The Sumerian King List is arguably the oldest historiographical document known to man. It lists all the kings who had ruled over Sumer from primordial times up to the dynasty of Isin (2017-1793 BC). The fact that the Sumerian King List ends with the dynasty of Isin implies that the standard version that we know today was completed during this period. Isin was an Akkadian city state that managed to bring much of Sumer and Akkad under it’s rule after the fall of the Sumerian Ur III dynasty (2112-2004 BC). The Ur III dynasty was the last native Sumerian dynasty and its rulers prouded themselves on being the heirs of former Sumerian dynasties, dating back all the way to Antediluvian (pre-Flood) times. Much of the Sumerian King List, safe from the addition of the kings of Isin, probably already existed during the Ur III period and gives an interesting insight in how the Sumerians in the third millennium BC constructed their past.
Before discussing the Sumerian King List in greater detail, let us address the problem of the sources. As is the case with many ancient documents, there is not one Sumerian King List. There are several fragmentary versions that contradict each other on a few details. Nevertheless, the similarities are significant enough to assume that there had been one standard version. In this article I will discuss one of the most complete versions, that is probably very close to the original; the octogonal prism of Larsa also known as version G. The translation comes from Livius.
Kingship from Heaven
The Sumerian King List commences with the following words:
After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu.
This first line already tells us a lot about how the ancient Sumerians viewed the concept of kingship. They viewed kingship as more than the power exercised by a regular warlord, who based his position merely on his own merits, but as a sacred institution that was bestowed upon man by the gods and was therefore beyond human control. Furthermore, as is made apparent throughout the List, this kingship can only be held by one person at a time, which is why the kingship often shifts between cities. Although the Sumerian King List says nothing more about the concept of kingship beside that it had descended from heaven, we may deduce from later texts like the Atrahasis Epic and ceremonial texts like Ashurbanipal’s Coronation Hymn that the gods had created mankind to take care of the earth in their place and that they appointed a king as their representative, to make sure that their will was enacted on earth.
The Antediluvian Kings
|In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years.
Alalgar ruled for 36,000 years.
Two kings; they ruled for 64800 years.
|Then Eridu fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira.
In Bad-tibira, Enmen-lu-ana ruled for 43,200 years.
Enmen-gal-ana ruled for 28,800 years.
The divine Dumuzi, the shepherd, ruled for 36,000 years.
Three kings; they ruled for 108,000 years.
|Then Bad-tibira fell and the kingship was taken to Larak.
In Larak, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 28,800 years.
One king; he ruled for 28,800 years.
|Then Larak fell and the kingship was taken to Sippar.
In Sippar, Enmen-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 21,000 years.
One king; he ruled for 21000 years.
|Then Sippar fell and the kingship was taken to Šuruppak.
In Šuruppak, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18,600 years.
One king; he ruled for 18,600 years.
|Five cities; eight kings ruled for 385,200sic years.
Then the Flood swept over.
The Sumerian King List goes on to list the Antediluvian (pre-Flood) kings, who had extremely long reigns. Even Methuselah’s life span doesn’t come close to the length of the reigns of these kings. Although there are kings with long reigns after the Flood as well, these reigns are much shorter than the reigns of the Antediluvian kings, which implies that the Sumerians viewed the Antediluvian period as a mythical golden age during which disease, old age and death did not have such a strong grip on humanity. While this and most other versions of the Sumerian Kings List name eigth Antediluvian kings, a late adaptation of this list by Berossus (278 BC) names ten kings. Similarly, the Biblical book of Genesis also names ten generations before the Flood, which implies that both this text and the account of Berossus were based on a Neo-Babylonian version of the Sumerian King List.
The Uruk period
The Flood that is said to have ended the primordial golden age is often identified with the Shuruppak Flood. At the city of Shuruppak, where the last Antediluvian kings are said to have reigned, a sedimentary layer dating back to 2900 BC has been identified. This layer may point to a flash flood that struck the entire region at one point and disrupted the existing power structures. If this identification is to be accepted, the Antediluvian period may be identified with the Uruk (4000-3200 BC) and Jemdet Nasr (3200-2900 BC) periods. During these periods the city of Uruk, with a population of around 40.000 headed by a priest king, dominated most of Sumer. This leaves me wondering why Uruk doesn’t appear among the cities that exercised kingship during the Antediluvian period. Perhaps it bothers me more than it should, since the most likely explanation would be that the original glory days of Uruk were forgotten by the late third millennium BC, but I wonder why five cities that were of little political signficance after the Flood – Eridu, Bad-Tibira, Larak, Sippar and Shuruppak – were chosen. Furthermore, Eridu is known to have been one of the most prominent cities during the period preceding the Uruk period, the Ubaid period.This leaves open the possibility that some memories of the Uruk period and even earlier did survive. However, if this is the case, why is Uruk not mentioned?
My own theory
My own solution, which is purely based on speculation, is that Uruk was ruled by a priest king known as the en or the ensi, who gave a religious mandate to several warlords, or lugals, originating from different cities, to protect the Sumerian city states. The fact that kingship starts in Eridu is only logical, because of Eridu’s early importance, and the prominent place of Shuruppak can be attributed to the fact that during the Jemdet Nasr period (3200-2900 BC), Uruk had already started to decline and Shuruppak may indeed have been the mightiest city state. As I said, this is all based purely on speculation and there are many problems with this interpretation too. Most importantly, if the religious mandate for the kings was indeed derived from the high priest of Uruk, then why is this important fact not mentioned anywhere? Moreover, wouldn’t the high priests of Uruk have been able to find one capable military leader from among his 40.000 subjects? It doesn’t really solve the question of Uruk’s absence. Again, the most likely answer is that the Uruk period was forgotten, but I am still looking for someone to explain to me why Eridu and some other city states that would not hold kingship again after the Flood are mentioned as the cradle of Sumerian civilization.
First dynasty of Kish
|After the Flood had swept over, and the kingship had descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kiš.
In Kiš, Gišur became king; he ruled for 1,200 years.
Kullassina-b�l ruled for 900 years.
Nan-GIŠ-lišma ruled for 1,200 years.
En-dara-ana ruled for 420 years, 3 months, and 3� days.
Babum ruled for 300 years.
Pu’annum ruled for 840 years.
Kalibum ruled for 900 years.
Kalumum ruled for 840 years.
Zuqaqip ruled for 900 years.
Atab ruled for 600 years.
Mašda, son of Atab, ruled for 840 years.
Arwi’um, son of Mašda, ruled for 720 years.
Etana, the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and put all countries in order, became king; he ruled for 1,500 years.
Balih, son of Etana, ruled for 400 years.
Enme-nuna ruled for 660 years.
Melem-Kiš, son of Enme-nuna, ruled for 900 years.
Barsal-nuna, son of Enme-nuna, ruled for 1,200 years.
Samug, son of Barsal-nuna, ruled for 140 years.
Tizkar, son of Samug, ruled for 305 years.
Ilku’u ruled for 900 years.
Ilta-sadum ruled for 1200 years.
Enmen-baragesi, who destroyed Elam’s weapons, became king; he ruled for 900 years.
Agga, son of Enmen-baragesi, ruled for 625 years.
Twenty-three kings ruled for 23,310 years, 3 months, and 3 1/2 days.
After the Flood kingship descended upon Kish, a city in northern Sumer not far from modern Bagdad. Kish was indeed a prominent city throughout the third millennium BC and home to a significant Semitic population. Perhaps Kish, as a northern city situated further upstream, was not hit as hard by the Flood as were Uruk and the five Antediluvian royal cities, that were all located in the south of Sumer. This may have given Kish an edge over its neighbors. The first twelve kings of Kish do not seem to have serious names. For example, ‘Kullassina-Bel’ is Akkadian for ‘all of them were lord’, ‘Kalibum’ is Akkadian for ‘dog’ and ‘Zuqaqip’ is Akkadian for ‘scorpion’ (the Scorpion King!). This may be a way of telling that the period after the Flood was one of anarchy.
The first king with a realistic name is Etana, who is known in Sumerian mythology for flying to heaven on the back of an eagle. He is said to have ‘put all countries in order’, which indicates that he may have extended his rule over the other Sumerian city states. Note that Etana is called a shepherd, which is the first among many references to the humble origins of kings. Maybe this is indicates that the early dynastic kings were often warlords who arose from among the common people.
The last two kings of Kish are Enmenbaragesi and his son Agga. Enmenbaragesi is said to have fought the Elamites, who lived in the lowlands east of Sumer and may have posed a recurring threat to the Sumerian city states. According to the Tummal Chronicle he also founded the Ekur, the temple of Enlil located in Nippur. The Ekur may be called the Vatican of Sumer and its high priest had the power to confer kingship upon the divinely appointed king. Perhaps the rule that only one king could claim kingship at any given time was established by Enmenbaragesi. Agga, the son of Enmenbaragesi, is known from an inscription dated to around 2700 BC, which makes him the earliest independently verified king from the Sumerian King List.
First dynasty of Uruk
|Then Kiš was defeated and the kingship was taken to Eanna.
In Eanna, Meš-ki’ag-gašer, son of Utu, became lord and king; he ruled for 324 years. Meš-ki’ag-gašer entered the sea and disappeared.
Enmekar, son of Meš-ki’ag-gašer, the king of Uruk, who built Uruk, became king; he ruled for 420 years.
The divine Lugal-banda, the shepherd, ruled for 1200 years.
The divine Dumuzi, the fisherman, whose city was Ku’ara, ruled for 100.
Gilgameš, whose father was an invisible being, the lord of Kulaba, ruled for 126 years.
Ur-Nungal, son of the divine Gilgameš, ruled for 30 years.
Udul-kalama, son of Ur-Nungal, ruled for 15 years.
La-bašer ruled for 9 years.
Ennun-dara-ana ruled for 8 years.
Mešhe, the smith, ruled for 36 years.
Melem-ana ruled for 6 years.
Lugal-ki-GIN ruled for 36 years.
Twelve kings ruled for 2310 years.
It is said that the city of Uruk regained its original place as the mightiest city of Sumer only after Kish had fallen, but there are some problems with that. First of all, Agga of Kish, the son of Enmenbaragesi, is said to have fought Gilgamesh, who is listed as the fifth king on this list. Therefore, the first dynasty of Kish and the first dynasty of Uruk most likely overlapped, with Gilgamesh being the one who subdued Kish. Perhaps Gilgamesh forced the high priest of Ekur to acknowledge him and his predecessors as divinely appointed kings as well; a position that was originally reserved for the kings of Kish. This deed alone may have won him his legendary reputation, after which many other legends were attributed to him.
The first king of Uruk was Meš-ki’ag-gašer, who, as this texts states, did not rule over Uruk, but over Eanna, the temple of Ishtar located in Uruk. It is only with the second king, Enmerkar, that the city of Uruk itself is founded. This may indicate that the city of Uruk had laid waste since the Flood, or even before that, and that the city was in fact founded anew. This may explain why the glory days of Uruk during the Uruk period were forgotten. The Enmerkar who founded Uruk is known from later legends to have ‘ruled the four quarters’ and to have traded with the distant kingdom of Aratta, located either in the Armenian Highlands or in Eastern Iran. Note again how several kings are said to have humble origins as shepherds or fishermen and that some of them received the epithet ‘divine’.
The Early Dynastic Period
|Then Uruk was defeated and the kingship was taken to Ur.
In Ur, Mes-ane-pada became king; he ruled for 80 years.
Meš-ki’ag-Nuna, son of Mes-ane-pada, became king; he ruled for 36 year.
Elulu ruled for 25 years.
Balulu ruled for 36 years. (mss. L1+N1, P2+L2 have:)
Four kings ruled for 177 years.
|Then Ur was defeated and the kingship was taken to Awan.
In Awan, […] became king; he ruled for […] years.
[…]-Lu ruled for […] years.
Kul[…] ruled for 36 years.
Three kings ruled for 356 years.
|Then Awan was defeated and the kingship was taken to Kiš.
In Kiš, Su-suda, the fuller, became king; he ruled for 200+N years.
Dadase ruled for 81 years.
Mamagal, the boatman, ruled for 240+N years.
Kalbum, son of Mamagal, ruled for 195 years.
TUG ruled for 360 years.
Men-nuna ruled for 180 years.
Enbi-Ištar ruled for 290 years.
Lugalgu ruled for 360 years.
Eight kings they ruled for 3195sic years.
|Then Kiš was defeated and the kingship was taken to Hamazi.
In Hamazi, Hataniš became king; he ruled for 360 years.
One king ruled for 360 years.
|Then Hamazi was defeated and the kingship was taken to Uruk.
In Uruk, En-šakuš-ana became king; he ruled for 60 years.
Lugal-ure ruled for 120 years.
Argandea ruled for 7 years.
Three kings ruled for 187 years.
|Then Uruk was defeated and the kingship was taken to Ur.
In Ur, Nanne became king; he ruled for 54+N years.
Mes-ki’ag-Nanna, son of Nanne, ruled for 48 years.
[…], the son of […], ruled for 2 years.
Three kings ruled for […] years.
|Then Ur was defeated and the kingship was taken to Adab.
In Adab, Lugal-ane-mundu became king; he ruled for 90 years.
One king ruled for 90 years.
|Then Adab was defeated and the kingship was taken to Mari.
In Mari, Anubu became king; he ruled for 30 years.
Anba, son of Anubu, ruled for 17 years.
Bazi, the leather worker, ruled for 30 years.
Zizi, the fuller, ruled for 20 years.
Lim-er, the pašišu-priest, ruled for 30 years.
Šarrum-iter ruled for 9 years.
Six kings ruled for 136 years.
|Then Mari was defeated and the kingship was taken to Kiš.
In Kiš, Ku-Baba, the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kiš, became king; she ruled for 100 years.
One queen ruled for 100 years.
|Then Kiš was defeated and the kingship was taken to Akšak.
In Akšak, Unzi became king; he ruled for 30 years.
Undalulu ruled for 6 years.
Urur ruled for 6 years.
Puzur-Nirah ruled for 20 years.
Išu-Il ruled for 24 years.
Šu-Sin, son of Išu-Il, ruled for 7 years.
Six kings ruled for 93 years.
|After the first dynasties of Kish and Uruk had fallen, ‘kingship’ shifted between several short-lived (if we don’t take the long reigns of some kings at face value) dynasties. Most of these are not very significant, but it is interesting to see that during this period (2700-2300 BC) some of the dynasties are not native Sumerian. There are three kings from the Elamite region of Awan, one king from Hamazi, which is thought to be located near the Zagros Mountain, and six kings with Semitic sounding names from Mari, a city in the far northwest, up the Euphrates river. It is hard to establish an absolute or even a relative chronology here, but the fact of the matter is that there probably was a lot of infighting among the Sumerian city states and increasing foreign influence.
The Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 BC)
The Sumerian King List is one of the most important sources documenting the Akkadian period. Again, overlapping dynasties are presented as ruling in subsequent order. Ur-Zababa of Kish, who is said to have been the direct predecessor of Sargon of Akkad, is presented here as having five successors. After these Kishite kings, Lugalzagesi of Uruk is mentioned and only after that come Sargon and his descendants.
The decline of Sumerian civilization
After the fall of Akkad, a dark age ensued. Kingship is said to have resided in Uruk, but its kings have very short reigns, which may point to a constant struggle for the throne. Uruk’s hegemony was broken for a 91-year-period by the barbaric Guti hordes from the east. After the fall of Utu-Hegal, the last king of Uruk, kingship went to Ur, and later to Isin. Some kings of these dynasties had (realistically) long reigns, which indicates that order had been restored. With the fall of Ur, however, Sumerian dominance had finally come to an end.