The Early Dynastic Period, spanning from 2900-2450 B.C.E., is the era when historical evidence first becomes available to shed light on the institution of early kingship.
The early city-states of Sumer and Akkad developed in southern Iraq along the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Through the use of irrigation canals for agriculture and ambitious commerce, these areas developed thriving populations. What little is known of the history of these ancient city-states comes from near legendary tales of competing kings, and stories of wars fought between cities and against foreigners.
Ancient documents, known as “King Lists”, provide some understanding of how the city-states interacted with one another. The oldest of these lists, known as the “Sumerian King List”, provides the names of the first known rulers of Mesopotamia. The first twenty three kings listed are all from the city of Kish, they are known collectively as the First Dynasty of Kish.
The King Of Kish
The important city of Kish was centrally situated along key trade routes in southern Iraq, but it was also in an area of linguistic diversity. In fact, the title “King of Kish” can be interpreted as meaning “king of the whole country.” Even after the end of the First Dynasty of Kish, ca. 2650 B.C.E., the city of Kish continued to be identified with regional hegemony.
Despite the population bearing Sumerian names, the city of Kish was located in Akkad, where the dominant language was not Sumerian but rather from a different language group known as Semitic. This population mixture may have helped create Kish as a symbol of power, since the ruler who held control of the city was also in control of both Sumerian and Semitic speaking peoples. However, there is no evidence that the Sumerians and the Semitic speaking Akkadians saw themselves as different from each other in any significant way, other than the difference in their primary languages.
Chosen By Enlil In Nippur
The city of Nippur was dominated by the priesthood of the god Enlil, who had been entrusted by An, the ruler of the gods, with dominion over men. Sumerian rulers who sought supremacy also craved the title “Chosen By Enlil In Nippur”, so that they could show the favor of the chief Sumerian deity. It is not known how much influence the ancient priesthood of Enlil wielded over aspiring conquerors who sought to be chosen however. Interestingly, no king of Nippur is ever listed in the Sumerian King Lists, which has lead to the theory that the city enjoyed a unique religious status.
The King As The Shepherd Of The People
The Ancient Sumerians believed that their kings were chosen by the god of the city to look over them, like a shepherd who would provide security and prosperity for the people. In some early cities, such as Uruk, the ruler was given the title en, which can be translated as lord, and implied both a religious and secular function.
After 2800 B.C.E., rulers are identified typically by the titles lugal, meaning warlord or king, and ensi, meaning governor. The significance of these titles is not always clear, and it is possible that different titles were used by the same individual at different times, depending on the needs of the occasion.
The responsibilities of these early Sumerian rulers may have their origins in the need within these communities for one person to coordinate military actions in a time of adversity. As this role became permanent, other duties that were previously the function of the earlier ens became associated with the job of the lugals and the ensis.
Foremost amongst these responsibilities was the maintenance and the building of temples. The ruler also conducted treaty arrangements with neighboring cities and foreign lands. In some cases, as in the city of Ur, then located on the Persian Gulf, these treaties could lead to expansive trade networks and a vast accumulation of wealth.
As caretakers of the temples and appointees of the gods, Sumerian kings and their wives, known as nins, were sometimes seen as divine couples. Since priest-kings and their spouses were representatives of the local gods, they were the overseers of all the city-states official religious ceremonies. In some cases, like that of the city of Uruk, this included a Sacred Marriage Rite, which sought to physically connect the ruler with the manifestation of the local divinity.
The Royal Cemetery Of Ur
The famous Royal Cemetery of Ur, dating to ca. 2600 B.C.E., is one of the most remarkable archeological sites from this period. The necropolis reveals not only the remains of a fantastic treasure trove, but provides evidence of a mass burial. In addition to members of the royal family, the remains of dozens of other individuals, presumably also members of the royal household, have been found buried here. There is no evidence to indicate a widespread practice of such burials, however the graves at Ur are often seen as evidence of the power of these early royal cults of the Priest Kings.
After a period of 500 years, the rulers of the early Sumerian city-states began to distance themselves from some of the more traditional religious functions. This would begin a separation of the Palace economy, controlled by the king, from the Temple economy, controlled by the priesthood, leading to a strengthening of the temple independent of the royal courts.
While the unification of the state under a strong leader had served the people well, with towns growing into cities under the guidance of the kings, circumstances were changing. Expansion and conquest by the strongest of the city-states led to a concentration of the military power under men who were primarily warlords. A large temple bureaucracy grew to fulfill the other functions of these burgeoning kingdoms, becoming major land owners and amassing riches which would later come to rival that of the kings they once served.