Robert Van Ness tells us about Sargon, an ancient ruler in the Middle East, and how his style of rule lingers on in the region to this day.
Ancient History most certainly still has an influence in today’s world. Though names like Suppililiuma and Ukkin Umash mean almost nothing to anyone outside of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, other names such as Sargon of Akkad have a lingering influence. What lessons could be, better should be, learned from Sargon and his influence?
Not much is known about Sargon's early life. Sargon, or Saru Kinnu, seems to have been illegitimately born to a priestess. According to chronicled legends, he became cupbearer to Ur-Zababa until the king had a dream that Sargon killed the then king. Ur-Zababa, frightened, ordered Sargon to be killed, but Sargon heroically escaped this attempt. Ur-Zababa sent word to Lugal-zage-si, King of Uruk, by way of Sargon to have Sargon killed upon arrival. The rest of the story is lost, but Sargon was not killed. Perhaps the goddess, Innana, saved him, as other legends surrounding Sargon state. Regardless, not much credence is given to early stories surrounding Sargon’s life, nor is much given to legends after his death, because the Sumerian King lists are notoriously exaggerated. Regardless, the fact that Sargon lived is certain, and he set the Ancient Near East onto a course directly affecting the modern world.
Sargon did eventually kill the reigning king, and took the Akkadian throne for himself. He claimed to have built Akkad, or Agade, though this is again an exaggeration. Akkad was around before Sargon became king and is associated with Nimrod according to the Genesis account. Sargon, however, did make Akkad into a magnificent city, and the capital of the world’s first major warrior empire. Sumer was around, as was Nineveh, and Ur, but it was Sargon who sent armies to conquer surrounding territory. His modicum was, “join my empire for protection”; the alternative was death and destruction. Uruk and Umma found this out the difficult way. Sargon razed both cities to the ground when they refused his ‘invitation.’ From there, Sargon invaded all of southern Mesopotamia.
Sumer was a large prize to Sargon, and he made certain that it would not be lost. In order to maintain control of the region, he set more than 5,000 administrators to take charge of the many Sumerian cities such as Ur, Uruk, and Eridu. He made Sumerian the world language by spreading Sumerian cuneiform throughout the known world. Trade routes and connections became Akkadian, and continued along older Sumerian passages, which included India and Egypt. Upon the face of it, Sargon seems to have been rather fair with Sumer, but he was ruthlessly brutal at times. One example is how he destroyed Kazalla so completely that “birds could not find a place to land.” Sumerians were also not allowed to rule in the Akkadian government. Only Akkadians were allowed to occupy those positions.
EVEN GREATER POWER
Sargon, happy but insatiable, did not rest content with Sumerian annexation. He began to raise new armies throughout Mesopotamia. He used these forces when the Elamites invaded Akkad by beating back the invasion. He then invaded Elam himself, and captured Susa, Barhashe, and Awan, forcing the subjected peoples into his rapidly expanding empire. With lands to the south and east conquered, Sargon turned his attention toward Taurus, modern Turkey, northern Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. He conquered these lands rather easily, and created a trade network that brought silver, gold, iron, and cedar into Akkad. Akkadian power was now over most of the Fertile Crescent as was seen through this trade network, which spanned much of the known world from Eastern Europe to North Africa to India. Akkadian customs – language, religion, art, architecture – were spread along the trade routes, and became the standard for almost two millennia until the Greeks and Persians established their mighty empires.
Other ancient kings, such as the Babylonian Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar, studied Sargon faithfully, and based their conquests on his legends, thus establishing a lengthy tradition of powerful men ruling in their own right. Other Middle Eastern potentates up to the modern era have also drawn much from these ancient roots. Their subjected peoples view such rulers positively, as it is in their lengthy history to be ruled by such powerful men. Democratic forms of government, as a result, are often viewed as ignoble, untrustworthy, and almost contemptible by comparison to strong, centralized government. What is respectable is might, and the Middle East certainly has a history of mighty rulers descending from Sargon’s tradition. Sargon died around 2215 BC, but his influence did not. In fact, his ghost is still seen from time to time in many of the Middle Eastern potentates, who rise to govern the many thriving Middle Eastern nations.
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