AE120: The City and Festival: Cult Practice and the Production of Architecture in the Ancient Near Eastern City


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AE120: The City and Festival: Cult Practice and the Production of Architecture in the Ancient Near Eastern City

Professor Omur Harmansah

May 6, 2007

Civilized Recreations: The Early Southern Mesopotamian City God

Bochay I. Drum
Contents: Page:

Cover sheet: 1

Introduction: 2
Main body of text: 3

Appendix I; Chronology: 13

Appendix II; List of me from ‘Inana and Enki’: 13
Bibliography: 14


The urban centers that began to emerge in Southern Mesopotamia during the Ubaid period each had one or more patron Gods who resided in the city and were responsible for it. The construction and maintenance of a home for the god in what is called a temple can be viewed as the formation of a central physical and ideological structure for the nascent urban society. The function of the ‘temple’ is usually understood to perform a combination of ritual and economic functions. This begins with the temple of Enki, the primordial god, at the proto-city Eridu. There is a legendary transference of the elements of civilization, as the Sumerian me1 is often understood as, from Enki to Inanna, the city god of Uruk2.

Uruk arises as the first large city in southern Mesopotamia and remains the center of the dominant culture of the region, also known as Uruk, for years. After the decline of Urukian dominance of the region, Inanna emerges as the “Queen of Heaven”, and maintains a very high status throughout the Assyrian and Babylonian periods as Ishtar.

The central temple complex of Inanna at Uruk was the Eanna precinct, where many successive temple buildings were contructed, demolished and reconstructed during the Uruk periods. The first proto-writing texts were found at Eanna, which include depictions of the reed doorpost symbol of Inanna. This symbol is usually said to represent the entrance to a storehouse, which is often interpreted being indicative of the economic functions of the temple as a storehouse for surplus and centre for resource collection and distribution. This notion of economic centre point can be interpreted, through the use of myth texts written much later, as the coming together of various basic methods of subsistence into an interrelated urban economy. The Inanna symbol is a potent depiction of the symbolic and physical multivalence of early urban divinity.

The picture of Inanna that emerges from the various texts from different eras shows a complex and syncretic god whose initial representations of natural forces are absorbed into the contradictions of civilization.
* * *
The generally accepted narrative of the development of urbanization in Mesopotamia begins with a long period of increasingly intensive agriculture and settlement (Van de Mieroop 2004:11-12). Semi-agricultural and or pastoral communities in the period of 9000-5000 BC were not fixed at specific sites, but seem to have been of a shifting type. Between 6000-5500, communities of people in southern Mesopotamia developed some systems of irrigation that allowed the building of ‘permanent’ settlements in the alluvial floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates, a feature that became a common feature that is persistent to the present day (Van de Mieroop 2004:13).

The first settlement that defines the characteristics of the Southern Mesopotamian city is Eridu, which developed during the Ubaid period, beginning in the mid-sixth millennium (Leick 2001:39, Van de Mieroop 2004:16). Eridu is the first settlement in the Sumerian archaeological record that contains the temple building template used in antecedent Sumerian and Akkadian cities. At Eridu, many generations of buildings were built and overbuilt on the same site, giving prototypic form to the characteristic tells and ziqqurats that define the Mesopotamian city (Moortgart 1969:1, Harmansah 20073) and fixing the location of what was later (in the literate periods) referred to as the temple, or home, of the primordial city god, Enki. (Wheatley 1971:227, Harmansah 2007)

At this point our first caveat must be made: The dominance of the ancient Sumerian world by its monumental temples may be a retroactively instated assumption based on the archaeological prominence of these structures (Wheatley 1971:225, Collins 2000:16). Our discussions are based on what information is available to us, which is often very unclear or circumstantial and may not represent the viewpoints or opinions of an ancient Mesopotamian person in any way. That being said, we will continue to synthesize what stories we may.

This ‘temple’ structure that begins its persistent career in the Ubaid period served dual roles as an economic center for the collection and distribution of foodstuffs and other goods, and as a centralized place of worship (Wheatley 1971:226, Pollock 1999: 46-47,Van de Mieroop 2004:16). The construction of monumental buildings indicates some kind of central authority to organize the labor (Roaf 1990:58). This organization of community labour implicates the temple and its god in the development and maintenance of ideological structures for social cohesion (Wheatley 1971:225, Van de Mieroop 2004:16).

The temple and the city god form a unifying physical and ideological focal point for people of disparate families and vocations, a medium where social ideology can be developed and played out. The temple cult emerges as a focal point that organizes people outside of the traditional kin relationships that bound smaller groups of people together (Leick 2001:54, Van de Mieroop 16). Collins (2000:2) argues that the formation of such social ideologies is one (of many including economic and others) crucial factor in the emergence of “complex society”. The values and social hierarchy that are held by the community that are embodied in the conceptions of the city god are physically played out in the construction (and de-construction4) of the temple, and of the city as a whole.

The social ideology of the city god and its monumental temple transferred from Eridu to Uruk some time in the late Ubaid period. This is mythologically framed in later texts as the transference of the elements of civilization from Eridu’s city god, Enki, to Inanna, goddess of Uruk5. Before more is said about this mythological explanation for the spread of civilization, we must entertain our second caveat: Most discussion about the attributes and actions of Sumerian gods is informed by texts that were written in the second and third millennia BC. The mythical-historical events they portray presumably occurred in the Ubaid and Uruk periods, which were already ancient history when these later texts were written. The earliest temple findings at Eridu and Uruk date from the Ubaid period, which is 2000-3000 years before the composition of most informant texts referred to in this paper. The ideological and physical primacy of Eridu as the first Sumerian city is affirmed by the archaeological record as well as in the mythological ‘later text’ entitled “the Creation of Eridu,” which was found at Sippar (Harmansah 2007).

In the ‘later text’ entitled “Inanna and Enki,” Inanna receives the elements of civilization from Enki at Eridu and takes them to her city, Uruk. Enki is the ancestral holder of all of the me, which for our purposes here are interpreted as the elements of ancient Sumerian Civilization6. Unlike many authors, I will not go into speculation about the playing out of the drama between Inanna and Enki in this paper7. Suffice to say the story symbolically shows the transfer of the elements of civilization from Eridu, the prototype city, to Uruk (Bottero 1992:192-193,238-239, Leick 2001:19,23).

Uruk is the most important city of the fourth millennium BC in southern Mesopotamia (Roaf 1990:60). During the Uruk periods (4000-3100 BC) it was the center of the dominant culture of the region as evidenced by the spread of a characteristic material culture (Algaze 1993, Collins 2000, Leick 2001, Van de Mieroop 2004). During the periods following the Urukian, the culture was still highly valued by successive dynasties in other cities (Collins 2000). Before and after this period of cultural dominance, Uruk was continually settled for more than 5000 years, from the Ubaid period (Roaf 1990:60) until as late as the seventh century A.D. In A.D. 654, Uruk’s final inhabited incarnation, as a western outpost of Sassania, was ended by a conquering army of “4000 Arab horsemen” (Leick 2001:34). Collins (1994) finds evidence in the archaeological record of the late fourth and the third millennium BC of up to 12 temples dedicated to Inanna in various Mesopotamian cities, including the home of Inanna at Uruk, the Eanna precinct.

The Eanna precinct of Uruk is the oldest continually inhabited part of Uruk, with 18 archaeological layers identified. The oldest excavated layers, XVIII to X, yielded Ubaid period (c.5000 BC-4000 BC) materials, with a gradual increase in Uruk period materials between layers XVI and IX (Leick 2001:35). The stratigraphy is a little uncertain due to the focus of the initial excavators on architecture, but levels X to III show a pattern of development that defines the characteristics of the Uruk period (c.3800-3200) (Leick 2001:33-34). It was in layer IV that the earliest clay tablets with pictographic proto-writing were found. They are dated to ca. 3200 BC and reference Inanna by her symbol. Slightly later tablets from level III (ca. 3100-3000 BC, Late Uruk and Jemdet Nasr) are recognizably written in an early Sumerian script and contain a reference to “” ‘place of Inanna’ on a geographical list (Collins 1994:107)8. These are the earliest pictographic and textual references to Inanna, whose symbol is the “reed door post” (Bahrani 2002:18). The symbol depicts bundles of reeds tied with bands, usually in pairs. “A pole passing through the rings would support a mat that was lowered to close the door” (Williams-Forte 1983:188)9

The symbol of Inanna is a doorpost, constructed of reeds--one of the few ubiquitous building resources of southern Mesopotamia. The reeds are formed and bound into the structure of a storehouse or granary. The raw resource is bent and shaped for the specific purpose of concentrating other high value natural resources in a space separate from the outside. Inanna is often conceived as representing the “sacred storehouse” (Jacobsen 1976). The storehouse is a multivalent symbol. Most literally the storehouse is a storehouse, where food is stored so that the community may persist in lean years. The storehouse that the reed doorpost leads to is also the temple of Inanna (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:188, Bahrani 2002:18). In this case the symbol can represent an actual physical storing of foods and other goods in the temple, pointing to its economic role.

It can also represent the temple as the storehouse of the me, the container of the living concepts of civilization and urban life. In examining the plans of the various levels of construction at Eanna, Leick (2001:49-52) concludes that the architecture was very open, transparent and circulatory, pointing to intense public participation in ‘temple’ activities. She contends that Eanna was probably the venue for any large public activities whether economic or festival in nature.

The city itself is another layer to the symbolism, being the storehouse of the people. The population of the rural hinterland used the city in this fashion in times of danger (Pollock 1999:47). The symbol of Inanna is used to represent the city of Uruk on ‘city-seals’ produced in the Early Dynastic I and Jemdet Nasr periods. The symbol is often portrayed as one of several symbols of gods for other cities, possibly representing economic collaboration or alliance (Collins 1994:108)10. Ancient Sumerian cities were often textually conceptualized as ‘sheep-folds’, showing their ideological role as containers for the fruitful population. The Sumerian word for sheepfold, womb and vulva, are the same (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:146). This linguistically incumbent conflation of the early economy with human sexual fertility supports the notion of the early Inanna temple as storehouse-center of a redistributive economy.

The image of the storehouse as the fertile body of an anthropomorphized Inanna is very prevalent in the later texts (Hallo and Van Dijk 1968, Jacobsen 1976, Wolkstein and Kramer 1983, Meador 2000, Oxford University Faculty of Oriental Studies 2006). Jacobsen (1976) particularly puts a good deal of work into explaining the symbolism of the body of Inanna as the “goddess of the communal storehouse” (26). The reed doorpost represents the vulva, as the entrance to the sacred store house of Inanna’s womb. Throughout various later texts, Inanna has multiple divine husbands that represent various aspects of the nascent Urukian economy. Thus, the bodily fertility of the goddess is represented by the replenishment of the storehouse (symbolized by the reed-gate-posts of Inanna) (Jacobsen 1976:7) with meat and wool by the shepherd-god, grain and beer by the grain-god, and dates by the date-god, each of which Jacobsen conflates under the names Dumuzi and Amaushumgallana. This can be seen as the coming together of various modes of production under the auspices of the Eanna complex in the early development of Uruk (Jacobsen 1976:135). According to Collins (1994:110) Amaushumgallana and Dumuzi are distinct deities as late as 2500 BC, and Jacobsen’s argument of a syncretising of a dual date gathering-shepherding economy is “circular”, and “based on Ur III textual evidence,” in which Amaushumgallana-Dumuzi does emerge as Inanna’s consort and the location of the ‘sacred marriage rite’11 is fixed at Uruk (Collins 1994:109). At this point it is good to remind ourselves that the vast majority of written texts about Inanna come from Nippur and Ur during the 3rd Dynasty of Ur III and the Isin-Larsa Dynasty (Collins 1994:110, Harmansah 2007), mostly in the form of seventeenth and eighteenth century “school excersize tablets” (Hamansah 2007)12

In an overview of available texts, Inanna emerges from multiple origins as a very complex, syncretized god, very well representative of the contradictions and transgressions of urban civilization. The earliest incarnations of Inanna are those of

an ancient god of conflict and/or war and the planet Venus in its aspects as morning star and evening star (Jacobsen 1976:135,139-140; Bottero 1992:216, Leick 2001:58). Jacobsen (1976:137-138) notes that the war god aspect, “Loud Thundering Storm” (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:95), is derived from the primal violence of a storm divinity, supporting his theory of fourth millennium religion as “worship of the forces of nature” (1976:73). Bottero (1992:216) sees sexuality as Inanna’s primary aspect, which also supports Jacobsen’s interpretation of Inanna as the storehouse of sexual and agricultural/economic fertility (Jacobsen 1976). In general, from the early to later periods there is a shift from divine association with the primal to association with human iterations of forces. Thus the storm god becomes the war god, and the goddesses of stars and fertility becomes the goddess of sexuality.

Starting with the seeming contradictory offices of love and war, Inanna encompasses many differences. A brief look at the list of the me that she received from Enki13 illustrates the huge range of human experience that she encompasses. The folklorists (Hallo and Van Dijk, 1968) and the Jungian literary critics (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983, Meador 2000) particularly focus on Inanna’s role as a mediator, a reconciliatory being between oppositional forces14.

The character of the goddess Inanna develops as a syncretic form based on definitions of civilized life as elements of it emerge as distinctly different from the primordial forces of nature. In this development comes ideological opposition to the outside of the city as wilderness that is to be tamed and/or opposed. The notion of Inanna as the patron of a civilizing urban environment is well depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh (a mythical/historical text written long after the Uruk periods). Enkidu, the wild, hairy barbarian friend of Gilgamesh is ‘civilized’ through sexual intercourse by a representative of Inanna, then he is anointed with oil, dressed like a man, and his powers are put to use in defending Uruk from a wild bull, representative of that same primordial uncivilized state that Enkidu was so recently liberated from (Leick 254-256). There is a curious turnabout in which wild primordial powers are co-opted by civilization to further hold those same originary powers at bay15. The institutionalized sex of Inanna is used to tame a threatening wildness, which is then used to withstand another threating uncivilized element. Bottero (1992:193) explores this dynamic in the sexual; she attributes the “free” nature of the love as the actual civilizing element, the ability to choose activity stands for what is cultural and human as opposed to the possessive and procreative imperative of the presumed traditional state of marriage. This retroactive projection of later stories (and 2000 years of complicated sexual politics in western discourse) to the presumed state of affairs and ideology in the Uruk periods is a dicey bit of business, but Collins (49) maintains that “an analysis of Uruk imagery confirms” this antagonism between the city and the desert that it opposes16, that the physical and ideological protection provided by the enclosure of the city walls is a central aspect of late fourth millennium social ideology.

Inanna emerges as a goddess of the contradictory elements of the life of civilized humans, a god of what is distinctly human; economic, sexual, political, warlike, contradictory, and urban. Her actions and representations in the texts go beyond what is reasonable and perfunctory—sex transcends procreation, war comes from simple violence, labor is appropriated to build (and destroy and rebuild17) monuments, the city is ideologically separated from and opposed to its environment—there is a rapacious self-destructive ambition in Sumerian civilizations divine representation of itself.

The divine representation of Inanna is not confined to a literal physicality nor an ideological limnality. The development of the temple as the home of the god in the very earliest Ubaid constructions at Eridu and Uruk show the constant intimate physical connection of the god with the economics and physical space of the city. Thus, the god is ‘real’ in the physical sense (notwithstanding the now extinct cult objects (Leick 2001)). The being together of the citizens of the city, bound by some manner of collective social ideology18 is also a physical reality that is enabled and represented by the urban divinity. The physical and symbolic coexistence is reflected in the me as well, where “wisdom” and “the shepherd’s hut” are available as ideas and actualities. The layering of the meanings of Inanna’s symbol exemplifies the conflation of the spiritual and the actual. The barrier and gateway functions of the various storehouses symbolized also get to the crux of the otherizaion of nature as something to be protected against, selectively taken in, exploited and redeployed. As urbanization progresses, the ideological difference imposed on the outside of the walls of the ‘sheep-fold’ becomes more and more potent. The forces of creation and destruction that were originally worshipped in their natural aspects—Inanna as a goddess of fertility and a god of war—are replaced by civilized, human recreations of these primordial aspects. Inanna becomes the goddess of ‘free love’ and war, distinctly human recreations.


Appendix I: Chronology

(Harmansah, 2007):
Ubaid. 5000-4000 BC

5000-4000 BC Halaf period in the Northern Mesopotamia

Ubaid period in the South

Eridu temple sequence (E-abzu)

4000-3500 Early Uruk period

3500-3100 Late Uruk period

Uruk Level IV (Eanna Precinct)

3100-2900 Jemdet Nasr period

Uruk Level III (Eanna Precinct) Protoliterate Period

2950-2750 Early Dynastic I

2750-2600 Early Dynastic II

2600-2350 Early Dynastic III Pre-Sargonic Period

Appendix II: List of me given to Inanna by Enki
(Taken from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature,

Segment E

1-4. "He has given me righteousness. He has given me the plundering of cities. He has given me making lamentations. He has given me rejoicing."

5-9. "He has given me deceit. He has given me the rebel lands. He has given me kindness. He has given me being on the move. He has given me being sedentary."

10-17. "He has given me the craft of the carpenter. He has given me the craft of the coppersmith. He has given me the craft of the scribe. He has given me the craft of the smith. He has given me the craft of the leather-worker. He has given me the craft of the fuller. He has given me the craft of the builder. He has given me the craft of the reed-worker."

18-26. "He has given me wisdom. He has given me attentiveness. He has given me holy purification rites. He has given me the shepherd's hut. He has given me piling up glowing charcoals. He has given me the sheepfold. He has given me respect. He has given me awe. He has given me reverent silence."

27-36. "He has given me the bitter-toothed (?) ....... He has given me the kindling of fire. He has given me the extinguishing of fire. He has given me hard work. He has given me ....... He has given me the assembled family. He has given me descendants. He has given me strife. He has given me triumph. He has given me counselling."
approx. 34-35 lines missing

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Collins, Paul; 1994. “The Sumerian Goddess Inanna (3400-2200 BC),” Papers from the

Institute of Archaeology 5:103-118
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expansion of the Uruk culture during the fourth millennium BC.

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Connecticut and London: Yale University Press.

Harmansah, Omur; 2007. Mesopotamian Archeaology. Brown Univeristy Class, Website

and Powerpoint Presentations:

Levi-Strauss, Claude; 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books
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Religion. New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press.
Leick, Gwendolyn; 2001. Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City. London: Penguin

Meador, Betty D.S.; 2000. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart. Austin, Texas:

University of Texas Press.
Moortgart, Anton; 1969. The art of ancient Mesopotamia; the classical art of the Near

East. London and New York: Phaidon

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Sumerian Literature.” University of Oxford.

Pollock, Susan; 1999. Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Cambridge, UK:

Cambridge University Press.

Pollock, Susan and Bernbeck, Reinhard; 2000. “And They Said, Let Us Make Gods in

Our Image: Gendered Ideologies in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Reading the body:

Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record. Edited by A. E.

Rautman; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 150-164.

Roaf, Michael; 1990. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient near East.

New York : Facts on File.

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Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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1 See list of me, Appendix II, p.13

2 “Uruk” in this paper refers to the city known as Uruk or Warka. References to Uruk as a more widespread cultural phenomena are explicitly stated.

3 Harmansah, Omur; 2007. Lecture notes from Brown University course “The Archaeology of Mesopotamia.”

4 See Leick (2001:50-57) for analysis of this process in the Uruk period

5 Inanna is not the only “god of Uruk”. An(u), the sky god and Inanna are co-patrons of Uruk (Leick 2001:57). There is an extensive temple precinct dedicated to Anu \in Uruk.

6 See Appendix II: List of me given to Inanna by Enki (Taken from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature,

7 Wolksteins interpretation (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:13-27) is particularly interesting in that it leaves out any preconceived intent of Inanna to receive the me. Bottero goes so far as to restate her interpretation in two separate chapters (Bottero 1992:192-193,238-239). Overall I find the interpretations in the bibliography to be inadequate in grasping the cultural narratives of Sumer that inform the myth. Reading a literal translation of Inanna and Enki is of the most use, see the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature’s “Inana and Enki” at

8 Collins’ archaeological informants are: Falkenstein, A; 1936. Archaische Textes aus Uruk. Berlin:Duestche Forshcungsgeneinschaft, Nissen, H.J.; 1986. The Archaic Texts from Uruk. Archaeology, 17(3):317-33, and Green and Nissen; 1987. Zeichenliste der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk. Berlin: Berlin:Duestche Forshcungsgeneinschaft in Uruk-Warka, II: Archaische Texte aus Uruk Band II.

9 Elizabeth Williams-Forte, “Annotations of the Art,” in Inanna. Auth. Diane Wolkstein and Samuel N. Kramer (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 174-200.

10 Artistic representation of Inanna sign fades out by the Early Dynastic II period (Collins 1994:108)

11 The discussion of the sacred marriage rite is ommited from this paper. Bahrani (2002) offers a very good interpretation, stressing that actual and symbolic do not have and either/or relationship. Collins (1994) also perceptively notes that the texts that Jacobsen uses to apply the ‘sacred marriage rite’ to the Uruk period were written some 1000 years later.

12 Harmansah 2007; Personal communication.

13 See appendix II

14 See Claude Levi-Strauss; 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. 226: the mythical character with the “mediating function occupies a position halfway between two polar terms”

15 For more on the theoretical conflict between the desert and the city, see Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari,

Felix; 1986 Nomadology: The War Machine. New York: Semiotext(e).

16 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1974: 18).

17 Leick (2001:54-55) sees this as a very striking feature of the Eanna complex in the Uruk periods

18 Unfortunately time and space constraints have caused me to exclude discussion of my research on the implications of the power structures implicit from Inanna myth and architecture.


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