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Women in Ancient China › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

Women in ancient China did not enjoy the status, either social or political, afforded to men. Women were subordinate to first their fathers, then their husbands, and finally, in the case of being left a widow, their sons in a system known as the “three followings” or sancong. Often physically ill-treated, socially segregated, and forced to compete for their husband's affections with concubines, a woman's place was an unenviable one. Still, despite the harsh realities of living in a male-dominated society and being forever under the weight of philosophical and religious norms which were created by men to work for men, some women did break through these barriers. The practical realities of daily life meant many women could and did circumvent conventions, and some rose to live extraordinary lives producing great literature, scholarship, and even ruling the Chinese empire itself.


At least in theoretical terms, women's contribution, indeed necessity, to society was recognised in the principle of yin and yang. Even here, though, the male (yang) with its associated qualities is the predominant and has associations subtly considered the superior to the female (ying): hard versus soft, forceful v. submissive, level v. curved, light v. dark, rich v. poor, and so on.

Han Woman, Dahuting Tomb

In China everyone knew it was better to be born a male, and even female characters in traditional literature sometimes stated that they had been a man in a previous life but had reappeared as a woman in this one as a punishment for past deeds.Another common introduction to a female character in such stories was the line “unfortunately she was born a woman”. A male child would grow up to contribute financially to the family, perform rituals such as those in ancestor worship, and perpetuate the family name. In contrast, a woman could not earn money and one day would leave the family and join her husband's.Consequently, many baby girls were abandoned shortly after birth. Those girls who did survive were given such names as Chastity, Pearl, Thrift, or the names of flowers and birds in the hope that the girl would live up to that name and receive attractive offers of marriage.
Bitter it is to have a woman's shape!
It would be hard to name a thing more base.
If it's a son born to the hearth and home
He comes to earth as if he's heaven sent,
Heroic heart and will, like the Four Seas,
To face ten thousand leagues of wind and dust!
To breed a girl is something no one wants,
She's not a treasure to her family.
(3rd century CE poem by Fu Hsuan, in Dawson, 272)
Women were expected to excel in four areas: fidelity, cautious speech, industriousness, and graceful manners. A woman's virtue was a particularly valued attribute in Chinese society. Women deemed especially virtuous such as chaste widows were sometimes given the honour of a shrine, monument, or commemorative tablet after death or had their names published in honorific obituaries. This practice was especially popular following the work of the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi in the 12th century CE.


Marriages in ancient China were usually arranged by both sets of parents. Not love but economic and social considerations were upmost in everybody's minds. There were even professional matchmakers to find suitable pairings who also considered astrology in guiding their selections. Neither did some parents wait until their children were of age as many marriages had been arranged when the couple were still young children or even babies. The typical marrying age was the early twenties for men and late teens for women, although child brides were not unknown despite the practice being forbidden by law. If a marriage had been arranged but the groom died close to the ceremony, the wedding might go ahead anyway and the bride joined her new family as a widow.

Chinese Female Figurine

The bride went to live with the groom in his house or that of his parents, keeping her family surname. Her transferal of abode became a great procession when she was carried on a red bridal chair and her feet never touched the ground between the homes in order to ward off evil spirits. On arrival she met her husband, often it was the couple's first meeting. A marriage feast was held and the ancestral tablets were “informed” of the new arrival. The historian R. Dawson continues the story:
The marriage was not registered with the civil authority, nor did the bride's family take any part in the ceremony or jollification, although the couple did go a few days later to pay a formal visit to the bride's home. The rites of marriage symbolised the fact that the bride's body, fertility, domestic service, and loyalty had been handed over by one family to another. They also provided an opportunity for the groom's family to display its affluence and glory in its prestige in the community. The splendour of these occasions was a severe burden on a family's resources…An additional expense was the gifts to the bride's family, the betrothal presents, which were a thinly disguised price for the person of the daughter-in-law and a clear indication of her total subservience to her new family. (143)
That a wife was not much more than a physical piece of her husband's property is further illustrated in the ancient practice of foot-binding. Girls from aged three upwards had their feet crushed in bindings for years in the belief that the resulting small feet would appeal to her future husband.
In Chinese law, a man could divorce his wife but she had no such right except if the husband particularly mistreated his wife's family. The accepted grounds for divorce were failure to bear a son, evidence of being unfaithful, lack of filial piety to the husband's parents, theft, suffering a virulent or infectious disease, jealousy, and talking too much. Some of these seem quite superficial to modern eyes, but it should be remembered that in Chinese society divorce was a serious action with negative social repercussions for both parties. Further, a wife could not be divorced if she had no family to return to or if she had gone through the three-year mourning period for her husband's dead parents. Consequently, in practice, divorce was not as common as these grounds might suggest.
Another social convention was that widows should not remarry. Many did anyway amongst the lower classes, but the idea that the Fates and astrological charts had ordained that a particular couple should live together in matrimony was a difficult hurdle to get over in the case of a second marriage. An even greater barrier was a financial one as a widow did not inherit the property of her dead husband and so she had nothing to offer a new husband in that department.


Marriage and children were the expected normal course for all adults, and only those men who could not afford a wife did not marry. During the Han Dynasty, for example, unmarried women brought a special tax on their family and women with babies were given a three-year exemption from tax and their husband a one-year exemption. Regarding the sex of children, sons were much more desired than daughters. As the old proverb went: “A boy is born facing in; a girl is born facing out”, meaning that eventually a girl would ultimately leave the family and pay homage to the ancestors of another family. Having a son, then, greatly helped the wife to become accepted in her adopted family.

Women Checking Silk, Song China.

For upper-class women, their lives were perhaps more strictly controlled than at any other social level. Expected to remain within the inner chambers of the family home, they had only a very limited freedom of movement. Within the home, women did have significant responsibilities which included management of the household finances and the education of her children, but this did not mean they were the head of the family home.
Women of lower status, such as farmer's wives, were expected to work in the fields - especially in regions where rice was cultivated. As many farmers did not own their own land but worked it as tenants, their wives were, on occasion, subject to abuse from landowners. Many women were forced into prostitution in times of drought or crop failure. Women worked in the home weaving silk and caring for the silkworms that produced it. Some were called upon, like men, to perform the labour service which acted as a form of taxation in many periods of ancient China, but this was only in exceptional circumstances. By the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) women had more freedom and were running inns and acting as midwives amongst other professions.


Although Chinese men usually had only one wife, they did openly make use of courtesans and invite concubines to live permanently in the family home. Prostitution was an open part of town and city life, with officials and merchants frequenting houses where prostitutes plied their trade for the purposes of corporate entertainment. Concubines, meanwhile, apart from the pleasures their charms might bring, often provided a family with the all-important male heir when the wife only produced daughters. They did not have the legal status of the wife as they were classed as servants and nor were the children of a concubine given equal status and inheritance rights as the children of the wife. The number of concubines in the household was only limited by the husband's means. The wife must never show any jealousy to her husband's concubines - it was, as we have seen, grounds for divorce, but also it was thought there was a particularly nasty corner of hell awaiting jealous wives.
Concubines usually came from the lower classes and entered the households of the wealthier families in society. A girl from a richer family would only have been given as a concubine to an even richer family or the royal palace. It was not uncommon, though, for a younger sister to accompany a bride and live in the marital home of her sibling as a concubine. This Eastern Hanfuneral stele for a concubine presents an interesting record of their duties:
When she entered the household,
She was diligent in care and ordered our familial Way,
Treating all our ancestors as lofty.
She sought good fortune without straying,
her conduct omitting or adding nothing.
Keeping herself frugal, she spun thread,
And planted profitable crops in the orchards and gardens.
She respected the legal wife and instructed the children,
Rejecting arrogance, never boasting of her kindnesses.
The three boys and two girls
Kept quiet within the women's apartments.
She made the girls submissive to rituals,
While giving the boys power.
Her chastity exceeded that of ancient times,
and her guidance was not oppressive.
All our kin were harmonious and close,
Like leaves attached to the tree.
(Lewis, 170-171)




Despite being restricted by the men and the male-created social conventions of the time, there were cases of Chinese women (both real and fictional) who defied convention to become celebrated poets, artists, calligraphers, historians, and even rulers.Below are some details of two such women, one the paradigm of virtue, the other more ambiguous and controversial.
Ban Zhao (41 - c. 115 CE) was one of the most famous female writers and scholars in early China. She wrote commentaries on Confucian classics, and her most famous work remains her Nuje or “Instructions for Women” which expanded on the four virtues expected of women (speech, virtue, behaviour, and work) first outlined in the classic Liji ritual text. Although Zhao stressed that women should remain subservient to their husbands she did express a belief in the benefits of women educating themselves (to better help their husband's work). The Nuje text was hugely influential, studied by countless generations of women and even recited to those unable to read.
Wu Zetian (aka Wu Zhao) lived from 623 or 625 to 705 CE. The concubine of Tang dynasty emperors Taizong (626-649 CE) and Gaozong (r. 649-683 CE), she was officially made empress by the latter in 655 CE. On the death of Gaozong, she reigned as regent for her son Zhongzong (684 CE) and his successor and elder brother Ruizong (r. 684-690 CE). In 690 CE Wu Zetian went one step further and took the throne by declaring herself emperor, set up her court at Luoyang and declared the beginning of a new dynasty, the Zhou. Her reign, at least in Chinese tradition (which gives yet another insight into attitudes to women), was one of despotic terror punctuated by family assassinations and beset by political intrigues. Nevertheless, her ruthless approach did lead to the expansion of the state bureaucracy, and she was a great patron of Buddhist art, seen notably at the Longmen caves. At the end of her reign, she was forced to reaccept the Tang dynasty line and select Zhongzong as her heir apparent.

Akhenaten › Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE) was a pharaoh of Egypt of the 18th Dynasty. He is also known as `Akhenaton' or `Ikhnaton' and also `Khuenaten', all of which are translated to mean `successful for' or `of great use to' the god Aten. Akhenaten chose this name for himself after his conversion to the cult of Aten. Prior to this conversion, he was known as Amenhotep IV (or Amenophis IV). He was the son of Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE) and his wife Tiye, husband of Queen Nefertiti, and father of both Tutankhamun (by a lesser wife named Lady Kiya) and Tutankhamun's wife Ankhsenamun (by Nefertiti).
His reign as Amenhotep IV lasted five years during which he followed the policies of his father and the religious traditions of Egypt. However, in the fifth year, he underwent a dramatic religious transformation, changed his devotion from the cult of Amun to that of Aten, and, for the next twelve years, became famous (or infamous) as the `heretic king' who abolished the traditional religious rites of Egypt and instituted the first known monotheistic state religion in the world and, according to some, monotheism itself.
His reign is known as The Amarna Period because he moved the capital of Egypt from the traditional site at Thebes to the city he founded, Akhetaten, which came to be known as Amarna (also Tell el-Amarna). The Amarna Period is the most controversial era in Egyptian history and has been studied, debated, and written about more than any other.


Amenhotep IV may have been co-regent with his father, Amenhotep III, and it has been noted that the sun-disk known as the `Aten' is displayed on a number of inscriptions from this period of the earlier king's reign. The Aten was not new to the rule of Akhenaten and, prior to his conversion, was simply another cult among the many in ancient Egypt. It should be noted that `cult' did not have the same meaning in this regard as it does in the present day. There was absolutely nothing negative in the designation of a community of worshippers being known as a `cult' in ancient Egypt. It carried the same meaning then as a member of the Christian community today being designated a Baptist, a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, or Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The gods and practices of the various cults all represented the same end: eternal harmony and balance.
Amenhotep III ruled over a land whose priesthood, centered on the god Amun, had been steadily growing in power for centuries. By the time Amenhotep IV came to power, the priests of Amun were on almost equal standing with the royal house in wealth and influence.
The historian Lewis Spence writes, "With the exception of Ra and Osiris, the worship of Amun was more widespread than that of any other god in the Nile Valley; but the circumstances behind the growth of his cult certainly point to its having been disseminated by political rather than religious propaganda" (137). By the time of Amenhotep IV, the Cult of Amun owned more land than the king. In the 5th year of his reign, Amenhotep IV outlawed the old religion and proclaimed himself the living incarnation of a single all-powerful deity known as Aten and, by the 9th year, he had closed all the temples and suppressed religious practices. The historian Barbara Watterson writes:
By the ninth year of his reign, Akhenaten had proscribed the old gods of Egypt, and ordered their temples to be closed, a very serious matter, for these institutions played an important part in the economic and social life of the country. Religious persecution was new to the Egyptians, who had always worshipped many deities and were ever ready to add new gods to the pantheon. Atenism, however, was a very exclusive religion confined to the royal family, with the king as the only mediator between man and god (111-112).
Amenhotep IV moved his seat of power from the traditional palace at Thebes to one he built at the city he founded, Akhetaten, changed his name to Akhenaten, and continued the religious reforms which resulted in his being despised as `the heretic king' by some later writers while admired as a champion of monotheism by others.

Stela of Akhenaten


Some historians have praised Akhenaten's reforms as the first instance of monotheism and the benefits of monotheistic belief;but these reforms were not at all beneficial to the people of Egypt at the time. The historian Durant, for example, writes that Akhenaten's reforms were "the first out-standing expression of monotheism - seven hundred years before Isaiah [of the Bible ] and an astounding advance upon the old tribal deities" (210). Those `old tribal deities' of Egypt, however, had encouraged peace, harmony, and the development of one of the greatest ancient cultures the world has ever known.
The polytheism of the ancient Egyptians encouraged a world view where peace and balance were emphasized and religious tolerance was not considered an issue; there is not even a word directly corresponding to the concept of `religious tolerance' in the ancient Egyptian texts. A hallmark of any monotheistic belief system, however, is that it encourages the belief that, in order for it to be right, other systems must necessarily be wrong. This insistence on being the sole arbiter of ultimate truth leads to intolerance of other beliefs and their suppression; this is precisely what happened in Egypt. The names of the god Amun and the other gods were chiseled from monuments throughout Egypt, the temples were closed, and the old practices outlawed.The Egyptologist Zahi Hawass writes:
Dating to this point in Akhenaten's reign was a campaign to excise the name of gods other than the Aten, especially Amun, from the monuments of Egypt. This was done with violence: hieroglyphs were brutally hacked from the walls of temples and tombs. This was probably carried out, at least in part, by illiterate iconoclasts, presumably following the orders of their king. [Akhenaten] carried out a religious revolution the like of which had never been seen before in Egypt. His reign represents a significant departure from religious, artistic, and political norms (42-43).
Priests of Amun who had the time and resources hid statuary and texts from the palace guards sent to destroy them and then abandoned their temple complexes. Akhenaten ordained new priests, or simply forced priests of Amun into the service of his new monotheism, and proclaimed himself and his queen gods.


The pharaoh as a servant of the gods, and identified with a certain god (most often Horus ), was common practice in ancient Egypt but no one before Akhenaten had proclaimed himself an actual god incarnate. As a god, he seems to have felt that the affairs of state were beneath him and simply stopped attending to his responsibilities One of the many unfortunate results of Akhenaten's religious reforms was a neglect of foreign policy.
From documents and letters of the time it is known that other nations, formerly allies, wrote numerous times asking Egypt for help in various affairs and that most of these requests were ignored by the deified king. Egypt was a wealthy and prosperous nation at the time and had been steadily growing in power since before the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE).Hatshepsut and her successors, such as Tuthmosis III (1458-1425 BCE), employed a balanced approach of diplomacy and military action in dealing with foreign nations; Akhenaten chose simply to largely ignore what happened beyond the borders of Egypt and, it seems, most things outside of his palace at Akhetaten.
Watterson notes that Ribaddi (Rib-Hadda), king of Byblos, who was one of Egypt's most loyal allies, sent over fifty letters to Akhenaten asking for help in fighting off Abdiashirta (also known as Aziru) of Amor (Amurru) but these all went unanswered and Byblos was lost to Egypt (112). Tushratta, the king of Mitanni, who had also been a close ally of Egypt, complained that Amenhotep III had sent him statues of gold while Akhenaten only sent gold-plated statues.


The Amarna Letters, (correspondence found in the city of Amarna between the kings of Egypt and those of foreign nations) which provide evidence of Akhenaten's negligence, also show him to have a keen sense of foreign policy when the situation interested him. He strongly rebuked Abdiashirta for his actions against Ribaddi and for his friendship with the Hittites who were then Egypt's enemy. This no doubt had more to do with his desire to keep friendly the buffer states between Egypt and the Land of the Hatti ( Canaan and Syria, for example, which were under Abdiashirta's influence) than any sense of justice for the death of Ribaddi and the taking of Byblos.
There is no doubt that his attention to this problem served the interests of the state but, as other similar issues were ignored, it seems that he only chose those situations which interested him personally. Akhenaten had Abdiashirta brought to Egypt and imprisoned for a year until Hittite advances in the north compelled his release but there seems a marked difference between his letters dealing with this situation and other king's correspondence on similar matters.

Amarna Letter

While there are, then, examples of Akhenaten looking after state affairs, there are more which substantiate the claim of his disregard for anything other than his religious reforms and life in the palace. It should be noted, however, that this is a point hotly debated among scholars in the modern day, as is the whole of the so-called Amarna Period of Akhenaten's rule.Regarding this, Hawass writes, “More has been written on this period in Egyptian history than any other and scholars have been known to come to blows, or at least to major episodes of impoliteness, over their conflicting opinions” (35). The preponderance of the evidence, both from the Amarna letters and from Tutankhamun's later decree, as well as archaeological indications, strongly suggests that Akhenaten was a very poor ruler as far as his subjects and vassal states were concerned and his reign, in the words of Hawass, was “an inward-focused regime that had lost interest in its foreign policy” (45).
Any evidence that Akhenaten involved himself in matters outside of his city at Akhetaten always comes back to self-interest rather than state-interest. Hawass writes:
Akhenaten did not, however, abandon the rest of the country and retire exclusively to Akhetaten. When he laid out his city, he also commanded that a series of boundary stelae be carved in the cliffs surrounding the site.Among other things, these state that if he were to die outside of his home city, his body should be brought back and buried in the tomb that was being prepared for him in the eastern cliffs. There is evidence that, as Amenhotep IV, he carried out building projects in Nubia, and there were temples to the Aten in Memphis and Heliopolis, and possibly elsewhere as well (45).


Life in his palace at Akhetaten seems to have been his primary concern. The city was built on virgin land in the middle of Egypt facing towards the east and precisely positioned to direct the rays of the morning sun toward temples and doorways. The city was:
Laid out parallel to the river, its boundaries marked by stelae carved into the cliffs ringing the site. The king himself took responsibility for its cosmologically significant master plan. In the center of his city, the king built a formal reception palace where he could meet officials and foreign dignitaries. The palaces in which he and his family lived were to the north and a road led from the royal dwelling to the reception palace. Each day, Akhenaten and Nefertiti processed in their chariots from one end of the city to the other, mirroring the journey of the sun across the sky. In this, as in many other aspects of their lives that have come to us through art and texts, Akhenaten and Nefertiti were seen, or at least saw themselves, as deities in their own right. It was only through them that the Aten could be worshipped: they were both priests and gods (Hawass, 39).
The art Hawass references is another important deviation of the Amarna Period from earlier and later Egyptian eras. Unlike the images from other dynasties of Egyptian history, the art from the Amarna Period depicts the royal family with elongated necks and arms and spindly legs. Scholars have theorized that perhaps the king “suffered from a genetic disorder called Marfan's syndrome” (Hawass, 36) which would account for these depictions of him and his family as so lean and seemingly oddly-proportioned.
A much more likely reason for this style of art, however, is the king's religious beliefs. The Aten was seen as the one true god who presided over all and infused all living things. It was envisioned as a sun disk whose rays ended in hands touching and caressing those on earth. Perhaps, then, the elongation of the figures in these images was meant to show human transformation when touched by the power of the Aten.
The famous Stele of Akhenaten, depicting the royal family, shows the rays of the Aten touching them all and each of them, even Nefertiti, depicted with the same elongation as the king. To consider these images as realistic depictions of the royal family, afflicted with some disorder, seems to be a mistake in that there would be no reason for Nefertiti to share in the king's supposed disorder. The depiction, then, could illustrate Akhenaten and Nefertiti as those who had been transformed to god-like status by their devotion to the Aten to such an extent that their faith is seen even in their children.


The other aspect of Amarna Period art which differentiates it from earlier and later periods is the intimacy of the images, best exemplified in the Stele of Akhenaten showing the family enjoying each other's company in a private moment. Images of pharaohs before and after this period depict the ruler as a solitary figure engaged in hunting or battle or standing in the company of a god or his queen in dignity and honor. This can also be explained as stemming from Akhenaten's religious beliefs in that the Aten, not the pharaoh, was the most important consideration (as in the Stele of Akhenaten, it is the Aten disk, not the family, which is the center of the composition) and, under the influence of the Aten's love and grace, the pharaoh and his family thrives.


This image of the Aten as an all-powerful, all-loving, deity, supreme creator and sustainer of the universe, is thought to have had a potent influence on the later development of monotheistic religious faith. Whether Akhenaten was motivated by a political agenda to suppress the power of the Cult of Amun or if he experienced a true religious revelation, he was the first on record to envision a single, supreme deity who cared for the individual lives and fates of human beings. Sigmund Freud, in his 1939 CE work Moses and Monotheism, argues that Moses was an Egyptian who had been an adherent of the Cult of Aten and was driven from Egypt following Akhenaten's death and the return to the old religious paradigm. Freud quotes from James Henry Breasted, the noted archaeologist, that:
It is important to notice that his name, Moses, was Egyptian. It is simply the Egyptian word `mose' meaning `child', and is an abridgement of a fuller form of such names as `Amen-mose' meaning `Amon-a-child' or `Ptah-mose' meaning `Ptah-a-child'…and the name Mose, `child', is not uncommon on the Egyptian monuments (5).
Freud recognizes that the Cult of Aten existed long before Akhenaten raised it to prominence but points out that Akhenaten added a component unknown previously in religious belief: “He added the something new that turned into monotheism, the doctrine of a universal god: the quality of exclusiveness” (24). The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570-c.478 BCE) would later experience a similar vision that the many gods of the Greek city-states were vain imaginings and there was only one true god and, though he shared this vision through his poetry, he never established the belief as a revolutionary new way of understanding oneself and the universe. Whether one regards Akhenaten as a hero or villain in Egypt's history, his elevation of the Aten to supremacy changed not only that nation's history, but the course of world civilization.
To those who came after him in Egypt, however, he was the `heretic king' and `the enemy' whose memory needed to be eradicated. His son, Tutankhamun (c.1336-1327 BCE) was given the name Tutankhaten at birth but changed his name upon ascending the throne to reflect his rejection of Atenism and his return of the country to the ways of Amun and the old gods.Tutankhamun's successors Ay (1327-1323 BCE) and, especially, Horemheb (c. 1320-1292 BCE) tore down the temples and monuments built by Akhenaten to honor his god and had his name, and the names of his immediate successors, stricken from the record.
In fact, Akhenaten was unknown in Egyptian history until the discovery of Amarna in the 19th century CE. Horemheb's inscriptions listed himself as the successor to Amenhoptep III and made no mention of the rulers of the Amarna Period.Akhenaten's tomb was uncovered by the great archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1907 CE and Tutankhamun's tomb, more famously, by Howard Carter in 1922 CE. Interest in Tutankhamun spread to the family of the `golden king' and so attention was brought to bear again on Akhenaten after almost 4,000 years. His legacy of monotheism, however, if Freud and others are correct, influenced other religious thinkers to emulate his ideal of a one, true god and reject the polytheism which had characterized human religious belief for millenia.

Akkad › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

No one knows where the city of Akkad was located, how it rose to prominence, or how, precisely, it fell; yet once it was the seat of the Akkadian Empire which ruled over a vast expanse of the region of ancient Mesopotamia. It is known that Akkad (also given as Agade) was a city located along the western bank of the Euphrates River possibly between the cities of Sippar and Kish (or, perhaps, between Mari and Babylon or, even, elsewhere along the Euphrates). According to legend, it was built by the king Sargon the Great (who ruled 2334-2279 BCE) who unified Mesopotamia under the rule of his Akkadian Empire and set the standard for future forms of government in Mesopotamia. Sargon (or his scribes) claimed that the Akkadian Empire stretched from the Persian Gulf through modern-day Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Syria (possibly Lebanon) through the lower part of Asia Minor to the Mediterranean Sea and Cyprus (there is also a claim it stretched as far as Crete in the Aegean ).While the size and scope of the empire based in Akkad is disputed, there is no doubt that Sargon the Great created the first multi-national empire in the world.


The language of the city, Akkadian, was already in use before the rise of the Akkadian Empire (notably in the wealthy city of Mari where vast cuneiform tablets have helped to define events for later historians) and it is possible that Sargon restored Akkad, rather than built it. It should also be noted that Sargon was not the first ruler to unite the disparate cities and tribes under one rule. The King of Uruk, Lugalzagesi, had already accomplished this, though on a much smaller scale, under his own rule. He was defeated by Sargon who, improving on the model given him by Uruk, made his own dynasty larger and stronger.The historian Gwendolyn Leick writes, "According to his own inscriptions, he [Sargon] campaigned widely beyond Mesopotamia and secured access to all the major trade routes, by sea and by land" ( The AZ of Mesopotamia, 8). While Lugalzagesi had succeeded in subjugating the cities of Sumer, Sargon was intent on conquering the known world. The historian Durant writes, "East and west, north and south, the mighty warrior marched, conquering Elam, washing his weapons in symbolic triumph in the Persian Gulf, crossing western Asia, reaching the Mediterranean, and establishing the first great empire in history" (121-122). This empire stabilized the region of Mesopotamia and allowed for the development of art, literature, science, agricultural advances, and religion.
According to the Sumerian King List, there were five rulers of Akkad: Sargon, Rimush, Manishtusu, Naram-Sin (also known as Naram-Suen) and Shar-Kali-Sharri who maintained the dynasty for 142 years before it collapsed. In this time Akkadian came to replace Sumerian as the lingua franca except in sacred services and Akkadian dress, writing, and religious practices infiltrated the customs of the conquered in the region. A thorough understanding of the rise and fall of Akkad (relatively speaking) is best gained through an examination of the rulers of the city and the empire they maintained.


Sargon the Great either founded or restored the city of Akkad and ruled from 2334-2279 BCE. He conquered what he called "the four corners of the universe" and maintained order in his empire through repeated military campaigns. The stability provided by this empire gave rise to the construction of roads, improved irrigation, a wider sphere of influence in trade, as well as the above mentioned developments in arts and sciences. The Akkadian Empire created the first postal system where clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform Akkadian script were wrapped in outer clay envelopes marked with the name and address of the recipient and the seal of the sender. These letters could not be opened except by the person they were intended for because there was no way to open the clay envelope save by breaking it.
In order to maintain his presence throughout his empire, Sargon strategically placed his best and most trusted men in positions of power in the various cities. The "Citizens of Akkad", as a later Babylonian text calls them, were the governors and administrators in over 65 different cities. Sargon also cleverly placed his daughter, Enheduanna, as High Priestess of Inannaat Ur and, through her, seems to have able to manipulate religious/cultural affairs from afar. Enheduanna is recognized today as the world's first writer known by name and, from what is known of her life, she seems to have been a very able and powerful priestess in addition to creating her impressive Hymns to Inanna.

Akkadian Ruler


Sargon reigned for fifty-six years and after his death was succeeded by his son Rimush (reigned 2279-2271 BCE) who maintained his father's policies closely. The cities rebelled after Sargon's death and Rimush spent the early years of his reign restoring order. He campaigned against Elam, whom he defeated, and claimed in an inscription to bring great wealth back to Akkad. He ruled for only nine years before he died and was succeeded by his brother Manishtusu (reigned 2271-2261 BCE).There is some speculation that Manishtusu brought about his brother's death to gain the throne.
History repeated itself after the death of Rimush and Manishtusu had to quell widespread revolts across the empire before engaging in the business of governing his lands. He increased trade and, according to his inscriptions, engaged in long-distance trade with Magan and Meluhha (thought to be upper Egypt and the Sudan). He also undertook great projects in construction throughout the empire and is thought to have ordered the construction of the Ishtar Temple at Nineveh which was considered a very impressive piece of architecture. Further, he undertook land reform and, from what is known, improved upon the empire of his father and brother. Manishtusu's obelisk, describing the distribution of parcels of land, may be viewed today in the Louvre Museum, Paris. His death is somewhat of a mystery but, according to some scholars, Leick among them, "Manishtusu was killed by his courtiers with their cylinder seals" though no definite motive has been offered for the killing( The AZ of Mesopotamia, 111).


Manishtusu was succeeded by his son Naram-Sin (also Naram-Suen) who reigned from 2261-2224 BCE. Like his father and uncle before him, Naram-Sin had to suppress rebellions across the empire before he could begin to govern but, once he began, the empire flourished under his reign. In the thirty-six years he ruled, he expanded the boundaries of the empire, kept order within, increased trade, and personally campaigned with his army beyond the Persian Gulf and, possibly, even to Egypt.The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (presently housed in the Louvre) celebrates the victory of the Akkadian monarch over Satuni, king of the Lullubi (a tribe in the Zagros Mountains) and depicts Naram-Sin ascending the mountain, trampling on the bodies of his enemies, in the image of a god. Like his grandfather, he claimed himself "king of the four quarters of the universe" but, in a bolder move, began writing his name with a sign designating himself a god on equal footing with any in the Mesopotamian pantheon.
In spite of his spectacular reign, considered the height of the Akkadian Empire, later generations would associate him with The Curse of Agade, a literary text ascribed to the Third Dynasty of Ur but which could have been written earlier. It tells the fascinating story of one man's attempt to wrest an answer from the gods by force; and that man is Naram-Sin. According to the text, the great Sumerian god Enlil withdrew his pleasure from the city of Akkad and, in so doing, prohibited the other gods from entering the city and blessing it any longer with their presence. Naram-Sin does not know what he could have done to incur this displeasure and so prays, asks for signs and omens, and falls into a seven-year depression as he waits for an answer from the god. Finally, tired of waiting, he draws up his army and marches on Enlil's temple at the Ekur in the city of Nippur which he destroys. He "sets his spades against its roots, his axes against the foundations until the temple, like a dead soldier, falls prostrate" (Leick, The Invention of the City, 106). This attack, of course, provokes the wrath not only of Enlil but of the other gods who send the Gutium "a people who know no inhibition, with human instincts but canine intelligence and with monkey features" (106) to invade Akkad and lay it waste. There is widespread famine after the invasion of the Gutians, the dead remain rotting in the streets and houses, and the city is in ruin and so, according to the tale, ends the city of Akkad and the Akkadian Empire, a victim of one king's arrogance in the face of the gods.

Stele of the Akkadian king Naram-Sin

There is, however, no historical record of Naram-Sin ever reducing the Ekur at Nippur by force nor destroying the temple of Enlil and it is thought that "The Curse of Agade" was a much later piece written to express "an ideological concern for the right relationship between the gods and the absolute monarch" (Leick, 107) whose author chose Akkad and Naram-Sin as subjects because of their, by then, legendary status. According to historical record, Naram-Sin honored the gods, had his own image placed beside theirs in the temples, and was succeeded by his son, Shar-Kali-Sharri who reigned from 2223-2198 BCE.


Shar-Kali-Sharri's reign was difficult from the beginning in that he, too, had to expend a great deal of effort in putting down revolts after his father's death but, unlike his predecessors, seemed to lack the ability to maintain order and was unable to prevent further attacks on the empire from without. Leick writes, "Despite his efforts and successful military campaigns, he was not able to protect his state from disintegration and, after his death, written sources dried up in a time of increased anarchy and confusion" ( The AZ of Mesopotamia, 159). Interestingly, it is known that "his most important building project was the reconstruction of the Temple of Enlil at Nippur" and perhaps this event, coupled with the invasion of the Gutians and a widespread famine, gave rise to the later legend which grew into The Curse of Agade. Shar-Kali-Sarri waged almost continual war against the Elamites, the Ammorites and the invading Gutians but it is the Gutian Invasion which has been most commonly credited with the collapse of the Akkadian Empire and the Mesopotamian dark age which ensued. Recent studies, however, claim that it was most likely climate change which caused a famine and, perhaps, disruption in trade, weakening the empire to the point where the type of invasions and rebellions which, in the past, were crushed, could no longer be dealt with so easily. The last two kings of Akkad following the death of Shar-Kali-Sharri, Dudu and his son Shu-Turul, ruled only the area around the city and are rarely mentioned in association with the empire. As with the rise of the city of Akkad, its fall is a mystery and all that is known today is that, once, such a city existed whose kings ruled a vast empire, the first empire in the world, and then passed on into memory and legend.


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