The Akkadian Empire

The Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 B.C.E.)

The rise of Akkad was an immense conceptual shift in the early history of Iraq that gave rise to a different power formation—the empire. The shift to empire did not entirely do away with the city-state, which reemerged in rather spectacular fashion with the rise of the Third Dynasty of Ur some 200 years later; however, once rooted, the idea of empire continued to have a great impact on the region’s political, military, and economic calculations thereafter.

The location of the Akkadian Empire was in northern Babylonia, close to present-day Baghdad. The fi rst ruler was Sargon of Akkad (r. ca. 2334–2279 B.C.E.), a military commander who measured success in territorial conquest and perpetual war. A Semitic people who migrated north from Arabia, the Akkadians easily defeated the Sumerian city-states in southern Babylonia and, much later on, conquered vast stretches of territory that extended all the way from the Upper Euphrates River to Lebanon, on the Mediterranean coast.

Sargon of Akkad based his empire in the city of Akkad. He and his descendants helped produce a new language, Akkadian, that was of Semitic origins but written in the cuneiform script invented by the Sumerians. Eventually, Akkadian became the language of administration, while Sumerian remained the language of the people. Even so, evidence of Sumerian translations of Akkadian texts exists, lending credence to the theory that neither cultural tradition was entirely divorced from the other but continued to coexist, albeit in a new political formation.

In fact, it has been claimed by more than one historian that the primary difference between Sumerians and Akkadians was not race but language, and neither physical nor cultural features served to distinguish one set of peoples from another. The foremost distinction was a philological or linguistic one, a peculiarity usually glossed over by scholars interested in making a questionable case for ethnic differences between Sumerians and Akkadians.

Sargon of Akkad is known primarily for his creation of a superior army; his military pursuits ranged from northern Iraq to Syria (and Lebanon), Iran, and Anatolia. At the same time that the borders of his state were stretched to incorporate new territories, Sargon established unities in administrative practice and religious thought that he hoped would instill a wider Akkad-based identity. He sowed the seeds for the creation of a centralized bureaucracy in the region.

After defeating the Sumerian cities, Sargon created a well-oiled palace organization in which Akkadians took on the title and functions of ensis, or governors; administrative records duly mentioned the names of the Akkadian king and his descendants; lands were confi scated from Sumerian landholders and parceled out to Sargon’s chief military and civilian retainers; and beginning a tradition that was to last throughout the Akkadian period, Sargon’s daughter was installed as a high priestess of the moon god Nanna in the city of Ur, taking on a Sumerian name in the process.

Finally, the palace was fi nanced by taxes from overland trade, and in keeping with the empire’s methodical organization of almost every aspect in the imperial domain, the king of Akkad also centralized the classifi cation of weights and measures in his empire “into a single logical system which remained the standard for a thousand years and more” (Postgate 1994, 41).

It is important to relate that not all of these inventions were completely novel. For instance, the word ensi, or “governor,” was of Sumerian derivation, and though the Akkadian kings claimed that many of the new governors were Akkadians, there is some evidence that Sargon retained some of the original Sumerian rulers in place.

Akkadian culture, consciously promoted by Sargon to suit his ideological needs, was never entirely an autonomous phenomenon; Sumer, with its complex history, fl ourishing urbanity, and religious heritage, was in large part the background from which the kings of Akkad drew their inspiration, just as they assimilated other infl uences throughout their long rule. Despite Sumer’s decline, the waning of Sumerian culture and language was slow and gradual; even in its nadir, it was being propagated in communities as far afi eld as Syria, Anatolia, and Palestine, which adopted Sumerian script and myths.

At the same time, Sargon and his descendants deployed a large military organization to subjugate various districts and regions throughout the ancient Middle East. The borders of the Akkadian Empire stretched and contracted with each military defeat or victory. At one point, Sargon began to refer to himself as “king of the world,” later amending it to “king of the entire inhabited world” (Van de Mieroop 2004, 64).

The broad principles underlying ancient Iraq’s history are once more apparent in the existence of regional unities with fl uid borders and the reality of cultural diffusion and adaptation even in times of war. The Akkadians, a Semitic peoples originating from the Arabian Peninsula, carved out the fi rst empire in ancient Iraq by force of arms, certainly, but also by assimilating to cultural forms already entrenched in the land called Sumer; and in turn, they became the conduits for a SumerianAkkadian synthesis of mores and traditions in the course of their own world dominion.