Early Dynastic Period Flourishes in Southern Mesopotamia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the Early Dynastic period, Mesopotamia emerged into history as it pursued urbanization, writing, and the arts and gradually moved away from politically independent city-states.

Summary of Event

The Early Dynastic period falls between the so-called Jemdet Nasr period (c. 3200-2900 b.c.e.) and the Old Akkadian period (c. 2340-2159) when the northern Semite Sargon of Akkad established the first Mesopotamian empire from his capital Akkad (central Iraq, exact location unknown) by defeating one Sumerian ruler after another. It therefore is sometimes referred to as the Pre-Sargonic period. Archaeological excavations east of Baghdad, Iraq, in the Lower Diyala region and elsewhere have revealed three subdivisions: Early Dynastic I (2900-2700), II (2700-2600), and III (2600-2340). Lugalzagesi Eannatum Gilgamesh Mebaragesi

Although the sources for Early Dynastic I and II are primarily archaeological, documentation exists for Early Dynastic III in the form of administrative, economic, military, religious, and literary texts. Early Dynastic II is also referred to as the Heroic Age because later epics are often set in that time, with such protagonists as Gilgamesh, the semilegendary king of Uruk (modern Warka, site northwest of modern-day Muqaiyir, Iraq).

Mesopotamian tradition holds that a Great Flood destroyed nearly all of humankind in the interval between the Jemdet Nasr and Early Dynastic periods. From a modern perspective, the beginning of the Early Dynastic period does not represent a sharp break from the preceding Jemdet Nasr period, which derives its name from an archaeological site 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Baghdad. The tendency of modern scholarship is to regard Jemdet Nasr as a local variation of the homogeneous Uruk culture that spread from southern Mesopotamia as far as Egypt.

Therefore, the Early Dynastic period can be viewed as a cultural continuation of the Uruk culture (4000-2900 b.c.e.). Also, the notion that the Sumerians were newcomers who entered southern Mesopotamia shortly before 3000 and that Semites appeared later is no longer generally accepted. The population of southern Iraq is now viewed as widely diverse from the beginning, perhaps as early as 5500.

Continuity aside, two fundamental changes did occur in the Early Dynastic period. First, for reasons still obscure, people actively abandoned small village sites and moved to larger villages, which then developed into great cities. By Early Dynastic III, according to one calculation, 80 percent of the population lived in imposing cities of more than 100 acres (41 hectares). This process, perhaps originally a mode of self-defense against hostile nomadic incursions, may be traced back to the middle of the Uruk period. Though cities less dense and complex did exist earlier, this period was characterized by a relentless urbanization. Second, the wedge-shaped writing that had been invented about 3200 b.c.e. matured and was able to represent complex thoughts rather than mere lists as in the Jemdet Nasr texts. As documentation appeared, individuals and their exploits emerged into the light of history. Literacy was exchanged for protoliteracy.

However, it remains impossible to write a straightforward narrative history of this period because the sources remain problematic. For example, the Sumerian King List, long viewed as fundamental, is a curious mixture of fact and fantasy. In its present form, an inscription on a block of stone dating to the later Isin Dynasty (c. 1800 b.c.e.), it describes kingship as having descended from heaven before the Great Flood. Five antediluvian dynasties in succession hold this kingship, an ill-defined hegemony, for well over 250,000 years. Though from archaeological evidence, Uruk is known to have been an important city in this period, its name does not occur in the antediluvian list. After the flood, kingship is again described as descending from heaven, first to the city of Kish, 9 miles (15 kilometers) east of Babylon, and then passing sequentially by force to thirteen other dynasties in eight different cities.

The twenty-second king of the dynasty of Kish, Mebaragesi, has the distinction of being the earliest historical ruler because two of his royal inscriptions survive. He fought against Elam in southwestern modern-day Iran, an implacable enemy that would later wage war against the Akkadian kings and subjugate the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004). He also dedicated a temple to the god Enlil at Nippur (modern Niffar), which, like Mecca, was the sacred city of the land. The Sumerian King List, however, ascribes to him an incredible reign of nine hundred years. Furthermore, just five other names in the lengthy list are attested elsewhere in inscriptions. Only after Early Dynastic III do the lengths of reigns and royal names become fairly reliable. Finally, the Sumerian King List often presents dynasties as sequential when they may actually have overlapped chronologically. This scheme may reflect the ideology of the Isin Dynasty that rulership from time immemorial passed by divine rotation to one and only one house and was now legitimately in their hands. Probably reliable, however, is the early importance attached to the city-state of Kish located on one of the major bronze routes. In later times, the title “king of Kish” became an honorific implying high hegemonic control.

Despite such troublesome sources, an approximate sketch may be drawn of the period from archaeology and textual materials. In a narrow strip of land about 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers) in extent, there existed a least thirteen and perhaps as many as thirty individual city-states, each of which was dedicated to and in a sense owned by a patron god or goddess. Ur (now Tell al-Muqaiyar), for example, was at the disposal of the moon-god Nanna. Though independent, these population centers may have shared, in the absence of nationalism, some vague sense of belonging to greater Mesopotamia, with its symbolic focal point at Nippur.

A city-state consisted of the city proper and its suburbs, satellite towns and villages, and agricultural and grazing areas. In Early Dynastic III, Lagash (now Al-Hibeh) in the far south included three major centers, twenty-two towns, and about forty villages in an area of about 618 square miles (1,600 square kilometers). Within the city proper, the characteristically oval-shaped temple enclosure figured prominently as a center of economic life. Here were craft workshops, bakeries, and storage facilities for agricultural implements and harvests. By older interpretation, all citizens, including the ruler, as servants of the god or goddess, were constrained to pool labor and resources in the fields and irrigation dikes for their divine masters. Private ownership was virtually nonexistent.

Perhaps partly valid for some city-states, this model of theocratic socialism has now been challenged as an over-generalization from limited source materials. Specialists on Sumer now argue that family groups did own land independently of the temple and that in some instances so-called temple estates were actually the property of the ruler and his family. Certain duties such as shepherding, weaving, and labor details were also a part of citizenship, and secular and sacred spheres of interest were probably not sharply distinguished. Agriculture, including herding, was the principal economic activity, although some luxury trade did exist. Slavery appears to have been an unimportant source of labor. Women were engaged not only as weavers but also as priestesses and high officials in some temple complexes.

In the Early Dynastic period, cities proper were generally encircled by walls. No longer only a bulwark against hostile external pressures, they also reflected the internal warfare between city-states characteristic of this period. Perhaps changing environmental conditions brought about these conflicts that often arose from boundary disputes. The conflicts may even reflect a desire to regain a larger unity as conceived in the time of the Kish hegemony. During this period, at the same time the politically independent city-states were directing their efforts outward (centrifugal particularism), there emerged a tendency toward unification (centripetalism) and wider domineering.

After the idealized hegemony of Kish, power shifted, according to the later epics, to Gilgamesh’s Uruk, but more likely, by historical records, to Ur. A hundred years later, Elam and two foreign dynasties, Awan and Hamazi, dominated part of Sumer. The sources then focus on Lagash and its ruler Eannatum, who not only drove out the Elamites but also attacked Ur and Kish. Eannatum’s copiously documented war with Umma to the northwest is commemorated in the famous Stela of the Vultures (c. 2450 b.c.e., a clay tablet portraying Eannatum leading a phalanx as they trample over their enemies, whose bodies are being attacked by vultures). His dominion came to end after assaults from Kish and Adab (now Bismaya). A hundred years later, during a period of anarchy, Mari (now Tell Hariri) came to the fore and assisted Umma in an unsuccessful war against Lagash. After corrupt priests had taken over Lagash for twenty years, they were removed by Uruk-Agina (c. 2350), the earliest social reformer. After centuries of defeat (c. 2340), Uruk’s ruler Lugalzagesi from Umma destroyed Lagash and established the prototype of an empire.


In an area nearly devoid of natural resources, the Mesopotamians set the patterns for later city life. Challenged by a semiarid climate with rainfall inadequate for agriculture, they established a sophisticated irrigation system. Refining cuneiform writing, they left behind some of the world’s earliest historical documentation and literature. The institution of the first schools, the extraordinary level of craftsmanship at the burial pits at Ur with their retainer sacrifices, and the building skills found there and elsewhere merely suggest the advances of this period.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuhrt, Amelie. The Ancient Near East, c. 3000-330 b.c. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge, 1995. An authoritative account that examines Mesopotamia and the surrounding area. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. New York: Routledge, 1992. A detailed account of institutions and their roles. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. Baltimore: Pelican Books, 1966. An accessible account of Mesopotamia during ancient times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snell, Daniel C. Life in the Ancient Near East, 3100-332 b.c. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A description of daily life in ancient times in the Near East, including Mesopotamia.
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