“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 6)

The last part of the Mesopotamia chapter in this book covers the Third Dynasty of Ur, which was a Sumerian empire that arose a short time after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. The book doesn’t give dates for the empire – having looked at the wikipedia page I think that’s because there’s a high degree of uncertainty about when the dates were. Two different possibilities are 2112-2004 BCE or 2055-1940 BCE.

Orientation Dates:

  • 2181-2055 BCE – Egypt’s First Intermediate Period
  • 2100-1600 BCE – the Xia dynasty of China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE – Egypt’s Middle Kingdom

The City of Ur

The Third Dynasty of Ur rose to prominence in Mesopotamia a little while after the Akkadian Empire fell. In between the region was dominated by the Gutians, who were a mountain people and we know little about them. The ruler of Uruk eventually raised an army to drive out the Gutians, but it was Ur-Nammu from the city of Ur who founded a new empire. It’s not clear how Ur-Nammu actually came to power – there’s evidence he might’ve been a governor under the king of Uruk, or perhaps a military leader. And then he either inherited from or lead a coup against the king of Uruk and founded the only Sumerian Empire in Mesopotamia’s history. The empire (often referred to as Ur III) reached as far as Syria and Elam and was divided into two parts. The core of the empire was under the king’s direct rule, and the peripheral territories were independently ruled but economically controlled by the empire (i.e. paying tribute).

When Ur-Nammu died (perhaps in battle) after a reign of 17 years he was succeeded by his son Shulgi, who reigned for 48 years. One of these two rulers wrote a code of laws that still survives in fragmentary form, and is the first we know to’ve existed. Traditionally it’s ascribed to Ur-Nammu, but the book suggests that Shulgi is more plausible given his longer reign (over an empire that already existed rather than needing to be conquered). Shulgi also reorganised the administration of the empire – under his rule the city state rulers became governors with no military power, and he stationed garrisons in particularly troublesome regions. He instituted a practice of using an army of foreign mercenaries to control the outlying territories. He was deified during his lifetime, although most of his achievements as listed in the book seem prosaic rather than godly! These included standardising tax collection, developing state archives and a state army.

Shulgi was succeeded by his son Amar-Sin, who fought many wars against the Amorites and the Hurrians. He only reigned for 10 years before dying of natural causes and being succeeded by his brother Shu-Sin. The Amorites continued to fight against the Ur III empire, and pushed them back to their heartlands. Shu-Sin actually constructed a wall between the two rivers to try and hold back the Amorites. The book doesn’t say if this worked or not … After Shu-Sin died (after a decade on the throne) he was succeeded by his son Ibbi-Sin who was to be the last of the kings of Ur III. He built walls too, round cities rather than between rivers however. Despite a fairly long reign (perhaps 20 years) he wasn’t a strong king and the empire began to crumble almost immediately.

At its height the empire of the Ur III dynasty was a sophisticated and prosperous society. Taxes were collected across the empire on crops, livestock, labour and land. Any surpluses (I’m unclear if the book meant from the taxation or more generally) were redistributed fairly – not just to the temple bureaucracies but also to the poor. How much the common people actually benefited from the prosperity of the empire isn’t entirely clear, nor is their precise place in society. An older theory is that they were pretty much just indentured servants, but more recent analysis is that it’s more complicated. In theory it should be possible to find out a lot about the Ur III economy as thousands of texts detailing commercial transactions such as loans, leases of land and slave purchases etc have been found from this period. But the book says that no-one has done a systematic analysis of them in order to gain a complete picture (reading between the lines it sounds like the author of this particular section doesn’t agree with what analysis has been done). One thing these texts demonstrate at even a cursory level of analysis is that despite this being a Sumerian Empire, Akkadian is the language of administration. The book says that Sumerian was still the language of literature and every literate citizen had to learn it, but Akkadian was the language that people actually used for their day to day lives.

Why did the Ur III empire fall? The book says that it might better to cast this as “how did it ever succeed in the first place?”, but sadly doesn’t answer that question but goes on to consider why it fell. The suggestion is that it was a perfect storm of adverse conditions including climate change, attacks from nomadic groups from outside the empire (for instance the Amorites) and urban restlessness, combined with a king whose administrative & leadership weren’t up to the (admittedly difficult) job. Despite the broad brush strokes being unclear the details of the last king’s downfall are quite well known – royal correspondence, poetry and an administrative archive from the period have all survived. Ibbi-Sin had been persuaded to appoint Ishbi-Erra as governor of some of the cities of the empire whilst Ibbi-Sin was away fighting the Elamites. Ishbi-Erra began to assume royal privileges and he eventually proclaimed himself ruler over all of southern Mesopotamia including Ur itself where Ibbi-Sin still ruled. The Ur III empire took another 14 or so years to properly fizzle out, finished off by a famine. There’s surviving poetry recording the end of the empire that is similar to the later Book of Lamentations in the bible.

As well as this historical trot through the rise & fall of Ur III this section of the book also includes a couple of sections on the arts & architecture of this period. The first of these is about ziggurats which were the longest lasting temple designs in the Middle East: the earliest known date to at least the 4th Millennium BCE and they were still being built in the 6th Century BCE. They are monumental structures composed of two to seven tiers of platforms rising high into the sky. Access was via ramps, and at the topmost level there was an altar for making burnt offerings (or alternatively for cooking meals for the gods). As with Egyptian temples (and in contrast to Christian churches) these were not places for public worship, instead they were a place for the god to live. The platforms emphasised the separation from humanity on the ground and the gods in the sky, and only priests and rulers were permitted to go up to the top.

Replica Headdress & Jewellery

The last double page spread of the chapter looks at the precious metal working and jewellery of Mesopotamia from it’s earliest known examples through to the end of the Ur III empire (I think, the dating isn’t clear in the text). Gold and silver aren’t found in Mesopotamia, but precious metal working still starts early in the 4th Millennium BCE with imported raw materials. The preferred designs were natural and geometric motifs, like leaves or spirals. Jewellery was made from gold or silver leaf and set with semi-precious stones. It was worn by both men & women, and possibly children too, as well as by statues of the gods. Jewellery might confer protection on the wearer – for instance lapis lazuli items meant you were protected by the sky god Anu. The picture above shows a replica of a headdress found by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s in the royal tombs at Ur (it’s in the British Museum now). These tombs are the source of a lot of our knowledge of Sumerian jewellery, in particular the tomb of Queen Pu’abi (and all her (young, healthy) attendants who were all interred at the same time).

The fall of the Ur III empire is considered the dividing line between the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age, and the next chapter on the book is about the power struggles between the various kingdoms of that period.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 4)

Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilisation

The next chapter of this book deals with the wave of urbanisation in Mesopotamia starting around 6,000 years ago, and the emergence of city states. This is the rise of what we call civilisation – urban culture as opposed to village/farming culture. Obviously as with any dividing line it’s reasonably arbitrary: the Ubaid culture discussed at the end of the previous chapter (post) consists of large villages with public buildings, sometimes surrounded by smaller satellite settlements. There’s a hierarchy within the population, and indications of centralised administration of resources. This is well on the way to the same sort of city organisation that characterises the urban cultures of this chapter – it’s just not quite as well developed as it becomes after this arbitrary line in the sand.

The chapter is divided into three parts (and I’m only really writing about the first one in this blog post). Firstly it covers the early Sumerian period where true city dwelling develops and writing is invented. Next is the emergence of city states, and the first empire (the Akkadian Empire). And lastly the return to prominence of the Sumerian city of Ur after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire.

An Urban Explosion

This section of the chapter opens with a double page spread on “The Sumerian Question”, to which scholars apparently have no clear answer: where did they come from? Were they the people who had always lived in southern Mesopotamia (since there were people there), or did they migrate into the area in the 4th Millennium BCE? Or were they a combination culture of the indigenous hunters & fishers, merged with incoming farmers from the north, or from Bahrain*? There are various bits of evidence that hint at one or another of these possibilities. For instance there are indications of a pre-Sumerian culture in the area with links to the Samarrans in the north of Mesopotamia. And there are loan words from other (unknown) languages in the Sumerian vocabulary, indicating contact with some other culture. The Sumerian language is a language isolate. This means that it has no living relatives, and in fact there are no other dead languages that appear to be related to Sumerian. Other languages spoken in Mesopotamia after this period are all Semitic languages (it’s a bit hard to tell for sure what was spoken contemporaneously with Sumerian as only Sumerian was being written down at this time). The writing that the Sumerians invented long outlasted their language – cuneiform was still being used in the first centuries CE, but spoken Sumerian began to die out in the 2nd Millennium BCE. After this it lingered on as the language of religion and epic poetry but gradually became more & more obscure until dying out, entirely.

*This is not quite as out of left field as it might sound, Sumerian legends mention Dilmun (modern day Bahrain) so there’s a potential link to there.

The initial part of this urbanisation of Mesopotamia is referred to as the Uruk Period, because it was dominated by the city of Uruk which became the first city state. This era is characterised by increasing social stratification, regulated agriculture and the development of writing. The latter two of these go together as the earliest use of writing in the region was keeping track of goods – the early cities in Mesopotamia were well organised economically compared to the earlier and contemporary villages. These cities relied on domestic agriculture for food and trade for many of the other necessities of civilisation. So Sumerian trade colonies spread throughout the rest of the region. Uruk and the other Sumerian cities of this period were centred around temples and ruled by priestly officials. This structure was not spread to other surrounding cultures, which did develop cities similar to the Sumerian model except ruled by secular authorities.

Archaeological evidence at Uruk shows the development of an improved pottery wheel, wheeled vehicles, the plough and the pottery kiln. The new pottery wheels changed the material culture of the region significantly – in the Ubaid Period pottery was distinctively painted, but in the Uruk Period this was replaced by mass-produced unpainted wares. There is also archaeological evidence of an increase in the scale of slave labour – in particular of forced migrations of peoples from many different places into Sumeria. Settlement sizes and numbers increased dramatically during the Uruk Period across the whole of Mesopotamia and later in the period many of these have fortifications, indicating a rise in militarisation. An interesting unanswered question about this period is what the relations between the main cities of the region were. Were they all mostly-independent regional centres, with Uruk the largest of them with a limited central administrative role? Or was there a form of pre-imperialism whereby Uruk was in some sense ruling over the other cities? At the end of the period there was a collapse of whatever sort of organisation existed and the region fragmented into several smaller polities – so clearly there was some degree of organisation above the city level.

The structure of this chapter is a little confused as after talking about Uruk it then jumps back in time for a brief discussion of Eridu, which was the first temple town. The foundation of Eridu pre-dates Uruk by at least a thousand years and it was an important ceremonial centre during the Ubaid period. Sumerian mythology describes Eridu as having been founded before the flood (as detailed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). However despite the early founding of Eridu, Uruk became a city state first and Eridu only later. Rather frustratingly the book doesn’t clearly say what makes a city a city and a large village a large village. Perhaps it’s a “you know it when you see it” sort of thing? What the text does get across is that it’s the complexity of the society that matters – elites supported by the agricultural output of the farmland around, including priestly, political and military classes as well as artists and craftspeople. Cities could be pretty large, as well: some had populations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Temple towns developed on the rivers of the region, and water-borne trade was important in providing the resources needed to build their public buildings as well as the water itself being used to irrigate the fields. The towns and cities were dominated by temples built in the shape of artificial mountains. These ziggurats were a form of sacred architecture used in Mesopotamia for thousands of years after this. The administrative buildings of the city were associated with the temples. Urban life had existed for a few hundred years before writing was invented – which then made the bureaucracy of the cities much more efficient (as well as enabling accurate communication across large distances or times). An aside in the text here mentions that their counting system was based on base 60 and we still use it for time and angles, which I knew before but I still find a bit astonishing how that has persisted over such a long time and over such a vast cultural gulf.

Each city had at least one temple, and thus a patron god. All the Sumerian cities revered the same pantheon of deities but religious practice was focussed on the god to which the city’s shrine was dedicated. These gods included Anu (father of the gods, with a temple in Uruk), Inanna/Ishtar (queen of the gods, with a temple in Uruk too), Enki (god of wisdom & water, with a temple in Eridu), Ninurta (war god, Lagash), Sin (moon, Ur), Nabu (wisdom, Borsippa) and Shara (minor war god, Umma). Education and art in Sumer were associated with the temples. Libraries were maintained in temples by priests and scribes, and decorative arts were dedicated to the gods (and later to the rulers of cities).

Sumerian society was highly stratified, and had a very high regard for ownership of property. Writing developed, as I said, to track goods and later many of the texts we have are related to property transactions and lawsuits. I’ve just started translating very simple examples of these sorts of things in my Akkadian course (so from a bit later on in time from the Sumerian period). These give an impression of a pretty litigious society in their matter of factness about such things e.g.: “Takūm-mātum daughter of Amurrûm and her mother, Rabbatum, bought a field from Ãlikum son of Arwûm. Ãlikum son of Arwûm, Sumu-ramê and all his sons sued Takūm-mātum and the judges of the house of Shamash rejected their lawsuits.” It’s not just ownership of property that the Sumerian society was keen to control and codify – the book also mentions increasingly complicated systems for recording the passing of time and for recording boundaries, goods and services.

This section of the chapter ends with a double page spread about cuneiform writing. The book says it was the first writing system, but I believe the jury is still out on whether the Sumerians or the Egyptians got there first (and on whether or not these two systems developed wholly independently or whether one copied the other). Although cuneiform started out as pictographs over time it was simplified into clusters of wedge shapes for each sign – I think of it as looking like a drunk bird staggered across the surface (although a pretty regimented drunk bird, as the signs are generally in neat rows). I also find them hard to memorise because there’s a lot of them that are pretty similar to each other, and they all come in many forms. Complicating this writing system still further is the fact that each sign may have multiple different logographic (whole word) or syllabic meanings assigned to it. The converse is also true – there may be more than one sign for any given syllable. Although developed for Sumerian cuneiform was adapted to write several other languages, most importantly Akkadian. Akkadian took on a role in the ancient Middle East similar to that of Latin in medieval Europe. It was the language of bureaucracy, scholarship and of diplomatic correspondence, and the use of it long outlasted the culture and empire that originally spread it across the region.