Cradle of the State
The state was likely born out of a cult. The former would not have been supportable with the latter. Further, it is unlikely that the latter would last long without evolving into the former. Thus it is reasonable to believe that both would have originated in the same place. In my post “Between the rivers, before the state“, I argued that archaeology shows that mankind in the near east lived in a prosperous, agricultural, anarchic society, until a new culture, dominated by priest-kings, arose and spread from the south. Where did this “Ubaid” culture start and how? It seems likely that that culture, and the very ideas of cult and state first arose in Eridu. My evidence for this claim is as follows.
Evidence from Literature
The “Eridu Genesis”, found in a tablet dating from the 18th century BC, calls Eridu “firstling of the cities”. And the Sumerian king list states:
After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king
It is uncontroversial that the first “city-states” arose in Sumer. And here we find a Sumerian text pointing to Eridu as the first Sumerian city-state. And here, in the words “kingship descended from heaven” we have an indication of false legitimacy fostered by religion being used to establish a worldly power.
Alulim is considered the first king of Eridu. But there is a yet more important figure in the city’s foundation story: the mysterious character of Adapa. According to ancient tablets, the legendary figure of Adapa was:
the wise man of Eridu, Ea had created him as chief among men, A wise man whose command none should oppose, The prudent, the most wise among the Anunnaki was he, Blameless, of clean hands, anointed, observer of the divine statutes
Each city in Mesopotamia had its chief deity. The city’s temple for that god was considered to be its home, and the priests of that temple were its servants. Eridu, throughout its history, was considered by all of Mesopotamia to be the home of Enki (known to the Semites as Ea) the god of fresh waters and fertile land. According to the above passage, the first god of the firstling of cities chose Adapa as his chief priest.
Furthermore, Adapa is often associated with the mythic character Oannes, who according to the later Babylonian scholar Berossus:
taught (the people of Mesopotamia) to build towers and temples; and to establish laws;
If this myth has any basis in cultural memory, then perhaps Adapa was a real person who introduced a cult to the area now known as Eridu. As the new cult’s chief priest, it is easy to imagine this ancient Jim Jones amassing power.
Evidence from Archaeology Eridu is the oldest Sumerian city known to archaeologists. And it is the first place in which evidence of the “Ubaid” culture is found. In fact, the early phase of the Ubaid period is known as “Eridu”.
The archaelogical site of Eridu reveals that a series of successively larger temples was built on the same spot, starting with a simple, tiny one-room building, and ending with a vast sprawling proto-ziqqurat.1 This is the first instance in the archaeological record in which any kind of heavy centralization of power is evidenced by a few buildings being dramatically larger than the rest. And one can see that centralization of power growing as each successive temple is built with ever greater opulence, while the surrounding buildings stay humble.
The temples of Eridu are numbered such that the most recently built temple is numbered 1, and older temples are successively numbered higher.
Temple 17, the earliest discovered temple on the site (and most probably in the world), is a small square building (no more than 4 meters square) with a simple, small square pedestal inside. This is possibly the site of the first ever “offerings” to Enki (or to any god for that matter), with ovens outside for baking the offerings.
Temple 16 is a larger reconstruction of 17, with two pedestals, one surrounded by ash. The construction is of higher quality than preceding temples, with plaster bricks. Pottery was found outside, as well as an oven.
By the time we reach Temple 11, Enki’s home has grown to be 15 meters long. And now it is raised on a platform (to suitably represent the superiority of the god and his servants), with a 1 meter ramp leading up from a lower level (there are signs that the platform was extended at some point). It has a large central chamber, a sanctuary conjoined with an offering room, and a private room for the priest(s).
Temple 10 has a yet larger podium, and the platform is extended by a further 8 meters.
Temple 9 has thicker walls, a large door before the altar, and a bench (perhaps for votive statues). This arrangement is very similar to level 13 of the archaeological site, Gawra.
Temple 8 is greatly enlarged (21 x 12 m). It has even thicker walls, false doorways behind the altar, and the remains of fish offerings. This is particularly interesting as Berossus depicts Oannes as wearing a mantle which looked like the head of a fish.
Temple 7 has a special priests-only entrance to the altar-end of the sanctuary.
Temple 6 also has a bench for votive statues.
At some point, a separate palace is constructed one kilometer north of the temple site. This palace site, the earliest known in the world, also undergoes a series of upgrades through the ages. However, most of the palace levels were not archaeologically recoverable. Level 2 is the most complete. It bears resemblances to palaces in the city-state and later holy site of Kish. It is distinguished from temples in the absence of altars and the presence of gates, chambers, courtyards, guard’s rooms, and living quarters.
Perhaps this palace, and palaces in general, developed as a residence for top priests, who evolved into kings. Alternately, perhaps the priests gave some local uneducated ruffian command of the army, so they would not themselves need to get in harms way. This “general” acquired a power-base of allegiance of his own among the soldiers, and evolved into a king, then demanding his own lavish quarters.
Did Adapa come into Eridu, convince a small fishing village that he had the ear of the god Enki, translate that influence into great wealth for himself and his temple, pass on his position to his sons, and thus create the first temple-state? We will never know with certainty exactly what happened. But what hardly admits of doubt is that
- according to both literary and archaeological evidence, Eridu really was the “firstling of cities”,
- Eridu is the earliest archaeological instance of acute centralization of power and pelf (as indicated by its buildings),
- Eridu’s centralization of power and pelf fell upon the first great cult (as indicated by the fact that the earliest great buildings were also the earliest great temples),
- in this firstling of cities, the cult antedated the secular state (since its temples andedated the palaces), and
- the first great cult gave rise to the first ever secular state (it is too much of a coincidence that the first great temples arose in the same exact place as the first palaces)
Eridu’s place on the King’s List also indicates that it was something of an empire. The King’s List is known to have only included kings whose cities reigned over (or were at least hegemonic over) the entire region of “Sumer-and-Akkad”. This jibes perfectly with the fact that the Ubaid culture which first arose in Eridu was later found throughout the region. And given how, throughout history, the most centralized nation-states have also been the most war-thirsty, it seems very likely that the priest-kings of Eridu would not be satisfied with completely subjugating only the local population. And also seems very likely that an all-powerful central cult-state, with the ability to dragoon its young men into war, would be able to put under the yoke village after peace-loving village as it marched up the Euphrates.
People tend to implicitly assume that the state has always been with us, and thus it is somehow a natural fact of life. This assumption is greatly assisted by the fact that, even though agriculture pre-dates the state, the state predates writing and written history. Writing itself played a key role in ratcheting up the power of the state. I will discuss that role in my next post.
1 Reconstruction of Eridu, http://babel.massart.edu/~tkelley/v5.0/eridu/. This is an excellent HTML model of the archaeological site. I highly recommend taking this stratigraphic “tour” of Eridu. For more information see this excerpt from the Cambridge Ancient History (on Google Books).