Early Dynastic Period of Mesopotamia

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
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The basic element of political organization of Babylonia in the Early Dynastic period was the city-state: an uban center directly controlling a hinterland with a radius of some 15 kilometers, where people lived in villages. Owing to the agricultural regime of the region, which was wholly dependent on irrigation water for its crops, settlements had to be near rivers, primarily the Euphrates, or canals, which at this time were still relatively short. Throughout Babylonia about thirty-five city-states existed, more or less evenly divided over the region. The steppe lay between the cultivated and permanently inhabited zones and was used for seasonal animal herding and hunting. This area was only indirectly controlled by the urban centers. Mieroop, p 45

EventTimeDescription

Early Dynastic I

2900 - 2750 BC

Takes place mostly in archaic Ur. The different eras of the Early Dynastic Period are based on stylistic changes in material remains, and are not based on historical events; the Early Dynastic Period should be regarded as a political whole with the same basic characteristics for its entire duration.

Early Dynastic II

2750 - 2600 BC

Early Dynastic IIIA

2600 - 2450 BC

Attested mostly by Fara, Abu-Salabikh.

Early Dynastic IIIB

2450 - 2350 BC

Attested mostly by Lagash, Umma.

Standing male worshipperAlabaster (gypsum) with shell and black limestone inlay. Statue from the Square Temple of Abu at Eshnunna (Tell Asmar), Early Dynastic I-II, circa 2900-2600 BC. Metropolitan Mu
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Gypsum statue of a female worshipper, Sin Temple, Level IX, Khafaje. Early Dynastic IIIA, circa 2600 - 2500 BC. Metropolitan Museum.
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Reclining doe, Early Dynastic IIIA, Sumerian, Mesopotamian. Gold. Met Museum.
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Gypsum vessel supported by two rams, circa 2600-2500 BC, Early Dynastic IIIA. Metropolitan Museum.
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Gypsum relief of a banquet scene, Room 161, Level VIIB, Inanna Temple, Nippur. Early Dynastic IIIa, 2600 – 2500 BC. Metropolitan. This relief plaque depicts a banquet scene, one of Early Dynastic art’
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Calcite bowl, Room 193, Level VIIIB, Nippur, Early Dynastic IIIA, 2600 – 2500 BC. Metropolitan Museum. Sumerian cuneiform inscription: 1 For Inanna, 2 Aka-Enlil the chief merchant, 3 son of Heti, 4 de
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Babylonia experienced population growth as immigrants arrived and semi-nomads settled, and urbanization as cities and villages grew and small hamlets disappeared. City-states were initially separated by non-agricultural steppe, mostly used for herding. However, as cities grew they needed more cultivated land. They encroached outward until (especially in the south) their borders were contiguous or overlapping. Competition arose for remaining open land and intercity wars ensued. Tensions were aggravated by a drier climate which dried up river branches.

The increased competition over land led the city-state administrations to secularize and centralize. According to later Sumerian stories about this period, in a moment of crisis the popular assembly elected a physically strong man as war leader and that body controlled his movements. This primitive democracy is believed to have led to a dynastic system under which rule was passed from father to son. The war leader derived his power from prominence in warfare; this was unlike the chief priest, who derived his power by a perception of divine favor. Despite both being state authorities, however, the war leader and chief priest did not inherently antagonize one another.

The new military dynasties of the Early Dynastic period were the first instances of palatial kingship power. A new type of monumental buildings arose in cities -- the palace, a residential building unlike the temple. Documents of the era mention a new central institution, the é-gal (great house) which in later periods clearly refers to the royal house. This is distinct from the é (house), meaning the house of the city-god (the temple). Lagash's last independent Early Dynastic ruler was the usurper Uru'inimgina (~2400 BC). Uru'inimgina tried to unify the palace and temple. He transferred control of agricultural land to the city-god Ningirsu; renamed the é-mi (household of the city-ruler's wife) to the é-Bau (household of the goddess Bau); and hugely expanded the é-Bau by reallocating other temples' resources.

By ostensibly relinquishing power, Uru'inimgina actually placed himself and his wife as chief administrators over the gods' earthly estates. These reforms were short-lived, but the union of divine and earthly authority continued. Later kings proclaimed their powers as derived from the gods and controlled temple property, despite actually deriving power from military skill.

Intercity Relations: Border Conflicts, Gift Exchanges and Royal Inscriptions

[Royal inscriptions] originated with the simple writing of a royal name and title on a votive object, indicating that it was dedicated by that individual. For instance, "Mebaragesi, king of Kish," was written on a stone vessel. Soon they included short statements that rulers constructed buildings. Over time, inscriptions became lengthier through the inclusion of accounts of military feats associated with the event commemorated, culminating in the first millennium -- with detailed year-by-year reports of campaigns and a description of the building raised. These records provide important data on the activities of the ruler both as builder and as warrior. Mieroop, p 42

Royal inscriptions were a breathrough of the Early Dynastic period. These new texts originated as simple royal names and titles, often stamped on offerings to the gods; they grew to include important yearly information on the ruler as a warrior and builder. The largest group of Early Dynastic royal inscriptions are from Lagash, where nine rulers left 120 inscriptions over a 150 year period from ~2500 to ~2350 BC. They chronicle the Lagash-Umma border conflict in explicit detail, making it the earliest Near East history narratable by modern scholars based on contemporary sources. The royal inscriptions at Lagash cast light on the intercity land disputes characteristic of the era.

However, not all intercity interactions were hostile. Royal houses communicated with one another as equals and had diplomatic relations. Gift exchanges strengthened ties. A cache of precious items found at Mari revealed a bead inscribed with Mesannepada, king of Ur -- the cache was likely given by Mesannepada to the king at Mari. Also, Mesannepada's wife at Lagash, Baranamtara, is known to have exchanged gifts with her counterpart at Adab; this was likely a common practice.

Intercity Relations: Above the City-State

Though the city-state is considered the political unit of the time, there were some larger entities created by military conquests and peaceful accords. The Uruk king Lugalkiginedudu claimed kingship over Ur in ~2400 BC; at the end of the Early Dynastic era, the Umma king Lugalzagesi took control of Uruk and Ur, then defeated the Lagashite king Uru'inimgina. Lugalzagesi thus held the south of Babylonia. His inscriptions apocryphally allege that he controlled from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea (the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf). Nonetheless, his power was genuinely greater than a traditional city-state.

The city Kish carried great religious and political significance. Control of Kish granted a ruler legitimacy in the north, just as Nippur did in the south. Further, rulers of Kish held regional authority. This is first documented in ~2600 BC when the Lagash-Umma border through the gu'edena was demarcated by the Kish king Mesalim. Also, the title King of Kish in various cities' inscriptions, and in Lagash a ceremonial mace-head of Kish king Mesalim was found. However, these city-states had their own énsi (city-rulers) who wrote their own inscriptions, and were clearly not vassals of or greatly controlled by Kish.

Administrative texts from Shuruppak dating to ~2500 BC describe an alliance of southern cities. Records were kept in Shuruppak of soliders from Ur, Adab, Nippur, Lagash and Umma, "stationed at kiengi" -- kiengi later referred to all of Sumer, but at this time was a particular locality. The same texts refer to a coalition of forces from Lagash, Umma and Adab in a place called unken -- also, the Sumerian word for assembly. These coalitions were ephemeral and were derailed by the Lagash-Umma border conflict. However, cities would albeit briefly group into various coalitions to stand up to one another.

Reigns of Early Dynastic Kings in Mesopotamia

YearUrukUrLagashUmmaAkkadMariEbla
Ikun-ShamashAgur-Lim
Ibbi-Damu
2500Ikun-Shamagan
Ur-Nanshe
MasannepadaAkurgal
Ishki-MariBaga-Damu
AnubuEnar-Damu
EannatumUr-Lumma
SaumuIshar-Malik
Enannatum IIshtup-IsharKun-Damu
Abub-Damu
Iblul-Il
2400Lugalkinge-neshduduIgrish-Halam
Ni-zi
Enannatum IIEnna-DaganIrkab-Damu
LugaltarsiEnentarziIkun-Ishar
2350LugalandaHida'-arIshar-Damu
LugalzagesiUrukagina
Sargon

Early Dynastic society

Societal structure solidified in the Early Dynastic era Leick 2007, p 256. Elite groups with strong ties gained power, and fewer people were engaged in managing public affairs: tablet corpuses reflect a variety of transactions but only a limited number of participants. Babylonia had a strong religious unity which joined together cities in war and peace.

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Standing male worshipperAlabaster (gypsum) with shell and black limestone inlay. Statue from the Square Temple of Abu at Eshnunna (Tell Asmar), Early Dynastic I-II, circa 2900-2600 BC. Metropolitan Museum.

This figure belongs to a cache of twelve statues buried beside an altar in the Abu Temple. Statues from the hoard define Early Dynastic sculpture in the abstract style, characterized by geometric forms.

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Gypsum statue of a female worshipper, Sin Temple, Level IX, Khafaje. Early Dynastic IIIA, circa 2600 - 2500 BC. Metropolitan Museum.

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Reclining doe, Early Dynastic IIIA, Sumerian, Mesopotamian. Gold. Met Museum.

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Gypsum vessel supported by two rams, circa 2600-2500 BC, Early Dynastic IIIA. Metropolitan Museum.

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Gypsum relief of a banquet scene, Room 161, Level VIIB, Inanna Temple, Nippur. Early Dynastic IIIa, 2600 – 2500 BC. Metropolitan.

This relief plaque depicts a banquet scene, one of Early Dynastic art’s fundamental themes. It may represent a ritual harvest/fertility feast between the king and the goddess Inanna or her high priestess.

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Calcite bowl, Room 193, Level VIIIB, Nippur, Early Dynastic IIIA, 2600 – 2500 BC. Metropolitan Museum.

Sumerian cuneiform inscription: 1 For Inanna, 2 Aka-Enlil the chief merchant, 3 son of Heti, 4 dedicated [this bowl]

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