A Concise History of Mesopotamia (5): Ur III (2100-2000 BC)

At the end of the Old-Akkadian period the Akkadian empire dissolved into a number of smaller city-states governed by a local king. The Sumerian Kinglist mentions Utu-Hegal who reigned eight years over Uruk. After him the List gives the names of kings who ruled at Ur. Since that is the third dynasty of that city mentioned in the List, the period in which they reigned is called “Ur III” by modern scholars. Other names for the period are “Sumerian renaissance” or “Neo-Sumerian” age, because – in contrast to the previous Akkadian period – Sumerian was now (again) used as main language in administration, education and literature. But nota bene: voices have been raised claiming that at this stage Sumerian was already a dead language, which merely existed in written (and not spoken) form. In any case, Akkadian is also well-attested in this period, even in the names of kings.


Ur III administrative tablet

Even though the absolute chronology of the Ur III-period remains uncertain, its history is based on a firm relative chronology derived from yearnames: as in the Old-Akkadian period, Ur III-kings named the years of their reigns after important military and religious events. Those names were then used as a uniform system throughout the empire to date -mainly administrative – texts. It can be stated with little doubt that the Ur III-period is one of the best documented periods in history: there are approximately 90000 texts available! From that source material we can glean large views of the economic and political system, but also of daily life in almost colourful detail. Thus the texts show an extremely centralised empire managed by a huge bureaucracy.

Political history

The first king of the third dynasty of Ur was Ur-Nammu, who called himself “King of Sumer and Akkad”, thus exhibiting the size of his kingdom. It is not entirely clear how he came to power: probably, he overthrew Utu-hegal of Uruk when he was still governor of Ur. During his reign, Ur-Nammu undertook many building projects, the most famous of which is the building of the ziggurat at Ur. (A ziggurat was part of the temple complex in the form of a tower; its cultic significance is very debated. We all know the ziggurat of Babylon that is described in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.)


The ziggurat of Ur today.

Ur_Nammu_code_IstanbulFurthermore, Ur-Nammu was responsible for starting a policy of reorganisation aimed at centralisation that would continue to be implemented by his successors. His reforms included the creation of the “Codex of Ur-Nammu”, which constitutes of a list of casuistic laws, such as:

“If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.”

However, today it is more or less accepted that the code was made under Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi and only later attributed to him. Shulgi is the most famous ruler of the Ur III-dynasty who ruled for 38 years. During that time he firmly established a large empire including large parts of Elam in the east. It seems that most reforms were carried out by this king, resulting in a heavy bureaucratised society. A new capital was founded, named Puzrish-Dagan (“protected by the god Dagan”; modern Drehem); a large amount of written sources stems from this place. The scribal curriculum underwent some changes as well: Sumerian (re)gained an important place and new literary genres were created, most importantly the royal hymn. At this time, kings were deified and a special cult was installed for them in the empire’s temple. The royal hymn had its function in that cult.

After Shulgi’s long reign, the empire slowly started to disintegrate. The yearnames of the following three Ur III-kings – Amar-Sîn, Shu-Sîn and Ibbi-Sîn – show a growing struggle with the ever slower bureaucracy and with threats from neighbouring regions, especially from the western tribes of the Amorites. Moreover, by the end of the 21st century BC, local governors had again taken so much power in hands that they must be considered to have acted independently (for example Ishbi-Erra of Isin).

Organisation of the empire


Organisation of the Ur III-empire

Perhaps instead of considering the Ur III-empire as a centralised state, one should speak of a centrifugal state: by means of different systems the Ur III-kings managed to bind a large territory to them, with strong control of the core region that lessened the farther away from that core one goes.

The central provinces were governed by an administrative and judicial ruler called “ensi”, who stemmed from a local elitist family and the function usually remained in that family. Military responsibility lay with the “sagin”. Above the “ensi” and “sagin” stood a “sukkal”, and all the “sukkals” were subordinate to the “sukkalmah”. The central regions were submitted to a special tax-system called “bala” (meaning “cycle” or “rotation”). If I understand it correctly, not every central province had to pay tribute at the same time; instead, one province at a time had to do so, after which the obligation “rotated” to the next. Furthermore, taxes were calculated based on the province’s capacities. The bala-system thus formed an easy way to redistribution of means.

The peripheral provinces were organised differently: they were not subjugated to the bala-system, but were instead required to pay tribute each year. Moreover, their command lay solely with a military leader and a professional army was stationed there permanently (compare with the Roman limes). Finally, there were those regions that did not stand under political control of the Ur III-kings. Still, they ensured friendly relationships through diplomatic marriages: princesses and even princes were forced to marry with far-away rulers to keep the peace.

At the heart of this all was the city of Ur. Sadly, it was in later tradition not remembered for its glory; rather, it entered history as a city destroyed by outer forces, most famously sung in the “Lament over the Destruction of Ur”:

“Oh city, a bitter lament set up as thy lament; thy lament which is bitter – O city, set up thy lament. His righteous city which has been destroyed – bitter is its lament; his Ur which has been destroyed – bitter is its lament.”

(Translation by S.N. Kramer)

Further reading


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