World History 1 35 - 3.2.2 The Rise of the World’s First Empire

Around 2300 BCE, the era of the independent Sumerian city-state, a political entity consisting of a city and surrounding territory that it controls, came to an end. Sumer and indeed all of Mesopotamia was conquered by Sargon of Akkad, who created the first-known empire, in this case, a number of regional powers under the control of one person. The word “Akkad” in his name was a reference to the Akkadians, a group that settled in central Mesopotamia, north of Sumer, around the ancient city of Kish. Over time, the Akkadians adopted Sumerian culture and adapted cuneiform to their own language, a language of the Semitic family that includes the Arabic and Hebrew spoken today. They also identified their own gods with the gods of the Sumerians and adopted Sumerian myths. For example, the Akkadians identified the fertility goddess Inanna with their own goddess Ishtar.

Sargon conquered not only Sumer but also what is today northern Iraq, Syria, and southwestern Iran. While the precise details of his origin and rise to power are not known, scholars believe the story Sargon told about himself, at least, has likely been accurately preserved in the Legend of Sargon, written two centuries after his death as a purported autobiography. It is a familiar story of a scrappy young hero born in humble circumstances and rising on his own merits to become a great leader. The Legend relates how, when Sargon was a baby, his unwed mother put him in a basket and cast it on the Euphrates River. A farmer found and raised him, and Ishtar loved Sargon and elevated him from a commoner to a great king and conqueror.

This interesting tale would have certainly been a powerful piece of propaganda justifying Sargon’s rule and endearing him to the common people, and some of it may even be true. But from what historians can tell, Sargon’s rise to power likely occurred during a period of turmoil as his kingdom of Kish, of which he had likely seized control, came under attack by another king named Lugalzagesi. Sargon’s eventual defeat of Lugalzagesi and conquest of all of Sumer proved to be the beginning of a larger conquest of Mesopotamia. The Akkadian Empire that Sargon created lasted for about a century and a half, officially coming to an end in the year 2193 BCE (Figure 3.13).

Two maps are shown. The map on the left shows land in gray and water in white. A small area is highlighted with a box and then enlarged on the right. The map on the right shows land in a beige color and water in blue. The Diyala River, the Karkeh River, the Tigris, and the Euphrates River are labelled in the northern half of the map, and the Tigris River and the Euphrates River are labelled in the southern half of the map. In the northwest there is an area labelled “Land of Subartu” with a black arrow pointing to the northwest. Below that a bit to the east is land labelled “Akkad” and the “Arabian Desert” is labelled in the southwest. In the middle of the map the land is labelled “Sumer.” The “Land of Dilmun” is labelled and a black arrow points southeast from there. The “Land of Elam” is labelled in the east with a black arrow pointing east and the “Zagros Mountains” are labelled in the northeast. A black dashed line is seen in the northwest running from the city of Samarra southeast past Akkad and then back up again to Samarra. Water in the southwest and south is highlighted with blue dashed lines along to the west of the Euphrates River. Other cities indicated on the map, from north to south are: Eshnunna, Rapiqum, Turub, Akshak, Der, Sippar, Kutha, Jemdet Nasr, Babylon, Kish, Larak, Borsippa, Dilbat, Mashkan-shapir, Nippur, Marad, Puzrish-Dagan, Adab, Isin, Kisurra, Shuruppak, Zabala, Umma, Girsu, Nina, Bad-nibria, Lagash, Uruk, Kutalla, Larsa, Ubaid, Ur, Eridu, and Kuara.
Figure 3.13 The Akkadian Empire reached its greatest geographic extent under its first emperor, Sargon of Akkad. At Sargon’s death in 2279 BCE, it included all of Mesopotamia, and his armies were marching into Syria and Anatolia. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

One of the rivals of the Akkadian Empire was the city-state of Ebla, located in northwestern Syria. At some point, its people had adapted Sumerian cuneiform to their own language, which, like Akkadian, belonged to the Semitic family of languages, and archaeologists have discovered thousands of cuneiform tablets at the site. These tablets reveal that Ebla especially worshipped the storm god Adad, who was honored with the title “Ba‘al” or lord. More than one thousand years later in the Iron Age, people in this region still worshipped Baal, who was the main rival of Yahweh for the affections of the ancient Israelites.

Other rivals of the Akkadians were the Elamites, who inhabited the region to the immediate southeast of Mesopotamia in southwest Iran and whose city of Susa arose around 4000 BCE. The art and architecture of the Elamites suggest a strong Sumerian influence. They developed their own writing system around 3000 BCE, even though they adapted Sumerian cuneiform to their language later in the third millennium BCE. The Elamites also worshipped their own distinct deities, such as Insushinak, the Lord of the Dead. Both Elam and Ebla eventually suffered defeat at the hands of the Akkadians.

In the year 2193 BCE, however, the Akkadian Empire collapsed. The precise reason is not entirely clear. However, some ancient accounts point to the incursions of the nomadic Guti tribes, whose original homes were located in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran, northwest of Mesopotamia. These Guti were originally pastoralists, who lived off their herds of livestock and moved from place to place to find pasture for their animals. While the Guti tribes certainly did move into the Akkadian Empire toward its end, modern scholarship suggests that the empire was likely experiencing internal decline and famine before this. The Guti appear to have exploited this weakness rather than triggering it. Regardless, for around a century, the Guti ruled over Sumer and adopted its culture as their own. Around 2120 BCE, however, the Sumerians came together under the leadership of the cities of Uruk and Ur and expelled the Guti from their homeland.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax