One of the most influential characters in all of ancient history is Sargon the Great. He is legendarily remembered for conquering the known world and establishing the Semitic Akkadian language as the universal language of the ancient Near East.
What’s in a name like Sargon?
The name Sargon is actually a Biblical translation of an older Akkadian name, Šarru-kinu which translates to True King. Over the centuries the name was used by at least two Assyrian kings from the first and second millennium BCE who chose to legitimize their own rule by identifying with the first Akkadian Sargon (the Great) who ruled during the third millennium around 2270-2215 BCE. The name’s continued usage has for many years confused the actual history of this king.
Partially revealing his true identity this throne name, Šarru-kinu, as originally used by Sargon the Great, is widely seen as in indication that the so-named king was a usurper and not a member of a royal line. By needing to declare his right to rule with his throne name the monarch might be said to “protest too much.” Whatever the case Sargon’s birth name remains a mystery.
Even in later use the name Šarru-kinu was not written in the standardized cuneiform Akkadian of the Assyrians, but rather in what is known as Old Babylonian which incorporated logograms from the more ancient Sumerian language. The kings name in the ancient texts is written using the logograms LUGAL.GI.NA. The intent to partake in Sargon the Great’s legacy was so strong that Sargon II, 722-705 BCE, continued the use of the nearly extinct logograms to convey his name in exactly the same way as had Sargon the Great 1,500 years earlier.
The Legend of Sargon
There are several different versions of the text known as the Legend of Sargon. These texts are usually written as autobiographical narratives where the king Sargon the Great tells his own story. Depending on the version of the text and the translation there is differing information on the identity of Sargon’s parents.
One confusing translation resulted in Sargon’s mother being identified as a changeling. Although some translations also list her merely by a description such as “lowly” most historians now recognize that she was an entum, or high-priestess. The changeling reference could then be seen to connect his mother to the temple of Inanna/Ishtar wherein agents of the temple were often portrayed as androgynous. This early connection to Inanna also matches nicely with the rest of the legend as shall be seen below.
According to the Legend of Sargon, Sargon’s father was not known to him, although another text gives him the name Laibum. In one reference Sargon does mention his father’s brother(s) who dwelt in the mountains. According to the Sumerian Kinglist Sargon’s father was a gardener but whether this refers to his birth or adoptive father is not known although the latter appears more likely.
Additionally his home town is known as Azupiranu which he identifies as situated on the banks of the Euphrates. Although the location of this town has yet to be identified the name is thought to stem from the azupiru herb which was a variety of saffron known to have been harvested in the mountains of northern Mesopotamia. The Sumerian logogram used for the azupiru plant is U.HUR.SAG which literally means mountain plant. As there are no mountains along the Euphrates in the lands of Sumer and Akkad where Sargon would come to base his empire it can be surmised that Sargon considered northern Syria to be his father’s homeland.
The text relates how Sargon’s mother gave birth to him in secret and placed him in a basket of reeds to set him adrift in the river Euphrates. There was a prohibition on a high priestess giving birth so the description of Sargon’s mother as “lowly” may refer to her disgrace within the religious community for not properly aborting her pregnancy. As writers of all ages enjoy symbols that imply double meaning it is worth noting that one use for the azupiru plant was as an agent for aborting pregnancy.
Another possible double meaning in the narrative is in the name LUGAL.GI.NA itself. Although the GI.NA is conventionally translated as kenu/kinu meaning “true”, the logogram GI taken separately can be translated as a reed or thicket of reeds.
Sargon’s mother took care to seal his reed basket with bitumen allowing it to float safely. Young Sargon traveled securely until he was recovered by an irrigation worker named Akki who was drawing water from the river. The name Akki appropriately means “to draw forth.” Akki then adopted Sargon as his own son and eventually appointed him as his gardener.
It bears mentioning that the various legends conflict over Sargon’s origin with the town of Azurpiranu being mentioned but with it being clear that shortly after his birth he was in the care of Akki and was presumably located in the region of Kish. This may further indicate that the name Azurpiranu was really a symbolic reference to an underlying scandal of a high priestess who did not properly abort her child. In this case the child was born and then given up for adoption.
The practice of adoption is well documented in ancient texts and it was not uncommon for families to adopt sons in an effort to help guarantee the future of the family business. This appears to have been the case with Akki and the adoption of Sargon. However Sargon would not remain a gardener for long as he was to attract the attention of the goddess Inanna who “loved him.” The legendary support of the goddess Inanna would propel Sargon onto great things yet the real name and identity of this Akkadian King is likely forever lost to the ages.
Sargon and Ur-Zababa.
There are three ancient texts which shed light on the events leading up to Sargon the Great seizing the throne of Kish and becoming overlord of Mesopotamia. Two of these texts are from tablets dating to the Old Babylonian Period, ca. 2000-1500 BCE. The contents of these tablets, found in the ruins of Uruk and Nippur, are commonly merged into one translation known as Sargon and Ur-Zababa. The third source from a similar time period was found amidst the ruins of Babylon and although very fragmentary it adds interesting detail to the overall narrative.
Before the ancient account mentions Sargon the setting is described. The city of Kish, traditionally associated with kingship over all of Sumer, was once again prosperous. After a period of decline the ancient city was in ascendancy once more. The Sumerian King List records that the city of Mari on the Upper Euphrates had lost the status of ruling city to the city of Kish. In Kish, Kug-Bau, the only woman listed as a ruler by the king list begins a dynasty and earned the epithet “who made firm the foundations of Kish.”
Although Kish would eventually lose its claim to hegemony Kug-Bau’s son and grandson would each follow her to the throne and the city itself would continue to prosper. The reign of her grandson Ur-Zababa is remembered as one of prosperity that was sanctioned by the gods. Zababa was the name of the cities local god of war and the name Ur-Zababa can be translated as throat/voice of the god Zababa.
Sargon Enters Court
The young Sargon entered into the court of Ur-Zababa as one of many courtiers and servants. His original profession is recorded as having been a gardener and the ancient account tells of him being responsible for regular deliveries to the palace. Within a short time Sargon is responsible for receiving deliveries for the king which may have given him residence in the palace itself.
One night King Ur-Zababa had a dream which seemingly prompted him to promote Sargon to the relatively high post of cupbearer. Then within ten days after Sargon’s promotion Ur-Zababa was found to have an infection in his urinary tract which left him deeply troubled.
The tale then tells that Sargon went to sleep and dreamt. In Sargon’s dream the goddess Inanna drowned Ur-Zababa in a river of blood. Sargon made a noise in his sleep which alarmed those nearby in the palace. Ur-Zababa suspected what had happened and asked Sargon if he had just been troubled by a dream. Sargon revealed the details of his dream and told Ur-Zababa that the goddess would kill Ur-Zababa on Sargon’s behalf. Of added significance is the fact that, in the local tradition of Kish, Inanna is the bride of the god of Kish, Zababa.
Ur-Zababa then came up with a plan to change Inanna’s intent and make Sargon the focus of her wrath. He sent Sargon to a local temple with instructions to deliver a bronze hand mirror to be melted down in the furnace. Ur-Zababa had already conspired with Belish-tikal, the chief smith, to throw Sargon into the furnace as well. However Inanna reminded Sargon that the temple was a holy place and as he was polluted with blood he could not enter. Sargon went no further than the entrance of the temple and thereby avoided the trap that awaited him within.
Lugal-zage-si And The Plot To Kill Sargon
After a period of ten days Sargon came into the king’s presence and he was “firmly founded like a great mountain.” King Ur-Zababa grew increasingly afraid of Sargon and devised another plan to get rid of him. This plan involved the King of Uruk, Lugal-zage-si, who was already building an empire of his own in southern Sumer. At this time the Sumerian Kinglist credits Lugal-zage-si and Uruk’s III Dynasty as being the region’s dominant power.
Ur-Zababa sent an envoy to see Lugal-zage-si and delivered the message that Sargon must be killed. Ur-Zababa then sent Sargon to Uruk to visit Lugal-zage-si.
Before Sargon left Kish he took the time to recline near a garden next to a canal. This seemingly obscure detail may refer to a return home to his own estates to prepare for what he must have known would be a fateful journey. At this time the king of Uruk was overlord of much of Mesopotamia and Ur-Zababa king of Kish may well have been his vassal. Sargon was traveling to the court of the most powerful ruler in the known world and the records do not tell if he went at the head of an army or by himself.
When Sargon arrived at the court of Lugal-zage-si he somehow managed to foil whatever conspiracy there was to kill him. Although the text is very fragmented it appears that Lugal-zage-si’s wife somehow interceded using her, “feminity as a shelter”. The text explains that the King of Uruk “did not grasp it, did not talk to the envoy,” in apparent reference to him being unaware of Sargon’s strength and the danger he posed. Eventually Lugal-zage-si exclaims, “Sargon does not yield,” after which Lugal-zage-si submits to Sargon. Then after a damaged section of the tablet where the names Lugal-zage-si and Sargon can be read, the text ends.
Lugal-zage-si had been possibly the first Sumerian monarch to build a kingdom out of Mesopotamia’s city-states and his success was only cut short by Sargon’s ascension.
History records that Sargon would make an example out of the captured Lugal-zage-si by bringing him as captive to the city of Nippur where the priesthood of Enlil gave their blessing to the kingship of those who proved themselves worthy.
Sargon Conquers Sumer
It then seems that Sargon returned to Kish to fulfill his destiny and depose Ur-Zababa. Now Sargon had the cities of Uruk and Kish under his control and had been recognized as overlord by the priests in Nippur. Sargon then launched campaigns against the other power centers in Sumer, the cities of Ur, Umma, and Lagash. Sargon was not content with mere submission from the defeated peoples, after conquering the major city-states of Sumer he also tore down their walls to prevent further resistance.
Following the conquest of Lagash Sargon went to its port, Eninkimar, and conducted a ritual cleansing of his weapon in the water of the Lower Sea/Persian Gulf. The cleansing was meant to show the firm control that Sargon had established here at Sumer’s gateway to the rich overseas markets in India, Arabia and Africa.
In a clear effort to establish a unified state Sargon placed family members and citizens of Akkad as governors throughout the conquered territory. Sargon also installed his daughter, Enheduanna, in the city of Ur as high priestess of the moon-god Nanna. As high priestess she would have wielded considerable political power in the ancient city. Enheduanna is remembered in history as one of the world’s first known poets and several hymns she is credited with having written survive to this day.
Sargon Builds an Empire
At this time Sargon is said to have “shared his table” with 5,400 men. This may be a reference to a standing army which would have been a key logistical innovation of the time. Contemporary rulers appear to have had several hundred men as personal troops and beyond that relied on untrained conscript levies. Given his rise to power in Kish as a supervisor of palace supplies Sargon’s simple genius may have been in his ability to feed a larger number of troops than anyone else.
With his base in Sumer secure Sargon marched to the east and conquered Elam. By securing the eastern frontier Sargon was taking control of several key trade routes and as well as the vital resources obtained from the Taurus Mountains. Here Sargon was following in the footsteps of Lugalanamundu, the king of Adab, who had conquered Elam over one hundred years earlier. However, unlike his predecessor Sargon was then able to leave Elam under the control of his lieutenants and continue his conquests.
Sargon marched his army up the Euphrates to the west to subdue the trading emporium of Mari. The city of Mari was sacked during this period and evidence points to Sargon and the Akkadians who refused to have their control of the upper Euphrates contested.
Sargon also secured a treaty with Ebla in central Syria which acknowledged the Akkadian king as overlord. With central Syria under his control Sargon set out to secure the Amanus Mountains of Lebanon which were a primary source of cedar for the entire Near East. After establishing control in Syria Sargon moved northward and took control of the trade routes leading to the Taurus Mountains which contained valuable reserves of silver. It is possible that Sargon pushed further northward into Anatolia and some later legends even credit him with visiting the island of Cyprus.
Sargon was lucky enough to follow up his extraordinary conquests with a long reign of fifty-five years. During this time he faced rebellions from some of the conquered territories but each time he put down the resistance with brutal efficiency. The city of Akkad with its shining new temple to Inanna became the center of a vast trading empire and for over one hundred years Sargon’s Dynasty of Akkad would rule as supreme.
Roux, George, Ancient Iraq, (Penguin Books, London, 1966.)
Saggs, H.W.F. Babylonians, (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000)
Westenholz, Joan. Legends of the Kings of Akkade, Eisenbrauns, (1997)
The Legends of Sargon
J.B. Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East, Volume I, pages 85-86