Wednesday 15 February 2023

Sumer after the Sumerians, the Amorites Rulers 1

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Sumer after the last Sumerian Dynasty

The Amorites 1 (of 2)


The land of Sumer hosted the world’s most dominant and sophisticated culture for an incredible four and a half millennia. It was one of the most productive and densely populated region of its time and gave rise to the world’s first true cities. For most of its early history, it was a food basket: exporting a massive agricultural surplus to many other regions and receiving much needed resources in return

In roughly 2200 BC, there was a mega drought affecting the most civilised parts of the ancient world (and beyond) and lasting a hundred years. The end of it very roughly corresponds to the start of Mesopotamia’s somewhat ill defined middle Bronze Age.

The result was catastrophic, with little rainfall to many places like the north of Mesopotamia which relied on rainfed agriculture and poor river flows in the great rivers (like Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile) resulting in failure of the annual flood and salinisation

Focusing on Mesopotamia: many cities, especially in the north became abandoned and there was a series of various ‘nomadic’ and other incursions affecting the Akkadian Empire and then the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112- 2004 BC).

The Amorites were the main group during Ur III period and were mentioned in the last blog. They were herdsmen thought to have come from the mountainous regions of central and western Syria. 

In happier times they would have practiced transhumance: spending the harsh dry summers in alpine meadows and moving down to the wadis (oases) that drained the mountains during the cold (relatively wet) winters that could see snow. 

It would be in these wadis (valleys) that they would have their villages.

The great drought forced them to spread widely over the fertile crescent. They reached Canaan where they are mentioned in the Bible and even contributed to the ‘Hyksos’, the foreign rulers that came from Canaan into northern Egypt at that time.

Returning the focus to Sumer, they also followed the great river (valley)s south, raiding, taking their herds, conquering and settling, despite everything the third Dynasty tried to do to stop them.

 Throughout history, many more people lived in rural than urban areas so, when they began to move in a whole-sale way during a mega-drought and a period of urban weakness, their numbers were unstoppable

After the rains returned, it would take another couple of centuries for Mesopotamia to be properly repopulated.

This mega-drought was not the only brutal one interrupting the "Wet Holocene' (called 'the African Humid Period' in Africa ) 14,500- 4,000 BC .

 Unfortunately for Sumer this one was on the background of a more insidious climate change. 

The wet Holocene which had sustained Sumer and many other places was ending. 

Over time, more and more of Sumer’s southern cities became abandoned and the once fertile fields returned to desert. The centre of power in Mesopotamia shifted slowly but permanently to the north. 

In Sumer this led to the rise of Babylon, but Southern Sumer wasn't finished yet.

The Isin/ Larsa Period

Note:  All dates are approximate, to convert from ‘Middle’ to ‘Short’  chronology’ subtract 64 yr

The Dynasty of Isin (2017—1771 BC.)

The Dynasty of Isin rose from the ashes of Ur III . While it claimed to be the successor to the third dynasty of Ur, it is ironic that it was established under the Amorites, by an Amorite called Ishbi-Erra (2017 -1986 BC)

There had already been a significant influx of Amorites into Sumer, some taking over cities and towns, others employed by those that had remained in Sumerian hands.

They enthusiastically absorbed Sumerian culture and religion and (the Akkadian) language including its written cuneiform form. Akkadian became the Linga Franca throughout much of the middle East for over a millennium.

Ishbi-Erra came from Mari, which had been an important trading city in the north in Akkadian times. 

Despite oft repeated assertions, Ishbi-Erra was an Amorite and was not likely to be related to the Akkadian ‘Shakkanakkus’ (hereditary governors ) of Mari who were able to hang on till about 1761 BC..

He was a talented adventurer who, whatever his position amongst the Amorites or even in Mari , had  gained a senior position in the Sumerian army (or administration). 

As discussed in the last blog, he stopped taking orders the Šarrum (the Akkadian term for Lugal) of Ur and ,as Ur’s power continued to wane, he progressively usurped power both in Isin and nearby cities.

He won a decisive battle against the (other) Amorites and ,after the fall of Ur, he defeated the Elamites more than once, finally ousting them from Ur, Uruk and the main spiritual centre of Nippur. He then went on to eject the Subartu from some of the northern cities like Eshnunna.

This allowed him to adopt the regal trappings of the  former Šarrum (Akkadian word for Lugal) including commissioning praise poetry and hymns to himself and other deities and proclaiming himself  Dingir-kalam-ma-na" (a God in his own country). 

Without doubt, much of this was personal hubris but hegemony over the Sumerians (wooing neutral cities) was not achieved by conquest. It was a function of the prestige other Sumerians and their leaders viewed a particular Lugal 

Defending Sumer from the Amorites and Elamites, liberating Ur, claiming to be the custodian of Sumerian culture was more than enough, but it was also expected for him to ‘blow his own horn’ so to speak (which he did). 

Isin and Sumer flourished under his dynasty for over 100 years,. Less is said about their military adventures suggesting it was a surprisingly peaceful time considering what had come before it.  The climate (for a time) was better , not only for the Sumerians and Akkadians but also for the Amorites who were particularly concentrated in the north. The rulers of Isin used dynastic marriages and treaties to maintain peace.

The Dynasty of Isin was able to rebuild Sumer's temples and cities that had fallen into disrepair and repair its canals. The control of the sea port of Ur gave them not only prestige but prosperity from the sea trade via the Persian Gulf.

Lipit-Ištar the last king of Ishbi-Erra’s dynasty is known for Sumerian language hymns and a code of laws written in Sumerian a hundred years before and influencing the famous (Babylonian) Code of Hammurabi.  

Unfortunately, for him and for Isin, it was during his reign that Isin suffered a serious reversal that spelt the end of its hegemony.



The once great city of Larsa had long lapsed into obscurity during the Akkadian period. It was initially under the direct control of Ur and then Isin. (Under Isin its governors were Amorites and more recently they had become hereditary). 

 In 1932 BC Gungunum (whose Amorite name is derived from the word for "defence"), inherited the post of governor from his brother and father. 

He wasn’t interested in peace like the rulers of Isin.

In the first five years of his reign (likely acting independently) he conducted a number of successful campaigns against Elam which had been at peace with Isin. 

This netted him an enviable reputation, a secure eastern flank and considerable wealth. The promise of plunder would have had men flocking to his banner. 

He then spent some time consolidating his position before marching on the important city of Ur and capturing it  (from Isin). 

Lipit-Ištar was caught flat footed by Gungunum’s attacks and forced into a rear guard action. We don’t know his fate, but subsequent rulers of Isin were locals, with Akkadian names. 

Larsa now became the dominant force in Southern Sumer and continued to attack Isin by building fortified dams to block its access to its canals, a technique abhorred by Sumerians. 

In some ways  Gungunum  only did to Isin what Ishbi-Erra had done to the last Šarrum of Ur but he had done it by force. 

Instead of unifying Sumer, he fragmented it and began a civil war.

 He and subsequent rulers of Larsa tried to claim hegemony (loyalty from non aligned rulers) but, as mentioned, hegemony in Sumer was not gained by force which would only foster rebellion and resentment.

At its height the city only had 10-15 cities allied with it and it was Isin, not Larsa that was the last dynasty recorded in the important Sumerian kings list. 

Many less powerful kingdoms in Sumer (such as Uruk) and further north  more powerful entities such as Eshnunna, Mari and Assur (Assyrians) asserted their independence.

It was a time of chaos and shifting alliances. It also allowed the Amorites to conquer more cities in the north of Sumer and the Elamites to resume raiding and demanding tribute in the South.

 Despite an alliance between Isin, Uruk and Babylon against him, Rim-Sin of Larsa campaigned steadily deeper into Isin’s territory beginning in 1807 BC.  Babylon pillaged the greatly weakened city (and its recent ally) in 1806 BC and Larsa captured it in 1792 BC. 

The kingdom of Larsa now led the strongest coalition in southern Sumer but unbeknownst to it, time (for it) was running out. .

More on this in the next blog on the first Babylonian Empire, but three decades later Hammurabi of Babylon attacked it (1764 BC) and , after a six month siege, incorporated it into his realm.

 I hope you have enjoyed this blog (1 of 2) on 'Sumer after the last Sumerian dynasty' 

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