The Sealand Dynasty Of Babylonia And Mesopotamia

In the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE the region of Mesopotamia, the ancient Middle East, was split between a number of rival city-states, kingdoms and empires, of which Assyria and Babylonia were probably the most important. The Assyrians kept meticulous records in their archives about their neighbours and these make several references to the expansionist ambitions – and eventual fall – of the Sealand Dynasty, an obscure line of kings ruling a former Babylonian province in a marshy area roughly equivalent to the south-east wedge of modern Iraq. Though the upstart rulers adopted ornate pseudo-Sumerian names, identifying themselves with the prestigious ancient city-state of Isin, most of the population used the ubiquitous Akkadian language in their daily lives. For centuries the Sealand rulers have remained an archaeological mystery but some tentative answers may be now emerging. From the Guardian:

Tell Khaiber lies close to the modern city of Nasiriyah and the ancient city of Ur. There’s not much to see on the surface; just an almost imperceptible bulge in the flat, brown mud where centuries of settlement debris have left a lump. It took aerial images to truly reveal Tell Khaiber and the extraordinary building at its centre.

The building is huge, covering over 4400 m2, dominating the small settlement. It’s surrounded by a massive mudbrick wall around 3.5m thick, it has just one entrance and its exterior façade is ringed with close-set towers. The building is highly unusual for Bronze Age Mesopotamian architecture and the arrangement of perimeter towers has no known parallel in the region.

So what was this building for and why did it need to be so heavily fortified? We only have partial answers at this stage, but a lot of them come from an archive of inscribed clay tablets found scattered through the rooms of the building’s southern corner. It’s also these documents which place the building squarely in the Sealand kingdom; the few which are dated come from the reign of the eighth Sealand king, the excellently named Ayadaragalama (‘Skilful son of the stag’) who ruled the Sealand around 1500BCE.

Ayadaragalama seems to have had a somewhat turbulent reign, facing down an invasion by the Kassites, a people who seized much of the Babylonian Empire between 1600-1500 BCE. Eventually these aggressors forced Ea-gâmil, the final king of the dynasty, into exile, fleeing to Elam (an influential collection of states in south-west Iran) ahead of an army led by Ulam-Buriaš, the brother of the Kassite king of Babylon Kashtiliash III, who conquered the territory for his own.

If you are interested in the language spoken in the Sealand, the University of Chicago has released its twenty-one volume dictionary of Akkadian for free in PDF form.

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary was conceived to provide more than lexical information alone, more than a one-to-one equivalent between Akkadian and English words. By presenting each word in a meaningful context, usually with a full and idiomatic translation, it recreates the cultural milieu and thus in many ways assumes the function of an encyclopedia. Its source material ranges in time from the third millennium B.C. to the first century A.D., and in geographic area from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Zagros Mountains in the east.

Completed in 2010, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary has become an invaluable source for the study of the civilizations of the ancient Near East, their political and cultural history, their achievements in the sciences of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, and the timeless beauty of their poetry.

And here is Dr. Martin Worthington, an expert in Babylonian and Assyrian grammar at Cambridge University, with a reading from The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from the 18th century BCE, in the original Akkadian (the Assyrians and Babylonians both spoke dialects of this tongue).

 

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4 comments

  1. I find this ancient archaeology endlessly fascinating.

    The illustration is surely from the Ishtar Gate, originally in Babylon but now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

    1. Indeed, but I was trying to find a related copyright-free image. The archaeological remains in southern Iraq itself are less impressive (unless you were there in person. A forlorn hope, I’m afraid).

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