Friday 16 September 2022

Sumer 5: The lost years and Sumer's last Empire

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Sumer 5

The lost years of the Gutian Dynasty

A time of suffering

To the Mesopotamians, the Gutians were a scourge, God's punishment visited upon the


"Nothing escaped their clutches, no one avoided their grasp. Messengers no longer traveled the highways, the courier's boat no longer passed along the rivers. Prisoners manned the watch. Brigands occupied the highways. The doors of the city gates of the Land lay dislodged in mud and all the foreign lands uttered bitter cries from the walls of their cities.

They were described as an unhappy people ‘who acted violently against the gods, people who the kingship of Sumer to the mountains took away, who Sumer with wickedness filled, who from one with a wife, his wife took away from him, who from one with a child, his child took away from him, who wickedness and violence produced within the country’.

Their raiding was said to interfere with agriculture, trade and the maintenance of the canals, worsening the effects of the crippling drought. 

This might have been true at first, but as soon as they began to rule Sumer rather than just pillage it, they would have needed to re-establish order and follow advice from their Sumerian subjects. Besides, they had their own likely smaller settlements in their own country, which we don't know much about. It is obvious that they were not as 'uncivlised' as they were painted. 

The earliest evidence of Gutian rule in Sumer came from a tablet of (Lugal) Annatum, a client king ruling Umma who had allegiance to Ba (lord)-Siûm, the second last Gutian ruler. Annatum, at least, seemed very happy with the situation. 

Dates and time periods


The period after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire has been described as a dark Age. The Gutian language had no written form.  The evidence we do have is scanty and contradictory. 

Adding to this is the inherent difficulty of dating ancient events.

The Sumerian year was 360 days with extra months added every four years to bring it in synch with solar events. Sumerian years were named according to some big event in the life of their ruler, such as  ‘the Year Sargon conquered Uruk’. Years may have varied between cities.  

The best attempts to reconcile ancient years depends on the cycles of Venus recorded in ancient Babylon, but this results in different chronologies varying by up to 64 years. Then these dates have to be extrapolated many centuries backwards which is a meticulous task in the face of scanty, sometimes confusing, evidence. 

Having ‘short’ and ‘middle chronologies’ can make sorting out any confusion difficult for the average reader. Many writers (myself included) don't always explain which system he or she is using. The middle is more conventional.


One of several examples of this confusion is the life of Puzur-Inshushinak , the great King of Susa whose life spanned the Gutian period. He was named 'calling the God Inshushinak',  He is thought  was said to begin as a client king of Shar-Kali-Sharri, the last Akkadian emperor.

He conducted a three year successful  campaign in the Zagreb region in 2110 BC on behalf of the Akkadians before declaring his independence in 2090 BC.  He then began to conquer the rest of Elam at the expense of the Akkadians as their empire weakened. 

The first problem we have with this is that Shar-Kali-Sharri's reign is thought to have ended about a hundred years before these dates. 

Also from Elamite and Neo-Sumerian records, Puzur-Inshushinak (if it was still him) is thought to have lived through till the time of Ur-Namma, the second Neo Sumerian Emperor. 

His living over what we believe was such a long period cannot be resolved with our current view of dates. 

Gutian control

The Gutians took over Adab and made it their capital most likely sometime towards the end of Shar-kali-sharri's (the fourth Akkadian Emperor's) reign (when things began to fall apart). 

This means that there was a period with Gutian rule overlapping with the last of the Akkadian Emperors (?) 29 years. 

After this, Uruk was strong enough to take Akkad and hold it for (?) 30 years. 

Other cities maintained their independence during this period. Lagash is one example of a city which gained independence when Shar-Kali-Sharri's Empire began to implode and it remained largely independent throughout the whole Gutian period until it was defeated by the emerging Neo-Sumerians, marking the end of its dynasty

During Gutian times, it entered into a golden age under its able énsi, Gudea. Interestingly, Gudea sent forth military campaigns into Elam. As he didn't campaign against the Gutians this suggested he had to some sort of accommodation with them, suggesting they were not as bad as claimed.

The time periods and sequence of events is most unclear but likely 60 years after establishing their base at Adab, the Gutians made a major push: overwhelming  Akkad, southern Sumer and Elam.


Just after this, in a deposition at the holy city of Nippur, one of their kings (Erridupizir) described himself as ‘the King of four quarters’ and says he was engaged in putting down rebellions in Simurrum the southern most  Hurrian city and its Lullubi allies. 

Some of the areas in the north of Mesopotamia were depopulated due to the catastrophic drought so this suggest he controlled a large empire. It was a phenomenal achievement for a race dismissed by Mesopotamians as having the 'intelligence of dogs', 'the appearance of monkeys' and a language which was a 'confused babble'.


 The Gutians were said to have 'destroyed'  Akkad perhaps around around 2083 BC. but Akkad had several client kings after this and the Gutians set up their main northern base somewhere in or near there. Presumably the old Akkadian capital wasn't completely destroyed.

From their two bases, they could send raiding parties by land or river canal and they weren’t above blocking water distribution or supplies to cities that opposed them. 


Local Sumerian dynasties continued. Some we know were client kings like Lugal-annatum of Umma and some had considerable independence like the rulers of Lagash. Many of those would pay tribute. It was the long standing system in Sumer under their lugals, as long as it wasn't as onerous as it had been in Akkadian times.

Competition from Susa

The Gutians, even at their height, were not unopposed. 

It is said that Puzur-Inshushinak of Susa (assuming it was him)  extended his territory at the expense of the dying Akkadian Empire to conquer all of Elam. He, like everyone else , was overwhelmed by the Gutians (during their major push) but towards the end of the Gutian period he began to take much of northern Sumer from Gutians including Eshnunna and Akkad and probably Akshak. 

According to the inscriptions of Ur-Namma, Puzur-Inshushinak then went on to numerous cities in central Mesopotamia. This left the Gutians holding Adab and a few surrounding towns, possibly isolated from their Gutian homeland by Elamite forces and maybe being pressed by them from the East.

It allowed Utu-hengal an easy victory over the Gutians who then agreed to leave Sumer.

The Neo (new) Sumerian Empire

(2112- 2004 BC) and the Sumerian renaissance

For the next eighty years there was a renaissance of Sumerian culture and power. 

Sumerian was still the language of religion, art and science and Akkadian remained the ‘Linga Franca’. Later kings took Akkadian names.

Utu-hengal of Uruk, and the start of the Neo-Sumerian Empire  

Utu-Hengal of Uruk is thought to have been a client king of the Gutians who rebelled as the Gutians weakened. 

His son in law, Ur-Nammu, the ensi of Ur, helped him conquer the rival city of Lagash which had grown in power and influence, marking the end of the Lagash dynasty. 

 Utu-Hengal then marched on Tirigan, the newly elected last Gutian ruler of Sumer.  Tirigan sent out envoys to sue for peace, but Ute- Hengal captured and bound them. 

As described in his victory stele, after much stopping to pray, he went on to have what

seemed an easy victory (using some sort of trap) around 2050 BC.
Tigran fled to a nearby settlement where he and his family were well treated until Utu-Hengal  demanded their surrender.   
Tirigan agreed to leave Sumer with his people in exchange for his freedom, showing just how weakened the once feared Gutians had become.

Utu-Hengal was then able to unite the rest of southern Sumer under his leadership, initiating the Neo-Sumerian Empire.

 The cumulative damage to Akkad from these multiple conquests was so severe that no one has been able to identify its ruins. Perhaps it was a fitting end to the brutal Akkadian period of history.

After uniting a large part of southern Sumer and evicting the Gutians, Utu-hengal began the process of rehabilitating Sumerians power, culture and infrastructure. In fact he died seven years later in an accident while inspecting a dam (or maybe he drowned while fishing).

Utu-hengal’s military achievements were exaggerated.

Utu-hengal was revered  by later generations of Mesopotamians who saw him as beginning the Neo-Sumerian Empire, a major Sumerian renaissance and the expulsion of the hated Gutians. 

While considerable poetic licence is expected on victory stelae over the Gutians Utu-hengal described himself as the ‘King of the four quarters of the world’ which he most definitely was not. He didn’t even have control of the Uri region which was held by the Elamites and his victory over the already defeated Gutians in Sumer was not as heroic as it may have been portrayed. 

Admittedly, like many Neo-Sumerian Emperors, he took even greater pride in the rehabilitation of Sumerian culture and infrastructure. He was particularly known for his piety and support of temples. 


The poem ‘The Death of Utu-hengal and descent into the underworld’ written shortly after his death suggests he was betrayed (presumably murdered) by his own men.  

His son in law, Ur-Namma, had to fight unarmed rivals from Uruk for the succession, confirming the possibility of a coup. Ur-Namma was victorious and took the 'kingship' to Ur so the Neo-Sumerian Empire is also called the third Dynasty of Ur (Ur  111). 

He then claimed to be the elder brother of the ancient hero Gilgamesh and hence a son of the Goddess Ninsun (of the wild cows), establishing his legitimacy. 

The Ur dynasty is not the only dynasty claiming descent from Ninsun, Gudea of lagash had made a similiar claim. 

Records from Ur-Namma's time emphasises his contributions to law, arts, culture, and infrastructure including the commencement of the great ziggurat at Ur.  

Ziggurat of Ur

Less is known about his military activities but it was he that evicted the Elamites, taking  control of all of Sumer and pressing on to take control over Elam. He also conducted a devastating raid on the Gutian heartland. 

During his reign, brigands were cleared from the roads and pirates from the coasts. 

He formed an alliance with Mari to oppose the growing military threat posed by the Amorites.

The Neo-Sumerian Empire was not Sumer of old returned.

In the middle of the twentieth century it was commonly assumed that Ur-Namma’s  ‘Empire’ covered much of northern Mesopotamia and stretched as far as Byblos in Lebanon. 

Part of the confusion was caused by the scant mention of his military campaigns and because the Neo-Sumerians called foreign kings ‘énsi’ as opposed to their own emperor-king ( mostly called Lugal or sometimes Śarrum (the Akkadian word for Lugal)

The title énsi was the same for client kings and governors and caused some early archaeologists assume that many independent kings were actually appointed from Ur.

Ur-Namma’s  most distant and northern-most city was likely Aššur (destined to become one of the Assyrian Empire’s capitals) . 

And, after a brave start, things were going to get  more difficult for the Neo-Sumerians.

There had been a period of slightly better climate but the drought recurred beginning around 2200 BC.  Southern Sumer, once the great food bowl and one of the most densely populated region on earth continued to lose land to salinisation and desertification.

The Neo-Sumerians tried to rehabilitate some of their failing cities and settlements by building temples and performing devotions, trying to regain the favour of the local Gods to ensure their blessings but despite  their best efforts, land loss continued and Eridu, the oldest of their great settlement (not the first to become a city) was the first to be abandoned.

And the ‘barbarian’ threat was far from ended. 

Ur-Namma who claimed to have ‘destroyed the Gutians’ by a punitive raids on their homeland, but the Gutians in their homeland proved to be a tougher proposition than evicting their last defeated remnants form Sumer.

Ur-Namma died on a later campaign against them (2095 BC) when his army was routed, leaving him isolated and out in the front

And the Gutians were not the only of the Zagros hill tribes to attack the Neo-Sumerians. Around 2088 and 2031 a vast confederation of Hill tribes from a little further north to the Gutians ‘rose like locusts’ to attack Sumer.  

But if the Gutians were the scourge of the Akkadians, it was the Amorites who were the scourge of the Neo-Sumerians.

The Hebrew name ‘Amorite’, the Akkadian Amurrūm (transliterated as MAR.TU)  and the Sumerian Tidnum all mean ‘westerners’.  They were related to the Arameans of later history and spoke an early version of Aramaic, a  language similar to Hebrew. 

In typical Sumerian fashion, the Neo-Sumerians dismissed them as herding barbarians.

The MAR.TU who know no grain.... The MAR.TU who know no house nor town, the boors of the mountains.... The MAR.TU who digs up truffles... who does not bend his knees (to cultivate the land), who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after death.

But this was a serious under-estimation. The Amorites a little bit further north were rebuilding settlements that had been destroyed or devastated by drought, including the once powerful city of Ebla after its destruction by Sargon. 

Shulgi, Ur-Namma’s  son (2094 – c. 2046 BC)

Shulgi was the greatest emperor  of the dynasty. He finished the great Ziggurat at Ur. He improved roads and his was the first empire to set up a system of inns along them. He is credited with standardising administrative processes, archival documentation, the tax system (including taxing temples)  and the national calendar. He improved the army with more specialisation.

Cylindrical seal of Shulgi, Louvre

Perhaps in line with the theme of exaggeration, he called himself a God and claimed he once ran between Nippur and Ur and back in the one day. A literary man, he spoke Elamite, Akkadian and Sumerian and wrote a long hymns to glorify himself, his manliness and his actions.

His reign started with a punitive raid on the Gutians and then, after enjoying seven years of relative peace, he was almost constantly at war. Details are sketchy. He retained control of Susa but other parts of Elam rebelled and he had to deal with the massive incursion of hill tribes across his Eastern Border. 

While he was in the East he decided to extend the Empire but even he needed multiple attempts to take the southern Hurrian strong hold city of Simurrum (and its neighbouring ally Lullubi).  Whether he took Nineveh and, if so, whether he managed to hold it is unclear but which he considered this greatest triumph. Admittedly Simurrum was virtually a city-fortress and stubbornly held, but it points to the weakness of even his reformed army.

He had managed to keep the peace in the north-west, for a while, despite immigration of Amorites southwards and  both Hurrians and Amorites began to appear in his army. Unfortunately towards the end of his reign, that the Amorites began to threaten Sumer.

Shulga, in some haste, tried to built a great (earthen) wall to try to keep them out. It was said to be 155 miles (250 kilometres) long. It was world’s first great wall built by a civilisation to keep barbarians.

According to one version, it was too long for Shulgi to man properly and was not anchored by natural barriers so the Amorites could simply walk around it. Whether this was true or not, or whether it wasn’t finished, it was clearly a measure of his desperation and it was ineffective. 

Amar-Sin and Shu-Sin

Shulgi was succeeded by his two sons both of whom used the Akkadian versions of their names. The first was Amar-Sin (2046-2037 BC), seemed to hold onto most of the Empire, but he is mainly recorded as campaigning in obscure so presumably unimportant places. The only ones that were recognisable were Urbilum (Erbil in northern Iraqi, Kurdistan region) and parts of Elam. It was he that unsuccessfully tried a building program to rehabilitate some of the failing Southern cities. 

Shu-Sin (2037  BC – 2028), his brother, also ruled for about 9 years and tried to stabilise his north-west region against the Hurrians and Amorites.  He sent an army from Aššur to conquer (or reconquer) as far as Nineveh but soon he was facing a full scale fight with the Amorites on the other flank.  He spent the rest of his time fortifying his southern cities and building his own great version of a(n earthen wall) around 2034 BC. It was called the Wall of Amurru after the Akkadian name for the Amorites. 

We don’t know the location of Shulga’s wall or whether it became part of the later  Amurru Wall. The Ammaru wall stretched from the Tigris and Euphrates and a little beyond on either side. It was a 170 miles (280 km) long. It was located a little to the south of Kish so really only protected the Southern most cities. The ruins of it can still be seen today north of Baghdad.

Ibbi-Sin,  the last Emperor.

 (2028–2004 BC)

Maybe the emperors of Ur were all a little crazy, claiming they were Gods related to the

  moon God, Sin. If so, Ibbi-Sin, Shu-Sin’s son was crazier than most. 

In the middle of the catastrophe engulfing his empire, Ibbi-Sin seemed more focused on religious rituals and the selection of priests. Probably, like many Sumerians, he was hoping the favour of the Gods would make his problems go away.

He then ordered more earthen fortifications to Ur and Nippur. On one, he claimed that the wall he had built was so imposing it would ‘make the lands secure and to make the highlanders and lowlanders bow down before him.’ How a mud-brick defensive wall around one city would strike fear into his enemies and unite his kingdom was never explained.

As the Amorites began over-running the countryside and capturing cities, other cities were declaring independence. Brigands roamed the roads. With the drought and chaos, grain prices were said to reach 60 times normal. Susa declared independence  (again) and turned hostile (again). 

Meanwhile, Shu-Sin proclaimed wondrous alliances and victories over the Amorites and Elamites. In one inscription “ … Ibbi-Suen, the king of Ur, overwhelmed Susa, Asamdun, and Awan like a storm, subdued them in a single day and seized the lords of their people …” 

A bit like Hitler in his final bunker, he had retreated into fantasy. In the end all he had was one impoverished city. 

Somewhere around 2004 BC the Elamites captured Ur and he died a prisoner.

The Dynasty of Isin, pretenders to the throne

Ibbi-Sin had at least one competent governor, Ishbi-Erra in the city Isin, 20 miles south of Nippur.  Ishbi-Erra was an Amorite from Mari working for the Sumerians and he got ready for what he saw coming by hoarding grain. Then he led his own army to have decisive victories over the (other) Amorites and eventually reclaimed Ur and Uruk from the Elamites. 

For the next hundred years, his dynasty took on the trappings of Neo-Sumerian Emperors.

They were the most powerful of several independent Sumerian cities, keeping the peace and competing with places like Eshnunna, Aššur, Larsa and Lagash. 

Meanwhile the Amorites were only getting stronger in their new capital Babylon in the Uri region. The remains of Sumer was finally conquered by the famous Hammurabi. It was he that created the first Babylonian Empire and ended Sumerian power in Mesopotamia forever.

More on this in the next blog on the Amorite rulers. 

Foot note 1: Abraham, the great patriarch

Abraham, descendent of Noah and the great Hebrew patriarch was said to be born in the ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ but this was much later.  The (Iron Age) Chaldean dynasty of Babylon ruled Ur briefly from the late 7th century BC. 

Not long after them, Ur was finally abandoned.

Foot note 2: Iraq, salinisation and today

Through a sharp rise in population over the last fifty years and loss of productive land, Iraq is not alone in the region for going from an exporter to a net importer of food.

Many areas that were incredibly fertile in ancient times have long returned to desert. In more recent  times, 30% of irrigated land has gone out of production, and Iraq continues to lose 25 000 hectares per year. There are significantly low yields on another 70% of its irrigated lands. Many farmers are reliant on subsidies which were slowed due to government deficits and it is hard for them to compete with cheap imported food. 

Farming employs 20 % of the work force and contributes 3% to the GDP.

Iraq has also suffered a long period of war (s), turmoil, earlier sanctions, insurgency and ethnic violence. It is fortunate that it has oil and lots of it. While things are finally improving in the overall economy, attempts to improve local food production have not managed to gain a lot of traction yet.

 I hope you have enjoyed this final blog on the Incredible Sumerians. 

I also write  Epic Fantasy set in ancient times and exotic locations

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