The city of Akkad was probably situated on the west bank of the Euphrates, between Sippar and Kish (in present-day Iraq, about southwest of the center of Baghdad). Despite an extensive search, the precise site has never been found. It reached the height of its power between the 24th and 22nd centuries BC, following the conquests of king Sargon of Akkad.
Because of the policies of the Akkadian Empire toward linguistic assimilation, Akkad also gave its name to the predominant Semitic dialect: the Akkadian language, reflecting use of akkadû ("in the language of Akkad") in the Old Babylonian period to denote the Semitic version of a Sumerian text.
The form Agade is Sumerian—appearing, for example, in the Sumerian King List; the later Assyro-Babylonian form Akkadû ("of or belonging to Akkad") was likely derived from this. It is possible that the Sumerian name, despite its unetymological spelling A.GA.DÈ, is from AGA.DÈ, meaning "Crown of Fire" in allusion to Ishtar, "the brilliant goddess", whose cult was observed from very early times in Agade. Centuries later, the neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus mentioned in his archaeological records that Ishtar worship in Agade was later superseded by that of the goddess Anunit, whose shrine was at Sippar—suggesting proximity of Sippar and Agade. (There were actually two cities named Sippar—one under the protection of Shamash, the sun-god, and the one under Anunit.) One theory holds that Agade was situated opposite Sippar on the left bank of the Euphrates, and was perhaps the oldest part of the city of Sippar. Another theory is that the ruins of Akkad are to be found beneath modern Baghdad. But despite numerous searches, the city has never been found. Reputedly it was destroyed by invading Gutians with the fall of the Akkadian Empire.
The first known mention of the city of Akkad is in an inscription of Enshakushanna of Uruk, where he claims to have defeated Agade—indicating that it was in existence well before the days of Sargon of Akkad, who the Sumerian kinglist claims to have built it. Akkad is mentioned once in the Tanakh—Book of Genesis 10:10: And the beginning of his (Nimrod's) kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar (KJV). The Greek (LXX) spelling is Archad.
Sargon has often been cited as the first ruler of a combined empire of Akkad and Sumer, although more recently discovered data suggests there had been Sumerian expansions under previous kings, including Lugal-Anne-Mundu of Adab, Eannatum of Lagash, and Lugal-Zage-Si.
The earliest records in the Akkadian language all date to the time of Sargon. Sargon was claimed to be the son of La'ibum or Itti-Bel, a humble gardener, and possibly a hierodule, prostitute, or priestess to Ishtar or Inanna.
One legend related of Sargon in neo-Assyrian times says that "My mother was a changeling (?), my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azurpiranu (the wilderness herb fields), which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose not over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was gardener Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and (fifty?) ... years I exercised kingship."
Originally a cupbearer to a king of Kish with a Semitic name, Ur-Zababa, Sargon thus became a gardener, responsible for the task of clearing out irrigation canals. This gave him access to a disciplined corps of workers, who also may have served as his first soldiers. Displacing Ur-Zababa, the crown was set upon Sargon's head, and he entered upon a career of foreign conquest. Four times he invaded Syria and Canaan, and he spent three years thoroughly subduing the countries of "the west" to unite them with Mesopotamia "into a single empire."
However, Sargon took this process further, conquering many of the surrounding regions to create an empire that reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea and Anatolia, and extending his rule to Elam, and as far south as Magan (Oman), an area over which he reigned for 56 years. Trade extended from the silver mines of Anatolia to the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan, the cedars of Lebanon and the copper of Oman. This consolidation of the city-states of Sumer and Akkad reflected the growing economic and political power of Mesopotamia. The empire's breadbasket was the rain-fed agricultural system of northern Mesopotamia and a chain of fortresses was built to control the imperial wheat production.
Images of Sargon were erected on the shores of the Mediterranean, in token of his victories, and cities and palaces were built at home with the spoils of the conquered lands. Elam and the northern part of Mesopotamia (Subartu) were also subjugated and rebellions in Sumer were put down. Contract tablets have been found dated in the years of the campaigns against Canaan and against Sarlak, king of Gutium.
Sargon, throughout his long life, showed special deference to the Sumerian deities, particularly Inanna, his patroness, and Zababa, the warrior god of Kish. He called himself "The anointed priest of Anu" and "the great ensi of Enlil" and his daughter, Enheduanna the famous poet, was installed as priestess to Nanna at the temple in Ur.
He also boasted of having subjugated the "four quarters"—the lands surrounding Akkad to the north (Subartu), the south (Sumer), the east (Elam) and the west (Martu). Some of the earliest texts credit him with rebuilding the city of Babylon (Bab-ilu) in a new location.
Troubles multiplied toward the end of his reign. A later Babylonian text states "In his old age, all the lands revolted against him, and they besieged him in Akkad (the city)"…but "he went forth to battle and defeated them, he knocked them over and destroyed their vast army". Also shortly after, "the Subartu (mountainous tribes of) the upper country—in their turn attacked, but they submitted to his arms, and Sargon settled their habitations, and he smote them grievously".
These difficulties broke out again in the reign of his sons. Revolts broke out during the 9-year reign of his son, Rimush, who fought hard to retain the empire—and in the fifteen year reign of Rimush's elder brother, Manishtushu. The latter king seems to have fought a sea battle against 32 kings who had gathered against him. Both appear to have been assassinated.
Naram-Suen (Beloved of Suen), Sargon's grandson, who assumed the imperial title of "King Naram-Suen, of the four quarters (Lugal Naram-Sîn, Šar kibrat 'arbaim)", and, like his grandfather, was addressed as "the god (Sumerian = DIN.GIR, Akkadian = ilu) of Agade" (Akkad), also faced revolts at the start of his reign.
Naram-Suen also recorded the Akkadian conquest of Ebla and Armani (Armenians). To better police this area, he built a royal residence at Tell Brak, a crossroads at the heart of the Khabur basin of the Jezirah. Naram-Suen is supposed to have possessed an army of over 360,000 men, the largest size of any state up until that date. It enabled him to campaign against Magan (thought to be on the Arabian peninsula) which also revolted; Naram-Suen, "marched against Magan and personally caught Mandannu, its king". The chief threat seemed to be coming from the northeastern mountaineers. A campaign against the Lullubi led to the carving of the famous "Victory Stele of Naram-Suen", now in the Louvre. This newfound Akkadian wealth may have been based upon benign climatic conditions, huge agricultural surpluses and the confiscation of the wealth of other peoples.
The economy was highly planned. After the advancing Akkadian forces from Tell Brak took the massive (100 acre) site of Tell Leilan, they destroyed nearby villages and brought the organization of farming and grain distribution into its bureaucratic control. Grain was cleaned, and rations of grain and oil were distributed in standardized vessels made by the city's potters. Taxes were paid in produce and labour on public walls, including city walls, temples, irrigation canals and waterways, producing huge agricultural surpluses.
In later Babylonian texts, the name Akkad, together with Sumer, appears as part of the royal title, as in the Sumerian LUGAL KI.EN.GIRKI URUKI or Akkadian Šar māt Šumeri u Akkadi, translating to "king of Sumer and Akkad". This title was assumed by the king who seized control of Nippur, the intellectual and religious center of southern Mesopotamia.
During the Akkadian period, the Akkadian language became the lingua franca of the Middle East, and was officially used for administration, although the Sumerian language remained as a literary language. The spread of Akkadian stretched from Syria to Elam, and even the Elamite language was temporarily written in Mesopotamian cuneiform. Akkadian texts later found their way to far-off places, from Egypt (in the Amarna period) and Anatolia, to Persia (Behistun).
Within 100 years the Empire of Akkad collapsed, almost as fast as it had developed, ushering in a Dark Age. By the end of the reign of Naram-Suen's son, Shar-kali-sharri, the empire collapsed outright from the invasion of barbarians of the Zagros known as "Gutians". It has recently been suggested that the Dark Age at the end of the Akkadian period (and First Intermediary Period of the Ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom) was associated with rapidly increasing aridity, and failing rainfall in the region of the Ancient Near East, caused by a global centennial-scale drought.
The fall of the empire established by Sargon seems to have been as sudden as its rise, and little is known about the Gutian period. From the fall of Akkad ca. 2083 BC until the Sumerian renaissance ca. 2050 BC, there is much that is still dark.
The Sumerian King List, describing the Akkadian Empire after the death of Shar-kali-shari, states:
(These kings of Uruk may have been contemporaries of the last kings of Akkad.)
Evidence from Tell Leilan in Northern Mesopotamia shows what may have happened. The site was abandoned soon after the city's massive walls were constructed, its temple rebuilt and its grain production reorganised. The debris, dust and sand that followed show no trace of human activity. Soil samples show fine wind-blown sand, no trace of earthworm activity, reduced rainfall and indications of a drier and windier climate. Evidence shows that skeleton-thin sheep and cattle died of drought, and up to 28,000 people abandoned the site, seeking wetter areas elsewhere. Tell Brak shrank in size by 75%. Trade collapsed. Nomadic herders such as the Amorites moved herds closer to reliable water suppliers, bringing them into conflict with farmers. This climate-induced collapse seems to have affected the whole of the Middle East, and to have coincided with the collapse of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. A relatively well-known king from that period is Gudea, king of Lagash.
This collapse of rain-fed agriculture in "the Upper Country" meant the loss to southern Mesopotamia of the agrarian subsidies which had kept the Akkadian Empire solvent. Water levels within the Tigris and Euphrates fell 1.5 metres beneath the level of 2600 BC, and although they stabilised for a time during the following Ur III period, rivalries between pastoralists and farmers increased. Attempts were undertaken to prevent the former from herding their flocks in agricultural lands, such as the building of a 180 km wall between the Tigris and Euphrates under the neo-Sumerian ruler Shu-Suen. Such attempts led to increased political instability; meanwhile, severe depopulation occurred to re-establish demographic equilibrium with the less favorable climatic conditions.
It has also been suggested (Burroughs, 2007) that the rapid climatic collapse, marking the Akkadian Dark Age, may have been responsible for the religiously prescribed prohibition against the raising and consumption of pigs that spread through the Ancient Middle East from the end of the third millennium BC.
The period between ca. 2150 BC and 1940 BC is sometimes called the 3rd dynasty of Ur or "Sumerian Renaissance", founded by Ur-Namma (originally a general). Though documents again began to be written in Sumerian, this dynasty may also have been Semitic; Sumerian was becoming a purely literary or liturgical language, much as Latin later would be in Medieval Europe.
Later material described how the fall of Akkad was due to Naram-Suen's attack upon the city of Nippur. When prompted by a pair of inauspicious oracles, the king sacked the E-kur temple, supposedly protected by the god Enlil, head of the pantheon. As a result of this, eight chief deities of the Anunaki pantheon were supposed to have come together and withdrawn their support from Akkad.
- 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 syrup nor wine,
- 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 many years, the events described in "The Curse of Akkad" were thought, like the details of Sargon's birth, to be purely fictional. But now the evidence of Tell Leilan, and recent findings of elevated dust deposits in sea-cores collected off Oman, that date to the period of Akkad's collapse suggest that climate change may have played a role.
The Akkadian government formed a "classical standard" with which all future Mesopotamian states compared themselves. Traditionally, the ensi was the highest functionary of the Sumerian city-states. In later traditions, one became an ensi by marrying the goddess Inanna, legitimising the rulership through divine consent.
Initially, the monarchical lugal (lu = man, gal = great) was subordinate to the priestly ensi, and was appointed at times of troubles, but by later dynastic times, it was the lugal who had emerged as the preeminent role, having his own "é" (= house) or "palace", independent from the temple establishment. By the time of Mesalim, whichever dynasty controlled the city of Kish was recognised as šar kiššati (= king of Kish), and was considered preminent in Sumer, possibly because this was where the two rivers approached, and whoever controlled Kish ultimately controlled the irrigation systems of the other cities downstream.
As Sargon extended his conquest from the "Lower Sea" (= Persian Gulf), to the "Upper Sea" (= Mediterranean), it was felt that he ruled "the totality of the lands under heaven", or "from sunrise to sunset", as contemporary texts put it. Under Sargon, the ensis generally retained their positions, but were seen more as provincial governors. The title šar kiššati became recognised as meaning "lord of the universe".
One strategy adopted by both Sargon and Naram-Sin, to maintain control of the country, was to install their daughters, Enheduanna and Enmenanna respectively, as high priestess to Sin, the Akkadian version of the Sumerian moon deity, Nanna, at Ur, in the extreme south of Sumer; to install sons as provincial ensi governors in strategic locations; and to marry their daughters to rulers of peripheral parts of the Empire (Urkush and Marhashe).
With Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, this went further than with Sargon, with the king not only being called "Lord of the Four Quarters (of the Earth)", but also elevated to the ranks of the dingir (= gods), with his own temple establishment. Previously a ruler could, like Gilgamesh, become divine after death but the Akkadian kings, from Naram-Sin onward, were considered gods on earth in their lifetimes. Their portraits showed them of larger size than mere mortals and at some distance from their retainers.
The population of Akkad, like all pre-modern states, was entirely dependent upon the agricultural systems of the region, that seem to have had two principal centres: the irrigated farmlands of southern Iraq that traditionally had a yield of 30 grains returned for each grain sown, making it more productive than modern farming; and the rain-fed agriculture of northern Iraq, known as "the Upper Country".
Southern Iraq during the Akkadian period seems to have been approaching its modern rainfall level of less than 20 mm per year, with the result that agriculture was totally dependent upon irrigation. Prior to the Akkadian period the progressive salinisation of the soils, produced by poorly drained irrigation, had been reducing yields of wheat in the southern part of the country, leading to the conversion to more salt-tolerant barley growing. Urban populations there had peaked already by 2,600 BCE, and ecological pressures were high, contributing to the rise of militarism apparent immediately prior to the Akkadian period (as seen in the stele of the vultures of Eannatum). Warfare between city states had led to a population decline, from which Akkad provided a temporary respite. It was this high degree of agricultural productivity in the south that enabled the growth of the highest population densities in the world at this time, giving Akkad its military advantage.
The water table in this region was very high, and replenished regularly—by winter storms in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates from October to March, and from snow-melt from March to July. Flood levels, that had been stable from about 3,000 to 2,600 BCE, had started falling, and by the Akkadian period were a half-meter to a meter lower than recorded previously. Even so, the flat country and weather uncertainties made flooding much more unpredictable than in the case of the Nile; serious deluges seem to have been a regular occurrence, requiring constant maintenance of irrigation ditches and drainage systems. Farmers were recruited into regiments for this work from August to October—a period of food shortage—under the control of city temple authorities, thus acting as a form of unemployment relief. Some have suggested that this was Sargon's original employment for the king of Kish, giving him experience in effectively organising large groups of men; a tablet reads, "Sargon, the king, to whom Enlil permitted no rival—5,400 warriors ate bread daily before him".
Harvest was in the late spring and during the dry summer months. Nomadic Martu (Amorites) from the northwest would pasture their flocks of sheep and goats to graze on the stubble and be watered from the river and irrigation canals. For this privilege, they would have to pay a tax in wool, meat, milk, and cheese to the temples, who would distribute these products to the bureaucracy and priesthood. In good years, all would go well, but in bad years, wild winter pastures would be in short supply, nomads would seek to pasture their flocks in the grain fields, and conflicts with farmers would result. It would appear that the subsidizing of southern populations by the import of wheat from the north of the Empire temporarily overcame this problem, and it seems to have allowed economic recovery and a growing population within this region.
As a result, Sumer and Akkad had a surplus of agricultural products, but was short of almost everything else, particularly metal ores, timber and building stone, all of which had to be imported. The spread of the Akkadian state as far as the "silver mountain", the "cedars" of Lebanon, and the copper deposits of Magan (modern Oman), was largely motivated by the goal of securing control over these imports. One tablet reads "Sargon, the king of Kish, triumphed in thirty-four battles (over the cities) up to the edge of the sea (and) destroyed their walls. He made the ships from Meluhha (the Indus civilization), the ships from Magan (and) the ships from Dilmun (Bahrein) tie up alongside the quay of Agade. Sargon the king prostrated himself before (the god) Dagan (and) made supplication to him; (and) he (Dagan) gave him the upper land, namely Mari, Yarmuti, (and) Ebla, up to the Cedar Forest (and) up to the Silver Mountain".
Inscriptions from much later tell of a campaign as far as Purushkanda, believed to have been on one of the tributaries of Lake Beyşehir. The same inscription tells of securing the trade from Kaptara, believed to be the Akkadian name for the location known to Egyptians as Keftiu, probably either Cyprus or the Minoan civilisation of Crete, or both. This concern with trade may also have led the Akkadian forces to attack Byblos, denying Ancient Egypt the cedars of Lebanon in the latter part of the Egyptian 6th Dynasty. This is an important chronological correspondence between the two civilisations.
Sumerian written literature achieved a high degree of excellence in the Akkadian period, principally in the work and example of Enheduanna. Enheduanna, the "wife (Sumerian "dam" = high priestess) of Nanna [the Sumerian moon god] and daughter of Sargon of the temple of Sin at Ur, who lived ca. 2285-2250 BC, is the first poet in history whom we know by name. Her known works include hymns to the goddess Inanna, the Exaltation of Inanna and In-nin sa-gur-ra. A third work, the Temple Hymns, a collection of specific hymns, addresses the sacred temples and their occupants, the deity to whom they were consecrated. The works of this poetess are significant, because although they start out using the third person, they shift to the first person voice of the poet herself, and they mark a significant development in the use of cuneiform. As poetess, princess, and priestess, she was a personality 'who set standards in all three of her roles for many succeeding centuries...', according to William W Hallo
In the Exultation of Inanna,
One tablet from this period reads, "(From the earliest days) no-one had made a statue of lead, (but) Rimush king of Kish, had a statue of himself made of lead. It stood before Enlil; and it recited his (Rimush's) virtues to the idu of the gods". Akkadian artists also discovered the "lost wax" method of bronze casting, previously believed to have been discovered much later, at the time of classical Greece.