History Of A Nation: Mari

c. 2900 BC – c. 1761 BC

Here we go, the last smaller state before we get into the meat of the Akkadian Empire, and what is probably the closest I’ve gotten yet to going back to Sumer – I’ve put them as green on my maps but they should perhaps more accurately be some form of burnt orange close but not exactly to Sumer, who, let’s be honest, were themselves more a collection of city states than a nation, I just did them all together because it was an ideal place to start, now I’m picking up the extra pieces before moving on. Nagar was mentioned in some Sumerian records as an outpost, yet if it was attached to Sumerian hegemony at all, it was very loosely. Mari was still independent to pursue its own goals, but it was that much closer to the centre of the ruling Sumerian dynasties and traded extensively with them. Also, unlike Ebla and Nagar, whose culture was Semitic, the Mariotes were far closer to central Mesopotamia and at times in their history held much more dominance than one city would be expected to have. Rivalling other powers in the area and coming into conflict with them plenty of times, this city was definitely one of the most notable of its age. Before it got destroyed by the Akkadians, but it actually rose ever stronger from that destruction.



You’ll immediately notice that this map is not particularly similar to the Ebla or Nagar maps, it shows Mari as being far bigger, to reflect the period of time when they were strongest, in about the 24th and 18th centuries, and unlike I’ll do for many other nations, I don’t think there’s enough on either to justify splitting it into two posts. And I’ve started labelling other nations than Ebla and Sumer off to the sides of the map, to reflect that Mari had two periods of being a rather strong city state, and the landscape of their neighbours changed dramatically in the interim. I probably won’t stick to those colours for the later nations, but that’s a first glimpse of them.

Anyway, Mari was a city located on the border of what is now Syria and Iraq, on the Euphrates, and like with Ebla, when it was discovered, it gave the world several thousand tablets revealing a lot of information about the early Mesopotamian civilisations. During its time as a power it expanded to the west and to the north, taking out big chunks of the Eblaite kingdom, and held control over the cities in that area like Tuttul and Terqa on the map.


We don’t think Mari was a natural city. i.e. it was not founded by any sort of wandering tribe deciding to start an organised way of living. In fact, what we think is, and this makes Mari very interesting for me, is that it was founded purposefully by the Sumerians in order to control the upper part of the Euphrates when steering trade south. So while it’s not clear it was exactly that, but think of it as a semi-Sumerian city that was quite a bit less Sumerian than the core cities of Ur, Uruk and friends due to embracing Semitic influences, and was far enough away that its agenda looked very different.

From 2500 BC, after a period of abandonment and subsequent rebuilding, with some different people to the original inhabitants, although still quite Sumerian, Mari became a more independently minded kingdom, although its rulers were using the Sumerian title Lugal at this point, indicating that they hadn’t completely broken away from Sumer. Their rivalry with Ebla becomes apparent as many wars are mentioned as I’ve already said in the last two entries, with Mari being very successful in a couple of them, exerting their influence to the western points of green on the map and perhaps further. Beating Nagar to the Euphrates was an important part of these tasks, with Mari controlling the upper Euphrates Ebla could not trade with the Sumerian cities to the south east. These wars continued for a couple of hundred years until Mari was utterly destroyed by Sargon of Akkad and the second kingdom fell into ruin.

This wasn’t the end of Mari though, the site was eventually resettled under the Akkadian Empire and in the later part of that empire’s period, when its power was weakening, the military governor there got ascended to the kingship of Mari again, creating a new kingdom. When Akkad fell apart, Mari regained its independence, albeit with some close ties to the new Sumerian Ur kingdom. This lasted for a few hundred years until the Assyrians conquered Mari under the Old Assyrian Empire and placed a few of their kings on the throne. This was reversed not long after, but not long after that, merely a decade or so which is nothing in these BC terms, the position of king and the city were destroyed, this time pretty much for good, by Hammurabi of Babylon. Yes, that Hammurabi. I mean, you might have heard of him. We’ll cover him in detail at some point in the future.


The kings from the pre-Akkad period used Lugal as their title as said above. There are two I’m rather interested in, Ansud, from the 2420s BC and Iblul-Il, about 40 years later. Both were known for warring against Ebla, the former defeating several Eblaite vassal cities, the latter warring to block the trade from going downstream, as well as venturing east into Sumerian territory to fight campaigns along the Tigris. Iblul-Il was so successful there are statues attributed to him. Both of the names of these kings come from a king not long after them, Enna-Dagan, who wrote a letter to the king of Ebla at the time asserting Mari’s authority, presumably pointing to the past. Bragging and one-upping your opponent was well and alive between these two rivals.

The post-Akkadian kingdom had two major dynasties, the Shakkanakku dynasty, named after the Sumerian word for governor, who ruled for 400 years starting with Iddish, the first Akkadian governor who ruled for 60 whole years, which means he must have been quite young after being appointed as governor if the dates and evidence and general human lifespans we have are correct, I’m not so sure. The other dynasty was the Lim dynasty, an Amorite dynasty concurrent with other Amorite peoples taking power across Mesopotamia. They took power in the 1800s, but only a few kings after, they were then the ones ousted by Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria. The Lim king on the throne at the time, Yahdun, was assassinated, Shamshi Adad’s son was married to one of the Lim princesses while the rest of the family took refuge in Yamhad, the state that had sprung up to replace their former rivals Ebla. I expect the irony was lost on the people at the time but I’m going to enjoy it now. Yamhad was drawn into the fight and the young Zimri Lim, the grandson of Yahdun, marched at the head of their armies against the Assyrians, and he overthrew the Adad on the throne, bringing Lim rule back to Mari, for a mere 15 years until he attracted the attention of Babylon by allying with other, minor city states like Eshnunna and Hammurabi lost his patience and destroyed the city.

The title of King of Mari was used intermittently throughout the next millennium based on historical remembrance but never as a title for the head of an independent state.

Culture, Military, Economy and Religion

The Mariotes were, as I’ve said, a mix between the Semitic peoples from the west and the Sumerians to the East. It’s assumed that they spoke something similar to Eblaite earlier on but switched over to a language closer to Akkadian when that empire ruled and then Amorite during the period when the Lim dynasty ruled. Being at the centre of the Fertile Crescent means a lot of change over the course of a few hundred years. Scribes however wrote in Sumerian, which if this is correct assumes a disconnect  between written and spoken language. As the society appears to have been led by the monarchy and some other elites, in an oligarchical style of government, this could well have been the case. The art, architecture and dress was very similar to the nearby Sumerian cities, even later on when the Sumerian political power was less and Amorites were the ruling culture – although I must stress they weren’t completely Sumerian, the priests were not as powerful as they were in Sumer, in comparison to the ruling dynasty, Mari had one of the more powerful rulers in this area. Like with Ebla, women were relatively equal to men.

Ishtar and Dagan, who were in form in Nagar and Ebla were also worshipped a lot in Mari. Ishtar had a famous singer whose name has come down to us, Ornina, from the reign of Iblul-Il, one of the oldest known famous singers. Shamash and Athtar were also very important deities. Essentially it was early polytheism with a central pantheon with many individual gods and goddesses worshipped.

As a centre of trade, helped by its position, it was important for linking trade from the  Levant, Ebla and Canaan with Sumer, Assyria and Elam, making it one of the most important economic centres for merchants from lands all around. Similarly, its military was very important as it was a centre for wars, although I can’t find any information about what weapons they used, so I must assume it was the spear, the sling, the bow and arrow, early weapons like that. Mari was a centre of bronze metallurgy with districts of the city specifically dedicated to smelting the best metal available at the time, so they would not have been short of bronze to make swords and spears with, which they certainly needed.

A state which is probably the first one we’ll cover from a state whose central location means that its actions are almost completely defined by the actions of its neighbours. For Mari to survive as long as it did it needed power to project outwards and it was certainly not short of that, this once Sumerian colony grew to an eminent kingdom and at times, to what could have been called a proto-empire. The first real empire in human history is up next however, and I’ve been teasing them for long enough…

See also in History Of A Nation: Syria



See also in History Of A Nation: Iraq


Supporting Bibliography:

Joan Aruz & Roland Wallenfels,  Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. (2003)


7 thoughts on “History Of A Nation: Mari

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