What's it all about?

Before we go any further, a cautionary note regarding timelines of the period. There is general agreement amongst scholars of timing of names and events but absolute dates and how they are applied does vary. I have used a commonly accepted timeline and all dates are given that way. Therefore you will most likely see variation from some sources but even then the event is generally placed in the right context, so it is still identifiable and understood. In the end, getting hung up on a few years or even +/- 50 years in some cases, is something of a pointless exercise.

For those new to the period a brief history of the flow of events will prove useful to give a framework for names and places. This will provide a context for all other posts. That is the purpose of this post. The following
source has been edited from its original content, along with additional material, to maintain a consistant timeline and focus on the military and political events which are our primary areas of concern. That said their is broad background information to give a grand sense of what was happening in the Near East at the time.

A brief history of the Third Millennium in the Near East.


The city of Uruk had 10,000 people in 3800 BC, and with pottery manufacturing increasing eight hundred years later 50,000 people were protected by defensive walls. Most settlements by this time were fortified, and documents written about 2600 BC describe major conflicts between the city-states of Ur, Uruk, Umma, and others. With cities came civilization and its organized violence—war.

In addition to pottery, other specializations included stonecutters, bricklayers, metalsmiths, farmers, fishers, shepherds, weavers, leather-workers, and sailors. The wheel was invented for carts, war-chariots, and pottery-making. Iron was smelted about 2500 BC. Seals had been used to stamp a carved insignia on clay before cylindrical seals became widespread for labeling commodities and legal documents. Pictographic writing was first used by the Sumerians about 3400, and by 3000 BC this had evolved into cuneiform words and syllables.

The Sumerian language was not deciphered until the nineteenth century of our era when it was found to be different from both the Indo-European and Semitic language groups. Fifteen hundred cuneiform symbols were reduced in the next thousand years to about seven hundred, but it did not become alphabetic until about 1300 BC. By 2500 BC libraries were established at Shuruppak and Eresh, and schools had been established to train scribes for the temple and state bureaucracies as well as to legally document contracts and business transactions. Schools were regularly attended by the sons of the aristocracy and successful; discipline was by caning.

Religion was the central organizing principle of the city states, each city belonging to a different deity, who was worshipped in a large temple. Families also had their own special gods or goddesses, and people prayed by clasping their hands in front of their chests. The temple was built on top of the ruins of the previous temple until in Uruk the temple of Anu, the god of heaven, rose fifty feet above the plain. Eventually these temples became man-made mountains, like the ziqqurats of Ur, Uruk, Eridu, and Nippur. About a third of the land was owned by the temple, which employed many people; some of their land was loaned out at interest or leased for a seventh or eighth of the harvest.

A ruler was called a lord (en) and was often deified. Each city had a governor (ensi) or a king (lugal meaning literally "great man") who lived in a great house (egal), and they often had religious duties as well, particularly to build and maintain temples. The wife of the king was called a lady or queen (nin), and she might take on important projects such as managing the affairs of a temple goddess.

Below the king or governor society had three distinct classes: aristocratic nobles, who were administrators, priests, and officers in the army rewarded with large estates; a middle class of business people, school teachers, artisans, and farmers; and the lowest being slaves, who had been captured in war or were dispossessed farmers or those sold by their families. Slavery was not stigmatized by race but was considered a misfortune out of which one could free oneself through service, usually in three years.

How then did these social hierarchies develop? Given the limited knowledge available, our explanations are speculative and uncertain. As the pastoral peoples traded with the farmers and villagers, more complex social organizations could function more productively. The manufacturing of pottery and other products led to specialization and trading by barter, as the Sumerians had no money system except for the weighing of precious metals. As irrigation systems became more complex, planners and managers of labor were needed. Protection of surplus goods and valuable construction was required to guard against raiding parties. Those with the ability to organize and manage more complex activities tended to give themselves privileges for their success, and eventually social inequalities grew, as those who failed lost their privileges. Religion also became a part of this system of inequality, as religious leaders placed themselves above others in their service of the deities.

The Geography Of Mesopotamia

Around 6000 B.C., after the agricultural revolution had begun to spread from its place of origin on the northern fringes of the Fertile Crescent, Neolithic farmers started filtering into the Fertile Crescent itself. Although this broad plain received insufficient rainfall to support agriculture, the eastern section was watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Known in ancient days as Mesopotamia (Greek for "between the rivers"), the lower reaches of this plain, beginning near the point where the two rivers nearly converge, was called Babylonia. Babylonia in turn encompassed two geographical areas - Akkad in the north and Sumer, the delta of this river system, in the south.

Broken by river channels teeming with fish and re-fertilized frequently by alluvial silt laid down by uncontrolled floods, Sumer had a splendid agricultural potential if the environmental problems could be solved. "Arable land had literally to be created out of a chaos of swamps and sand banks by a 'separation' of land from water; the swamps ... drained; the floods controlled; and lifegiving waters led to the rainless desert by artificial canals". In the course of the several successive cultural phases that followed the arrival of the first Neolithic farmers, these and other related problems were solved by cooperative effort. Between 3500 B.C. and 3100 B.C. the foundations were laid for a type of economy and social order markedly different from anything previously known. This far more complex culture, based on large urban centers rather than simple villages, is what we associate with civilization.

By discovering how to use metals to make tools and weapons, late Neolithic people effected a revolution nearly as far-reaching as that wrought in agriculture. Neolithic artisans discovered how to extract copper from oxide ores by heating them with charcoal. Then about 3100 B.C., metal workers discovered that copper was improved by the addition of tin. The resulting alloy, bronze, was harder than copper and provided a sharper cutting edge.

Thus the advent of civilization in Sumer is associated with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the West, which in time spread to Egypt, Europe, and Asia. The Bronze age lasted until about 1200 B.C., when iron weapons and tools began to replace those made of bronze. The first plow was probably a stick pulled through the soil with a rope. In time, however, domesticated cattle were harnessed to drag the plow in place of the farmer. Yoked, harnessed animals pulled plows in the Mesopotamian alluvium by 3000 B.C. As a result, farming advanced from the cultivation of small plots to the tilling of extensive fields. "By harnessing the ox man began to control and use a motive power other than that furnished by his own muscular energy. The ox was the first step to the steam engine and gasoline motor".

Since the Mesopotamian plain had no stone, no metals, and no timber except its soft palm trees, these materials had to be transported from Syria and Asia Minor. Water transport down the Tigris and Euphrates solved the problem. The oldest sailing boat known is represented by a model found in a Sumerian grave of about 3500 B.C. Soon after this date wheeled vehicles appear in the form of ass-drawn war chariots. For the transport of goods overland, however, people continued to rely on the pack ass.

Another important invention was the potter's wheel, first used in Sumer soon after 3500 B.C. Earlier, people had fashioned pots by molding or coiling clay by hand, but now a symmetrical product could be produced in a much shorter time. A pivoted clay disk heavy enough to revolve of its own momentum, the potter's wheel has been called "the first really mechanical device."

The Land of the Two Rivers

The word Mesopotamia , derived from the Greek, means literally "between the rivers," but it is generally used to denote the whole plain between and on either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The plain was bordered to the north and east by mountain ranges, in whose foothills, as we have seen, agriculture was first practiced. To the southwest lay the forbidding deserts of Syria and Arabia . Each year the two great rivers were swollen with the winter snows of the northern mountains, and each year at flood stage they spread a thick layer of immensely fertile silt across the flood plain where they approached the Persian Gulf .

This delta, a land of swamp rich in fish, wildlife, and date palms, was the most challenging and rewarding of the three natural units into which the river valleys were divided; and it was here, between 3500 and 3000 B. C., that agricultural settlers created the rich city-states of Sumer, of which the best known is Ur . The delta could only be made habitable by large-scale irrigation and flood control, which was managed first by a priestly class and then by godlike kings. Except for the period 2370-2230 B. C., when the Sumerian city-states were subdued by the rulers of Akkad , the region immediately to the north, the Sumerians remained prosperous and powerful until the beginning of the second millennium B. C.

Immediately to the north of Sumer , where the two rivers came most closely together, the plain was less subject to flooding but made fertile by rainfall and irrigation. This area, known first as Akkad , was inhabited by Semitic peoples who subdued the Sumerians in the middle of the third millennium; but when a new Semitic people called the Amorites conquered the area about 2000 B. C. and founded a great new capital city of Babylon ; the area henceforth came to be known as Babylonia . Except for invasions of Hittites and Kassites, who were Indo-European peoples from Asia , Babylonia continued to dominate Mesopotamia for a thousand years.

The third natural region, called Assyria , stretched from the north of Babylonia to the Taurus range. Its rolling hills were watered by a large number of streams flowing from the surrounding mountains as well as by the headwaters of the two great rivers themselves. The Assyrians, a viciously warlike Semitic people, were able to conquer the whole of Mesopotamia in the eighth and seventh centuries B. C. Thus the history of Mesopotamia can be envisaged as a shift of the center of power northwards, from Sumer to Babylonia and then to Assyria.


The first dynasty after the great flood was in the Akkadian region northwest of Sumer in the city of Kish, ten miles east of what became Babylon. According to Georges Roux, twelve of the kings' names were Semitic rather than Sumerian. Thus from its historical beginnings the Sumerian civilization was mixed with Semitic influences. The first legendary ruler Etana was said to have ascended to heaven on the back of an eagle. The oldest historical king, Mebaragesi, ruled Kish about 2700 BC and apparently overcame the Sumerians' eastern neighbor at Elam, for he is said to have carried away their weapons as spoil.

The second dynasty at Uruk in Sumer itself must have overlapped with the first because it was the legendary fifth king of that dynasty, Gilgamesh (2700-2680), who was attacked by the last Kish king Agga. An ancient account told the following story: Agga, having besieged Uruk, sent envoys to Gilgamesh with an ultimatum. Gilgamesh went to his city's elders, suggesting that they not submit but fight with weapons. However, the elders came to the opposite conclusion. So Gilgamesh took his proposal to the "men of the city," and they agreed with him. Gilgamesh was elated and said to his servant Enkidu, "Now, then, let the (peaceful) tool be put aside for the violence of battle."

The Uruk dynasty was well known in Sumerian tradition, as Gilgamesh was preceded by Meskiaggasher, son of the sun-god Utu, Enmerkar also son of Utu who built Uruk, the shepherd Lugalbanda, who was also considered divine, and the fisherman Dumuzi, the legendary vegetation god who married the love goddess Inanna. Tales of Gilgamesh became very popular.

Warrior kings

In this period we have the great struggle between the neighboring city-states Umma and Lagash. Mesalim (c.2500), who called himself King of Kish, erected a temple to Ningirsu in Lagash, for which he arbitrated a territorial dispute with Umma and set up a stela marking the border. However, he was defeated, as was the last king of Uruk, by the founder of the Ur dynasty, Mesannepadda (2563-2524), whose name meant the hero chosen by An. This marked the Rise of Ur. He and his successor rebuilt the Tummal temple at Nippur which had fallen into ruin. The peace between Lagash and Umma was maintained for about a century as Lagash’s King Ur-Nanshe (2495-2475) built temples, dug canals, and imported wood from Dilmun. Meanwhile Mesannepadda sent gifts to the distant Mari. The rulers of Ur became extraordinarily wealthy as indicated by their royal tombs in the mid-27th century. A royal standard shows four-wheeled battle-carts pulled by asses and rows of prisoners presented to the king.

Eventually Kish was occupied by mountain people from Khamazi while the Elamites encroached on Sumer. In Lagash Ur-Nanshe's grandson, Eannatum (2454-2425), who also built temples and dug canals, became a warrior, fighting back against the Elamites, conquering Ur and Uruk, and taking the kingship of Kish. Closer to home was the local conflict with Umma. Claiming his god commanded it, the governor of Umma raided the disputed field of Gu-edin, removed the marker set up by Mesalim, and invaded the territory of Lagash. However, Eannatum won the battle with the help of his god Enlil and captured in a great net his enemies, who begged for life. A peace treaty was agreed upon with Enakalli, the next governor of Umma, and Mesalim's stela was restored to its former place. Umma was required to pay heavy taxes in barley, and Eannatum's victory was commemorated by a stela depicting vultures tearing up the corpses of the defeated. Eannatum boasted of killing 3,600 men of Umma and had to bury twenty heaps of his own men.

Later Eannatum had to fight a coalition of forces from Kish and Mari led by the King of Akshak; though he claimed victory, his little empire was declining. Umma once again seized the disputed canal, destroyed the stela of the vultures, and defeated Eannatum. Eannatum was succedded by his brother Eannatum I (2425-2405) who fought rebellious elements tenuously holding onto power. However, his nephew, Entemena (2405-2385), regained the canal from Umma even though they were backed by foreign kings (probably from Mari). He assigned his own governor to control the irrigation Lagash needed. Entemena also constructed new canals, attained a "brotherhood pact" with Lugal-kinishe-dudu, who had united Uruk and Ur, and for a reign of peace and prosperity was deified by a grateful people with statues for nearly a thousand years. Eannatum II (2374-2365) was succeeded by a high priest of the warrior god Ningirsu, and for a time peace prevailed as the people of Umma were allowed to live in Lagash with religious and civil liberties.

However, conditions deteriorated as they were ruled by the distant kings of Kish who appointed the local governors, and the priesthood became corrupted and greedy for land and taxes. Finally a strong leader arose named Urukagina (2343-2335), who threw off the allegiance to Kish, proclaimed himself king of Lagash, and instituted sweeping reforms directed against the extortion of the priesthood. At the same time as Urukagina was reforming the temple, he was rebuilding it and other shrines in Lagash.

Unfortunately after only eight years of this rule by the world's first known reformer, the army of Umma led by its governor, Lugalzagesi (2340-2316), attacked Lagash possibly unresisted by Urukagina, burned the shrines, and carried off the divine image of Ningirsu. Assuming the existence of moral justice, the chronicler lamented, "The men of Umma, by the despoiling of Lagash, have committed a sin against the god Ningirsu....

As for Lugalzagesi, ensi of Umma, may his goddess Nidaba make him bear his mortal sin upon his head!" Lugalzagesi went on to conquer and become king of Uruk and claim all of Sumer under the god Enlil from the lower sea (Persian Gulf) including the Tigris and Euphrates all the way to the upper sea (Mediterranean). In his wars he defeated the city-states of Kish, Lagash, Ur, Nippur and Larsa. and by these conquests he created the first Sumerian Empire and became more powerful than any before. However, to do this he had to ally himself with the cup-bearer of Kish, where Lugalzagesi had begun life himself as a vassal. His reign of 24 years was to mark the end of that Sumerian empire in about 2334 BC, for the name of that Akkadian cup-bearer was Sargon.

Sargon the Akkadian

According to legend Sargon did not know his father and claimed his mother was a "changeling," though some have assumed she was probably a temple prostitute. A Neo-Assyrian (7th century BC) text recounted how his mother bore him in secret, put her baby in a basket of rushes sealed with bitumen, and cast it upon the Euphrates River. The river carried him to Akki, a drawer of water, who reared Sargon as a son and appointed him as his gardener. As a gardener Sargon claimed he received the love of the goddess Ishtar. More ancient inscriptions described him as the cup-bearer of Ur-Zababa, the King of Kish, whom either he or Lugalzagesi overthrew.

Sargon (2334-2279) marched against Uruk to attack Lugalzagesi, who, though he had fifty governors under his command, was defeated, captured, and brought to Kish, where he was yoked by the neck to Enlil's gate. Having consolidated his power in the north, Sargon went down river to attack and tear down the walls of Ur, Lagash, and Umma, not stopping until his warriors had "washed their weapons" in the lower sea (Persian Gulf). He built a new capital called Agade on the Euphrates with temples dedicated to Ishtar and the warrior god Zababa of the Kish. Semitic speakers were given authority over the Sumerians as he appointed Akkadian governors in all the major cities. The Akkadian language became as official as Sumerian; but following Sumerian religious traditions, he appointed his daughter priestess of Nanna, the moon god of Ur, and called himself the anointed priest of Anu and the great governor of Enlil.

Ambitious to expand his new empire and gain material resources, Sargon crossed the Tigris River and attacked four rulers in Iran, eventually defeating them and making the kings of Elam, Barshashe, and others his vassals. He then went northwest, where he prostrated himself before the grain-god Dagan, who "gave" him the upper region of Mari, Iarmuti, and Ebla to the cedar forest (Lebanon) and the silver (Taurus) mountains, thus gaining ample timber and precious metals. This must have been a major war because at that time Ebla was ruling over all of Syria and Palestine. Some even believe that Sargon crossed the western sea and landed on Cyprus and Crete. Sargon ruled over this vast empire until his death, but even at the end he was still fighting battles against a major revolt, destroying a vast army.

He was succeeded by his son, Rimush (2278-2270), who put down the revolts in Sumer, Iran, and Elam; but his battles involving tens of thousands of troops may have angered his administrators, because after only nine years, they "killed him with their tablets," showing that in those days even the written word could be a lethal weapon. His brother Manishtusu (2269-2255) continued these wars and boasted how he had secured silver mines and diorite for statues from southern Elam. (Note there is recent evidence to suggest that Manishtusu was king before Rimush..a reminder that new evidence is emerging to counter previously accepted views).
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin marking his victory over the Lullibi.

His son, Naram-Sin (2254-2218), also chose war for the northwestern copper and tin needed for bronze as well as the southern silver. He not only aggrandized his title from King of Agade to King of the Four Regions and King of the Universe, but he also added the star meaning god before his name. Naram-Sin ruled until 2218 BC and fought numerous wars even against the local Kish and Uruk and as far away as Ebla, Lebanon, the Zagros mountains, and in a major war with the Lullubi east of the Tigris. Later the first philosopher of history criticized Naram-Sin for morally bringing about the destruction of Agade by the Guti because he had devastated the temple at Nippur.

Puzur-Inshushinak, the governor of Elam, fought the southern tribes of Zagros on behalf of Naram-Sin; but after the latter died, Puzur-Inshushinak declared himself King of the Universe; and the new king of Agade, Sharkalisharri (2218-2193), busy with Sumerian revolts and other far-flung wars, could not object. A palace revolution also ended his reign in 2193 BC, and in the next three years the list of kings had four names, asking, "Who was king? Who was not king?" Like the Elamites, the Lullubi became independent, and eventually the Guti invaded from the north. The Gutians overthrow Elam and swept through Sumer, effectively destroying the Akkadian empire, and ending Sumerian/Akkadian domination of the region (c.2193 BC).

For the enrichment of a few these wars were fought for bronze, silver, wood, and stone and the cheap labor of slaves captured in battle. Trade had been expanded, perhaps as far as the Indus valley, but at what a cost! Small city-states were overcome by centralized kingdoms, and Akkadian emphasis on private property resulted in large estates for royalty and military nobles and a lessening of the power and domains of the temples in Sumer.

Sumerian Revival

The Guti ruled over Mesopotamia for nearly a century; but the trade routes were open, and local governors seemed to be autonomous. One of these in a city near the capital called Girsu was Gudea, governor of Lagash from 2123 to 2121 BC. Lugalzagesi of Umma had burned down Girsu, but Gudea rebuilt it with fifteen or more temples, inspired by a dream.

Gudea obeyed the dream and tried to unite the people of Girsu "as sons of the same mother" by purifying the city with encircling fires, putting clay in a pure place; making bricks, he purified the foundations of the temple and anointed the platform with perfume. The city was also purified morally: complaints, accusations, and punishments were to cease; mothers were not to scold their children nor should children raise their voices against their parents; slaves were not to be struck.

Then workers from Elam and Susa collected timber from their mountains and brought it to Girsu. Cedars were cut with great axes and like giant snakes were floated down the river. Stone was brought in large blocks, copper from Kimash, silver from distant mines, and red stone from Meluhha (possibly Ethiopia or the Indus). Construction took a year, and then the god could enter the temple. Statues of Gudea portray a calm and pious ruler, but in attaining all these building materials there was at least one war with the Elamites of Anshan.

About 2119 BC the governor of Uruk, Utu-hegal, revolted against the Guti "serpent of the hills" and with the help of other cities defeated the foreigners. However, Uruk was not able to hold the power, as seven years later Ur-Nammu (2112-2095), the governor of Ur, proclaimed himself king of Ur, Sumer, and Akkad (2112-2095). This Third Dynasty of Ur lasted just over a century (2112-2004) and is considered the final glory of Sumerian civilization.

Ur-Nammu is credited with freeing the land of thieves, robbers, and rebels, and using "principles of equity and truth" he promulgated the oldest known code of laws. According to the ancient text Ur-Nammu established "equity in the land and banished malediction, violence, and strife." Ur-Nammu promoted extensive building in canals and temples, erecting large ziqqurats in Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Nippur, and other cities, but he died abandoned on the battlefield in an unknown war and was succeeded by his son, Shulgi, who ruled for 47 years (2094-2047 BC).

The first half of his reign was spent completing the temples and ziqqurats, reinstating the gods in their shrines with newly appointed high priests, supporting the schools, and reforming the calendar and the standards for measuring grain. Then Shulgi began a series of military campaigns in the plains and mountains north of Diyala. He pacified other regions by marrying his daughters to governors in Barshashe, Anshan, and Susa. He built temples for the gods of Elam, called himself King of the Four Quarters, and was worshipped as a god.

From 2094 to 2038 BC Shulgi and his son, Amar-Sin, ruled over an empire more unified than the Akkadian empire of Sargon. The city-states became administrative districts governed by officials observed by royal inspectors and replaced by royal commands. Military affairs were controlled by the monarch and the generals he appointed. Fortresses guarded the main roads, and royal couriers were given rations of food at each stop.

From thousands of administrative tablets scholars have learned that the state had now overwhelmed the importance of the temple and private property. The government owned and operated large factories, workshops, and trading posts, and oversaw thousands of laborers in agriculture, industry, public works, civil service, and police. Workers were either freemen who paid taxes in corvées and military service, lesser paid serfs under the king's protection, or slaves. Officials received free meat, beer, and clothes and could own houses, fields, asses, and slaves. Governors and generals, who were paid by taxes, could be quite wealthy. In a middle class between these two extremes were some merchants and small land owners, who farmed by borrowing at one-fifth to one-third interest rates.

Amar-Sin was succeeded by his brother, Shu-Sin, who ruled for eight years (2037-2029), coming into conflict with an uncivilized people in the northwest called the Martu or Amorites, who were contemptuously described as not knowing about grain or agriculture or houses or burials but were mountain boors eating raw meat.

When Shu-Sin was succeeded by his son, Ibbi-Sin, the empire soon disintegrated (2028-2004). Eshnunna and Susa in the southeast became independent, and then the Amorites attacked from the north. One of the king's generals, Ishbi-Irra in Mari, wrote to him that he could not deliver the grain Ibbi-Sin wanted from Nippur and Isin because the Amorites had cut off the roads. Ibbi-Sin was depressed by the bad omens and believed that Enlil hated him. Ishbi-Irra asked his sovereign for permission to defend the two cities, and he defeated the Amorites. Believing he was favored by Enlil, in Ishbi-Irra proclaimed himself king of Isin, and his dynasty there lasted until 1794 BC.

An Amorite had already been crowned in Larsa near Ur. When the Elamites invaded Sumer, Ibbi-Sin, facing a famine and enemies on two fronts, tried to ally himself with the Amorites against Ibbi-Irra and the Elamites. However, this too failed, and in 2004 BC the glorious city of Ur, starving under siege, was attacked and burned down, a catastrophe the scribes attributed to the wrath of Enlil. Ibbi-Sin was captured and died in the foreign land of Anshan he had once himself devastated. Sumerian civilization had failed to contain the contagion of war, and it would never rise again.


  1. Really interesting and an excellent overview of the period.

  2. Always thought a book on this period would be good. But looks like this site will do just nicely. Really like the photos and colour maps etc.

    1. Yes. A good central spot for getting it straight and in an eye pleasing manner is the idea. Other books have a lot of good info but somewhat scattered information. This tries to make it all digestible in one go and make sense.


  3. cracking job, I miss my Summerian/Babylonian army.....I may rebuild one day!

  4. Superb blog! Personally, I am studying the Sumerian Language as a hobby and I have a great interest in history. This is an excellent text on Sumerian and Akkadian history and I greatly enjoyed reading it.

    1. :-)...I'm glad you found it informative. The Sumerian Language as a hobby sounds like one big job!