In a 1931 archaeological dig in Nineveh, in Northern Mesopotamia, a life-sized copper head was found by Reginald Thompson and Max Mallowan. This head signalled a change from the usual hieratic sculpture style that denoted the Sumerians. It was also noted that this head did not show any of the usual signs of divinity, despite the fact that its quality indicated that the head represented someone rather important. The hair on this head was carefully plaited and styled beautifully, the beard was full and delicately layered. This head was found not far from the Ishtar Temple in Nineveh. It shows signs of destruction dating to the 7th century BCE. The archaeological team determined that this head belonged to the wreckage left by the destruction of the city at the hands of a combined Median and Babylonian force in 612 BCE. However the materials, style and sculptural technique of the head suggests that it was first created some 1,500 years before that. The team suggested that it may have been part of a full-length statue, standing in a place of honour in the temple.
Most scholars have agreed that this head represents Sargon, the founder of the first true Mesopotamian Empire. Sargon rose to power sometime between 2300 and 2200 BCE to destroy the combined kingdom of Kish, Lagash, Larsa, Nippur, Ur and Uruk which was under the leadership of Lugalzagesi. This new empire, shown in the photo below, claimed to stretch from what is now the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea from Cilicia to Lebanon at its height. Not much is known of Sargon prior to his empire. Legend suggests that his was brought up as a gardener who worked for the ruler of Kish, Ur-Zababa. This legend could be taken from fact as The Sumerian King List, written around the same time, shows that his father’s profession was gardening. This List also shows that Sargon managed to reach the position of cup-bearer to the monarch. Ur-Zababa soon disappears from the record, possibly deposed by Lugalzagesi. This threw Kish into turmoil. Eventually Sargon, with a large amount of supporters, took his opportunity and took the throne of Kish.
Sargon soon managed to take control of other cities, starting with Uruk in the South. Several documents exist from this time that show Sargon’s power, ‘The Chronicle of Early Kings’ and ‘The King of Battle’ are just two examples of these documents. Once Sargon had established his empire he moved his capital from Kish to a new city he built. This city was called Akkad in Semitic, Agade in Sumerian. Sargons’ empire was named from this new city. This new city was put under the protection of Ishtar, descendant of the prehistoric Great Goddess. Ishtar was combined with her Sumerian equivalent, Inanna, presumably to make it easier for the inhabitants of Akkad to make the move from the God of Kish, Zababa.
Sargon’s daughter, Zirru, travelled from the centre of Sargon’s empire to Ur, which was considered the heartland of Sumerian culture. Once there she took up a Sumerian name, Enheduana. She became the Chief Priestess of the god Nanna. Enheduana became known for her very personal relationship with the Gods, also for her poetic writings. Her compositions, whilst only rediscovered in modern times, were models of petitionary prayer for many different people. They influenced, through the Babylonians, the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible and some of the Homeric hymns of Greece. One of these compositions is called the Sumerian Temple Hymns. A translation of this text can be found on http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4801.htm. This text describes each of the temples of the land of Sumer in sequence. It is possible that this text was created as part of Sargon’s imperial policy in an effort to connect his lands and their gods.
It is in another one of Enheduana’s texts that we see her personal relationship with the gods, or in this case Inanna in particular. This text is called ‘Nin-me-sara’ and is a long prayer to Inanna. This prayer tells of a rebellion in Uruk, led by Lugal-Ane, against Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin. During this rebellion Lugal-Ane expelled Naram-Sin’s aunt, Enheduana, from the city. Towards the end of this prayer we can see that Lugal-Ane was defeated and Enheduana was restored to her rightful place in the Giparu in Uruk.
Between the works of Enheduana that survive and the evidence that suggests that a statue of Sargon survived 1,500 years before being destroyed shows that this was a rather powerful family in its time and that its influence far extended their own lifetimes.
Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, (London, 2010), pg. 105-134.
Jesse Russell and Ronald Cohn, Sargon of Akkad, (2012).
Betty De Shong Meador, Inanna: Lady of the Largest Heart, Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna, (Austin, Texas, 2000).