Naram-Sin: The Conqueror-King of Ancient Akkad
Naram-Sin, the conqueror king of the Akkadian Empire, looms large in the ancient annals of Mesopotamia. His reign in the 23rd century BC marked a period of military conquests and cultural achievements that left an indelible mark on the region. Despite this Naram-Sin has a complicated legacy and the empire that he helped build met its demise not long after his death. For centuries Naram-Sin received the blame for the Akkadian Empire’s fall, but was it really his fault? This is the life of Naram-Sin, the last great king of the Akkadian Empire, and the story of how he became a legend.
Who was Naram-Sin?
Naram-Sin is remembered as the last great king of the Akkadian Empire, the first ancient empire of Mesopotamia after the Sumer civilization. He ruled from 2261- 2224 BC and was the grandson of Sargon the Great, the empire’s founder.
Stele of the Akkadian king Naram-Sin, ruler of the Akkadian Empire. (Fui in terra aliena / Public Domain)
After his grandfather, he is widely regarded as the most important Akkadian king, and after his death became an almost god-like and near-mythical figure in Mesopotamian myths and legends. People were telling tales of his grand exploits thousands of years after his death.
Sadly, for him, not all of these stories were flattering, or true. He became famous legend, in particular The Curse of Agade as the king who caused the end of the Akkadian Empire through his immoral acts. There’s no historical backing for this legend however and most modern historians have relegated it to the genre known as Mesopotamian naru literature, basically historical fiction.
Hero or villain, stories about Naram-Sin all depict him in a similar light, a supremely confident and proud ruler held back only by his arrogance. This seems fair when one considers he was the first Mesopotamian ruler to declare himself a god.
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Reign and Accomplishments
When Sargon died in around 2279 BC, his son, Rimush, was crowned emperor. Rimush ruled until 2271 BC, but his reign was not an easy one. Following the death of Sargon, many of the empire’s cities openly rebelled and most of Rimush’s reign was spent restoring order and putting down unrest.
Besides this, his reign was relatively uneventful. His greatest accomplishment was his campaign against the kingdom of Elam, a rival found in the far west and southwest of modern-day Iran. His campaign was a success and allowed him to claim in an inscription that he had made Akkad rich again.
Rimush died in 1271 BC and was succeeded by his brother, Naram-Sin’s father, Manishtusu. History repeated itself and Manishtusu spent much of his reign putting down rebellions that sprang up after his brother’s death. Not much is known about his reign but according to inscriptions, he led campaigns in distant lands, sailing a fleet down to the Persian Gulf.
Despite his military victories, Manishtusu was assassinated 15 years into his reign by members of his court. This is where Naram-Sin’s story begins.
Statue of Manishtusu, Naram-Sin’s father at the Louvre. (Shonagon/CC0)
The Conqueror King
Naram-Sin was crowned emperor in 2254 BC. Like his father and uncle before him, things got off to a rough start and Naram-Sin’s reign began by putting down rebellions sparked by his father’s death. Once this was done, however, Naram-Sin’s reign was marked by success after success.
Naram-Sin ruled for 36 years, and he spent much of that time expanding the boundaries of the Akkadian Empire. He defeated the kingdom of Magan (modern-day Oman in the United Arab Emirates) and took on the northern hill tribes on the mountains of Zagros, Taurus, and Amanus, defeating them all and taking their lands. With these victories he expanded his empire as far as the Mediterranean Sea and Armenia.
On top of these victories, various steles say that some of the Sumerian kings submitted to Naram-Sin. Rulers like Lugal-ushumgal of Lagash (Part of modern-day Iraq), and Meskigal of Adab (also Iraq) are recorded as having submitted to him.
He also consolidated his uncle’s biggest victory by signing a peace treaty with Elam. Records show that its king, Khita, signed a treaty saying, "The enemy of Naram-Sin is my enemy, the friend of Naram-Sin is my friend". This treaty meant Naram-Sin had peace on his eastern borders, allowing him to focus on expanding his territories and dealing with Gutium, a rival nation and constant thorn in the Akkadian Empire’s side.
This treaty also shows Naram-Sin’s diplomatic skills. Under its conditions, Khita promised to provide Naram-Sin with Elamite troops and agreed to put up statues of the foreign leader throughout his kingdom. The treaty was sealed with a political marriage between Naram-Sin and Khita’s daughter. Elam essentially became part of the Akkadian empire, with Akkadian even becoming the language of official documents.
Stele suggests Naram-Sin was no armchair general. It’s thought he personally campaigned with his army in the Persian Gulf and may have ventured as far as Egypt with his men. A Victory Stele of Naram-Sin currently held at the Louvre depicts his victory over Satuni, king of the Lullubi (another mountain tribe). It shows Naram-Sin personally climbing the mountain, stepping on the bodies of his enemies.
As his empire grew Naram-Sin followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by proclaiming himself “king of the four corners of the universe,” which has a nice ring to it. But he didn’t stop there. He began writing his name with a sign that named him a god equal to any other in the Mesopotamian pantheon.
The Akkadian Empire had never been more powerful. In a few short years, Naram-Sin had defeated a coalition of Sumerian kings and expanded his empire up to the Mediterranean and into Armenia. To the North, he had defeated the powerful mountain tribes and humbled their kings while to the East he had essentially turned Elam into a vassal state.
That’s not to mention all the treasure he had brought home from his victories in Magan, or the trade the empire’s expansion brought in. It's no wonder it all went to his head.
The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (Rama/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Curse of Agade
So why, despite all his victories, was Naram-Sin mistakenly remembered as the king who destroyed the Akkadian empire for centuries? Well, it’s all thanks to a literary text called The Curse of Agade that dates back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (around 2112 BC – 2004 BC).
The text is a splendid example of “naru literature” which used historical fiction to tell an important religious or cultural message. The Curse of Agade is all about the proper relationship between a king and the gods. It’s easy to see why they chose Naram-Sin.
The text tells how the city of Akkad (the capital city of the Akkadian Empire, lost to history) was destroyed by the gods after they became angry at the Akkadian king for being impious. It says that the Sumerian god Enlil (one of the most important Sumerian gods and the god of air, wind, and storms) withdrew his protection from the city and forbade the other gods from having anything to do with the city.
This confuses Naram-Sin who doesn’t know what he could have done to aggrieve Enlil and so he prays and asks for signs and omens. Enlil is in no rush to answer the human king, however, and Naram-Sin falls into a seven-year depression while he waits for an answer.
Eventually, Naram-Sin tires of waiting, and his depression turns into anger at being ignored. He raises his army and marches it to Enlil’s temple, found in the city of Nippur. He and his men raise the temple to the ground, which, unsurprisingly, displeases the gods.
In response, the gods send Gutium (described in the text as "a people who know no inhibition, with human instincts but canine intelligence and with monkey features"), the Akkadian empire’s historic enemies to invade Naram-Sin’s lands, and lay waste to his cities.
This invasion leads to massive famines throughout the empire and so many Akkadians die that the bodies begin piling up in the streets. The story ends with Akkad in ruins and the Akkadian empire destroyed, all because of Naram-Sin’s arrogance and pride.
It’s an entertaining enough story but the historical record shows no evidence that Naram-Sin ever destroyed Enlil’s temple at Nippur. Instead, it’s likely that the story’s author was writing a cautionary tale and chose Naram-Sin and Akkad because of their legendary status. Aram-Sin seems like a prime candidate for such a story since he went as far as deifying himself.
As is so often the case, over time The Curse of Agade and its version of the past became accepted as real history. Naram-Sin may have been more than a little arrogant but real archaeological sources show that he was actually quite pious and showed respect to the gods, placing his image beside theirs in temples rather than over them.
The Death of Naram-Sin and the Fall of Akkad
For such an important historical figure, not much is known about the death of Naram-Sin. We know that he died in around 2233 BC, probably from natural causes, and was succeeded by his son, Shar-Kali-Sharri.
In another case of history repeating itself, Shar-Kali-Sharri’s reign also got off to a rough start. His father’s death sparked massive revolts and he spent much of his reign trying to quell them. Unfortunately, it seems he lacked the skills of his father, uncle, and grandfather and struggled to do what they had done.
Shar-Kali-Sharri enjoyed some successful military campaigns but struggled when it came to keeping order. The Akkadian Empire’s enemies smelled blood and Shar-Kali-Sharri was forced to wage almost constant war against the Elamites, Amorites, and most dangerously, the Gutians.
The death of Shar-Kali-Sharri, the Gutian invasion, and a massive famine caused by climate change all combined to cause the collapse of the Akkadian Empire. One of his last acts had been to rebuild the Temple of Enlil at Nippur, which combined with the Gutian invasion seems to have inspired The Curse of Agade.
The Gutians attacking as Akkadians defend the Akkadian Empire. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)
The collapse of the Akkadian Empire marked the beginning of the Mesopotamian Dark Age, during which reliable written sources dried up and anarchy reigned for a time. This doesn’t mean Naram-Sin, or his fellow kings were forgotten, however.
If anything, this Dark Age helped to consolidate his status as a legend. The Assyrians were still reading and telling stories about Naram-Sin and his fellow rulers well into the 7th century BC. These stories were discovered within the ruins of the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh when it was unearthed in the mid-19th century. Over 30,000 texts were discovered, revealing these legends to us.
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Naram-Sin's reign as the conqueror king of the Akkadian Empire stands as a testament to his remarkable military and cultural achievements. His audacious military campaigns expanded the empire's influence and cemented his empire as one of history’s greatest powers.
Yet his rule wasn’t without controversy. In particular, his decision to name himself a god seems to have backfired, at least in the long run. Great rulers like Naram-Sin tend to be overly concerned with their legacies, and how history will remember them.
It’s ironic then that in trying to make himself a god, Naram-Sin did the opposite. For centuries he was remembered not just for his achievements, but for his deity-sized ego. This led him to be blamed for the fall of the very empire he helped bring to greatness. A fall that he had nothing to do with and in all fairness no king can really be blamed for. Naram-Sin may have been a great leader, but his story is also a potent reminder that sometimes a little humility can go a long way.
Top image: Naram-Sin named himself a god-king of the Akkadian Empire. Source: Francis Valadj/Adobe Stock
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