Akkad, the first empire

Akkad’s powerful statism at work in Shekhna.


State-employed potters made bowls for the distribution of rations to other state employees and pensioners.

Akkad flourished, but was destroyed by drought and barbarians.

The curse of Akkad.
Issue of 2005-05-02
Posted 2005-04-25

The world’s first empire was established forty-three hundred years ago, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The details of its founding, by Sargon of Akkad, have come down to us in a form somewhere between history and myth. Sargon—Sharru-kin, in the language of Akkadian—means “true king”; almost certainly, though, he was a usurper. As a baby, Sargon was said to have been discovered, Moses-like, floating in a basket. Later, he became cupbearer to the ruler of Kish, one of ancient Babylonia’s most powerful cities. Sargon dreamed that his master, Ur-Zababa, was about to be drowned by the goddess Inanna in a river of blood. Hearing about the dream, Ur-Zababa decided to have Sargon eliminated. How this plan failed is unknown; no text relating the end of the story has ever been found.

Until Sargon’s reign, Babylonian cities like Kish, and also Ur and Uruk and Umma, functioned as independent city-states. Sometimes they formed brief alliances—cuneiform tablets attest to strategic marriages celebrated and diplomatic gifts exchanged—but mostly they seem to have been at war with one another. Sargon first subdued Babylonia’s fractious cities, then went on to conquer, or at least sack, lands like Elam, in present-day Iran. He presided over his empire from the city of Akkad, the ruins of which are believed to lie south of Baghdad. It was written that “daily five thousand four hundred men ate at his presence,” meaning, presumably, that he maintained a huge standing army. Eventually, Akkadian hegemony extended as far as the Khabur plains, in northeastern Syria, an area prized for its grain production. Sargon came to be known as “king of the world”; later, one of his descendants enlarged this title to “king of the four corners of the universe.”

Akkadian rule was highly centralized, and in this way anticipated the administrative logic of empires to come. The Akkadians levied taxes, then used the proceeds to support a vast network of local bureaucrats. They introduced standardized weights and measures—the gur equalled roughly three hundred litres—and imposed a uniform dating system, under which each year was assigned the name of a major event that had recently occurred: for instance, “the year that Sargon destroyed the city of Mari.” Such was the level of systematization that even the shape and the layout of accounting tablets were imperially prescribed. Akkad’s wealth was reflected in, among other things, its art work, the refinement and naturalism of which were unprecedented.

Sargon ruled, supposedly, for fifty-six years. He was succeeded by his two sons, who reigned for a total of twenty-four years, and then by a grandson, Naram-sin, who declared himself a god. Naram-sin was, in turn, succeeded by his son. Then, suddenly, Akkad collapsed. During one three-year period, four men each, briefly, claimed the throne. “Who was king? Who was not king?” the register known as the Sumerian King List asks, in what may be the first recorded instance of political irony.

The lamentation “The Curse of Akkad” was written within a century of the empire’s fall. It attributes Akkad’s demise to an outrage against the gods. Angered by a pair of inauspicious oracles, Naram-sin plunders the temple of Enlil, the god of wind and storms, who, in retaliation, decides to destroy both him and his people:

For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.

For many years, the events described in “The Curse of Akkad” were thought, like the details of Sargon’s birth, to be purely fictional.

In 1978, after scanning a set of maps at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, a university archeologist named Harvey Weiss spotted a promising-looking mound at the confluence of two dry riverbeds in the Khabur plains, near the Iraqi border. He approached the Syrian government for permission to excavate the mound, and, somewhat to his surprise, it was almost immediately granted. Soon, he had uncovered a lost city, which in ancient times was known as Shekhna and today is called Tell Leilan.

Over the next ten years, Weiss, working with a team of students and local laborers, proceeded to uncover an acropolis, a crowded residential neighborhood reached by a paved road, and a large block of grain-storage rooms. He found that the residents of Tell Leilan had raised barley and several varieties of wheat, that they had used carts to transport their crops, and that in their writing they had imitated the style of their more sophisticated neighbors to the south. Like most cities in the region at the time, Tell Leilan had a rigidly organized, state-run economy: people received rations—so many litres of barley and so many of oil—based on how old they were and what kind of work they performed. From the time of the Akkadian empire, thousands of similar potsherds were discovered, indicating that residents had received their rations in mass-produced, one-litre vessels. After examining these and other artifacts, Weiss constructed a time line of the city’s history, from its origins as a small farming village (around 5000 B.C.), to its growth into an independent city of some thirty thousand people (2600 B.C.), and on to its reorganization under imperial rule (2300 B.C.).

Wherever Weiss and his team dug, they also encountered a layer of dirt that contained no signs of human habitation. This layer, which was more than three feet deep, corresponded to the years 2200 to 1900 B.C., and it indicated that, around the time of Akkad’s fall, Tell Leilan had been completely abandoned. In 1991, Weiss sent soil samples from Tell Leilan to a lab for analysis. The results showed that, around the year 2200 B.C., even the city’s earthworms had died out. Eventually, Weiss came to believe that the lifeless soil of Tell Leilan and the end of the Akkadian empire were products of the same phenomenon—a drought so prolonged and so severe that, in his words, it represented an example of “climate change.”

Weiss first published his theory, in the journal Science, in August, 1993. Since then, the list of cultures whose demise has been linked to climate change has continued to grow. They include the Classic Mayan civilization, which collapsed at the height of its development, around 800 A.D.; the Tiwanaku civilization, which thrived near Lake Titicaca, in the Andes, for more than a millennium, then disintegrated around 1100 A.D.; and the Old Kingdom of Egypt, which collapsed around the same time as the Akkadian empire. (In an account eerily reminiscent of “The Curse of Akkad,” the Egyptian sage Ipuwer described the anguish of the period: “Lo, the desert claims the land. Towns are ravaged. . . . Food is lacking. . . . Ladies suffer like maidservants. Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds.”) In each of these cases, what began as a provocative hypothesis has, as new information has emerged, come to seem more and more compelling. For example, the notion that Mayan civilization had been undermined by climate change was first proposed in the late nineteen-eighties, at which point there was little climatological evidence to support it. Then, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, American scientists studying sediment cores from Lake Chichancanab, in north-central Yucatán, reported that precipitation patterns in the region had indeed shifted during the ninth and tenth centuries, and that this shift had led to periods of prolonged drought. More recently, a group of researchers examining ocean-sediment cores collected off the coast of Venezuela produced an even more detailed record of rainfall in the area. They found that the region experienced a series of severe, “multiyear drought events” beginning around 750 A.D. The collapse of the Classic Mayan civilization, which has been described as “a demographic disaster as profound as any other in human history,” is thought to have cost millions of lives.

The climate shifts that affected past cultures predate industrialization by hundreds—or, in the case of the Akkadians, thousands—of years. They reflect the climate system’s innate variability and were caused by forces that, at this point, can only be guessed at. By contrast, the climate shifts predicted for the coming century are attributable to forces that are now well known. Exactly how big these shifts will be is a matter of both intense scientific interest and the greatest possible historical significance. In this context, the discovery that large and sophisticated cultures have already been undone by climate change presents what can only be called an uncomfortable precedent.

Bust of an Akkadian ruler, probably Sargon, Nineveh, c. 23rd – 22nd century BC. This bust might depict Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin
Reign c. 2270 BC – 2215 BC
Full name Šarru-kin (“the true King” or “the legitimate King”)
Titles King of Kish, Lagash, Umma,Uruk, overlord of Sumer,Elam, Mari, and Yarmuti
Born c.2300 BC
Birthplace Azupiranu, Mesopotamia
Died c. 2215 BC
Place of death Akkad, Mesopotamia
Successor Rimush
Consort to Tashlultum
Royal House House of Sargon
Dynasty Akkadian dynasty

La’ibum (natural)

Akki (foster-)
Children Enheduanna, Rimush,Manishtushu, Ibarum, and Abaish-Takal

Sargon of Akkad, also known as Sargon the Great “the Great King” (AkkadianŠarru-kīnu, meaning “the true king” or “the king is legitimate”),[1] was a SemiticAkkadian emperor famous for his conquestof the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd centuries BC. The founder of the Dynasty of Akkad, Sargon reigned during the last quarter of the third millennium BC. He became a prominent member of the royal court of Kish, killing the king and usurping his throne before embarking on the quest to conquer Mesopotamia. He was originally referred to as Sargon I until records concerning an Assyrian king also named Sargon (now usually referred to as Sargon I) were unearthed. [2]

Sargon’s vast empire is thought to have included large parts of Mesopotamia, and included parts of modern-day Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. He ruled from a new, but as yet archaeologically unidentified capital,Akkad, which the Sumerian king list claims he built (or possibly renovated).[3] He is sometimes regarded as the first person in recorded history to create a multiethnic, centrally ruled empire, although the Sumerians Lugal-anne-mundu and Lugal-zage-si also have a claim. His dynasty controlled Mesopotamia for around a century and a half.[4]

HideOrigins and rise to power

The exact dates of Sargon’s birth, death or even reign are unknown. According to theshort chronology, he reigned from 2270 to 2215 BC (the Middle Chronology lists his reign as 2334 to 2279 BC). These dates are based on the Sumerian king list.[5] There is discussion among Assyriologists over whether or not the name Sargon was given at birth or a regnal name adopted later in life.[6][7]

The story of Sargon’s birth and childhood is given in the “Sargon legend”, a Sumeriantext purporting to be Sargon’s biography.[citation needed] The extant versions are incomplete, but the surviving fragments name Sargon’s father asLa’ibum. After a lacuna, the text skips toUr-Zababa, king of Kish, who awakens after a dream, the contents of which are not revealed on the surviving portion of the tablet. For unknown reasons, Ur-Zababa appoints Sargon as his cupbearer. Soon after this, Ur-Zababa invites Sargon to his chambers to discuss a dream of Sargon’s, involving the favor of the goddess Inannaand the drowning of Ur-Zababa by the goddess. Deeply frightened, Ur-Zababa orders Sargon murdered by the hands of Beliš-tikal, the chief smith, but Inanna prevents it, demanding that Sargon stop at the gates because of his being “polluted with blood.” When Sargon returns to Ur-Zababa, the king becomes frightened again, and decides to send Sargon to kingLugal-zage-si of Uruk with a message on a clay tablet asking him to slay Sargon.[8] The legend breaks off at this point; presumably, the missing sections described how Sargon becomes king.[9]

The Sumerian king list relates: “In Agade [Akkad], Sargon, whose father was a gardener, the cupbearer of Ur-Zababa, became king, the king of Agade, who built Agade; he ruled for 56 years.” There are several problems with this entry in the king list. Thorkild Jacobsen marked the clause about Sargon’s father being a gardener as a lacuna, indicating his uncertainty about its meaning.[10] Furthermore, confusingly, Ur-Zababa and Lugal-zage-si are both listed as kings, but several generations apart.[citation needed] The claim that Sargon was the original founder of Akkad has come into question in recent years, with the discovery of an inscription mentioning the place and dated to the first year ofEnshakushanna, who almost certainly preceded him.[11] This claim of the king list had been the basis for earlier speculation by a number of scholars that Sargon was an inspiration for the biblical figure ofNimrod.[12] The Weidner Chronicle (ABC19:51) states that it was Sargon who builtBabylon “in front of Akkad.”[13][14] TheChronicle of Early Kings (ABC 20:18-19) likewise states that late in his reign, Sargon “dug up the soil of the pit of Babylon, and made a counterpart of Babylon next to Agade.”[14][15] Van de Mieroop suggested that those two chronicles may in fact refer to the much later Assyrian king, Sargon II of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, rather than to Sargon of Akkad.[16]

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HideFormation of the Akkadian Empire

Map of the Akkadian Empire (brown) and the directions in which military campaigns were conducted (yellow arrows)

After coming to power in Kish, Sargon soon attacked Uruk, which was ruled by Lugal-Zage-Si of Umma. He captured Uruk and dismantled its famous walls. The defenders seem to have fled the city, joining an army led by fifty ensis from the provinces. This Sumerian force fought two pitched battlesagainst the Akkadians, as a result of which the remaining forces of Lugal-Zage-Si were routed.[17] Lugal-Zage-Si himself was captured and brought to Nippur; Sargon inscribed on the pedestal of a statue (preserved in a later tablet) that he brought Lugal-Zage-Si “in a dog collar to the gate of Enlil.”[18] Sargon pursued his enemies to Ur before moving eastwards to Lagash, to the Persian Gulf, and thence to Umma. He made a symbolic gesture of washing his weapons in the “lower sea” (Persian Gulf) to show that he had conquered Sumer in its entirety.[18]

Another victory Sargon celebrated was over Kashtubila, king of Kazalla. According to one ancient source, Sargon laid the city of Kazalla to waste so effectively “that the birds could not find a place to perch away from the ground.”[19]

To help limit the chance of revolt in Sumerhe appointed a court of 5,400 men to “share his table” (i.e., to administer his empire).[20] These 5,400 men may have constituted Sargon’s army.[21] The governors chosen by Sargon to administer the main city-states of Sumer were Akkadians, not Sumerians.[22] The SemiticAkkadian language became the lingua franca, the official language of inscriptions in all Mesopotamia, and of great influence far beyond. Sargon’s empire maintained trade and diplomatic contacts with kingdoms around the Arabian Sea and elsewhere in the Near East. Sargon’s inscriptions report that ships from Magan,Meluhha, and Dilmun, among other places, rode at anchor in his capital of Agade.[23]

The former religious institutions of Sumer, already well-known and emulated by the Semites, were respected. Sumerian remained, in large part, the language of religion and Sargon and his successors were patrons of the Sumerian cults. Sargon styled himself “anointed priest of Anu” and “great ensi of Enlil“.[24] While Sargon is often credited with the first true empire, Lugal-Zage-Si preceded him; after coming to power in Umma he had conquered or otherwise come into possession of Ur, Uruk, Nippur, and Lagash. Lugal-Zage-Si claimed rulership over lands as far away as the Mediterranean.[25]

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HideWars in the northwest and east

Shortly after securing Sumer, Sargon embarked on a series of campaigns to subjugate the entire Fertile Crescent. According to the Chronicle of Early Kings, a later Babylonian historiographical text:

[Sargon] had neither rival nor equal. His splendor, over the lands it diffused. He crossed the sea in the east. In the eleventh year he conquered the western land to its farthest point. He brought it under one authority. He set up his statues there and ferried the west’s booty across on barges. He stationed his court officials at intervals of five double hours and ruled in unity the tribes of the lands. He marched to Kazallu and turned Kazallu into a ruin heap, so that there was not even a perch for a bird left.[14]

Sargon captured Mari, Yarmuti, and Ebla as far as the Cedar Forest (Amanus) and the silver mountain (Taurus). The Akkadian Empire secured trade routes and supplies of wood and precious metals could be safely and freely floated down theEuphrates to Akkad.[5]

In the east, Sargon defeated an invasion by the four leaders of Elam, led by the king ofAwan. Their cities were sacked; the governors, viceroys and kings of Susa,Barhashe, and neighboring districts became vassals of Akkad, and the Akkadian language made the official language of international discourse. During Sargon’s reign, Akkadian was standardized and adapted for use with the cuneiform script previously used in the Sumerian language. A style of calligraphy developed in which text on clay tablets and cylinder seals was arranged amidst scenes of mythology and ritual.[26]

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HideLater reign

The Epic of the King of the Battle is known from an Akkadian-language tablet in theAmarna archives; translations have since been discovered in Hittite and Hurrian.[27] It depicts Sargon advancing deep into the heart of Anatolia to protect Akkadian and other Mesopotamian merchants from the exactions of the King of Purushanda(Purshahanda). It is anachronistic, however, portraying the 23rd-century Sargon in a 19th-century milieu; the story is thus probably fictional, though it may have some basis in historical fact.[28] The same text mentions that Sargon crossed the Sea of the West (Mediterranean Sea) and ended up in Kuppara, which some authors have interpreted as the Akkadian word for Keftiu, an ancient locale usually associated with Crete or Cyprus.[29]

Famine and war threatened Sargon’s empire during the latter years of his reign. The Chronicle of Early Kings reports that revolts broke out throughout the area under the last years of his overlordship:

Afterward in his [Sargon’s] old age all the lands revolted against him, and they besieged him in Akkad; and Sargon went onward to battle and defeated them; he accomplished their overthrow, and their widespreading host he destroyed. Afterward he attacked the land of Subartu in his might, and they submitted to his arms, and Sargon settled that revolt, and defeated them; he accomplished their overthrow, and their widespreading host he destroyed, and he brought their possessions into Akkad. The soil from the trenches of Babylon he removed, and the boundaries of Akkad he made like those of Babylon. But because of the evil which he had committed, the great lord Marduk was angry, and he destroyed his people by famine. From the rising of the sun unto the setting of the sun they opposed him and gave him no rest.[30]

However Oppenheim translates the last sentence as “From the East to the West he [i.e. Marduk] alienated (them) from him and inflicted upon (him as punishment) that he could not rest (in his grave).”[19]

Later literature proposes that the rebellions and other troubles of Sargon’s later reign were the result of sacrilegious acts committed by the king. Modern consensus is that the veracity of these claims are impossible to determine, as disasters were virtually always attributed to sacrilege inspiring divine wrath in ancient Mesopotamian literature.[26]

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Family tree of Sargon of Akkad

Sargon died, according to the short chronology, around 2215 BC. His empire immediately revolted upon hearing of the king’s death. Most of the revolts were put down by his son and successor Rimush, who reigned for nine years and was followed by another of Sargon’s sons,Manishtushu (who reigned for 15 years).[31]Sargon was regarded as a model by Mesopotamian kings for some two millennia after his death. The Assyrian and Babylonian kings who based their empires in Mesopotamia saw themselves as the heirs of Sargon’s empire. Kings such asNabonidus (r. 556–539 BC) showed great interest in the history of the Sargonid dynasty, and even conducted excavations of Sargon’s palaces and those of his successors.[32] Indeed, such later rulers may have been inspired by the king’s conquests to embark on their own campaigns throughout the Middle East. The Neo-Assyrian Sargon text challenges his successors thus:

The black-headed peoples I ruled, I governed; mighty mountains with axes of bronze I destroyed. I ascended the upper mountains; I burst through the lower mountains. The country of the sea I besieged three times; Dilmun I captured. Unto the great Dur-ilu I went up, I … I altered … Whatsoever king shall be exalted after me, … Let him rule, let him govern the black-headed peoples; mighty mountains with axes of bronze let him destroy; let him ascend the upper mountains, let him break through the lower mountains; the country of the sea let him besiege three times; Dilmun let him capture; To great Dur-ilu let him go up.[33]

Another source attributed to Sargon the challenge “now, any king who wants to call himself my equal, wherever I went [conquered], let him go.”[34]

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The name of Sargon’s main wife, QueenTashlultum,[35][36] and those of a number of his children are known to us. His daughterEnheduanna, who flourished during the late 24th and early 23rd centuries BC, was a priestess who composed ritual hymns.[37]Many of her works, including her Exaltation of Inanna, were in use for centuries thereafter.[38] Sargon was succeeded by his son, Rimush; after Rimush’s death another son, Manishtushu, became king. Two other sons, Shu-Enlil (Ibarum) and Ilaba’is-takal(Abaish-Takal), are known.[39]

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HideIn comparative mythology

Unbalanced scales.svg The neutrality of this section isdisputed. Please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved.(December 2011)

Sargon survives as a legendary figure into the Neo-Assyrian literature of the Early Iron Age. A Neo-Assyrian text from the 7th century BC purporting to be Sargon’s autobiography asserts that the great king was the illegitimate son of a priestess. In the Neo-Assyrian account Sargon’s birth and his early childhood are described thus:

My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and … years I exercised kingship.[40]

The Book of Exodus of the Hebrew Biblewas composed or redacted around the 6th century BC and was influenced by Neo-Assyrian legend. In particular, the image of Sargon as a castaway set adrift on a river resembles the better-known birth narrative of Moses. But the account of Exodus turns the theme on its head— rather than a royal fostered by commoners before rediscovering his royal blood, Moses is the son of slaves who is fostered by the daughter of Pharaoh.[41] Some think that the legend of king Sargon’s birth is irrelevant as a source of the Book of Exodus. [42][43] Scholars such as Joseph Campbell and Otto Rank have also compared the 7th century BC Sargon account with the obscure births of other heroic figures from history and mythology, including Karna.[44]

Furthermore, a number of 20th-century scholars have speculated that Sargon was an inspiration for the biblical Nimrod, mainly since both figures were credited with the construction of the cities Babylon and Akkad.[12]


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