Ancient History & Civilisation



Big Men and Kings: The City-States

c.3000 to 2300 BCE

Still Visible after Five Thousand Years

In April 2003, an account appeared widely online, claiming that ‘the Iraqi cities of Al-Kut and Nasiriyah launched attacks on each other immediately following the fall of Baghdad to establish dominance in the new country.’ The allied western conquerors, it said, responded by ordering the cities to stop fighting, and by confirming that Baghdad would remain Iraq’s capital. Nasiriyah supposedly backed down immediately. However, ‘Al-Kut placed snipers on the main roadways into town, with orders that invading forces were not to enter the city.’

It is hard to establish whether this is part truth or total legend. The source of the information is nowhere given. Yet, whether true or false, the pattern is a familiar one. It goes back at least 5,000 years, to the very first appearance of cities in the ancient Middle East.

Around 3000 to 2900 BCE, as the fog of prehistory begins to lift and the details of history come slowly into view, we can start to make out the shape of things to come. We perceive a scene of almost incessant strife. The major population centres of the Tigris–Euphrates plain were born struggling against each other like Jacob and Esau emerging fighting from the womb.

In spite of repeated attempts to call an end to the destructive rivalry, during much of the third millennium BCE the conflicts all too often led to the ruin of entire cities and the massacre of their inhabitants. Yet the contenders for Sumerian superiority were well aware, even proud, of sharing a common culture and a common history. Some interpreters see evidence that suggests there was even at times a coalition or confederation, what the Greeks would later call an Amphictyony, a league of neighbours, focused on the temple of the supreme god Enlil at Nippur, which collected together supplies, material, and even armed men, for the common defence of a Kengir (Sumerian) League. Just so, in medieval Italy, were the nobles of cities like Ferrara, Florence, Genoa and many others, almost constantly at war with each other, in spite of recognizing and acknowledging their common culture and heritage, and yet at other times allying with each other against external enemies.

In the film The Third Man Orson Welles famously quipped: ‘In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ In third-millennium Mesopotamia they had rivalry and conflict between independent cites, they had fratricidal strife, a struggle of all against all to achieve domination, they too had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. Yet meanwhile, brick by sun-baked brick, the foundation of our own civilization continued apace to be constructed.

It took no more than a few centuries for the city-state, familiar from classical Greece to modern Singapore, fully to take shape; for warlords and kings to replace temple priests as dominant powers, for the relatively egalitarian society of religious rule to fragment into classes of rich and poor, weak and strong. All this proceeded with a kind of inevitability as the side-effect of a remarkably well-organized, efficient, effective and productive agricultural system, the traces of which are still visible after 5,000 years.

From the early 1960s, the CIA switched their surveillance of the Soviet Union from using spy-planes towards observation from space, in particular to the CORONA series of satellites, which could distinguish any feature on the ground over two metres wide. Cold War politics aside, the greatest beneficiaries of late have been archaeologists, who have used the 3D images, declassified in 1995, to study in unprecedented detail aerial views of the whole of the Middle East, finding revealed in them the permanent traces left by the ancient inhabitants and their activities.

These images show a region dotted with long-gone villages, towns and cities – Eridu and Eshnunna, Girsu, Isin and Kish, Lagash and Larsa, Nippur, Sippar and Shuruppak, Umma, Ur and Uruk and more, in total some thirty-five – evenly spread, with innumerable smaller settlements filling the spaces in between. Each comprised a walled urban area, plus its dependent villages, surrounded by a jealously guarded domain of intense cultivation and wild steppeland into which radiated tracks leading out from the city centre. Every morning for several thousand years, farmers and herdsmen trailed out at first light from their town-houses along these paths to their plots, and then returned as the day began to fade, leaving the surface of the soil where they walked flattened, hardened and sunk below the level of the plain by a foot or two. The impressions they left are still visible 5,000 years later in the satellite images.

Indeed they are still so clear that you can easily imagine yourself joining the daily exodus to the fields in the dawn light one morning in the third millennium BCE, some thousand years before the date usually ascribed to the Patriarch Abraham. You are walking alongside farmers dressed in their linen or wool sarongs, carrying their hoes, rakes, clod-mallets and ditch-spades over their shoulders, some leading panniered donkeys or dangling their legs over the sides of creaking ox-carts with four solid wooden wheels, each cleverly crafted from three sections – a simple slice of log would allow the soft outer sapwood to wear away too quickly.

Your companions will be conversing in one of the two most commonly used languages in this part of the world: one we call Sumerian, the other the Semitic language which will in later times be known as Akkadian (since the City of Akkad still waits to be founded we can hardly call it by that name yet). In the southernmost part of the Mesopotamian plain that abuts what we now call the Persian Gulf, you will probably be hearing Sumerian; further to the north where the Tigris and Euphrates most closely approach, Semitic; while in between both are in use. Earlier researchers claimed that there was a power-struggle between Sumerian-speakers and Semitic-speakers, which was eventually won through military conquest by the latter. That idea has now been discounted; we can be almost certain that both tongues were spoken here from early times, with no more antagonism between the two than between speakers of French, German, Italian and Romansch in today’s Swiss cantons.

How can we know about something as evanescent as the everyday speech of a vanished people? Not by their documents, which at this stage were restricted to the Sumerian for which writing was invented, but by their names, which they proudly recorded on their seals and texts. In those early times, names were mostly pious phrases. We know of people named ‘Enlil is my strength’, ‘My god has proved true’, ‘I seize the foot of Enki’, and even ‘In the midst of thy food is a slave’, Sag-gar-zu-erim in Sumerian, which seems to be a line from a prayer. As the scholar George Barton wrote, ‘Either the parent who gave this name had a sense of humour or he was a literalist as utterly lacking humour as some of the Puritans who gave their children names consisting of long sentences.’

Now you pass out through the high gateway that pierces the towering brick wall of your home city. Immediately beyond you find orchards and vegetable gardens, planted with apple trees and grapevines for fruit, as well as flax and sesame for fibre and oil, and a plentiful variety of vegetables and legumes – beans, chickpeas, cucumber, garlic, leeks, lentils, lettuce, mustard, onions, turnips, and watercress – plus diverse herbs and spices like coriander, cumin, mint and juniper berries. Ducks and geese raised for eggs and meat – eventually joined by chickens somewhat later in the millennium, when they arrived here from south-east Asia – forage around the vegetable patches. Here and there stand isolated groves, mostly of date palms, important to the local diet, although you would also see poplar, willow, tamarisk and dogwood, grown for timber, which is always in short supply.

The garden produce provides for a varied, rich and elaborate cuisine, detailed in several later cuneiform cookery collections. Investigated in 1987 by Jean Bottéro, the recipes make clear the sophistication of ancient Mesopotamian taste. There are even directions for preparing pastry, that acme of the chef’s art – although the texts do suffer from what one might call grandmother’s-instructions-syndrome, where no detailed quantities are given, but only ‘enough’ of this, ‘not too much’ of that, and ‘the right amount’ of the other:

After cleaning the flour, soften it with milk and, once it is puffy, knead it, adding siqqu [a fermented fish sauce] and include samidu [an onion-like herb], leeks and garlic, and enough milk and pot-oil to keep the dough soft. Carefully keep an eye on the dough while kneading it. Divide the dough into two portions: save one half in the pot, and shape the other into smallish bread sepetu [perhaps a kind of crouton, which Bottéro calls ‘fleurons’] which you should bake in the oven.’

The full recipe, for a poultry pie, which Bottéro was able to decipher in its entirety, was cooked and photographed for a magazine. The journalist claimed the result to be ‘a real treat’, although in a letter to his translator Professor Bottéro himself ‘confessed that he would not wish such meals on any save his worst enemies’.

The basis of the diet was, of course, a cereal. Back in the third millennium BCE, as you leave the city behind, you pass field upon field of grain, stretching away as far as your eyes can see on either side of the trackway. By now your fellow citizens are growing more barley than wheat, for barley is more salt-tolerant, and the land has never recovered fully from the salination of the previous era. A network of broad and navigable canals, narrower flumes, tight and muddy ditches, finger their way among the fields to water the crop that is the staff of Sumerian life.

Perhaps – imagine yourself to be educated and literate – you carry in your pocket for ready consultation a copy of the late third millennium text called ‘The Farmer’s Instructions’, a document typical of the ancient Mesopotamian proto-scientific passion for accurate observation and careful classification. (This is still the ancient world, though. To protect your produce from vermin, ‘perform the rites against mice’.) ‘The Farmer’s Instructions’ is a complete handbook, in the guise of a wise old father’s advice to his son, containing all you need to know to grow grain successfully. It begins with the biennial return from fallow to production:

When you have to prepare a field, inspect the levees, canals and mounds that have to be opened. When you let the flood water into the field, this water should not rise too high in it. At the time that the field emerges from the water, watch its area with standing water; it should be fenced. Do not let cattle herds trample there.

After you cut the weeds and establish the limits of the field, level it repeatedly with a thin hoe weighing two-thirds of a mina [about 650g]. Let a flat hoe erase the oxen tracks, let the field be swept clean. A maul should flatten the furrow bottoms of the area. A hoe should go round the four edges of the field. Until the field is dry it should be smoothed out.

There follow instructions on preparing tools, equipment and the plough oxen. Next,

After working one plough’s area with a bardili plough [maybe what we would call an ard or scratch-plough], and after working the bardili plough’s area with a tugsaga plough [perhaps a soled plough, to turn the sod], till it with the tuggurplough [probably a kind of harrow]. Harrow once, twice, three times. When you flatten the stubborn spots with a heavy maul, the handle of your maul should be securely attached, otherwise it will not perform as needed.

A single ox-drawn plough was expected to work between 130 and 160 acres, or a field just under a kilometre long by a kilometre wide. This is exhausting, back-breaking labour. But don’t let that deter you:

When your field work becomes excessive, you should not neglect your work; no one should have to tell anyone else: ‘Do your field work!’ When the constellations in the sky are right, do not be reluctant to take the oxen to the field many times. The hoe should work everything.

If you followed the instructions to the letter, you could be assured of a plentiful barley harvest, crucial to your standing in the community, for barley was central to the entire Mesopotamian way of life. It was the basic staple, the ‘bread and potatoes’, of all classes. If the barley harvest failed, people starved. And they also thirsted, for barley was also the source of the main Mesopotamian beverage, beer, drunk as much for everyday thirst-quenching as for merry-making and for religious and ceremonial occasions.

For while those who lived on the far-off mountains and foothills had recourse to crystal-clear rills and sparkling springs, the only sources of drinking water here on the plain were rivers, canals and ditches, either badly contaminated or fruitfully fertilized, depending on the point of view. From early times, even back in the Uruk age before 3000 BCE, household sewage had been piped directly into the watercourses through an elaborate disposal system of baked-clay piping, with each house having pipes draining both waste and storm-water into a sewer under the street outside. These were connected to form a city-wide waste disposal system with its outfall sloping parallel to the natural fall of the ground, the eventual outlet being located well beyond the city walls. (Many houses in Britain did not have that convenience until halfway through the twentieth century.) A magnificent engineering achievement but a potential disaster for public health.

If the watercourses were unsafe, boreholes and wells were no more providers of drinking water, as the saline water-table was too close to the surface. Beer therefore, sterilized by its weak alcohol content, was the safest drink, just as in the western world, as late as Victorian times, it was served at every meal, even in hospitals and orphanages. In ancient Sumer beer also constituted a proportion of the wages paid to those who had to serve others for their living.

There seem to have been many varieties of Mesopotamian beer, brewed to different strengths and, in the absence of hops, flavoured with different ingredients. It has generally received a rather bad press in the academic literature. The fact that it was often drunk through straws from large containers suggests to many academics – who may, as a class, have special expertise in beer – that it was full of particles and grit that were excluded by the straw, rather like umqombothi, the thick maize-and-millet home-brew served in backstreet South African shebeens. This is surely unfair. That Sumerian beer was carefully filtered was clearly indicated in a hymn to Ninkasi, goddess of strong drink, dated to 1800 BCE but reflecting the techniques of a thousand years earlier:

The filtering vat,

which makes a pleasant sound,

you place appropriately on top of

the large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer

from the collector vat,

it is like the onrush of

the Tigris and Euphrates.

In any case, the proof of a beer is in the drinking, and several attempts have recently been made to try out the methods detailed in the Ninkasi hymn. In 1988 the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco collaborated with an anthropologist, Dr Solomon Katz, to resurrect the Sumerian beverage, which turned out to be more like Russian kvass than beer, part of the malted barley being first baked into loaves, or even twice baked, into rusks, before being mashed and fermented. The resulting drink was quite palatable, with an alcohol concentration of 3.5 per cent by volume, like many modern lighter beers, and it was described as having ‘a dry taste lacking in bitterness, similar to hard apple cider’.

In Sumerian times they would have celebrated with a drinking song. All together now:

The gakkul vat, the gakkul vat! The gakkul vat, the lamsare vat!

The gakkul vat, which puts us in a happy mood!

The lamsare vat, which makes the heart rejoice!

The ugurbal jar, glory of the house! The caggub jar, filled with beer!

The amam jar, which carries the beer from the lamsare vat!…

As I spin around the lake of beer, while feeling wonderful,

Feeling wonderful, while drinking beer, in a blissful mood,

While drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated,

With a joyful heart and a contented liver,

My heart is a heart filled with joy!

Whatever I Propose Shall Remain Unaltered

In Sumer after the flood, the command temple-economy of the previous Uruk era was gone and forgotten – which is not, of course, to say that the temple priests had suddenly lost all their influence; far from it. But from now onwards private property would play an increasingly significant role in social and economic affairs. Midway through the third millennium documents begin to detail sales of land, of fields and palm groves, as well as contracts and agreements relating to the inheritance of plots from parent to child – both men and women. And where private property exists, with its implied right to buy and sell, there must be a mechanism for determining the price. It seems that, for the very first time in history, supply and demand played a role.

There has been much debate between scholars about the place of the market, in its widest sense, in early Mesopotamian life. Here, more than in other fields of study, political stance plays a major part in determining viewpoint. Marxists and conservatives interpret the past in very different ways, some of the former denying that market forces played any role in Sumerian economics at all, many of the latter convinced that these forces controlled the terms of trade from the start. There is not much to be found in the written record to support either position. Professor Morris Silver of the City College of New York has trawled the literature for evidence:

Texts dating from the third millennium…refer to the Sumerian lú-se-sa-sa (Akkadian muqallû) who roasted grain and sold it on the market.

A literary document from about the same time speaks in proverbial terms of: ‘The merchant – Oh how he has reduced prices!’

An official reports in a letter to his king that he has purchased for shipment to the capital city a substantial quantity of grain (over 72,000 bushels) but now the price of grain has doubled.

In answer to the observation that Sumerian cities had no market-places in which to trade, or at least no word for them, he noted evidence ‘from as early as the third millennium, of food peddlers who sold imports such as salt and wine, and domestic beer, roasted grain, pots, and alkali (used for soap). The term for streets (Akkadian sūqu), often found in the documents, also connotes a marketplace. Texts from the second half of the third millennium speak of goods being “on the street”.’

Where there is a market, a sūqu, suq or souk, there is competition. Where there is competition there must be winners and losers. And where there are winners and losers, there will be rich and poor, employers and workers, entrepreneurs and proletarians. Unlike during the previous apparently largely egalitarian era, social classes now began to separate out like coloured inks on blotting-paper. Looking around your companions on the morning trek to the fields, you won’t see many members of the wealthier classes, who can now afford to pay others to do their agricultural work for them. On the road you will mostly meet smallholders, wage labourers and a few slaves, fallen into servitude in lieu of debt repayment, or by capture in war. The rich stay back at home, enjoying their new-found wealth and devising ways of increasing it still further, which might now include setting up private workshops, outside the control of the temple priests, where textiles, pottery, metalwork and other artisan-made goods can be produced for sale and export. These are history’s first industrial factories, although judging by later records they might better be called sweatshops.

The consequences of such accumulation of assets will prove to be profound. ‘By exchanging their reserves for land, which they may have distributed amongst their followers,’ writes Czech scholar Petr Charvát of the Sumerian nouveaux riches, ‘they became masters of social groups entirely independent of the traditional temple-centred communities and chiefs of the primeval states of Mesopotamia.’ A new power structure was in the making.

You have walked no more than a few miles from the city walls when you come to the end of cultivated fields and the great steppe begins, stretching from the foothills of the Zagros Mountains all the way across to Arabia, the tract called in Sumerianedin, which some think gave us the name of Adam and Eve’s garden in the Bible. Here is grazing for the flocks and herds, and ample game for the hunting: boar, deer, gazelle, oryx, ostrich, wild ass, wild ox. But here also lurks danger, for lions and cheetahs, jackals and wolves, prowl the wilderness. The lion-hunt, a familiar theme of Mesopotamian art, is a necessity, not an indulgence, if the city’s sheep, goats and cattle are not regularly to be decimated. The popular cylinder-seal image of a lion attacking a bull or a stag is no flight of artistic fancy, but a regrettably common sight.

Human predators are a regular risk too: raiders from the eastern highlands, or from the western deserts. At times, particularly during the harvest, you need armed men close by for protection. The danger of attack is greatest in the Semitic-speaking north of the alluvial plain. The valley of the Diyala River, which flows 400 kilometres down from its source high in the Zagros Mountains to join the Tigris just below where Baghdad now stands, offers an easy route to marauders descending from the Iranian plateau. It is therefore no great surprise to learn that the most important political development of the third millennium, kingship, was first conceived in this area – in particular, in the city known to history as Kish. ‘After the flood had swept over, and the kingship had again descended from heaven,’ it says in the Sumerian King List, ‘the kingship was in Kish.’

Apart from its strategic location, is there anything about Kish that marks it out as special, as different from the cities of the Sumerian-speaking south like Eridu and Uruk, where the past history of the area had been centred, and where we might have expected such a momentous development to take place? Today Kish (not to be confused with the resort island of the same name off the southern coast of Iran) is, like so many other famous Mesopotamian sites, no more than several thousands of acres of dusty, deserted hillocks. Yet there is one important difference between this and the ruins further south: it is nothing like as dry and desert-like. Indeed, the mound, or tell, is surrounded by scattered green fields, for the area is unusually well watered, lying not only near where the Diyala River empties into the Tigris, but also not far from where the Tigris and Euphrates approach each other most closely, only about 50 kilometres apart. If anywhere were in danger of flooding, it would be here, and excavation has revealed that Kish was indeed flooded several times over. However, the converse of the danger of deluge is easy irrigation, and Kish’s environment made for heavy harvests and fat flocks. Perhaps that is what prompted the barbarians from the eastern mountains to mount frequent razzias, raids for loot and booty, to relieve the citizens of their produce, rather like the bandit attack on the peasant village in Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai.

When news came that brigands were on their way, spotted perhaps by herdsmen tending their animals out in the wild far from the city walls, the call would go out for men to mount resistance. Farmers turned themselves into a citizen-militia, dropping their spades and hoes, and picking up clubs and spears. Yet while this may have been an adequate defensive response to small bands, it was insufficient to repulse a battalion-sized incursion. For that, a trained body of semi-professional fighters was needed, and eventually a fully professional army. The older power-centres of Sumerian society, the temple priesthood and assemblies of elders, would have been able neither to muster the appropriate number of men, nor to lead them into battle. That task would have fallen by default to the new economic elite described by Petr Charvát, the ‘big men’, Lugalene (Sumerian: ‘lu’, man; ‘gal’, big; ‘ene’, plural ending), with their great estates and retinues of followers, whose economies of scale meant that part of their workforce could be spared for regular training in the arts of war. But no military force can be commanded by several generals competing with each other. Inevitably one would rise to become principal Lugal, top Big Man of Kish, what the Romans, millennia later, would call Dux Bellorum or War Leader. The King List names the first Lugal of Kish as Ghushur, followed by twenty-two successive holders of the post, though their ‘reigns’, of marvellous length, adding up to ‘24,510 years, three months, and three and a half days’, are hardly to be taken as truth.

Though no history of those times was ever written, a heavily disguised and coded account does occur in the very much later Babylonian creation myth called Enuma Elish. The gods are threatened with attack by monsters unleashed by the primeval salt-water goddess Tiamat, here a personification of chaos. Unable to withstand the assault they call on the young hero–god Marduk to be their champion and defender. He agrees, but only on one condition:

If I am to be your avenger, to conquer Tiamat and give you life,

Establish an assembly, make my position pre-eminent, and proclaim it…

With my word equal to yours, I will decree fate.

Whatever I propose shall remain unaltered,

The word of my lips shall never be changed or ignored.

While the Lugal may have begun by defending his town against raiders, he must soon have found border skirmishing against other settlements in the neighbourhood a good way to consolidate his position. Surveys suggest that Kish allowed no other city in the northern part of the plain to challenge it in size or pre-eminence. In time its influence must have been exercised over the whole area, as the King List implies. Forever after in Sumerian history, the title Lugal of Kish was adopted by any leader claiming hegemony over the entire country.

However Kish would not get its own way for ever. The cities further south, with their long histories and, doubtless, their great civic pride, eventually learned the lesson of their northern neighbour. Every city needed an army at least to maintain, if not to extend, its sphere of power and influence. We do not know how long it took, but eventually Big Men came to the fore in most of the cities. Uruk assembled enough fighting manpower to rival, challenge, and eventually overthrow Kish. With that began the compulsive rivalry, the incessant game of devastatingly destructive military musical-chairs that is such a feature of the early third millennium BCE in southern Mesopotamia. In between enumerating the series of Lugalene in each city – by convention called dynasties, although successive war leaders were mostly unrelated – the Sumerian King List tells the story all too clearly. Modern political careers are said always to end in failure; in Sumer each city’s temporary place in the sun ended in inevitable defeat:

Kish was defeated and the kingship was taken to Eanna [i.e. Uruk]

Then Unug [Uruk] was defeated and the kingship was taken to Ur…

Then Ur was defeated and the kingship was taken to Awan…

Then Awan was defeated and the kingship was taken to Kish…

Then Kish was defeated and the kingship was taken to Hamazi…

Then Hamazi was defeated and the kingship was taken to Unug…

Then Unug was defeated and the kingship was taken to Urim…

Then Urim was defeated and the kingship was taken to Adab…

Then Adab was defeated and the kingship was taken to Mari…

Then Mari was defeated and the kingship was taken to Kish…

Then Kish was defeated and the kingship was taken to Akshak…

Then Akshak was defeated and the kingship was taken to Kish…

Then Kish was defeated and the kingship was taken to Unug.

These bald statements of conquest tell us nothing about what really happened. But we do possess a detailed account of one important war, albeit from one side only – one that is not mentioned in the King List. This was a fight between the cities called Lagash and Umma, and it went on for well over a hundred years.

Of course the descriptions we have are expressed in a way that is consonant with ancient Mesopotamian culture and beliefs, so they require some interpretation. In medieval, early modern and even modern times, politics was and is conducted by people, even though all sides in any conflict usually proclaim the support of God – mostly the very same God. In the ancient Sumerian world, by contrast, politics, and its extension, war, were perceived to be the business of the gods; men acted only on the gods’ behalf. Thus the Sumerian Hundred Years’ War between Lagash and Umma was a conflict between the god Ningirsu of Lagash and the god Shara of Umma. Men fought and died and cities were destroyed, but the actual argument was between the gods.

The dispute was over a patch of land, described in inscriptions as a field, called Gu-Edin, the ‘edge of the steppe’. Though the reference is to an irrigated tract of arable soil, it is actually more likely originally to have been, as its name suggests, an enclosed part of the steppe used for grazing. In ancient Mesopotamia grazing land for animals, a gift of Nature, was always in shorter supply and more bitterly contested than plots for raising crops, which were essentially human creations. With the land in the immediate vicinity of the city given over to the growing of grain, livestock had to be fed on the steppe beyond. But cattle and sheep, if contained within too small an area, quickly reduce it to uselessness. Cattle eat the green leaves of bushes and trees as well as occasionally the bark, while sheep nibble newly growing shoots and undergrowth and so prevent regeneration. Once the natural herbage of the steppe has been destroyed by the flocks, the only use for the land is to give it over to agriculture. Thus, two cities which may initially have been at a comfortable distance apart would find themselves in dispute, not over agricultural land, but for residual steppe used for grazing.

This, it seems, is what happened to Lagash and Umma, whose separation by a seemingly generous 30 kilometres none the less eventually led them into collision. Yet to see this conflict merely as a disagreement over borders and grazing rights is probably to give it less significance than it merits. For the two cities were really battling for supremacy over Sumer itself. The geo-strategic development of the entire alluvial plain was bound up with their fate. It may have seemed a fairly trivial spat, a tussle over a small patch of ground, but in retrospect, after advantage had continued to sway from one side to the other over the course of many decades, an entirely new political dispensation, labelled with the title of a new era, had come to pass.

The specific details of the long war is mainly of interest to specialists: an account of how originally a certain Mesilim, called King of Kish and therefore nominal overlord of all Sumer, had been commanded by his god Kadi to arbitrate and define the border between the cities. But then, ‘at the command of his god, the Ensi [governor] Ush of Umma raided and devoured the Gu-edin, the irrigated land, the field beloved of Ningirsu…ripped out the boundary marker and entered the territory of Lagash.’ Lagash responded by turning out to battle behind their leader, Eannatum, who, ‘by the word of the god Enlil, hurled the great net upon them and heaped up their bodies in the plain…the survivors turned to Eannatum, they prostrated themselves for life, they wept.’ Peace treaties were made and summarily broken. ‘Eannatum, ruler of Lagash, battled with him in Ugiga, Ningirsu’s beloved field. Enmetena, beloved son of Eannatum, defeated him. Urluma fled, but he killed him in Umma. His asses – numbering 60 teams – were abandoned on the banks of the Lumagirnunta canal. The bones of their attendants were strewn about the plain.’

Was there anything to show for all this bloodshed? It did bequeath us one of the great masterpieces of early Mesopotamian art: the Stele of the Vultures, so called because of the carrion-feeding birds shown devouring the corpses of the slain. A round-topped stone, just under 2 metres high, sculpted on one side with images of King Eannatum of Lagash arrayed in his fighting outfit, both on foot and riding in his chariot, leading a stern phalanx of men into battle. On the other face we find the god Ningirsu, who has captured the army of Umma in his great hunting-net and is cracking their heads open with his mace. An inscription comprising a detailed narrative of the dispute, with a full account of the wickedness and perfidy of the men of Umma, completes the work. It is little surprise that this stele, now in the Louvre, had to be restored from numerous fragments dug up at Girsu; the monument had been smashed to pieces in antiquity, presumably by the people of Umma who did not much like what it said about them.

Great quantities of time and energy, as well as social capital, must have been expended on such warfare. It is impossible to know how many men were fielded in conflicts like these but, according to the Cambridge Ancient History, ‘one temple alone in the city of Lagash furnished 500 to 600 men from its tenants for the military levy’. And this was probably not one of the largest centres. When whole armies clashed in the field, as many as 10,000 warriors may well have been involved – a large number, even by today’s standards.

The Stele of the Vultures – like the other great work of ancient art that presents Sumerian men of war, the so-called Standard of Ur, which was probably the decorated soundbox of a musical instrument – shows soldiers equipped for close-quarter conflict: spearmen protected by leather helmets, capes and shields, formed into a tight phalanx, their Big Man in the lead, wielding a spear, axe or a stone-headed mace. In their support what are usually called chariots trundle up behind, though that word gives a quite false impression of their speed and manoeuvrability, given that these were clumsy, four-wheeled, two-man vehicles drawn by asses: they cannot have moved very much faster than a man can walk. It may be better to think of them as mobile armouries, an interpretation supported by the large bucket at the front containing what look like spare javelins. If these are indeed throwing-spears, they are the only missiles represented in the illustrations, which has led scholars to conclude that Sumerian armies fought hand to hand; bows and arrows are not depicted in scenes of warfare from this era.

But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and may be no more than artistic convention. Archaeological remains, like that found at Hamoukar in today’s Syria, attacked by Urukians in an earlier period, gives a very different and rather unexpected picture of ancient warfare.

The discoveries at Hamoukar tell us that ancient Mesopotamia’s fighting forces had much more in common with modern armies that had previously been imagined, in particular in their use of missiles. Indeed, it turns out that the ‘bullet’, has a continuous history from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern battlefield, and was as important to the Sumerian warrior as it is to today’s infantryman. The difference is that today bullets are propelled from assault rifles; in ancient times they were projected from slingshots. As described in one of the epic tales of those days:

From the city it rained missiles as from the clouds;

slingstones like the rain of a whole year

whizzed loudly down from the walls of Aratta.

When I Samuel 17:50 describes the confrontation between David and Goliath, with David prevailing over the Philistine ‘with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David’, it suggests that David was equipped with no more than a boy’s toy. That is, however, a most disingenuous interpretation. In properly trained hands, the slingshot turns out to have been one of the deadliest weapons of all.

A sling works by increasing the effective length of a stone-thrower’s arm. Modern cricket bowlers or baseball pitchers can achieve maximum ball velocities of over 150 kilometres per hour. A slingshot as long again as the thrower’s arm will double the projectile’s speed, making the velocity of the bullet when it leaves the sling nearly 100 metres per second. This is already considerably greater than that of a longbow arrow, at only about 60 mps. Intensively trained from childhood onward, there is no reason to believe that a professional slinger could not beat 100 mps fairly easily and perhaps even begin to approach the muzzle velocity of a .45 calibre pistol round: about 150 mps. What is more, a smooth slingshot projectile has a far greater range than an arrow, as much as half a kilometre, because an arrow’s flight feathers produce so much drag. The modern world-record distance for a stone cast with a sling was achieved by Larry Bray in 1981, who managed 437 metres, and thought in retrospect that he could surpass the 600-metre mark with a better sling and lead projectiles.

It has always been thought that the weakness of the slingshot as a weapon was its inherent lack of accuracy as well as the inability of stones to pierce armour. But the discovery of the Hamoukar projectiles has contradicted both beliefs. Their pointed shape tells us two things: that they could be armour-piercing; and that the slingers must have had a technique for sending them off with a spin, like a rifle bullet, so as to keep them properly oriented during their flight to the target. The accuracy of the slingers must have easily matched the left-handed Benjamites referred to in Judges 20:16, of whom ‘every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss’. Even later, Livy in his History of Rome reported that the slingers from Aegium, Patrae and Dymae, ‘Having been trained to shoot through rings of moderate circumference from long distances, they would wound not merely the heads of their enemies but any part of the face at which they might have aimed’.

So we should see a Sumerian military unit as consisting of a central shock-force, a tightly packed phalanx of several hundred, perhaps thousand, spearmen. To control them, drill them and keep them in proper formation would have required many skilled and loud-voiced NCOs; to keep them in step, marching steadily forward or manoeuvring in close order, they would have needed music, perhaps a corps of drummers. And behind this central strike-force another thousand or so slingers, the equivalent of today’s riflemen, fusiliers or even gunners, would have been drawn up in looser formation, buzzing around like angry wasps, sending lethal showers of both small and large projectiles into the heart of the enemy’s formations, supported by the ass-drawn battle chariots carrying supplies of missiles.

A city Lugal, Big Man, capable of assembling such an army would have been a formidable figure indeed.

The Sumerian word Lugal is usually rendered in English as king, because later Akkadian glossaries translated it that way. It is not at all clear at exactly what point the Dux Bellorum became a monarch in the sense in which we use the word today. There is a profound difference between the two: a war leader is a human figure: wealthy, certainly; socially powerful, surely; with a charismatic and magnetic personality, undoubtedly; but still, just a man. Even the legendary Gilgamesh needed the approval of at least one of Uruk’s citizen assemblies before embarking on his campaign against Aga of Kish.

A king or queen, on the other hand, is, officially at least, marked by the divine. Well into the 1820s the French monarch was still touching patients to miraculously cure the ‘King’s Evil’ – scrofula or lymphatic tuberculosis of the neck. Only after World War II was the Emperor of Japan forced by the USA publicly to repudiate his incarnate divinity, though he never denied he was descended from Amaterasu, a sun goddess. To pass from one state to the other, to trade earthly humanity for heavenly semi-divinity, to go from whole man to part god, is no easy task. For your fellows to accept your new status, to have your co-citizens truly believe that you are now different in your very essence from them, demands that something quite extraordinary happen. In southern Mesopotamia, in the City of Ur, later credited as Abraham’s home town, the transformation seems to have been achieved by mounting an outstanding dramatic spectacle, a stunning piece of religious theatre, and, as an unintended consequence, bequeathing to us not only the institution of divinely sanctioned monarchy, which has featured as an integral part of statehood ever since, but also one of the most glorious ancient collections of treasures yet discovered.

Theatre of Cruelty

On 4 January 1928, Leonard Woolley cabled back from Iraq to his sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania – in Latin to assure privacy – with exciting news: ‘TUMULUS SAXIS EXSTRUCTUM LATERICIA ARCATUM INTEGRUM INVENI REGINAE SHUBAD VESTE GEMMATA CORONIS FLORIBUS BELLUISQUE INTEXTIS DECORAE MONILIBUS POCULIS AURI SUMPTUOSAE WOOLLEY’.

On the faded telegram in the university museum, someone has scrawled a rough translation: ‘I found the intact tomb, stone built, and vaulted over with bricks, of Queen Shubad, adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups. Woolley’

The Royal Graves of Ur vie with Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt and the terracotta warriors of the First Emperor Shi Huang Di for the title of most spectacular archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. But while Howard Carter’s find in 1922 demanded no more of him than to than make a ‘tiny breach in the top left hand corner’ of a doorway, peer through by light of a candle and see ‘wonderful things’, Leonard Woolley’s achievement was the result of a very long period of extremely hard work, much of it done by Woolley, his wife, and a single assistant. In his own words: ‘The clearing of the vast cemetery kept us busy for many months, and from beginning to end there was not a day which would not have been a red-letter day in an ordinary excavation; if one remembers specially the royal tombs it was not so much because others were unexciting as because of the extra labour involved.’ (That heavy labour was performed by a large gang of locally recruited tribesmen, of whose supposed ignorance, recklessness and dishonesty Woolley often complained.)

Woolley uncovered two cemeteries at Ur, from slightly different periods. The earlier included the sixteen so-called Royal Graves. Two, identified as the final resting place of Meskalamdug ‘Hero of the Good Land’ and a lady whose name was formerly read in Sumerian as Shub-’ad, but now in Semitic as Pu-’abi, ‘Word of my Father’, yielded some of the most beautiful objects ever to emerge from the soil of Mesopotamia: deftly engraved cylinder-seals, finely wrought jewellery of lapis lazuli and carnelian. There were curiously fashioned musical instruments: harps and lyres, decorated with white shell inlay on a background of black bitumen and finished with bulls’ heads marvellously modelled in precious metal, and oddly adorned with false beards of precious stone. There were weapons of copper and flint, and a profusion of silver and gold, including a golden helmet, in the form of a wig, delicately chased as if with waves, plaits, and locks of hair, which Woolley declared ‘the most beautiful thing we have found in the cemetery’. (This is one of the objects looted from the Baghdad Museum in 2003 that has so far not been seen again.) The workmanship was so exquisite that ‘Nothing at all resembling these things had ever yet been unearthed in Mesopotamia; so novel were they that a recognized expert took them to be Arab work of the thirteenth century AD, and no one could blame him for the error, for no one could have suspected such art in the third millennium before Christ.’

But the most astonishing thing found by the excavation was the evidence of large-scale human sacrifice. Whatever the rank of those buried here, and there is still controversy over the exact status of the interred, they were accompanied into the afterlife by large retinues of men, women and animals. Though a few scholars like Gwendolyn Leick point to a lack of evidence that the buried servants perished in situ and may instead have been long dead before being included in their masters’ and mistresses’ graves, most believe that they died in the tomb, apparently willingly. Woolley described one of the burial scenes as he believed it to have happened:

Down into the open pit, with its mat-covered door and mat-lined walls, empty and unfurnished, there comes a procession of people, the members of the dead ruler’s court, solders, men-servants and women, the latter in all their finery of brightly coloured garments and head-dresses of carnelian and lapis lazuli, silver and gold, officers with the insignia of their rank, musicians bearing harps or lyres, and then, driven or backed down the slope, the chariots drawn by oxen or by asses, the drivers in the cars, the grooms holding the heads of the draught animals, and all take up their allotted places at the bottom of the shaft, and finally a guard of soldiers forms up at the entrance. Each man and woman brought a little cup of clay or stone or metal, the only equipment needed for the rite that was to follow. There would seem to have been some kind of service down there, at least it is certain that the musicians played up to the last; then each of them drank from their cups a poison which they had brought with them or found prepared for them on the spot – in one case we found in the middle of the pit a great copper pot into which they could have dipped – and they lay down and composed themselves for death.

Reading this account, you need constantly to remind yourself that this is all conjecture, that what Woolley actually found was no more than a huge pit filled with earth in which human remains were distributed. But the man had more than the eye of a superb archaeologist. He had a poet’s or even film-maker’s sensibility. If his description of the above scene was like the icing on the cake of his great discovery, the cherry on the top was surely his explanation for finding a silver ribbon, tightly coiled, close to a young girl’s hand, rather than wound around her head as with the other attendants. She had been late, Woolley suggested, and had rushed to take her place in the pageant of death without having had time to put the silver filet in her hair as the final touch to her costume. As Agatha Christie, married to Woolley’s one-time assistant Max Mallowan, wrote in her autobiography, ‘Leonard Woolley saw with the eye of imagination: the place was as real to him as it had been in 1500 BC, or a few thousand years earlier. Wherever he happened to be, he could make it come alive…It was his reconstruction of the past and he believed in it, and anyone who listened to him believed in it also.’

A vivid illustration of this burial scene as its discoverer described it was published in the Illustrated London News and was included in Woolley’s final report, as it has been in most accounts of the Royal Graves of Ur ever since. It has done much to establish the commonly held image of what took place there 5,000 years ago. We should remember, though, that the bones actually tell a much more ambiguous story, and that the precise details of the rites enacted at the Great Death Pit of Ur are beyond our means of discovery.

It is, however, clear that wholesale human sacrifice did not usually accompany funerary rituals in ancient Mesopotamia. In fact Woolley’s cemetery at Ur, dated to the earlier part of the third millennium BCE – around 2600 BCE or before – provides the only known example. The rites that accompanied the burials of Lady Pu-’abi and of Lord Meskalamdug must have been very special occasions indeed. Could they mark the moment of transition when mortal Lugalene of Ur became semi-divine Kings?

Rituals are profound and mysterious events. They mimic the real world, but with a strongly intensified symbolic vocabulary. Performing rituals unites, and in some cases, as probably at Eridu, even creates communities. While it is often assumed that rituals consist of the acting out of beliefs, a study of the religions most familiar to us demonstrates that the truth is usually the other way round: the rites come first and beliefs are later developed to explain and sustain them – teleology, it’s called.

In Judaism, for example, the ancient, pre-Judaic, wheat-harvest festival Shavuot was interpreted as the anniversary of the handing down of God’s Torah to Moses. In Christianity the immemorial commemoration of the winter solstice became Jesus’ birthday celebration. In Islam an ancient pagan sanctuary, the Kaaba at Mecca, was explained as the creation of Adam, rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael, and therefore worthy of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj.

The less usual the components of a ritual or ceremony, the more memorable the event becomes. If the collective experience involves an awesome enactment of mass death, its impact, and the beliefs explaining and justifying it, become utterly unforgettable. Bruce Dickson of Texas A&M University calls such gruesome public events Theatres of Cruelty: ‘State power united with supernatural authority can create extraordinarily powerful “sacred or divine kingdoms”,’ he writes. ‘They are obliged to practise acts of public mystification, of which the Royal Graves appear to be examples…The graves themselves are part of the effort made by Ur’s rulers to establish the legitimacy of their governance by demonstrating their sacred, holy, and non-ordinary status.’

Dickson gives many examples of disgustingly savage acts, like the horrific public punishment of William Wallace, the medieval Scottish leader who was dragged naked behind a horse through the City of London to the market at Smithfield, where he was hanged, cut down while he was still living, castrated, disembowelled, his innards burned before his eyes, before he was finally decapitated and his head displayed on a pike over London Bridge. The aim was to turn a commonplace offence – military resistance – into a crime of spiritual proportions: treason against a divinely appointed ruler.

Thus the purpose of mass human sacrifice in Ur might have been to provide evidence for, and a proof of, the godlike nature of the ruling house. On the other hand, it is likely that the sacrificial victims of Ur went willingly into the grave. Woolley certainly thought so. And, given what we know of Sumerian life expectancy – Lady Pu-’abi was about forty when she died – and of Mesopotamian ideas about the afterlife – the dead lived in a dark and gloomy underworld with poor accommodation and nothing decent to eat: ‘the food of the netherworld is bitter, the water of the netherworld is brackish’ says ‘The Death of Ur-Nammu’ – we would not be surprised to find middle-aged members of the lower orders of society happily exchanging that unwelcome outlook for a brighter future spent serving their betters in the realm of the gods.

However we interpret the precise meaning of these graves, if the aim of the gruesome obsequies celebrated at Ur was to underline the transition of the ruler from lugal to king, from mere mortal to semi-divine monarch, they seem to have been successful. From now on in Sumerian history, the title king applies better to their deeds and to their inscriptions than the simple designation Big Man. Indeed more than a few of the successors of those interred in the Royal Graves explicitly declared themselves to be gods.

Why was human sacrifice practised only at Ur? And why only during this brief historical period? Impossible to say. Perhaps the citizens of Ur were more resistant than others to the deification of their Big Men and needed a spectacular series of autos-da-fé to persuade them. Or maybe the fame of such extraordinary events spread rapidly throughout southern Mesopotamia and had its effect without need of replication.

Whatever the meaning of the ceremonies at the Great Death Pit of Ur to its participants and onlookers, to us they serve as a memorial of the moment when kingship came down from heaven, as the King List put it: a historical marker for the beginning of kingdoms in the full modern sense, ruled by monarchs whose spiritual heirs are still in power in many parts of the world today. The Divine Right of Kings was invented here.

The transition from a society directed in peacetime by a priesthood and only led into war by a Big Man, to a kingdom entirely dominated and ruled by a divinely sanctioned, or even semi-divine, monarch implies profound economic and social change. The lives of ordinary people would have been affected most, and largely for the worse. Yet this seems to have been a stage through which every society has needed to pass. No ancient polity managed to retain a totally theocratic government system into historical times. Indeed, no state has at any time in recorded history been governed by a theocracy for more than a few generations at a stretch, before succumbing to more pragmatic – and muscular – rulership.

It is tempting to propose that kingship emerged because powerful men built up and exaggerated the threat from supposed outside enemies to consolidate their domination of their own societies – the process is all too familiar from our own times. Yet in the ancient Middle East, although it is hard for us today to recognize what the attraction may have been, kingship seems to have exercised a huge appeal, even though its downsides were well understood.

So, for example, the Bible tells us that well over a thousand years after the change had taken place in Sumer, the Hebrew tribes in the Holy Land sought to move from theocratic to military government. They are described as complaining that unlike other nations they are still governed by religious judges and have no king to command them. They beg the prophet Samuel to intercede with God to allow them a royal ruler. In I Samuel 8:11–18, the prophet warns them of the consequences:

This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to plough his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

Because the Hebrews were coming to kingship relatively late in the day, Samuel did not need to be a prophet to predict how the Hebrews would fare under a monarchy. He had only to look back to the experience of the Sumerians.

In Lagash, for example, the squeezing of the citizenry and expropriation of temple property by the ruling families seems to have generated some kind of revolt by the priesthood during a pause in its interminable war with the city of Umma. After a short interregnum, during which the temple priests apparently tried to enlarge their control of the property of the gods, a new ruler, a usurper unrelated to the previous monarch, took the throne, perhaps assisted by a faction among the priestly class. His name was Urukagina, or Uruinimgina (the cuneiform symbol KA, mouth, can also be read as INIM, word), and he based the legitimacy of his rule on his claim to have ended the corrupt exploitation of the common people by both palace and temple. The account of his famous reforms was much copied and has been unearthed in several versions from the ruins of Lagash.

On his accession Urukagina found a dire situation. The bureaucracy was to blame for many excesses: The superintendent of the boatmen conducted his office purely in his own financial interest; the cattle inspector was seizing both large and small cattle; the fisheries regulator was concerned only to line his own pockets. The ruler and his family had expropriated most of the best city land. Most burdensome were the taxes imposed on everyone. A later proverb from ancient Lagash put the matter clearly: ‘You can have a Lord, you can have a king, but the one to fear is the tax assessor.’ Every time a citizen brought a white sheep to the palace for shearing he had to pay five shekels, about two ounces, of silver. If a man divorced his wife, he had to pay the ruler five shekels and his minister one shekel. If a perfumer created a new scent, the ruler took five shekels, the minister took one shekel, and the palace steward took another shekel, all in silver. The temple and its land were exploited by the ruler as if they were his personal property. ‘The oxen of the gods ploughed the ruler’s onion patches; the onion and cucumber plots of the ruler were sited in the god’s best fields.’ But the priesthood was not innocent of corruption either. A priest could enter a poor man’s garden and cut down his trees or take away his fruit at will. Nothing was as certain as death and taxes. When a citizen died, the bereaved had to pay for the privilege of burying the body: seven jars of beer and 420 loaves of bread; the priest got one-half gur – over 60 litres – of barley, a garment, a bed and a stool; the assistant priest received 12 gallons of barley.

Urukagina claimed to have put an end to all this. He humbled the bureaucrats, he cut taxes and in some cases entirely abolished them; he restored the temple’s property, but ensured that the priests no longer oppressed the lay public. He redressed the inequalities of power, the oppression of the poor by the wealthy: ‘If the house of a rich man is next to the house of a poor man, and if the rich man says to the poor man, “I want to buy it,” then if the poor man wishes to sell he may say “pay me in silver as much as I think just, or reimburse me with an equivalent amount of barley”. But if the poor man does not wish to sell the house, the rich man may not force him.’ He freed citizens who had fallen into irretrievable debt, or were falsely accused of theft or murder. ‘He promised the god Ningirsu that he would not allow widows and orphans to be victimized by the powerful. He established freedom for the citizens of Lagash.’

Scholars are still debating what Urukagina’s claims really meant to the people of Lagash. Were his reforms simply the actions of a good and just man, or were they rather a means to establish the bona fides of a ruler who had usurped the throne from its legitimate occupant? Was the return of property to the temple really an attempt to re-establish the role of the priesthood in Lagash society or was it that, by appointing himself and his family to positions within the temple hierarchy, as he did, Urukagina managed to feather his own nest while giving the appearance of altruism and generosity? We will never know. But the debate, while of interest to specialists, actually obscures something potentially more significant: the texts that describe Urakagina’s acts introduce several entirely novel features into the history of government.

Though ancient chronology is still very much disputed, Urakagina’s rule was almost certainly no later than about 2400 BCE. Elsewhere in the world, except in Egypt and perhaps the Indus Valley, at this period people were still living either in semi-nomadic kinship-related bands of hunter-gatherers or – the minority who had made the great leap forward to subsistence agriculture – gathered in small settlements under hereditary village chiefs, without writing and without metal technology. Yet in southern Mesopotamia, long before Plato and Aristotle, long before Confucius and Lao Tzu, long before the Buddha and Mahavira, long before the Hebrew prophets, long before Moses and Zarathustra, even long before Abraham, texts are already employing the great motifs of morality and justice: the concern for fairness, the responsibility to protect the widow and the orphan from the rich and powerful. Here too is the very first use of a word that can be translated as ‘freedom’: ‘He established freedom, amargi, or the citizens of Lagash.’

A further implication of the reforms of Urukagina is that he was trying to elicit support for his rule on a principle very different from any that had gone before. Previous monarchs had bragged of their military success and the corpses they piled up on the battlefield; those buried in the Royal Graves of Ur had justified their control by their quasi-divine status; others had based their legitimacy on the sheer terror they inspired among their people. Now we find something entirely new: the texts suggest that Urukagina wanted to be approved of, even loved by, his people.

We often take it for granted that the lives of these ancient folk were so different from ours that we cannot hope to enter their mindset and see life as they saw it. Yet these documents contain evidence to the contrary. The story of Lagash, its long war with Umma and the reform of its social system by Urukagina, with protection for the widow and orphan and the concern for freedom for the citizens of his city, suggest that human attitudes have changed but little in the intervening 4,500 years.

Whatever Urukagina’s true motives were in instituting his reforms, they did him little good in the end. His reign over Lagash lasted hardly more than eight years. While he was busily occupying himself with rolling back the state, advancing the interests of his citizenry, and cultivating the favour of his people, nearly 30 kilometres away, in the traditional enemy city Umma, a new, energetic and ambitious ruler called Lugalzagesi was quietly building up his strength and his forces, nurturing a passion for revenge after many decades of humiliation at the hands of Lagash. Then he launched a devastating attack. The lament composed after the consequent destruction of Lagash tells us:

The ruler of Umma has set fire to the temple of Antasurra; he has carried away the silver and the lapis lazuli…He has shed blood in the temple of the goddess Nanshe; he has carried away the precious metal and the precious stones…The Man of Umma, by despoiling Lagash, has commited a sin against the god Ningirsu…May the hand that he dared to raise against Ningirsu be cut off. There was no fault in Urukagina, King of Lagash. May Nisaba, the goddess of Lugalzagesi, ruler of Umma, make him bear his mortal sin upon his neck.

Prophetic words. But it took many years before that final curse was implemented. In the meantime, in addition to Lagash, Lugalzagesi also overcame Kish, Ur, Nippur, Larsa and Uruk, which he took as the capital city of his enlarged domains, and he inscribed on a vase dedicated to the high god Enlil in the temple city of Nippur his claim to have conquered the whole of Sumer as well as the surrounding countries:

When Enlil, the king of all countries, gave the kingship of the whole nation [i.e. Sumer] to Lugalzagesi, he turned all eyes upon him; he threw all the foreign countries at his feet, and made everyone submit to him from the rising to the setting of the sun, from the Lower Sea [the Persian Gulf] along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the Upper Sea [the Mediterranean]. Enlil took away every opponent from where the sun rises to where the sun sets. All the foreign lands lie under him in abundance, as at pasture. All nations are happy under his rule, all the rulers of Sumer and the chiefs of all the lands.

Lugalzagesi’s claim to control of the entire Fertile Crescent is dubious, to say the least. It may just possibly be the case that he achieved some kind of non-aggression pact with the surrounding powers, cities like Mari that may have exercised a degree of control over the tribes of Syria. But the hubris expressed in his grandiloquent vase inscription led inevitably to nemesis. Just as his destruction of Lagash was revenge for the long humiliation of Umma, so would his downfall be linked to one of his own first conquests.

When Lugalzagesi took the city of Kish, he deposed its ruler Ur-Zababa, and it would be the man who was once cup-bearer to that king who would bring down the goddess Nisaba’s punishment on Lugalzagesi’s neck. In doing so he would usher in a new era, a new ideology and a new principle of government: not fear, not love, but adulation and hero-worship. The new man of the age was Sargon, by-named the Great. He founded the very first true empire.

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