Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Empire of the 3rd dynasty of Ur ( 2112-2004 B.C)


Utu-hegal of Uruk is given credit for having overthrown Gutian rule by vanquishing their king Tiriqan along with two generals. Utu-hegal calls himself lord of the four quarters of the earth in an inscription, but this title, adopted from Akkad, is more likely to signify political aspiration than actual rule. Utu-hegal was a brother of the Ur-Nammu who founded the 3rd dynasty of Ur ("3rd" because it is the third time that Ur is listed in the Sumerian king list). Under Ur-Nammu and his successors Shulgi, Amar-Su'ena, Shu-Sin, and Ibbi-Sin, this dynasty lasted for a century (c. 2112-c. 2004). Ur-Nammu was at first "governor" of the city of Ur under Utu-hegal. How he became king is not known, but there may well be some parallels between his rise and the career of Ishbi-Erra of Isin or, indeed, that of Sargon. By eliminating the state of Lagash, Ur-Nammu caused the coveted overseas trade (Dilmun, Magan, and Meluhha) to flow through Ur. As evidenced by a new royal title that he was the first to bear [that of "king of Sumer and Akkad"] he had built up a state that comprised at least the southern part of Mesopotamia. Like all great rulers, he built much, including the very impressive ziggurats of Ur and Uruk, which acquired their final monumental dimensions in his reign.

Assyriologists have given the name of Code of Ur-Nammu to a literary monument that is the oldest known example of a genre extending through the Code of Lipit-Ishtar in Sumerian to the Code of Hammurabi, written in Akkadian. (Some scholars have attributed it to Ur-Nammu's son Shulgi.) It is a collection of sentences or verdicts mostly following the pattern of "If A [assumption], it follows that B [legal consequence]." The collection is framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The original was most likely a stela, but all that is known of the Code of Ur-Nammu so far are Old Babylonian copies. The term code as used here is conventional terminology and should not give the impression of any kind of "codified" law; furthermore, the content of the Code of Ur-Nammu is not yet completely known. It deals, among other things, with adultery by a married woman, the defloration of someone else's female slave, divorce, false accusation, the escape of slaves, bodily injury, and the granting of security, as well as with legal cases arising from agriculture and irrigation.

Before its catastrophic end under Ibbi-Sin, the state of Ur III does not seem to have suffered setbacks and rebellions as grievous as those experienced by Akkad. There are no clear indications pointing to inner unrest, although it must be remembered that the first 20 years of Shulgi's reign are still hidden in darkness. However, from that point on until the beginning of Ibbi-Sin's reign, or for a period of 50 years at least, the sources give the impression of peace enjoyed by a country that lived undisturbed by encroachments from abroad. Some expeditions were sent into foreign lands, to the region bordering on the Zagros, to what later became Assyria, and to the vicinity of Elam, in order to secure the importation of raw materials, in a fashion reminiscent of Akkad. Force seems to have been employed only as a last resort, and every attempt was made to bring about peaceful conditions on the other side of the border through the dispatch of embassies or the establishment of family bonds--for example, by marrying the king's daughters to foreign rulers.

Shulgi, too, called himself king of the four quarters of the earth. Although he resided in Ur, another important centre was in Nippur, whence--according to the prevailing ideology-- Enlil, the chief god in the Sumerian state pantheon, had bestowed on Shulgi the royal dignity. Shulgi and his successors enjoyed divine honours, as Naram-Sin of Akkad had before them; by now, however, the process of deification had taken on clearer outlines in that sacrifices were offered and chapels built to the king and his throne, while the royal determinative turned up in personal names. Along with an Utu-hegal ("The Sun God Is Exuberance") there appears a Shulgi-hegal ("Shulgi Is Exuberance"), and so forth.


Ethnic, geographic, and intellectual constituents


From the ethnic point of view, Mesopotamia was as heterogeneous at the end of the 3rd millennium as it had been earlier. The Akkadian element predominated, and the proportion of speakers of Akkadian to speakers of Sumerian continued to change in favour of the former. The third group, first mentioned under Shar-kali-sharri of Akkad, are the Amorites. In Ur III some members of this people are already found in the higher echelons of the administration, but most of them, organized in tribes, still led a nomadic life. Their great days came in the Old Babylonian period. While clearly differing linguistically from Akkadian, the Amorite language, which can be reconstructed to some extent from more than a thousand proper names, is fairly closely related to the so-called Canaanite branch of the Semitic languages, of which it may in fact represent an older form. The fact that King Shu-Sin had a regular wall built clear across the land, the "wall that keeps out the Tidnum" (the name of a tribe), shows how strong the pressure of the nomads was in the 21st century and what efforts were made to check their influx. The fourth major ethnic group was the Hurrians, who were especially important in northern Mesopotamia and in the vicinity of modern Kirkuk.

It is likely that the geographic horizon of the empire of Ur III did not materially exceed that of the empire of Akkad. No names of localities in the interior of Anatolia have been found, but there was much coming and going of messengers between Mesopotamia and Iran, far beyond Elam. There is also one mention of Gubla (Byblos) on the Mediterranean coast. Oddly enough, there is no evidence of any relations with Egypt, either in Ur III or in the Old Babylonian period. It is odd if no contacts existed at the end of the 3rd millennium between the two great civilizations of the ancient Middle East.

Intellectual life at the time of Ur III must have been very active in the cultivation and transmission of older literature, as well as in new creations. Although its importance as a spoken tongue was slowly diminishing, Sumerian still flourished as a written language, a state of affairs that continued into the Old Babylonian period. As shown by the hymn to the deified king, new literary genres arose in Ur III. If Old Babylonian copies are any indication, the king's correspondence with leading officials was also of a high literary level.

In the long view, the 3rd dynasty of Ur did not survive in historical memory as vigorously as did Akkad. To be sure, Old Babylonian historiography speaks of Ur III as bala-Sulgi, the "(reigning) cycle of Shulgi"; however, there is nothing that would correspond to the epic poems about Sargon and Naram-Sin. The reason is not clear, but it is conceivable that the later, purely Akkadian population felt a closer identification with Akkad than with a state that to a large extent still made use of the Sumerian language.




The highest official of the state was the sukkal-mah, literally "supreme courier," whose position may be described as "state chancellor." The empire was divided into some 40 provinces ruled by as many ensis, who, despite their far-reaching authority (civil administration and judicial powers), were no longer autonomous, even if only indirectly, although the office was occasionally handed down from father to son. They could not enter into alliances or wage wars on their own. The ensis were appointed by the king and could probably also be transferred by him to other provinces. Each of these provinces was obliged to pay a yearly tribute, the amount of which was negotiated by emissaries. Of special significance in this was a system called bala, "cycle" or "rotation," in which the ensis of the southern provinces took part; among other things, they had to keep the state stockyards supplied with sacrificial animals. Although the "province" often corresponded to a former city-state, many others were no doubt newly established. The so-called land-register text of Ur-Nammu describes four such provinces north of Nippur, giving the precise boundaries and ending in each case with the statement, "King Ur-Nammu has confirmed the field of the god XX for the god XX." In some cities, notably in Uruk, Mari, or Der (near Badrah), the administration was in the hands of a sakkana, a man whose title is rendered partly by "governor" and partly by "general."

The available histories are practically unanimous in seeing in Ur III a strongly centralized state marked by the king's position as absolute ruler. Nevertheless, some caution is indicated. For one thing, the need to deal as carefully as possible with the ensis must not be underestimated.

A further question arises from the borders between and relative extent of the "public" and the "private" sector; the latter's importance may have been underrated as well. What is meant by "private" sector is a population group with land of its own and with revenues not directly granted by a temple or a "palace," such as by the king's or an ensi's household. The traditional picture is derived from the sources, the state archives of Puzrish-Dagan, a gigantic "stockyard" situated outside the gates of Nippur, which supplied the city's temples with sacrificial animals but inevitably also comprised a major wool and leather industry; other such archives are those of Umma, Girsu, Nippur, and Ur. All these activities were overseen by a finely honed bureaucracy that stressed the use of official channels, efficient administration, and precise accounting. The various administrative organs communicated with one another by means of a smoothly functioning network of messengers. Although almost 24,000 documents referring to the economy of Ur III have so far been published, the majority of them are still waiting to be properly evaluated. Nor is there yet a serviceable typology for them; only when that has been drawn up will it be possible to write a book entitled "The Economic System of Ur III." Represented in the main by contracts (loans, leases of temple land, the purchase of slaves, and the like), the "private" sector makes up only a small part of this mass of textual material. Neither can the sites at which discoveries have been made so far be taken as representative. In northern Babylonia, for example, scarcely any contemporary written documents have yet been recovered.


The end of Ur III


The decline of Ur III is an event in Mesopotamian history that can be followed in greater detail than other stages of that history thanks to sources such as the royal correspondence, two elegies on the destruction of Ur and Sumer, and an archive from Isin that shows how Ishbi-Erra, as usurper and king of Isin, eliminated his former overlord in Ur. Ibbi-Sin was waging war in Elam when an ambitious rival came forward in the person of Ishbi-Erra from Mari, presumably a general or high official. By emphasizing to the utmost the danger threatening from the Amorites, Ishbi-Erra urged the king to entrust to him the protection of the neighbouring cities of Isin and Nippur. Ishbi-Erra's demand came close to extortion, and his correspondence shows how skillfully he dealt with the Amorites and with individual ensis, some of whom soon went over to his side. Ishbi-Erra also took advantage of the depression that the king suffered because the god Enlil "hated him," a phrase presumably referring to bad omens resulting from the examination of sacrificed animals, on which procedure many rulers based their actions (or, as the case may be, their inaction). Ishbi-Erra fortified Isin and, in the 10th year of Ibbi-Sin's reign, began to employ his own dating formulas on documents, an act tantamount to a renunciation of loyalty. Ishbi-Erra, for his part, believed himself to be the favourite of Enlil, the more so as he ruled over Nippur, where the god had his sanctuary. In the end he claimed suzerainty over all of southern Mesopotamia, including Ur.

While Ishbi-Erra purposefully strengthened his domains, Ibbi-Sin continued for 14 more years to rule over a decreasing portion of the land. The end of Ur came about through a concatenation of misfortunes: A famine broke out, and Ur was besieged, taken, and destroyed by the invading Elamites and their allies among the Iranian tribes. Ibbi-Sin was led away captive, and no more was heard of him. The elegies record in moving fashion the unhappy end of Ur, the catastrophe that had been brought about by the wrath of Enlil.


Back to the History page