Age of Gilgamesh (3000 BC to 2500 BC) : Geopolitics of Ancient Mesopotamia

Age of Gilgamesh

In this presentation we will begin exploring the beginnings of recorded history in Mesopotamia, beginning from the early third millennium BC. We will explore the lives of some great heroic kings of Sumeria, as they led Sumeria from a region of small city states to the first empires which dominated the land of the five seas.

The early kings of Sumeria are known from records left on clay tablets, inscriptions on artefacts or buildings, in the famous cuneiform script – this makes up what we call the archive chronicles of Sumerian history, the most important of which are lists of Kings and the cities they ruled. In the previous presentation we explored how Sumerian culture began to take root in the city of Eridu. After long years of habitation, Eridu was abandoned and Sumerians spread out across the southern reaches of the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, establishing cities, all of which had at their heart a temple dedicated to one of the gods from the pantheon of the new gods. At first these cities possibly had temple bureaucracies controlled by the head priest known as en. Gradually political leaders known as ensi became powerful, possibly because they were at first generals of armies. In time ensi became supreme leaders of cities, but their power was still checked by various councils – a council of priests, a council of elders, and a council of soldiers.

With power being concentrated in the hands of ensi, it was only a matter of time before a powerful king arose – the first historic king of Sumeria for whom we have some evidence was Etana, of the city of Kish. The archive chronicles of the King list divided Sumerian history into two periods – before the Great Flood and after the Great Flood. Before the Great Flood it was said, Kingship resided in Eridu, after the flood, Kingship was descended in Kish, a city chosen and blessed by the chief of the new gods, En-lil.

Now, Etana was the King of Kish sometime in the early third millennium BC. In the King-List chronicles it is said of Etana – he was a King who stabilised and brought order to all the lands. Etana, it is observed, was an empire builder. Etana’s empire possibly extended not just over substantial parts of Sumeria, but also to the west into the pasture lands which were home to nomads who often threatened the cities of Sumeria and to the east, into the passes of the Zagros mountains from where invaders were also known to descend. Etana was a powerful king, who not only brought order to Sumeria but also subdued its enemies. For this reason he was immortalised as a heroic demigod in later hymns.

On his earthly death, it was said he had ascended to heaven and thus become immortal. The next great hero of Sumeria, Gilgamesh who was also similarly immortalised in myth and tale was said to have come across him in one of his adventures.

Now, what was the Sumeria that Etana left behind. First of all, Kish was now recognised as the supreme city of Sumer. All later kings, in a later age, who conquered substantial territories in the region would take the title of the King of Kish. But at the end of Etana’s earthly reign, the King of Kish was in a position we might call the King of kings, for there were other ensi in other major cities of Sumer. But for some generations after Etana, his descendants were supreme and the power of Kish was recognised – after a few generations, the next great king of Kish was Enmebaragasi. Enmebaragasi like his ancestor was also a powerful conqueror, he turned his eyes East, and matched his armies beyond the passes of the Zagros mountains to subdue the land of Elam, in southwest Iran. Around the mid second millennium BC, the entire arc from western India, through southern Pakistan, into Iran, into present day Iraq, and down across the Fertile Crescent to Egypt was burgeoning with early civilisations – down the Red Sea, into the Horn of Africa, the Aksumite civilisation was beginning to take root, while the entire southern rim of the Arabian peninsula was also gradually settled, a land known in ancient times as Magan. The emerging Mesopotamian empires would gradually bring these regions into closer interaction developing humanity’s first international system.

It all began with the long centuries of conflict between the city states of Sumeria, after the peace of Etana.

The intensification of war and diplomacy in the reign of Enmebaragasi had consequences for the rest of Sumeria. While the King of Kish was still the King of Kings, there is evidence that ensi of other cities also had some nominal independence. Towards the end of Enmebaragasi’s reign the king of Uruk, Meskia-gasher had accumulated tremendous power – which was all mobilised by his son Enmerkar, who along with the heroic general of the armies of Uruk, a man by the name of Lugalbanda, led expeditions along the Euphrates northward, into the land of Aratta – which is assumed to be somewhere near the Caspian Sea.

Enmerkar succeeded his father and was in turn succeeded by the general Lugalbanda. In this era, as Sumeria was extending its geopolitical control outwards to the east and the west, we can begin talking about a truly Mesopotamian civilisation taking shape. The succession of Lugalbanda to the throne of Uruk is also an interesting marker – did Enmerkar die in combat, was something else responsible for his death? It is as it is, but Lugalbanda’s reign was a crucial marker in Sumerian history, as he was succeeded by Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh was by most accounts a young man when he became ruler of Uruk. There is some evidence that he was not ruler in the real sense but only the military commander, while the city was governed by a Council of Elders, which had the chief priest of the temple as its head. This could possibly have been the arrangement after the death of Enmerkar. Gilgamesh most likely was the son of Lugalbanda, so he continued in the same role. There are some clues that Gilgamesh was Enmerkar’s grandson, either he claimed that only to consolidate his legitimacy or maybe there was a son – could it be that the son had died and Lugalbanda had taken up the role both as regent of Uruk and adoptive father of Gilgamesh? Now, interestingly the mother of Gilgamesh was said to be the goddess Ninsun. As we know from later history of Sumeria, kings often claimed to be be the offspring of goddesses to hide their low birth.

All this mystery and intrigue only added to the mystique of Gilgamesh, but it was his actions which made him a Great King.

When Gilgamesh became the ensi of Uruk, the throne of Kish was occupied the grandson of Enmebaragasi, King Akka. Akka was by most accounts a noble man, he was a builder and devoted his time to improving the land of Sumeria, especially by digging wells and building canals.

In an epic known as the, the Epic of Gilgamesh and Akka, we get a picture of the political structure and ensuing conflict between Kish and Uruk. As it happened, Akka, who as the ruler of Kish was the supreme leader of Sumerians, sent a command to the people of Uruk, asking for manpower for his construction projects. Now, this shows that Kish still had authority over the cities of Sumeria, and that commissioning manpower from the cities was one of his prerogatives. But Uruk was no ordinary city. It was now an empire in its own right. So Gilgamesh, the young king of Uruk, refused.

There was a breakdown in relations in Sumeria and political turmoil in Uruk.

The Epic records Gilgamesh as saying that the king of Kish had commanded them –

“To finish the wells, to finish all the wells of the land,

To finish all the shallow wells of the land,

To finish all the deep wells with hoisting ropes,

(Let us not submit to the house of Kish…)” (Katz 1993, p 4).

Gilgamesh had not only refused to obey the King of Kish – he had in turn decided to declare war on Kish.

He proclaimed “Let us not submit to the house of Kish, let us smite it with our weapons” (Katz 1993, p 4). Now, due to the unique political order of Uruk, for this he had to seek the permission of the city elders. The city elders refused, and Gilgamesh was overcome with anger. So, Gilgamesh then appealed to a second Council of the City assembly – an assembly of the able bodied men of the city, called the gurush.

The younger men were roused by Gilgamesh and they declared their intent to march to war with him. The armies of Uruk marched to Kish and lay siege to the city, led by Gilgamesh, commanded by the General Birhurture, accompanied by a crack regiment of special troops led by Gilgamesh’s close friend Enkidu. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu who is sort of the supporting hero, is supposed to be a man from the wilderness. It is possible he belonged to one of the nomadic people who inhabited the frontiers of Sumeria.

The city walls of Kish were however too strong for the armies of the day. Akka would lead out sorties from the gate, occasionally, and retreat into the safety of the walls. The war went on and on with no resolution.

Until Gilgamesh and, Enkidu, came up with a plan to kidnap Akka.

When Akka led out a sortie he was met by the main army led by Birhurture from the front, and even as he was engaged, Enkidu’s troops broke through the enemy lines, and stormed to Akka in the centre.

Enkidu’s troops grabbed Akka and brought him to Gilgamesh. But what happened next is equally interesting.

Now, Gilgamesh, despite the action he had taken, had respect for Akka.

So, they spoke, negotiated and decided to end the war, and create a new political pact. Now, the roles were to be reversed, Akka proclaimed subservience to Gilgamesh – and Kish became tributary to Uruk, making Uruk the leader of the Sumeria.

The geopolitical order of Sumeria had been overturned. Gilgamesh led his victorious armies into foreign lands, subduing many barbarian nations – which is something we interpret from the Epic of Gilgamesh in which he along with Enkidu travelled the wilderness subduing many monsters. It is possible they are references to foreigners the Sumerians hadn’t come across yet in their history.

While Gilgamesh was away new political intrigues were beginning in Sumeria. The third great city of the time was Ur. The ensi of Ur, Messane-pada decided it was time to found a dynasty of his own. Now Messane-pada was possibly an old man, so, in his intrigues he was supported by his son, Meskiag-nunna- as the armies of Ur marched to take from the control of Akka, the holy city of Nippur.

This possibly happened while Gilgamesh was away on his expeditions, and Nippur quickly fell to the Armies of Ur. To consolidate their rule, the kings of Ur made offerings at the Grand Temples of Nippur. The old king did not live long and was soon succeeded by his son, but Gilgamesh too was marching back to Sumeria.

When Gilgamesh returned he saw the turmoil which had happened in his absence, now whether immediately or after consolidating his rule and rebuilding his armies, he marched against the King of Ur and restored the holy city to the King of Kish, Akka, in his old age.

He had brought order back to Sumeria, while being also, one might add, a just King.

Just like Etana many centuries ago, Gilgamesh too was immortalised as a demigod even he passed from the world. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest major work of literature in human history, the Gilgamesh motif, a depiction of him holding two lions on either side, influenced art from Egypt to India. He became a legend and launched Mesopotamia into a new age of civilisation.

While art, literature and architecture flourished in the Age of Gilgamesh it was also a period of war – much like Renaissance Italy. Remember, Gilgamesh had not imposed a new imperial order from above. Kish, Uruk and Ur remained powerful, and new city states too began to compete for control of Sumeria, the heartland of a flourishing Mesopotamian civilisation which was now in increasing contact with people from India to Africa.

War brought invasion. Some generations after Gilgamesh the old enemy of the Sumerians, the Elamites of Southwest Iran, invaded Sumeria. The king of Elam who led this invasion, reversing centuries of dominance by Sumerians, was from the city of Awan, near Susa. The Awani kings ruled substantial parts of Sumeria, till they were overthrown by a new all conquering King – Hamazi, who was from the old imperial capital of Sumer, the city of Kish.

Hamazi not only drove the Elamites out, he possibly led an invasion into Elam and subjugated it. After his victory over Elam in the east, he marched into the grasslands of the West, extending his hold over the region. It is possible that the geopolitical order of Sumerian city states had become a confederation of sorts, as Hamazi was succeeded by a King from Uruk, who was succeeded by a king of a newly prominent city, Adab.

This king, Lugalnemundu of Adab, built the greatest Mesopotamian empire in the history of the region so far – his rule extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, up the two rivers till the Caspian Sea and across the Zagros mountains into Elam. Lugalnemundu took two titles – King of the Seven Lands and King of the Four Corners of the Earth. These, along with the old title of the King of Kish, would become the titles any emperor of the region aspired to. To consecrate his reign Lugalnemundu built a grand temple dedicated to the Goddess Nintu, a temple with seven giant gates and seven great doors. On the day of consecration it was recorded tribute was sent from Elam, Marhasi, Gutium, Subir, Marty, Sutium, and among other city states, from the city of Uruk. Lugalnemundu ruled for 90 years it is said, possibly an exaggerated number, but during his reign he also faced an internal rebellion by an alliance of thirteen city states of Sumeria, whom he subdued.

Lugalnemundu was succeeded by some generations of kings, the most prominent among whom was Ur-Nanshe. Ur-Nanshe possibly led naval expeditions into the Persian Gulf, and subdued the island of Dilmun, present day Bahrain. Bahrain was to become a key link in trade with southern Arabia, with the region known as Magan, that is present day Oman, and Meluhha, possibly a city of the Indus Valley Civilisation, or the name of a region in southern Pakistan. The ships of Dilmun, he recorded in an inscription, brought him wood in tribute from foreign lands.

We will pick up the story from the reign of Ur-Nanshe in the next part as we move from the Age of Gilgamesh and begin to approach the Age of Sargon the Great. What we have seen in this lecture is the rising complexity of political order on the one hand, as we move from a region of small settlements into the first empires. Second, we have seen a wider and wider circle of engagement with the outside world, for which Ur-Nanshe’s reign marks a turning point. We will see how these themes continue to evolve in the coming generations, as Mesopotamia became an active centre of international relations in the Ancient World.