Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Akkadians

Who were they?


The earliest Akkadians were Semitic nomads. Semitic means their language was partly Asian and partly African. They were called nomads because they traveled from place to place. They were hunter-gatherers, picking fruits and berries and hunting game for food. Their dwellings were made of animal skins supported by wooden poles. Homes were temporary, easily put up and taken down. They left behind no written records or art.

The Akkadian tribes migrated to northern Mesopotamia in search of fertile land. They made permanent homes and built towns there. In the south were the Sumerian people who had lived there for 1000 years. When the Akkadians moved south, they conquered the Sumerians. Their power grew under King Sargon. He united northern and southern Mesopotamia to create a powerful empire. The Akkadian and Sumerian people lived together peacefully for many years.

The Akkadian Empire began about 2300 years before the Christian era (BCE). It lasted about 200 years. Its end was blamed on a terrible drought. People had no food or water and rebelled against their leaders. Unrest weakened the empire. Enemies took advantage of the turmoil and invaded. The Gutians destroyed the capital city of Akkad. No remains were ever found.    

Where did they live?


Akkadians may have originated in areas of the Near East and southeast of Europe. They migrated to northern Mesopotamia, settling between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They found good soil for growing crops. The land was called the Fertile Crescent.

Mesopotamia means “the land between the rivers.” The Tigris River comes from the Taurus Mountains and flows about 2000 miles to the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates River comes from the Caucasus Mountains. It flows about 1700 miles to join the Tigris River at the Persian Gulf. In between the rivers is the Fertile Crescent.  

In ancient times, many kinds of wildlife lived in the mountains that surrounded the Fertile Crescent. Whenever the rivers flooded, rich soil flowed onto the plains. It fertilized the crops and vegetation. There were good pastures for the animals. Bullrushes and licorice plants lived on the riverbanks. Willows, poplars and other kinds of trees thrived.



Sargon united Akkadia and Sumer into one empire under his rule. He made himself king and made Akkad his capital. His empire controlled a vast area of the Middle East. A strong effective government was essential.

Sargon devised a system of individual city-states. He created a network of trusted officials and administrators to rule them. The system was called a bureaucracy. It enforced laws and collected taxes, so the government ran smoothly.

Sargon made Akkadian the official language of the empire. He established a library and designed a calendar. He created a postal system to deliver messages over long distances. Messages were written on clay tablets. Tablets were placed in special clay envelopes. The envelopes were sealed using a small cylinder-seal (kunukku). Various materials were used to make the cylinder-seals, including seashells, crystal, marble, and limestone. Unique images were carved into a cylinder by a sealcutter (purkullu). When a letter was written and ready to send the writer placed it in a soft clay envelope. A cylinder-seal was rolled over the opening to seal it. The message could not be read without breaking the seal.

Sargon improved roads and canals. He built new ones to accommodate growing trade routes. Trading vessels came from far-away places. They brought metal ores, lumber, and building stone to trade for Akkadian farm products, wool, and textiles.

Sargon expanded his empire throughout Mesopotamia. He was the first king to have a standing army of trained soldiers. They had advanced weapons such as powerful bows and bronze-tipped arrows. Sargon’s army captured many cities and placed them under Akkadian control. He destroyed their protective walls so they could not rebel against their captors. The important cities of Elam, Elba, and Mari were captured one after another. Elam controlled strategic trade routes and timber supplies. Mari was the center of bronze refining (smelting) and iron working. Ebla controlled the Euphrates River.  

What did their buildings look like?


Remains of Akkadian buildings are buried under artificial mounds. Over centuries, new buildings have been built on top of old ones. Layers of remains have created the mounds seen in the Middle East today. Archeologists carefully excavate (remove) each layer to find the oldest at the bottom of a mound. Such excavations are called “tells.” Tell Bazi is an ancient settlement along the Euphrates River where archeologists are working today.  

The Temple of Innana was in the ancient city Uruk. Innana was the patron goddess of Sargon. People believed Innana lived in her temple. It had a small area with a shrine. Only a few priests could fit inside. Around the temple were buildings with kitchens and breweries. People worked in the buildings to make food and clothing for the goddess. There were workshops for potters, weavers, and craftsmen. Orchards, gardens, fields, and pastures surrounded the buildings.    

Temples were the center of city life. Wealthy homes were nearest the center. They were made of sun-dried bricks. The bricks were whitewashed to guard against the sun’s heat. The rooms were arranged around a central courtyard. There was only one exterior door, usually painted red to keep out evil spirits.

Bricks were made by mixing straw with clay from the riverbank. The mixture was packed into brick-shaped molds and placed on the ground to bake in the sun. Oven-baked bricks were more expensive to make, but hey were better able to withstand moisture and heat. Oven-baked bricks were mostly used for temples and homes of royalty.

Houses of poorer people were constructed from tall marsh plants and reeds. They were tightly bundled and placed into holes in the ground to make walls. Bundles were bent over to form archways. The roof was made with reed mats. A hanging mat served as a door.

A ziggaurat (ziqqurat) was a massive and important religious structure. It was a four-sided pyramid made of mudbrick. There was a temple at the top. Unlike a pyramid, it did not have smooth sides. Instead, there were tiers or steps for workmen to climb and make repairs. There was a broad winding stairway to the top. The temple had an altar and a statue of the god. The Great Ziggurat at Ur is a famous ziggurat in Mesopotamia. It is 150 feet wide, 210 feet long and over 100 feet high. It has been restored so people can visit.

What did they wear?


Akkadian fabrics and clothing styles were similar to those of the Sumerians. Priests, royalty, and wealthy people wore garments made with fine, high-quality fabric, such as linen. Workers wore clothing made of coarser cloth.

Akkadian clothing is shown in ancient Mesopotamian sculpture, art, and artifacts. Men often wore a loincloth around the hips. Knee-length skirts had either fringe or a rolled edge at the bottom. Long toga-like robes had a cloth draped over the left shoulder. This style was called “over the heart.” Decorations included tassels, ribbons, and embroidery.

Some people wore felt garments. Felt was made by applying heat and moisture to raw wool. The wool was then rubbed to bind the fibers together and make it strong. The work was done in felting workshops by “felters”. Akkadians bred special wooly sheep for making their woolen fabrics.  

Akkadian women wore fringed dresses and capes. Accessories like headbands and jewelry were made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. Lapis lazuli is a deep-blue gemstone; carnelian is brownish red. The goddess Inanna and Princess Enheduanna wore long dresses with rows of fringe all around from top to bottom.

Military clothing is depicted on the Naram-Sin Victory Stele. The king wears a short skirt and sandals, with a horned helmet. Soldiers wear helmets and skirted garments, short in front and slit up the side.

What did they eat?


Akkadians had a wide variety of available food since they lived in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. Fertile means the soil produced an abundance of crops; crescent refers to the shape of the area. Water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers frequently flooded the land. Agriculture developed in the Fertile Crescent because soil was rich and water plentiful.

Akkadians ate fish, duck, geese, deer, and small game, such as rabbits. They raised sheep, goats, and cattle for meat and dairy products. They grew chickpeas, wheat, millet, and barley. Wild cereals grew near the rivers. Garlic, onions, and cucumbers grew in the shade of the palm trees. An ancient tablet shows a recipe for stew made of goat, garlic, onions, and sour milk.

Sesame (šamaššammu) and olive oils were used for cooking. Orchards provided fruit for red wine and syrup. There were pomegranate, apple, and pistachio groves throughout the Fertile Crescent. Date palms were common in the south. Dates were eaten either fresh or dried. They provided vital sugars and vitamins. Wine was made from dates or grapes. Beer (šikaru) was brewed from barley or wheat. It was often served as part of a meal because it provided nutrients.   

There were 2 kinds of farming in the Akkadian Empire, rain-fed in the north and irrigation in the south. In the north, enough rain fell to water crops regularly. In the south rainfall was irregular. During dry periods, farmers needed a supply of water for their fields. They devised an irrigation system to control flooding and water the crops. They dug canals and built levees. Levees were dams made of dirt. They had a steep bank on the riverside and a gentle slope on the land side. Levees prevented too much water from getting into the fields. Holes were made in the soil and levee walls to let just enough water in. Buckets of water were sometimes carried from canals and poured on the crops.

Farmers used oxen to work the fields. They may have had wooden plows to make rows for planting seeds. Crops matured in late spring and early summer, when weather was hot and dry. Crops were harvested using simple hand-held tools such as sickles. For threshing, farmers used a long-handled club called a flail. The harvested grain was dried and placed on the floor. Farmers beat the grain with the flail to separate the seeds from the stem.  

What did their writing look like?


Akkadian was the official language of the entire empire. The spoken language was written in cuneiform script. Cuneiform was the earliest writing system in the world. A writing system is used to communicate by sight something that is spoken. The first cuneiform characters were straight lines and curved lines joined together. These were called pictographs or word-signs. They showed things seen in life, such as kings, battles, and people.  Later, phonograms or word-ideas developed to represent abstract ideas, such as honor, bravery, or love.

Cuneiform means “wedge-shaped”. Scribes used a stylus to make lines and wedges in soft clay. A stylus was often made of reed. It had a sharp triangular tip. Clay tablets were white, light brown, or gray. The tablets were baked in the sun to harden them. Sun-dried tablets were fragile, but they could be reused. Soaking in water, removed the writing and made the clay soft enough to be written on again. Oven-dried tablets were harder and stronger but could not be reused. The first libraries were collections of documents written on durable, oven-dried clay tablets.

Both speech and writing could be used to convey information. Speech could not be saved for the future, but writing could. Writing was a reliable way to create a permanent record that could be read by others. The writer and reader needed a shared understanding of what the cuneiform characters meant.

Priests were in charge of temple schools where boys were taught cuneiform writing. Scribes taught students to write cuneiform letters. Students learned about Akkadian gods and goddesses. They wrote the names of the gods using symbols and syllables. A star indicated the god was a divine being. Marks made after a star, represented syllables of the god’s name.

Small round tablets were used for lessons. The instructor made cuneiform letters on one side of the tablet. Students copied the letters on the opposite side. Students had to learn hundreds of signs and meanings. A single character could represent many words or sounds.

Very early writing was done by Akkadian merchants. It consisted of simple counting-marks next to a picture. Counting marks were cut into wood, stone, or clay. This practice began when people made permanent settlements and developed agriculture. As marketplaces grew, farm animals, grain, cloth and other items were exchanged. Cuneiform developed because buyers and sellers needed to improve their record-keeping.  

What did they believe?


Akkadians believed in many gods. Their religion was known as polytheism. Religion influenced every part of Akkadian life. Gods controlled kings, warfare, laws, and events. People worshiped the gods and made offerings of gifts and food. Temples were the homes of the gods. Priests and priestesses were in charge of religious beliefs and ceremonies. They were astrologers who could read signs and omens. They could intercede with the gods on behalf of humans.  

Akkadians believed in an afterlife in the land below the world, called the Great Below. They believed everyone journeyed to the Great Below after death. People were buried with food, water, and personal items. Royalty were sometimes buried with musical instruments so they could hear music on their journey.

People believed the gods caused all events. Gods could both help humans or harm them. Iskur the god of storm was both giver and destroyer. As giver, he provided rain for good harvests. As destroyer, he brought storms, darkness and death. Enlil was the powerful god of the wind. He provided a connection between heaven and earth. Ea, half-fish and half-goat, was the god of fresh water. He warned humanity to build an ark to save them from Enlil’s great flood.  

Nergal, the god of war and plague, caused destruction, hunger, and disease. He was also a helper and protector of animals and crops. Nanna, god of the moon, guided hunter-gatherers in their search for food. He was the father of Inanna the goddess of love and war. Inanna was the patron goddess of King Sargon and the main deity of Akkad. The high priestess of Inanna’s temple was Sargon’s daughter. Her name was Enheduanna which meant “the holy sister of the proud heaven”. Enheduanna was the most famous priestess in the empire. She wrote songs of praise, prayers, poems, and music as offerings to the goddess Inanna.

Shamash, son of Nanna, was the sun god who governed the universe. Shamash, sat on a throne holding a staff and ring, symbols of righteousness and justice. He overpowered the evils of darkness. As Akkadians learned about agriculture, the sun became a more important part of their religion.

King Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin, became a great king. He was the first to claim status as a god. Under his rule, the empire reached its highest power and creativity. He was praised for being a great king, but he was also blamed for the collapse of the Akkadian Empire. People believed the gods became angry when Naram-Sin destroyed an important temple. They took revenge by cursing the Akkadians and sending enemy warriors to destroy Akkad. There are no historical records of these events. They were written later in a story called “The Curse of Agade”. The story was repeated many times, becoming a legend.

Historians believe the Akkadian Empire collapsed due to a catastrophic drought and widespread famine. Enemies took advantage of the turmoil and invaded the empire. One group, the Gudians, completely destroyed Akkad. The ruins of the city were never found.

Are some of them famous today?


Sargon the Great is remembered as the powerful king who founded the Akkadian Empire.  His likeness appears in museums around the world. Princess Enheduanna, his daughter, was the most famous priestess of that time. Her poetry, songs, and hymns of praise for Innana, Queen of Heaven, are well known. They are in print today. Many books were written about her life. She is said to be the world’s first author.  

There are many well-known people with Middle Eastern roots. Alia Martine Shawkat is a popular artist and actress appearing in many American films. Her father was born in Baghdad, Iraq. Kadim Al Sahir is a famous Iraqi singer, composer and songwriter. His work frequently features Iraqi folk instruments, rhythms and melodies. Nadia Murad Basee Taha is a human rights advocate. She helps women and children who have been hurt by violence. She works at the United Nations and is the first Iraqi to earn a Nobel Prize.

What is left of them today?


Many Akkadian art works, and artifacts have survived from ancient times. Small items like jewelry and cylinder seals are preserved in special collections. Tablets with cuneiform writing tell of Akkadian religion and ideas. Epic stories, myths, and proverbs have been passed down for study by modern scholars. Sculptures and plaques from Mesopotamia are on display in museums around the world.

A well-known sculpture called Akkadian Head of a King was made 4000 years ago. It is believed to be Sargon or his grandson Naram-Sin. The king’s power and dignity is expressed in this work. It was made using the lost wax method. The head was carved in wax. The wax was then covered with clay. The clay head was baked to harden the clay. The wax melted and dripped out through small holes, leaving a hollow mold of the head. Molten copper was poured into the mold. The copper hardened and the clay was broken away, leaving a fine sculpture of the king’s head. The artist made lines in the copper to indicate hair, beard, and mustache. The Head of a King is said to be a great masterpiece. It is on display in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

Akkadian art celebrated the triumphs of their kings. They carved images in stone markers called steles to show important people and events. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin shows the victorious king and his soldiers atop a high mountain. The stele celebrates the king’s victory over the Lullubi Mountain people. His horned helmet shows his god-like status.  Engraved stars in the sky above the mountain represent gods. Naram-Sin stands victorious between the sky and the earth. Naram-Sin’s Victory Stele is displayed at the Louvre in Paris, France.

The Kings Lyre is a stringed musical instrument decorated with a golden bull’s head. It was found in the royal tombs at Ur in modern-day Iraq. A scene on the lyre shows the king listening to music as he travels through the underworld. “Ram in the Thicket” is also from the royal tombs at Ur. It is decorated with gold and lapis blue gemstones. The ram stands on its back legs to peer through branches of shrubs and small trees.

Many images of dogs appear in Akkadian art. The gods bestowed protective powers to their dog companions. The Limestone Dog of Gula, goddess of health appears on an ancient bas-relief sculpture.  The images of Shamish the sun god and his dog are engraved on a cylinder seal.

A plaque from Sippar shows a striding man accompanied by a large dog. The man’s companion may be a Molossus dog, a breed that lived in Mesopotamia as far back as 5000 BC. They were one of the earliest domesticated animals. They were trained to protect people, villages, and animals. They were very large with thick, powerful bodies. They had folds of loose skin around the head and neck (dewlaps). Their dark color made them difficult to see at night. Modern-day Molossus dogs are said to be descended from this ancient breed. Some say the Molossus was the best guard dog in history.



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