The King List and Queen Kubaba: The First Recorded Queen of the Ancient World
From Cleopatra to Razia Sultan, history is filled with powerful women who defied the norms of their time. But have you ever heard of Queen Kubaba? Reigning over Sumer around 2,500 BC, she might just be the first recorded female ruler in ancient history. Queen Kubaba is a captivating figure in Mesopotamian history, believed to have ruled over the city-state of Kish in the third millennium BC. As one of the earliest female leaders on record, her story is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding the role of women in ancient societies.
Angles of the Sumerian King list. Left: Ashmolean Museum. ( Public Domain ) and right: The Weld-Blundell Prism, ( Gts-tg / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Queen Kubaba and the King’s List
Kubaba’s name appears on a list known as ‘The King List’, which is the only written record of her reign. The list is exactly what the name suggests – a list of Sumerian kings . It briefly notes the length of each individual reign and the city in which the king reigned. On this list, she is referred to as ‘lugal’ or king, not as ‘eresh’ (queen consort). From this exhaustive list, hers is the only woman’s name to appear on it.
“Then Mari was defeated and the kingship was taken to Kiš.
In Kiš, Ku-Baba, the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kiš, became king; she ruled for 100 years.
One queen ruled for 100 years.”
The catch here is that the list is not the most reputed historical source. It frequently blurs the line between history and legend. An example of this is the name of Enmen-lu-ana, who allegedly ruled for 43,200 years! Or Kubaba’s reign itself, which points to her having an unlikely 100 years at Sumer’s helm! Simultaneously, there is a possibility that exists that the interpreted concept of time is different to the system we follow today.
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Rise to Power: A Tavern-Keeper Turned Goddess?
Her epithet is longer than most, which suggests that ancient scribes found her especially noteworthy. Alongside her name it reads, “The woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kish.”
Kubaba’s rise to power in Kish is shrouded in mystery, but there is a general consensus that she was a tavern keeper, which can be interpreted as a barmaid or linked to prostitution, as per ancient Sumerian texts. The city of Kish was known for its wealth and power, and it played a significant role in the development of Mesopotamian civilization .
Revisionist feminist scholars of note, like Claudia E. Suter for example, write that Kubaba was sometimes characterized as a brothel keeper, which was a way of belittling her, and demonstrates the “attitude towards women in the male-dominated early Mesopotamian establishment.”
Tablet in cuneiform from ancient Sumer depict the significance of beer in the economy and society of ancient Mesopotamia. (Jim Kuhn/ CC BY 2.0 )
On the contrary, brewing and selling beer in the ancient Mesopotamian world was a highly respectable endeavor. There was an ancient association between female divinity and alcohol, and according to theologist Carole R. Fontaine, Kubaba would have been seen as a “successful business woman.”
She is said to have been kind and just to her customers, which earned her a reputation as a benevolent figure. In time, her reputation grew, and she became revered as a goddess. This explains her royal ascent, as she did not marry into, or inherit power from a royal parent.
There is a legend that those rulers who failed to properly acknowledge the god Marduk , with fish offerings to the temple of Esagil, had an unhappy ending. Kubaba reportedly fed a fisherman, and in exchange, asks him to offer his catch to the temple of Esagil. Marduk’s favor in response comes as no surprise: “Let it be so,” the god said, and with that, he “entrusted to Kubaba, the tavern-keeper, sovereignty over the whole world.”
Some sources suggest that she was a member of the ruling dynasty of Kish and that she inherited the throne from her father. Others suggest that she was a commoner who rose to power through her own abilities and charisma. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Kubaba was a formidable leader who left a lasting mark on Kish.
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Queen Kubaba: Significant Accomplishments
In the ancient Sumerian tradition, kingship is not tied to a permanent capital, but rather shifts from place to place, bestowed by the gods upon one city, and transferred at their pleasure. Before Kubaba, who was the lone member of the Third Dynasty of Kish, the capital was at Mari for over a century, and moved to Akshak after Kubaba. However, Kubaba’s son Puzer-Suen and grandson, Ur-Zababa, shifted the capital back to Kish temporarily.
Facade of Inanna Temple at Uruk, Iraq. Female deity pouring life-giving water from a vessel. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
One of Kubaba's most significant accomplishments was the construction of a temple dedicated to the goddess Inanna . This temple was located in the heart of Kish and was one of the most important religious sites in the region. Kubaba is believed to have been a devout worshipper of Inanna, and the temple was a reflection of her religious beliefs and values.
In addition to her religious projects, Kubaba was also a military leader who oversaw a powerful army. She is said to have expanded the territory of Kish through a series of military campaigns, which helped to establish Kish as a major power in the region. Kubaba's military prowess was a significant factor in her reign, and it helped to ensure her continued dominance over Kish.
Why did her reign end? Kubaba faced opposition from rival city-states, and from within Kish itself. Some say that she was overthrown by her own subjects, while other kinder accounts indicate that she abdicated the throne and retired to a life of seclusion.
Despite some dodgy historical inaccuracies, it is clear that Kubaba’s very ascent to the throne is nothing short of legendary. This in itself openly challenged the political hegemony of man as the king, as Kubaba took upon a man’s duties with ease and outdid herself in that regard. Transcending gender divisions, she violated the natural order of things.
Studying her becomes an essential part of understanding one of the first civilizations in the world. In the millennium after her death, Kubaba was deified and worshipped as a Neo-Hittite goddess, and supposed local reincarnations of her seized power in the decentralizing empires of the Levant belt. This in itself is a clear indication of her power and influence.
Top image: Queen Kubaba relief in the form of a goddess. Source: Left; Public Domain Right; CC BY-SA 2.0 FR
By Sahir Pandey
Asselin, S.V. 2022. HER STORY: Kubaba, The Earliest Recorded Female Monarch . Available at: https://29secrets.com/her-story/her-story-kubaba-the-earliest-recorded-female-monarch/.
Cottier, C. 2021. Queen Kubaba: The Tavern Keeper Who Became the First Female Ruler in History . Available at: https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/queen-kubaba-the-tavern-keeper-who-became-the-first-female-ruler-in-history.
Khan, I. 2021. Kubaba — The First Female Ruler in History . Available at: https://israrkhan1112.medium.com/kubaba-the-first-female-ruler-in-history-a8e412b67269.
Silver, C. 2019. Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings . Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/kubaba-a-queen-among-kings-121164.
Another first then. The Sumerians invented everything you can think of that's part of civilisation: libraries, courts, medicine, agriculture, metallurgy etc etc - even divorce rights for women. We owe them a great debt IMO
There might be a bit more to it than warfare and slavery
"She is said to have been kind and just to her customers, which earned her a reputation as a benevolent figure."
No ruler of Sumer was benevolent. Slavery and warfare were standard fare.