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Ancient Near East - The Sumerian King List

Updated: Jun 19, 2021


The written sources for the study of this period cover a variety of genres. Administrative documents continue to dominate in number, but we also have political narratives written for some rulers of the period and later literary materials that relate stories about others. Among the later Mesopotamian texts that deal with the Early Dynastic Period, the Sumerian King List is perhaps the most important.

The text is known only from manuscripts dating to the first centuries of the second millennium, almost 700 years after the Early Dynastic Period. It depicts a world in which kingship “descended from heaven” and was passed on from city to city whose local dynasties held temporary rule over the entire region. A typical segment reads as follows:

“At Ur, Mesannepada was king; he ruled 80 years. Meski’agnuna, son

of Mesannepada, was king; he ruled 36 years; Elulu ruled 25 years;

Balulu ruled 36 years; four kings ruled 177 years. Ur was defeated in

battle and its kingship was taken to Awan.”

Chronically, the Sumerian King List addresses the period from the moment kingship first appeared, before the flood, to the dynasty of Isin (about 1900 B.C.). In the segment that covers the Early Dynastic Period, the city-states mentioned are primarily located in Babylonia, giving special attention to the cities Ur, Uruk, and Kish. Also included are three non-Babylonian cities, Awan in the east, Hamazi in the north, and Mari in the west.

From other evidence, we know that some of the kings listed consecutively ruled concurrently. The text enumerates them sequentially because the main ideological focus was that there was only one divinely legitimized ruler at a time, and that this divinely inspired kingship circulated among a restricted number of cities. Incorporated in it were dynastic lists of kings from different cities and the number of years they ruled. The accuracy of the later parts can be checked against information from dated economic documents. The earlier parts of the Sumerian King List are legendary, however, assigning impossibly long reigns of thousands of years to mythological figures. In its final version, the King List was used by the kings of the Isin Dynasty to legitimize their claim to supreme power in Babylonia, even though they did not politically control the entire area covered by the King List.


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