During the Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 BCE) (fig. 1), southern Mesopotamia was split into two regions, Akkad in the north and Sumer in the south. The Early Dynastic (ED) period can be divided into four phases:
- EDI (2900–2700)
- EDII (2700–2600)
- EDIIIa (2600–2450)
- EDIIIb (2450–2350)
This period is characterized by major cultural and political changes. It is during the Early Dynastic period that writing became fully developed, which had started with the earliest stages of writing, during the Late Uruk Period (3500–3100 BCE). By the end of the Early Dynastic period, there are both historical documents and extensive written narratives, such as the Stele of the Vultures (figs. 2 and 3), which commemorates the victory of Eannatum, the king of Lagash, over the neighboring city-state of Umma. A translation of the text can be read on the Musée du Louvre’s website under the Stele of the Vultures paragraph “A unique historic document.”
The Early Dynastic period also provides the earliest evidence for dynastic kingship, although previous modes of rule (occurring during the Uruk and Jemdet-Nasr periods) are a source of dispute among scholars. These dynastic kings ruled a number of competing city-states that emerged in Sumer, but all shared a common identity, known today as “Sumerian” after the primary ancient language of the period.
Sumerian has three terms for rulers: EN, ENSI, and LUGAL, although it is not always clear how they differed from one another during the Early Dynastic period. LUGAL is thought by scholars to refer to the military aspect of a ruler, and is later used as the standard term for king. EN and ENSI, on the other hand, may pertain to the religious aspect of a ruler. The unclear distinction between the three terms likewise reflects the lack of complete understanding of Early Dynastic politics in modern scholarship, specifically the relationship between the temple and the ruler.
Politics and Religion in the Early Dynastic Period
Thorkild Jacobsen (1943, 1957), an Assyriologist, proposed a very influential—but highly debated and modified—theory concerning political development during the Early Dynastic period. Using later Sumerian and Babylonian literary texts such as the Babylonian Epic of Creation—Enûma Eliš —and Gilgamesh and Aga (which are dated to the Old Babylonian period, 1894–1595 BCE, though the former has been alternatively dated to the Middle Babylonian period as well, 1595–1155 BCE)—myths that feature a king or god discussing a dilemma with an assembly—Jacobsen argued that early in the period cities were ruled by assemblies of elders led by the EN (priest), but in times of war, a LUGAL (king) was appointed. Jacobsen also proposed the existence of a league of cities that would have met at the city of Nippur. He called this league the KENGIR league—KENGIR being the Sumerian name for Sumer—and linked the so-called KENGIR league with temple institutions, based on the evidence of 26 cylinder seal impressions (sealings) found in the Seal Impression Strata (SIS) of Ur. The sealings consisted of proto-cuneiform symbols that modern scholars have attempted to link to certain ancient city names, as well as impressions of rosettes, a symbol associated with Sumerian temples and the goddess Inanna (fig. 4). According to Jacobsen, as the Early Dynastic period continued, the tenure of the LUGAL increased, supported by evidence such as the appearance of city walls in the EDII period, which may indicate continuous warfare. Eventually, as the term of the LUGAL became longer and more consistent, hereditary kingship was instituted in the EDIII period, resulting in one city-state dominating over others. The Sumerian King List (the latest version dating to the Old Babylonian period) describes the movement of kingship from one city to another in early Mesopotamia, expressing the ideology that kingship could only be present in one city at a time. The ancient reality, however, was much more complex, as several contemporaneous city-states, ruled by kings, existed.
Although Jacobsen’s hypothesis is highly contested by modern scholars, he pioneered the study of the relationship between politics and religion during the Early Dynastic period, with the result that many scholars today are still extensively studying theories related to Jacobsen’s. This module will focus specifically on the political role, architecture, and archaeology of Sumerian temples.
Sumerian temples were considered to be the houses of the gods, who resided within their cult statues. The cult statue required basic feeding and care, and was the center of ritual activity. Sumerian temples were not simply places of worship, but were active households controlling vast estates as well (Evans 2012). Most scholars agree that temples in the Early Dynastic period were the main administrative and authoritative centers of a Sumerian city. Temples owned land, had access to large amounts of wealth, and could employ huge numbers of dependents. The leader of a temple, therefore, was a very powerful person.
The best preserved evidence for temples comes from sites that are not in Sumer (far southern Mesopotamia), but rather in the north and on the periphery. Temples from the Diyala region, Assur, and Mari, provide the best archaeological record of Sumerian temples (fig. 1). Nippur, located at the mid-point between Sumer and Akkad, has the longest continuous archaeological sequence in all Mesopotamia at the Inanna temple (begun in ED I). Temples during the Early Dynastic period varied in size and shape, but shared several consistent architectural features. These include temple corners oriented to the cardinal points, a rectangular room with a podium for the cult statue at one short end and the main entrance in one of the long walls (called the bent-axis approach) (fig. 5), physical separation from domestic sectors through a raising of the temple caused by repeated reconstruction, and some temples, such as the Sin Temple and Temple Oval at Khafajah (see below), developed large courtyards. While the elevation of temples was a common feature across space and time in Mesopotamia, temples were likely originally raised as a secondary feature of continuous reconstruction of the architectural structure over time in one area. This slow, mundane process that grew out of the need to renew and rebuild the mudbrick architecture caused a conceptual evolution and later acquired a deeper, religious significance as “high places” (Meijer 2002). In turn, this conceptual evolution may have led to the increased isolation of the priesthood from society and tension with the new form of authority—kingship.
The excavations of the Sin Temple and the Temple Oval at Khafajah (ancient Tutub) in the Diyala region of modern Iraq (fig. 1) allow scholars to study architectural changes from the end of the Late Uruk through the Early Dynastic periods. The frequent rebuilding of the temples over time preserves the chronological development of the buildings’ layouts. Through a review of the changes in the building phases of the two temples, one can trace minor and major changes in temple architecture over time that offer insights into social processes in early Mesopotamian society. Because architecture is constructed by humans, it therefore serves as a constitutive element in human relations (Meijer 2002). Just as humans impact their surroundings and experience through changes in temple architecture, the changes then forge and create new lived experiences for the inhabitants. Changes in building construction could affect the way it was experienced—in intentional or unintentional ways.
The Sin Temple (fig. 6) was likely dedicated to the moon god (Sin in Akkadian, Nanna in Sumerian) based on the evidence of small crescent moons excavated within the temple. The earliest phases of the Sin Temple are dated to the Late Uruk/Jemdet-Nasr periods (c. 3300-2900 BCE), and rebuilding continued until the temple’s last phase during the Early Dynastic III period. The Sin Temple experienced 10 architectural phases, lasting a total of 24 distinct occupational phases. The architectural phases reveal the evolution from a tripartite temple, a common architectural type of temple from earlier periods (fig. 7), into the bent-axis plan of the Sumerian temple (fig. 5).
Levels I–III of the Sin Temple are dated to the late Late Uruk/Jemdet-Nasr periods (c. 3300-3100 BCE). The Level I temple seems to have been an entirely new building, as it was built over architectural remains of a different nature. The building featured a tripartite layout, meaning a central long room flanked by side rooms of equal width, with a small courtyard to the east (fig. 8). The side room to the west appears to have housed a staircase leading up to the roof. Levels II and III were increasingly expanded, and during Level III, we can see the tripartite layout begin to give way; the west side room has become narrower than its counterpart to the east, and the staircase it housed previously has been moved into the courtyard.
Level IVa and V are dated to the very end of the Late Uruk/Jemdet-Nasr periods (c. 3100-2900 BCE) (fig. 9). This level saw the introduction of an artificial terrace that was augmented by a retaining wall on the east end of the temple, and the courtyard continued to expand in size. The back room on the western end of the building was now closed off and disused, which finalized the change from a tripartite plan to a bent-axis one. Moreover, there was an increase in the quantity of luxurious items during Level IVa, such as pendants, amulet, seals, and statuettes—one such example is illustrated below. The stone statuette of a woman, seemingly standing with her hands in a pious gesture, was one of the earliest stone carvings of a human in the round from Mesopotamia (fig. 10).
By Level V (c. 3100-2900 BCE) major changes to the form of the temple can be seen in relation to the first temple of Level I (fig. 11). The builders of Level V raised the entire complex—the courtyards and the sanctuary—on one single level and rebuilt the walls. As the sanctuary was raised in Level IV through the installation of an artificial terrace, the complex had become unlevel. The builders of Level V raised the courtyard while lowering the sanctuary and its adjoining rooms. The cella was no longer centrally located in the temple, but rather was an innermost sanctuary.
Level VI (Early Dynastic I) contained yet further changes to the Sin Temple (fig. 12). The entire temple was rebuilt with a new type of building material—plano-convex bricks—a building material characteristic of the start of the Early Dynastic period. These bricks, laid on their side, form a herringbone pattern that would have been covered by the plastering of the walls. This new plan of temple Level VI, which saw the addition of a monumental entrance, continued to expand throughout the Early Dynastic period, until its final level, Level X (Early Dynastic IIIa). In Level VII, a shallow staircase was installed at the entrance to ease the climb up the terrace (fig. 13). The foundation walls of Level VII and Level VIII were rebuilt and increased in thickness. Level VIII saw the introduction of two cellas, allowing for two shrines, and in Level X, the temple housed three cellas, allowing for three shrines (fig. 14). The quality and quantity of goods such as statuettes increased with each new level (fig. 15)
The Temple Oval (fig. 16) was another temple located at Khafajah. The Temple Oval was built later and had fewer phases than the Sin Temple, and provides an example of temple types built during Early Dynastic II onward, which were increasingly large and isolated. The Temple Oval provides a clear example of an Early Dynastic temple that required wealth, resources, and labor to create and maintain—illustrating the consolidation of power in the hands of the priesthood.
The Temple Oval was a large temple—over 800 sq. meters—set apart from the rest of the city by double enclosure walls. Oval enclosed temples have been found across Mesopotamia during the Early Dynastic period, at sites such as Lagash (Al-Hiba) and Tell al-Ubaid (just west of Ur), making oval temple enclosures an Early Dynastic phenomenon. The Khafajah temple had three phases spanning the Early Dynastic II and III periods. The three building stages, however, conformed to the basic plan of the original temple area with only minor elaborations. The layout of the temple building itself is not known, as it stood atop a raised platform and has not survived archaeologically. Nonetheless, the layout of the precinct documents important aspects regarding the social and economic standing of the temple within the Early Dynastic period city. The entire precinct area was built on a foundation of clean sand extending 20 feet below to virgin soil, which must have entailed an enormous expenditure of human resources. The final building phase (fig. 17), dated to Early Dynastic IIIa and b has evidence for the production of food and crafts found in the temple complex, illustrated by considerable material wealth (fig. 18) (Pollock 1999, Crawford 2004). It is significant that the Temple Oval was involved in the production and distribution of food and crafts, as other Early Dynastic temples exhibited little evidence of direct participation in craft production. That is not to say that temples did not have indirect control over off-site food and craft production. Rather, it is likely that Sumerian temples could employ city residents for manual labor, who would work on their crafts elsewhere. The employment of temple dependents and their off-site production centers demonstrate both the increasing power of the temple institution and the physical separation of the temple from the urban environment. This increasing power of the temple institution would subsequently compete against the rising power of kingship. The delicate balance between kingship and temple institution started during the Early Dynastic period, but continued throughout the long history of ancient Mesopotamia.
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
- Aruz, Joan, and Ronald Wallenfels, eds. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.
- Crawford, Harriet E.W. Sumer and the Sumerians. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Delougaz, Pinhas, and Thorkild Jacobsen. The Temple Oval at Khafājah. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications vol. 53. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1940.
- Delougaz, Pinhas, Seton Lloyd, Thorkild Jacobsen, and Henri Frankfort. Pre-Sargonid Temples in the Diyala Region. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications vol. 58. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942.
- Evans, Jean M. The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture: An Archaeology of the Early Dynastic Temple. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Franktfort, Henri. More Sculpture from the Diyala Region. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications vol. 58. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1943.
- Franktfort, Henri. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. 5th ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
- Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52 (1943): 159–172.
- Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Early Political Development in Mesopotamia.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 52 (1957): 91–140.
- Matthews, Roger. Cities, Seals and Writing: Archaic Impressions from Jemdet Nasr and Ur. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1993.
- Meijer, Diederik. “The Khafaje Sin Temple Sequence: Social Divisions at Work?” In Pots and Plans: Papers on the Archaeology and History of Mesopotamia and Syria Presented to David Oates in Honour of His 75th Birthday, edited by L. al-Gailani Werr, J. Curtis, H. Martin, A. McMahon, J. Oates, and J. Reade, 218–226. London: NABU, 2002.
- Meijer, Diederik. “Cracking the Code? Aspect and Impact in Mesopotamian Architecture.” In Proceedings of the 4th International Congress of the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, edited by H. Kühne, R.M Czichon, and F.J. Kreppner, 431–436. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008.
- Perkins, Ann L. The Comparative Archaeology of Early Mesopotamia. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization no. 25. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949.
- Pollock, Susan. Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Van de Mieroop, Marc. The Ancient Mesopotamian City. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Originally published by Rice University, OpenStax CNX, 07.26.2016, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 license. Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/622a7af0-56b6-4375-b2c2-376eb5af6bc2@3