Chapter 8

Sparring Kings and Their Military Commanders

The journey from Ur to Nippur followed the course of the river the whole way. It was always a slow journey upstream because going by boat was no faster than walking—both the current and the wind were against you. Boats could be towed upriver, but not sailed, so there was no advantage to northbound river travel in terms of speed. From the levee next to the river, a traveler passed a continuous succession of green fields and date palms that flanked the dirt road, with villages and towns scattered along the way. The trees and buildings sometimes hugged the road, allowing no view beyond; but sometimes the view spread out to encompass land that lay completely flat as far as the eye could see to the east and west, the wide river valley barely changing in elevation for hundreds of miles. The biggest cities stood out on the horizon, on top of high tells, surrounded by city walls; smaller communities barely rose above the fields.

The divine King Shulgi of Ur had claimed, in a self-congratulatory hymn, to have run this route, from Ur to Nippur (and back, in a raging storm, no less), in a single day,1 but a normal human being could never have done this. The two great cities were about 195 kilometers (120 miles) apart, so the one-way journey alone would have taken about eight days at the usual pace of 24 kilometers (15 miles) a day.

The Town of Kisurra

About five days after leaving Ur, anyone traveling north on this route reached a town named Kisurra. It was a good place to stop and rest for the night. Kisurra had been founded in the Early Dynastic period, and its citizens had been quietly getting along with life ever since. It had the basic features one would expect of a Sumerian city—it was built on a tell and boasted a temple to the local god, along with smaller temples and shrines to other gods, a city wall, and a palace for the local ruler. But it wasn’t a particularly important place. It had been overshadowed for centuries by more powerful Sumerian cities: Nippur, home to the temple of Enlil, king of the gods; Uruk, which was still an impressive place, even 1,800 years after it first grew to be a city; Girsu, capital of the kingdom of Lagash; and, of course, Ur, which had been home to the great Third Dynasty and the temple to Nanna where Enheduana and so many subsequent en-priestesses had lived and worked.


Map 2 Map of the Near East from 2000 to 1500 bce

Kisurra was much smaller than these metropolises, extending over only about 20 hectares (50 acres)—about the size of the terminal at Grand Central Station in New York City. A man who visited the site during the excavations in 1904 provides one of the few published descriptions of the place. He noted that it was “a small, low, and rather insignificant ruin.”2 Kisurra, in spite of its ordinariness, had a fairly tumultuous history, thanks to the dubious honor of being located pretty much directly on the border of two kingdoms that dominated southern Mesopotamia throughout the twentieth and nineteenth centuries BCE: Isin and Larsa.

Ishbi-Erra of Isin: Usurper

By 2000 BCE, Ur-Namma’s dynasty in Ur had lost its grip on Sumer. A number of factors led to its decline. Scribes later blamed this loss on the arrival of a new group of people, the Amorites, who supposedly disrupted the peace, but scholars have discounted this.

Amorite was a Semitic language that began to spread throughout Mesopotamia around this time; it was the native tongue of a group of people who may originally have come from the west. But they had lived in Mesopotamia long before the end of the Ur III period and had not invaded or suddenly arrived. A king of Ur went to the trouble of building a long wall between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers to try to keep the Amorites out, but it didn’t work. They were already too integrated into Mesopotamian society for a wall to have made any difference at all. Over the next few centuries, kings with Amorite names and Amorite ancestry led many Mesopotamian kingdoms, notably in Babylon, where the most prominent Amorite king was named Hammurabi. We will return to him later. The Ur III kingdom collapsed for more prosaic reasons, one of them being that it continued to be nearly impossible to hold together, for any length of time, large groups of people who were spread over a wide area. Successful long-lasting empires were still a long way off in the future.

For now, the ruler of another city, a close neighbor to Kisurra, was claiming to be the successor to the Ur III kings. This city was Isin and its new ruler was named Ishbi-Erra (2017–1985 BCE). Ishbi-Erra was not a member of any royal family. He had been an official working for a king of Ur, Ibbi-Sin (2028–2004 BCE), who—thanks in part to the treachery of Ishbi-Erra, but also to the breakdown of the central government—proved to be the last king of Ur’s Third Dynasty. Ishbi-Erra claimed the throne for himself and moved his capital city upstream to Isin.3

His reign was long, lasting thirty-three years, which gave him plenty of time to establish his right to be king and to strengthen his grip on his realm. If we can believe his year-names, Ishbi-Erra followed the lead of the Ur III kings: he destroyed cities and conquered armies, created furniture for temples, founded irrigation projects, built a new city wall, and, going all out in the priestess department, dedicated eight women as priestesses to gods in cities around his kingdom.4 Ishbi-Erra emulated kings going all the way back to Sargon when he appointed these holy women. One of them, Enbarazi, was identified as being his daughter.5 (Only one of Ishbi-Erra’s years was named for the appointment of a priest; it was generally the case that priests’ appointments were less likely than those of priestesses to be commemorated this way, or perhaps they were simply less common.)

Ishbi-Erra and the kings who were his descendants are known as the First Dynasty of Isin; they dominated much of Sumer during the 1900s BCE. They did their best to make it seem as though the Ur dynasty had not ended. In fact, they continued to call themselves “Kings of Ur” for seventy years.

But their kingdom was smaller than the kingdom of Ur had been. As we have seen, Mesopotamia was rarely successfully unified, and the collapse of the Ur dynasty allowed the land to return to its more usual condition, with several states coexisting and periodically battling and negotiating with one another. Each kingdom was centered in a capital city, and each contained a number of vassal kingdoms, whose leaders were considered to be “sons” of their overlord, and who often were married to his daughters. These kingdoms extended not just throughout Mesopotamia and Syria, but apparently even into the Levant. Some cuneiform documents found at the Canaanite site of ancient Hazor, in what was (much later) the biblical land of Israel, were written in a language and script typical of this period throughout the region.6

Of the regions that had been within the kingdom of Ur, some northern lands became independent of Isin,7 as did the southern regions of Uruk and Larsa.8 Nevertheless, the people living in much of Sumer would have found their lives more or less unchanged, and many of them might even have been unaware that the capital city had moved north from Ur to Isin, or that the new kings were unrelated to the old ones. Administrative texts found in temple archives show that the new administration was just as concerned with every detail of goods received and manufactured as the old one had been; there wasn’t even a discernable break in record-keeping.

The language of government and religion continued to be Sumerian, even though the kings of Isin spoke Akkadian as their native language. Just as the Ur III kings had commissioned hymns in their own honor, so did the kings of Isin, even copying the patterns of the older hymns. A king of Isin who put out a collection of laws in the 1930s BCE emulated Ur-Namma by composing them in Sumerian.9 Kings of Isin married their daughters off to kings of Anshan, just like Shulgi and other Ur III kings before them. For a whole century there seems to have been no desire on the part of the Isin kings to boast of a new era, or even to claim preeminence for their city.

The Kingdom of Larsa

By the time of Ur’s conquest, the kingdom centered at Larsa, south of Isin and just to the east of Uruk, had become Isin’s main competitor for power in Mesopotamia. It’s difficult to imagine what this era was like for the people living through it, as Larsa began to stretch its muscles, calling up troops, setting its sights on cities that had long been paying taxes first to Ur then to Isin. Were the people of Larsa proud when their king Gungunum (1932–1906 BCE) captured Ur in 1926 bce and ended the Isin kings’ pretentions to be a continuation of the Ur III dynasty? It was only then that the Isin kings gave up calling themselves “king of Ur” and switched to regular use of the title “king of Isin.”10 What was the people’s reaction when, a few years later, the next king of Larsa, Abi-sare (1905–1895 BCE), claimed that he “smote with his weapons the army of Isin”?11 Isin was not defeated, but it was struggling. The next king of Larsa, Sumu-El (1894–1866 BCE), pushed the border of his kingdom north into lands that had long belonged to Isin, including little Kisurra.12

The era from around 2000 to 1800 BCE has been dubbed the “Isin-Larsa period.” The rulers of Isin tried to maintain old traditions but eventually were unable to continue the relatively calm and orderly administration that had characterized the Third Dynasty of Ur, nor could they hold onto Ur’s empire. Larsa gradually chipped away at Isin’s domination, eventually becoming the greater power, though Isin continued to control a gradually shrinking area in the center of the region.

In some cities near the border between Isin and Larsa, residents might have been hard-pressed to keep track of which kingdom they were living in at any given time. Kisurra, located only about 19 kilometers (12 miles) from Isin,13 was in exactly this situation. The documents written there show that people leased fields, herded cattle, lent one another silver and barley, got married, adopted children, farmed, and paid taxes, and they show that generations of parents and children succeeded one another in an orderly fashion, with no apparent major crises or massacres interrupting daily life.14 But for decades, the city bounced back and forth from the control of one kingdom to another.

The evidence for the topsy-turvy nature of the kingdom of Kisurra is reflected well in the dates on the documents that were written there. Each king who controlled the city demanded that contracts and government records be dated by the year-names of his own reign. And so, in the early 1920s BCE, we see kings of Isin being replaced by King Gungunum of Larsa, who took over Kisurra and who imposed his year-names. But, late in the decade, by 1921 BCE, the city was back in the kingdom of Isin, with that king’s year-names replacing those of the king of Larsa. For a brief time Kisurra claimed independence—four kings of a local dynasty controlled the land (and the year-names),15 but then the king of Larsa was back again in 1910 BCE. Twelve more years passed and the city was again in Isin’s kingdom. Nine more years and it was in Larsa again. And so it went, on and on for decades, in dizzying succession, until 1802 BCE.16 During the periods when Kisurra was independent, its kings issued year-names to be used throughout its small territory, and people proudly swore oaths in the name of the local god, Ninurta.17 But then the city would be swept back into the orbit of either Isin or Larsa and the Kisurran people would pay their taxes to other lands and swear their oaths to the gods of other cities.

Here’s the strange thing, though. You would expect this to have been a time of constant warfare and bloodshed with never-ending battles, desperate sieges, and Homeric heroics on the battlefield. But the evidence doesn’t back that up. Although military skirmishes do seem to have been common, the cities near the border of the two kingdoms, and even some cities far from the border, generally seem to have transferred their allegiance from Isin to Larsa, or vice versa, without much of a fuss.

Sumu-El of Larsa and Erra-imitti of Isin: Border Wars

In 1888 BCE, Kisurra was under the control of Larsa. We know this not because of a destruction layer bearing witness to a war for control of the city, or because the king of Larsa bragged about it, but simply because of those documents that start to be dated to the reign of King Sumu-El of Larsa.18 Sumu-El was a king who didn’t shrink from touting his military achievements—he named more than half his years after victories against enemies—so it’s odd that he didn’t ever mention Kisurra in his year-names or his surviving royal inscriptions. But Sumu-El struggled to hold onto Kisurra nonetheless. Around 1868 BCE, twenty years after Sumu-El took control there, an aggressive new king of Isin, Erra-imitti (1868–1861 BCE), sent troops into the area to fight against Sumu-El’s army from Larsa, with the conflict centering on the region around Kisurra.

For once, it’s possible to view this struggle from something other than the bird’s-eye view that we normally get—the flattened landscape of words in year-names that simply name the cities and whether they had been “destroyed,” “smitten,” “defeated,” or “seized” by the conquering king. Instead, letters have survived that King Sumu-El sent to his officers in the midst of the hostilities, between around 1870 and 1865 BCE, when the outcome of the skirmish was far from certain.19 Perhaps the king was writing from his palace at Larsa, but it’s more likely that he was positioned somewhere near the border of his kingdom, leading some of the forces himself. He received regular messages from his officials, and it seems likely that he was relatively close to the front lines when he read them and replied (see Fig. 8.1).


Fig. 8.1 Letter from Larsa concerning the detention of some soldiers, Isin-Larsa period. (Yale University, Peabody Museum)

The situation on the ground at the time is a little hard to reconstruct from the letters. There’s no timeline or map of operations, and Sumu-El didn’t date his correspondence (it just wasn’t Mesopotamian practice to do so), so we can’t even be sure of the chronological sequence in which to read them. But we can still learn a lot about how the conflict played out.

“Important!” the king wrote in one letter to the heads of his security forces. “Your watches must be strict!” This abrupt language was often the way he began a letter. He continued, “Why do you keep releasing troops from service so acquiescently?”20 It’s hard to imagine why the commanders would be releasing their forces; it certainly didn’t please Sumu-El. He had received some important intelligence suggesting that his enemy, the king of Isin, was waiting for just such a moment of weakness to attack.

Sumu-El continued, “Just now, [King] Erra-imitti (of Isin) is giving orders to march on (the town of) Shayana. Make no mistake, as soon as your numbers have decreased, he will reach out against me and do some damage.” You can imagine Sumu-El pacing back and forth, dictating his letter, trying to figure out how to impress upon his heads of security just how dire the situation could become, but only having a tablet carried by a messenger with which to inform them. He closed the letter with another abrupt command: “Important! Do not release troops from service!”21

Shayana was not a major place, but it was Sumu-El’s obsession right now. He wrote three more letters to the heads of security about it.22 In one, it’s clear that the town of Shayana had stayed in his hands. Erra-imitti must have been unsuccessful in his attack. After Sumu-El’s usual command to make sure that “The watches must be strict!” he made three requests about Shayana. First, his troops should not touch the barley located there; second, “the city wall must be in good repair,”23 perhaps in preparation for a threatened attack; and, third, the officials should “take an oracle for Shayana and its troops, for the whole month, and [have it brought] to me.” He asked for this again in another letter. He really needed the monthly oracle for Shayana to be taken.24 Oracles were crucial in wartime; they revealed what the gods had in mind for the armies. Would he be able to hold on to Shayana? Or would Erra-imitti prevail? Later we hear that apparently Shayana did withstand an attack by Isin’s forces, but the city wall sustained damage because of a fire. The heads of security were now required to send builders to repair the wall.25

Strikingly, there are no mentions in the surviving letters of casualties on either side. This hardly sounds like a fight to the death on the part of Erra-imitti, or even a concerted effort to recapture territory. There’s something rather lackadaisical about it all. One letter even describes the movement of the enemy troops of Isin as “dragging” on to the next city after provisioning themselves.26

Perhaps because of the slow pace of military action, King Sumu-El seems to have worried that his generals were not 100 percent focused on keeping the enemy at bay. That phrase, “Important! Your watches must be strict!” or sometimes “Important! Don’t fail in your duties!,” conjures up an image of a man keen to have his orders followed, but unconvinced that they would be. He really did want his military chiefs to pay attention to what he had to say, after all, so he threw in that first word, apputtum, which can be translated as either “Important!” or “It is urgent!”—to wake them up when the letter was read aloud to them.

Almost all the letters focused on whatever command Sumu-El wanted his subordinates to carry out at that time. In some cases, he had heard rumors of behavior by his security agents that he couldn’t understand: Why were they distributing grain in the countryside when it would be needed in town for a siege that seemed inevitable? Why were they quarreling among themselves? He doesn’t seem to have necessarily cared about the answers to these questions; he just wanted all this negligence to stop.

In other letters, though, he did ask for answers, and even for formal written reports: How many forces did two particular generals command and why had they not been deployed? What battle gear did another two men have? No doubt, letters flowed in the other direction as well when the officials wrote back, but the archive from which the letters came didn’t include the replies.

Sumu-El was a practical man, who sometimes had to rein in the ambitions of his generals. At one point, several high-ranking men were leading an effort to quickly build a fort to defend Larsa’s territory, somewhere along its border. They had grand ambitions for an eighteen-acre edifice. Sumu-El wrote to them at least twice to try to convince them to bring their plans down to earth: “The four acres that I told you, that will be enough. Build that,”27 he wrote. He said that the walls could be complete in ten days, rising by four cubits per day. He admitted that the fort might grow larger thereafter: “later let us enlarge it proportionately.” But that eighteen-acre dream? “Should we make it eighteen acres, that would be too much.”28

In the meantime, he was trying to make decisions about where to send troops and where to send silver to pay for hired men, and it drove him a little crazy when the information he needed was not forthcoming. In one letter he described a vast quantity of silver that he had sent out, and he wondered aloud what on earth had happened to it all: “First I had twenty minas (pounds) of silver delivered to you. A second time I had forty minas of silver [delivered] to you. A third time one talent (60 minas)!”29 These 120 minas represented about 54 kilograms (120 pounds) of silver—a vast sum in a land with no mineral ores of its own—enough to have paid hundreds of workers for years. The king demanded, “Report to me in writing all the silver that there is! Have a checklist brought to me!”

The messages were sometimes transported by a man named Puzur-Numushda.30 Typically, the king ordered, “Send Puzur-Numushda to me!”31 But Puzur-Numushda was more than a messenger. He also received letters from Sumu-El, addressed to him along with a powerful commander named Beli-ay-annadi, that show that he was one of the men directly in charge of running the campaign, receiving direct commands from the king. But the fact that Puzur-Numushda could travel to wherever the king was stationed, and that letters regularly passed between the king and the vulnerable cities on the border, suggests that the warfare between the kingdoms was localized and limited. In fact, engagements seem largely to have consisted of sieges, city walls set on fire, and then repairs to the damage. Perhaps the troops from both kingdoms also looted the towns they captured, but, oddly, this is not mentioned by Sumu-El, at least not in the letters that we have. And, again to judge from the letters, the damage done in these wars seems to have been more to property than to people.

Pihatni-ipiq: A High Official of Sumu-El

One high-ranking official whom Sumu-El seems to have trusted was named Pihatni-ipiq. We don’t know his title but, to judge from his responsibilities, he might have been a provincial governor.32 At one point, during the ongoing campaigns near the border, the Heads of Security (those anonymous commanders to whom Sumu-El often wrote) had sent word that they needed a lot more troops, so the king sent their request on to Pihatni-ipiq. King Sumu-El had no doubt that he would follow through; he assured the Heads of Security that Pihatni-ipiq “will dispatch one thousand troops to you.”33 We can only guess what this must have involved. Did Pihatni-ipiq have to redeploy troops from one region to another? Or did he have to call up men who were off duty and busy with farming? How did he choose who would be sent? Who wrote the directive? Where did they gather? How far did the troops travel? How long did it take to organize this? All those details are omitted from the king’s terse note. We know only that the king asked and Pihatni-ipiq came through for him.

Just one letter survives from Pihatni-ipiq to King Sumu-El, and it reveals more about their relationship. Pihatni-ipiq was surprisingly forthright. First, he reassured the king that “The town is well and the guards are well.”34 We don’t know where he lived, but the king would have known which town he meant. He was reassuring the king here, answering the constant demand that “your guards must be strong!”35

This letter actually has nothing to do with the troop movements or the threat from King Erra-imitti of Isin. Instead, Pihatni-ipiq wrote about making the best use of agricultural workers who were available for harvest time so that crops would not be lost. The harvest took place in April and May, just when the river reached its highest level and threatened to flood. It was always a challenge for administrators to make the best use of the available corvée laborers and paid workers—assigning some to harvesting and others to flood control.36 It’s striking that Pihatni-ipiq wrote to the king as “you.” Most officials, not just in Larsa but in other kingdoms as well, referred to the king as “my lord” in their letters and avoided using the second person.37 The king seems not to have minded; Pihatni-ipiq was close enough to him that this familiarity didn’t cause offense.

The commander named Beli-ay-annadi had been on the receiving end of many of Sumu-El’s slightly panicky letters urging him that “The watches must be strict!” but he also was sent a letter by his colleague Pihatni-ipiq about a much more prosaic topic, namely a quantity of barley to be used for feeding animals. Cattle and sheep had to be fattened up for the forthcoming Great Festival. Soldiers were mentioned in this instance, but only in the context of a civilian purpose: they were to be assigned to “escort the fatteners” of the cows and sheep when they were sent off to Pihatni-ipiq.38 The letter shows that, even during times of warfare, not every day was taken up with fort building and troop mustering and oracle reading to prepare for attacks from Isin. The religious festivals that marked the passing of the year continued to be celebrated in the kingdom of Larsa, and Pihatni-ipiq was involved in those as well.

Over the course of his reign, Sumu-El seems to have managed to take control of the town of Kisurra and then lose it, and then gain it back, and then lose it again, several times. Once, he lost Kisurra not to Isin but to the king of Babylon, to whom we will return. At another point, after a local man of Kisurra named Manna-balti-El had claimed the throne and issued his own year-names, Sumu-El brought Kisurra back under the rule of Larsa and Manna-balti-El became his vassal. These two kings cemented their relationship with the marriage of Sumu-El’s daughter, Shat-Sin, to the crown prince of Kisurra. Princess Shat-Sin had a cylinder seal carved to reflect her new status. Its inscription reveals her complicated ties: she was “Shat-Sin, daughter of Sumu-El (king of Larsa), daughter-in-law of Manna-balti-El (vassal of Sumu-El and king of Kisurra), wife of Ibni-Shadu (crown prince of Kisurra).”39 After she moved to the palace at Kisurra, Princess Shat-Sin no doubt kept up a regular correspondence with her father, letting him know about the politics of the court of her father-in-law, and later of her husband when he became king. A letter written by her was found during the brief excavations at Kisurra. The letter isn’t to her father; she wrote to one of the high officials in the city telling him to bring an ox to a particular place when her father, Sumu-El, was ill. Shat-Sin was a chip off the old block. Her tone in this letter was just as authoritative as her father’s in his correspondence (though she refrained from telling the official that his watches must be strict).40

The end result of the battles with Erra-imitti was not good news for Sumu-El. Larsa lost control of Kisurra, and of the much more important city of Nippur.41 At that point it seemed that Isin was gaining strength; its apparent decline was not a given.

Sumu-El’s Reign

Quite a lot more is known about Sumu-El, beyond his letters from the battlefield. He had come to power in 1894 BCE, as the seventh king of Larsa. It had been thirty-two years since his predecessor King Gungunum had taken control of Ur and ended the era in which Isin could claim to be home to the “kings of Ur.” Larsa, rather than Isin, now saw itself as Ur’s rightful heir.42

Many of the kings of Isin and Larsa left little behind. For some, not a single royal inscription remains, not even something as simple as a cylinder seal belonging to a servant of the king. That is true of the first three kings of Larsa.43 We don’t know their year-names; they may not have issued any. For the first two, it’s not even clear that they were “kings of Larsa” at all—they might have been subject to Ur or Isin.44 Their names appear on lists of kings in modern books looking just as robust as anyone else, but a little searching reveals that there’s almost nothing behind those names. They were real people, of course, with officials and families, enemies and intrigue, diplomatic crises and proud achievements, but we know nothing of them.

Sumu-El is different. In addition to his vivid letters, he was the author of two known royal inscriptions, seven inscriptions that mention him on cylinder seals and other objects belonging to servants,45 thirty-one year-names,46 and many administrative documents written during his reign (though, unfortunately, no images of him survive). They all attest to his aggressive efforts to expand Larsa’s kingdom and to undermine the power of Isin.

As we have seen, Sumu-El was proud of his military victories and keen to let everyone know about them in his year-names and inscriptions. Curiously, though, none of the details from his letters were mentioned in his year-names for the period toward the end of his reign when he was locked in the ongoing struggle over the border with Isin. He didn’t boast of capturing Kisurra in 1875 BCE, or of thwarting Erra-imitti’s attempts to besiege his cities, or of arranging for his daughter to marry the crown prince of Kisurra. Instead, throughout the period covered by the letters, he just kept repeating more or less the same year-name over and over. His twenty-fifth year in power, 1872 BCE (which was two years before Erra-imitti came to the throne in Isin), was called “The year: Enshakiag-Nanna, the en-priestess of (the god) Nanna, was installed.”47 With a surprising lack of bombast, 1871 became “The year after the en-priestess of Nanna was installed.” In 1870, Erra-imitti took the throne in Isin, presumably beginning his threats on Larsa, but Sumu-El maintained his silence on such matters in his kingdom. It was “The second year after the en-priestess of Nanna was installed.” This continued right to the end of his reign, all the way through “The sixth year after the en-priestess of Nanna was installed.” Perhaps he was particularly proud of his appointment of the priestess Enshakiag-Nanna. She was, after all, a successor to Enheduana, with the same position at Ur (though more than 400 years later), and Enshakiag-Nanna’s presence there cemented Sumu-El’s claim to be the king of Ur, the successor to the divine kings of the Third Dynasty. On the other hand, he might have repeated variations on the same year-name over and over because matters in his kingdom were not as good as they might have been and he could come up with nothing better to commemorate. Erra-imitti was, after all, able to reclaim the border lands for Isin during those years.

We don’t have the letters of Erra-imitti of Isin to tell us his side of the story of the conflict with the king of Larsa, but he probably saw Sumu-El as the instigator of hostilities, rather than the other way around. We do have his year-names, however, and in 1865, two years before the death of Sumu-El in Larsa, he proudly boasted, that it was “The Year: Erra-imitti, the king, seized Kisurra.” Another version of the year-name said that he “destroyed Kisurra.”48 This wasn’t an empty boast; sure enough, the year-names on the tablets from Kisurra changed again after the twenty-eighth year of Sumu-El. They were, once again, dated to the years of the king of Isin. Poor Kisurra, if Erra-imitti really did “destroy” the city, or even part of it, the people there must have been getting very tired of being pulled like the rope in a tug-of-war between two ambitious kingdoms.

Sumu-la-El of Babylon: The Beginning of a Dynasty

Throughout the twentieth century BCE, the central part of Mesopotamia had been divided into city-states that, like Kisurra, were sometimes independent and at other times subject to greater powers. One of the relatively obscure cities was called Babylon. It’s unclear whether Babylon was independent or subject to Isin through most of the Isin-Larsa period; there are no documents from there at all from the first century of that era.49 The nearby city of Kish was briefly independent and its kings issued royal inscriptions, so Babylon, too, might have been independent, at least for a while.

The shifting political situation in central Mesopotamia began to change during the same decade that Sumu-El of Larsa was writing his letters and strategizing about how to limit the damage inflicted by Erra-imitti of Isin. A new king had taken the throne of Babylon and was beginning to make his presence known. This man had a confusingly similar name to that of his contemporary in Larsa: he was Sumu-la-El (1880–1845 BCE). He founded an Amorite dynasty, one that lasted for almost 300 years and put Babylon firmly on the map as a center of power and influence. (Its most famous king, Hammurabi, ruled a century after Sumu-la-El.)

In fact, it had been Sumu-la-El of Babylon, not the king of Isin, who in just his third year on the throne (1878 BCE) seized control of the city-state of Kisurra. The king of Larsa grabbed it back within just three years (only to lose it to local rule and later to Erra-imitti of Isin), but this was a foretaste of things to come. Babylon was becoming a significant presence in the region.

Sumu-la-El’s name shows up on documents from Sippar quite early in his reign. Sippar was two days’ travel to the north of Babylon and had been home to an independent local dynasty. We know about the local kings mostly from their names appearing in oaths on contracts—people who needed to swear an oath usually did it in the name of the local god and king. Babylon’s involvement in Sippar’s affairs shows up when people started swearing in the name of Sumu-la-El as well as the local king of Sippar. This local king had presumably become a vassal of Babylon. By the thirteenth year of his reign, Sumu-la-El’s name appeared alone.50 Babylon had taken direct control of Sippar; the vassal was gone. By his nineteenth year, Sumu-la-El of Babylon had conquered the nearby city of Kish, followed the next year by Kizallu, which was probably to the south (its location hasn’t been found).

Like his contemporary, Sumu-El of Larsa, many of Sumu-la-El’s year-names are full of military bombast, boasting of the cities he conquered. But the name of his twenty-second year on the throne is strikingly different. It was “the year in which he made for Marduk a magnificent throne dais adorned with silver and gold.”51 You will be hearing a lot about the god Marduk, city god of Babylon, in later chapters of this book, as he eventually became one of the greatest and most powerful of Mesopotamian gods. This seems to be the first reference to him by a Babylonian king.

Enlil-bani of Isin: A Gardener Becomes King

By 1863 BCE, King Sumu-El of Larsa had been dead for three years. Larsa was rising in power and importance under his successor. King Sumu-la-El of Babylon was in his seventeenth year and busily expanding the borders of his own kingdom. Meanwhile, previously dominant Isin faced one defeat after another. And then something remarkable happened there. Or rather, it may have happened. We only know about this episode from a much later chronicle, but the names are right, so perhaps it really took place.

It seems that an eclipse of the moon occurred, terrifying everyone who witnessed it. The Mesopotamians had no way to know that the eclipse happened because the Earth passed between the moon and the sun and cast its shadow across the moon. To Mesopotamian eyes, the bright, reassuring face of the moon gradually seemed to be swallowed up by darkness and was replaced by a round red shadow in the sky. Diviners believed that it signaled the death of the king.

Erra-imitti acted in his own self-interest, and he may have been the first king to come up with a solution to the threat of his imminent death. At any rate, he’s the first one that we know of to do this (there were others who followed his lead in later centuries). According to the later chronicle, “Erra-imitti, the king, installed Enlil-bani, the gardener, as a substitute king on his throne. He placed the royal diadem on his head.”52 The plan was that this gardener, Enlil-bani, would serve as king in place of Erra-imitti—living in the court, being served by attendants—and that the gods could go right ahead and carry out their threat to kill the king, but they would choose the gardener-king instead of the real king, Erra-imitti. Just in case the gods failed to follow their cue, the real king would have the substitute king killed, after which Erra-imitti would retake the throne, the prophecy having been properly fulfilled. This, at least, is what happened in later centuries when a substitute king was installed in order to fulfill, and outwit, a prophecy of death to the king.

But the gods seem to have been wiser than Erra-imitti anticipated. Instead, “Erra-imitti [died] in his palace when he sipped a hot broth. Enlil-bani, who occupied the throne, did not give it up (and) so was sovereign.”53 Fact or fable? It seems like a fairy tale, and yet it may well have happened. There is no record from the time of this remarkable occurrence, only ones that were written much later. But then, not many royal records survive from this period; it might simply be lost. Enlil-bani is unlikely to have bragged in a royal inscription about this odd way of coming to power. Being a gardener was not a normal preparation for the throne, after all.

So perhaps the real king did die, as the gods had foretold with the lunar eclipse. One can imagine Erra-imitti sipping his hot broth and then suddenly falling to the ground. Did he choke to death, or have a heart attack, or was he perhaps even poisoned? At this point the gardener, Enlil-bani, who had been placed on the throne simply as a convenience in order to spare the king, could have justifiably argued that the gods had wanted him to rule. What were the chances? There he was, ready to give up his life for the gods and the kingdom, and suddenly it was clear that he was the gods’ choice, after all. They had seen through Erra-imitti’s ruse and killed him anyway.

In the end, Enlil-bani (1860–1837 BCE) left far more evidence of his reign than did the ill-fated Erra-imitti. He commissioned an inscription to be impressed onto the bricks of a building that he constructed in Isin. It began, “Enlil-bani, shepherd who makes everything abundant for Nippur, farmer (who grows) tall grain for Ur,”54 which sounds like a slight nod to his humble agricultural beginnings. But he also claimed religious powers. He “purifies the mes (cosmic truths) of (the city of) Eridu,” and was the “favorite en-priest of Uruk.” At this point he came to his titles: “king of Isin, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad,” the latter being the title given to the kings who claimed to control all of Mesopotamia. He was their rightful successor. Note that, unlike most kings, he didn’t name his father. Why would he? His father had not been royal. Instead he emphasized that he was the “spouse chosen by the heart of the goddess Inana.” And, like Erra-imitti and the other kings of Isin before him, Enlil-bani added the divine symbol in front of his name. Notwithstanding his humble start in life, he asserted that he was himself a god, an appropriate husband for the goddess Inana.

His contemporaries might have been dubious to start with, but Enlil-bani actually seems to have been a successful king. Early on, he released his subjects in Isin from paying taxes and serving as laborers.55 This was a smart move. The previous king, Erra-imitti, probably had sons who normally would have had a stronger claim to rule than Enlil-bani did. In the face of this, Enlil-bani needed popular support. What better way to get it than to cancel taxes and corvée labor duties? But this doesn’t seem to have been an entirely cynical choice. Year after year, the accidental king attempted to endear himself to his people, for example by having canals dug that would expand the agricultural land of the kingdom.56 He also lavished attention and wealth on the gods, providing them with thrones, daises, gold and copper statues, new temples, and priests and priestesses to serve them.

Unlike his predecessors and contemporaries in other states, Enlil-bani’s twelve surviving royal inscriptions and twenty-four surviving year-names made no mention of attacking other cities. Even in a poem written in praise of him, the author emphasized the king’s goodness and kindness rather than his prowess or fearsomeness. Yes, “your troops triumph over hostile troops” (though no specific victories are mentioned), but the foreign leaders didn’t quake in fear; instead “all sovereigns become allies with you and you soothe their quarrels.”57 The generous ex-gardener did not “kill transgressors” and his “governors suffer[ed] no injuries.”

Besides building temples, Enlil-bani had his laborers and engineers rebuild the city wall around Isin and construct a palace.58 He made a special gift to the goddess Ninlil by installing two copper statues in her temple, 117 years after they had first been fabricated by an earlier king. It’s unclear where they had been languishing in the meantime, but Ninlil finally benefited from their presence. In exchange, the king’s inscription records that Ninlil “had the god Enlil (her husband) lengthen the lifespan of Enlil-bani.”59

Enlil-bani’s fame in subsequent generations came the same way as Shulgi’s. The hymn written in his praise became a standard part of the school curriculum. Scribes copied it for generations as they learned to write and as they learned Sumerian—not a bad outcome for a man who was slated to be executed in place of the real king. Ultimately, he was the real king.

It would be fitting to conclude this section with a fable-style ending, to tell you that the lowly gardener king was able to turn around the fate of his kingdom, and that Isin was renewed under his wise rule. But it was not to be. By 1837 BCE, when Enlil-bani died, Isin was little more than a city-state, eclipsed by the dominant presence of Larsa.

Throughout the kingdom’s decline, though, Isin’s kings maintained a sense of grandeur. They continued to present themselves as gods, something claimed by only two of the kings of Larsa.60 At the end of the reign of the second-to-last king of Isin, Sin-magir (1827–1817 BCE), someone in the royal court decided to add the names of the kings of Isin to the Sumerian King List that had been in circulation at least since the reign of King Shulgi of Ur, more than 200 years before.61 By adding his dynasty to the end of this list, Sin-magir was claiming to be the divinely ordained successor to all the great kings and dynasties of the past, including Sargon and the subsequent kings of Akkad, Ur-Namma and his successor kings of Ur. There was, unsurprisingly, no mention of Larsa.

But five years before Sin-magir’s death, a young rival named Rim-Sin had taken the throne in Larsa, and twenty-eight years after that, Rim-Sin finally conquered Isin, bringing the dynasty to an end. But the future in Mesopotamia did not belong to Larsa. A younger contemporary of Rim-Sin, Hammurabi of Babylon, was about to put his city on the map, where it stayed forever.

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