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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, Sargon's reign

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

 

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.

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