Wednesday 2 March 2022

The Incredible Sumerians part 3 After the flood: Recovery, Kings and Emperors.

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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 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, is the one that 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 struggled.

There would be two periods remaining when the Southern cities of Sumer would rise again and be powerful.

The first of the 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 continued to be 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 collapsed and it increasingly began to return to desert.

Kish and the north of Sumer

For millennia, Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions had been 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 was/is not immune to the problem of drought and salinity, it is far more resistant than the then heavily irrigated South and it is more resistant to drought than the rain fed lands agricultural lands in the north. 

It has remained very productive through till today.

It only ever had one dominant city at a time.

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 and finally it would become home to Baghdad, the second largest city in the 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 cultures 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 was no true "Kish Civilisation'. 

Between the north and the south (the differences would contribute to friction later) but they and the rest of Sumer definitely 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 it still managed to remain locally powerfully, it, for a time, contracted.

The great cities of Southern Sumer recover.

By 2600 BC powerful city states such as Uruk (especially) and also Ur, Lagash, Adab and later Umma emerged to compete with one another (for power, 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 jewelry

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’) were 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 'neighbour' civilisation to emerge in the east was the Indus Valley Civilisation. 

At its peak  (around 2500 BC) the 'IVC' far exceed Sumer in population and area, but it relied mainly on rain fed agriculture and sadly it was destined to suffer the same fate as Sumer. By 1900 BC it had succumbed to the drying climate and the influx of nomadic herders (in its case the famous Aryans).

But that was in the future.

Recovery to the North, a Tale of two cities,.

Ebla (wiki)
Two great cities emerged in the Eastern Semitic people to the north of Sumer.  

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 (which is outlined on the map).

Mari (Wiki)

(on the Middle Euphrates), had a similar ethnic population and began life as a planned city (around 2900 BC). It was 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 in 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). They also erected stêlai (stone monuments) mostly recording victories and 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.

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 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

Half way through the Early Dynastic Period, things began to change.

The first recorded conflict between Sumerian City states is also the most famous and is the one illustrated when claiming Sumerian city states were constantly at war with each other. 

At the time, it was most certainly a major battle and it marked a turning point in Sumerian history, ushering in a time of increasing conflict.

Lagash spearmen 
Stele of vultures
It was related to the sharing of the fertile plain Gu-Edin that lay between the two cities. The powerful king of Kish first mediated in this dispute (and erected a stele to mark the event). According to him, Umma was using land that belonged to Ninĝirsu, the patron God of Girsu/Lagash and he suggested Umma pay yearly rent for any of this land that it used.

Umma was unhappy with this. The rent was rarely paid, and about a hundred years later Umma attacked Lagash (around 2450 BC).

Lagash routed the forces of Umma in one of the first known uses of the phalanx formation. It was still a relatively small affair by more modern standards as the cities were only  25 miles apart.

Still, for Umma to lose 3,600 of its citizen/soldiers killed or captured was an unbelievable catastrophe for that time. It was enough for the city to revolt against its énsi’ and murder him. 

At the conclusion, Lagash’s énsi Ean-natum 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.

Eannatum didn't stop there, he conquered Ur and the Uri province, calling himself the king of Kish. He campaigned in Elam, destroying several cities including Susa, and forced Mari to pay him tribute.  

The last part of the 'Early dynastic ' period was characterised by would be emperors, great battles and destruction. 

It continued into the next period, the Akkadian Empire, where the Akkadian rulers from the north of Sumer used brutal military suppression to rule.

More on this in a minute (and in the next blog) but the point is, we must challenge the supposition that the Sumerian City states were constantly at war throughout most of their long history. 

It seems, (apart from the second half of the EDP and Akkadian times), the reverse was true.

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. 

Co-operation and a rules based 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 how they did this is 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, not political power  was the glue that united the deeply religious Sumerians.

from Osama Amin
The leadership became slowly more secularised throughout the later 'Early Dynastic period' but the leader of each city was still seen as a personal representation of the city’s resident God.

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 (on the occasions that there was more than one).  

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 at all. 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 a group of 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.

Sacred Wisdom

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 there was some private ownership, to some extent the economy was centralised around the temple complex. As farmers paid rent for their land in grain or labour. Commonly owned grain and goods were distributed to the city workers and the needy.

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, though there was sometimes local variations. 

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). There might have been local conflict though we haven't any direct evidence of this. Anyway, most larger cities were protected by walls with towers and had water-filled moats and 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 the EDP and the art and burial goods became increasingly militaristic.

As a result, we have a good idea of the weapons available, but not the tactics used. How they changed over time is discussed in the next blog.  

Most soldiers were conscripts and had to supply their own weapons. 

Metal (bronze age) armour was uncommon

The core of the Sumerian armies were citizen/soldiers with protective cloaks, spears 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 by the middle of this period. 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 they 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.

They had chariots by 2450 BC. but these were little more than battle wagons and best for transport of VIPs into battle except for a brief period that is discussed in the next blog. 

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 most 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.

Things change

       In the just over six hundred years that marked the ‘Early Dynastic Period’  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 for the 'secular' leader were built. 

Graves for these 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, as mentioned, 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 and the city guard which would be professional soldiers, better equipped and trained. 

The number of professional soldiers began to increase in the late Early dynastic period leading up to Sargon, the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire, who had a standing army of 5,400 men. 

It was an appreciable force in those days and a major advantage against a citizens-army but, of course, he had the cost of maintaining it..

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 other 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. We already mentioned Ean-natum mid-way through the EDP and there were three others that followed him.

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. 

Early in the EDP Kish had hegemony and it remained a respected city for some time even as it lost power for a time. As Sumer became more violent, the relationship between the southern Sumerians and their greatest racial minority in the north was beginning to sour. 

 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.

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 destruction of several cities indicated more effective siege techniques and less worry about the city's resident Gods. 

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 to 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.


emerged from this struggle. He began as the ensi of Umma but began conquering his neighbours until he 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’, also 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 (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  Brutal Akkadian Empire and the Curse of Aggad,

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