Cradle of Civilization

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Sargon the great

Posted by Fredsvenn on June 21, 2016

The Legend of Sargon of Akkad

Ur-Zababa and Sargon

According to the King list, Ur-Zababa was a son of King Puzur-Suen. His mother is unknown. His grandmother was the famous Queen Kugbau. Her son Puzur-Suen and grandson Ur-Zababa followed her on the throne in Sumer as the fourth Kish dynasty on the king list. In some copies as her direct successors, in others with the Akshak dynasty, a city of ancient Sumer, situated on the northern boundary of Akkad, sometimes identified with Babylonian Upi (Greek Opis), intervening.

Ur-Zababa is also known as the king said to be reigning in Sumer during the youth of Sargon of Akkad, also known as Sargon the Great “the Great King” (2334–2279 BC), who became the founder of the Akkadian Empire, the first ancient Semitic-speaking empire of Mesopotamia, centered in the city of Akkad and its surrounding region, also called Akkad in ancient Mesopotamia.

While Sargon, known for his conquests of the Sumerian city-states in the 24th and 23rd centuries BC, is often credited with the first true empire, Lugal-Zage-Si preceded him; after coming to power in Umma he had conquered or otherwise come into possession of Ur, Uruk, Nippur, and Lagash. Lugal-Zage-Si claimed rulership over lands as far away as the Mediterranean.

The Akkadian Empire united all the indigenous Akkadian and Sumerian speakers for the first time under one rule. It controlled Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, Kuwait, Northeast Syria and Southeast Turkey), the Levant (modern Syria and Lebanon), and eastern and southern parts of Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Iran, sending military expeditions as far south as Dilmun and Meluhha (modern Bahrain and Oman) in the Arabian Peninsula.

The empire came from the area of Kish and who’s militarily brought much of the Near East under his regime shortly afterward. It is known that Lugal-zaggesi of Uruk and Umma destroyed Kish toward the end of his reign, before himself being deposed by Sargon.

It is often assumed that Sargon also played a role in Ur-Zababa’s downfall, but the relevant texts are too fragmentary to be explicit. Ur-Zababa’s successors in Kish as named on the king-list, beginning with Zimudar, seem to have been vassals of Sargon, and there is no evidence that they ever really exercised hegemony in Sumer.

The exact date of Sargon’s birth or even death are unknown. According to the short chronology, he reigned from 2270 to 2215 BC (the Middle Chronology lists his reign as 2334 to 2279 BC). These dates are based on the Sumerian king list. In creating this legend, Sargon carefully distanced himself from the kings of the past (who claimed divine right) and aligned himself with the common people of the region rather than the ruling elite.

There is discussion among Assyriologists over whether or not the name Sargon (Akkadian Šarru-kīnu, meaning “the true king” or “the king is legitimate”) was given at birth or a regnal name adopted later in life, given its directly relevant meaning.

Sargon legend

Sargon legend is a Sumerian text purporting to be Sargon’s biography. In the text Ur-Zababa is mentioned, who awakens after a dream. For unknown reasons, Ur-Zababa appoints Sargon as a cupbearer. Soon after this, Ur-Zababa invites Sargon to his chambers to discuss a dream of Sargon’s, involving the favor of the goddess Inanna.

The story of Sargon’s birth and childhood is given in the Sargon legend, a Sumerian text purporting to be Sargon’s biography. The extant versions are incomplete, but the surviving fragments name Sargon’s father as La’ibum. After alacuna, the text skips to Ur-Zababa, king of Kish, who awakens after a dream, the contents of which are not revealed on the surviving portion of the tablet.

For unknown reasons, Ur-Zababa appoints Sargon as his cup-bearer. Soon after this, Ur-Zababa invites Sargon to his chambers to discuss a dream of Sargon’s, involving the favor of the goddess Inanna and the drowning of Ur-Zababa by the goddess.

When Sargon returns to Ur-Zababa, the king becomes frightened again, and decides to send Sargon to King Lugal-zage-si of Uruk with a message on a clay tablet asking him to slay Sargon. Deeply frightened, Ur-Zababa orders Sargon murdered by the hands of Beliš-tikal, the chief smith, but Inanna prevents it, demanding that Sargon stop at the gates because of his being “polluted with blood.”

When Sargon returns to Ur-Zababa, the king becomes frightened again, and decides to send Sargon to king Lugal-zage-si of Uruk with a message on a clay tablet asking him to slay Sargon. The legend breaks off at this point; presumably, the missing sections described how Sargon becomes king.

After coming to power in Kish, Sargon killed the king of Kish. After having the army of Kish follow him, Sargon soon attacked Uruk, which was ruled by Lugal-Zage-Si of Umma. He captured Uruk and dismantled its walls. The defenders seem to have fled the city, joining an army led by fifty ensis from the provinces.

This Sumerian force fought two pitched battles against the Akkadians, as a result of which the remaining forces of Lugal-Zage-Si were routed. Lugal-Zage-Si himself was captured and brought to Nippur; Sargon inscribed on the pedestal of a statue (preserved in a later tablet) that he brought Lugal-Zage-Si “in a dog collar to the gate of Enlil.”

Sargon pursued his enemies to Ur before moving eastwards to Lagash, to the Persian Gulf, and thence to Umma. He made a symbolic gesture of washing his weapons in the “lower sea” (Persian Gulf) to show that he had conquered Sumer in its entirety.

Another victory Sargon celebrated was over Kashtubila, king of Kazalla. According to one ancient source, Sargon laid the city of Kazalla to waste so effectively “that the birds could not find a place to perch away from the ground.”

To help limit the chance of revolt in Sumer he appointed a court of 5,400 men who he knew would stay loyal to “share his table” (i.e., to administer his empire). These 5,400 men may have constituted Sargon’s army.

The governors chosen by Sargon to administer the main city-states of Sumer were Akkadians, not Sumerians. The Semitic Akkadian language became the Lingua Franca, the official language of inscriptions in all Mesopotamia, and of great influence far beyond.

During the 3rd millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a sprachbund.

Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century AD. Under Sargon and his successors, the Akkadian language was briefly imposed on neighboring conquered states such as Elam and Gutium.

Sumerian literature continued in rich development during the Akkadian period. Enheduanna, the “wife (Sumerian dam = high priestess) of Nanna [the Sumerian moon god] and daughter of Sargon” of the temple of Sin at Ur, who lived ca. 2285–2250 BC, is the first poet in history whose name is known. As poetess, princess, and priestess, she was a personality who, according to William W Hallo, “set standards in all three of her roles for many succeeding centuries”

Her known works include hymns to the goddess Inanna, the Exaltation of Inanna and In-nin sa-gur-ra. A third work, the Temple Hymns, a collection of specific hymns, addresses the sacred temples and their occupants, the deity to whom they were consecrated.

The works of this poetess are significant, because although they start out using the third person, they shift to the first person voice of the poet herself, and they mark a significant development in the use of cuneiform.

Sargon’s empire maintained trade and diplomatic contacts with kingdoms around the Arabian Sea and elsewhere in the Near East. Sargon’s inscriptions report that ships from Magan, Meluhha, and Dilmun, among other places, rode at anchor in his capital of Agade. Sargon also knocked down every wall and destroyed all depictions of the previous kings.

The former religious institutions of Sumer, already well-known and emulated by the Semites, were respected. Sumerian remained, in large part, the language of religion and Sargon and his successors were patrons of the Sumerian cults.

Sargon, throughout his long life, showed special deference to the Sumerian deities, particularly Inanna (Ishtar), his patroness, and Zababa, the warrior god of Kish. He called himself “The anointed priest of Anu” and “the great ensi of Enlil” and his daughter, Enheduanna, was installed as priestess to Nanna at the temple in Ur.

The Akkadian government formed a “classical standard” with which all future Mesopotamian states compared themselves. Traditionally, the ensi was the highest functionary of the Sumerian city-states. In later traditions, one became an ensi by marrying the goddess Inanna, legitimising the rulership through divine consent.

Initially, the monarchical lugal (lu = man, gal = great) was subordinate to the priestly ensi, and was appointed at times of troubles, but by later dynastic times, it was the lugal who had emerged as the preeminent role, having his own “é” (= house) or “palace”, independent from the temple establishment.

By the time of Mesalim, whichever dynasty controlled the city of Kish was recognised as šar kiššati (= king of Kish), and was considered preeminent in Sumer, possibly because this was where the two rivers approached, and whoever controlled Kish ultimately controlled the irrigation systems of the other cities downstream.

While various copies of the Sumerian king list credit Sargon with a 56, 55, or 54-year reign, dated documents have been found for only four different year-names of his actual reign. The names of these four years describe his campaigns against Elam, Mari, Simurrum (a Hurrian region), and Uru’a (an Elamite city-state). His Akkadian dynasty continued another century after his reign.

The Sumerian king list relates: “In Agade [Akkad], Sargon, whose father was a gardener, the cup-bearer of Ur-Zababa, became king, the king of Agade, who built Agade; he ruled for 56 years.”

There are several problems with this entry in the king list. Thorkild Jacobsen marked the clause about Sargon claimed to be the son of La’ibum or Itti-Bel, a humble gardener, and possibly a hierodule, or priestess to Ishtar or Inanna, as a lacuna, indicating his uncertainty about its meaning.

Ur-Zababa and Lugal-zage-si are both listed as kings, but separated by several additional named rulers of Kish, who seem to have been merely governors or vassals under the Akkadian Empire.

Akkad is sometimes regarded as the first empire in history, though there are earlier Sumerian claimants. The claim that Sargon was the original founder of Akkad has come into question in recent years, with the discovery of an inscription mentioning the place and dated to the first year of Enshakushanna, who almost certainly preceded him.

The Weidner Chronicle (ABC 19) agrees with both the SKL and the Sargon Legend in making Sargon the cupbearer to Ur-Zababa, mentioning him in a single line as ruling in between Kubaba (Kugbau) and Sargon.

The Weidner Chronicle states that it was Sargon who built Babylon “in front of Akkad.” The Chronicle of Early Kings (ABC 20:18–19) likewise states that late in his reign, Sargon “dug up the soil of the pit of Babylon, and made a counterpart of Babylon next to Agade.” Van de Mieroop suggested that those two chronicles may in fact refer to the much later Assyrian king, Sargon II of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, rather than to Sargon of Akkad.

Sargon survives as a legendary figure into the Neo-Assyrian literature of the Early Iron Age. Tablets with fragments of a Sargon Birth Legend were found in the Library of Ashurbanipal from the 7th century BC.

According to this legend, Sargon was the illegitimate son of a priestess (older translations describe his mother as lowly). She brought him forth in secret and placed him in a basket of reeds on the river. He was found by Akki the irrigator who raised him as his own son.

Later claims made on behalf of Sargon were that his mother was an “entu“ priestess (high priestess). The claims might have been made to ensure a descendancy of nobility, considering only a high placed family can be made such a position.

One legend related of Sargon in Assyrian times says that: “My mother was a changeling my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azurpiranu (the wilderness herb fields), which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose not over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was gardener Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and (fifty?) … years I exercised kingship”.

Originally a cupbearer (Rabshakeh) to a king of Kish with a Semitic name, Ur-Zababa, Sargon thus became a gardener, responsible for the task of clearing out irrigation canals. This gave him access to a disciplined corps of workers, who also may have served as his first soldiers.

Similarities between the Neo-Assyrian Sargon Birth Legend and other infant birth exposures in ancient literature, including Moses, Karna, and Oedipus, were noted by Otto Rank in 1909.

The legend was also studied in detail by Brian Lewis, and compared with a number of different examples of the infant birth exposure motif found in European and Asian folk tales. He discusses a possible archetype form, giving particular attention to the Sargon legend and the account of the birth of Moses. Joseph Campbell has also made such comparisons.


The Bible refers to the Akkadians in Genesis 10:10, which states that Nimrod is the founder of Akkad, although in terms of Historicity, Nimrod is not attested anywhere in the far older and more numerous annals of the Mesopotamians themselves.

Sargon is also one of the many suggestions for the identity or inspiration for the biblical Nimrod. Ewing William (1910) suggested Sargon based on his unification of the Babylonians and the Neo-Assyrian birth legend. Yigal Levin (2002) suggested that Nimrod was a recollection of Sargon and of his grandson Naram-Sin, with the name “Nimrod” derived from the latter.

The collapse

Later material described how the fall of Akkad was due to Naram-Sin’s attack upon the city of Nippur. When prompted by a pair of inauspicious oracles, the king sacked the E-kur temple, supposedly protected by the god Enlil, head of the pantheon. As a result of this, eight chief deities of the Anunnaki pantheon were supposed to have come together and withdrawn their support from Akkad.

“For the first time since cities were built and founded, The great agricultural tracts produced no grain, The inundated tracts produced no ostriches, The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup, The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow. At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart, One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart… These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities! He who slept on the roof, died on the roof, He who slept in the house, had no burial, People were flailing at themselves from hunger.”

For many years, the events described in “The Curse of Akkad” were thought, like the details of Sargon’s birth, to be purely fictional. But now the evidence of Tell Leilan, and recent findings of elevated dust deposits in sea-cores collected off Oman, that date to the period of Akkad’s collapse suggest that this climate changemay have played a role.

The Akkadian Empire reached its political peak between the 24th and 22nd centuries BC, following the conquests by its founder Sargon of Akkad. After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, the Akkadian people of Mesopotamia eventually coalesced into two major Akkadian-speaking nations: Assyria in the north, and, a few centuries later, Babylonia in the south.

The excavators at nearby Tell Leilan (ancient Shekhna / Shubat-Enlil) have used the results from their investigations to argue that the Akkadian Empire came to an end due to abrupt climate change, the so-called 4.2 kiloyear event, one of the most severe climatic events of the Holocene period in terms of impact on cultural upheaval. The impact of this climate event on Mesopotamia in general, and on the Akkadian Empire in particular, continues to be hotly debated.

Starting in about 2200 BC, it probably lasted the entire century. A phase of intense aridity is recorded across North Africa, the Middle East, the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and midcontinental North America.

Glaciers throughout the mountain ranges of western Canada advanced at about this time. Evidence has also been found in an Italian cave flowstone, the Kilimanjaro Ice sheet, and in Andean glacier ice.

The onset of the aridification in Mesopotamia also coincided with a cooling event in the North Atlantic, known as Bond event 3. Despite this, evidence for the 4.2 kyr event in northern Europe is ambiguous, suggesting the origin and impact of this event is spatially complex.

It is very likely to have caused the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well as the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. The drought may have also initiated southeastward habitat tracking within the Indus Valley Civilization.

In c. 2150 BC the Old Kingdom was hit by a series of exceptionally low Nile floods, which was instrumental in the sudden collapse of centralized government in ancient Egypt. Famines, social disorder, and fragmentation during a period of approximately 40 years were followed by a phase of rehabilitation and restoration of order in various provinces.

Egypt was eventually reunified within a new paradigm of kingship. The process of recovery depended on capable provincial administrators, the deployment of the idea of justice, irrigation projects, and an administrative reform.

In the Persian Gulf region, there is a sudden change in settlement pattern, style of pottery and tombs at this time. The 22nd century BC drought marks the end of the Umm an-Nar Culture (Arabic for “Mother of fire”), the name given to a bronze age culture that existed from 2600-2000 BC in modern-day United Arab Emirates and Northern Oman, and the change to the Wadi Suq period.

The Akkadian Empire was brought low by a wide-ranging, centuries-long drought. Archaeological evidence documents widespread abandonment of the agricultural plains of northern Mesopotamia and dramatic influxes of refugees into southern Mesopotamia around 2170 BC.

Evidence from Tell Leilan in Northern Mesopotamia shows what may have happened. The site was abandoned soon after the city’s massive walls were constructed, its temple rebuilt and its grain production reorganised. The debris, dust and sand that followed show no trace of human activity. Soil samples show fine wind-blown sand, no trace of earthworm activity, reduced rainfall and indications of a drier and windier climate.

Evidence shows that skeleton-thin sheep and cattle died of drought, and up to 28,000 people abandoned the site, seeking wetter areas elsewhere. Tell Brak shrank in size by 75%. Trade collapsed. Nomadic herders such as the Amorites moved herds closer to reliable water suppliers, bringing them into conflict with Akkadian populations.

This collapse of rain-fed agriculture in the Upper Country meant the loss to southern Mesopotamia of the agrarian subsidies which had kept the Akkadian Empire solvent. Water levels within the Tigris and Euphrates fell 1.5 metres beneath the level of 2600 BC, and although they stabilised for a time during the following Ur III period (ca. 2112 BC and 2004 BC), also known as the Sumerian renaissance, rivalries between pastoralists and farmers increased.

Attempts were undertaken to prevent the former from herding their flocks in agricultural lands, such as the building of a 180 km (112 mi) wall known as the “Repeller of the Amorites” between the Tigris and Euphrates across central Mesopotamia under the Ur III ruler Shu-Sin to stem nomadic incursions to the south Such attempts led to increased political instability; meanwhile, severe depression occurred to re-establish demographic equilibrium with the less favorable climatic conditions.

Widespread agricultural change in the Near East is visible at the end of the third millennium BC. Resettlement of the northern plains by smaller sedentary populations occurred near 1900 BC, three centuries after the collapse. The Gutian people, who originally inhabited the Zagros Mountains, defeated the demoralized Akkadian army, took Akkad, and destroyed it around 2115 BC.


Akkad (also spelled Akkade or Agade) was the capital of the Akkadian Empire, which was the dominant political force in Mesopotamia at the end of the third millennium BC. The existence of Akkad is known only from textual sources; its location has not yet been identified, although scholars have proposed a number of different sites. Most recent proposals point to a location east of the Tigris.

Before Akkad was identified in Mesopotamian cuneiform texts, the city was known only from a single reference in Genesis 10:10 where it is written Accad. The city of Akkad is mentioned more than 160 times in cuneiform sources ranging in date from the Akkadian period itself (2350–2170 or 2230–2050 BCE, according to respectively the Middle or Short Chronology,) to the 6th century BCE. The name of the city is spelled as a-ga-dè, which is variously transcribed into English as Akkad, Akkade or Agade.

The meaning of the name is unknown. The etymology of a-ga-dè is also unclear but not of Akkadian origin. Sumerian, Hurrian and Lullubean etymologies have been proposed instead.

The non-Akkadian origin of the city’s name suggests that the site may have already been occupied in pre-Sargonic times, as also suggested by the mentioning of the city in one pre-Sargonic year-name. The inscription on the Bassetki Statue records that the inhabitants of Akkad built a temple for Naram-Sin after he had crushed a revolt against his rule.

The main goddess of Akkad was Ishtar, who was called ‘Aštar-annunîtum or ‘Warlike Ishtar’ and who was identified with the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Her husband Ilaba was also revered in Akkad. Ishtar and Ilaba were later worshipped at Sippar in the Old Babylonian period, possibly because Akkad itself had been destroyed by that time. The city was certainly in ruins by the mid-first millennium BCE.

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