The Akkadian Empire

The Syrian desert, where once an empire flourished.

The Syrian desert, where once an empire flourished.

Four thousand years ago, there was a city. And this city became the heart of an empire – possibly the first great empire in the history of man. But for millennia, all the remained of this great empire was a single word – a throwaway reference in the Book of Genesis, chapter ten, verse ten. The word was Akkad. Then, in the 19th century Henry Rawlinson (building on the works of Niebuhr, Burnouf and Lassen) managed to decipher the cuneiform script that was, for three thousand years, the most common form of writing on Earth. The ancient world was opened up, and Akkad was unknown no more.

Sargon the Great, the first emperor.  This statue was found in the ruins of Nineveh.

Sargon the Great, the first emperor.
This statue was found in the ruins of Nineveh.

No longer unknown, but not found. We still don’t know where Akkad actually stood (though scholars believe it was somewhere near the modern city of Baghdad). We know, however, that from Akkad came a great empire, the Akkadian Empire, covering much of the land that would become Persia, and later the modern Middle East. The first emperor of Akkad was Sargon the Great, whose name meant “True King”. Sargon came from lowly birth. His legend states that he was a foundling, cast adrift by a “changeling mother” in a basket of reeds, and rescued by a drawer of water who raised him as his son. Sargon became a messenger, and eventually a royal cup-bearer for the king of Kish, Ur-Zababa. The legend states that Sargon had a vision:

“Sargon answered his king: ‘My king, this is my dream, which I will tell you about: There was a young woman, who was as high as the heavens and as broad as the earth. She was firmly set as the base of a wall. For me, she drowned you in a great river, a river of blood.’”

The king believed that the woman was the goddess Inanna, a fertility goddess (later known as Ishtar). He lied to his chancellor about the dream, and tried to have his royal smith kill Sargon, but the goddess frustrated his efforts. So he sent Sargon to serve the king of Sumer, Lugal-zage-si, with a letter instructing the king to kill him. The legend does not continue, but what is known is that Sargon overthrew Ur-Zababa, conquered Lugal-zage-si’s kingdom, and founded the Akkadian empire. He may have been aided in this by his becoming an irrigation engineer and thus having a disciplined group of men answering to him – the core of his army. In fact, his army is recorded as reaching the size of 5,400 men – all full-time professional soldiers, the first ever recorded.

Akkadian soldiers, from a victory monument erected by Naram-sin, Sargon's grandson.

Akkadian soldiers, from a victory monument erected by Naram-sin, Sargon’s grandson.

Sargon is said to have reigned for fifty-six years, and was succeeded by his son Rimush. Rimush reigned for nine years before he was killed by his courtiers, and succeeded by his brother Manishtushu. Another prominent child of Sargon was his daughter, named Enheduanna. Enheduanna was a priestess of Inanna, who was the author of several hymns of praise to the goddess. In fact, she may be the earliest known author of any work. Her greatest surviving work is the Exaltation of Inanna, a hymn of praise similar to many biblical verses.

Inanna, goddess of love, fertility and warfare

Inanna, goddess of love, fertility and warfare

“Lady supreme over the foreign lands, who can take anything from your province? If you frown at the mountains, vegetation there is ruined. Their great gateways are set afire. Blood is poured into their rivers because of you, and their people must drink it.
“Be it known that you are lofty as the heavens! Be it known that you are broad as the earth! Be it known that you destroy the rebel lands! Be it known that you roar at the foreign lands! Be it known that you crush heads! Be it known that you devour corpses like a dog! Be it known that your gaze is terrible! Be it known that you lift your terrible gaze! Be it known that you have flashing eyes! Be it known that you are unshakable and unyielding! Be it known that you always stand triumphant!”

Manishtushu was succeeded by his son Naram-Sin, the second great Emperor of Akkad. In his reign the composite bow is said to have been invented, and he is one figure who is regarded as the possible historical person behind the biblical figure of Nimrod. It is certain that he ran an efficient, planned economy, with fixed prices and taxes, and the records of his bookkeepers have survived. What has also survived is the monument to his victory he raised when he defeated a group called the Lullubi, which shows him towering over their defeated soldier as a god-like giant being. Naram-sin was, in fact, possibly the first God-Emperor, as others before him had simply claimed kinship with the gods.

The victory stele of Naram-sin. The horned helmet signifies divinity.

The victory stele of Naram-sin, which is now in the Louvre in Paris.
The horned helmet signifies divinity.

The fall of the Akkadian empire is, as one might expect, somewhat unclear. Legends speak of a curse laid upon Naram-sin for sacking the E-kur temple in the city of Nippur, the holiest temple of the god Enlil. This may have some foundation in fact, for the curse speaks of drought and famine on the land, and this is backed up by archaeological evidence. The Sumerian records also speak of a lack of clear succession following the death of Naram-sin’s son Shar-kali-shari. “Who was king? Who was not king?” Political conflict between settled farmers and nomadic herders also destabilised the country, as did the raids of the Gutian people – the first case of barbarians from the north raiding an empire, but far from the last. Regardless of the cause however, the Akkadian empire fell. The first empire of humanity gradually faded from memory – until only a single word remained to mark its passage.


2 thoughts on “The Akkadian Empire

  1. Pingback: Today’s Scribbling: The Akkadian Empire | Daily Scribbling

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