Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Three

The Rise of Aristocracy

In Sumer, around 3600 BC, kingship becomes hereditary

AFTER THE GREAT FLOOD, the Sumerian king list tells us that the city of Kish—to the north, surrounded by cornfields—became the new center of kingship. The list begins over again, with a series of kings generally known as “The First Dynasty of Kish.” The first ruler of Kish was a man called Gaur; next came the magnificently named Gulla-Nidaba-annapad; after that, another nineteen kings led right down to Enmebaraggesi, the twenty-second king after the flood. Thanks to inscriptions, we know that Enmebaraggesi ruled around 2700, the first date that we can assign to a Sumerian king.

Which still leaves us with the problem of describing Sumer’s history between the Sumerian flood (whenever it was) and 2700 BC. After the flood, kings no longer rule for neat multiples of thirty-six hundred years. Instead, the reigns trail raggedly off, growing shorter and shorter. Altogether, 22,985 years, 3 months, and 3 days elapse between the flood and before Enmebaraggesi comes to the throne—a figure which is not as helpful as its precision may imply. (Scholars of Sumerian literature tend to call the kings before the flood “mythical” and the kings afterwards “quasi-historical,” a distinction which eludes me.)

Most of the twenty-one kings who rule before Enmebaraggesi are described with a single phrase: a name, a length of reign, no more. The one exception to this rule comes a little more than halfway through the list, when Etana, the thirteenth king after the deluge, is suddenly set apart from his colorless predecessors.

Etana, he who ascended into heaven,

He who made firm all the lands,

He reigned 1,560 years as king;

And Balih, the son of Etana,

He reigned 400 years.

There is more history here than might appear at first glance.

BY THE TIME the king list resumes, the valley has assumed something like its present shape. The head of the Gulf has advanced northwards. The braided steam that once watered the valley, its branches pushed apart by accumulating silt, has become two large rivers fed by meandering tributaries. Today we call these rivers the Euphrates and the Tigris, names given them by the Greeks; in more ancient times, the western river was called Uruttu, while the quicker and rougher east river was named after the swiftness of an arrow in flight: Idiglat.8

Between these two rivers, cities grew up. Archaeology tells us that by 3200, large groups of country-dwellers were shifting their whole way of life, moving into walled cities in a phenomenon called “streaming-in.”

The transition was not always peaceful. The book of Genesis and its parallel flood story give us an intriguing glimpse of disruption: When Noah begins again, his descendants spread out across the land. In Shinar, the Semitic name for the southern Mesopotamian plain, city-building is taken to a particularly high level. Carried away by their own skill, the city-dwellers decide to make themselves a tower that reaches up to heaven, a tower that will give them place of pride not only over the earth, but over God himself. This act of arrogance brings confusion of language, estrangement, and eventually war.

The Tower of Babel, like the biblical flood, lies in the undatable past. But it gives us a window into a world where mud-brick cities, walled and towered, spread their reach across Mesopotamia.1 A dozen walled cities, each circled by suburbs that stretched out for as much as six miles, jostled each other for power: Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Nippur, Adab, Lagash, Kish, and more. Perhaps as many as forty thousand souls lived in these ancient urban centers.

Each city was protected by a god whose temple drew pilgrims from the surrounding countryside. And each city sent tentacles of power out into the countryside, aspiring to rule more and more land. Shepherds and herdsmen came into the city to bring gifts to the gods, to sell and buy—and to pay the taxes demanded by priests and kings. They relied on the city for trade and for worship, but the city demanded as much as it gave. The egalitarian structure of earlier hunter-gatherer groups had shattered. A hierarchy now existed: the city first, the countryside second.


3.1 Early Cities of Sumer

Ten generations (or so) after the deluge, hierarchy took on a new form. Men claimed the right to rule, for the first time, not by virtue of strength or wisdom, but by right of blood.

The tenth king of Kish after the flood, Atab, is the first to be succeeded by his son and then by his grandson. This three-generation dynasty is the earliest blood succession in recorded history. But when the next king, Etana, takes the throne, he faces a brand new difficulty.

Of Etana, the king list tells us only that he “ascended into heaven”—a detail given without clarification. To discover more, we have to turn to a much later poem, which appears to preserve an older Sumerian story. In this poem, Etana is a pious king, faithful to the gods, but he has one great sorrow: he has no child. He laments, in his prayers,

I have honoured the gods and respected the spirits of the dead,

The dream-interpreters have made full use of my incense,

The gods have made full use of my lambs at the slaughter…

Remove my shame and provide me with a son!2

In a frightening dream, Etana sees that his city will suffer if he can provide no heir to his throne:

The city of Kish was sobbing

Within it the people were in mourning…

Etana cannot give you an heir!3

Almost without remark, another huge change has come to man. Kingship has become hereditary. The leader who takes on the burden of his people’s good is now born to that task, fitted for it by blood. For the first time, we see the rise of an aristocracy: a class born to rule.

The gods have pity on Etana and show him an answer. He must ride on an eagle’s back up to heaven, where he will find the plant of birth, the secret to fathering a son. The tablet breaks off, and the rest of the story is lost. But the king list tells us that Balih, the son of Etana, reigned after Etana’s death, so we can assume that the quest succeeded.

Inequality has been enshrined in blood. Like the idea of kingship itself, the idea of a born aristocracy never really goes away.

SINCE THOSE who are born to lead should clearly control as much territory as possible, Etana then “makes firm the land” for his son.

The cities of Mesopotamia were independent, each ruled by a local prince. But Kish lay between the two rivers, a position which simply cried out for some exercise of overlordship. Sumer, after all, had no native wood; only a few imported palm trees, which make for third-rate building material. There was no stone, no copper, no obsidian, nothing but mud and a few deposits of bitumen (asphalt, used as “pitch” in torches and as a mortar-binder). Wood had to be shipped down from the northeastern Zagros Mountains, or brought from the Lebanon Mountains to the northwest. Copper came from the southern Arabian mountains, lapis lazuli from the rocky lands north and east; stone from the desert to the west and obsidian from the far north. In exchange, the Sumerian cities traded the goods of an agricultural society: grain, cloth, leather, pottery. Sumerian pots and bowls show up in a wide swath of little settlements and towns all across eastern Europe and northern Asia.

Some of this trade took place across the deserts to the east and west, but a huge proportion went up and down the Tigris and Euphrates; the old name of the Euphrates, the Uruttu, means “copper river.” The Mesopotamian valley, as archaeologist Charles Pellegrino points out, was a linear civilization: “an oasis thousands of miles long with a width of less than ten miles.”4 Ifacity downstream intended to send upriver to the mountains of Lebanon for cedar logs, the goods had to pass Kish. The king of Kish, collecting some percentage from the traffic passing by his city, could feather his own nest by plucking a few feathers from other princes.

By the time that Etana’s son inherited, Kish had replaced the old southern city of Eridu as the most powerful city on the plain. By 2500, kings of other cities sometimes claim the title “king of Kish” as though it has become an honorary label, showing some sort of authority over other Sumerian cities.5

Collecting tribute is one thing, though, and actual conquest is another. Etana and his kin never extended imperial rule to the other cities of Sumer. The difficulty of moving armies up and down the length of the plain may have dissuaded the kings of Kish from actually conquering other cities; or perhaps they simply had, as yet, no thought of imperial leadership to complement the ideas of kingship and aristocracy. The first empire-builder would come from another nation entirely.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!