The Akkadian Empire: The World’s First Recorded Empire?

It’s a bit cliché to say that empires rise and fall, but have you ever wondered what the oldest empire in recorded history was? Well, that title seems to go to the Akkadian Empire, the world’s first known multinational empire.

The Akkadian Empire existed briefly between 2334 and 2218 BCE and was founded by Sargon the Great (or Sargon of Akkad), probably its most famous ruler. But despite its relatively short existence, this ancient empire established a series of world firsts that were repeated and standardized by later rulers.

The Akkadian Empire, centered on the city of Akkad, united the region of southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) previously ruled by competing city-states (including Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Kish, Mari, and Ebla), each with its own dynastic rulers. (a period known as the Early Dynastic Period which existed from approximately 2900 to 2350 BCE).

Akkad (sometimes Agade) has not yet been located by archaeologists, but it is thought to be located along the western bank of the Euphrates River, somewhere between the ancient cities of Sippar and Kish. However, others believe it was located between the cities of Mari and Babylon, while others think it was somewhere else entirely.

map of a likely location of the Akkadian Empire, covering an area around the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula

This is a representation of the Akkadian Empire under Sargon’s rule, although it should be noted that historians are still unsure where Akkad is located.

Regardless of where exactly it was located, the city exerted significant influence on the surrounding region. According to Sargon (or his scribes), Akkadian control eventually extended from the Persian Gulf through Asia Minor to the Mediterranean Sea and Cyprus. However, there are those who claim that the empire extended as far as Crete, in modern Greece.

By uniting so many previously antagonistic states, Sargon and his successors were able to introduce trade routes, allowing goods to flow safely from northern Mesopotamia to the south, via the Euphrates River. The stability in the region also allowed for the development of arts, literature, agriculture and sciences. And for a short time, Akkadian became the lingua franca in the region, temporarily replacing Sumerian in all but sacred ceremonies and rituals.

The Akkadians even introduced the first postal system, in which clay tablets containing Akkadian cuneiform script were encased in clay which was then marked with the name and address of the intended recipients. The only way to ‘open’ these clay envelopes was to break them, making it easy to tell if someone was reading your mail.

Sargon was a cunning ruler, who placed his most trusted followers in positions of influence in his territories – one of the most important being his daughter Enheduanna, who became high priestess of Inanna in Ur. Now recognized as the world’s first author, her position allowed Enheduanna to exert significant influence through religious and cultural affairs.

Sargon himself ruled for 56 years and was succeeded by his son Rimush, who continued his policies. However, his early reign was marked by several uprisings from previously conquered cities and a struggle to regain order. Rimush ruled for only nine years before he died and was succeeded by his brother Manishtusu, who also had to suppress the rebellion in the early years of his reign. How Manishtusu died remains unclear, but it is possible that he was murdered by his courtiers.

Then came Naram-Sin the son of Manishtusu. Naram-Sin is recognized as one of the greatest Akkadian rulers, albeit controversial, who ruled for 36 years and expanded the boundaries of the empire and achieved several military achievements.

Soldiers from the Akkadian Empire on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin around 2250 BC

Soldiers from the Akkadian Empire on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, circa 2250 BC.

According to legend, the ambitions and hubris of Naram-Sin (he called himself a living god) disrupted the Akkadian pantheon and brought about divine retribution, leading to the destruction of Akkad during the reign of his son, Shar-Kali-Sarri. Like his ancestors, Shar-Kali-Sarri faced violent uprisings during his reign, but, the story goes, he was ultimately defeated by an invading force of barbarians known as the Gutians, who ended the empire and brought about a new dark age.

While there is (obviously) no historical evidence to support the more fantastical elements of this story, historians and archaeologists now believe that climate change may have contributed to the collapse of the empire. In this modern interpretation of events, climate change caused a famine that not only disrupted trade, but ultimately weakened the empire so that it could no longer cope with the various rebellions or the eventual invasion.

The last kings of Akkad, Dudu and his son Shu-Turel, had no power comparable to the kings of the great empire. They could only extend their influence to the city’s surroundings. Their names are rarely associated with the figures of their past and eventually even the city itself faded from memory, becoming just another legend and mystery.

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