A history of ancient Akkad (Akkadians) from its rise to fall including  its kings, cities, laws and contributions to civilization

Main Akkadian Page

Sargon The Great

The Legend of Sargon

Sargon and other Kings Reign

Advice from father to son

Akkad and the Arts

Care to express an opinion on a current or past historical event?

Need to ask a question from our many visitors?

Just visit our Forum and leave your message.

Forum

Weekly Poll

The Akkadians were a Semitic people living on the Arabic peninsula during the great flourishing period of the Sumerian city-states. Although we don't know much about early Akkadian history and culture, we do know that as the Akkadians migrated north, they came in increasing conflict with the Sumerian city-states, and in 2340 BC, the great Akkadian military leader, Sargon, conquered Sumer and built an Akkadian empire stretching over most of the Sumerian city-states and extending as far away as Lebanon. Sargon based his empire in the city of Akkad, which became the basis of the name of his people. This great capital of the largest empire humans had ever seen up until that point later became the city of Babylon, which was the commercial and cultural center of the middle east for almost two thousand years.

But Sargon's ambitious empire lasted for only a blink of an eye in the long time spans with which we measure Mesopotamian history. In 2125, the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia rose up in revolt, and the Akkadian empire fell before a renewal of Sumerian city-states.

The Akkadians were Semites, that is, they spoke a language drawn from a family of languages called Semitic languages (the term "Semite" is a modern designation taken from the Hebrew Scriptures; Shem was a son of Noah and the nations descended from Shem are the Semites). These languages include Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, and Babylonian. After the final end of Sumerian power and civilization around 2000 BC, the area came under the exclusive control of Semitic peoples for centuries.

The Akkadians

Portions of this work contributed by Robert A. Guisepi and F. Roy Williams, University of California 

Akkad from 2350 to 2000 BC

There are several reasons for taking the year 2350 as a turning point in the history of Mesopotamia. For the first time, an empire arose on Mesopotamian soil. The driving force of that empire was the Akkadians, so called after the city of Akkad, which Sargon chose for his capital (it has not yet been identified but was presumably located on the Euphrates between Sippar and Kish). The name Akkad became synonymous with a population group that stood side by side with the Sumerians. Southern Mesopotamia became known as the "land of Sumer and Akkad"; Akkadian became the name of a language; and the arts rose to new heights. However, even this turning point was not the first time the Akkadians had emerged in history. Semites--whether Akkadians or a Semitic language group that had settled before them--may have had a part in the urbanization that took place at the end of the 4th millennium. The earliest Akkadian names and words occur in written sources of the 27th century. The names of several Akkadian scribes are found in the archives of Tall Abu Salabikh, near Nippur in central Babylonia, synchronous with those of Shuruppak (shortly after 2600). The Sumerian king list places the 1st dynasty of Kish, together with a series of kings bearing Akkadian names, immediately after the Flood. In Mari the Akkadian language was probably written from the very beginning. Thus, the founders of the dynasty of Akkad were presumably members of a people who had been familiar for centuries with Mesopotamian culture in all its forms.

Ascendancy of Akkad

Under Akkad, the Akkadian language acquired a literary prestige that made it the equal of Sumerian. Under the influence, perhaps, of an Akkadian garrison at Susa, it spread beyond the borders of Mesopotamia. After having employed for several centuries an indigenous script patterned after cuneiform writing, Elam adopted Mesopotamian script during the Akkadian period and with a few exceptions used it even when writing in Elamite rather than Sumerian or Akkadian. The so-called Old Akkadian manner of writing is extraordinarily appealing from the aesthetic point of view; as late as the Old Babylonian era it served as a model for monumental inscriptions. Similarly, the plastic and graphic arts, especially sculpture in the round, relief work, and cylinder seals, reached a high point of perfection.Thus the reign of the five kings of Akkad may be considered one of the most productive periods of Mesopotamian history. Although separatist forces opposed all unifying tendencies, Akkad brought about a broadening of political horizons and dimensions. The period of Akkad fascinated historiographers as did few other eras. Having contributed its share to the storehouse of legend, it has never disappeared from memory. With phrases such as "There will come a king of the four quarters of the earth," liver omens (soothsaying done by analyzing the shape of a sheep's liver) of the Old Babylonian period express the yearning for unity at a time when Babylonia had once again disintegrated into a dozen or more small states._

Sargon's reign 

According to the Sumerian king list, the first five rulers of Akkad (Sargon, Rimush, Manishtusu, Naram-Sin, and Shar-kali-sharri) ruled for a total of 142 years; Sargon alone ruled for 56. Although these figures cannot be checked, they are probably trustworthy, because the king list for Ur III, even if 250 years later, did transmit dates that proved to be accurate.

As stated in an annotation to his name in the king list, Sargon started out as a cupbearer to King Ur-Zababa of Kish. There is an Akkadian legend about Sargon, describing how he was exposed after birth, brought up by a gardener, and later beloved by the goddess Ishtar. Nevertheless, there are no historical data about his career. Yet it is feasible to assume that in his case a high court office served as springboard for a dynasty of his own. The original inscriptions of the kings of Akkad that have come down to posterity are brief, and their geographic distribution generally is more informative than is their content. The main sources for Sargon's reign, with its high points and catastrophes, are copies made by Old Babylonian scribes in Nippur from the very extensive originals that presumably had been kept there. They are in part Akkadian, in part bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian texts. According to these texts, Sargon fought against the Sumerian cities of southern Babylonia, threw down city walls, took prisoner 50 ensis, and "cleansed his weapons in the sea." He is also said to have captured Lugalzagesi of Uruk, the former ruler of Umma, who had vigorously attacked UruKAgina in Lagash, forcing his neck under a yoke and leading him thus to the gate of the god Enlil at Nippur. "Citizens of Akkad" filled the offices of ensi from the "nether sea" (the Persian Gulf) upward, which was perhaps a device used by Sargon to further his dynastic aims. Aside from the 34 battles fought in the south, Sargon also tells of conquests in northern Mesopotamia: Mari, Tuttul on the Balikh, where he venerated the god Dagan (Dagon), Ebla (Tall Mardikh in Syria), the "cedar forest" (Amanus or Lebanon), and the "silver mountains"; battles in Elam and the foothills of the Zagros are mentioned. Sargon also relates that ships from Meluhha (Indus region), Magan (possibly the coast of Oman), and Dilmun (Bahrain) made fast in the port of Akkad.

Impressive as they are at first sight, these reports have only a limited value because they cannot be arranged chronologically, and it is not known whether Sargon built a large empire. Akkadian tradition itself saw it in this light, however, and a learned treatise of the late 8th or the 7th century lists no fewer than 65 cities and lands belonging to that empire. Yet, even if Magan and Kapturu (Crete) are given as the eastern and western limits of the conquered territories, it is impossible to transpose this to the 3rd millennium.

Sargon appointed one of his daughters priestess of the moon god in Ur. She took the name of Enheduanna and was succeeded in the same office by Enmenanna, a daughter of Naram-Sin. Enheduanna must have been a very gifted woman; two Sumerian hymns by her have been preserved, and she is also said to have been instrumental in starting a collection of songs dedicated to the temples of Babylonia.Sargon died at a very old age. The inscriptions, also preserved only in copies, of his son Rimush are full of reports about battles fought in Sumer and Iran, just as if there had never been a Sargonic empire. It is not known in detail how rigorously Akkad wished to control the cities to the south and how much freedom had been left to them; but they presumably clung tenaciously to their inherited local autonomy. From a practical point of view, it was probably in any case impossible to organize an empire that would embrace all Mesopotamia.

Since the reports (i.e., copies of inscriptions) left by Manishtusu, Naram-Sin, and Shar-kali-sharri speak time and again of rebellions and victorious battles and since Rimush, Manishtusu, and Shar-kali-sharri are themselves said to have died violent deaths, the problem of what remained of Akkad's greatness obtrudes. Wars and disturbances, the victory of one and the defeat of another, and even regicide constitute only some of the aspects suggested to us by the sources. Whenever they extended beyond the immediate Babylonian neighbourhood, the military campaigns of the Akkadian kings were dictated primarily by trade interests instead of being intended to serve the conquest and safeguarding of an empire. Akkad, or more precisely the king, needed merchandise, money, and gold in order to finance wars, buildings, and the system of administration that he had instituted.

On the other hand, the original inscriptions that have been found so far of a king like Naram-Sin are scattered at sites covering a distance of some 620 miles as the crow flies, following the Tigris downriver: Diyarbakr on the upper Tigris, Nineveh, Tall Birak (Tell Brak) on the upper Khabur River (which had an Akkadian fortress and garrison), Susa in Elam, as well as Marad, Puzrish-Dagan, Adab (Bismayah), Nippur, Ur, and Girsu in Babylonia. Even if all this was not part of an empire, it surely constituted an impressive sphere of influence.

Also to be considered are other facts that weigh more heavily than high-sounding reports of victories that cannot be verified. After the first kings of the dynasty had borne the title of king of Kish, Naram-Sin assumed the title "king of the four quarters of the earth"--that is, of the universe. As if he were in fact divine, he also had his name written with the cuneiform sign "god," the divine determinative that was customarily used in front of the names of gods; furthermore, he assumed the title of "god of Akkad." It is legitimate to ask whether the concept of deification may be used in the sense of elevation to a rank equal to that of the gods. At the very least it must be acknowledged that, in relation to his city and his subjects, the king saw himself in the role played by the local divinity as protector of the city and guarantor of its well-being. In contemporary judicial documents from Nippur, the oath is often taken "by Naram-Sin," with a formula identical with that used in swearing by a divinity. Documents from Girsu contain Akkadian date formulas of the type "in the year in which Naram-Sin laid the foundations of the Enlil temple at Nippur and of the Inanna temple at Zabalam." As evidenced by the dating procedures customary in Ur III and in the Old Babylonian period, the use of such formulas presupposes that the respective city acknowledged as its overlord the ruler whose name is invoked.

The end of the dynasty  and the Gutians

Of the kings after Shar-kali-sharri (c. 2217-c. 2193), only the names and a few brief inscriptions have survived. Quarrels arose over the succession, and the dynasty went under, although modern scholars know as little about the individual stages of this decline as about the rise of Akkad. Two factors contributed to its downfall: the invasion of the nomadic Amurrus (Amorites), called Martu by the Sumerians, from the northwest, and the infiltration of the Gutians, who came, apparently, from the region between the Tigris and the Zagros Mountains to the east. This argument, however, may be a vicious circle, as these invasions were provoked and facilitated by the very weakness of Akkad. In Ur III the Amorites, in part already sedentary, formed one ethnic component along with Sumerians and Akkadians. The Gutians, on the other hand, played only a temporary role, even if the memory of a Gutian dynasty persisted until the end of the 17th century BC. As a matter of fact, the wholly negative opinion that even some modern historians have of the Gutians is based solely on a few stereotyped statements by the Sumerians and Akkadians, especially on the victory inscription of Utu-hegal of Uruk (c. 2116-c. 2110). While Old Babylonian sources give the region between the Tigris and the Zagros Mountains as the home of the Gutians, these people probably also lived on the middle Euphrates during the 3rd millennium. According to the Sumerian king list, the Gutians held the "kingship" in southern Mesopotamia for about 100 years. It has long been recognized that there is no question of a whole century of undivided Gutian rule and that some 50 years of this rule coincided with the final half century of Akkad. From this period there has also been preserved a record of a "Gutian interpreter." As it is altogether doubtful whether the Gutians had made any city of southern Mesopotamia their "capital" instead of controlling Babylonia more or less informally from outside, scholars cautiously refer to "viceroys" of this people. The Gutians have left no material records, and the original inscriptions about them are so scanty that no binding statements about them are possible.

The Gutians' influence probably did not extend beyond Umma. The neighbouring state of Lagash enjoyed a century of complete independence, between Shar-kali-sharri and the beginning of Ur III, during which time it showed expansionist tendencies and had widely ranging trade connections. Of the ensi Gudea, a contemporary of Ur-Nammu of Ur III, there are extant writings, exclusively Sumerian in language, which are of inestimable value. He had the time, power, and means to carry out an extensive program of temple construction during his reign, and in a hymn divided into two parts and preserved in two clay cylinders 12 inches (30 centimetres) high he describes explicitly the reconstruction of Eninnu, the temple of the god Ningirsu. Comprising 1,363 lines, the text is second in length only to Eannatum's Stele of Vultures among the literary works of the Sumerians up to that time. While Gudea forges a link, in his literary style, with his country's pre-Sargonic period, his work also bears the unmistakable stamp of the period of Akkad. Thus, the regions that furnish him building materials reflect the geographic horizon of the empire of Akkad, and the ensi's title "god of his city" recalls the "god of Akkad" (Naram-Sin). The building hymn contains interesting particulars about the work force deployed. "Levies" were organized in various parts of the country, and the city of Girsu itself "followed the ensi as though it were a single man." Unfortunately lacking are synchronous administrative archives of sufficient length to provide less summarily compiled information about the social structure of Lagash at the beginning of the 3rd dynasty of Ur. After the great pre-Sargonic archives of the Baba temple at Girsu, only the various administrative archives of the kings of Ur III give a closer look at the functioning of a Mesopotamian state.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center