Chapter 10

Princesses and Musicians

We began the previous chapter following the Old Babylonian itinerary that took a group of soldiers north from the city of Larsa to Ashur. There we left them, in order to pursue a different path, venturing off with the caravans of traders who traveled to Kanesh in Anatolia. But we will now return to the original itinerary. According to the text, someone moving on north from Ashur on the ancient road arrived, a day later, at a city called Ekallatum.1 Unfortunately, the location of Ekallatum remains unknown and the site has never been excavated, but it was an important place. Although the itinerary was probably written in the mid-eighteenth century BCE,2 the same roads were in use before then, so let us say that a visitor was making the journey in the late nineteenth century BCE, when the trade between Ashur and Anatolia was winding down. If so, he might have arrived in Ekallatum at a moment of crisis.

King Shamshi-Adad I of Upper Mesopotamia: An Empire Builder

Ekallatum had previously been subject to its neighboring kingdom, Ashur, but it had recently been attacked and conquered by forces led by a man named Shamshi-Adad (1807–1776 BCE).3 Shamshi-Adad was a larger-than-life figure, a conqueror who came from an obscure background but eventually forged an empire that stretched across northern Mesopotamia, overshadowing every other Near Eastern leader of his time.

He was only about eighteen years old when he had succeeded his father to the throne of Ashur around 1836 bce; his father having seized that throne rather than inheriting it.4 But the early years of Shamshi-Adad’s reign seem to have been unremarkable; even after eighteen years of rule he was not a match yet for a king of neighboring Eshnunna who attacked Ashur. Shamshi-Adad promptly fled for safety to Babylon.5 He seems to have found a new determination there; he would reclaim his kingdom.

We have no idea how he gathered soldiers to support him as he marched north to conquer Ekallatum, but he did so (his troops probably following that same road laid out in the itinerary), and he succeeded in his conquest. He declared that Ekallatum was now his capital city.6

When our traveler arrived in Ekallatum on his journey north, perhaps Shamshi-Adad was already recruiting troops, collecting supplies, and having weapons manufactured, ready for an attack on Ashur, his original capital. He captured it three years after taking over Ekallatum. It was only at this point, around 1807 bce, that the later king lists considered Shamshi-Adad’s reign to have truly begun. He must have been around forty-three years old. Now he set about expanding far beyond Ashur’s traditional borders, building a new empire, a northern one, extending all the way across northern Iraq and throughout what is now northern Syria.

This goal presented challenges that might have seemed insurmountable. For one thing, two powerful kingdoms already dominated the region: Mari to the west, with its capital on the Euphrates, and Eshnunna to the east, with its capital on the Diyala River, east of the Tigris. The kings of these regions had got wind of Shamshi-Adad’s growing power and bigger ambitions. He was enough of a worry to them that the kings of Mari and Eshnunna joined together in an alliance with one another, and Mari allied with a third great Syrian power, Yamhad, which was centered northwest of Mari in Aleppo.7 These alliances represented more than treaties. The royal families intermarried, as the kings married princesses from one another’s realms. They seemed to represent a formidable united front against the newly imperialistic Shamshi-Adad.

But it was tough for the peoples of Northern Mesopotamian ever to be truly united. The region was home to a number of Amorite-speaking peoples who were loosely organized into big communities that recognized a common identity, and those big communities often distrusted one another. They’re often referred to as “tribes,” but that term comes with a lot of cultural baggage. They’re also often referred to as “nomads,” but many of them were not particularly nomadic.

Families, as we have seen, formed the core building block of society throughout the Near East. This was even more true among the Amorites. One was born into a family—parents, children, grandchildren—just the way people are everywhere. That family was part of a bigger family. For nomadic herding communities this might be the group with whom they migrated regularly, all of whom might be distantly related to one another. In a town, the community might be a neighborhood dominated by cousins, second cousins, in-laws, and so on. All this would have been true of anyone across the Near East. But for the northern Amorites, that wider extended family identified as part of an even bigger family, which comprised—for lack of a better word—their tribe. In Syria in the early second millennium BCE, Amorite-speaking people grew up knowing if they belonged to the Banu-Yamina (“sons of the right,” or “sons of the south”) or the Banu-Sim’al (“sons of the left,” or “sons of the north”). These Yaminites and Sim’alites nursed a long-standing antipathy toward one another.

Someone who lived in a city might also have identified as being a citizen of that place, and perhaps also recognized that he or she was subject to a kingdom, but wider family and tribal identities seem to have been particularly important. It was the king who imposed taxes and called up troops, but one’s local tribal “sugagum” leader inspired particular loyalty as well. Northern kings acknowledged the influence of the tribal leaders and worked with them.

This meant that politics, alliances, and rivalries in the north were a little different from those of the south. Although northern kingdoms had capital cities, just as in the south, and their kings were supported by vassals, and their provinces were overseen by governors, a good percentage of the population was nomadic. The royal administrations needed the nomads for military service and to help with harvests and construction projects, so their seasonal arrival in the cities was eagerly anticipated by the kings and their officials. More hands were welcome.8 But organizing the nomadic workers tended to present a challenge, and wars in which they served had to be fought when they were available (and when the farmers, who were also drafted, could be spared). That meant that most fighting took place in the summer. Besides, one always had to take tribal affiliations and antagonisms into consideration when forming coalitions.

Returning to the itinerary, as our traveler left Ekallatum, the road headed north and west into territory dominated by these nomadic groups, an area that was eventually to become the heart of Shamshi-Adad’s empire. At the end of each day’s journey, the list gives the name of a place where a traveler could rest, but, as we have seen, many of these may have been just small villages. No advice is provided for the traveler, unfortunately, about places to stay or interesting sights in the area. That was not the purpose of this text. We do know, though, that the road left the Tigris and headed northwest around a town known as Kishkish, toward the eastern end of the Sinjar mountains, which rose up abruptly from the plain to the left side of the road.9 Seen from above, the mountain range is shaped like a long thin cigar jutting up through the mostly flat landscape, and people avoided passing over it. Beyond it, though, eight days’ journey from Ekallatum, our traveler would have arrived in a rich area of farmland, threaded through with small rivers and wadis that all flowed south toward the Habur River. This entire region, commonly known as the Habur triangle, had suffered a loss of population toward the end of the Akkadian Empire around 2200 BCE, probably because of the severe drought of that era, and its cities had only begun to be repopulated around 1900 BCE, about a century before Shamshi-Adad’s time.10 Now, though, rainfall and the region’s many natural springs made the land fertile again.

In order to gain control of this Habur triangle region, Shamshi-Adad had to fight the forces of a man named Yahdun-Lim, the powerful king of Mari. The contested region was distant from both their capital cities—farther, in fact, from Mari than it was from Shamshi-Adad’s capitals of Ekallatum. Neither king had a strong claim on the loyalty of the people in the Habur triangle, but Shamshi-Adad ended up being victorious. His surviving inscriptions never tell us exactly how he did this.

In the eastern section of the conquered region, on one of the rivers that fed into the Habur, was a big tell, which had previously been the site of an ancient city named Shekhna. Shamshi-Adad decided to rebuild the abandoned city, to make it his new capital, and to give it a new name: Shubat-Enlil, the “dwelling place of Enlil.”11 Of course, the god Enlil already had a home, his ancient and venerable city of Nippur, but it was in keeping with Shamshi-Adad’s hubris that he would want the king of the gods to take up residence at the center of his new empire.

The king met with architects, called up workers, and began construction on the monumental public buildings of Shubat-Enlil. Excavations there in the 1980s revealed that Shamshi-Adad’s city was 90 hectares (222 acres) in extent.12 It featured a palace and a thick-walled temple with remarkable engaged columns. Some had fat spirals all the way up, like giant rope spools, and others were made to look like palm tree trunks.13 (Shubat-Enlil, at its height, was another stop on the itinerary, and it would have been an impressive place to visit.)

Even as construction began at Shubat-Enlil, Shamshi-Adad was still expanding his empire to the southwest, pursuing the king of Mari and his army into the heartland of their kingdom, so that eventually Shamshi-Adad’s empire extended over all the lands that had previously been ruled by the kings of both Ashur and Mari. He doesn’t seem to have written about his campaigns, but he did thank the local god of Mari for his victory, by providing the god with a “great throne of ebony which was methodically made with everything pertaining to the goldsmith’s art.”14

Shamshi-Adad decided on an innovative way of ruling such a big, unwieldy domain. Rather than trying to control everything himself, he created a triumvirate of kings, with his sons Yasmah-Addu and Ishme-Dagan ruling alongside him. Each man had his own capital: Shamshi-Adad at the city of Shubat-Enlil in the north, Ishme-Dagan at the original capital of Ekallatum in the east, and Yasmah-Addu at the newly conquered Mari, to the south of Shubat-Enlil. But the three men were not equals. The sons answered to their father, and this caused tensions, especially between Shamshi-Adad and his younger son, Yasmah-Addu.

We know about this because Yasmah-Addu’s capital city and palace at Mari have been extensively excavated since 1933, by successive teams of French archaeologists, and because Mari (like Girsu, Ebla, and Kanesh) has proved to be one of the greatest Near Eastern sites in terms of its preserved archives: more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets have been found there. Some of them are the original letters sent by Shamshi-Adad to Yasmah-Addu, and many of them reveal his micromanagement of his son’s realm.15

Beltum of Qatna and Yasmah-Addu of Mari: A Diplomatic Marriage

Soon after Yasmah-Addu took up residence in Mari, his father Shamshi-Adad decided that he needed closer ties with a kingdom directly to the west: Qatna, which extended from the desert oasis town of Palmyra to the Mediterranean coast. The king of Qatna was named Ishhi-Addu and, in the giant international hierarchy in which everyone had a place, Ishhi-Addu was considered to be the equal of Yasmah-Addu. The treaty that Shamshi-Adad negotiated with the king of Qatna concluded, as was usually the case, with a diplomatic marriage between their two royal families. A princess of Qatna, named Beltum, was to marry Shamshi-Adad’s son and co-ruler, Yasmah-Addu. In this instance, unlike in the previous royal marriages that we’ve encountered, letters survive that reflect the stages of the negotiations, along with details of Beltum’s subsequent life in Mari.

A lot of wealth changed hands before the bride and groom even met. Shamshi-Adad wrote to Yasmah-Addu to tell him that “to give a small terhatum (gift to the bride’s father) would be embarrassing,” so he would be sending the king of Qatna “1 talent 10 minas (32 kilograms or 70 pounds) of silver, 12 minas (5.5 kilograms or 12 pounds) of gold, [x] thousand sheep—(worth) 1 talent of silver (27 kilograms or 60 pounds), [x] hundred cattle—(worth) 1 talent of silver.”16 In another letter he wisely reminded his son to “set a protective guard over this silver.”17 Beltum, the bride, would, in turn, bring a significant dowry from her father, worth “10 talents of silver plus garments worth 5 talents of silver”18 for a total value of 15 talents (c. 408 kilograms or 900 pounds) of silver. This was a pretty staggering amount of wealth; it would probably have been made up of furniture, jewelry, utensils, sheep, cattle, and servants in addition to the clothing and silver.

Negotiations complete, King Ishhi-Addu of Qatna was happy with the arrangements, and he assured Yasmah-Addu that, with the marriage, “this house has now become yours and the House of Mari has now become mine. Whatever you desire, just write me and I will give it to you.”19 The border between their two lands would be open: “Your sheep and nomads should cross over this way, so that my sheep and yours could graze together.”20 This was the ideal outcome of a peace treaty. It was voiced so often in similar circumstances that it cannot have simply been rhetorical. As a result of the marriage, the two kings really had joined their families together; they had become, to their minds, one household.

Princess Beltum began the journey to her new home, which probably included an uncomfortable twelve-day donkey ride across the Syrian desert (since camels were not domesticated for another 800 years or so),21 stopping at the oasis of Palmyra on the way, before reaching the green valley of the Euphrates and heading south to Mari.22 Meanwhile Shamshi-Adad was sending slightly panicky letters to his son Yasmah-Addu, to make sure that he was preparing suitable rooms in the palace for his new bride; “There are many chambers in the Palm Palace. A chamber should be prepared for her and house her there. Do not house her externally,” he wrote.23

Beltum might have been quite young, though she was certainly at least adolescent. One of her attendants was a woman described as her “ummum.”24 This literally meant “mother” but it was probably her childhood nanny. The nanny’s company must have been comforting to Beltum in her new home as she faced the pressures of becoming the queen of this foreign land of Mari. The nanny was not particularly welcome, however, among the staff at Mari. One high official wrote to the king that “had only this woman, who raised Beltum since her youth and knew her ways, been kept away from her when Beltum was leaving Qatna!”25 The official complained that the nanny was nothing but trouble, breaking unspoken palace rules right and left. The nanny even allowed Beltum to be out in the courtyard with her female singers during the hot hours of the siesta, and “Beltum suffered a sunstroke when in the Multicolor Court and has been ill ever since.”26 One theory about this episode is that Beltum may have been so miserable in Mari that she was attempting suicide by spending time in the sunshine at midday, which was known to be dangerous.27 But this seems unlikely; it’s more probable that Beltum was young, impetuous, and willing to ignore the court’s rules of decorum. Eventually, she recovered from her illness.

The tie between a young elite woman and her nanny could be strong. A few decades later, a young singer named Shewirum-parat was transferred away from the palace at Mari, where she had lived, to another city within the kingdom, and her nanny went along with her. Once there, her nanny was taken away from her and placed in the household of a high official. Young Shewirum-parat was so distraught that she wrote directly to the king of Mari to ask him to intervene for her: “You must wipe away my tears. . . . Give me my nanny and I shall bless you before (the gods) Addu and Hebat. May my lord not keep this woman from me.”28 No letter survives to tell us whether the king chose to help her.

The Palace at Mari

The palace in Mari, where Beltum took up residence in her new royal apartments, and from whence Shewirum-parat was later so abruptly moved, was extraordinary. It happens to be one of the few Old Babylonian palaces ever recovered, but it wasn’t typical. Even in its time this was well known. Other kings gushed over the features of the palace in their letters and made special visits just to see it. The building extended over 2.5 hectares (6 acres), and, even if security had permitted it, a visitor could scarcely have hoped to visit the 300 or so rooms on the ground floor (its second story might have held almost as many again).29 It’s unlikely that even the king himself was well acquainted with all of the rooms.

When the building was excavated, some of its walls still stood 5 meters (16 feet) high, and its sophisticated drainage system was largely intact. The perfectly engineered drains, incredibly, still worked to rid the palace ruins of rainfall after being excavated and were typical of the fine design of the whole palace.30 I should note, though, that this was not Yasmah-Addu’s doing. He acquired the palace as a result of his father’s conquests. It had been built up and elaborated by generations of local kings of Mari, ever since the Early Dynastic period, when Mari and its rulers had been the chief rivals of Ebla, when that city was ruled by such royal couples as Ishar-damu and Tabur-damu.

In Yasmah-Addu’s time, the Mari palace was divided into several extensive suites of rooms, used for a variety of purposes and laid out around two huge courtyards (marked as 3 and 10 in Fig. 10.1). The grand front entrance, on the north side (1), led to a wide reception room (2), from which visitors would have been ushered into the sunny glare of the main courtyard (3), which was about 1,600 square meters (17,000 square feet) in extent, or about the size of four basketball courts. Nine doorways led from this relatively public space to more private parts of the palace.31 Incredibly, the walls still stood so high when excavations were taking place that some of the tops of the doorways were intact.


Fig. 10.1 Plan of the palace at Mari. Key: 1: front entrance, 2: reception room, 3: main courtyard, 4: kitchens, 5: administrative suite, 6: temple, 7: storerooms and workshops, 8: audience hall, 9: entry door to private quarters, 10: palm court, 11: throne room: 12: domestic quarters, including the tubqum for palace women, 13: bathroom (based on Kohlmeyer 1985, 196).

As one arrived in the main courtyard from the entrance rooms, the kitchens (4) lay through the first door immediately to the left. Behind the left-hand wall of the court were rooms where goods brought to the palace had to be registered (5). Someone bringing jugs of wine or pots of oil, for example, would have dropped them off there.

A door facing you on the left-hand side of the opposite wall led to more administrative rooms and, beyond them, a temple (6). Another door on the same wall, but to the right, led through narrow corridors to a long magazine of storerooms and a maze of craft workshops (7). One of these workshops might well have been a room for the millers, similar to one excavated at the contemporary palace of Ebla. There, grinding stones had been set up on low benches along the walls so that as many as sixteen women (and probably more) could crouch together for long hours to grind wheat and barley into flour for the palace. This took none of the creativity or expertise required of weavers; it was backbreaking work and may have been delegated to captives.32

Between the two doors—the ones to the guest quarters and to the workshops—and directly facing the main gate into the court, stood the wide entrance to an audience hall (8), open to the courtyard and approached by a semi-circular stairway. Perhaps the king periodically made appearances here to greet the throngs crowding the main court.

Finally, in the wall to your right stood a door (9) that no doubt was heavily guarded. It provided access to the quarters inhabited by the king and the royal household. A messenger with a letter for King Yasmah-Addu from his father Shamshi-Adad would have been allowed through this door, plunging into a long, dimly lit L-shaped hallway. The messenger’s eyes would have taken a moment to adjust to the dramatic change in light. The rooms of the palace seem to have had no windows at all—the archaeologists found none, even in walls that still stood to the full height of the first floor.33 All the natural light came through doorways from the courtyards, though admittedly those doorways could stand as much as 5 meters (16 feet) high. Walking through the palace, one would therefore have experienced a constant contrast between the brilliant sunshine of the courtyards, the comfortable shade of rooms adjoining them, and the deep gloom of windowless rooms at any distance from an exterior door.

The corridor leading to the royal apartments was 20 meters (65 feet) long, but at the end of it the visitor could see, on his left, brilliant light from a door into a second large courtyard (10), the king’s own open space at the center of the palace complex. This court, which was about 900 square meters (close to 10,000 square feet) in extent, was planted with palm trees for shade, its plastered walls decorated with brightly colored frescoes. Some of these paintings, remarkably, had survived in the ground through all the millennia until the court was excavated. This was probably the “Multicolor Court” where Beltum had spent her ill-advised jaunt in the midday sunshine. One dramatic painting centered on an image of a king and the goddess Ishtar, who was dressed as a warrior (see reconstruction in Fig. 10.2).34


Fig. 10.2 Investiture painting from the wall of the palm court at Mari, mid-eighteenth century bce. (© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Art Resource)

Like King Ur-Namma on his relief stela, the unnamed king of Mari in this painting stands facing the deity, and the deity hands him a rod and a circular object. This was a loop of rope in the earlier Ur III image, but now the circular object seems to be a ring. The rod and the ring had, by now, come to represent not building tools but a king’s general authority to rule. Anyone waiting in the courtyard before meeting the king would have been reminded of the close connection between the king and Ishtar, and of her divine support for his rule. Around the central image, the artist had painted a landscape of stylized trees, fantastic animals, and attending goddesses in brilliant colors. The walls of other palaces had probably often been painted with such scenes, but they almost never survive.

A regular splash of running water came from two almost-lifesize fountains shaped like goddesses, with water coursing from the pitchers in their hands, echoing exactly two goddesses painted in the fresco. Beyond them was a further large antechamber, and finally, beyond that, the throne room itself (marked as 11 in Fig. 10.1).

The messenger visiting Yasmah-Addu must have been appropriately awed by this dark, yawning space. The throne room was the biggest room in the palace, with a raised platform supporting several antique statues of past kings of Mari at one end. Such statues never seem to have served the role of family portraits—the kings represented by these ones actually ruled hundreds of years earlier and were not even related to the later kings of Mari. Just as in the temple ceremonies of the Early Dynastic period at Ebla and Lagash, the statues of dead rulers still had power and still required rituals in their honor. The current king seems to have depended upon their support. The king’s own raised throne stood at the opposite end of the room from the statues and would itself have been a fine work of art. Thrones, both for kings and for gods, were often mentioned in year-names and inscriptions. They don’t survive, but they must have been grand. The king, at the center of this tableau, at the end point of the journey through the palace, must have hardly seemed mortal.

Yasmah-Addu’s correspondence, though, shows that he was entirely mortal, and often in trouble with his father. A scolding message from Shamshi-Adad (of which there were many), read aloud by a messenger in this grand setting, must have seemed incongruous.

To the west of these ceremonial rooms lay the rabbit warren of domestic quarters built around small courtyards (12), where the king’s family and royal household lived, including the chambers of the new queen Beltum. The palace even featured a bathroom (13), with a fireplace for warmth in winter and boasting the most up-to-date fixtures—here, again, the plumbing of Mari was state of the art. The king enjoyed his bath in one of two terracotta tubs and had the luxury of an indoor toilet flushed by a drainage channel.35

The Mari palace provided an opulent stage-set for the events and dramas that played out there. For example, one banquet hosted by Yasmah-Addu was enjoyed by hundreds of people. These were not just high officials but included “21 couriers, 25 palanquin-carriers, 24 builders, 22 spear-carriers, 26 bath-workers (barbers) . . . 10 drink-servers, 10 irrigators.”36 The amount of food that must have been cooked and served by the palace kitchens for such events is astonishing. The king certainly enjoyed banquets, with their convivial conversation and music. Yasmah-Addu didn’t mind the fine food and wine either. He had found a reliable supplier of wine in the person of his ally the king of Carchemish, who on one occasion sent him, as he put it, “fifty jars of wine, of the sort that I drink.”37 The palace also became a center for artisans and musicians. Yasmah-Addu seems to have genuinely delighted in music, and he welcomed musicians from all over the kingdom to his palace. His father Shamshi-Adad was unconvinced that this was a good thing; he suspected that they went to Mari to gamble and drink.38 But Rishiya, the king’s chief musician, maintained a conservatory of talented singers and musicians. Mari in Yasmah-Addu’s time was not without its scandals, but it seems to have been a lively place.

Zimri-Lim of Mari: Change of Regime

Early in his reign, Shamshi-Adad used the title “King of Ekallatum,” but as he spread his control over a wider and wider area he stopped giving a name to his kingdom. He was simply, according to his inscriptions, “king of the universe.”39 As he grew old, however, Shamshi-Adad faced more challenges from younger kings of neighboring lands. In the end, his empire barely outlived him. After his death in 1776 BCE, rebellions broke out and local forces in the region of Mari unceremoniously deposed Shamshi-Adad’s son Yasmah-Addu, who disappeared from history. We don’t know what happened to his wife Beltum, but it seems likely that she was spirited away, back to her father’s kingdom of Qatna.

Yahdun-Lim, who had been the last local king of Mari before Yasmah-Addu took over that land, was survived by an heir who was ready to retake the throne there: this was his nephew, a man named Zimri-Lim. He had been living in exile in Aleppo throughout Yasmah-Addu’s tenure in Mari and quickly claimed his dynastic throne once Yasmah-Addu was gone.40 Meanwhile, Shamshi-Adad’s other son and successor, Ishme-Dagan (1775–1735 BCE), was unable to maintain much of his father’s empire; he was eventually reduced to being a relatively minor king of the land of Ashur.

Zimri-Lim (1774–1762 BCE) only ruled Mari for thirteen years, but they were some of the best-documented years in all of Mesopotamian history, thanks to the thousands of tablets found in the palace. Just as the abundant Ur III tablets have given rise to a vast bibliography of studies of every imaginable detail of that era, so too have the Mari tablets. Scholars in this field enjoy the added pleasure of working on the sometimes politically charged, gossipy, and impassioned letters that passed between members of the court and the royal family. Some of the correspondents come across in them as vivid personalities.

Once Zimri-Lim moved back into his uncle’s palace at Mari, life there continued much as before, but with a mostly new cast of characters. Some of Yasmah-Addu’s officials and servants were allowed to stay on into the new court, however. They included the chief musician, Rishiya. Zimri-Lim must have heard about Rishiya’s reputation for being disorganized and irresponsible in his private life—in King Yasmah-Addu’s time Rishiya hadn’t maintained the farmland he had been allocated and it had been taken away from him41—but he played a valuable role at court and, notwithstanding his faults, Zimri-Lim had decided to keep him.

A couple of years after Zimri-Lim took the throne of Mari, he married a princess from Aleppo named Shibtu, daughter of the king in whose palace he had spent his exile. Zimri-Lim trusted Rishiya enough to ask him to undertake the journey to Aleppo to make the arrangements for his royal marriage.42 This assignment probably had little to do with Rishiya’s musical talents and more to do with his comfort and dependability around women. At this point Zimri-Lim was already married to his chief wife43 and had a number of grown daughters, some of them perhaps by other wives. He set about arranging diplomatic marriages of some of these princesses to various vassal kings, even as he was negotiating his own marriage to Shibtu. Zimri-Lim ended up with at least twelve wives (of whom Shibtu was his closest advisor and second-in-command) and a great many daughters, but apparently only three sons.

The world of the women of Mari can be examined through the letters of high-ranking women. Historian Nele Ziegler has done extensive research, especially on administrative texts found in the palace, that reveals a lot about women who were not as prominent, such as musicians.44

Bazatum and Rishiya: Musicians

A girl named Bazatum is listed as one of the musicians at Mari from the beginning of Zimri-Lim’s reign. We don’t know where she was born or who her parents were, but she was apparently from an elite family.45 As a girl, she lived in the king’s palace at Mari, along with many other women, about half of whom were musicians. The palace women also included royal family members, teachers, scribes, servants, cooks, and nannies. They were sometimes listed all together on the palace records, probably because many of them lived in a suite of more than sixty rooms grouped around courtyards in the area of the royal quarters, just beyond the palm tree court and the king’s throne room.46 The people listed in this group weren’t exclusively female—the three young royal princes were included (presumably because they lived with their mothers), as were male doorkeepers. The women’s quarters were called the “tubqum.”47 The women weren’t confined there; they seem to have been free to move around, and some of them had jobs in various parts of the palace, though the doors to their quarters were bolted at night and during the afternoon siesta. It does make sense that a large group of mostly unmarried women would have had their sleeping quarters separate from those of the men who lived in the palace, and that doorkeepers (both male and female) were employed for their protection. The tubqum was a complex where the palace women could live safely together in a protected area within a large household dominated by men, while spending their days surrounded by and working with both men and women.

Bazatum therefore lived in the tubqum and spent her days working with a small group of fourteen girls, all of them musicians.48 The girls of her group were known as the “small musicians”; they were not yet grown women but most of them would eventually join the older group. The small musicians seem to already have been thoroughly proficient at their art, though. They received pay and were distinct from lower-ranked musicians who were considered to be apprentices.

A lot of musicians, more than a hundred in fact, found employment in and around the palace at Mari in Zimri-Lim’s time. Most of them were women, and many other women learned to play music, as non-professionals.49 Bazatum’s ensemble was one of the more prestigious groups to belong to, to judge from their level of pay. Lower in rank were the “women of the House of the Tigum-instrument,” who were paid less and didn’t live in the palace. The physical House of the Tigum was apparently also the conservatory where they studied and maybe lived.50 There, too, the women were divided by age into “musicians” and “very small musicians,”51 who were probably young girls.

The reason we know about all these ensembles was that they received their pay in the form of oil or wool, and the scribes recording these payments always listed the names of the musicians in each group in the same order—the order of their importance. This was true even though the women in most groups all received the same pay. In Bazatum’s ensemble, the list always began with a girl named Tahsin-Admu;52 Bazatum was listed fourth. Perhaps Tahsin-Admu was their leader, or perhaps she just had the most influential father. The girl listed before Bazatum was named Beltani; she was slightly higher in status than Bazatum. We know that Beltani had been born into a royal family, possibly even the family of the former king Yasmah-Addu,53 so Bazatum might have had a royal background as well. The two girls seem to have been close friends, and both had interesting lives ahead of them.

The scribes who recorded their pay unfortunately didn’t care what instruments the girls and women played—they never listed them. Bazatum and Beltani may well have played the lyre, which was considered a woman’s instrument, whereas men were more likely to play the harp (see Fig. 10.3).54 (The girls may also have been singers, but that wasn’t their primary area of expertise.) The lute was also a popular instrument, but it seems to have been played more by the common people than by the palace musicians.55 None of the musical instruments from Mari survive, but some images of instruments can be seen on terracotta plaques from the time.


Fig. 10.3 Molded terracotta plaque showing a harpist, c. 1800 bce. (Renée Lessing-Kronfuss/Art Resource)

Rishiya, the chief musician, was in charge of everything pertaining to music in the palace: the manufacture and repair of the instruments, the choice and training of the musicians, the appointment of musicians to particular positions, and the plans for rehearsals and performances.56 Rishiya’s house in Mari (which was separate from the palace) served as the conservatory for all the many musicians whom he mentored.57 It has never been excavated, but it must have been large, and it must have been loud, full of music and singing. (Perhaps Rishiya’s neighbors sometimes wished that the percussionists could rehearse in the temple or the palace rather than next door.) Women must have passed one another as they entered and left through the front door, greeting each other as they carried their instruments in for classes or rehearsals. Beltani and Bazatum were immersed in this community.

On one occasion, Zimri-Lim wrote to his wife Shibtu about some female captives who were being selected as prospective musicians, to remind her to “be careful with their food-rations so that their looks will not change.”58 This implies that, for some captives, life in the Mari palace could be harsh, that they might receive inadequate provisions and grow thin.59

Zimri-Lim was certainly aware that good food distributed in adequate amounts helped strengthen his community against a threat they all shared: illness. Diseases could spread easily through the palace population, many of whom lived in close quarters with one another. In their world, before vaccinations or antibiotics, once someone became ill they could only wait and hope that it passed and the victim recovered.

Although this was millennia before scientists discovered viruses and bacteria, the people of Mari were already aware of some strategies to try to limit the spread of disease. On one occasion, a maid named Nanna had become ill. People around her must have noticed her fever and weakness; they were worried for her health and for their own as well. Nanna’s condition had reached the attention of the king, who was concerned because, as he wrote in a letter to Shibtu, “since she is often at the palace, it will infect the many women who are with her.”60 Interestingly, he suggested some practical guidelines: “No one is to drink from the cup she uses; no one is to sit on the seat she takes; no one is to lie in the bed she uses, lest it infect the many women who are with her.” You can imagine how difficult these guidelines might have been to implement, but the people of Mari had figured out that sharing rooms and cups with someone who was sick made one more likely to catch their illness, so they probably tried hard to isolate Nanna.

The king suggested even more radical measures when Shibtu wrote to tell him that a different woman had fallen ill. This woman, he said, should not even be allowed in the same building with others: “This woman must remain in a separate house. No one must enter into her presence.”61 He knew this would not be easy. He mused: “Now I fear that a separate house may not be available.” In her case, the king instructed that omens should be taken—did the gods intend that the woman would live or die? But he still seemed uncertain of what to do, even if the oracles looked bad: “(How should) this woman be treated? Whether she dies or lives, many women in either case will become ill because of this woman.” He felt powerless in the face of her illness and the toll it would take among his dependents.

Diseases affected the powerful just as much as they affected maidservants like Nanna. At one point during Yasmah-Addu’s reign, even Rishiya, the chief musician, had developed a severe illness. Apparently as soon as Rishiya began ailing, King Yasmah-Addu had written to his father King Shamshi-Adad, in Shubat-Enlil, to ask him to send his best physician, Meranum, to Mari to care for Rishiya. But now Rishiya was bedridden, and Yasmah-Addu wrote more urgently. “Rishiya is now in bed for his life. He is very ill. If it pleases Papa, Meranum must arrive here quickly if he is to restore Rishiya’s life. He must not die.”62 Evidently Meranum’s ministrations, or Rishiya’s immune system, or both, prevailed. As we have seen, the chief musician outlasted King Yasmah-Addu at Mari and continued training and organizing the program of music at the palace.

The musical training that musicians received was rigorous, and they were expected to work hard at it. One dialogue from a different period seems to record banter between two apprentice musicians—men in this instance. One of them gossiped nastily about another:

Even if he took up the zami instrument, he would not know the craft of music making,

He is the most backward among his colleagues,

With an unpleasant sound and voice;

Too thick for Sumerian, his tongue cannot get it right,

He is not up to singing a song, never even opens his mouth.63

Clearly, it was important to excel and, although this dialogue was probably a satire, some students may have been similarly unkind to others who were less skilled.

The girls Bazatum and Beltani may have specialized in more than one instrument. A contract in which a boy was apprenticed to learn music from a mentor listed four different instruments that he was expected to master—quite a feat.64 Unfortunately, even though the names of instruments were listed, we can’t be sure exactly what each term meant.

The lyre was a favorite at the palace. Like a harp, it was played by plucking the strings, but, unlike a harp, a lyre had a bridge. Lyres had a long history already; beautiful, elaborately decorated ones, with inlaid designs and decorative three-dimensional bulls’ heads in precious metals, had been buried with the royal attendants in the tombs of Ur centuries before. The ones that Bazatum and Beltani learned to play didn’t have the bulls’ heads, though—those had been out of fashion for quite a while.65

The women’s main role was probably to play music at banquets. Like Yasmah-Addu before him, Zimri-Lim hosted these frequently in the palace, sometimes with dozens of people in attendance. The seating chart was as hierarchical as the ration lists, and guests squabbled over who would get to sit closest to the king. Etiquette and decorum were clearly valued; everyone noticed when someone behaved badly. On the other hand, the mood seems to have been festive. Feasting well meant eating good food, and drinking beer or wine. Zimri-Lim could even offer his guests iced drinks, which must have been very welcome on hot Syrian summer days when the temperature could reach 45 degrees C (113 degrees F). One of the few royal inscriptions that survives from his reign commemorates his construction of an “ice house” upstream in the city of Terqa, which, he boasted, “no king since time immemorial had built on the bank of the Euphrates.”66 (Terqa was the capital of the province in the Mari kingdom that was closest to the city of Mari.) Musicians contributed to the atmosphere at the king’s feasts. Ever since the Early Dynastic period, images of banquets had included lyre players. You can see one at the top right of the peace side of the Standard of Ur (in Fig. 3.7)—a man in that case, with a female singer behind him. Musicians at banquets are mentioned in the Mari letters and administrative documents as well.67

Music played for the gods was a different matter and seems to have been more somber. Certain tunes were prescribed for particular rituals and ceremonies, which were organized and largely performed by lamentation priests, the galas we have encountered before. These men assisted with funerals as well, but were not involved in music for the king’s banquets.

Drums and percussion instruments seem to have appealed to the gods, and many kinds of them existed. On the back of the stela of Ur-Namma, created a few centuries earlier, two men were depicted playing a huge drum, which, standing upright on its round rim, was almost as tall as they were.68 This was probably what was known as an “alum.” Alum drums were so large and impressive that the creation and dedication of one in a temple was considered worthy of commemoration in a year-name.69 Alum drums received their own oil offerings, the oil being necessary to treat the leather drumheads.70

A bronze kettledrum could also be dedicated to a god, and these too were mentioned in year-names.71 The resonant sound of the drums must have throbbed through the very walls of the temples; they were described as rumbling or roaring like a storm.

Music was considered essential for calming the hearts of the gods. This was one of the reasons musicians played such a central role in the culture, because the gods and goddesses loved music. Hearing music made them less likely to punish humans; it soothed their anger.

It’s unclear whether palace musicians played for many temple ceremonies or whether the temples generally used their own ensembles. A shrine for the goddess Ishtar was located inside the Mari palace, though, so Bazatum’s ensemble might have played music in a ritual for Ishtar that was recorded on a tablet found in the palace.72 At the heart of this ritual was a lyre.73 This lyre was deified and was worshiped as the goddess Ninigizibara. Her cult was practiced not only in Mari but in other Old Babylonian cities as well.74 The instrument itself was the subject of worship, as though it were a cult statue.

The ceremony started in Ishtar’s temple early in the morning with a purifying ritual. The two goddesses, Ishtar (in the human form of her statue) and Ninigizibara (in the form of the sacred lyre), faced one another in the sanctuary. They weren’t alone; the place was packed with divine statues. The author of the text detailing the ritual notes that “to the left of Ishtar sit (the warrior god) Latarak and the Dingirgubbu deities,”75 and he later refers to the presence of the (statue of) the great sun god Shamash as well. Then, “the emblems of the goddesses”—their holy symbols—were “brought out from their shrines and are placed in the temple of Ishtar, to the right and the left.”

After the purification, a group of musicians entered the temple and arrayed themselves around the sacred lyre goddess, with lamentation priests to her left and female singers to her right. More women singers stood behind them. Oddly, a group of skilled craftsmen, “their tools at the ready,” were also present—a brewer, a carpenter, a leather-worker, a cord-maker, and a fuller—along with some barbers, “blades (ready).” The ritual text never tells us what they were there for or why it was important that they be equipped for work.

It was now time for the king to enter. He wore a special robe that had been woven of a rare type of wool just for this event,76 and he seated himself on a throne traditionally known (for whatever reason) as the “sailor’s seat.” But he wasn’t the center of attention. His seat was behind the group of lamentation priests. “A king’s courtier” we are told, sat “on a lower chair by the king’s side” and domestic servants stood to his right and left.

Once the king was seated, the music began. The author of the ritual text named each piece and noted the actions that accompanied it. First came the lamentation priests singing a lament called “” You may remember the lamentation priests, or “galas,” from the funeral of the Early Dynastic queen Baranamtarra. Here we are, about 600 years later, and the gala priests were still singing in the Emesal dialect of Sumerian, the dialect associated with women, and in a falsetto range.77 They were still listed as men, but, as we have seen, their gender was not rigidly defined. Galas could have children, so they seem not to have been eunuchs. The galas were evidently brilliant musicians and singers, and were essential to the cult; they were the ones who could assuage the tempers of the gods most successfully.

As the ceremony progressed, the assembled gods witnessed processions and performances by people who seem to have been fire-eaters, wrestlers, dancers, and acrobats. These took place during a chant called “Annuwashe,” throughout which the king was required to stand up. Perhaps the deep rumblings of the drums could be heard behind the melodies that were sung, or the women musicians produced harmonies on their lyres. These actions and songs must have had meaning for the people involved—as did a later segment of the ceremony when a priest sprinkled water on the deities Ishtar and Shamash, on the musicians, and on the king—but those meanings are indecipherable to us. What was important was that these actions and this music, done just so, made the gods happy. The very predictability of the whole event was probably reassuring to everyone involved. The ancient melodies echoing through the temple of Ishtar didn’t just soothe the hearts of the gods, they no doubt raised the spirits of the participants as well. The ceremony doesn’t seem to have been a public event, however. There’s no mention of an audience. It was all done for the gods.

To return to the ensemble of small musicians, life changed for Bazatum and Beltani after the first few years of Zimri-Lim’s reign: both of them got married. Beltani was first, and she married the most powerful man in the land: King Zimri-Lim himself. She wasn’t one of his concubines, but she wasn’t a particularly highly ranked wife either. Her name appears third from the end of the list of his twelve wives.78

Bazatum, unlike Beltani, left the city of Mari when she got married, to live about 45 kilometers (28 miles) upstream near the city of Terqa. Her husband was one of the highest officials in the land, a former governor of Terqa named Sammetar, whom Zimri-Lim often depended upon.79 He was so favored by the king that he traveled in an expensive palanquin carried by attendants, rather than in a chariot. Although impressive, this caused Sammetar some embarrassment, because most of Zimri-Lim’s vassals—who were, of course, kings themselves—traveled in chariots, which were considered less prestigious. Sammetar, aware of the fact that his palanquin might be seen as too ostentatious for an official, wrote to Zimri-Lim at one point for advice. Should he avoid using it? He was willing to give it up if necessary.80 Clearly, though, he enjoyed the impression it made. He wrote, a little smugly, that, by sending the palanquin, the king “has certainly granted me great prestige; the whole land has heard (about it).”81

Sammetar’s father had been an eminent figure in the city of Terqa during the reign of Yasmah-Addu, so his was a well-established family.82 Bazatum’s engagement to Sammetar must have seemed to be a good match. No doubt her father (if he was still alive) was pleased to have gained a powerful son-in-law. But it’s highly unlikely that Bazatum had any say in whom she married, and her new life may not have been easy. She was much younger than Sammetar, and she was his second wife. Sammetar’s first wife was a woman named Karanatum, who lived in Mari.83

Bazatum moved to her husband’s country estate near Terqa, and she took on the oversight of a weaving workshop run by four male textile supervisors.84 These men were described as working “in the house of Bazatum”85 (which was probably a wing of Sammetar’s house).

The estate was located on the opposite bank of the Euphrates from her husband’s home city of  Terqa, and from Mari as well.86 Getting there would have required taking a boat, so it might have seemed a little remote. The countryside in the region would have been lovely, with shady orchards and quiet lanes, as has still been the case recently. But living there must have been quite a shift for Bazatum after her sociable childhood in the Mari palace. The textile work was familiar, since almost all women knew how to spin and weave, but it was rare for a woman to have authority over male overseers. Did this cause any difficulties for her? Did she miss the city and the members of her music ensemble? Did she still find any occasions to play music? Unfortunately, we have no answers to these questions.

Being a second wife also had its complications. It was unusual for any man but the king to have more than one wife (and a woman never had more than one husband); monogamy was the norm for almost all Mesopotamians. Only a very few officials, at least at Mari, married more than one woman,87 so Bazatum would have had few role models for how to behave as the second wife of a magnate. Also, she seems—and this was surprising—to have been higher in rank than Sammetar’s first wife, Karanatum. A fragment of a tablet records jewelry allotted to them both, and it reads, in part, “1 shekel of gold, 1 ring of silver, weighing 4 [shekels] to Bazatum; 1 shekel of gold, 1 ring of silver, weighing 4 [shekels] to Karanatum.”88 Bazatum’s name coming before that of Karanatum is jarring, because it suggested that she was more important. As a second wife, Bazatum’s rank should have been lower, unless, like her friend Beltani, she had been born into a royal family.89 This ambiguous hierarchy between Bazatum and her fellow wife cannot have made her married life any easier.

Bazatum’s friendship with her fellow musician Beltani seems to have continued after they were both married. Although no letters survive to attest to their friendship,90 a text records that when Beltani needed someone to take care of her jewelry box, she chose Bazatum.91 Perhaps they occasionally were able to meet up in Mari when Bazatum traveled there, and they remained close.

Bazatum’s marriage turned out to be short-lived. Her husband Sammetar became ill soon after Bazatum moved to his estate. He wrote to King Zimri-Lim apologizing for having to miss an important festival—he was too sick, he said, to make the journey.92 Not long after this, a priestess who was close to Sammetar and his family wrote to Zimri-Lim to tell him, laconically, “A young officer informed me that Sammetar has died. My Star (the king) should know that.”93

The usual practice, after the death of a high official, was for royal inspectors to descend on his estate to determine if there were items there that belonged to the palace and might need to be reclaimed. Sure enough, Zimri-Lim soon sent officials to Sammetar’s country estate to inspect and record his property. These men were thorough, making their way through the dead man’s estate, counting and recording details of everything from plow teams, to goats (314 of them), textiles, bronze household utensils, animals in the courtyard, barley, jugs of wine, and workers. They then moved on, across the river, to Sammetar’s other home in Terqa and made notes that were just as exhaustive of his goods there.94 Many items, especially those made of metal,95 were seized and taken back to Mari, perhaps because they were the property of the king and had been used by Sammetar during his lifetime, or perhaps to repay debts that he still owed to the palace.

While they were at Sammetar’s houses, the inspectors registered Bazatum’s personal property as well—she owned vessels, barley, oxen, jewelry, and some personnel in the country house, along with a herd of eighty-four sheep and goats that grazed on land near Terqa—though none of these were taken away from her.96 Her possessions must have been included in her dowry and bridal gifts, which would have been kept distinct from the property of her husband Sammetar.97

Sammetar had also maintained two households in Mari itself, to which the inspectors turned next. There he had maintained a huge staff of servants, cooks, textile workers, singers, butlers, barbers, and even a female physician.98 He had been a rich and powerful man.

As his widow, Bazatum initially seems to have continued to live in her wing of his country home near Terqa, but we know nothing of what happened to her after that. It would have been fortunate for her if she did continue to live in the region of Terqa, because in just a few years the city of Mari was embroiled in turmoil.

In the fifth month of what turned out to be the last year of his reign, Zimri-Lim had been traveling in the northern Habur triangle region, leaving Queen Shibtu in charge of the palace at Mari. This was not unusual. Even when Zimri-Lim went to visit his wife’s parents, the king and queen of Aleppo, their daughter Shibtu stayed in Mari to take care of everything for him and to keep him informed, by letter, of any major concerns.99 He was now about to start on his way home with his entourage, traveling downstream along the Habur River toward the Euphrates. He dictated a letter to Queen Shibtu and sent it via a fast messenger: “I am just now heading (to Mari), making the trip,” he wrote to his wife, “Reach Saggaratum ahead of me.” Saggaratum was a provincial capital at the confluence of the Habur and Euphrates Rivers, north of Mari, and south of the Habur region that Zimri-Lim was leaving. “As you head out, bring with you to Saggaratum a seven-woman (musical) ensemble, [the songstress] Ahatum who is now by you, and the musical instruments made with gold.”100 It’s unclear why Zimri-Lim was in particular need of the seven-woman musical ensemble when he got to the town of Saggaratum, but it wasn’t the only time that he had asked this group to travel. On another occasion when he was away from Mari he wrote for them to be sent to him, along with their instruments, and some singers.101 Music had continued to play a big part in the life of the palace at Mari throughout Zimri-Lim’s reign, and perhaps on this occasion the king wanted to impress the court of his governor in Saggaratum with the talents of his court musicians. Zimri-Lim, who had a taste for the opulent, often mentioned his desire for instruments made of gold, as he did here.

At this point, nothing seemed to be amiss for Mari and its king. The records show that, over the next few months, Zimri-Lim gave and received gifts from other kings, traveled to Terqa, celebrated a festival for Ishtar (no doubt with the usual musical contributions from the gala priests), and held banquets, just as before. And then, suddenly, no more tablets were written.

Two years later, the palace of Zimri-Lim—that sprawling, glorious complex—burned to the ground and was never rebuilt. It must have burned for hours, perhaps for days. The people of the city experienced the strange horror of witnessing the destruction of a monument that must have seemed eternal and that had for centuries represented continuity, even when dynasties had changed. Fortunately, by the time of the fire, palace residents had long since moved out; the contents of the palace had been sorted through and the finest treasures removed beforehand. Now fire poured out of the rooftops and the doorways. Ceiling beams holding up the second floor burst into flames, and upper floors collapsed. The fire was so hot that it baked hard the bricks in the walls and the clay tablets in the archives, serendipitously preserving them for us, their unimagined readers, far in the future. After the fire burned out, some of the walls that still stood were torn down and objects left in the rubble were never recovered. The fire bore all the markings of a hostile act.

What happened to Zimri-Lim and how the palace came to be destroyed remain a puzzle, but the Babylonians were definitely involved. The king of Babylon, Hammurabi, even boasted about taking control of Mari in two of his year-names, though he had previously been a close ally of Zimri-Lim’s. In the next chapter we will look into Hammurabi’s career, and will come back to Mari, to try to understand this catastrophe.

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