An Introduction to the Akkadian Civilization


The Akkadians were a group of Semitic people from the Arabian Peninsula at the time the great Sumerian city-states were flourishing. These people eventually migrated north, where they encountered the Sumerians. Around 2350 BC, an Akkadian military leader, Sargon (Sharukkin-“the rightful ruler”) conquered the Sumerian city-states and built an Akkadian Empire, creating the world’s first empire. It included most of Sumer and stretched as far as Lebanon, Syria, Anatolia, and western Iran. Akkad (from Agade) was the capital, which became the basis for the name of the people and of the language.

The Akkadian Empire had a centralized government under the authority of the king, the royal court, and the high class of priests. Sargon was mostly responsible for this development. A strong economy was the empire’s foundation and Sargon and his court were in the middle of the economic activity, unlike in Sumer, where the priests had more say on matters economic. Their economy was heavily dependent on agriculture; their farmlands were very productive because of an efficient system of irrigation. The productivity of their farmlands enabled the empire’s population to increase. Their agricultural products were abundant, but the empire was short on everything else. Timber, metal ores, and building stones had to be imported. Sargon’s military conquests, however, expanded the boundaries of the empire, eventually including the regions that were sources of these precious commodities. The king brought great wealth to the empire, which spawned a large number of bureaucrats and administrators, in the process creating the first bureaucratic organization. This bureaucracy enabled him to rule the empire more efficiently.

The Akkadian civilization was an extension of the Sumerian civilization; their society was similar to the Sumerians’. The status of women generally was similar to that of the women in Sumer, although the legend of the “sacred female” started during this period. Sargon even appointed his daughter Enheduanna as high priestess to the goddess Inanna. Incidentally, Enheduanna may have been the world’s first published poet. Her poems, extolling gods and goddess, are estimated to be around 4300 years old.

Sumerian gods and goddesses were given Akkadian names. However, the role of temple priests and priestesses were diminished. Sargon became the mediator between the people and their gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses had human form, and had human qualities; they could be foolish, intelligent, shy, humorous, jealous, or angry. These deities were derived from nature, which was understandable considering that life in Mesopotamia was controlled by nature. In trying to understand nature, they gave human shapes to the forces of nature. Thus, they had An, the god of sky, Enlil, the god of air, Nanna, the moon god, and Utu the sun god. The Mesopotamians believed that these gods created the universe and everything it contained, including, of course, humans. They also believed that men and women were created by gods to serve the gods-to make sacrifices to them, to clothe them, to honor and obey them. This religion, however, did not have any laws about ethics or morality. Good and evil were left for people to discover on their own. Humanity-according to early Mesopotamians-exists to serve the gods, who were responsible for the smooth running of the affairs of humanity and of the world in general. They ruled the world through their representative; in Akkadian civilization, this meant Sargon.

Besides having a comparatively sophisticated agriculture that included irrigation and the use of plows, Akkadians had also discovered a method of casting bronze. They also use mud bricks in building houses and temples, and had an advanced pottery industry.

Formal education during this era was practical and aimed primarily to train priests and scribes. Education started from basic reading, writing, and religion, then higher learning in law, medicine, and astrology. Upper class youths were usually prepared to become scribes, ranging from copyists to librarians to teachers. Excavations also revealed that schools for priests were as numerous as temples, indicating not only the importance of priests in Mesopotamian society, but also the thoroughness of priestly training.

Art of the Mesopotamian people including Akkadians had during this period attained a high degree of refinement; a bronze head of a king, which scholars think may be of Sargon, was excavated in Nineveh (ancient capital of Assyrian empire). It is thought to be around 2300 to 2200 BC. This head is considered as one of the great masterpieces of ancient art. Another example is the two cylinder seals that date back to the time of Sargon, which are among the most beautiful examples of its kind. A relief sculpture of Naram-Sin (Sargon’s grandson) shows him in one of his military triumphs. Many clay tablets that were excavated in various places in Iraq contained the ancient Mesopotamians’ literature, mostly poems and hymns to their gods and goddesses.

Sargon reigned for fifty-six years (from 2335 to 2279 BC) and his son Rimush, who was later killed in a palace revolt, succeeded him. Another son, Manishtushu was also killed in another palace revolt. The last king in the Akkadian Dynasty, which lasted about a century, was Naram-Sin, and was the first to claim kingship by divine right. His downfall, and that of the whole empire, was thought to be due to the invading armies from the east, called Gutians. Recent findings however found evidence that a drought that lasted for 300 years was the main cause of the empire’s demise.

Scientists discovered evidence that the downfall of the Akkadian Empire started around 2200 BC. This civilization was heavily dependent on agriculture; a drought that occurred during this period severely weakened production, and subsequently caused the decline of the empire. People fled and moved south where agriculture was still sustainable. There was a revival of Sumerians’ former glory, but it did not last long. Eventually, new conquerors followed the footsteps of Sargon, and united the city-states of the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia).

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