The Empire of Ur-Nammu under His Descendants

By: Richard Zettler

Originally Published in 1987

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Ur-Nammu established an independent state centered on Ur in 2112 B.C. After Ur-Nammu’s death, his son Shulgi expanded the territorial limits of the state, mainly to the east of the Tigris in what is today southwestern Iran or, in ancient times, the land of Elam. He also undertook a series of important political, administrative, and economic reforms, as a result of which Babylonia emerged as a highly centralized bureaucratic state (Steinkelter In Press). Among the most interesting and important of Shulgi’s innovations in terms of the interpretation of the Ur-Nammu stela was Shulgi’s deification, which took place no later than his twentieth year. Ur-Nammu was posthumously declared a god, while Shulgi’s successors took the title “divine” at their accession.

Shulgi was succeeded on the throne by his sons Amar-Suen and Shu-Suen. The two brothers ruled nine years each. We know little of the reigns of these two kings, but historians generally agree that both essentially held the empire inherited from their father intact. In written documents from the time of the Shu-Suen, however, we begin to find evidence of impending disaster. We read, for example, of the first incursions of the Martu (Amorites), a Semitic-speaking people from the desert to the west, into the core area of the empire. We know in fact from one of the year names of his reign that Shu-Suen built a wall across the floodplain from the Euphrates to the Tigris in an effort to keep the Amorites out.

Shu-Suen’s efforts, however, were not successful. In the reign of his son and successor, Ibbi-Suen, Amorite raids increased.  These raids, combined with pressure from the Elamites on the southeastern flank, put the king of Ur in an untenable position. In the early years of his reign, first the outlying areas of the empire and then, one by one, the city states of the core area broke away from Ur. Even though he held out for 24 years, Ibbi-Suen controlled little more than Ur itself. We have evidence from that time of economic collapse and famine in the land. The price of grain, for example, sky-rocketed to sixty times normal. In the end, even Ur was vulnerable, and it fell to an attack by the Elamites in 2004 B.C. The city was sacked and Ibbi-Suen led captive to Elam. One of the most moving of Sumerian literary works, the so-called Lament over the Destruction of Ur, records the disaster. Some excerpts follow:

O thou city of name, thou hast been destroyed;
O thou city of high walls, thy land has perished.
O my city, like an innocent ewe thy lamb has been torn away from thee;
O Ur, like an innocent goat thy kid has perished.
O city, thy 
parsu [divine rights], the dead and awe of the enemy,
Thy decrees–unto inimical decrees they have been transformed.
Thy lament which is bitter–how long will it grieve thy weeping lord?

Woe is me, the city has been destroyed, the house too has been destroyed;
O Nanna, the shrine Ur has been destroyed, its people are dead.
Woe is me, where shall I sit me down, where shall I stand up?

Ur like the child of a street which had been destroyed seeks a place before thee.
The house like a man who has lost everything stretches out the hands to thee;
Thy brickwork of the righteous house like a human being cries thy “Where, pray?”
O my queen, verily thou art one who has departed from the house; thou art one who has departed from the city.

(Kramer 1940:25. 51. 63)

Cite This Article

Zettler, Richard. "The Empire of Ur-Nammu under His Descendants." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 1 (March, 1987): -. Accessed May 19, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-empire-of-ur-nammu-under-his-descendants/


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