The Sumerian King List (SKL)
Description: The Sumerian King List is an important chronographic document from ancient Mesopotamia. It lists a long succession of cities in Sumer and its neighbouring regions where kingship was invested, the rulers who reigned in those cities and the length of their reigns. The list starts with the remote mythical past when kingship had descended from heaven. The rulers in the earliest dynasties are represented as reigning fantastically long periods. Some of these rulers such as Etana, Lugal-banda and Gilgamesh are mythical or legendary figures known also from Sumerian and Babylonian literary compositions. As the King List reaches historical rulers whose reigns are attested by their royal inscriptions, the length of each reign becomes more realistic. The King List ends with the reign of a Mesopotamian ruler presumably contemporaneous with the author or redactor of the List.
When first discovered and published in the beginning of the last century, the Sumerian King List was valued highly as a historical document for its potential to check the validity of the biblical chronology in the Book of Genesis and to reconstruct early world and Mesopotamian (political) history. But scholarly research has gradually turned to focus on the historiographical value of the King List at the times when it was composed or redacted. Especially, it is noted that the King List was composed to promulgate a political vision or doctrine that the pattern of kingship or hegemony in Mesopotamia could only be exercised by one city at a given time and for a limited period. Such political doctrine is said to have been used by the early rulers of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1953–1730 B.C.) to legitimise themselves as the rightful rulers of the Ur III dynasty (ca. 2119–2004 B.C.). Both conceptually and stylistically, the Sumerian King List had exerted a wide-spread and enduring impact on a number of Mesopotamian literary compositions and chronographic sources from the Ur III period to the Hellenistic period (ca. 290 B.C.).
Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List. It lists rulers from the antediluvian dynasties to Suen-magir, the fourteenth ruler of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1763–1753 B.C.). The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism must originally have a wooden spindle going through its centre so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides.
The Sumerian King List has different versions or recensions represented by a number of cuneiform sources (most of these are fragmentary) that are dated to the Ur III period (ca. 2119–2004 B.C.) and Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.). These sources were discovered at different quarters of ancient Mesopotamia and its periphery, including Nippur, Isin, Kish, Larsa, and Susa. Despite the commonalities these versions or recensions share, they can diverge from one and another in both content and style. Variations due to different local traditions may account for some of these divergences. Changes during transmission history may also have contributed to these differences. Based on historical evidence and analyses, it is suggested that the King List has gone through different stages of development in different locations, a process which may have started as early as the Sargonic period (ca. 2334–2154 B.C.), continued through the Ur III period, and culminated in the Old Babylonian period. During the course of transmission, the chronographic information and stylistic formulae of the List seem to have grown. Additional rulers, introductory and summary formulae for each dynasty and anecdotal information for certain individual rulers were inserted. Most noteworthy is that after the Ur III period the primeval flood catastrophe emerged as a watershed on the chronological timeline, dividing world history into the antediluvian era and the postdiluvian era. The Flood motif and the antediluvian section, not attested as part of the Ur III version of the Sumerian King List, only began to emerge in some versions or recentions of the King List since the Old Babylonian period.
Since the publication of the first fragment of the Sumerian King List in 1906, the value of the King List was initially perceived to be its potential to check the validity of the biblical chronology in the Book of Genesis, or to reconstruct early world and Mesopotamian (political) history. However, the optimistic view on the List as a historical document was soon met with a wave of scepticism as scholars began to turn attention to the ideological perspective of the King List, the omission of several important historical dynasties, and the incredibly long reigns of some early rulers on the List. In the latter half of the last century, scholars began to focus more on the historiographical value of the King List at the times when it was composed or redacted. It is observed that the King List was composed and used to inculcate a particular political vision or doctrine, that the pattern of kingship or hegemony in Mesopotamia could only be exercised by one city at a given time and for a limited period. This political doctrine is believed to have been employed by the early rulers of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1953–1730 B.C.) as an important ideological tool to legitimise themselves as the rightful successors of the Ur III rulers. The influence of the King List was by no means restricted to the domain of politics in ancient Mesopotamia. Its ideological stance and chronographic style, structure and data exerted a wide-spread and enduring impact on a number of Mesopotamian literary compositions (e.g., the Curse of Agade, the Lamentation over Sumer and Ur, the Sumerian Flood Story) and later chronographic sources (e.g., the Rulers of Lagash, the Babylonian Dynastic Chronicle, the Assyrian King List, Berossos’ Babyloniaca) from the Ur III period to the Hellenistic period (ca. 290 B.C.).
Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List. It lists rulers from the antediluvian dynasties to Suen-magir, the fourteenth ruler of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1763–1753 B.C.). The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism must originally have had a wooden spindle going through its centre so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides. (SYC)
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