A Curse from the Gods? – The Akkadian Collapse

In class we discussed two different theories that caused the collapse of the Akkadian Empire. The first was climate change, a three-century long drought that made the fertile plains unable to support the large populations they had previously. The second theory is attributed to increased foreign pressure from the Gutian people of the Iranian Plateau, according to this theory the Gutians were able to topple the Akkadian Empire and establish the Gutian Dynasty, effectively initiating the Mesopotamian “Dark Age”. I would like to present some of the historical and archeological evidence supporting the climate change theory, and its global reach.

We know that Sargon supposedly ruled for 56 years, and then was succeeded by his two sons, Rimush, whol ruled for 9 years, and Manishtushu, who ruled for 15 years. Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin, ascended the throne and for the first time declared himself a god, “king of the four quarters”. Naram-sion was then succeeded by his son, Shar-kali-sharri. Following the rule of Shar-kali-sharri, when the Akkadian Empire had begun to decline, a period of anarchy ensued, the Sumerian King List describes what happened:

“Who was king? Who was not king? Irgigi the king; Nanum, the king; Imi the king; Ilulu, the king—the four of them were kings but reigned only three years.”

About a century after the fall of the Akkadian Empire, a lamentation entitled “The Curse of Akkad” was written, attributing Akkad’s fall to a curse from the Gods who were angered at Naram-sin who, angered by a pair of oracles, attacked the city of Nippur. He sacked the E-kur temple, protected by the god Enlil who was the head of the Anunnaki (Mesopotamian deities). As a result of this, eight chief deities of the Anunnaki pantheon were supposed to have come together and withdrawn their support from Akkad. The lamentation is provided below.

“For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.”

For years, the events from “The Curse of Akkad” were perceived by scholars as fiction, but recent evidence from the archaeological site of Tell-Leilan and sea cores from Oman, which date to the time of Akkad’s collapse, suggest that the climate change alluded to in the lamentation may have played a role in Akkad’s collapse.

Tell-Leilan was a large city imperialized by the Akkadian Empire. There, archaeologists uncovered a 3-ft deep layer of sediment that contained no evidence of human habitation or activity. They believed this sediment layer may provide clues to the decline of the city and analysis showed that at around 2200 BC, a three-century drought was enough to affect both agriculture and settlement. Dating to around the same time, sea cores retrieved off the coast of Oman contained elevated levels of dust.

This climate change was most likely the very one that caused the fall of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. In a writing eerily similar to “The Curse of Akkad”, the Egyptian sage Ipuwer described the anguish of the period: “Lo, the desert claims the land. Towns are ravaged. . . . Food is lacking. . . . Ladies suffer like maidservants. Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds.” There is also significant evidence for the Gutian Invasion of Mesopotamia, namely references to Gutian kings in the Sumerian King List. But cuneiform sources also tell us that the Gutian administrators had little concern for keeping records or maintaining agriculture and that they let the flocks from free, during this time crops died and prices skyrocketed. What most likely happened was that the drought, coupled with increased pressure from the Gutians finally caused the Akkadian Empire to topple, places were abandoned for long periods of time, like Tell-Leilan, and the continuation of the three-century long drought caused the overall decline of the Mesopotamia region