Chapter 6

A Conqueror and a Priestess

One day, around 2300 BCE, a man was working in a storeroom in the city of Ur, probably surrounded by jars of foods or beer. He fixed a small piece of clay to the top of a terracotta pot and rolled his cylinder seal across it, so that anyone who later came across the pot would know who had last opened it. He was performing a responsibility that had stayed much the same for 1,200 years, ever since the invention of cylinder seals around 3500 BCE in Uruk.1 Sealing shipments of various kinds of goods was a very mundane thing for an official to do; it happened all the time. Within a day or two, or perhaps within hours, the man had no doubt forgotten that he had sealed this particular jar. But, in the odd way that things happen, the resulting clay sealing survived in the ground for thousands of years and is the only witness to his presumably illustrious career (see Fig. 6.1).


Fig. 6.1 Impression of the cylinder seal of Kitushdu, scribe, mid-twenty-third century bce. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Kitushdu: A Scribe and His Cylinder Seal

The man’s name was Kitushdu, and this little piece of clay bearing the impression of his seal is, in fact, the only evidence that he existed at all. Leonard Woolley found it during excavations at Ur in 1928, in the same area as the royal tombs (though it was from a later period). Woolley described the sealed piece of clay in a note in his excavation records and later had it transported to the British Museum in London, where it was catalogued and put in a drawer. But it is not hidden from public view—you can see it pictured on the museum’s website.2 The sealing is tiny—just a little more than 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) by 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) in size.

Kitushdu’s seal was nevertheless impressive; it bore a beautifully sculpted water buffalo and an inscription in honor of the princess for whom he worked, which reads as follows:


daughter of Sargon


the scribe,

(is) her servant.3

Kitushdu and his seal make a good starting point for our study of his era, the twenty-third century BCE, because of the people mentioned, the artistry of the seal itself, and the animal portrayed on it.

Let’s start with the people. Kitushdu shows in his seal inscription that he was in close contact with the most powerful family in Mesopotamia of his time. He was a scribe, and presumably a high-ranking one, to judge from the quality of his seal and the words written on it, and he was a “servant” of a princess named Enheduana. The term translated “servant” also meant “slave” and was used by anyone who was lower in rank to refer to their relationship to a member of the royal family—and everybody was lower in rank than the royal family. When used in a cylinder seal inscription in association with a king or princess, the person described as a “servant” was a member of the royal court. There’s a good chance that Enheduana had personally given him the seal. We’ll come back to her shortly. Her father is listed as Sargon; and he was someone who was very influential, a man who transformed the Mesopotamian concept of what a king could be and do.

Sargon of Akkad: A Legendary Conqueror

Sargon (c. 2316–2277 BCE) is the earliest Big Name in Mesopotamian history. Few people today have heard of Ur-Nanshe, Enmetena, or Ishar-damu, let alone Baranamtara or Tabur-damu. But Sargon is familiar. He is even sometimes known as “Sargon the Great”—the world’s first empire builder, the first man to unite Mesopotamia from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. He shares his epithet with later imperialistic conquerors like Cyrus of Persia and Alexander of Macedon but I have no idea who first dubbed him “the Great.”

He would no doubt have approved of the epithet, and later Mesopotamians felt that way about him too.4 Sargon’s story just got bigger over time, his feats more impressive, his parentage more divine. One legend, composed centuries after his death, has Sargon speaking in the first person, weaving a story of a magical birth and miraculous survival:

My mother was a high priestess, I did not know my father. . . .

My mother, the high priestess, conceived me, she bore me in secret.

She placed me in a reed basket, she sealed my hatch with pitch.

She left me to the river, whence I could not come up.

The river carried me off, it brought me to Aqqi, drawer of water.

Aqqi, drawer of water, brought me up as he dipped his bucket.

Aqqi, drawer of water, raised me as his adopted son.

Aqqi, drawer of water set (me) to his orchard work.5

The only explanation of Sargon’s sudden ascent to the throne, in the legend, was that “during my orchard work, (the goddess) Ishtar loved me,”6 after which, just like that, he was king. Obviously, none of this is likely to have been true. None of these details of Sargon’s supposed biography were even mentioned until hundreds of years after his death, but it does make a great rags-to-riches story.

The rest of the legend recounts Sargon’s valiant expeditions and victories. It makes no mention of an army. Sargon, a third-millennium BCE superhero, did it all himself:

I was wont to ascend high mountains.

I was wont to cross over lower mountains.

The [l]and of the sea I sieged three times.

I conquered Dilmun, I [ ]

I destroyed [Ka]zallu and [ ] . . .7

For centuries after Sargon’s death, kings thought the world of him, anxious to emulate his glory. Some of them borrowed his name or those of his descendants, or adopted their titles.8 They honored him in rituals for centuries.9 Around 1,800 years after his reign, a broken head of Sargon was found by an awestruck Babylonian king in the ruins of a temple at Sippar. He reverently set it up on a pedestal and dedicated offerings to it.10

Sargon’s name and achievements were therefore familiar to people in the region for about 2,000 years, and we hear about him a lot from their later writings. Curiously, though, if the only clues we had were documents and objects that were created in Sargon’s own time, he might seem inconsequential—just one of hundreds of kings whose reigns came and went without leaving much trace.

Kitushdu’s seal impression might be just a small piece of clay, but its inscription is one of only nine short inscriptions that survive from Sargon’s own time that mention him at all. Most of the others are similarly unimpressive and tangential to Sargon’s life. Two other servants of the princess Enheduana, daughter of Sargon, live on as a result of their seals. A man named Ilum-palil who served as her hairdresser owned a valuable lapis lazuli seal; the seal itself, not just an impression, was excavated at Ur in 1928.11 Her steward Adda also used a cylinder seal that identifies him as her servant.12 Both of these mention Sargon only because he was Enheduana’s father. The other inscriptions comprise a short dedication by the estate administrator who worked for Sargon’s wife,13 and two objects dedicated to the god Shara by a temple administrator “for the well-being of Sargon, king of Agade.”14 Three short inscriptions do seem to have been commissioned by Sargon himself, but they say nothing much at all, just that he dedicated a stone mace head and a vase to a god, and that he wanted the gods to curse some future person for something. That inscription reads, “may they tear out [his foundations] and take away his seed.”15 And that’s it. They give no facts at all about Sargon’s achievements or his reign. We have no lengthy royal inscriptions commissioned by Sargon on stone sculptures or vases, unlike the Early Dynastic kings of Lagash whose inscriptions are abundant. And his image is preserved only in a worn monument found in Susa, in which he is shown in profile marching at the head of some soldiers. His face has been flattened with time and erosion, but one can make out his long beard and outstretched arm.16

Fortunately, though, we have more than legends from which to learn about Sargon’s life. Later scribes sought out and copied inscriptions that they saw on sculptures of the king and on relief sculptures of his battles. We’ll come back to scribes and their educations later in this book.17 We have them to thank for a lot of our knowledge of the literature, religion, and political history of the region. Scribes even sometimes noted where they had found the text they had copied. For example, about 500 years after Sargon’s death, a scribe transcribed an inscription that he found on a stone sculpture that had been commissioned by Sargon. He copied it onto a clay tablet and noted at the end that the “inscription was written on the socle in front of Lugalzagesi.”18 An image of this king, Lugalzagesi, must have featured on Sargon’s monument, and it is Lugalzagesi to whom we turn now, because he laid the groundwork for Sargon’s empire.

Lugalzagesi: First King to Dream of Empire

Before Sargon began his imperialistic campaigns, Lugalzagesi, king of Umma (c. 2320 BCE), was busily uniting (and laying waste to) much of southern Mesopotamia. The city-state of Umma was, as we have seen, the perpetual nemesis of the city-state of Lagash. They had battled for so long over their shared border that inhabitants of both city-states must have viewed the feud as some kind of fact of life. Soldiers from each state must have assumed that they would forever be sent out by their king with spears, bows, and arrows to fight for their god—Ningirsu (for Lagash) or Shara (for Umma)—to reclaim control of the lands of the Gu’edena. But King Lugalzagesi brought an end to the feud, conquering both Umma’s rival, Lagash, and the ancient city of Uruk, to which he then moved his capital.

By Lugalzagesi’s time, approximately 1,200 years had passed since Uruk had emerged as the first great city of Mesopotamia. It was as venerable as some of the very oldest mosques and cathedrals are to us today. But the Sumerians believed that Uruk was much older than that. With their expansive view of the deep roots of cities and kings in the region, the creators of the Sumerian King List (writing a couple of centuries later) recorded that kings had first built and ruled Uruk a very precise (though wildly mistaken) 8,077 years before Lugalzagesi’s reign. But even this was all relatively modern history in their view, given how many hundreds of thousands of years they believed had passed since the beginning of kingship.

Lugalzagesi cast himself as a new kind of king. He was not a king of a single city-state, but “king of the land.”19 The people didn’t have a name for Mesopotamia yet. It was, to Lugalzagesi, simply “kalam”—“the land.” In the same inscription, he created new language for this vast space over which he claimed to rule, and he did it by defining the extreme edges of the world. The kingdom stretched “from the Lower Sea, through the Tigris and Euphrates, to the Upper Sea” (that is, from south to north, to the seas in both directions that bounded the world) and “from the sunrise to the sunset” (that is, from east to west).20

This was an exaggeration, but we have to give him credit (or possibly blame) for his new idea. Lugalzagesi dreamed bigger than his predecessors. He must have known that there were many areas over which he did not, in fact, rule. He would have been aware that traders came and went from Dilmun in the Lower Sea, and from the lapis lazuli mountains beyond Afghanistan, and the cedar mountains far to the north in Syria, and that he had no jurisdiction over these places at all. But he created a fantasy that inspired Mesopotamian kings for thousands of years after his death, though they didn’t know to credit him. He invented the power-crazed concept of a vast empire, perhaps even the whole world, ruled by just one man.

When it came to actually naming the lands that he ruled, the reality of Lugalzagesi’s state proved to have been far more modest than his bombastic titles suggested. He listed six former city-states and described their joy and pride at being subjected to his wondrous rule:

At that time, Uruk spent its time rejoicing,

Ur, like a bull, raised high its head,

Larsa, the beloved city of (the god) Utu, made merry,

Umma, the beloved city of (the god) Shara, lifted its huge arms,

Zabalam cried out like a ewe reunited with its lamb,

Kian raised high its neck.21

This was still a significant achievement—not the rejoicing and merriness, but the very fact of the regional state that he had created (and the good cheer seems highly suspect, given that these cities had just been defeated and were forced to pay tribute to the leader whose troops had killed many of their young men). It must have taken innovative administrative structures to organize and tax the people of such widely spread, and presumably resentful, cities.

Would Sargon have dreamed up (and eventually fought to construct) his empire, had it not been for Lugalzagesi’s earlier attempts? Historians can’t “what if” about the past—if any one event had been different there is no telling what else would have changed—but clearly Lugalzagesi’s rhetoric influenced Sargon. Sargon even borrowed the same phrases. He, too, claimed to rule from the Lower Sea to the Upper Sea.22 The main difference is that Sargon apparently was more successful in this than Lugalzagesi had been, and Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin (2254–2218 BCE) was more successful still. Had Lugalzagesi not come up with that enticing image of world domination, Sargon might have been content to stay closer to home. But it is impossible to know what might have been, because what happened, happened.

In any event, it’s unclear where Sargon came from or why he got it into his head to become a king, let alone an emperor. He grew up in Akkad, the region to the north of Sumer, in central Mesopotamia, and his native language was the local Akkadian. His name was a fiction. It meant “the king is legitimate”—just the kind of name you’d want if you actually were not a legitimate king at all.

Those inscriptions that Sargon authorized and that were copied by later scribes all start with him already in power, leading troops. He never named his father, almost certainly because his father was not a king. Instead he launched into the close relationships he had with gods, using their Akkadian names—he was the “emissary for Ishtar (the goddess of love and war, Inana in Sumer), . . . attendant of Anu (god of the heavens), chief governor for Enlil (the king of the gods)”23—and in the next breath, he was attacking Lugalzagesi’s city of Uruk. He “conquered the city of Uruk and destroyed its walls. He was victorious over Uruk.”24 This happened around 2292 BCE.25

What had happened before this was that, somehow or another, Sargon had seized the throne, probably of the city-state of Kish, and had built himself an army. He must have hired experienced military leaders to train the men. He must have taxed his new subjects to pay for arms and armor. One suspects that militarism and imperial ambition were built into Sargon’s reign from day one, and that he had immediately set his sights on Lugalzagesi, the most powerful king in Sumer. Perhaps diplomats shuttled between Kish and Uruk as they had in earlier centuries, seeking ways to defuse the situation. Or perhaps the two war leaders with such similar dreams relished the idea of clashing on the battlefield. When they did, Sargon was victorious. He gloated in one of his inscriptions that he “conquered fifty governors with the mace of (the god) Ilaba.”26 Better yet, to his mind, he “captured Lugalzagesi, king of Uruk, and brought him to the gate of Enlil in a neck-stock.”27 For Lugalzagesi this would have been more humiliating than death on the battlefield. And this was the scene that must have been depicted on the missing sculpture, the one on the base of which this inscription was also carved and copied by a helpful scribe.

According to the royal inscriptions that were copied, Sargon did a lot of campaigning; he “was victorious in thirty-four battles”28 over the course of his reign, and he claimed that the god Enlil “gave him the Upper Sea (the Mediterranean) and the Lower Sea (the Persian Gulf).”29 It’s unclear how successful he was in controlling the more distant regions in these lands—notwithstanding Enlil’s wish for him to rule them—but one can argue that Sargon deserves the title of the world’s first emperor.30 He may even have been responsible for the destruction of the city of Ebla, though that might have been the work of his grandson, Naram-Sin. Both claimed to have conquered this region, as they fought their ways to the Mediterranean.

The realm Sargon controlled was populated by people of many different cultures and languages. But to judge from the number of campaigns that he and his successors launched to try to maintain this empire, it was not exactly an auspicious start for the whole imperialistic venture. The logistics were almost impossible. How could one king rule lands that took weeks of travel to reach? How could he convince people to pay taxes to him when there was no clear benefit to doing so? How could he maintain a military large enough to be available to put down rebellions whenever they broke out?

He created systems to try to address these ongoing crises. One of them was to try to cow his subjects into submission through force, destroying the walls around cities that could have continued to protect them, and emphasizing his fierce bravado over and over in his inscriptions. Sargon, as he boasted, “showed mercy to no one.”31 Another strategy was to set up civilian and military governors in cities around the empire. He wrote that “men of Agade hold governorships all the way from the Lower Sea.”32 We are told in one inscription (again, copied by a later scribe) that “5,400 men eat daily before him.”33 That tiny fragment of a sentence has been used to conjure a standing army, paid by the king, or a huge personal bodyguard. “He washed his weapons in the sea.”34 Was he washing off the blood of his many battles? Or was he plunging the weapon into the sea as though to claim it for himself? Did he do this at all?

At some point in his reign Sargon built a new capital city at a place called Agade. A later legend recalled Agade as immeasurably rich, its people dining in cosmopolitan style on “the best of food” and “the best of drink.”35 The storehouses were full of gold, silver, copper, tin, and lapis lazuli, and music played in the streets: “There was drumbeat in the city, winds and strings without. Its harbor, where ships tied up, hummed cheerfully.”36 Unfortunately, there is no way to know if any of this was true because Agade has not yet been found. Archaeologists do know where to look, though—Sargon’s new capital probably was built somewhere near the confluence of the Tigris and Adhaim Rivers, north of what is now Baghdad.37

A giant fragment of an over-lifesize statue of a man made of basalt was found there at a site called Qadasiyah—it would have been a statue appropriate for a capital city (see Fig. 6.2). When complete, the figure stood about 2.75 meters (9 feet) tall, bigger than anything else known from this era.38 Was this Sargon? It might have been. All that is left are his bare feet, which are inset and protected from what seem to be hammer marks that pit the surface of the rest of the sculpture. Julian Reade, a curator at the British Museum, aptly described the sculpture as looking like “cheese or ice cream that has been attacked with a scoop.”39 It seems that at some point an angry mob may have set upon the statue and that it later may have spent some time, maybe a very long time, in the river. Ironically, for a king whose memory overshadowed that of so many others, no definite statue of Sargon survives. But perhaps this figure was of him and perhaps it was once a towering presence in Agade. The city is one of the great lost sites of the ancient world; if it is identified and excavated in the future it may prove to contain archives and inscriptions that will finally bring Sargon out of the haze of legend.


Fig. 6.2 Fragment of an over-lifesize basalt sculpture of a man from Qadasiyah, possibly early twenty-third century bce. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Trade and Innovation in Sargon’s Time

We return now to Kitushdu’s seal, in order to appreciate the artistry of the depiction of the water buffalo (see Fig. 6.1). Its head tilts upward, the muscles in its back and legs taut as it strides forward. Sargon’s reign and the reigns of his successors—that is, the Akkadian period (named for Sargon’s homeland of Akkad)—was a time of extraordinary creative innovation in cylinder seal designs; the unnamed artists created one miniature masterpiece after another.40 In later periods of Mesopotamian history, the scenes became more standardized and many seals looked very much like one another, but the Akkadian period seal carvers observed their world and experimented. They depicted remarkably naturalistic people and animals, with their limbs and muscles convincingly doing the right things. When you consider that the artists carved these on a miniscule scale, without the help of magnification, in reverse relief, and on the curved surface of a hard stone, their skill becomes hard to fathom and all the more impressive.

The stones they used for the seals were imported. We don’t know what Kitushdu’s seal was made of because only its impression survives, but Akkadian seals were often carved from serpentine, diorite, rock crystal, jasper, or lapis lazuli.41 These types of stones had been used in earlier times as well. The trade in lapis lazuli from the Hindu Kush mountains had been taking place for thousands of years, since the sixth millennium BCE.42

But Sargon was not content with the traditional trading mechanisms; he initiated a new era of trade by inviting foreign traders and their boats directly to his capital. He boasted in one inscription that boats from Magan, Dilmun, and Meluhha docked at the harbor in Agade.43 These boats brought not only precious goods but also animals that the Mesopotamians had never seen before, animals that the seal carvers captured in their work. The water buffalo on Kitushdu’s seal, with its huge horns, was an import from the Indus Valley—ancient Meluhha. Even Indian elephants were later said to have made the long trip to Mesopotamia. The world was opening up, and the artisans wanted to show off these fantastic creatures in their designs. It almost seems as though some people of the Akkadian period saw themselves as different from those who had come before them, living in a new and exciting age.

Innovations were happening all over the place. Metalworkers developed the ingenious technique of lost-wax casting to use bronze more efficiently—a sculpture could be lighter and could be made with less metal because the resulting object was hollow.

Scribes figured out how to use cuneiform to write the Akkadian language of central Mesopotamia as well as Sumerian, and Sargon took the radical step of making Akkadian the language of administration. Like Eblaite, Akkadian was a Semitic language. In histories from the early twentieth century of our era, Sargon’s conquest of Sumer was sometimes portrayed as an invasion by foreigners with a different culture—Akkadian troops attacking Sumerian cities. But Akkadian speakers had lived in Sumer (and Sumerian speakers had lived in Akkad) at least since writing was invented. Beyond the difference in language and in the names given to the gods, the cultures of the two regions were almost indistinguishable.

Sargon also tried to standardize administrative practices across his realm. Weights and measures, for example, had always been subject to regional variations. Sargon wanted a “gur” measure to be the same everywhere in the empire, for example. He wasn’t entirely successful in this attempt at standardization, but again it was a break with the past.

Sargon even decided to use a new (and self-promoting) way to identify the years of his reign. The Mesopotamians never numbered the years from a fixed date in the past the way we do now. Sargon decided to name the years; at the end of each year, he chose one of his recent great achievements to be the name of the year that was beginning. Scribes were supposed to use this year-name whenever a date was needed on a document. It was Sargon’s cunning way of reminding his people of his power, and it created a precedent. Mesopotamian kings regularly used year-names as a form of propaganda for more than 700 years after his reign and, in a few states, kings even continued to name their years for at least three more centuries after that. Since so few documents survive from Sargon’s reign, we know of only four of his year-names. None of them can be assigned to specific years in his reign, but all of them boasted of his military victories. They were the years in which “Sargon went to Simurrum,” “Sargon destroyed Uru’a,” “Sargon destroyed Elam,” and “Mari was destroyed.”44 Remember that his throne name was already propagandistic, so anyone mentioning the name of a year couldn’t help repeating two ideas that Sargon wanted to reinforce—his legitimacy and his military might. Hence, a farmer might say, “I first grew barley in this field during the year when ‘ The king is legitimate’ destroyed Elam.”

Sargon’s grandson, King Naram-Sin, also named most of his years for military victories, but a few year-names referred to achievements that were not related to warfare. He named a year for his construction of a temple to Ishtar in Agade,45 for example, and another was the “Year in which Naram-Sin chose the en-priestess of Nanna by means of the omens.”46

And this takes us back, once again, to Kitushdu’s seal, because Enheduana, the princess whom Kitushdu served, was also an en-priestess of Nanna.

Enheduana: Princess, High Priestess and Poet

Enheduana was, as Kitushdu’s seal impression makes clear, the daughter of Sargon, but she was not his only child. He had at least five children, and he was married to at least one wife: Tashlultum. As with so many aspects of Sargon’s life, his wife’s memory survives because of just one small fragment of an inscription, in this case, one that was carved on an alabaster bowl. The bowl was dedicated by her estate administrator, whose name is lost, but it records that he worked for “Tashlultum, wife of Sargon.”47

Sargon’s reign stretched for at least forty years (he was sometimes even credited with a fifty-five-year reign), so he lived to see his sons and daughters grow up and have children of their own. After his death, two of his sons succeeded him: first Rimush, who ruled for only seven years (c. 2276–2269 BCE), and then Manishtusu, who ruled for another fifteen years after that (c. 2269–2254 BCE). Manishtusu, in turn, was followed by his son, Naram-Sin, who ruled for at least thirty-seven years. Between them, these three generations of kings dominated Mesopotamia for more than a century.

King Manishtusu’s name means “Who is with him?,” which sounds like something a startled midwife might have cried out when attending the birth of twins (in their world, as through most of history until modern times, the number of babies in the womb wasn’t known before birth). This explanation of Manishtusu’s name is probably wrong, given the Mesopotamian propensity for naming babies with pious messages about the gods, but I like it anyway. Sargon must have lived to see the childhoods of plenty of his grandchildren, and perhaps, late in life, he already saw promise in Manishtusu’s young son Naram-Sin, who ended up, in some ways, exceeding his grandfather’s achievements.

Enheduana is sometimes described as the daughter of Sargon and Tashlultum,48 but that’s just speculation. Her mother could have been a different royal wife or concubine. Like Sargon’s other children, she was no doubt given an Akkadian name at birth, though we don’t know what it was. Unlike most girls—unlike most children, for that matter—she seems to have learned to read and write, and it’s likely that she stood out in the royal family as exceptional. When she reached adulthood, she was an obvious candidate for a singularly important role in her father’s empire, as the en-priestess in the city of Ur.

Sargon had conquered Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, in the course of building his empire. It had been the capital of one of the great Sumerian city-states, home to the moon god, Nanna, and Sargon seems to have encountered some trouble from his new subjects there. It would hardly be a surprise if the locals resented Sargon’s conquest. After all, in his own inscription Sargon had boasted that he “vanquished Ur in battle and smote the city and destroyed its fortress.”49 The proud citizens of Ur must have been crushed to see their fortifications in ruins and were hardly in the mood to feel affection toward the man responsible. So, Sargon seems to have decided that he needed a family member in a powerful position in Ur, someone he could trust to keep an eye on the locals, plead his case with the city god, and perhaps even endear herself to the population.

In Naram-Sin’s year-name about the appointment of a later en-priestess of Nanna, he claimed that she was chosen “by means of the omens,”50 and this was true of Enheduana as well. The king asked the gods for their advice on whom to choose. Naturally occurring omens could take many forms, from the appearance of comets, to the movements of flocks of birds, to the passage of the five visible planets through the constellations in the night sky. The gods could appear with messages in dreams as well, or they could speak through the internal organs of sacrificed animals. We will explore these in more detail later.51 No matter how they sent their messages, the gods spoke cryptically, which meant that specially trained diviners were required to decipher what they meant. Diviners were always literate and, over time, they developed a body of writings—lists of past omens and their outcomes—which they could consult to be sure that they were not misunderstanding the gods’ intentions.

As a result of some omen or another, Enheduana was “chosen for the pure rites”52 and sent to Ur. There, she went through elaborate installation rituals and took on her new name in the local Sumerian language: Enheduana, which meant “en (priestess), ornament of the heavens.”53 If she wasn’t already bilingual beforehand, she presumably learned to speak Sumerian soon after her arrival, in addition to her native Akkadian.

Although Enheduana is the earliest en-priestess whose name we know, the same position may well have been held, about a century earlier, by one of the women buried in the royal tombs of Ur. This was the lady of the “Great Death Pit” we encountered in Chapter 3, who had been surrounded in death by female attendants.54 Like the earlier woman, Enheduana would have taken up residence in the Gipar, the palace of the priestess, located on Ur’s citadel near Nanna’s temple. And, also like her earlier counterpart, she was no doubt provided with riches; she would have taken her meals and drinks from silver bowls, and worn fine jewelry of gold, carnelian, and lapis lazuli.

A short inscription carved during her lifetime and apparently commissioned by the priestess herself gives us a little more information:

Enheduana, the zirru of Nanna, the spouse of Nanna, the daughter of Sargon, king of the world, in the [temple of the goddess Ina]na-ZA.ZA of Ur, she erected a plinth (and) named it: “the dais, the table of the god An of the heavens.”55

The term zirru was also used to refer to the moon god’s divine wife, the goddess Ningal. Enheduana seems, in some way, to have embodied Ningal.56 This is supported by the next phrase, in which Enheduana also claimed to be the god’s “spouse.” Priestesses were viewed as the wives of gods (just as priests could be the husbands of goddesses) throughout this era. Mesopotamians tended to think of all relationships as somehow having a basis in the family, even if a relationship was between a human and a deity.

Enheduana emphasized her tie to her father just as a crown prince or new king might have done; it helped to legitimize her authority. And, in proper royal fashion, she also boasted that she had built and named a new plinth or dais in a temple. Oddly, though, although Enheduana was the priestess of the moon god, the dais was not in his temple, but in the temple to Inana-Zaza, a form of the goddess of war and love. Enheduana was particularly fond of Inana, as was her father, who venerated the same goddess but called her Ishtar, the Akkadian equivalent of Inana.

This inscription was carved onto a 25 centimeter (10 inch) alabaster disk, which was found in the Gipar palace where Enheduana lived.57 The inscription wasn’t, however, the main attraction of the disk (though it is very helpful to historians). On the other side is a relief sculpture showing four people and an altar (see Fig. 6.3). The disk is fragmentary, and, many years ago, restorers reconstructed the missing parts as best they could. Right in the middle of the scene is a female figure, who clearly represents Enheduana herself, overseeing an offering being made at an altar. Enheduana is taller than the men behind and in front of her, her head extending right up to the top of the relief, much like the standing king in the Standard of Ur, and she wears a flounced, pleated robe and a distinctive headdress.58 Her hair is braided, with a lock of hair looping down in front of her ear.


Fig. 6.3 Front of the disk of the en-priestess Enheduana, made of calcite, mid-twenty-third century bce. (Courtesy of the Penn Museum, image 295918 and object B16665)

It is a little unclear how old Enheduana was when she arrived to take her position in the Nanna temple. She was described in one source as “the pure en of Nanna.”59 That adjective “pure” suggests that she took a vow of chastity and therefore was young, perhaps in her late teens, as Mesopotamians would expect a virgin bride to be (even a bride of a god). On the other hand, the dramatic events of her life mostly took place in later decades, not during the reign of her father but of her nephew, king Naram-Sin.60 Some scholars have proposed that she was not appointed until Naram-Sin’s reign,61 but it seems more likely that she was appointed by her father and lived on, serving as priestess, through the reigns of her brothers and into that of her nephew.

As a high priestess, Enheduana’s responsibilities were extensive. She performed many rituals in the temple, such as purifications, initiations, and divinations, along with providing food offerings to the god.62 The reason you may have heard of Enheduana, though, isn’t the fact that we have an image of her, or that she was the daughter of the first empire builder, or that she was a powerful priestess. It’s that she’s considered by many to be the world’s first identified author: the first person to put her name to a work of literature.63 Because of this, she is one of the most familiar names in ancient Near Eastern history.64 Enheduana wrote a number of hymns—perhaps as many as six—one of which she composed in the first person as “I, Enheduana.”65 No examples of her hymns survive in copies from her own time. Once again, as is true of Sargon’s inscriptions, later scribes preserved them for us.

Her writings were considered important enough to be venerated and studied generation after generation. They included literary works, two of which mentioned Enheduana’s name, along with a collection of hymns. The latter was apparently embellished and adapted over time. It ends with the statement that “The compiler of this clay tablet is Enheduana.”66 Yes, but modern scholars have noted that the tablet includes hymns to two temples that were built after her death.67 Some scholars have gone so far as to assert that this shows that she probably did not write any of the works herself.68 It is true that she clearly couldn’t have written or even compiled those particular verses about the later temples, but Enheduana may well have put together the original collection and subsequent scribes added to it, without changing the credit at the end. I see no reason to strip her of her authorship of all her works or to speculate that she had a ghost writer.

Interestingly, the focus of Enheduana’s devotion in most of her writing wasn’t Nanna, the god to whom she was ostensibly married by virtue of being his priestess, but Inana, her family god with whom she seems to have felt a deep, almost passionate, connection. Her best-known hymn was the autobiographical one. It was called “Ninmesharra” in Sumerian, which literally means “Queen of all Cosmic Powers,” but it is more commonly known in English as “The Exaltation of Inana.”

One scholar, maybe 500 years after her time, carefully copied the hymn in meticulous cuneiform onto three identically sized tablets, including fifty-one lines of the hymn on each (see Fig. 6.4).69 He probably kept this copy in his personal library. Dozens of other ancient copies of the hymn survive, excerpted in school exercises. The hymn was one of ten texts that advanced scribes learned in school when studying Sumerian, centuries after her lifetime, around 1740 BCE.70 Presumably the words of the hymn were familiar to others too. Enheduana’s emotion jumps off the page when you read it. Even in translation from Sumerian—a very dead language—and even after the passage of more than 4,000 years, Enheduana’s voice rings through. It is, though, a singularly unhappy voice.


Fig. 6.4 Copy of “The Exultation of Inana” by Enheduana written on a series of three tablets, Old Babylonian period. (Yale University, Peabody Museum)

She began the hymn by extolling Inana’s great powers, especially in times of war, which she likened to a great storm:

At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low. When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. . . . In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint. You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm, you continually thunder with (the storm god) Ishkur. You spread exhaustion with the stormwinds, while your own feet remain tireless.71

The language about battles and storms was apt when Enheduana was writing, because it was a chaotic and terrifying time of revolt in her adopted land of Sumer. Her nephew Naram-Sin had taken the throne after the death of his father only to face a massive rebellion around 2230 BCE, known as the “Great Revolt.”72 Upstart kings declared themselves to be in power in the ancient Sumerian cities of Uruk and Kish; each formed a league of cities, and both rejected Akkadian rule and claimed independence.73 One of the rebels who joined them was a man named Lugal-ane, who was mentioned, along with self-proclaimed kings of Uruk and Kish, in another document from the time.74 Lugal-ane was the man who turned Enheduana’s life upside down. He led troops in a campaign against her adopted home of Ur.

It may seem from this chapter that the Sumerian cities were under constant attack. You might suppose that the residents would have been inured to violence by now. But that’s just an illusion, because whole lifetimes get compressed into paragraphs here. In fact, most of the adults who had witnessed Sargon’s conquest of the city would have been dead by the time Lugal-ane appeared with his forces. People who had been children when the Akkadian army first arrived might still be alive, but they would barely have remembered living through it.

Meanwhile, Enheduana must have been quite old by now. Presumably she was comfortable in her role as priestess, well known and probably well respected by the hundreds of people who worked for the Nanna temple in Ur. But Lugal-ane’s invasion changed everything. Enheduana vividly described the destruction he wrought in a temple, along with his blasphemous attitude toward the god:

In connection with the purification rites of holy An, Lugal-ane has altered everything of his, and has stripped (the god) An of the E-ana (temple). He has not stood in awe of the greatest deity. He has turned that temple, whose attractions were inexhaustible, whose beauty was endless, into a destroyed temple.75

Then Lugal-ane turned on Enheduana herself. As aunt to the current king, and daughter of the hated Sargon, she was an obvious target of the rebel leader’s ire. Lugal-ane marched into the temple of the moon god Nanna, took Enheduana’s crown, deposed her from her position, and forced her into exile:76

He (Lugal-ane) stood there in triumph and drove me out of the temple. He made me fly like a swallow from the window; I have exhausted my life-strength. He made me walk through the thorn bushes of the mountains. He stripped me of the rightful crown of the en-priestess. He gave me a knife and dagger, saying to me “These are appropriate ornaments for you.”77

Those thorn bushes in the mountains—you can almost feel them tearing her fine clothes, as she grew weaker and weaker, searching for a place of refuge far from the flat river valley surrounding Ur. Perhaps the knife and the dagger were “appropriate” because Lugal-ane wanted her to commit suicide. Or perhaps he simply was making a comment about exiles: like others in her position, Enheduana would have to defend herself.78

It’s remarkable that she survived this incident. Left to wander, apparently alone, in rebel-held territory, the living embodiment of the oppressive Akkadian regime, she might well have been killed. In her telling, it was the goddess Inana who saved her. Switching to the third person, the poem ends with Enheduana’s salvation by Inana: “The powerful lady (Inana), respected in the gathering of rulers, has accepted her offerings from her (Enheduana). Inana’s holy heart has been assuaged.”79 She was saved because Naram-Sin had succeeded in putting down the rebellion. He claimed to have done so in just one year, and to have killed 95,340 men in the process80 (though numbers like this in royal inscriptions are always suspect). Lugal-ane, who seems to have briefly called himself “king of Ur,”81 disappears from the story. Naram-Sin’s aunt, Enheduana, gratefully returned to her position in Ur.

What more do we know of the en-priestess of Nanna? The hymns she wrote recall a living, vibrant person. If only we had some of her correspondence with her family, or administrative texts attesting to gifts sent or received, or to her role in managing the estates of the temple, we would have a clearer sense of her life. But these documents are lost. In my view, the evidence is in her favor—that she did write the hymns attributed to her (or most of them) and that she had a rare literary gift for capturing the tumultuous emotions of her era. After Enheduana’s death, King Naram-Sin appointed her replacement as en-priestess at Ur: his daughter Enmenana. He also installed other daughters as high priestesses in the cities of Nippur and Sippar.82

It may not have escaped your notice that these first chapters have introduced you to as many prominent women as men—from Shara-igizi-Abzu as one of the first people to be named on a relief sculpture, to Queen Baranamtara of Lagash, to Queen Tabur-damu of Ebla, to the en-priestess Enheduana in Ur. This is simply because women had prominent roles in the third millennium BCE in government and religion. One can’t write a history, even a political history, without them. No woman ruled a kingdom by herself—the society was certainly patriarchal—but it was the royal couple, not the king alone, that was central to the official cult. Many cylinder seals from the Early Dynastic and Akkadian periods show the royal couple, often seated and facing one another, or engaging in ritual activities together. The king was not shown as taller or more prominent than the queen; they were equals in this context.83

This began to change after the Akkadian period. Royal women continued to be powerful in many ways, but they no longer appeared in artworks as equals to their husbands in depictions of festivals and rituals.84 At that point, the world of the third millennium BCE, the one in which Ishar-damu’s wedding to Tabur-damu was more important to his position than was his coronation, had passed.

Naram-Sin of Akkad: Divine King

To return to the political context of Enheduana’s later life: after crushing the rebellion, Naram-Sin started making claims that no Mesopotamian king before him had ever made. He began placing a cuneiform sign looking like a star ahead of his name whenever it was written. Only gods—actual gods—got this privilege. The star sign, representing the Sumerian word “dingir” (god), was written before a name to tell the reader that the word coming next was that of a deity. It had never before been appropriated by a human.85 Did Naram-Sin really think he was divine, more so than his grandfather Sargon or any other king before him? Perhaps.

Naram-Sin explained in an inscription how he acquired this new status. He said that he had “secured the foundations” of Agade, which made the people of the city so grateful to him that they asked the gods of many great cities to make him a god too—a god of the city of Agade.86 It was after he crushed the rebellion that this request for his deification was supposedly submitted to the great gods. The image of a king had changed a great deal since Early Dynastic times. The Akkadian kings presented themselves as conquerors who terrified their opponents; powerful (even divine) rulers who had no use for city assemblies or councils of elders; and kings of the “Four Corners of the World.”87

Around this time, King Naram-Sin commissioned a large stone stela that shows him, victorious in battle, striding up a mountain (see Fig. 6.5).88 He’s followed by his own proud troops; they echo his pose while staring admiringly up at him and stepping over crumpled, dead and dying troops of the enemy. Naram-Sin certainly looks godlike: he is much bigger than anyone else, young, and athletic. And then there’s his helmet: it has horns on both sides. These too were reserved for gods. He was the first king to appropriate these symbols. But he wasn’t to be the last.


Fig. 6.5 Victory Stela of King Naram-Sin of Akkad, found in Susa, twenty-third century bce. (© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Art Resource)

The Akkadian Empire didn’t last long after Naram-Sin’s reign, and his son and successor didn’t claim to be divine. Very little is known about this son, in fact, but it’s clear the empire went into decline during his reign. This is hardly surprising; the lands of the Near East had not been unified before Sargon’s conquests, and the whole period of Akkadian rule had been marked by rebellions and repeated military attempts by the Akkadian kings to bring the conquered cities properly under control. The people clearly hadn’t taken kindly to the idea of being ruled by a distant emperor, especially one who took control of temple lands for his own use, as the Akkadian kings had done. Although the kings had developed many innovations that continued after the end of their era, the empire was not long-lasting. Many books and articles have been written about the reasons for the collapse of the Akkadian Empire, but in a way it is more surprising that it stayed together for any time at all.

That said, the most obvious reason for the collapse was that a people called the Gutians invaded Akkad from the Zagros mountains to the east. Even the ancient Mesopotamians recognized this, though, oddly, they didn’t think the Gutians were to be blamed for their actions. They thought that gods were responsible for the invasion, but not the gods of the Gutians. In the Mesopotamians’ understanding, their own gods—and especially their great god Enlil—were evidently angry at them and used the Gutians as a tool by which to take their revenge on the people and kings of Agade. This was the reason given for the invasion, in a later hymn called the “Curse of Agade,” and it probably represents the opinion of the people of Akkad at the time.

Modern scholars are, of course, unconvinced that Enlil’s anger was the reason for the fall of the Akkadian dynasty. They credit, instead, the Mesopotamian cities’ long-standing distrust of the Akkadian leaders (as witnessed by all those rebellions), combined with a climate crisis that hit the region around 2200 BCE. It was a time of drought, perhaps caused by volcanic eruptions in Anatolia. These conditions may even have helped bring about the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt that happened around the same time.89

After the Gutian invasion, cities that had been subject to the kings of Agade shook off imperial rule and reinvented themselves as city-states for a while. But that power-hungry seed had been planted in some rulers’ minds—they could now aspire to be like Sargon or Naram-Sin and to unify Mesopotamia, even to become a god.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

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