The Priest Kings of Ancient Iraq

The Early Dynastic Period in Mesopotamia, spanning from 2900-2450 BCE, is the era when historical evidence first becomes available to shed light on the institution of early kingship. During this time the early cities of Sumer continued to develop and grow in southern Iraq along the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. What little is known of the early history of these ancient city-states comes from legendary tales of adventure and stories of wars fought between kings and against foreigners.

Ancient texts provide some understanding of how the cities interacted with one another. Among the oldest of these is a document known as the “ Sumerian King List.” It provides the names of the first known historic rulers of Mesopotamia along with some limited details of their reigns. Five dynasties are listed from the pre-dynastic period of which little there is little evidence. Then “after a flood swept over the land” there are 23 kings listed from the city of Kish, known collectively as the First Dynasty of Kish. They are recorded as having being been the ruling dynasty of all the land of Sumer. The last two of these kings, En-me-barage-si and Aga, who is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, are confirmed historically independent of the King List. Earlier kings are only known from myth and legend.

The Dynasty of Kish begins after the legendary deluge which ended the hegemony of the Dynasty of Shuruppak. In essence Kish begins a second epoch in Sumer, the first mostly prehistoric one was dominated by the cities of Eridu and Uruk in the south. This second epoch sees a shift of power northward to where Kish lay, close to the point where the Tigris and Euphrates were nearest to each other. Given the archeological research that has been done the flood which ends the rule of Shuruppak appears to have been a local event but its impact was remembered as pivotal.

The Shepherd Of The People

The ancient Sumerians believed that their kings were chosen by the god of the city to look over them like a shepherd who would provide security and prosperity for his herd. The god or king as shepherd had a tangible connection to reality as one of the primary specialized commodities manufactured in temple or palace factories was wool. The earliest kings based their rule on the fact they were the chosen representative of the cities gods and everything they did was on behalf of the gods. Each city had its own primary deity and in the earliest records the gods of the cities were listed as the official owners of any royal property. The king acting as the god’s shepherd was just a middle man.

The historical record is replete with references to the “worthy” or “good” shepherd. In Mesopotamia the legend of King Etana of Kish describes him as a shepherd as is the demigod/king Dumuzi who becomes the sacrificed lover of Ishtar. This metaphor also saw the gods themselves as shepherds. One example is the Amorites whose god Amurru was depicted as a shepherd. In Egyptian pyramid texts dating to the late 3rd millennium BCE one of the gods of the afterlife is described as the pharaoh’s shepherd. Centuries later the symbolism can still be found alive in both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible.

Ens, Lugals and Ensis

In some early cities, such as Uruk, the ruler was given the title en which can be translated as lord and implied both a religious and secular function. After 2800 B.C.E. rulers are increasingly identified by the titles lugal meaning literally “big man,” but indicating a warlord or king and the title ensi meaning governor. The significance of these titles is not always clear and it is possible that different titles were used by the same individual at different times depending on the needs of the occasion.

The responsibilities of these early Sumerian rulers may have originated with the need in these communities for one person to coordinate military actions in a time of adversity. A primary part of any military effort was the appeasement of the gods to ensure their blessing. As this warlord role began to become permanent other duties that were previously the function of the earlier ens became associated with the job of the lugals and the ensis. Some rulers continued to use the nearly prehistoric title of en even in later centuries when the function of the position had changed.

Foremost amongst a rulers responsibilities was the maintenance and the building of temples. The ruler also conducted treaty arrangements with neighboring cities and foreign lands. In some cases as in the city of Ur, then located near the Persian Gulf, these treaties could lead to expansive trade networks and a vast accumulation of wealth. One key factor in this trade was providing the temple establishments the luxury goods they needed to maintain their prestige.
As caretakers of the temples and appointees of the gods Sumerian kings and their wives, known as nins, were sometimes seen as divine couples. Since early priest kings and their spouses were representatives of the local gods, they were the overseers of all the city-states official religious ceremonies. In some cases, like that of the city of Uruk, this included a Sacred Marriage Rite, which sought to physically connect the ruler with the manifestation of the local divinity.

The Cities of Ancient Sumer

The Cities of Ancient Sumer

Kish, Nippur and Ur

The important city of Kish was centrally located along key trade routes in southern Iraq, but it was also in an area of linguistic diversity. In fact the title “King of Kish” can be interpreted as meaning “king of the whole country.” Even after the end of the First Dynasty of Kish, around 2650 B.C.E., the city of Kish continued to be identified with regional hegemony.

Despite much of the population bearing Sumerian names the city of Kish was located in what would later be called Akkad where the dominant language was not Sumerian, but rather from a different language group known as Semitic. This population mixture may have helped create Kish as a symbol of power since the ruler who held control of the city was in control of both Sumerian and Semitic peoples. However, there is no evidence that the Sumerians and the Semites saw themselves as different from each other in any significant way other than in their primary languages.

To the south of Kish the city of Nippur was controlled by the priesthood of the god Enlil who had been entrusted by An, the ruler of the gods, with dominion over men. Sumerian rulers who sought supremacy also craved the title “Chosen By Enlil In Nippur” so that they could show the favor of the chief Sumerian deity. However it is not known how much influence the ancient priesthood of Enlil wielded over aspiring conquerors who sought to be chosen. Interestingly, no king of Nippur is ever listed in the Sumerian King Lists, which has led to the theory that the city enjoyed a unique religious status.

The famous Royal Cemetery of Ur, dating to ca. 2600 B.C.E., is one of the most remarkable archeological sites from this period. The necropolis reveals not only the remains of a fantastic treasure trove, but it also provides evidence of a mass burial. In addition to members of the royal family the remains of dozens of other individuals, presumably sacrificed members of the royal household, have been found buried here. There is no indication of a widespread practice of such burials, however the graves at Ur are often seen as evidence of the power of the early royal cults of the priest kings.

Separation of Palace and Temple

After a period of around 500 years of recorded history, the rulers of the early Sumerian cities began to distance themselves from some of the more traditional religious functions. This would begin a separation of the palace economy, controlled by the king, from the temple economy, controlled by the priesthood. Eventually this would lead to a strengthening of the temples as they become independent of the royal courts.

The unification of the state under a strong religious leader had served the people well, with towns growing into cities under the guidance of the priest kings, however circumstances were changing. Expansion and conquest by the strongest of the city-states led to even more concentration of the military power under men who were the mightiest warlords and who were separated from priestly duties. The reign of Gilgamesh, around 2,600 BCE might be a marker between the time when the early priest kings ruled a unified temple and palace establishment to a time when lugals came to power focusing on military might.

Naturally a large temple bureaucracy grew to fulfill the other functions of these miniature kingdoms. The temples would become major land owners amassing riches which would later come to rival or surpass that of the kings they once served. It should be noted that some kings continued to act in a priest like capacity and many would return to ritual functions in times of need. These beliefs lasted for thousands of years across the Ancient Near East where the king was understood to be the primary patron of all his territory’s temples and their gods.


Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London, 1992

Postgate, J.N. Early Mesopotamia, Routledge, London, 2004

McRoberts, Robert, The Good Shepherd, 2008