Near the end of the second millennium BCE the world of the Ancient Near East was transformed by conquest and an empire was born.
By 2300 BCE the king of Akkad, Sargon the Great, had united all the cities of Sumer under his rule. He had marched his armies into Elam to the east and then west into Syria securing the frontiers for trade and commerce. In some ways Sargon was merely repeating the model laid down centuries before by the nearly mythical Hero King Gilgamesh and which had been followed up to the time of Sargon’s rival, Lugalzagesi of Uruk. Sargon, however, had a different vision for his territory.
The Dynasty of Akkad
Sargon’s conquests became the Akkadian Empire, named after its capital city of Akkad. Many ancient history texts credit the Akkadians with having founded the first empire in history, and the martial prowess of its armies is usually given the credit for its success. Although the Akkadians did have a large and effective military this appears to have been only a tool in the primary effort which was to dominate the known world’s trade market.
Sargon himself reigned for around fifty years and his dynasty ruled supreme for four more generations. Sargon’s career had such an impact on Mesopotamia that over the centuries his feats became partially mythologized. Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin, would embark on fresh conquests that would lead to even more legendary exploits. There is also evidence that Naram-Sin portrayed himself as a living god.
In later tradition, Naram-Sin is remembered not only for his greatness but for his hubris as well. Indeed one account tells of how Akkad’s prosperity was connected with the temple of Inanna which the goddess herself occupied. With this resident goddess the city became wealthy and its citizens enjoyed a life of excess. The story tells that eventually the Akkadians went too far in their grab for power and offended the gods themselves.
The City of Akkad
To understand the real purpose of the Akkadian Empire the extravagance of its capital must be fully appreciated. Although its location remains a mystery there are details in the ancient texts about life in Akkad. Rather than merely an armed camp where Sargon was said to have dined with over 5,000 soldiers daily, Akkad was a cosmopolitan business center and the economic model it fostered would forever alter human history.
When Sargon originally conquered the southern port of Lagash he performed a ritual washing of his weapon in the Persian Gulf. This act was symbolic of Sargon’s control over this waterway. For hundreds of years, since at least the time of the First Dynasty of Ur, goods from as far away as Africa and East Asia had made there way over the sea to Mesopotamia. The actual locations of the ancient lands of Dilmun, Magan and Melluha are open to some debate, yet it is clear that ships from these lands regularly brought goods to the ports of Ur and Lagash. Notably during the time of the Akkadian Empire, these ships docked exclusively at Akkad. Citizens of the capital city were stationed as governors throughout the empire to monitor this flow of goods.
A close look at the conduct of the Akkadians shows that even their conquests in far flung Anatolia, a source of silver, were focused on securing vital commodities for the citizens of the capital. In one account the warehouses are said to overflow with wheat, tin, gold, silver, and blocks of lapis lazuli. Foreigners came to marvel at it splendors and even the servants lived lives of relative luxury.
This wealth did come with a price and that is where the Akkadians martial skill came into play. Anytime a rival power would challenge the rule of Akkad they would be swiftly destroyed. The ancient accounts record tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of the Akkadian kings. Even with so many foes vanquished in battle the Akkadians still record capturing even larger numbers of prisoners who were then used as slave labor.
Evidence of quarries and mines has been found in the Zagros Mountains that reveal labor camps on a massive scale. Service in one of these camps was likely tantamount to a death sentence. This large scale quarrying effort is possibly alluded to in one of the ancient texts about Sargon where the king challenges any who wish to follow him by saying, “mighty mountains with axes of bronze let him destroy.”
A New World Order
During its peak the Akkadian Empire had managed to consolidate control over trade routes that had already existed for thousands of years but had never before been under such centralized control. Sargon began the implementation of uniform weights and measures and introduced the Akkadian language as the official written language of the empire. Management of the increasingly vast trade resources necessitated the use of written records and before long even in the remote highlands of the north people were using Akkadian and developing their own scribal traditions.
Before the Dynasty of Akkad, kings had seen themselves as servants of the gods; they fought wars and conquered on their deity’s behalf. The City-State had held the highest position on the political ladder. These cities, with their temple based commerce and entrenched elite families, had ruled for as long as anyone could remember, that all changed with the Akkadians.
The struggle between warlords/lugals, and priests/Ens had shaped much of the dynastic wars during the third millennium BCE. This struggle faded into the past in a world where kings/šarrum, fought each other for vast empires.
The Akkadian empire would fall apart after a little more than a century and its once prosperous capital of Akkad would be lost to history. Still the impact of the Akkadians has yet to totally fade. Sargon created an ideal of centralized authority based on a commercial empire which was administered by the royal household or palace; this would be the basic model for hundreds of future conquerors.