The Sumerian King List still puzzles historians after more than a century of research
Out of the many incredible artefacts that have been recovered from sites in Iraq where flourishing Sumerian cities once stood, few have been more intriguing than the Sumerian King List, an ancient manuscript originally recorded in the Sumerian language, listing kings of Sumer (ancient southern Iraq) from Sumerian and neighbouring dynasties, their supposed reign lengths, and the locations of "official" kingship. What makes this artefact so unique is the fact that the list blends apparently mythical pre-dynastic rulers with historical rulers who are known to have existed.
The first fragment of this rare and unique text, a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet, was found in the early 1900s by German-American scholar Hermann Hilprecht at the site of ancient Nippur and published in 1906. Since Hilprecht’s discovery, at least 18 other exemplars of the king’s list have been found, most of them dating from the second half of the Isin dynasty (c. 2017-1794 BCE.). No two of these documents are identical. However, there is enough common material in all versions of the list to make it clear that they are derived from a single, "ideal" account of Sumerian history.
Among all the examples of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection in Oxford represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List. The 8-inch-high prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. It is believed that it originally had a wooden spindle going through its centre so that it could be rotated and read on all four sides. It lists rulers from the antediluvian (“before the flood”) dynasties to the fourteenth ruler of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1763–1753 BC).
The list is of immense value because it reflects very old traditions while at the same time providing an important chronological framework relating to the different periods of kingship in Sumeria, and even demonstrates remarkable parallels to accounts in Genesis.
The ancient civilisation of Sumer
Sumer (sometimes called Sumeria), is the site of the earliest known civilization, located in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in the area that later became Babylonia and is now southern Iraq from around Baghdad to the Persian Gulf.
By the 3 rd millennium BC, Sumer was the site of at least twelve separate city states: Kish, Erech, Ur,Sippar, Akshak, Larak, Nippur, Adab, Umma, Lagash, Bad-tibira, and Larsa. Each of these states comprised a walled city and its surrounding villages and land, and each worshiped its own deity, whose temple was the central structure of the city. Political power originally belonged to the citizens, but, as rivalry between the various city-states increased, each adopted the institution of kingship.
The Sumerian King List , records that eight kings reigned before a great flood. After the Flood, various city-states and their dynasties of kings temporarily gained power over the others.
Sumer’s mythical past
The Sumerian King List begins with the very origin of kingship, which is seen as a divine institution: “the kingship had descended from heaven”. The rulers in the earliest dynasties are represented as reigning fantastically long periods:
After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alaljar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years.
Some of the rulers mentioned in the early list, such as Etana, Lugal-banda and Gilgamesh, are mythical or legendary figures whose heroic feats are subjects of a series of Sumerian and Babylonian narrative compositions.
The early list names eight kings with a total of 241,200 years from the time when kingship “descended from heaven” to the time when "the Flood" swept over the land and once more "the kingship was lowered from heaven" after the Flood.
Interpretation of long reigns
The amazingly long tenure of the early kings has provoked many attempts at interpretation. At one extreme is the complete dismissal of the astronomically large figures as “completely artificial” and the view that they are unworthy of serious consideration. At the other extreme, is the belief that the numbers have a basis in reality and that the early kings were indeed gods who were capable of living much longer than humans.
In between the two extremes is the hypothesis that the figures represent relative power, triumph or importance. For example, in ancient Egypt, the phrase “he died aged 110” referred to someone who lived life to the full and who offered an important contribution to society. In the same way, the extremely long periods of reign of the early kings may represent how incredibly important they were perceived as being in the eyes of the people. This doesn’t explain, however, why the periods of tenure later switched to realistic time periods.