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Volume 13, Number 8October 1962

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The First Emperor

Under Sargon I the kingdom of Akkad—world’s first unified realm—stretched across the Middle East of 45 centuries ago.

Sargon the first! King of the city of Agade! King of the Land! King of Universal Dominion!" After one thundering blast the horns were still. Now the musicians lifted their reed flutes in a thin piping, accented by the occasional roll of a drum. Cheers poured from the Babylonian army drawn up on the shore of the Sea of the Setting Sun, the body of water that men would later know as the Mediterranean Sea.

King Sargon looked at them over his shoulder, a thickset man dressed in fringe-like hanks of combed wool and holding a short spear. Then his dark beaky face lifted proudly as he stood before the multitude. In that one backward glance he had noticed the moon rising in the east. All the lands between the sun and the moon were now his, and he meant to add others to his empire before he died.

He had come a long way from his beginnings—born in secret to a lowly woman of Azupirani in Akkad. His mother had placed the unwanted infant in a reed basket and set it adrift on the sluggish waters of the Euphrates as they meandered south toward the lower kingdom of Sumer, known as the Land, and the Persian Sea. Akki, a toiler in the irrigation ditches, had discovered him and reared him to be a gardener, then a cupbearer. But it was his own shrewdness and audacity that made him a priest in Kish. There he had plotted rebellion against King Lugal-Zaggisi, organized troops and led them in the field. And Ishtar, goddess of battle, had been with him.

King Sargon prowled restlessly on the darkening beach. There was a south wind blowing—the Wind of the Ship that Sails Upstream—so he could not smell the sea salt, only the odor of crisp lamb browning at a campfire. There would be feasting as soon as he had plunged his spear into the western sea, the ritual act that proclaimed these coasts his own. Impatiently he looked at the sky again, for the soothsayers who guided him had declared that he must not perform the rite until the sun actually rested on the water.

Waiting thus, he remembered how gladly the men of Kish had followed him, many of them Semites like himself whose people had long ago come from the Arabian desert and taken on Sumerian customs. The wide rich plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Akkad to the north and Sumer to the south, was ruled at that time by Lugal-Zaggisi, who greatly oppressed the folk of Kish. They had rejoiced to see a new power arise. Once he had captured the king and sent him in fetters to Nippur, he had gone on to conquer Erech and Lagash and Umma. Even a coalition of 50 governors could not stand in his way. He had rebuilt Kish and destroyed the walls of Ur, and marched down through the lagoons of the lower river to dip his spear in the Persian Gulf in token that his realm extended there.

Then the land of Elam beyond the Tigris had fallen to his phalanxes of archers, as ripe wheat falls when harvesters swarm through the fields. Three years, and he had turned westward to begin his conquest of Amorite country. This was his third journey here, this the eleventh year of his reign. But must he stop at the sea's edge this time? Should he not try his luck in fabulous Crete . .. and beyond?

The lower rim of the golden ball touched the surface of the twilight sea. Sarson strode to the waterside and thrust his spear under the white froth of the rippling waves. All that lay between the two seas was now his—the templed cities and the rich meadows threaded with canals and irrigation ditches, mile upon mile of wheat and barley fields, the granary of the ancient world. His were the silver mountains of the Taurus range to provide minerals not found in his own country, his the cedars of Lebanon for workers in fine wood. Such intense rejoicing filled him in his moment of triumph that he scarcely heard the cheers of his army. Other kings had ruled loosely knit groups of cities, but no other king since the beginning of time had created a mighty empire where the parts were closely joined and governed as one. His dynasty of Akkad was established.

Later he sat among his officials, the "sons of the palace," under the night sky. They ate barley, wheat cake, honey and spitted lamb, and drank date wine. Offerings of food and drink had been placed in alabaster vessels for Anu, Enlil and Enki, gods of the heavens, the earth and the sea, but plainer pottery served the mortal group, glazed bowls and cups of black and white and red. King Sargon, scorning cushions, half reclined on the turf, enjoying his food r and the admiration of those around him. Torches lit the gloom where his retinue waited—the scribes, the barber who trimmed his long pointed beard and knotted his hair, the chief minister, the governors, priests and diviners. And behind them the shepherds, merchants and soldiers.

Now a boy stood up to pluck the lyre and sing a song of their own country many marches away. It was a fertile land he sang of, a network of canals and fields and gardens, where seed flung carelessly on the earth would bring forth three hundredfold. It had its cities, too, mazes of mud and reed huts, and towering brick temples and ziggurats, with friezes depicting the bull and the lion and vultures devouring the slain. It was a country of farmers and merchants and artisans, where women were held in honor and men studied the movements of the stars and recorded their knowledge and business transactions on tablets of sunbaked clay.

The date palm, the life-giving tree, thrust up everywhere to supply them with bread, wine, honey, fruit and vinegar. Other tall trees grew in the woodlands—cypress, tamarisk, sycamore, acacia and walnut. Lions, elephants and smaller game roamed beneath them, and herons, ducks and geese nested in the river marshes. Summer was long and blue and cloudless. Ice might form during the chilly rains of wintertime, but never snow. It was a beautiful country, this land between the rivers, worthy to be the world's first empire, and Sargon rejoiced that it was his to rule.

Suddenly he realized that his friend Agum-Shi was speaking to him.

"What of your next achievements, oh great Sargon?" he asked. "What do you mean to do?"

"Many things," said Sargon thoughtfully, stroking the bracelets of onyx, lapis and carnelian on his left arm. "The Hittites march against Ashur, and they must be despoiled and put down. I shall weld small estates into great ones and make division of my land into provinces five double marches each for the better governing thereof. Kazalla has rebelled, and I shall bring it to dust and heaps of ruin, destroying even the nesting places of the birds. I wish to enlarge the temple in my own city of Agade that I built, tracing its boundaries with dust from the walls of mighty Babylon, though the god Marduk may yet punish me for taking it away. And perhaps . . . ." He thought of Crete and looked into the west. "Perhaps I may yet venture forth on the world-encircling sea."

Sargon of Agade did do all the things he promised that night under the stars. He ruled for 55 years and bequeathed his empire to his sons, but their dynasty did not last long. There is some evidence that he visited Crete. He put down one rebellion in his old age, but was less successful with another and was finally driven into a trench and over whelmed by his own men. So far back in time did he live that scholars have assigned various dates to his rule, among them 3800 B.C., 2800 B.C. and 2200 B.C. Later archaeologists with more evidence to judge by favor the latter date. His fertile country, Mesopotamia, is dry and sandy now since the collapse of his remarkable irrigation system. But the title of First Emperor still belongs to Sargon I.

This article appeared on pages 8-9 of the October 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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