The first major city that was built in Mesopotamia was Uruk, and it would soon prove the be a city where many legends would take shape. The city was founded and expanded by a legendary bloodline: the bloodline of the sun god, Utu. This would be the dynasty of many legendary kings, including Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh.
The founding of a city
It was Meskiaggasher, the first mortal son of Utu, who founded Uruk. Back then, to call it a city would have been flattery, as it used to be nothing more than a basic fortress. But it was a start. And Meskiaggasher knew that he had to expand to make his city successful. He was branded on making his vision of a city succeed, and he knew that he would require an economic surge to make his city flourish. So he rallied his armies and dispatched them to the surrounding areas.
And so it was that he conquered the trade routes between Uruk and the sea. He would reign over Uruk for 420 years, clearly never having heard of early retirement. And then he mysteriously disappeared at sea, likely during a scouting mission or a trading mission. Luckily, he had fathered a son and heir before he disappeared. This son was named Enmerkar.
Following in his father’s footsteps
Like his father, Enmerkar wished to expand Uruk’s influence. This is when he heard of another city: Aratta. This is where he met his rival Ensuhgirana, who was the lord of Aratta, a rival city. Aratta is mentioned multiple times in Sumerian literature, and it has always been described as a strong city in terms of cultural, economic, and military power. But above all, Aratta was protected by the goddess Inanna, whom we all know was an extremely powerful deity.
Enmarkar wanted Uruk to surpass Aratta in its success. He was pondering on his strategy to increase his city’s success. Would he achieve success by expanding his territory? Or would he continue his father’s strategy to establish new trade routes? Would it make sense to invest in artisans? Aratta was known for its famous artisans; surely they were key contributors to Aratta’s splendor?
And then it struck him. Why not simply conquer Aratta and add its wealth and power to his own? Would that really be simple? Apart from Aratta’s economic and cultural power, it was protected by Inanna as well. So to defeat them, Uruk would need to have the protection of an equally powerful deity.
Pick your deity
A logical choice would have been to make a plea to Utu to become the patron deity of the city. He was Enmerkar’s grandfather after all. Nope. Enmerkar decided to steal the favor of Inanna from Aratta and to make her the matron deity of Uruk. He ordered the construction of an impressive temple, E-ana, which was dedicated fully to Inanna. The goddess was pleased. When his rival Ensuhgirana heard about this newly constructed temple, he knew he required an impressive feat of his own to please Inanna. Somehow, he thought that it would please the goddess if he would crown himself King in her name, thinking Inanna would be more impressed by that act than by the construction of Uruk’s temple. Of course, she wasn’t. Inanna chose to side with Enmerkar.
Now that he had finally won over the goddess, Enmerkar decided to tell her about his plan to subjugate Aratta, asking for her favor in the conflict. To get her support, he told her that he would use the vast riches of Aratta to create ornaments for her temple, and promised her to build a temple for Enki as well. Turns out even the gods can be bribed.
A demand for tribute
She advised him to send a messenger to Ensuhgirana to demand Aratta to become a vassal state. This meant that Aratta had to pay tribute to Uruk, including large amounts of gold, silver, lapus lazuli, and precious stones. Enmerkar told a messenger of his demands and made him repeat the message several times, before sending him off to Ensuhgirana.
But when the lord of Aratta heard these demands from the messenger, he refused. He explained that he could easily vanquish Uruk if it were ever attacked by its military. But something the messenger had said had left him uneasy. You see, Aratta had been suffering from a long period of drought, which is why its crops had failed. Its people were suffering from famine, so disaster had struck. Was this bad luck a sign? Did Inanna bestow her favor on Enmerkar and Uruk? He refused to believe it without any proof. So he told the messenger that he would gladly bow down to Enmerkar, but only if the King of Uruk could successfully complete his challenge of ‘wits’ in what would prove to be a series of three challenges.
Enmerkar: the man who ended a famine
He told the messenger that he would only bow down to Enmerkar if he would help him solve the period of famine Aratta was going through. The King would have to load barley into fishing nets and ship it down to Aratta, a feat which he deemed impossible, as the barley would always slip out of the nets during the journey. Thus the messenger returned to Uruk, not with Aratta’s surrender, but with a challenge.
Enmerkar listened to the messenger carefully. When he finished, he ordered barley and fishing nets to be brought down to him. Indeed, it would seem to be an impossible task. But then it came to him. He ordered the barley to be soaked in water and he ordered the nets of the fishing nets to be made smaller. The barley would swell and the smaller holes in the fishing net would be sufficient to hold it in its swollen state. He then loaded the nets of barley onto his packing donkeys and sent them off to Aratta, along with his messenger.
Enmerkar: the alchemist
When Ensuhgirana received the barley, he became irritated. Instead of living up to his promise of surrender, he brought forth a second challenge. He told the messenger that he would only bow down to Enmerkar if he were to fashion a special scepter out of material unknown to man. So the scepter could not be made from any material that was already known to man: not wood, not copper, not silver, not gold, not reed, not metal, not lapus lazuli.
Enki bestowed some of his wisdom on Enmerkar and helped him craft the first manmade material. The King took an animal hide and let it dried it in the sun. He then crushed it with a pestle and mortar and worked until it was liquid. He then poured that liquid into a hollow reed and let it solidify for 5 years. The result was a scepter that was made from no material known to man.
Yet when the lord of Aratta received the scepter, he did not surrender. Instead, he told the messenger to convey a final challenge to Enmerkar. This challenge did not involve solving famine or inventing new materials. He challenged Enmerkar to deliver a dog whose coat of fur did not have the color of a dog. This beast would then have to fight the dog of Ensuhgirana. Enmerkar then sent for a dog and wove cloth from unknown color. He shrouded the dog in this cloth and sent it to Aratta.
The pen is mightier than the sword
But he did not just send his dog there. The King had grown weary of the ridiculous series of challenges posed by Ensuhgirana. This is why he formulated an insult that was so extensive that his messenger was at a loss. He could simply not remember the complete message that his King wanted him to convey to the lord of Aratta. So Enmerkar grabbed a clay tablet and wrote down the message in cuneiform using a large nail, thus inventing the art of writing.
When Ensuhgirana read the message on the clay tablet, he was shaken. Not only did he understand the writing (strange, as it had just been invented by another individual), but he also understood that Enmerkar was a remarkably industrious individual. Just when he started to consider that Inanna indeed favored the King of Uruk, it started raining. The long period of drought had ended and Ensuhgirana took this as a sign that Inanna still favored him. The following text was lost, but it seems that Enmerkar was victorious.
Yet during later events, Enmerkar received an envoy from Aratta at his court. Ensuhgirana was now demanding him to become a vassal of Aratta instead. Several taunts were being sent back and forth between the two Kings. They would not reach an agreement soon.
Souring the milk
Aratta would go on the offensive this time. They sent a powerful wizard, Urğirnuna, which had offered its allegiance to make Uruk submit its surrender. This wizard was skilled in some traditional witchcraft and made the milk that was produced by the dairy livestock of Uruk turn sour.
When the shepherds of Uruk spotted this sabotage, they prayed to Utu. Shortly after, they were joined by a witch of their own, Sağburu, which they call “the wise woman”. The wise woman catches up with the wizard shortly after at the river banks of the Euphrates.
A duel between wizards
This is where they start an epic magic battle. The wizard summons a large carp from the river, but the witch summons an eagle that quickly devours it. In turn, the wizard summons a ewe with her lamb. These do not survive for long, as they are quickly eaten by a wolf that is summoned by Sağburu. When the wizard summoned a cow and its calf, the witch summoned a lion. As the wizard summoned an ibex and a wild sheep, Sağburu summoned a mountain leopard. When the wizard summoned a gazelle, the witch summoned a tiger and a lion. Each time, the animals summoned by the wizard were devoured by the witch’s animals. Sağburu was victorious.
Realizing that he had been defeated by a superior mage, Urğirnuna pleaded for his life. Yet it was to no avail and the witch killed him in cold blood. The time for talk was over. When word of this defeat reached Ensuhgirana, he had no choice but to publicly recognize the superiority of Enmerkar. Nevertheless, it would still be some time until the King of Aratta would fully submit its surrender. We will talk more about this conflict in the stories of Lugalbanda.