14 December, 2009
Around four and a half thousand years ago the warrior king Sargon established an Empire amongst the city states of southern Mesopotamia. His grandson, Naram-Sin, expanded the Empire to the north, defeated rebelling cities and was declared a God by the people. As a God, Naram-Sin was allowed to sport some fancy horns which can be seen in the image on the right. Naram-Sin ruled at the height of the Akkadian Empire. It quickly collapsed in his successors reigns but the idea of the Empire resonated for centuries. The language that it spread was the lingua franca of the ancient world for centuries afterwards, only finally dying out two and half thousand years later. When people remembered the Empire they also remembered its two most famous Kings, Sargon and Naram-Sin. One they associated with its meteoric rise, the other with its collapse. Naram-Sin became a literary figure more than a historical one. An ancient story tells of how Naram-Sin defied the Gods, was defeated in battle, realised the error of his ways and changed for the better.
At the end of the tale there is a message for the reader. It says that if you are a wise King you should heed the advice of the story, those who don’t will suffer the wrath of the Gods. It also reminds the ruler to pass on their knowledge, as this story does. Those who don’t will doom future generations. An example of just such a king is given at the start of the story.
Enmerkar was King of Uruk, but he disappeared. Diviners had told him of the Gods’ will, but he disregarded their advice, whatever that was. A council of Gods cursed him, Shamash in particular demanded harsh penalties on Enmerkar and his descendants. His ghost would not receive prayers, and his memory would not be preserved. Even his offence would not be known. So it happened, and Naram-Sin bemoaned the fact that Enmerkar left no record of what he had done wrong, other than to disregard the diviners. This was a lesson to all Kings – make a record of your triumphs and mistakes so that others can learn from you.
This story was copied down many times by scribes who no doubt liked the moral that writing was good for a King (it kept the scribes employed too). It is somewhat ironic that Enmerkar, a King about whom we know nothing, indeed his point in the story is that we know nothing about him, nonetheless still lives on as a character, a warning to others. His name is now immortalised by the nameless scribes of Naram-Sin. Of the billions of humans who have ever lived, Enmerker the Unknown, by dint of having his name recorded, may well be one of the more famous.