History in Mesopotamia starts around 4,500 years ago with the reign of Enmebaragisi, the king of Kish. Enmebaragisi is the first king listed in the Sumerian King List for whom separate archaeological evidence has been found. His son Aga is recorded as having battled with the legendary Gilgamesh of Uruk. Gilgamesh eventually won the confrontation and ended the rule of the First Dynasty of Kish which had, according to the king list ruled for thousands of years since the Great Flood swept the land.
Uruk, Kish, Ur, ca 2600 BCE
For six generations following Gilgamesh’s victory over Kish the First Dynasty of Uruk ruled as the most powerful royal household in the region. They ruled the area of southern Iraq later known as Sumer and Akkad but known to its inhabitants simply as The Land. Although documents like the King List make the role of the king and his household seem preeminent in society the balance of the historical record shows that in most cases he worked on behalf of the city’s god(s) and therefore in close conjunction with large temple establishments.
As the last of Gilgamesh’s descendents reigned in Uruk a new Dynasty formed in Kish under King Mesalim. Mesalim proved his authority by mediating a border dispute between the cities of Lagash and Umma. However, before Mesalim could claim kingship over all The Land Mesannepada the King of Ur defeated Kish and Uruk and established the First Dynasty of Ur. Ur was built on the wealth of a trade network that spanned from the Indus Valley to Egypt with Ur at it hub. Mesannepada’s heirs ruled for three generations before power was lost to a king from Awan on the Iranian Plateau.
Awan, Kish and Hamazi, ca, 2500 BCE
For centuries the Sumerians had been increasingly expanding their influence to the east into Elam and beyond. There is evidence that large amounts of foodstuffs were traded to the people of the eastern frontier in return for wool, slaves and other goods. This trade policy had the effect of opening Mesopotamia to the type of outside influence exerted by the kings of Awan. For three generations the foreign Dynasty of Awan ruled as the most powerful dynasty in The Land but then power reverted to Kish where its Second Dynasty once again brought Sumer under the control of its own kings.
Eight kings of Kish ruled over a time of quiet prosperity until another foreign dynasty, the Hamazi, moved in and was acknowledged as supreme. The Hamazi Dynasty was based north of Sumer to the East of the Tigris River and is only known to have had one king named Hadanish before power shifter back for a second time to Uruk.
Uruk, Lagash, and Ur ca. 2450 BCE
After expelling the Hamazi the King of Uruk, Enshagkushana, made the opening moves to restore his city to its former glory. However, Eannatum, the King of Lagash defeated Enshagkushana and attempted to establish the First Dynasty of Lagash as hegemon. Although some of the ancient accounts show Eannatum as successful in this attempt he is not listed in the Sumerian King List. Instead the Second Dynasty of Ur is credited with having assumed the mantle of kingship after the decline of Uruk’s second Dynasty. What is apparent is that for a period of time Uruk, Ur and Lagash were all in competition to become the dominant city-state and during this period the region was split into multiple kingdoms.
These decades during which the dynasties of Ur, Uruk and Lagash struggled for supremacy set the stage for Lugalanemundu, the King of the Sumerian City of Adab to rise up and conquer all of southern Mesopotamia and Elam. The rule of Lugalanemundu marks an evolution in the history of kingship. He stylized himself as King of the Four Quarters of the World and began a policy of expanding the regional trade networks by force.
Lugalnanemundu defeated the Second Dynasty of Ur but only partially subdued Uruk and Lagash. Lugalnanemundu then pushed his army farther to the east than any other Sumerian king had ever done and it is perhaps no coincidence that after his death it was a dynasty from Mari, to the north and west of Sumer along the Euphrates, which assumed kingship over The Land.
Mari, Kish ca. 2400 BCE
Mari had benefited from the expansion of trade but had apparently remained out of the dynastic conflict in the region until this time. Later kings of Mari would be known for their magnificent palace which is one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time. The archeological record at Mari shows the city to have been a trading hub for goods moving between Sumer and the growing urban centers in Syria, which in turn traded with Egypt.
In Sumer the dynasties of Lagash and Uruk were still struggling for control over the south even as six kings of Mari are listed on the king list. Then, Kish, after a long period of being used as a political pawn (as all rulers sought the title King of Kish) elevated one of its own citizens to kingship. For the only time on the king list the king listed is a woman. This ruler, King Kug Bau, is said to have been a tavern keeper, but she succeeded in throwing off the yoke of both Uruk and Lagash and then reclaimed kingship of The Land from distant Mari.
Lugalzagesi ca.2300 BCE
After Kug Bau’s death a new Dynasty from the nearby city of Akshak become the dominant power in the region, however Kug Bau’s son continued after her on the throne of Kish. After three kings reigned from Akshak power returned to Kish. For a brief time Kug Bau’s grandson, Ur-Zababa followed his father as overlord of The Land but then a conqueror in the tradition begun by Lugalanemundu emerged from Umma.
This warlord, Lugalzagesi made his base in Uruk and then ended the war with Lagash by defeating the final king of its First Dynasty, Urukagina. Lugalzagesi then defeated Ur-Zababa of Kish and united the cities of Sumer under his rule. However before Lugalzagesi could establish a dynasty he was overthrown by a former servant of Ur-Zababa known to history as Sargon.
Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London, 1992