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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Before Islam:  Mesopotamia

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Framing the Issues

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The Sumerians vs. the Akkadians

The Semitic group we call the Akkadians moved into southern Mesopotamia during the early part of the third millennium and gained political control of this area which appears to have been under the control of people who spoke Sumerian, a non-Semitic language. Additionally, the Akkadian language eventually became the official language of Mesopotamia, and, in the second millennium, it became the official international language of correspondence in the entire Near East. Sumerian, on the other hand, was relegated to an elite, scholarly language. It is easy to try to identify cultural tensions between these two groups of people, especially considering the fact that they consisted of what we would call different ethnic groups. However, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of any cultural tensions that can be ascribed to differing ethnic or racial identities.

Very early on, while one can speak of Mesopotamian culture as a mixed Semito-Sumerian society, it is clear that Akkadian-speakers dominated the northern half of southern Iraq while Sumerian-speakers were predominant in the southern half. While certain differences in traditions can be seen—for instance, rulership in the north tended to be more authoritarian and the palace was an important institution, but in the south, the temple appears to have been the most prominent institution, with the rulers being subservient to the main deity—nowhere in the textual record can one find one group complaining about the other group’s traditions or customs. Furthermore, textual sources never identify either group in terms of ethnic identity. Nowhere do we read about Sumerians vilifying Akkadians as Akkadians or vice versa.

What we see in the archaeological and textual record is a growing tendency during the early third millennium for local polities to assert hegemony over other polities, culminating in the Akkadian dynasty, under Sargon the Great, achieving hegemony over the entire area of southern Mesopotamia. Rather than eschewing the native traditions, which in reality were not completely foreign to them, the Akkadians adopted and adapted to the local culture while simultaneously instituting certain religious and political changes. This was done with a good deal of diplomatic skill rather than brute force, as historians had once thought. The resulting population of southern Mesopotamia called themselves “the black-headed people,” a distinction not over/against anyone else, but simply a designation they gave themselves.

Supporting Links:

“Akkadian Empire.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

“Assumed Conflict between Sumerians and Semites in Early Mesopotamian History, The.” Thorkild Jacobsen, Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 59 no. 4. Accessible with subscription. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 26, 2009).

“Sumer.” Wikipedia. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

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