The Third Dynasty of Ur

The Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 B.C.E.)

The memory of Sumer among the people of the south engendered resentment and hostility against Akkadian power. Rather than succumb to its internal enemies, however, the Akkadian Empire seems to have been defeated by the Gutians, about whom historians know very little but who seem to have been foreigners who fi rst mounted raids then concerted military campaigns against Akkad, which eventually destroyed the dynasty altogether. After close to 100 years of Gutian supremacy, a longer-lasting, and certainly more organized, city-state formation came to the fore. A successful counterattack against the last Gutian leader was fi nally mounted by a governor of Ur, Ur-Nammu (r. ca. 2112–2095 B.C.E.).

This period is frequently referred to as the Neo-Sumerian period because Sumerian culture, language, and traditions were revived under the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III), who ruled for more than a century. But the Ur dynasty is also important because it continued to be an arena for a broadly based movement of fusion and transmission between Sumerian and Akkadian cultures. As we have seen, even during Sargon’s centralized rule, the two societies had overlapped; but after the establishment of the Ur dynasty, they became united in name as well, as Ur-Nammu took on a new title, “king of Sumer and Akkad.”

The Third Dynasty of Ur is unusual because of the vast corpus of texts and documents it left behind. Historians know more about this era than many others because of this large archive. For the most part, it consists of records of state economic activity relating to the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing sectors of Ur.

Despite the pro-state bias of much of this material, historians have been able to decipher the larger workings of the Ur dynasty through a careful sifting of the records. Several conclusions emerge. One, “the Ur III state was indeed of a different character than its predecessors [ancient Sumer]: geographically more restricted in size, but internally more centrally organized” (Van de Mieroop 2004, 73). Two, it consisted of the core territories of Sumer and Akkad, with a military zone between the Tigris River and Zagros Mountains.

The state was divided into 20 provinces, ruled by civilian governors (ensis) on behalf of the king. Usually from the highest families of the land, the ensis formed a hereditary caste; property was inherited from the father and passed on to the sons. These governors also acted as judges and supervisors of the irrigation works of the country. Paralleled by army generals who were not native born but selected by the king from among a cadre of “outsiders” (perhaps Akkadian in origin), these administrators oversaw the state taxation system and dispensed justice where necessary.

Altogether, the Third Dynasty of Ur was a highly centralized state in which urbanization was high; royal works (irrigation, the building of temples, and so on) were undertaken by laborers either forced or recruited to work by state administrators; and some regions were, at different periods, governed by military fi at. Finally, agricultural prosperity and wealth from trade were central imperatives of the state.While there is more documentation on Ur-Nammu’s successors than on Ur-Nammu himself, he did leave a number of clay tablets recording his achievements that, taken as a whole, point to an unusually capable leader.

Ur-Nammu waged war against bandits and rebels, and either he or his son Shulgi (r. ca. 2094–2047 B.C.E.) may have been responsible for dictating the fi rst law code in the world, more than 100 years before Hammurabi, who has gone down in history as the fi rst ruler to have promulgated a legal framework for society. Ur-Nammu or Shulgi’s law code was all the more remarkable because it stressed compensation, not physical punishment, for murders or wrongful deaths. Ur-Nammu also invested in agriculture and had his laborers dig a number of ditches and canals, and he fortifi ed Ur’s walls, as well as the walls of the other cities (Uruk, Eridu, and Nippur) that came under his authority.

But the king’s main claim to fame rests with his adaptation of the distinctive Mesopotamian temple towers, staged towers called ziggurats, which he built in Ur, Uruk, Eridu, and Nippur, among other cities in his realm.The ziggurat was uniquely Mesopotamian. Built on platforms that rested on terraces, these towers were of enameled brick and plaster, with the highest fl oors reserved for the temple and its sanctuary. Some ziggurats rose up to 300 feet and had seven fl oors (Bertman 2003, 194).

The famous ziggurat of Ur, the best-preserved temple in southern Iraq, was built of unbaked as well as baked brick and was crisscrossed with fl ights of stairs reaching to the top, on which it is presumed, a small shrine stood (there is little evidence for this argument, even though it seems the most logical explanation). And yet, as characteristic of ancient Iraqi architecture as they were, until today, the ziggurat’s overall function has not been completely deciphered. Other than the theory that the highest fl oor of the building housed the temple complex, what was the ziggurat built for? The explanations are as numerous as they are fanciful.

One of the most interesting theories rests on the notion that the uppermost fl oor of the temple was the scene of a ritual or sacred marriage between gods and mortals. Such ceremonies are known to have been performed in that location because they were the closest staging place to the sky and the divine order. On a more prosaic level, coalition aircraft bombed the ziggurat at Ur during the Gulf War of 1991, as they bombed other, less exalted monuments (Cotter 2003).