly became secularised. They were expected to follow the example of the God Enlil and be supremely just and intolerant of evil.
When Enki created humans to serve the Gods, he passed down certain sacred wisdom. The custodians were the powerful religious hierarchy which spoke with the authority of the Gods.
We don’t now know its content, but it is a large part of how the Sumerians maintained their civilisation in peace and order.
Cities were sacred
It was sacrilegious to sack a (Sumerian) city.
It, the surrounding land, and its people, were literally owned by its patron God/Goddess.
While the Gods lived in their own wonderous realms and sacred gardens, they were also believed to also live within their temple complex, which was their home on earth.
Votive statues were their physical embodiment .
Everyday, a feast and other gifts were laid out before their major idol (it was later shared amongst the priests and priestess that dressed the God and cared for his/her house).
These same Gods were venerated throughout Sumer, they were not just limited to one city. If this veneration was not enough to stop Sumerians damaging a God’s property, the Gods were well capable of bringing grave misfortune to anyone who offended them.
Armies of the time were not suited to sieges
Sumerians were not ones to leave anything to chance with barbarian raids from the desert and Zagros hills and mountains, the occasional attack by neighbours (especially Elam) and the possibility of internal conflict, most larger cities were protected by walls with towers and had water-filled moats.
Still, the armies of the time were not well suited to siege warfare.
Military Tactics of the Sumerians
Victories and defeats were recorded on monumental stones (plural stêlai) and towards the end of this period the art and burial goods reflected a society becoming increasingly militaristic.
As a result, we have a good idea of the weapons available, but not the tactics used and it probably changed over time.
Most soldiers were conscripts and had to supply their own weapons. Some elite soldiers called Niksum (which means ‘cutting’) and were given plots of land.
Metal (bronze age) armour was uncommon
The core of the Sumerian armies were citizen/soldiers with protective cloaks and shields (presumably wicker, a bit like later Persian shields). They were armed with spears and the Sumerians seemed to have invented the use of the phalanx. The spearmen were supported by javelin throwers and bowmen .
They had their own units of soldiers, one of which was a ‘Nu-Banda’ (containing 60-100 men). They seemed to have battle standards (carried on poles) in some ways similar to the later Roman ones.
The technology to produce bronze swords only appeared in the Agean and South-eastern Europe around 1700 BC.so were not available.
The Sumerians had a range of other personal weapons beyond the spears and bows and these included slingshots, battle axes, maces, and knives.
With typical understated Mesopotamian humour, light skirmishers were called Nim which meant ‘flies’ and generals were called ‘Sagi-mah’ (‘cup-bearers’).
There was no cavalry.
Spoked wheels were not invented until 2,000 BC., so Sumerian ‘chariots’ were little more than small wagons, with four wheels and high sides, crewed by two soldiers and pulled by mules or donkeys. They were no where near as fast, manoeuvrable and very devastating war machines of later history.
There would be sappers and scaling ladders but, as it has been throughout most of history, capturing a city most often involved a siege, and this wasn’t very practical with citizen-soldiers.
Farmers were only easily available after planting and before harvest. Other citizens would have their own work to attend to.
Summer temperatures were blisteringly hot in Sumer and winters could be cool. The landscape outside the canal systems was largely desert, with large areas of brackish swamp near the rivers.
So there was a limited fighting season and limits to where wars could be fought, or armies could be mobilised.
Most battles occurred outside the city walls and usually ended with the loser agreeing to pay tribute in grain (and forced labour) and to recognise the dominance of the victorious city.
In the just over six hundred years that marked the ‘Early Dynastic Period’ of Sumer lugals and ensis grew in wealth and secular power, though they continued to be seen as the representative of their city’s patron God or Goddess.
Administrative buildings began to be grander and palaces were built.
Graves for leaders became grander and filled with richer and richer grave goods.
Towards the end of this period, Sumer became more militaristic.
Conflict between city states increased, grave goods showed more weapons and armour.
Art began to increasingly portray warfare as opposed to the common themes of earlier times.
|Warka vase, approx. 3000 |
BC, from a gentler time
Lugals and Ensis had Shub-Lugal or household troops that would be better armed, trained and would wear armour.
Towards the end of the Early Dynastic period, military conflict began to increasingly be the way to establishing dominance between cities and sometimes hegemony over all Sumer.
And it was only going to get worse.
Three Sumerian Empire builders, and increasing violence.
We usually give Sargon of Akkad the credit for establishing the world’s first Empire, but we know he was preceded by others.
Once again the exact events and time periods are a little uncertain. The ones we know about all occurred within the final two centuries of the dynastic period and the trouble continued throughout Akkadian Empire Period.
It was a very different time.
Greedy lugals struggled for ascendancy, using force to impose their will.
Kish (with help from nearby Opis) had been campaigning in the south to gain hegemony and tribute. We don’t know what damage they did down there, but the north-eastern border city of Hamazi (which was usually peaceful) took the opportunity to attack Kish and seize the kingship.
Hamazi was a trading city, flying somewhere under the radar, and described as ‘many-tongued’ indicating a mix of languages, meaning it had at least two ethnic minorities as well as southern Sumerians.
Now a second northern city was using violence to claim the kingship over all Sumer, and expecting the other cities (that weren’t involved) to simply concede and send them tribute and follow orders.
En (meaning lord) shag-kush-ana was the ruler of both Uruk and Ur, a very powerful position at the time, and he had had enough.
He sent a large punitive force into the Uri region (around 2431 BC) to punish these northerly upstarts.
What followed was incredible. He totally destroyed Kish, Opis and Ashak and maybe Akkad to the north, capturing or killing their kings. He expelled all the people of Hamazi from the regions they had occupied and took the fight to their city.
The extra-ordinary level of violence he used is confirmed by a destruction layer in Kish.
He returned home via Nippur to leave considerable booty dedicated to Enlil and exquisitely carved and decorated stone vases celebrating and describing his exploits.
He took the title en ki-en-gi lugal kalam meaning ‘lord of Sumer and king of all the land’.
We don’t know if he was an Empire Builder. It was a punitive raid, but he certainly showed them who was boss, and used force to claim the kingship over all Sumer.
He was also said to attack Adab later, we don’t know how that went, but some time after his death Adab was said to seize the kingship from Ur.
Lugal Anne- Mundu of Adab was that city’s greatest king and was the one who took the kingship (hegemony) from Ur.
He was definitely the real deal as far as being an empire builder.
He subjugated the ‘four quarters of the world’ i.e. Elam, all the tribes of the Zagros mountains, northern Mesopotamia and Lebanon and forcing them to send him tribute. Thing like slaves, timber, metal, stone and maybe lapis lazuli (mainly imported from Afghanistan) that was always in demand in Sumer.
On his celebratory vase(s) (placed in Nippur) it was claimed that he managed to introduce peace, contentment and prosperity over all he conquered.
His empire didn’t survive him either. Adab was defeated by the Semitic city of Mari (northern Mesopotamia) who ‘carried off the kingship’ but couldn’t hold it. This allowed the other powerful cities of southern Sumer to regain their independence and begin jockeying for supremacy.
Lugal-Zage-Si emerged from this struggle. He began as the ensi of Umma but somehow got control of Uruk.
He didn’t just use this powerful position to exact revenge on Lagash (for the humiliation of a century before). He continued to spread Uruk’s hegemony across south and north until he was said to have fifty governors under his control.
Then he raided his neighbours as far as the Mediterranean.
One of the cities that resisted his power was long suffering Kish, which he conquered.
Unfortunately for him the King of Kish’s general (‘cup-bearer’, who was also the governor of nearby Akkad) happened to be a man called Sargon.
Sargon regained Kish and then came south to Uruk . He captured Lugal-Zage-Si in battle and proceeded to establish the Empire that bears the name of his city.
Two seem to avoid punishment by the Gods, one doesn't
The first two conquerors seemed to avoid punishment by the Gods.
Kish had two powerful divine protectors.
The first was Zababa, a war God with monstrous strength that gained him the epithet “crusher of stones”.
His name (like Inanna) suggests that he may have belonged to the people that preceded both the Sumerians and the Semitic people (what some have called the Proto-Euphrateans, likely the late Neolithic Samara culture or its successors).
The city’s second protector was his (then) spouse, Ishtar (the Semitic version of Inanna).
Sumerians (like the Greeks) allowed their Gods and Goddesses to exhibit slightly different aspects in different regions, and Ishtar was even more warlike than the Sumerian version.
Anyway, it was a pair no mortal king would want to face but En-shakushanna didn’t seem to care, and he didn’t stop with Kish, going on to attack the cities of other Gods.
The Sumerian Kings list gives him a (likely inflated) 50 years of reign. Unless he spent the whole time in a state of abject misery, he didn't seem to have been punished.
On his celebratory vase there is a list of powerful Gods that backed him and it claims he was commanded to punish the north “... when the gods commanded ... he sacked Kish ...”.
It seemed that the powerful Gods of Sumer accepted his mission to punish the north.
And , he was safe from human retribution as well. Any people who survived his attack (and hadn’t been enslaved) were too busy trying to rebuild and were too terrified to take him on again.
That was likely his intention.
We don’t know how destructive Lugal- Anne- Mundu’s conquests were.
According to him (or his celebratory vase at least) his rule brought peace, happiness and prosperity to all he ruled.
Maybe it did.
Maybe everyone and their Gods were too busy being happy having him for a ruler, enjoying the peace and prosperity he brought.
The Sumerian king’s list (which is notoriously unreliable) has him ruling for 90 years. Again, his empire seemingly didn’t survive his death.
Lugal-Zaggesi set out very differently and had a very different fate.
His celebratory vase also gives a long list of the Gods that backed him and (like Lugal Anne- Mundu) claims that the lands ‘rejoiced’ under his rule, as unlikely as this sounds.
The people of Girsu/Lagash certainly had a different opinion of him. According to the lament for the fall of Lagash (and its related holy city, Girsu). “The man of Umma ... committed a sin against Ningirsu. ... Offence there was none in Urukagina, king of Girsu.”
So , it was a destructive raid but, unlike Enshakushanna’s attack, it was unprovoked.
Nirgirsu, the local version of Ninurta at Girsu, was the very ancient Sumerian God of farming, healing (which included exorcism of demons), and the law.
As Sumer became progressively more violent he also became a God of war, just in time to deal with Lugal-Zaggesi.
In a little over a decade after his conquests, Lugal-Zaggesi found himself in a cage with a collar around his neck, being hit over the head with a club (according to one carving) as he was dragged to Enlil’s temple in Nippur to be humiliated.
The same Enlil he claimed he was serving. It was likely not what he expected when he first set out.
I hope you have enjoyed this third blog on the Incredible Sumerians.
Part 4, the final part, will look at the Akkadian Empire and the Curse of Aggad, UR III and the fall of Sumer
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