Ancient Near East - The Neo Sumerian Empire

Updated: Jun 19

Around 2100 B.C., Ur-Nammu established the Third Dynasty of Ur (also known as the Neo-Sumerian Empire). This would be the last Sumerian dynasty to come to power in Mesopotamia, and involved a succession of five generations of rulers from the same family. According to the Sumerian King List, it was the third time that Ur held kingship, thus the modern designation.

Ur-Nammu rose to prominence as a warrior-king when he defeated the ruler of Lagash in Battle, killing the king himself. After this battle, Ur-Nammu seems to have earned the title “king of Sumer and Agade”.

During Ur-Nammu's reign, he ordered the construction of the Great Ziggurat of Ur. He dedicated this massive temple to the Sumerian god Nanna. A quick side note about the god – born to the gods Enlil and Ninlil, Nanna became known to the Semitics as the god Sin. He was the god of the moon who was also the protector of shepherds. To the Semitics, he was later considered the supreme god, the creator of all things.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur measured 210 feet long, 148 feet wide, and roughly 100 feet high. This step pyramid was completed during the reign of Ur-Nammu's son, Shulgi, and served as part of the administrative center for the city.

Ur-Nammu was killed in combat, abandoned by the fleeing army, in yet another battle with the Gutians, but the dynasty he created would last for almost a hundred years.


Shortly after his father's death, Shulgi engaged in a series of punitive wars against the Gutians to avenge his father. He would rule for 48 years, and would be best known for his extensive revision of the scribal school's curriculum. In addition to construction of defensive walls against the mountainous tribes and the completion of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, Shulgi spent a great deal of time and resources in expanding, maintaining, and generally improving the roads constructed by his father. He built rest-houses along these roads so that travelers could find a place to rest and sleep for the night. He may have been the first builder of the Inn.

Shulgi also boasted about his ability to run long distances and claimed in his 7th regnal year to have run from Nippur to Ur, a distance of over 100 miles. Author Samuel Kramer refers to Shulgi as “the first long distance running champion” in his book called History Begins at Sumer.

Shulgi appears to have had some difficulty with a few of the temple authorities throughout his empire. The city of Der had been one of the locations he had first promoted in the beginning of his reign. However, in his 20th year, he decided to punish the authorities while claiming that the gods had decided the temple needed to be destroyed. Shulgi proclaimed himself a god in his 23rd regnal year. Early writings about Shulgi criticized his moral character claiming that he had criminal tendencies and had tampered with the religious rites while composing untruthful stelae. The specific details of these accusations remain unknown.

Fall of Ur III

With the death of Shulgi, the empire began to decline. His son, Amar-Sin attempted to regenerate the ancient sites of Sumer and worked on the unfinished Ziggurat at Eridu, however, Eridu was abandoned later in his reign due to the agricultural problems in the region. Amar-Sin most likely died from a scorpion bite to his foot and the throne passed to his brother, Shu-Sin. He would build a fortified wall between the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers in his 4th year to hold off the Amorites who began threatening his kingdom. His son, Ibbi-Sin, would succeed him and become the last king of the Ur III Dynasty.

Ibbi-Sin ordered fortifications around the cities of Ur and Nippur in hopes of stalling the Amorite raids, however, this failed, along with his ability to properly lead the empire. As a result, Elam revolted and began to raid the country as well. Due to a possible long-term drought, along with the Amorite raids to the agricultural and irrigation systems, grain prices soared to 60 times the norm. This produced a famine and resulted in an economic collapse of the Empire. In the end, Ibbi-Sin was left with only the city of Ur.

The Elamites and the Zagros mountain tribes sacked the city of Ur and took Ibbi-Sin captive. He was transported to the city of Elam where he was imprisoned and, at an unknown date, died.

After this victory, the Elamites destroyed the kingdom and ruled through a military occupation for the next 21 years. Mesopotamia then fell under Amorite influence through the kings of the dynasty of Isin who formed successor states to the Ur III Dynasty. They managed to drive the Elamites out of Ur, rebuild the city, and return the statue of Nanna that the Elamites had plundered. In the end, Mesopotamia returned to multiple city-states that were spread from western Iran to the Mediterranean coast. Their rulers, all military men, vied for power, joined in ever shifting alliances, and turned against one another.

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