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A General History of the Middle East


3000 to 1792 B.C.

This chapter covers the following topics:

The Rise of the Sumerians
Sumerian Intellectual Achievements
From City-States to Kingdoms
The Early Elamites
Out of the Valleys
A War-Ravaged Civilization
The Role of Climate Change in History
The Akkadian Empire
Sumer's Last Hurrah
Abraham, the Friend of God
The Fall of Ur
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The oldest recorded history to be found anywhere is in or near the Middle East. A lot has happened here over the past 5,000 years, since this is where the three main continents of the Old World meet. Any would-be conqueror wishing to extend his empire to more than one continent would have to pass through this region first. And contrary to the currently popular theories of evolutionists who have mankind originate in Africa, the Middle East seems to have been the cradle of the human race as well. All three of the world's chief monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity and Islam--place the Garden of Eden somewhere in the region. The second chapter of Genesis, for example, lists four rivers as coming out of the garden, and clearly identifies two of them as the Tigris and the Euphrates. This would put the garden in or near Iraq, although we don't know the locations of the other two rivers, Pishon and Gihon; some have suggested they are tributaries of the two main rivers, or streams that no longer exist today. Islamic tradition agrees by putting the Garden near Baghdad, and the ancient Sumerians identified it with Bahrein in the Persian Gulf.

Wherever Eden was, we have no complete world history for the pre-3000 B.C. era; in fact, the only writings we can trust to any degree for this period come from the first eleven chapters of the Old Testament. For mankind's prehistory I wrote a separate work entitled The Genesis Chronicles: A Proposed History of the Morning of the World. Whether or not you believe the theories I proposed there, I recommend that you read Chapters 11 and 12, because there I explain how the Sumerian civilization got started. In fact, the two main cultures that existed in Iraq before the invention of writing, the Ubaidian and the Uruk cultures, are described there, rather than here, because I believe those artifacts were laid down when the events in Genesis 10 and 11 took place.(1) After you read that, come back and sit for a long and hopefully enlightening epic journey on how we got to today's news headlines.

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The Rise of the Sumerians

Before we begin, a few words are in order to explain the nomenclature used in Chapters 1-4 of this work. The main theater of the narrative in those chapters is the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers--ancient Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. Mesopotamia is a purely geographical term--no nation has ever called itself by that name--while "Iraq" is the Arabic name for Uruk, the name of one of the land's oldest cities (Erech in the Old Testament). The southern third of both river valleys is called Sumer, while the central third is Akkad. Sometimes Sumer and Akkad are lumped together under the name "Babylonia." The Upper Euphrates doesn't have a separate name, because it already runs through eastern Syria, while the upper Tigris is Assyria. It is pure coincidence that Syria and Assyria have similar-sounding names; Syria is derived from Sur, the Arabic name for the city we call Tyre.

Anyway, few cities found anywhere else come even close to matching the antiquity of the urban centers of the Fertile Crescent, and the presence of Mesopotamian artifacts in two other civilizations, those of Egypt and India, tell us that Mesopotamia is at least as old as its trading partners, if not older. However, the cities of Mesopotamia are more than just old; they and the people who first built them were forgotten as well. The term we use for the builders, the Sumerians, is derived from the Akkadians, the first people who conquered them; the Sumerians called their land KI.EN.GIR, the "Land of the Lords of Brightness," and they called themselves UN.SAN.GIGA, meaning "the black-headed people." Because they lived so much earlier than the ancient civilizations we're more familiar with, we had to rediscover the Sumerians, and that is one of modern archaeology's greatest triumphs.

Abraham must have been familiar with Sumerian civilization--the dates we assign to this Biblical patriarch put him near the end of the Sumerian era--but all the Bible tells us are the names of two cities where he lived (Ur and Haran), and the bare fact that the people he left behind worshiped many gods (Joshua 24:2). The Egyptians traded with the Sumerians, but did not bother to tell us anything about them. The Sumerians were completely unknown to Greek and Roman authors, who thought Mesopotamian history began with a queen named Semiramis (see Chapter 3). Babylonian historians like Berosus lived two millennia after the Sumerians, so all the information they had came in the form of legends.

It is a similar story with the other civilizations that existed in the Middle East, before the Persian Empire rose up and conquered the entire region. In fact, just about everything you will read in Chapters 1-4 is known to us because of discoveries made over the past two hundred years. By the time Western civilization was on a firm footing, Middle Eastern predecessors like the Elamites, Hittites and Assyrians had disappeared; fabulous cities like Tyre, Nineveh, Ur and Babylon were only known by references in the Bible and classical writers such as Herodotus; they were thought to be exaggerations, if they even existed at all. According to Western textbooks, world history began with Egypt and Greece, and that was that. The mud bricks used in ancient buildings had crumbled to dust, and after the cities were abandoned/destroyed, more dust blew in from the desert and covered them up completely.

For a long time the hills of the Middle East, called tells by the Arabs and tepes by the Persians and Turks, were considered nothing more than that--hills. Then in the first half of the nineteenth century, Western travelers to Iraq noticed that when it rained, pieces of pottery and bricks were washed out of the hills. European and American museums financed expeditions, and archaeologists came to dig what could be found from these "city graves." In the middle of the century Sir Henry Rawlinson translated cuneiform by studying the Behistun inscription (see Chapter 5), and the oldest written words could be read again. With the excavation of Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s, the Middle East regained its reputation as the "cradle of civilization." Until that time we regarded Egypt as the world's oldest civilization; now the land of the pharaohs has been relegated to the periphery of the civilized world in the fourth and third millennia B.C.

The Sumerians themselves were apparently Hamites, descendants of the core group that stayed behind when everybody else moved away from the ruins of Babel. Their language is clearly not Semitic, despite the fact that most of their neighbors were Semites; nor does it follow the grammatical structure of an Indo-European language. A few scholars have postulated that the Sumerians were related to ethnic groups like the Basques and the Georgians, belonging to an Indo-European family that no longer exists; that theory only holds water because we don't know where the Basques or Georgians came from, either. In 2002 the author read the theories of a Malaysian professor, Dr. K. Loganathan, who believes that Sumerian was an ancient form of Tamil, the most widely used language in present-day south India. I find this origin the most plausible, meaning that the Sumerians and Dravidians (non-Aryan Indians) once had a common ancestor (probably Cush in Genesis 10). Until a better theory comes along, this one will do.

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Sumerian Intellectual Achievements

Despite the progress of archaeology, we know little about Mesopotamian history before 2500 B.C. Samuel Noah Kramer (1895-1990), the greatest Sumerian scholar of the twentieth century, wrote a book in 1959 entitled History Begins at Sumer, but it is a story where most of the first chapter is missing, and what we do have is maddeningly difficult to understand. Moreover, the oldest surviving examples of Sumerian writing were not stories but business records--inventories and contracts--not the most exciting reading! The Sumerians started out with a system of picture writing, where every character stood for a complete word. Before long they had an estmated 2,600 characters, so to make reading easier, they looked for ways to reduce the number of symbols they had to memorize. For example, the word du, meaning "foot," was represented with a picture of a foot, but a picture of a foot could also mean "to stand," "to go," "to come" or "to bring." Other times they resorted to a system of punning, in which one character represented a homonym, or another word spoken with the same sound. To further add to the confusion, there were no spaces between the words, and the order in which words were placed in a sentence doesn't seem to have mattered. Later on Sumerian scribes would insert special symbols called determinatives which, like punctuation, tell us how to read the other characters, but because the early texts didn't have this helpful feature, we have to guess at what they meant. Finally, some of the older symbols went out of use by the time the meanings of the others became clear, so we have no idea what word or sound went with them. The end result? Sumerian writing was so complicated that only a few scribes mastered it, and today's scholars have trouble knowing for sure what an archaic Sumerian inscription says; it is estimated that only 250 people in the modern world can read and write in Sumerian. As one of them, Dr. Steve Tinney, put it, "Sumerian is a very difficult and obtuse language. It has no relatives, living or dead. The script is not syllabic, let alone alphabetic--it's logographic, like Chinese." The largest existing Sumerian vocabulary is the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project (PSD), which Tinney and others organized between 1974 and 2006.

Nouns were easy enough to express as pictures; to express verbs or abstract ideas, two or more symbols were put together. For example, a head next to a bowl meant "eat." As time went by, they experimented with characters that represented individual syllables, rather than words. Eventually they reduced the written vocabulary to around 600 symbols, and as the system of writing grew more sophisticated, it became possible to express virtually any thought that could be spoken.

Simultaneously there was a revolution in the style of writing. The first scribes wrote like today's Chinese, starting in the top right corner and going down in vertical columns. This was awkward, because the scribe's hand often smudged previously made signs. Scribes solved this problem by turning their tablets 90 degrees counterclockwise and writing horizontally from left to right; this turned out to be more convenient. They also tilted the characters 90 degrees to the left, presumably so that scribes who learned to read the old-fashioned way could continue to do so simply by turning the tablet on its right-hand side. Finally, the scribes disliked the unsightly bumps and ridges that they made when their writing tool etched the clay, so they dispensed with the original stick or stylus. In its place came a triangular stylus that was not drawn across the clay but pressed into it, leaving a neat wedge-shaped symbol. Now Sumerian writing lost its picture-book aspect; clusters of wedges replaced drawings, and symbols no longer resembled the words they were supposed to represent. This system of writing, which would be the most widely used in the Middle East for nearly three thousand years, is now called cuneiform, meaning "wedge-shaped" in Latin.

Cuneiform Map
Clay tablet with cuneiform writing. The diagram on the lower two thirds of the tablet is a map of the world, showing the ocean surrounding all land and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers running through the middle.

Cuneiform would be used to record the oldest law codes, military triumphs, advice in agriculture, and epic stories. Many of these clay tablets, once translated, are still delightful to read today. For instance, around 1800 B.C. one Ea-nasir, a trader who made a living importing copper from Dilmun (Bahrein), received the oldest known letter of complaint from Nanni, a dissatisfied customer. "You said," someone wrote to him, "'I will give good ingots to Gimil-Sin.' That is what you said, but you have not done so; you offered bad ingots to my messenger, saying, 'Take it or leave it.' Who am I that you should treat me so contemptuously? Are we not both gentlemen? . . . Who is there among the Dilmun traders who has acted against me in this way?"

cuneiform letter of complaint
Nanni's poor review, written 3,800 years before the invention of From the British Museum's website.

The best part is the line where Nanni admitted that he owed Ea-nasir "one mina of silver," but thought that shouldn't have prevented him from getting first class treatment. People who believe they are entitled to all kinds of privileges, didn't only live in our time!

Another story, written around 2000 B.C., has gone down as the oldest case of apple polishing. A student, tired of being hit by his schoolteacher's cane for breaking classroom rules, begged his father to invite the teacher home for dinner. The father did just that: when the teacher entered the house, they seated him in a place of honor, the boy attended and served him, and the father gave him a new robe and a new ring to wear. The teacher must have been as underpaid as today's educators, because this generosity so overcame him that he forgot the boy's previous conduct. "You have carried out well the school's activities," he told the student. "You have become a man of learning." This story was so popular that twenty-one copies of it have been found so far.

Ebla scribe
The scholars and scribes of the ancient Middle East weren't wimps! Because clay tablets weigh more than scrolls and books, they got plenty of exercise just by lugging their reading matter around. Source: the December 1978 National Geographic.

As aspiring scribes learned to write, they also received a healthy dose of mathematics. Sixty and multiples of sixty were seen as the luckiest numbers, so Sumerian mathematicians used both a decimal and a base-60 system for multiplication and division. The seven-day-week, 360-degree circle, and sixty-minute hour are all Mesopotamian in origin. So are some of our "English" units of measurement, namely the inch (the average length of three barley corns) and the foot. The standard for the foot was the king's shoe size, so for a while the length of the official "foot" changed every time they got a new king.

Other Sumerians focused on spiritual matters. Every Sumerian city had at least one god to worship. Ur, for example, had Nanna, the moon, later known as Sin, and Eridu worshiped Enki, the water god, because of its location on the coast. Because Uruk had been important since prehistoric times, it had two major gods: Anu, the sky-god, and Inanna (later called Ishtar), the goddess of love and war. Nippur venerated Enlil, the wind god, and eventually Enlil became king over the other Sumerian gods; when this happened Nippur became a holy city, "the navel of the world," a neutral site that managed to escape most of the wars fought in the land. Other cities had gods for the earth, sun, storms, etc. When the Sumerian city-states united under one ruler, they created an elaborate mythology to explain how the gods interacted (e.g., Anu was the father of Enlil). There was room for every city's gods in the mythology, and new gods were added until the pantheon had no less than 3,000 deities in it.

It was not a religion for optimists. They portrayed the gods as oversized people, showing the best and worst of human nature. According to myth, humans were only created to serve the gods--one creation epic even claimed that humanity was made from the blood of an evil god, and thus could not help being what he is. The Sumerian view of the afterlife was equally dismal: after death everyone went to a dreary netherworld like the Hades of Greek mythology. In this version of Hell the only consolation was that those who lived good lives did not suffer as much as the rest. The best treatment of dead souls was reserved for royalty and their servants, which helps to explain the mass suicide that took place at the death-pits of Ur (more about that later).

They invented various forms of divination to learn the will of the gods, the two most popular being astrology and hepatomancy (looking for omens in the shapes of livers from sacrificed animals). Failure to worship the gods properly could cause all sorts of calamities: floods, drought, pestilence, or barbarian raids. They regularly made generous offerings to the temples to avert divine wrath. Sometimes more than that was demanded; the temples of Ishtar, for example, demanded the virginity of Ishtar's female worshipers. According to Herodotus, before they could be married, they had to serve as prostitutes in the temple, until they attracted the attention of a pious customer, who expressed his interest by tossing a coin or piece of jewelry to the young woman he wanted. Herodotus himself considered the practice unfair because the prettiest girls completed their duty in only a few days, while the homely could be left waiting for years.

Perhaps the strangest clay tablet found so far is a medical text. Samuel Noah Kramer tried to translate it in the 1940s, but it stumped him for more than a decade. Finally in 1953, he enlisted the help of a young chemist, Martin Levey, to identify the various substances and chemicals mentioned in the text. It turned out to be a list of prescriptions; unfortunately the diseases they were used for aren't stated, so we do not know how well they might have worked.

Most of the ingredients listed were extracts from seeds, bark, and gum of plants (cassia, myrtle, asafetida, thyme, willow, figs, dates), plus common minerals such as salt and saltpeter, and occasionally an exotic animal product like a turtle shell or snake skin. For example, the formula for a poultice reads as follows: "Purify and grind to powder a water-snake skin, add the plant, the root of myrtle, crushed alkali, powdered barley, the skin of the kushippu bird, then pour water, boil it, and let the water be run off. Bathe [the sick organ] in it, and rub oil over it."

What had Kramer so puzzled is that the tablet reads like a purely scientific work; the prescriptions seem to have been developed through observation, trial and error, with none of the prayers or magic that passed for medicine in ancient times. Indeed, before the appearance of famous doctors like Hippocrates and Galen, most cultures saw disease as the result of curses from some supernatural being. Middle Eastern civilizations like the Babylonians and Assyrians were especially susceptible to that kind of thinking; to them medicine, and all science for that matter, was little more than a matter of reciting the appropriate "mumbo jumbo." Instead, Kramer said this about the tablet: "Not one god or demon is mentioned anywhere throughout the text. It is a startling and rather unexpected fact that this clay document, the oldest 'page' in medical history as yet uncovered, is completely free from the mystical and irrational elements which dominate Babylonian medicine of latter days."

We think of Western civilization as being dominated by superstition at first, followed by science. Is it possible that in ancient Mesopotamia, progress went in the opposite direction?

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From City-States to Kingdoms

For most of their history the Sumerians were not united. In most cultures, the oldest political unit, aside from the tribe, was the city-state, one city with a piece of farmland around it. This was the case with Sumer, which origially had fourteen city-states. They were, from north to south: Sippar, Kish, Akshak, Larak, Nippur, Adab, Shuruppak, Umma, Lagash, Bad-tibira, Uruk, Larsa, Ur and Eridu. Though every city-state was under a king by the time historical records appear, it appears that in the beginning, some of them, if not all, were governed by a council of elders, who made decisions in a sort of democratic assembly. This worked well enough in peacetime, but when a war or some natural catastrophe happened, quicker decision-making was needed. For this the council appointed a temporary dictator, known as a lugal (literally "big man"). Like the dictators of the Roman republic, more than 2,000 years later, the lugal led the city-state until the emergency was over, and then returned as an honored hero to his former occupation. As the number of wars increased, however, rule by lugals became more common; the logical final step came when a lugal decided that he wanted to be "big" for life. After that the original councils disappeared, lugals started appointing their successors, and the word lugal came to mean "king," replacing the previous title of ensi for the ruler of a city. It was always government by monarchy after that.

The earliest historical record that we have is a document known as the "Sumerian King List." Compiled from fifteen different texts, this is an uninterrupted list of Mesopotamian kings from the creation down to the city-state of Isin, whose last king was overthrown in the 16th century B.C. Unfortunately, it's not a very reliable document. The most obvious problem with the Sumerian King List is that most of the reigns are way too long to be trusted. Another problem is that some of the dynasties may have co-existed together--Sumer was divided more often than it was united--but each dynasty is listed separately, with no clues given as to how it interacted with the others. To give an analogy, suppose you had a list of Europe's kings, that started with the Roman emperors, and then listed German kings, followed by French kings, Spanish kings, English kings, and so on. In addition, non-royals with political power, like the duke of Burgundy or the archbishop of Mainz, might be on the list as well, treated as if they were as important as the big boys (see Chapter 2, footnote #22). If we had such a list, that only recorded how long each monarch ruled, with no absolute dates on any calendar we recognize, we might think that after the fall of Rome, each nation took a turn ruling Europe for several centuries, and conclude that recorded European history was tens of thousands of years old!

Anyway, the first section of the Sumerian King List has each king ruling for many millennia, and ends with the brief phrase "The Flood swept thereover," undoubtedly a memory of Noah's universal flood.(2) After the flood Kish became the first important city, ruled by a dynasty of 23 supermen, with an average duration of one thousand years per reign. Gradually the claimed life expectancies decreased; when they finally get below a century, the chronicle can be considered true history. One king of Kish, Etana, is worth mentioning because legends grew around him later. The king list calls Etana the one who "stabilized all the lands," suggesting that he was the first king of Kish to rule other cities besides his own.

Kish, however, was not alone; the kings of Uruk were strong enough to challenge the supremacy of Kish. Whereas Kish only had one king who did enough to become the subject of legends, Uruk had several larger-than-life rulers. The accomplishments of the first two kings of Uruk, Meskiagkasher and Enmerkar, were already covered in Chapter 11 and Chapter 12 of The Genesis Chronicles. Their successors, Lugalbanda, Dumuzi and Gilgamesh, led armies against other city-states, the Elamite tribes in Iran, and against the Semitic peoples living in central and northern Iraq. Eventually Dumuzi and Gilgamesh were deified and added to the Sumerian pantheon. Dumuzi held a sacred "marriage" with the high priestess of Ishtar, while the rest of the city celebrated with an orgy; this was supposed to guarantee good crops (a good crop of babies, anyway!), so Dumuzi became a fertility symbol.(3) Gilgamesh was remembered as a Hercules-type figure, credited with slaying monsters and performing other heroic feats.

Gilgamesh had seven successors, who are only names on the King List to us; their reigns ranged in length from six to thirty-six years, pitifully short time spans compared to what earlier kings had claimed. Meanwhile in Kish, one of the last kings of that city was named En-me-barage-si, and his name has been found on a pot, suggesting that he was real and not a mythical figure. At this time, a rival dynasty was founded in Ur, a port city which had become rich from seaborne commerce, and clay tablets and seals bearing the names of Ur's kings have turned up. All this means that during the three-way rivalry between Kish, Uruk and Ur, true history can now take over, replacing legends as our main source of information. Around 2348 B.C., a king of Ur named Mes-anne-padda defeated both Uruk and Kish, and Ur was dominant until 2172 B.C. The tombs of several kings and queens of Ur were excavated in the 1920s by Sir Leonard Woolley, the British archeologist we earlier credited with rediscovering Sumerian civilization. Besides gold, jewelry, and various art objects, Woolley uncovered a grim secret; whenever a king or queen died in Ur, dozens of servants followed the royal person into the grave and drank poison so they could serve in the next life as well.(4)

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The Early Elamites

A number of exciting archaeological discoveries have been made in the countries near Iraq, especially Syria and Iran, over the past generation. Previously historians accepted a simple explanation of civilization's development: it started in a few widely separated river valleys (mainly the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and Indus), and spread from there into surrounding areas. Recent discoveries haven't disproven this theory, but they have made the story more complicated. Maybe in the Far East, citizens of the first Chinese state looked out, saw barbarians all around them, and believed that they were the only civilized people on earth, but the tribes and city-states of western Asia were never isolated long enough to get this idea. We now know that the people of the fourth and third millennia B.C. got around quite a bit; Mesopotamia was in contact with both India and Egypt by 2500 B.C., perhaps even as early as 3000 B.C.

One neighboring area had been settled and civilized for so long that it couldn't really be called a new neighbor. This was the southwest corner of Iran--ancient Elam (called Haltamti by its ancient residents and Khuzestan on modern Iranian maps). Elam was separated from the rest of Iran by the Zagros mts., and since no barrier isolates it from Mesopotamia, the Elamite shepherds were in contact with the communities of the Tigris and Euphrates from a very early date. Susa, the capital of Elam, was founded before 3000 B.C., but even in the earliest stages its long history was violent. One hill of Susa has been called the "acropolis," because it had a tall structure on a brick platform (262 by 213 feet, and possibly as much as 60 feet high) that may once have been a temple; we're not sure because somebody had destroyed it. The site also contained the graves of more than a thousand men, women and children, buried on top of each other in a small area. Since not all of them were buried with grave goods like bowls and jewelry, and many of the skeletons had bones missing, it has been suggested that they all died around the same time, from a plague or war, and were buried in one mass grave; others think this spot served as a type of charnel house, where various remains were reburied after they had been dug up from somewhere else.

The next levels of Susa had Uruk-style pottery, plus cylinder seals and clay tokens, the oldest forms of Mesopotamian writing, so Elam must have been heavily influenced by the Sumerian city-states; it may even have been part of Nimrod's Babel empire. Other important Elamite cities appeared at this point, like Awan, Simash, Madaktu, and Dur-Untash (modern Chogha Zanbil). We also believe the Elamites built Sialk Tepe, the oldest ziggurat found so far (2700 B.C.), at the modern city of Kashan in central Iran. 320 miles southeast of Susa, they founded Anshan as a trading post, around 3000 B.C. Anshan grew to become the foremost city in the region immediately east of Elam. As long as the Elamites ruled Anshan, it effectively doubled the size of their state, and after the ancestors of today's Iranians moved in, Anshan's territory, called Fars or Persis, would become the core territory of the Persian Empire (see Chapters 4 & 5).

The Elamites spoke a language which is understood by modern scholars, but it does not appear to have been related to Sumerian or any Semitic or Indo-European language. When the Sumerians began to use writing, the Elamites developed a pictographic script of their own, with at least 1,200 symbols. We call this script "Proto-Elamite," and only recently have scholars made any headway in deciphering it.

Among the records that have been translated so far, we know that farm laborers were paid a ration of barley that was barely above the starvation level, which was usually made into porridge and beer. And curiously, it has been noted that proto-Elamite art produced plenty of pictures of animals and gods, but not a single human figure has been found--not even part of one, like a hand or an eye. Did the first Elamites have a taboo against making images of people, like Judaism and Islam would have later on? Finally, one reason why the code of proto-Elamite writing has been so hard to break is its inconsistency. The leading scientist involving with the deciphering, Jacob Dahl, found the tablets to be full of mistakes, and believes that the scribes were poorly taught; they do not seem to have had any dictionary, list of symbols, or learning exercises to make sure their spelling and grammar was correct. Consequently the writing system became so corrupted that they quit trying to use it after only two hundred years or so. And you thought the mistakes caused by people relying on spellchecks were bad! After Sargon I conquered Elam (see below), the Elamites learned the cuneiform of Mesopotamia, and used that for the rest of their history.

Elam did well because its rulers made the most of the resources available in both the lowlands and the mountains on their northern and eastern frontiers. Apparently Elam functioned as a unified state as early as 2700 B.C., but we don't know the names of any of the first rulers. The names become available some time between 2500 and 2300 B.C. with the establishment of the Awan dynasty, which is included in the Sumerian King List (see above). We know they fought quite often with the Sumerians, because Sumerian records claimed bloody victories in battles against the Elamites on more than one occasion. This marked an early stage in a feud that would last for more than two millennia.

The recent discovery of civilized communities in eastern Iran gave archaeologists a major surprise. Previously they knew nothing about what happened here before 2000 B.C., nor did they expect to learn much in the future, because this region contains two uninhabitable deserts (the Dasht-i-Kavir and the Dasht-i-Lut), and the rest is not much friendlier. Politics was also a factor; Western archaeological expeditions to Iran ceased with the 1979 Iranian Revolution (see Chapter 17), and did not resume until the mid-1990s, when the Burnt City (Shar-e-Sokhteh) was discovered. It now appears that when the Sumerian and Indian civilizations made contact, the lands between them were not ignored.

Located near modern Zabol, on the Iran-Afghanistan frontier, Burnt City was occupied from about 3200 to 2100 B.C.; it got its current name because we don't know what the natives called it, and it was destroyed three times by fire. This is the largest and richest archaeological site in Iran, thanks to the dry climate; every year foreign archaologists return home at the end of a season's diggings with plenty of new items to study. So far written inscriptions have not been found, so we don't know who the people were, or their history; objects from graves are the main evidence being used to piece together the lives of Burnt City's residents. For example, it appears to have been a matriarchal society (how different that is from Iran today!), because while many stone seals have been found in the graves, 90% of those seals were buried with women. Possession of seals was required for signing contracts in the days before a handwritten signature became acceptable, so this indicates that women controlled the economy. There were also some cases where beheaded skeletons were found in graves, with the skulls arranged in ritual patterns, suggesting that these were the victims of human sacrificial ceremonies, rather then executed criminals. Finally, the Iranian press routinely reports new discoveries, like the world's oldest backgammon set (complete with a pair of dice that look very much like the dice used today), fifty examples of preserved textiles, and a pot with pictures of a leaping goat, that has been described as the oldest animation sequence. The most remarkable find so far is a woman's skeleton dated to 2800 B.C.; she was six feet tall, and had an artificial eye in one socket. It looks like Burnt City will continue to generate interesting news stories for some time to come.

In 2000, flash floods around Jiroft, in Kerman province, washed the topsoil off some previously unknown tombs. The natives began stumbling upon artifacts, and because they had been suffering from poverty and unemployment, caused by a two-year drought, they saw this as a blessing from God and the solution to their problems. An entire village began looking for antiquities to sell on the black market, and they quickly unearthed thousands of grave goods, some of them buried only one meter beneath the surface; modern communications, including the Internet, allowed the villagers to find buyers abroad. So many artifacts were removed from the neighborhood that an industry producing fake Jiroft-style pottery was also launched, to fool foreigners who were both gullible and unscrupulous. Soon the illicit trade had grown to the point that the Iranian authorities could not fail to notice it, and police forces, with some help from Interpol in tracking the trade, stepped in to stop it. Finally in 2003 a proper excavation got underway, led by an Iranian archaeologist, Dr. Yusef Majidzadeh.

It is too early to tell what we might learn from Jiroft, except that this area could be even richer than Burnt City; at least 300 mounds have been identified as part of it. Like Ebla and Burnt City, it appears to have been a commercial culture, because Jiroft pottery has turned up in places as far away as Syria, India, Tarut (a Saudi Arabian island north of Bahrein), and on the banks of the Oxus River in Central Asia, where another bronze-age civilization has recently been discovered (the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, or BMAC). Also distinctive are one of the world's largest ziggurats (54 feet high and 1,280 feet wide), and an amazing number of vases, cups, goblets, boxes and various other objects, carved from a grey-green stone called chlorite. The natives used the Proto-Elamite script, but we don't know yet whether they were Elamites, or just happened to learn to write from them. So far no attempt has been made to date the sites, except by comparing styles of pottery. This has led Dr. Majidzadeh to claim that Jiroft is older than the Sumerian cities; he also believes this is the lost civilization of Arrata, rather than Armenia.

And that isn't all. On December 26, 2003, a terrible earthquake struck southeast Iran, killing between 26,000 and 40,000 people in the city of Bam. Bam is old--its adobe citadel, severely damaged by the earthquake, was built in Parthian times (see Chapters 6 and 7)--but in the effort to repair and rebuild the city, it was discovered that a much older city lay underneath. The inhabited area covered at least 750 acres, compared with 450 acres for Burnt City, and estimates of its age put it sometime between 4000 and 3000 B.C. The most important artifacts found so far are a bronze axe-blade and a statuette of a cow made of burnt brick. Archaeologists are now trying to find out why Bam had inhabitants in prehistoric times, and if there might have been a community here in the Elamite and Old Persian eras as well. Stay tuned . . .

Shortly before 2000 B.C., there was a sudden change of pottery styles on the Iranian plateau, from elaborately painted wares to simple, unpainted works. To archeologists this is evidence that the Indo-European migration had begun, and that the Iranians themselves had arrived. However, because they were beyond the pale of civilization, they don't get mentioned in historical records (unless the Gutian invasion was part of the same movement). Consequently we won't hear from the Iranians again for another millennium.

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Out of the Valleys

The most logical direction for the spread of civilization from Sumer was up both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, into northern Iraq, Armenia and Syria. The nearest Semitic tribes, the Akkadians and the Assyrians, readily accepted elements of Sumerian civilization, like the four-wheeled chariot, but it wasn't until after the founding of the Akkadian Empire that the Assyrians learned to write.(5) The city of Mari was founded around the middle of the third millennium B.C., at the point where the first road going west to the Mediterranean left the Euphrates; it became a successful trade center because of its location.

In northern Syria, Ebla was founded near modern Aleppo, no later than 2400 B.C. It did even better than Mari, growing to dominate the bend of the Fertile Crescent--a bronze age "third world" between the more familiar Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. One text claims that a population of 260,000 lived within the Eblaite state, of which 22,000 were residents in the capital city--truly impressive figures by third millennium B.C. standards. In its heyday, Ebla ruled seventeen smaller city-states in Syria, southeastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Canaan. Unlike the Sumerian city-states, Ebla's king was not a hereditary monarch; he was elected by a merchant aristocracy, served for a seven-year term, and could be removed from office if he did a poor job. The discovery of Ebla in 1968 by two Italians, Paolo Matthiae and Giovanni Pettinato, has been hailed as the most important find in Biblical archaeology since the Dead Sea Scrolls, because Ebla had the oldest and one of the largest ancient libraries ever found, containing 17,000 clay tablets. Many of these tablets mention individuals with names familiar to readers of the Old Testament, like Ebrum (Eber), Ab-ra-mu (Abraham), E-sa-um (Esau), Ish-ma-ilu (Ishmael), Is-ra-ilu (Israel), and even Da-'u'dum (David) and Sa-'u-lum (Saul). Also listed here are places like Sodom and Gomorrah, and the oldest mention of Jerusalem by name: Urusalima. Because translation and study of the tablets is going very slowly, it's safe to say that the collection will keep scholars busy well into the twenty-first century.

Today's Armenians trace their history all the way back to the landing of Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat (no surprise there). Armenian legend goes on to say that Haik, a great-great-grandson of Noah (descended through Japheth, Gomer and Togarmah) settled below that mountain, went to Iraq to help build the Tower of Babel, returned, and defeated a Babylonian king named Bel (Nimrod?) near Lake Van, on August 11, 2492 B.C. Thus, Haik gets credit for being the founder of the Armenian nation, though the name "Armenia" is attributed to a descendant of his, Armenak or Aram. The archaeological evidence, however, is not quite so glamorous. There was a kingdom named Urartu in the area after 1000 B.C., and while older states may have existed (see Arrata in Chapter 12 of The Genesis Chronicles), no artifacts from them have been identified yet. What we do know is that most of Japheth's descendants, the Indo-European or Aryan peoples, lived in Anatolia and Armenia until about 2000 B.C., when they moved out to find their present-day homes. For details on the Indo-European migration, see Chapter 1 of my European history and Chapter 12 of the Genesis Chronicles.

The lands south of Syria fell under Egypt's influence, rather than Iraq's. However, the Egyptians were far less interested in the outside world, so Egyptian activity in the area was limited. The main evidence for their presence is a collection of jars and jar fragments bearing the catfish hieroglyph, which represented the name of Narmer, Egypt's first pharaoh; since the 1970s, they have been found at several sites in the northern Sinai and the southern half of present-day Israel. This means that, right at the beginning of Egypt's long history, Egyptians were involved in the region. Their involvement was probably strictly commercial; no doubt they set up trading posts to trade Egyptian products like wine and oil for local raw materials like wood, copper, resins, and honey. No evidence of military activity has been found from this early date, though.

A more impressive (and more permanent) sign of Egyptian activity is a 5,000-year-old tomb discovered in 1997, at Tel Halif in Israel's Negev desert. Here, instead of a simple shaft grave or cave like the Canaanites used, archaeologists found a burial chamber at the end of a thirty-foot-long passage, and in the chamber was the skeleton of a woman about 25 years of age, lying on a stone platform in a fetal position, facing east. This kind of burial was commonly practiced in Egypt during the I dynasty, leading to the conclusion that the tomb's occupant was an Egyptian. They also suggested that the tomb was evidence of an Egyptian colony in Canaan, but having read the Tale of Sinuhe, the story of an Egyptian fugitive who lived with a Bedouin tribe in the XII dynasty, I'm doubtful. The Egyptians already had the kind of lifestyle they wanted on the banks of the Nile; they didn't think they could enjoy an afterlife without a proper burial (always a paramount concern to them), and a proper burial was unlikely if they died abroad like that woman. Therefore most Egyptians stayed home, and held all Asiatics in contempt.(6)

In 2009, part of a stone plaque bearing an inscription in archaic-style Egyptian hieroglyphics was found at Tel Bet Yerah, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. From this we know that the Egyptians occasionally visited northern Israel as well, as early as the I dynasty. In 2013, a piece of a stone sphinx bearing the name of Menkaure, an important IV dynasty pharaoh, was found at Hazor; we don't know if the sphinx was really put there in Menkaure's time, or if the Egyptians brought it to Hazor later (one of the fighting New Kingdom pharaohs could have dropped it off, see the next chapter). Other Egyptian activity included mining for copper and turquoise in the Sinai peninsula, and during the III dynasty (about 2500 B.C. on my chronology) they began sailing to Byblos, Lebanon's oldest port, to trade with Ebla and to buy lumber, because the only common wood in Egypt was the very poor-quality wood of the date palm. Also during the III dynasty, they started building a barrier on their eastern frontier, to keep marauding Bedouins out of Egypt. This barrier took the form of a canal, dug between the lakes in the Isthmus of Suez. Although it ran roughly parallel to today's Suez canal, it did not go all the way from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea; to keep unwanted foreigners from going around the canal, forts were built at each end. Interrupted by the bad times that came after the Old Kingdom, Egypt's first golden age, the project was finally finished in the early 18th century B.C., by the first two pharaohs of the XII dynasty.

Egyptian military expeditions were even less frequent than trading or mining ventures. The oldest expedition recorded was under a pharaoh of the I dynasty named Den, who gave each year of his reign a name and called one year the "first time of smiting the East" (2700 B.C., give or take a decade). However, it doesn't appear that he got any farther than the Sinai peninsula. The next time Egyptian soldiers marched east of the Nile valley, it was more than five hundred years later; the tomb of Uni, a general who served King Pepi I (2188-2168), records a military expedition that followed the Mediterranean coast to a point where the land was shaped like "a gazelle's nose" (probably Mt. Carmel).

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A War-Ravaged Civilization

While Sumer continued to develop the elements of civilization, it also wore itself through warfare between the city-states. Except for the occasional barbarian raid, most of the world was quite peaceful at this time. And no wonder--with a total world population of only five or six million in the early third millennium B.C., there was plenty of room for everybody, even for the hermit who thinks the neighborhood is getting crowded if he can see the smoke of somebody else's campfire. That is the main reason why we know so little about those who lived before 2400 B.C., and have to rely on the archaeologists to tell us something about the Sumerians, Elamites, Eblaites, etc. Fewer people meant fewer artifacts and fewer events (like wars) to attract our attention, and when the population is small, overall progress will be slow, because large communities tend to think up and exchange ideas more quickly. Finally, you need a minimum population base, say at least ten thousand people, to build an empire; if there were any would-be emperors in city-states smaller than that, they wouldn't have had the resources or manpower to conquer other city-states.

In Sumer, however, population pressure could be felt, because half a million people (10% of the total world population!) were crammed into an area about the size of Maryland. The Sumerians never learned to live in peace, despite their common language and culture. As a result the Sumerians led the world in military technology, inventing maces, battleaxes, lances, swords, compound bows, and body armor. Warfare also led to the discovery that man could be domesticated, meaning slavery. As time went on, wars became both nastier and more frequent. For a period covering 253 years (2341-2088 B.C.), the Sumerian King List assigns two dynasties to Kish, two to Uruk, and a single dynasty each to Ur, Hamazi, Adab, Mari and Akshak. Shortly after 2300 B.C., Elam also got in on the act, launching a massive invasion that conquered half of Sumer.(7)

In a land where the main resource is mud, many of the first wars were fought to gain control over mud's ingredients--namely land and water. The longest-running of these conflicts started around 2341 B.C., while Ur ruled the southernmost cities. On the Tigris, Lagash and Umma, two cities about 35 miles apart, called in Mesilim, the king of Kish, to settle an irrigation dispute between them. The age and exalted status of Kish encouraged everyone to expect the king to be an impartial judge; he drew a boundary between the rivals that gave Lagash the disputed water. Right after the king left, the Ummaites marched in, smashed the boundary marker and annexed the whole territory. At first Lagash could do nothing about this, but sixty years later it got a skilled warrior king, Eannatum. Eannatum expelled the Elamite intruders, defeated rivals like Uruk and Ur, and stopped a Semitic invasion from Mari. From Umma he took back the disputed land, but allowed Umma to continue using it--if the Ummaites paid a heavy tax in barley. The details of Eannatum's treaty--the oldest peace treaty on record--were carved on a limestone monument now called the Stele of the Vultures, because it also showed pictures of soldiers marching in formation, and vultures carrying off the heads of enemy corpses.

Confusion followed Eannatum's reign. On the lower Euphrates, King En-shakush-anna of Uruk conquered Ur, while another king, Lugal-anne-mundu of Adab, conquered the lower Tigris; both kings claimed dominion over all Sumer. Then Umma, with the help of "foreign kings" (Mari?), gained the right to the land between it and Lagash without making any payment. In Lagash, the resulting loss of revenue caused an economic slump, and the throne fell into the hands of the local priests. For the next two decades they used their new powers to increase their wealth and property at the expense of both the people and the gods. During wartime the government had an excuse to raise taxes, but now, instead of cutting the budget, it placed new taxes were placed on all manner of activities: divorces, sheep-shearing, funerals, etc.

The people of Lagash threw out their priest-king in 2121 B.C., and replaced him with Urukagina, the first tax reformer known to history. Pledging that "he would not deliver up the weak and the widowed to the powerful man," Urukagina cut taxes, fired most of the tax collectors, restored confiscated property to the temples, and passed many laws protecting widows, orphans, and poor people. The tax cuts, however, caused a problem that every tax reformer since then has had to face; the government went broke! When Umma attacked again, Lagash was both too peaceful and too poor to resist. Thus, Urukagina's social revolution ended only eight years after it started. The king of Umma, Lugalzaggesi, also crushed Lugalkisalsi of Uruk and Ur, and a king of Kish who is simply known as "Nanniya the Jeweler"; this made him the "big man" of Sumer for the next twenty-five years (2113-2088 B.C.).

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The Role of Climate Change in History

Before we continue the narrative, allow me a brief digression. Only recently, by comparing tree-ring data, the ratio of oxygen isotopes preserved in old ice (O16 vs. O18), the types of algae skeletons found on the ocean floor, etc., have we been able to measure average world temperatures over the ages, giving us a chance to learn how climate changes have affected history. The most important fact we have learned is that temperatures have not been stable since the ice age ended; they have gone up and down like prices on the stock market. During four prolonged periods in the last 4,500 years, world temperatures were warmer than they are today. Those "warming periods" were:

  • 2500 to 2100 B.C.
  • 1400 to 900 B.C.
  • 1 to 500 A.D.
  • 800 to 1200 A.D.
After each warming period came a time when the earth was colder than it is now, the most famous being the "little ice age" of 1300-1700 A.D. The first warming period neatly corresponds to the early bronze age, and in the case of Egypt, the dates almost perfectly match the dates I use for beginning and end of the Old Kingdom, Egypt's first golden age. The second warming period came during a time archaeologists call the late bronze age, and the cold period in-between the first and second warming periods saw the great Indo-European migration; perhaps the migration itself started because increasing snowfall and colder temperatures forced the Indo-Europeans to leave their original home in the Caucasus mountains. The dates on the third warming period are close to the dates for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the following cold period matches the "darkest" part of the Dark Ages, and the fourth warming period caused a population boom in Scandinavia, leading to shiploads of Vikings going forth and terrorizing their neighbors.

Click on the above thumbnail for a chart showing the temperature swings across history (opens in a separate window).

Because of longer growing seasons, the warming periods allowed farmers to grow crops that weren't possible at other times; e.g., it was possible to grow grapes in England during the medieval warming period, but not before or since. With larger harvests, the local populations grew to absorb all available food (and then some). Conversely, the colder times saw shorter growing seasons, and an out-of-season killing frost could bring famine. In the pre-industrial world, the economies of most nations were totally dependent on agriculture, so one or more crop failures could cause everything else to unravel. However, not everyone was affected the same way when the temperature changed. This may explain why the Greeks, who preferred trading and fishing because they live in a country with very poor soil, enjoyed their best years during a cold period. One thing is certain; whenever world temperatures suddenly go up or down, there is a change in which nations and peoples are dominant on the world scene.

I am mentioning this here because historians now believe that late in the third millennium B.C., a climate change helped bring down the Old Kingdom in Egypt, and made it easier for Sargon I and the Akkadians (see the next section) to conquer the Sumerians. The cause of the sudden cooling at that time isn't clear, but a recently discovered crater in southern Iraq, made by a meteor that struck around 2300 B.C., has been suggested as the culprit; heavy volcanic activity is also a possibility. Keep the "climate change" factor in mind as we return to the narrative. I expect that climatological data will be used more than once, and not just in this work, to fill in the gaps historians and archaeologists have left in our past.

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The Akkadian Empire

While the Sumerian city-states struggled for supremacy, their Semitic neighbors to the north continued to develop. In times of peace these tribes traded with their more civilized neighbors; in not-so friendly times the wealth of the cities prompted the impoverished nomads to make raids. By Lugalzaggesi's time the nearest Semites, the Akkadians, were serving as mercenaries in the Sumerian armies. One of them, Sharru Kinu, better known by his Biblical name of Sargon I, would rise from humble beginnings to become the first emperor the world had seen since Nimrod.

Many legends have obscured the true origins of this extraordinary figure. His original name, Sharru Kinu, meant "The king is legitimate," but that should be seen as propaganda, because his autobiography tells us he wasn't. This story, found on an Assyrian clay tablet from the seventh century B.C., unfortunately left out many details: "My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not. My mother, the high priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me in the river that rose not over me." Like baby Moses, Sargon floated down the Euphrates until a farmer drawing water to irrigate his field found the basket, and he raised the child as his own. In ways that are not explained, Sargon somehow rose to become the cupbearer to Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish. Sometime after that--again we do not know how--he overthrew his master and took his place. Another legend says that Ur-Zababa had displeased the gods, so he may have been defeated by the dominant king of the time, Lugalzaggesi, leaving a vacancy for Sargon to fill. Once his position on the throne was secure, Sargon raised an army against Lugalzaggesi. He met the Sumerian king in battle at Uruk, defeated him, tore down the walls of Uruk, put a dog collar on Lugalzaggesi, and led him to Nippur, where the former overlord and "foremost shepherd" of Sumer spent his last days locked in a pillory at the city gate. After that Sargon won three more key battles by capturing Ur, Umma and Lagash. To show that all Sumer was now his, he marched all the way to the sea and ceremoniously washed his weapons in the Persian Gulf.(8)

Sargon did not stop with Sumer. An eastern campaign conquered Susa and the troublesome Elamites. In the west, Ebla had just defeated Mari, its main commercial and political rival. One of the clay tablets found in Ebla's library listed weapons sent to Ebla's allies during that war; the largest allotment, 2,000 spear points, went to a Syrian city named Nagar (modern Tel Brak). Therefore Sargon's western campaign may have been launched in response to this distribution of "weapons of mass destruction." According to the inscriptions Sargon wrote, he took a city on the Euphrates named Tuttul, and there he "prostrated himself in prayer before [the god] Dagan," and "Dagan gave him the Upper Region: Mari, Iarmuti and Ebla as far as the Cedar Forest and the Silver Mountain." Evidently this means that Syria and the adjacent lands submitted to his authority without a battle; the "Cedar Forest" is Lebanon, while the "Silver Mountain" means the silver-rich Taurus mts. in southeastern Turkey. Finally there appears to have been at least one unrecorded expedition in the upper Tigris valley, since Akkadian artifacts, including a magnificent bronze head of a king, start appearing near Mosul and Nineveh at this time.

All of Mesopotamia and most of the known world around it was now united under one ruler. Somewhere in central Mesopotamia, most likely near the city of Sippar, Sargon built a new capital called Agade ("United"). Archaeologists have never found Agade, but if we can trust contemporary tablets, it was more splendid than any other city built up to that time.(9) In most cases he allowed each city to have a native king, but he appointed an Akkadian governor over him, and kept an Akkadian garrison nearby, to make sure the "king" behaved. Thus, the state he created can be called a "city-state empire." Otherwise, he had enough respect for Sumerian culture to leave it alone. In fact he became a champion of it when he made his daughter, Enheduanna, the high priestess of Nanna in Ur(10), and gave himself titles such as "anointed priest of Anu" and "great governor under Enlil." And wherever his army of 5,400 men went, Mesopotamian civilization was sure to follow.

The Near East, 2300 B.C.
The Middle East, in the 21st century B.C. Shown here are VI-dynasty Egypt (yellow), the empire of Sargon I (red), and the Indus valley civilization (purple).

Sargon's glorious reign lasted for about 55 years (2100-2045 B.C.), but the last years were bad ones. "In his old age," says a later Babylonian chronicle, "all the lands revolted against him, and they besieged him in Agade." The old lion still had some teeth left, and after inflicting some serious defeats on the rebels he managed to end his reign in peace. New revolts, however, broke out after his son Rimush took the throne; apparently the rebels figured that any oaths of loyalty they gave to Sargon didn't apply to the rest of his family. Rimush spent nine years reconquering his father's empire, until some disloyal aides "killed him with their tablets." This proved for the first time that the pen can be mightier than the sword, at least when you bash someone on the head with what you write! Rimush was succeeded by a twin brother, Manishtusu, whose main accomplishment was a successful naval expedition against Magan (Oman). Manishtusu also conquered the Elamite city of Shirasum, and more honest about his motives than most military leaders, he wrote that he did it to get the silver mines of Elam, and excellent diorite stone for the carving of statues. Despite his successes, he was also assassinated; the same tablet that tells us about Rimush identifies Manishtusu as the king "whom his palace killed."

Naram-Sin (2020-1984), the son of Manishtusu, was a warrior-king like his grandfather Sargon, and his reign saw constant military activity to restore the empire he inherited. First he put down the revolts that had given his predecessors so much trouble, allowing him to spend most of his remaining years in campaigns on or beyond the frontiers of Mesopotamia. The northwest had slipped into independence in the years since Sargon's death, so he retook Mari, which had just lost a war with Ebla over trade routes. Then he conquered Ebla itself, burning down the city (and baking the clay tablets in Ebla's library, so that they would last until archaeologists found them, four thousand years later). In the opposite direction, Oman appears to have revolted, because Naram-Sin "marched against Magan and personally caught Mandannu, its king." Finally, we have rock carvings in the mountains of Kurdistan and southern Turkey, that show Naram-Sin trampling enemies there. In the long run, the mountain campaigns were probably the most important, because the northern barbarians were growing fiercer and more numerous with each generation.

Naram-Sin at Ebla
Naram-Sin, standing over a victim at Ebla. Source: the December 1978 National Geographic.

Naram-Sin went one step further than previous warrior-kings, by proclaiming himself a god; his favorite title was "the divine Naram-Sin, the mighty, the god of Akkad, king of the four quarters [of the earth]." The previously mentioned carvings sometimes show him wearing a horned helmet, traditionally a symbol of the gods, and on cuneiform tablets his name is always preceded by the same star-shaped symbol that identified a god's name. Before you dismiss this as nothing more than the ego trip of an absolute monarch, keep in mind what I said about the Sumerians viewing the gods as the ultimate authority over their land. Maybe Naram-Sin felt that since the people were more willing to obey a god than a king, he ought to take the titles of the gods for himself. It doesn't seem to have worked, though, judging from an epic poem called The Curse of Agade. According to this work, the Akkadian capital was a great center of wealth and wisdom, until Naram-Sin offended the god Enlil. This happened when the city of Nippur revolted, and Naram-Sin let his soldiers sack the Ekur, Enlil's main temple; then they brought the loot back to Agade. Enlil retaliated by causing famine and barbarian invasions, and the lesser gods cursed Agade by predicting its destruction. The next king, Shar-kali-shari, later claimed that he rebuilt the Ekur, but so far excavations of Nippur have not found any evidence that the temple was destroyed in Naram-Sin's time, leading us to wonder how much of Naram-Sin's desecration actually involved physical destruction.

Despite his act of atonement, Shar-kali-shari found that the barbarian problem was more than he could handle. Tribes like the Amorites, Lullubi, Hurrians and Gutians started spilling from Syria and the mountains of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran, into the lowlands of the empire. The governor of Elam, Puzur-Inshushinak, had previously been a good friend of Naram-Sin; now he declared himself independent, made Elamite (not Akkadian) the only official language of his realm, and dared to take the Akkadian title "King of the Universe" for himself. Shar-kali-shari disappeared in a palace revolution around 1959 B.C., and so did the Akkadian empire. The Sumerian King List summarized the following confusion with a few choice words:

"Who was king? Who was not king?
Was Igigi king?
Was Nanum king?
Was Imi king?
Was Elulu king?
Their tetrad was king, and reigned three years!"(11)

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Sumer's Last Hurrah

Into this chaos a barbarian tribe, the Gutians from the Zagros mts. of Iran, emerged supreme. They destroyed Agade, occupied Nippur and a few strategic points, but otherwise left no impact on Mesopotamia's culture. The lack of artifacts that can be traced to the Gutians suggest that they were few in number; except at the highest levels, most Sumerians and Akkadians probably didn't interact with them much. In fact, most cities continued to have submissive native rulers in charge. One of those kings, Gudea of Lagash, made a name for himself by promoting commerce in the Persian Gulf and by building or repairing at least fifteen temples. After his death, he was deified as a god of learning and medicine, and quite a few statues of Gudea have been found; these show him wearing a woolen cap instead of a crown and clasping his hands in an attitude of supplication. Uruk also had a king of its own; the Sumerian King List claims a fourth dynasty of Uruk (five kings ruling for a total of 47 years) around this time.

The Gutian monarchy probably wasn't very stable, either; the Sumerian King List assigns 21 Gutian kings to a 91-year period (1980?-1889). Eventually, as you might expect, the Sumerians got tired of these uncouth outsiders. In 1889 B.C., Utuhegal, the latest ruler of Uruk, raised an army, defeated a rival, Nammahani of Lagash, threw out the Gutians, and "returned the kingship to Sumer." His success was short-lived, though; four years later his governor in Ur, Ur-Nammu, ousted him in a coup.

Despite his treachery, Ur-Nammu turned out to be a superb leader. He devoted his entire reign (1900-1882) to restoring order, prosperity, and proper care of the gods. All of Mesopotamia was united under one government, with the capital at Ur. This time the realm was managed more efficiently than it had been under the Akkadians--instead of trusting each city to a local ruler of dubious loyalty, a corps of scribes and appointed governors directly administered the cities--the oldest known bureaucracy. Agriculture and commerce, which had stagnated under the Gutians, improved dramatically, and the artistic renaissance started by Gudea reached full bloom.

Ur-Nammu is best known today as a great builder; he liked to have artists portray him as a worker carrying building materials. For Ur he raised a new wall and dug new canals, and under him Ur grew to house 40,000 people, making it the biggest and most active city of its day. All over Sumer he built new temples; the largest was a 70-foot-high ziggurat in Ur itself, dedicated to the moon-god Nanna.

Ziggurat of Ur
The Ziggurat of Ur, as it looks today. This picture was taken in 2005 A.D., when an international coalition occupied Iraq, following the toppling of the Baathist dictatorship, so the figures on top of the structure are American soldiers. See Chapter 4, footnote #8, for more on damage done to Iraq's ancient sites in modern times.

Finally, Ur-Nammu is notable as the first known lawgiver in history. Bits and pieces of his law code have come to us, and what remains is of considerable interest. First, like Urukagina, he used the law codes to improve the lot of the downtrodden: "Then did Ur-Nammu, the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, establish equity in the land, banish abuse, violence, and strife. The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the powerful man." Even more interesting, many crimes involved compensation instead of punishment; these penalties had the offender pay a fine in silver, rather than the mutilation or death penalties that are commonplace in the celebrated code of Hammurabi, three centuries later.

"Abandoned on the battlefield like a crushed vessel," Ur-Nammu died in an unrecorded war, and Sumerians lamented at how the gods had destroyed a king who had served them well. Nevertheless, he was succeeded by an equally capable son, Shulgi (1882-1835). To the east, he conquered Susa, thereby ending Elam's Awan dynasty, but he did not occupy much of the surrounding countryside; a new Elamite dynasty, the Simashki, established itself in the mountains of modern Luristan. Aside from that, the empire was at peace during the first half of Shulgi's long reign, and he brought Sumerian civilization to its zenith. The building projects begun by his father were finished, and civil reforms continued. By the time he was done, he had created an almost totalitarian state, run by administrators trained in a special school, the edubba. Whenever Shulgi needed to appoint new government officials, he looked to get them from the edubba's graduates, and he set an example by enrolling himself in that school. Comtemporary Sumerians had a riddle to describe the importance of what was learned in the edubba: "He whose eyes are not open enters it; he whose eyes are wide open comes out of it."(12)

Though the bureaucrats left tens of thousands of clay tablets for us, much of what we know about Shulgi is guesswork, due to the way events were recorded. In those days, nobody counted years from an absolute event, the way we count years from the birth of Jesus; the first Mesopotamian calendar to do that was established by a Babylonian king named Nabonassar, in 747 B.C. Before then, whenever a new king came to the throne, the scribes went back to year 1 and started counting dates all over again, and sometimes they gave each year a name, to remind them of what happened in that year. Here are some of the names they gave to the years in Shulgi's reign:

The 19th year: "Year the citizens of Ur were organized as spearmen (a military draft?)."
The 26th year: "Year Simurum was destroyed."
The 27th year: "Year Simurum was destroyed a second time."
The 45th year: "Year Simurum and Lulubum were destroyed a ninth time."

Evidently things got tougher for Shulgi in the second half of his reign. Like Naram-Sin, he started claiming that he was a god, which suggests that he did not feel entirely secure on his throne even in peacetime. In his 37th year he records a treaty with a minor king named Puzur-Ish-Dagan, a name that is clearly Canaanite or Philistine.(13) The terms of that treaty must not have been kept, for in year 41 he saw the need to send a military expedition, which included Elamite troops, into the land of Canaan; this may have something to do with the "battle of the kings" recorded after Abraham arrived in the area. Two years later, he was again able to declare himself "hero, king of Ur, ruler of the four regions." But this did not allow him to rest for long; his last years saw campaigns against the barbarians on the east bank of the middle Tigris and in the mountains of Kurdistan. Increasingly he depended on the Elamites to defend his realm, and he kept them loyal by building new temples in Susa, the Elamite capital, and by marrying two of his daughters to Elamite governors; with one daughter he gave the city of Larsa as a dowry. Unfortunately for us, Shulgi never explained his strategy in writing, so for now we must assume that he succeeded in whatever he was doing, because the empire did outlast him by more than forty years.

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Abraham, the Friend of God

While the third dynasty of Ur enjoyed its best years, one of ancient history's most important individuals moved out, listening to the command of a god that promised to make him the father of a great nation. The story of Abraham (1952-1777 B.C.) is written down in chapters 11 to 25 of the Book of Genesis, and most readers of a Judeo-Christian background are familiar with it, so I will not repeat every detail here. Here I will look at how Abraham's story ties in with what we know about the Middle East in the last century of the Sumerians, and point out some new ideas about his background.

The land of Canaan which God had promised to Abraham's descendants was a sparsely populated border zone, where the civilized world merged with the land of the nomads. Most of the countryside was the domain of Bedouins, who led their flocks of sheep and goats from one place to another and fought with other Bedouins for possession of wells. Cultivation and commerce were practiced from a few towns like Jericho, Megiddo, and Shechem, and the natives built large stone walls around them to keep the Bedouins out.

At an early date, several shiploads of Philistine colonists arrived on the Mediterranean beaches. Their original home was Crete, the Biblical Caphtor (Amos 9:7). Why they migrated is unknown, and exactly when they arrived is also unclear.(14) Both Abraham and his son Isaac reported dealing with a local ruler named "Abimelech, king of the Philistines," so we can be sure that by their time, the Philistines were already established in the area that would one day be called the Gaza Strip. Since the stories involving Abimelech took place at least sixty years apart (Genesis 20 & 26), we can assume that Abraham and Isaac negotiated with two different kings by the same name.(15)

We commonly think of Abraham as a simple shepherd--a "wandering Aramaean" or Bedouin--and pictures/movies depicting Bible stories portray him that way. That may be appropriate with Isaac and Jacob, who were born and raised in the land, but with Abraham this view does not stand up when we compare the Genesis account with archeological evidence. Nor is it appropriate to call him a Jew, since there were no Jews/Israelites this early. In the thirteenth chapter of his work, The Wars of Gods and Men, author Zecharia Sitchin identified Abraham as a Mesopotamian (he called him a Sumerian; I say Akkadian is more likely correct, in view of his Semitic lineage in Genesis 11). His father Terah, dismissed as an idol-worshipper by the Old Testament (Joshua 24:2), probably was a priest, and in the Sumerian theocracy that made him a member of the upper class; Sitchin suggests that his name came from the Sumerian word Tirhu, meaning "Oracle Priest." Abraham's wife and half sister was originally named Sarai, meaning "princess," and the daughter of his brother Haran bore the name Milcah, meaning "queenly"; both suggest a royal or noble lineage. When he visited Egypt, they did not treat him as just another Asiatic trader, but gave him a reception with the pharaoh of the day.(16) Likewise, when he wandered around in Canaan, he chose to make covenants (treaties) with the natives, rather than fight with them. Finally, when he took part in the Battle of the Kings, he refused to take any share of the booty for himself, except to feed the troops that came with him. This is not the behavior of a footloose Bedouin chief, but that of a sophisticated nobleman who awed everyone he met.

Abraham's Journey thumbnail
Abraham's travels across the Fertile Crescent.
(A thumbnail, click on the picture to see it full size in a separate window.)

Recently Sitchin claimed that a cuneiform tablet mentions Abraham by name. A record of events from the reign of Amar-Sin, the Sumerian king after Shulgi, it states that Amar-Sin's seventh year (ca. 1828 B.C.) was the "year in which the shepherding place of IB.RU.UM was attacked." IB.RU.UM is interpreted here as the Sumerian name for Abram, and is derived from the Sumerian "NI.IB.RI," meaning "a man from Nippur." Of course we know that Abram spent his childhood in Ur, but nowhere does it say he was born there, so perhaps his name says that Nippur, the city of Enlil, was his or Terah's birthplace.

According to my chronology, Terah was born in the days of the Akkadian Empire, and Abram's childhood was contemporary with the Gutian kings. At some point, Terah took the family upstream from Ur to Haran, the most remote city in Mesopotamia. Why he did so is unknown; it could have been either a job appointment or banishment by the king, or Terah may have decided that it was time to get out of Sumer. Whatever the reason, the family stayed there until Terah died, and then (1877 B.C., or during the reign of Shulgi) God appeared to Abram and told him it was time to move again. Josephus wrote in the first century A.D. that "Abraham reigned at Damascus, where he was a foreigner, having come up with an army out of the land above Babylon . . . after a long time, the Lord got him up and removed [him] from that country together with his men and he went to the land then called the land of Canaan but now the land of Judaea." If there is any truth to this, then Abram was not a shepherd but a military commander, leading a Sumerian army into the land!

A few years after Abram settled in Canaan, there was an invasion by four kings from the east, commonly called "the Battle of the Kings." They are listed in Genesis 14 under the following names: Chedor-laomer of Elam, Amraphel of Shinar (Sumer), Arioch of Ellasar, and Tidal of the "nations." The first attempt to identify these kings was made in 1897, when a British scholar named Theophilus Pinches announced the discovery of clay tablets bearing three of the above names. Pinches proposed that we should read Chedor-laomer as Kudur-Laghamar, a common Elamite name. He identified Arioch of Ellasar with one Eri-Aku of Larsa, which makes sense given the close political ties between Elam and Larsa during this period. Tidal is usually identified as an Amorite chief named Tidnum or Tud-ghula; less likely is the identification with Tudkhaliyas (a name for at least four Hittite kings) given in some textbooks. Pinches, however, could not identify Amraphel, so later scholars declared he was the great Hammurabi; that caused the other identifications to fall flat, since no kings by those names could be found from the Babylonian era. Thus they saw the Genesis account as more legend than true history until recently, when Sitchin used the IB.RU.UM tablet to identify Amraphel with Amar-Sin. The old identification of Amraphel/Hammurabi still appears in some texts, but we should not take it seriously; Hammurabi would not have taken an equal or subordinate role in any alliance!(17)

At any rate, Genesis 14 reports that the invasion was to punish the Canaanites for throwing off their submission to the east; Sitchin thought this referred to the breaking of the treaty between Shulgi and Puzur-Ish-Dagan. The kings marched south from Damascus to Mt. Seir, following a path on the east bank of the Jordan River; this road was always known as the "Kings' Highway" afterwards. Then they marched as far as Paran in the central Sinai. Why they invaded the Sinai is never stated; a possible objective was Egypt, which would have been an easy conquest while it was divided between two pharaohs (that disunity ended a few years later--ca. 1839 B.C.--when the XI dynasty conquered Lower [northern] Egypt and initiated the brilliant Middle Kingdom of Egyptian history). If this was the case, they must have changed their minds, because suddenly they turned back, and attacked the enemies they had bypassed, namely the Amalekites of the desert (v. 7) and the "cities of the plain." Abram's nephew Lot lived in the latter, and his capture prompted Abram to turn against the rulers of his former homeland and pursue them until he caught up with them and rescued Lot. Some time after that he entered a new, higher covenant with God, and his name was changed from the pagan IB.RU.UM/Abram to Abraham, meaning "father of a multitude."

The destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah appears to have taken place along with some geological calamity. Lot chose to live there because he thought the area around the Dead Sea was fertile and "well-watered," which is not the case today. Apparently the Jordan River had a sea-level outlet originally, which followed the Arabah to the Red Sea near modern Eilat. The Great Rift Valley, which runs from Mt. Hermon on the Golan Heights to Lake Nyasa in East Africa, appears to have split wider and deeper when the cities were destroyed, putting the lower Jordan a quarter mile below sea level and creating the Dead Sea when the waters could no longer flow out. The ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah have not yet been found, leading to speculation that they are under the Dead Sea's briny waters.(18)

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The Fall of Ur

Meanwhile back in Mesopotamia, Amar-Sin, like his father Shulgi, divided his time between building temples and waging wars, but he lost control of the western provinces (Ebla regained its independence at this time) and his reign was much shorter (1835-1826). His son and heir, Shu-Sin (1826-1817), added something new: in his fourth year he built a wall that must have been at least 50 miles long, to keep out the nomads who had taken away Syria. These nomads were called Martu in the Sumerian language and Amurru in Akkadian; we know them as the Amorites of the Old Testament. The Sumerians regarded the Amorites as uncivilized oafs, as this text shows:

"The Martu who know no grain . . . The Martu who know no house nor town, the boors of the mountains . . . The Martu who digs up truffles . . . who does not bend his knee [to cultivate the land], who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after his death . . . "

Appropriately, Shu-Sin named his wall "the Repeller of the Amorites." However, by the end of his reign the realm was under pressure from the inside as well. The Elamites were in a state of unrest, and the provincial governors could no longer be trusted, because since the time of Shulgi, they had gone from being appointees sent by the king, to aristocrats who saw the job as theirs by right because they had inherited it from their fathers. Shu-Sin passed on a reduced, impoverished state to his son Ibbi-Sin (1817-1792), and under Ibbi-Sin the empire literally disintegrated. One by one the eastern provinces--beginning with Eshnunna on the middle Tigris in Ibbi-Sin's second year and Elam in the third year--declared themselves independent and broke away from Ur. The economy collapsed in the third year; Ur's foreign commerce "stopped with a significant suddenness(19)," and at the national archives of Drehem--a small town near Nippur where the kings of Ur had stored clay tablets, recording transactions of cattle, trade goods and taxes--the careful account-keeping ended just as abruptly. In the fifth year the Amorites broke through the defenses and overran much of the countryside. By the seventh year, food prices in Ur had risen 60-fold, because commercial traffic beyond the city walls had gotten so risky.

We know how critical the situation was because the letters exchanged between the king and Ishbi-Erra, the governor of Isin (a town near Nippur), have come down to us. Ishbi-Erra was ordered to buy grain from Nippur and Isin, and bring it to Ur. He got to Nippur all right, but declared he was unable to deliver the grain because the Martu now controlled all roads leading to Ur; instead of completing the mission, he requested that he be put in charge of strengthening the defenses of Nippur and Isin, since those places were also threatened. The king really had no choice, so he agreed, the governor-turned-general to find someone willing to deliver the grain and offer him twice the normal price. As for Ishbi-Erra, he defeated the Amorite attacks on Isin, but smelling doom in the air, he proclaimed himself king over the cities he was supposed to defend in 1805.

Meanwhile things were getting worse elsewhere. In 1798 an Amorite sheik named Nablanum was crowned king of Larsa, only 25 miles from Ur. Sumer's old rival, the Elamites, started raiding again, forcing Ibbi-Sin to fight a two-front war. Another governor wrote to tell the king that Ishbi-Erra had imprisoned or killed Ibbi-Sin's remaining supporters in the area he controlled, but refused to attack Ishbi-Erra himself, even when the king provided troops. Abandoned by the gods, beset with famine, no longer able to rely on any governors, Ibbi-Sin found that Ur was the only part of the empire he had left.

Toward the end, Ibbi-Sin cursed the upstart king of Isin, declaring that Ishbi-Erra was "a worthless man, who is not of Sumerian seed." Then he made a prediction: "Now Enlil has stirred up the Martu from out of their land, they will strike down the Elamites and capture Ishbi-Erra. With the restoration of the land to its former place, its might will become known throughout all the lands." But all this did was make Ibbi-Sin the king of wishful thinking. A lunar eclipse, now dated to April 19, 1793 B.C., was seen as a sign that Ur's time was up. As an omen tablet put it:

"The prediction is given for the king of the world. The destruction of Ur; th destruction of the city walls will occur; the heaping up of barley; the devastation of the city and its environs."

However, neither Isin nor the Amorites delivered the final blow. Instead, the Elamites closed in, took and sacked Ur in 1792 B.C. Kindattu, the sixth king of Elam's Simashki dynasty, carried Ibbi-Sin off to the farthest reaches of Anshan in eastern Iran, and kept him in captivity for the rest of his life. The last part of the story came when a poet wrote a lamentation for Ur, which the city's residents continued to recite long after the city was rebuilt:

"O Father Nanna, that city into ruins was made . . .
Its people, not potsherds, filled the sides;
Its walls were breached; the people groan.
In its lofty gates, where they were wont to promenade, dead bodies were lying about;
In its boulevards, where the feasts were celebrated, scattered they lay.
In all its streets, where they were wont to promenade, dead bodies were lying about;
In its places, where the festivities of the land took place, the people lay in heaps . . .
Ur -- its weak and its strong perished through hunger;
Mothers and fathers who did not leave their houses were overcome by fire;
The young lying on their mothers' laps, like fish were carried off by the waters;
In the city, the wife was abandoned. the son was abandoned, the posessions were scattered about.
O Nanna, Ur has been destroyed, its people have been dispersed!"(20)

This was the end of Sumerian civilization; the plains of southern Iraq would continue to be a major urban center for centuries to come, but the inhabitants were no longer Sumerian. Nor could they prosper the way they used to; the vital irrigation canals had brought up salt from the Persian Gulf and from underground, ruining the fertility of the farmlands. And if that wasn't enough, the topography of the region turned against the cities. Annual deposits of alluvial soil at the mouths of the rivers pushed back the coastline, until ancient ports like Ur and Eridu were left more than a hundred miles from the sea. Even the Euphrates river changed its course; in the next chapter we will talk about how that caused the depopulation of more than one southern city. Eventually the Sumerians themselves were forgotten, but the mark they left on the world endures; the details of civilization may have changed since the fall of Ur, but the basic pillars of it are still the same. It was in Sumer that trade, merchants, and writing first appeared. It was the Sumerians who first invented the wheel, the written code of law, mathematics, and a government with a bicameral legislature and elected rulers. Finally, they helped civilization get started among all the peoples they met. The gradual spread of civilization, now encompassing nearly all of the earth, is one of history's most enduring trends, started by the Sumerians and continuing long after other peoples took their place in the deserts, marshes, and cities of Iraq.

This is the End of Chapter 1.


1. In 1925 archaeologists discovered a unique style of pottery involving red and black geometric designs painted directly on the clay, at Jemdat Nasr, a site between Baghdad and Babylon. For the next forty years textbooks referred to a "Jemdat Nasr" culture, which immediately followed the Uruk period, around 3000 B.C. However, few examples of this pottery have been found elsewhere, and other artifacts dated to this period (architecture, sculpture, clay tablets bearing inscriptions) are identical to their late Uruk counterparts. Nowadays the "Jemdat Nasr" period is considered the last phase of the Uruk culture, little more than a local idiosyncrasy in art; it doesn't seem to have lasted for more than a century, anyway.

2. For a more detailed discussion of the extremely long-lived kings on the first part of the king list, read The Genesis Chronicles, Chapter 9.

3. The Jewish calendar of today is the same one used by the ancient Mesopotamians, and the fourth month still bears the Semitic name of Dumuzi, Tammuz. The prophet Ezekiel also notes a group of women in Jerusalem "mourning for Tammuz" in Ezek. 8:14; this refers to the legend that claims Dumuzi died and went to the underworld for six months of every year, causing the world to become cold and lifeless (fall and winter) until he came back.

4. If you think that's strange, consider the alternative Vicki León proposed for the tombs of Ur. In her otherwise delightful work, Uppity Women of Ancient Times, León suggested that a queen named Shudi-ad (also spelled Shubad or Puabi), dressed up and went into her grave alive, where she listened to a final concert from her musicians. Then, after the poison did its work on all the servants, including the musicians, she drank a cup of nepenthe and lay down to die. In other words, León thinks this was a bronze age version of the Jonestown Massacre! Such a story is too bizarre for me, so I'll go with the mainstream idea of a mass murder/suicide at a royal funeral, since a few other civilizations (e.g, the Egyptians and Chinese) did likewise at the beginning of their long histories.

5. They probably held off on writing because, as we pointed out earlier, Sumerian is not a Semitic language, and thus its system of writing is not compatible with the vocabulary or grammar of either Assyrian or Akkadian. The Akkadians tried adopting Sumerian cuneiform for their use anyway; the result was the same kind of problems the Japanese would have later on, when they tried to write with the Chinese pictographic system. This also gives a challenge to modern scholars, because in order to translate an Akkadian tablet, the first thing they have to do is figure out what language it is meant to be read in.

6. Setyu, meaning "followers of Set" (the main villain of Egyptian mythology), was the most sophisticated term the Egyptians had for the Bedouins. More often they called them names like "sand-dwellers" and "wilderness wanderers." A number of vases and statuettes inscribed with curses upon the cities of the Levant have been found in Egypt. Commonly called the "Execration Texts," all these objects were found smashed, suggesting that the owners believed they could magically make the curses come true by destroying an object with the name of the cursed city or individual on it.

7. One of the dynasties of Kish had only one ruler, a queen named Kubaba (or Kug-Baba). She was an exception to the rule, coming from humble origins and not forgetting it. Whereas Sumerian kings were now in the habit of giving themselves long, pompous titles, she simply called herself by the job she had before becoming queen: "Kubaba the tavern-keeper."
This is a good place to mention that the Sumerians grew barley for beer as well as bread, and to them beer was just as important. In the hot climate of Iraq, the microbe-infested water was likely to make you sick in a hurry, so beer was cleaner and safer to drink. The taverns of the day seemed to know it, because they advertised with this slogan: "Drinking beer, in a blissful mood, with joy in the heart and a happy liver." Unlike the product in today's six-packs, Sumerian beer was served in a pot, and the drinker had to use a straw to get past the barley husks and stems floating on top. The rich had long, bent tubes made of gold or silver for this purpose, while everybody else made do with hollow reeds. Also interesting is that most of the brewers and bartenders were women, for reasons not clear to us.

8. Symbolic gestures like this would later be performed by other conquerors standing on the same spot, from the Assyrian monarchs to Saddam Hussein.

9. We know Agade/Akkad existed long before Sargon I came along, because Genesis 10:10 lists it as one of Nimrod's cities. The latest theory concerning its location puts it right underneath modern-day Baghdad, so if it is really there, don't expect it to be discovered or excavated in our lifetime.

10. As priestess, Enheduanna found quite a bit of time to write; forty-two hymns to the moon-god and several of her poems have been found so far. Older Mesopotamian writers did not sign their works, so Enheduanna is the world's first author to be known by name, with the possible exception of Egypt's Ptah-hotep.

11. After the "tetrad," the Sumerian King List claimed two more Akkadian kings: Dudu of Akkad ruled for twenty-one years, and Shu-Durul, the "Son of Dudu," ruled for fifteen years. Yes, Dudu was a very common Sumerian name, believe it or not! Nor did they accomplish much before the Gutians got rid of them, so you could say that Dudu and his son didn't do doo-doo.

12. Sumerian remained the government's official language. The priests also continued to use Sumerian, and they had a ceremony where they would whisper Sumerian prayers into one ear of a bull, and Akkadian prayers into the other ear; they must have figured that by doing it this way, the gods would understand at least part of what they said! Despite this, Sumerian was passing out of everyday use. You can see the overall trend in the names of the three kings after Shulgi; they are all Akkadian names, rather than Sumerian ones. And after the fall of Ur, the Sumerian language was only used to understand ancient literature, much like the way we treat Latin. As for Akkadian, it reamined the most widely used language in the Middle East, the language of diplomacy, until about 800 B.C.

13. Though probably of Mesopotamian origin, Dagan is now known as the chief god of the Philistines; he was portrayed as a man above the waist and a fish from the waist down.

14. Personally I think the Philistines arrived during the time known to Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period, or 2054-1839 B.C. We know that commerce between Egypt and Crete began around this time, and the chaos that marks this period easily explains why the Egyptians made no record of the Philistine arrival, even though Gaza was--and still is--on the doorstep of Egypt. Most history books suggest that the Philistines came around 1200 B.C. because the Egyptian temple of Medinet Habu, normally dated to the 12th century B.C., shows pictures of battles between the Egyptians and tall, elaborately helmeted invaders called the P-r-s-t or "Pereset." This should not be taken as evidence that the Philistines never lived next to Egypt previously, even if the identification of Pereset with Philistines is correct.

15. The archaeology of Philistine sites only got started in the late twentieth century. Not until the late Israeli general Moshe Dayan showed off his collection of 22 Philistine coffins (mostly trophies captured in the Six Day War) was much interest shown in excavating the cities of the Jews' ancient arch-enemies. To date the most interesting artifacts found are the coffins--sarcophagi made of terra cotta with a removable head, in a human body-shape that suggests they got the idea from Egyptian mummy-cases--as well as Greek-style pottery decorated with swan motifs. It is entirely possible that important discoveries are being made as we go to the press.

16. If my dates are correct, Abram came to Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. None of the four pharaohs that appear in Genesis and Exodus have their names preserved in the Biblical account, which has led to all kinds of speculation. The pharaoh that entertained Abram was probably a monarch from the Xth dynasty. The only scholar so far who has even tried to identify Abram's pharaoh is David Rohl, who suggested it was Nebkhaure Khety IV. Khety gets the honor because he wrote a papyrus which survived the ages, called the "Teaching for Merykare." Merykare was the son and successor of Khety, and one of the last kings of the dynasty; the advice in the papyrus sounds a lot like what a high-ranked Mesopotamian visitor like Abraham would have given.
Whoever the pharaoh was, he must have thought a diplomatic marriage with the family of an advanced outsider like Abram would have helped him in the upcoming struggle against his militant rivals from Upper Egypt, the XIth dynasty. This means that more than good looks motivated Pharaoh, when he tried to steal Sarai from Abram. We can only guess at what the beleaguered pharaoh of Lower Egypt might have discussed (Alliances? Strategy & tactics? Religious matters?) with the Mesopotamian general. The Bible is silent on this as well as the length of Abraham's visit, though the Book of Jubilees claims it was five years (1876-71 according to my chronology).

17. I'm a bit uncomfortable with the Amraphel/Amar-Sin association, because on my chronology, Amar-Sin lived nearly fifty years later than I would like, if he's really contemporary with Abraham. That's why I believe Shulgi was king of Sumer for most of Abraham's active years. However, putting Amar-Sin in this era makes more sense than associating Amraphel with Hammurabi, and we must keep in mind that none of the dates used in this chapter can be considered 100 percent reliable, due to the shortage of historical records from this far back. Not until Chapter 3 of this work can we put a date on an event and feel we are within a year of when it really happened. Before 2000 B.C., the best we can do is hope that we placed a person or event within the correct century; by 1000 B.C. we can feel we're in the ballpark if we get the decade right. And I've changed my dates in the past when new facts became available, so who's to say we won't have a perfect match for the Genesis 14 kings in the future?
It is also possible that Amar-Sin, as the crown prince, went on the expedition, to make sure that the wishes of Shulgi, the real king, were carried out. In this case, Amar-Sin could be counted as a "king," though he hadn't assumed the chief throne in Mesopotamia yet. The next chapter of this work has a footnote explaining how both the rulers of cities and the rulers of great nations could be called "kings." Keep in mind that because Shulgi's reign lasted so long, his son would have been at least middle-aged by the time he got to rule, and thus must have had plenty of experience under his belt. For a more recent example, think of England's King Edward VII, who was fifty-nine years old when he succeeded Queen Victoria. Finally, the Biblical text gives the impression that the king of Elam was considered the most important of the four; this wouldn't have been the case if the actual king of Ur had come on the expedition, even if the Elamite portion of the force happened to be the largest.

18. There are many pillars of salt along the Dead Sea's shore, reminding people of Lot's wife. One ten-foot-high salt pillar, in fact, has traditionally been identified as the one that she turned into when she looked back at Sodom. In 1992 A.D. it was noticed that "Lot's Wife" is tilting 15 degrees to the east, and Israeli geologists predict that the next major earthquake will cause it (she?) to collapse onto a nearby highway.

19. The words of C. J. Gadd, from History and Monuments of Ur.

20. Translated by Samuel Noah Kramer, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (edited by J. B. Pritchard), Princeton, NJ, 1950 (1955 edition used), pp. 459-460.

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