How Did Kingship Emerge in Mesopotamia?

Aditya Chakravarty

4 mins

18 Mar 2019

When thinking of the great names in history, it’s often those of monarchs or rulers that come to mind, especially from pre-modern times. Caesar, Alexander, Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Cleopatra, Henry VIII, the list goes on. These figures seem to stand larger than life and dominate our conception of the past.

The idea of kings is so familiar to us that we can scarcely imagine a time when this concept did not exist. Yet 5,000 years ago it did not.

Dr Amara Thornton talks us through a newly discovered film documenting archaeological excavations at the site of Nineveh.Watch Now

What came before kings?

During the 4th millennium, the Temple was the centre of the early cities. It acted not just as a cultic and ritual centre but also as an administrative unit.

The main administrative function of the Temple was that of redistributing food. These early city dwellers no longer farmed the land themselves and so the Temple was the central authority that collected food from the hinterlands and distributed it to the citizens.

Indeed, writing partially developed as a result of this process; as did the need for officials to administrate their food supplies and ensure everyone was fed. Imagine trying to manage all that in your head.

This process was bound up in cultic overtones, with rituals and offerings to the gods. Religion was a central aspect of Mesopotamian life, and the Temple utilised the inherent authority of the gods to assert their own authority.

Remember that the Temple would be the largest building dominating the skyline; to the average worker it was a mysterious place that was the home of your city’s god, a being that had immense control over your life.

Digital reconstruction of the White Temple and Ziggurat, Uruk (modern Warka), c. 3517-3358 B.C.E. © artefacts-berlin.de; scientific material: German Archaeological Institute.

The Sumerian king list

One of the difficulties of trying to recreate events from so long ago is the scarcity of evidence. Artefacts no longer exist, or are lost and buried in the sands. Even the landscape itself has changed, with the Tigris and Euphrates shifting course several times throughout the millennia.

Of course we still have artefacts and text; but compared to modern history we often have to make do with incomplete or fragmentary information, often utilising anthropological models and tailoring them to fit the evidence to craft our interpretations. An interdisciplinary approach is essential to the field.

Sumerian King List, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, AN1923.444.

One important artefact is the “Sumerian King List”. Created during the Old Babylonian period it is a list detailing the reigns of every monarch “after the kingship descended from heaven” (the opening line of the text).

The early kings are almost-certainly mythological with their reigns being just slightly too long to be feasible — the first king Alulim ruled for 28,800 years.

The earliest historically attested king is Enmebaragesi who reigned for 900 years. This is still too long to be accurate of course, however it is likely that mythology and history had blended at this point, with real figures being ascribed mythological characteristics.

We must recall that the Mesopotamians believed this was their history and that these early kings ruled for that long. Furthermore, the text was written almost 1000 years after Enmebaragesi reigned.

Whilst we can see that the later Mesopotamians understood that kingship had existed through most of human history, after descending from heaven, we are aware that this was not the case and that the initial from of governance was the Temple. So how did kingship develop?

Dr Amara Thornton talks us through a newly discovered film documenting archaeological excavations at the site of Nineveh.Watch Now

The origins of kingship

The best theories we have indicate that kingship developed out of one of the most endemic of human activities — waging war. Well, not quite full out war, but instead raiding and competition for resources.

Whilst the temple handled redistribution of food, the cities often needed (or wanted) more resources. From luxury items to building materials to slaves, these were usually attained by foraging or raiding parties either gathering the materials from the wild or attacking other cities to gain them.

Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of a city became a wall to defend from attackers. The earliest kings were likely war chiefs who managed to leverage their control of these parties to gain power.

These early kings ruled through their own charisma and control of the parties, however in order to institutionalise their power and create dynasties they crafted a specific ideology.

Like with the Temple, they claimed divine authority — “after the kingship descended from heaven” — and associated with the Temple, adopting titles used by the priesthood.

They created their own building — the Palace — that competed with the Temple for dominance of the skyline, and adopted some of its re-distributive functions, often focusing on elite good exchange. Through royal inscriptions and building monuments, they spread this ideology and gave it visual form, asserting their authority and legitimacy.

Human Sacrifice at the Death Pits of Ur, An artist’s impression of the death scene in a royal tomb at Ur from The Illustrated London News in 1928. Credit: University of Pennsylvania Museum.

At the Royal Cemetery at Ur, we can see death pits full of human sacrifices – loyal retainers following their kings into the afterlife.

The practice died out quickly but it shows that this was a period of innovation, when the early kings were trying out different ways of creating an ideology that would grant them authority beyond personal charisma and lasted over generations.

They succeeded and created one of the first examples of an institution that, though it has changed in form over the millennia, exists right to this day.