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The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia


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The construction of cities, their monumental structures and ceremonial spaces, and their cultural life occupy considerable space in the early literary compositions from southern Mesopotamia. The scholarship on Mesopotamian cities has been limited to questions of the emergence of urbanism and social complexity, state formation, labor organization, craft specialization, population estimates and settlement hierarchies during the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. This paper contributes to these debates through the discussion of a series of concepts concerning the city and urban life drawn from the early Mesopotamian corpus of poetry in Sumerian, with special emphasis on the so-called “city laments.” This is, on the one hand, an attempt to bridge the gap between the archaeological accounts of early cities in the ancient Near East and the literary representations of urban space. On the other hand, the goal is to move towards understanding the poetics of urban space in Mesopotamia, to read cities as places of human experience, everyday practice, political discourse, and cultural imagination. The paper focuses on two frequently encountered metaphors concerning the city in early Mesopotamian poetry: the cattle pen and the sheepfold (Sum. tur and amaš), which takes us to the Mesopotamian conceptualization of the king as shepherd and the society as his flock. I suggest that early Mesopotamian economy and political structure presents us a fascinating case of what Michel Foucault has termed “pastoral power”. Considering Foucault’s notion of the “pastoral power” as a technology of governance and royal rhetoric, I discuss the cattle pen and sheepfold as spatial metaphors that define the Mesopotamian city between movement and settlement, between economies of pasturage and agriculture. Here, the city appears as a site where the king’s ideals of beneficence and pastoral power finds expression, while royal power is characterized not so much as governance over a territory but over a “multiplicity” (the “flock”). This rhetoric of power based itself on a regime of beneficence and care, rather than on violence and terror.
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Heaven on Earth
edited by
with contributions by
Claus Ambos, John Baines, Gary Beckman, Matthew Canepa,
Davíd Carrasco, Elizabeth Frood, Uri Gabbay, Susanne Görke,
Papers from the Oriental Institute Seminar
Heaven on Earth
2–3 March 2012
Heaven on Earth
The Oriental Institute, Chicago
Series Editors
Leslie Schramer
with the assistance of
from the Arthur and Lee Herbst Research and Education Fund
Printed by McNaughton & Gunn, Saline, Michigan
American National Standard for Information Services — Permanence of
PREFACE vii
  
Ancient World 1
Deena Ragavan, The Oriental Institute
  
The Case of the Yicihui Pillar  
Tracy Miller, Vanderbilt University
   
Susanne Görke, Mainz University
  
Architecture in India 
Julia A. B. Hegewald, University of Bonn
  
in Ancient Mesoamerica  
Karl Taube, University of California, Riverside
   
Michael W. Meister, University of Pennsylvania
   
Gary Beckman, University of Michigan
   
Betsey A. Robinson, Vanderbilt University
  
Sources  201
Deena Ragavan, The Oriental Institute
  
  223
Uri Gabbay, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
  
Ancient Mesopotamia  
Claus Ambos, Heidelberg University
  
Southern Levant  
Yorke M. Rowan, The Oriental Institute
Heaven on Earth
  
 
Elizabeth Frood, University of Oxford
  
Persia and the Ancient Iranian World  
Matthew P. Canepa, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  
in Ancient Mesopotamia  
 ÖmürHarmanşah,BrownUniversity
  
Performer  
John Baines, University of Oxford
   
Clemente Marconi, New York University
   
Davíd Carrasco, Harvard University
   
Richard Neer, University of Chicago
enthusiasm in the academic community, both at the Oriental Institute and more broadly across the
Heaven on Earth
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
The CaTTlepen and The Sheepfold:
CiTieS, TempleS, and paSToral power
in anCienT meSopoTamia
Ömür Harmanşah, Brown University*
Enlil, when you marked out the holy settlements, you also built Nibru, your own city.
You (?) … the Ki-ur, the mountain, your pure place. You founded it in the Dur-an-ki,
in the middle of the four quarters of the earth. Its soil is the life of the Land, and
the life of all the foreign countries. Its brickwork is red gold; its foundation is lapis
lazuli. You made it glisten on high in Sumer as if it were the horns of a wild bull. It
makes all the foreign countries tremble with fear. At its great festivals, the people
pass their time in abundance.
(Enlil in the E-Kur [Enlil A], lines 65–73;
translation from Black et al. 2004, p. 323)
Introduction: Cities, Imagination, Pastoral Power
The construction of cities with their monumental structures, ceremonial spaces, and the
cultural life of urban spaces occupy a considerable amount of space in the literary composi-
tions of the southern alluvium during the early second millennium  In the Sumerian
literary composition Enlil in the E-Kur, quoted above, the city Nibru (Nippur) is described
as the precious design and sacred foundation of its patron deity Enlil. Situated in the center
of the cosmos, the city and its temples constitute the civilized social space where people
congregate for benevolent festivals and take refuge in times of disorder. It is quite striking
how the built structure of the city (its soil, its brickwork, and its foundations) is described as
a physically powerful place and how the city’s architectonic brilliance derives directly from
its holiness, its mythologies, and its social significance.
The scholarship on Mesopotamian cities has largely focused on a series of standard
anthropological questions concerning the emergence of urbanism in the contexts of devel-
opment of social complexity, state formation, labor organization, craft specialization, popu-
lation estimates, and settlement hierarchies during the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze
* This article developed out of a very brief but dense-
ly and painfully written section in my dissertation
Humanities Forum in the session “Suspending (Dis)
Belief” (2004) and presented to the Cultures and Re-
ligions of the Ancient Mediterranean (CRAM) work-
shop at Brown University (2007). I am grateful to
Matthew Rutz, Jeremiah Peterson, Naomi Miller, and
the participants of the CRAM workshop for reading
various versions of this manuscript and providing
generous criticism and serious help. Irene J. Winter
has shown extraordinary support for the present
ideas in several of our conversations.
Ömür Harmanşah
Ages.1 In response to such well-defined research priorities, archaeological work on fourth-
and third-millennium urbanization concentrated on identifying the networks of settlement
and irrigation systems (Stone 2005, p. 144), while discussions of urban space have been re-
stricted to building projects of the royal patrons with little consideration of the complexity
of social relations behind the production of urban space. The spatial configuration of urban
landscapes and the history of specific cities have rarely been addressed from a historically
informed and spatially grounded perspective.2 Spatial configuration in this context cannot
be reduced to the physical layout of urban spaces, location of this temple and that palace,
alignment of streets and watercourses, where the markets and craft quarters are located,
and how wealth is distributed across residential neighborhoods, etc., but I attend to political
discourses, social practice, and everyday cultural processes through which the built environ-
ment is produced, maintained, and made meaningful in the social imagination.
Recent critical studies of urban space demonstrate that, beyond settlement layouts and
population statistics, cities are layered topographies of cultural histories, sites of active
place-making events, and public spaces of collective action, as well as platforms for cultural
imagination and political discourse.3-
cinctly put it: “the city is located and continually reproduced through … orienting acts of
imagination, acts grounded in material space and social practice.” In this article I propose
that such a complex understanding of the city as a layered set of spatial practices and cultural
representations is possible through an archaeological approach to urban space. Here I use
archaeology in two senses of the word, both in reference to the actual disciplinary method-
ologies of archaeology with its thorough understanding the long-term histories of settlement,
and in reference to a Foucaultian definition of archaeology as a metaphor in seeking the
genealogy of institutions and geographies of power. It is therefore possible to make the case
for archaeology of the city to involve the incorporation of literary representations of the built
environment in order to excavate the layered meanings of urban spaces and their politics.
In this paper, I intend to contribute to the archaeological discussions of what we know
about the Mesopotamian city of the second (and to a certain extent third) millennium ,
by investigating the concepts of the city and urban forms of life as they were represented
in the corpus of poetry in Sumerian, which largely dates to the first half of the second mil-
lennium  On one hand, this is an attempt to bridge the gap between archaeology and
text, specifically archaeological accounts of the city in the ancient Near East and the literary
representations of cities. On the other hand, it also stems from my desire to arrive at an un-
derstanding of the city from a cultural studies perspective in contrast to the quantification-
based discussions of urbanism and urbanization of the southern alluvium. What I wish to
accomplish is to understand the poetics of urban space in the ancient Near East, and to read
cities as places of human experience, everyday practice, and cultural representation. The
1 For recent reviews of early Mesopotamian cities
and the emergence of urbanism, see, e.g., Algaze
2008, pp. 40–92; Ur 2007; Stone 1991, 2005, and 2007;
Yoffee 2005, pp. 42–90; Van De Mieroop 1997.
2 Although see now Baker 2011 for Iron Age cities of
3 I borrow the concept of “cultural imagination” from
Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological theory, and his
particular discussion of ideology and utopia as two
forms emerging from a common, creative domain
of cultural imagination, represented in the cultural
forms of the everyday world such as symbols, myths,
poems, ideologies, and narratives (Ricoeur 1986 and
1991; see also Kaplan 2008, pp. 205–07).
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
arguments presented below are not philological ones but they should be understood as a
contribution to architectural history in the ancient Near East.
“City laments” are a series of texts from the Sumerian literary corpus known primarily
from copies produced in the Old Babylonian curricula of scribal schools (Black et al. 2004,
pp. 127–28; Cooper 2006). These long compositions involve epic narratives of the destruc-
tion or decline of particular cities such as Nippur, Eridu, Ur, and Uruk, and, most crucially,
glorify the subsequent restoring of these cities and their temples and their social life by the
benevolent kings of the Middle Bronze Age, especially the rulers of the First Dynasty of Isin
(Tinney 1996).4 It is part of the argument here that the particular rhetoric of the moral/
ritual decline and physical destruction of cities and their restoration by devoted kings is a
phenomenon specific to the southern Mesopotamian dynasties of the early second millen-
nium , following the wide-scale collapse at the end of the third millennium (Cooper
2006, p. 40; Michalowski 1989, pp. 1–3). These early second-millennium texts mainly come
from archaeological contexts of Mesopotamian cities, which at the time were undergoing an
intensive episode of re-urbanization, as is well known from the archaeological work at places
primarily from copies produced in the Old Babylonian curricula of scribal schools, which
were already ideologically charged places.5 The scribes of the various urban institutions
were influential on the survival and the state of preservation of certain literary composi-
tions by means of their “process of sifting through and selecting materials” for their school
curriculum, and their editing practices were often driven by ideological motivations of their
royal patrons, particularly in the case of the so-called royal hymns and other court literature
(Michalowski 1995, p. 2284; see also Brisch 2007). The construction and appropriation of a
mythical-ancestral past, especially linking existing structures of rulership with the mythical
heroes of Uruk, and the divine legitimation of the ruler were a major part of the intellec-
tual exercises in the scholarly production of literary works in the courts of late third- and
early second-millennium kings (Visicato 2000). As has been pointed out by various scholars
previously, this intensive production of literary and other texts lead to the construction of
an extremely rich body of pan-Mesopotamian heritage of oral history, and articulated a col-
lective understanding of a “Mesopotamian” past, distilled in the mythologies, histories, and
cultures of storytelling (Veldhuis 2004, pp. 66–80; Michalowski 1983).
This paper discusses two important metaphors one finds in early Mesopotamian poetry
concerning the city: the cattlepen and the sheepfold (Sumerian tur and amaš), which derive
from the Mesopotamian conceptualization of the king as shepherd and the society as his
flock on the move. I suggest that this Mesopotamian political imagination of the late second
millennium  presents us not simply the case for the usually assumed role of such meta-
phors as “topoi” or “stock-strophes” associated fertility and prosperity (e.g., Ferrara 1995,
4 Among the city laments, most prominently known
are the Nippur Lament (Tinney 1996), Eridu Lament
 
for Sumer and Urim (Michalowski 1989), Lamenta-
tion over the Destruction of Ur, the fragmentary
text Ekimar Lament, and finally but a bit marginally
the Curse of Agade (Cooper 1983, pp. 20–28; more
recently, Cooper 2006). However, it is crucial to note
that this grouping of the concerned texts under the
definition of a textual genre is essentially a modern
philological construct. See Tinney 1996, pp. 11–25,
for a critical dicussion of genres, critical and ethnic
genres, and city laments in Sumerian literature. On
the city laments, see also Michalowski 1989, pp. 8–9.
5 On the scribal school curricula, see Delnero 2010
with previous literature; also Black et al. 2004, p. xl.
Ömür Harmanşah
pp. 87–95) but, more significantly, an informative case of what Michel Foucault has termed
Considering Foucault’s notion of pastoral power as a royal rhetoric and a form of govern-
mentality, I discuss the cattlepen and sheepfold as historically charged spatial metaphors
used by the Isin-Larsa elites of the early second millennium  that characterize the
Mesopotamian city in between economies of pasturage and agriculture, between movement
and settlement, between regimes of care and exercise of power, and, perhaps most signifi-
cantly, between the local political discourse and an idealized pan-Mesopotamian past. In
this context the city appears as a site where the king’s ideals of beneficence and pastoral
power finds expression, while royal power and notions of governmentality are presented
not so much as absolute rule over a territory based on violence and terror (as often assumed
in current scholarly literature), but over a “multiplicity” (the society, the “flock”) based on
beneficence and care. Using a powerful narrative of a romanticized urban past followed by
catastrophe and destruction and the subsequent restoration of social order, the pastoral
discourse derives its strength from the fact that it implicitly claims a shared Mesopotamian
heritage of urban and rural prosperity while promoting Isin-Larsa kings for returning that
prosperity to the people by rebuilding their cities and temples, restoring their rituals and
festivals, reprovisioning the everyday life. The archetypal image Mesopotamian city and its
sanctuaries as cattlepen and sheepfold portrayed as archetypal enclosures of agro-pastoral
life in the southern alluvium is effectively entangled with symbolisms of animal husbandry
as well as suggesting a unique relationship of care between the king and his subjects.
Inspired by the ancient Near Eastern history and the Christian West, Michel Foucault
proposed that early forms of governmentality depended on the idea and organization of a
pastoral type of social power. This idea is perhaps best articulated in his Collège de France
lecture of 8 February 1978 on “governmentality,” posthumously published in the volume
Security, Territory, Population, a collection of his 1977–1978 lectures at the Collège.6 In this
memorable lecture, Foucault traces the origins of governmentality through a discussion of
two forms, “the idea and organization of a pastoral type of power … and … the practice of
spiritual direction, the direction of souls” (Foucault 2007, p. 123). Foucault takes his audience
to the pre-Christian East in order to trace the genealogy of pastoral power as a prelude to
Christian pastorate: “the theme of the king, god, or chief as shepherd (berger) of men, who
are like his flock.” This state discourse of domination and technology of governmentality
is well attested in the Eastern Mediterranean world, as Foucault notes, and especially well
documented in ancient Mesopotamian texts, which would have been available to Foucault
through monographs such as Ilse Seibert’s Hirt, Herde, König: Zur Herausbildung des Königtums
in Mesopotamien (1969). Foucault argued that the shepherd’s power manifests itself in a duty,
a task to be undertaken. The form it takes is not the striking display of strength and superior-
ity, but suggests zeal, devotion, and endless application. The shepherd is someone who keeps
watch, developing a sense of vigilance and a regime of care (Pandian 2008).
6 Michel Foucault lectured at the Collège de France
from 1971 until his death in 1984, when he held the
prestigious chair the History of Systems of Thought.
These lectures have been reconstructed from sound
recordings of a collection of his auditors and ed-
mard and Picador. Very different from his densely
written work, these lectures present Foucault’s
thought process in his later life in the form of a pow-
erful narrative.
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
Lamenting the City, the Cattlepen, the Sheepfold
The distinctive group of literary compositions called city laments, where the spatial
metaphors of the cattlepen and the sheepfold are particularly prominent, portray a world in
distress: the socio-cultural decline and physical destruction of prominent southern Mesopo-
tamian cities. The city laments are in general terms associated with the highly performative
eršemma and balag cult songs performed by the professional lamentation (gala) priests, often
in the emesal register of Sumerian (Black 1991). City lamentations from southern Mesopo-
tamia focus on human suffering and attempt to persuade the gods to restore social order.
Near Eastern lamentations in general are considered effective in restoring the fertility of
the land and the prosperity of societies (Bachvarova 2008, p. 18). As lengthy epic poems, the
city laments portray the destruction of the cities of the southern alluvium along with their
abandonment by their patron deities, while they “glorify royal reconstruction works in order
to persuade the cities’ patron deities to return home and to bless, and thereby legitimate, the
253). These texts testify to the turbulent political landscape of the end of the third millen-
nium in Mesopotamia and the subsequent decline of its major urban centers. They also need
to be considered within their very specific sociopolitical context of the early second millen-
nium, a time when energetic rulers sponsored building activities and the composition of such
literary compositions in their royal cities. It is within these texts that historically conscious
official discourses are presented linking the Isin-Larsa kings and their cities to their glorious
predecessors of the Mesopotamian past. The cattlepen and sheepfold metaphors emerge in
this context as a nostalgic imagination of urban economic prosperity of the third millennium
 while the character of southern Mesopotamian kingship shifts toward an ideology of
pastoral power. It is true that cattlepens and sheepfolds also appear in late third-millennium
texts such as the hymns sponsored by the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur or cylinders of
 who were
ambitious builders of cities and temples. However, these terms become truly established and
effective in the context of the city laments, linking Old Babylonian ideologies of kingship
that were grounded in the idea of restoring urban spaces from the widespread destruction
and collapse at the end of the third millennium 
Cities such as Nippur, Eridu, Ur, and Uruk, for which lamentations have been composed,
are all urban centers deeply rooted in the history of urbanization in the southern alluvium
and prominent in the social memory of the Near Eastern societies of the second and first mil-
lennia. The prominent role of urban centers in the beginnings of civilized life is perhaps best
expressed in the so-called flood story, a fragmentary late Old Babylonian text known mostly
from a tablet now at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (CBS 10673+10867). Here the
main plot is the creation and civilization of mankind (“black-headed people”), the institution
of kingship, the founding of the five mythical cities, and a subsequent “flood” (Black et al.
2004, pp. 212–15).7 In the poem, each of the five newly founded cities — Eridug, Bad-tibira,
7 The tablet was excavated at Nippur in the third
season of the expedition (1893–96) and is now in the
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology
and Anthropology. Unfortunately, only the lower
third of the tablet is preserved. The cuneiform text
was published by Arno Poebel (1914). Bottéro and
Kramer (1989, p. 564) point to two pieces of possible
duplicates, one from Ur, the other from an unknown
Ömür Harmanşah
Larag, Zimbir (Sippar), and Šuruppag — are allocated to a major divinity of the Sumerian
pantheon. Furthermore, these cities were endowed, on the one hand, with divine powers and
the rituals and the social order that maintain the well-being of the society, the so-called mes
(see discussion below), and, on the other hand, with kab₂-dug-ga, a legal status of sorts that
most probably had something to do with irrigation rights (Civil 1994, pp. 153–63, esp. p. 160):
After the … of kingship had descended from heaven, after the exalted crown and
throne of kingship had descended from heaven, the divine rites and the exalted
powers were perfected, the bricks of the cities were laid in holy places, their names
were announced and the [kab₂-dug-ga] were distributed. The first of the cities,
Eridug, was given to Nudimmud the leader. The second, Bad-tibira, was given to the
hero Utu. The fifth, Šuruppag, was given to Sud. And after the names of these cit-
ies had been announced and the [kab₂-dug-ga] had been distributed, the river …, …
was watered, and with the cleansing of the small canals … were established. (Black
et al. 2004, pp. 213–14)
The civilized world is described here in the form of a series of newly founded urban
centers as seats of specific divinities, while their rights to water for irrigated agriculture
and their herds, and the establishment of their cult practices seem to be significant for the
maintenance of the social order. Similar to this narrative of the divine foundations of cities,
in the hymn Enlil in the E-kur, the foundation of the city of Nippur and its main sanctuary
complex were attributed to the god Enlil, while Nippur is conceptualized as being located
at the center of the universe. The city is presented as monumental in a horizontal, earthly,
human domain (“as if it were the horns of a wild bull”), which “makes all the foreign coun-
tries tremble with fear” and people congregate for benevolent festivals.8 However, Nippur
is also referred as dur-an-ki “Bond-of-Upper-and-Lower-Worlds,” set on the human-divine
vertical axis acting as a mediatory space (Westenholz 1998, p. 46). Nippur was considered as
the meeting place of the divine assembly (ukkin), therefore it held the “shrine where des-
tinies are decreed” (eš₃ nam tar.ra), it was “the city of decisions.9 This religious prestige
bestowed a fundamental ideological significance to Nippur among the early Mesopotamian
dynasties. While no political entity ever had the prestige of holding Nippur as the capital
city of its dynasty, every Mesopotamian king who had a territorial claim on a regional scale
in the southern alluvium had to be legitimized by the divine assembly at Nippur and had to
contribute to its prosperity, the building and restoration of its temples, the celebration of its
festivals (Postgate 1992, p. 33). Although Nippur is a unique example among the cities of the
southern alluvium in the fourth through second millennia , the literary representations
of this city are informative in discussing the cultural significance of urban space and urban
life, out of which political discourses such as pastoral power were derived.
However, the central place of cities in the political imagination finds its best expression
in the city laments, as discussed above. The Nippur Lament, most probably composed at the
), as convincingly argued by Steve
Tinney, “formed part of the contemporary presentation of the king as a friend of Nippur and
8 Enlil in the E-Kur, lines 69–73; see epigraph at the
beginning of this chapter.
9 On Nippur’s religious aspects as a city, see, e.g., Sal-
laberger 1997 and Lieberman 1992.
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
a favourite of its gods.” (Tinney 1996, p. 1). The poem starts with an intriguing line, essential
for the present discussion:10
line 1 After the cattle-pen had been built for the foremost rituals—
2 How did it become haunted? When will it be restored?
3 (Where) once the brick of fate had been laid—
4 Who scattered its rituals? The lamentation is reprised:
5 The storeroom of Nippur, shrine Duranki,
6 How did it become haunted? When will it be restored?
 
8 After the brickwork of Ekur had been built,
 
 
11 How did they become haunted? When will they be restored?
12 How did the true city become empty?
13 Its precious designs have been defiled!
14 How were the city’s festivals neglected?
15 Its magnificent rites have been overturned!
The text offers a vivid image of Nippur in decline, with its urban landscape fully endowed
with several sanctuaries, each invoked by name. The city is presented as an archetypal place
where the decision for monumental construction was “divinely inspired” through the lay-
ing of “the brick of fate” or alternatively “decreed brickwork” (Tinney 1996, p. 130 n. 3). A
contrasting ekphrasis of the city’s desolate landscape with respect to its urban history tells
us that such powerful, originary status of the urban landscape have now lost its meaning
with the falling apart of its cult practices and subsequent abandonment. According to Steve
Tinney’s commentary, the two words that are invoked at the very beginning of the pas-
sage tur₃ (“cattlepen”) and me (“divine ordinances/decrees” translated here as “foremost
rituals”) both carry symbolic references to “well-being, … collective safety, protection and
agricultural prosperity of the cattle-pen on the one hand, and the orderliness of the natural
and social worlds, as well as the rituals needed to maintain this order, on the other” (Tinney
1996, p. 127, emphasis mine). As Tinney (ibid., p. 125) points out, the cattlepen is used as a
metaphor for the city of Nippur itself. It is the sacred space par excellence, built in accordance
with the divinely ordained precious designs (giš-hur) and for the practicing of the ritual
activity — precisely in the way it should take place — which were the essential conditions
for the well-being of the world order. Then what is referred in the first line is actually the
original construction as well as the raison-d’être of the city Nippur-qua-the cattle pen (tur₃)
that holds the divine essences (me).
A conspicuous idea that one finds extensively in the literary compositions is that as
the gods took residence at particular cities, they also brought their divine decorum, their
divine essences (Sumerian me) for the architectural shaping of their earthly domains: their
temples were described as embedded in the urban fabric of the cities (literally, “brickwork”)
and confined within the monumental city walls. Though risking a serious anachronism here,
I use the word decorum in the original Latin sense “literary and dramatic propriety,” that is,
“befitting” in general terms. The term is useful, since in the Sumerian language there seems
10 The transliterations and translations are from the
scholarly edition of the text, Tinney 1996. For the
history of research on the text, cf. Tinney 1996, pp.
Ömür Harmanşah
to be much concern toward the appropriateness, fitting-character of practices in accordance
with social and religious norms, especially a great concern in defining aspects of craftsman-
ship. Winter’s argument (2000, p. 33) on the “fitting/suitable” character of Mesopotamian
temples, abundantly expressed in ancient texts as the positive visual quality of the buildings
that provoked admiration, neatly confirms with this idea. Decorum is also used in antiquity
as an architectural term, to denote, the way buildings should look like in accordance with
certain social/cultural norms (see, e.g., Vitruvius, On architecture 1.2.5–7).
In the Nippur Lament, the thorough ekphrastic description of the urban landscape evokes
many architectural metaphors. The common poetical expression “brickwork” (sig₄), for
example, seems to refer to the physical corpus of the urban built environment. Similarly,
in the Lament for Sumer and Urim, Umma is referred as “the brickwork in the midst of the
highlands” (Michalowski 1989, p. 45; Black et al. 2004, p. 132, line 155). I interpret the ex-
pression as a visual metaphor for the architectural corpus of the city itself or its large com-
plexes (such as sanctuaries), most likely from the visual dominance of sun-dried or kiln-fired
mudbricks in the structural fabric of buildings. This formed the outstanding architectonic
aesthetics of early Mesopotamian architecture (Moorey 1994, pp. 302–22). It is important to
see the metaphorical aspect of the expression as a cumulative architectural corpus with a
distinct tectonic quality.
The word me in Sumerian represents an abstract concept that refers to an extremely
loaded semantic domain. In very simplified terms, it is translated as “essence,” “a thing’s
The Reallexikon der Assyriologie gives the traditional meaning as “göttliche Kräfte” (in refer-
ence to A. Falkenstein) or “divine ordinances,” while it is also variously translated as “[divine
or princely] office” (Jacobsen 1987, p. 378) or “prescriptions” (Rosengarten 1977).11 The me
appears to be intrinsic powers or characteristics of divine beings that make the essential
activities within the natural and civilized worlds exist and function properly, and manifests
itself in the human world as various forms of cultural institutions, social practices, or craftly
representations of the divine.12 In this way, it is almost consistently associated in the texts
with ğiš-hur that denotes “(divine) plan, (precious) design.” Both can be understood as di-
vine powers that in one way or another become materially manifest in the real world, in
the objects, spaces, and bodies that are touched or infused by such supernatural agencies.
Jacob Klein argued that me often stood for “a two-dimensional symbol or image, en-
graved or painted on a sign, banner or standard, representing the underlying abstract con-
cept” (Klein 1997, p. 212). This intriguing idea may suggest that there is a seamless continuity
11 RlA s.v. meparṣu). Yvonne Rosengarten
(1977, p. 2) classified the various forms of transla-
tions that appear in Sumerological literature: a)
those who understand me as “divine decrees, as or-
ders issued by divine decisions,” b) those who see
it as “determined destinies imposed by the gods to
the humans,” c) those who believe that me refers
to “sorts of models, archetypes, comparable to Pla-
tonic idea,” and d) those who adopted more dynamic
terms as “divine powers or crafts.” One should refer
to the Inanna and Enki myth, where an incredible list
of the 94 me are listed as Inanna steals them from
Enki and transfers them to humanity. Innana’s list
includes an assortment of social and cultural institu-
tions, human and divine assets. For a translation and
detailed study of this text, see Farber-Flügge 1973.
1992; Cavigneaux 1978.
12 One of the most comprehensive definitions of me
that I have come across is that of Kramer and Maier
(1989, p. 57); “fundamental, unalterable, compre-
hensive assortment of powers and duties, norms
and standards, rules and regulations … relating to
the cosmos and its components, to gods and humans,
to cities and countries, and to the varied aspects of
civilized life.
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
between the abstract concept and its material manifestation/visual representation in the
Sumerian worldview. What is crucial for the present discussion is Klein’s suggestion that
the divinely bestowed me become manifest in objects of divine creation within the mate-
rial world, including (but not restricted to) landscapes, countries, cities, temples, objects of
exquisite craftsmanship, and the body-image of the king.13 They derive their agency from
the gods and these divine powers are visually expressed in their very materiality, while the
mes of the universe may become obsolete, if they are not sustained by means of decorous,
(re)productive social practices, as illustrated by the Nippur Lament (above). Therefore, the
habituated rituals and recurrent building activities must have been very much part of this
human anxiety for sustaining the effectiveness of mes.
The Lament for Sumer and Urim starts by evoking our four parallel concepts, the divine
powers, precious designs, the cattlepen, and the sheepfold:14
lines 1–2 To overturn the appointed times, to obliterate the divine plans [giš-hur], the storms
gather to strike like a flood.
  
[me] of Sumer, to lock up the favourable reign in its home, to destroy the city,
to destroy the house, to destroy the cattle-pen [tur₃], to level the sheepfold
[amaš]; that the cattle should not stand in the pen, that the sheep should not
multiply in the fold, that watercourses should carry brackish water, that weeds
should grow in the fertile fields, that mourning plants should grow in the open
country …
The pairing of the cattlepen metaphor with the city seems even more obvious in this
context, with a further possibility to associate the sheepfold with the temple complex.15 The
destruction of the city is associated with the abandonment of the giš-hur and the disruption
of the me. Such relationship between the cattlepen [tur₃] and the sheepfold [amaš], concern-
ing their appearance together in the texts was already pointed out by Tinney (1996, p. 127).
Later in the Nippur Lament, the day of restoration of Sumer and Akkad, brought in by Enlil
the construction of cities and temples was a primary manifestation of the prosperity of the
land: “May he [Enlil] build cattle-pens for you, may he enlarge sheepfolds” (Tinney 1996, p.
176 n. 254). Furthermore, Steinkeller (1999, p. 109 and n. 19) points out that the “cattle pen”
13 This very point also explains the general confusion
in the attempts to translate the word me; the ambi-
guity between the inherently possessed me and its
representational manifestations in the human world.
From the very different texts, in particular within
the context of city laments, one gets the impression
that mes of temples, cities, countries, etc., may be-
come obsolete if they do not receive maintenance
and utmost care, from the side of the human prac-
tices. It is exactly at this point that the idea of “fore-
most rituals” comes into play, since it is believed that
the repeated and continuous cultic activity keeps the
mes of the country alive and functioning, in such a
way that the world is in order.
14 Transliterations and translations are from Black
et al. 2004, pp. 128–29; see also Michalowski 1989.
15 Similarly, in the composition Enmerkar and
 
also metaphorically referred as “the cattlepen, the
house where the cows live” (line 172) and its sanctu-
ary as “the holy sheepfold, the sheepfold of Nisaba”
(line 185); Berlin 1979, pp. 50–53. In the Lament for
Sumer and Urim (line 186), “the settlements of the
E-danna of Nanna, like substantial cattle-pens, were
destroyed” and so was Ki-abrig “which used to be
filled with numerous cows and numerous calves”
(line 200) (Black et al. 2004, p. 133).
Ömür Harmanşah
appears as one of the recipients of beer in “two Uruk tablets dealing with the distribution of
beer,” along with “chief-administrators,” “the festival of the Inana of the west (= evening),
and the “chief-supervisor of the gipar(?).
It was also essential for the Mesopotamian kings to connect their political realm with
that of the divine. As I have tried to demonstrate above, the functioning of all the urban in-
stitutions and thus the well-being of the social order were made possible by the “(precious)
designs” [giš-hur] and “(divine) ordinances” [me] which I would like to call “divine decorum
of kingship. These would then shape the cultural landscape of the city, from the way the
ritual activity had to be carried out, to the manner in which the required cultic building
projects had to be accomplished with appropriate architectural qualities that befitted the
divine me. It is possible therefore to argue that the seemingly abstract concepts of giš-hur
and me are understood to be materially manifest or visually expressed in the architectural
corpus, the urban fabric of Mesopotamian cities, as a divine decorum that guides the shaping
of built environments and maintained by ongoing social and spatial practices.
Visual Representations and the Architecture of the Cattlepen
As a major urban economic institution within the Mesopotamian city, the temple was the
source of collective identity, not simply because it held a significant place in the everyday so-
cial life with its cult activities but also because it was the “wealthy neighbor,” a redistributive
institution that initiated extensive agricultural production, animal husbandry, long-distance
trade, and craft production (Postgate 1992, pp. 135–36; Stone 2005). It is well documented
that the specialized economy of the early Mesopotamian urban institutions heavily depended
this must have had important implications for the configuration of fortified urban spaces in
the southern alluvium as well as the pictorial representations of them. Likewise, the extraor-
dinarily rich visual repertoire of the late Uruk-period seal impressions, monumental stone
vases, and inlaid architectural decorations excavated from the contexts of early urbanization
in southern Mesopotamia form a corpus of imagery that corresponds well with the literary
evidence by presenting the spatial realm of the temple household with frequent represen-
tations of herds of cattle (Seibert 1969, pp. 23–35; see also discussion in Winter 2010). In
several of the published seals and seal impressions of the Late Uruk period, one finds a rich
iconography of cattle herds, related buildings, and a prominent kingly figure identified by
his special garb and his caring for the flocks. The associated architectural structures in these
scenes are usually elaborately depicted and interpreted as temples and storehouses (Kawami
2001). Irene Winter (2010, p. 121) has suggested that the mudhif-like reed structure depicted
on the alabaster trough from Uruk/Warka can be interpreted as a “sheep-fold.16 Similar rep-
resentations of reed structures with calves, lambs, and ringed bundle “standards” of Inana
emerging from them are frequently attested on Late Uruk cylinder seals (fig. 15.1) and Early
Bronze Age carved stone bowls from Ur and Khafaje.17 I suggest that these vernacular reed
16 See Moortgat 1969, pls. 17–18. This trough, 10.8 cm
high and 103.0 cm long, was excataed in the Eanna
complex; see Andrae 1930.
17 Kawami 2001, p. 40; Winter 2010. For an example
of green stone vase with relief representations of
a reed structure with Inanna reed bundles, found
in the Early Dynastic levels of small neighborhood
shrine at Khafaje, see Frankfort 1936, p. 69, fig. 54.
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
structures of the southern Mesopotamian marshes already point to an idealized primordial
architectural type associated with abundance and urban prosperity on the one hand, and the
cult of Inanna on the other. It is possible to assume that this Mesopotamian heritage of Late
Uruk urbanization may have continued to percolate in the urban and architectural cultures
of the third millennium  in southern Mesopotamia and have impacted the formation of
the powerful symbolism of the pastoral during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages.
Later and more complex examples of this architectural narrative of abundance and pros-
perity are seen in the Early Bronze Age. One important architectural ensemble comes from
a small but precious temple of Ninhursag in southern Mesopotamia at the small site of Tell
known from the so-called First Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2400 ). This Early Dynastic IIIA–IIIB
temple was excavated by H. R. Hall in 1919 and followed up by Leonard Woolley in 1923–24
(figs. 15.2–6) (Hall and Woolley 1927). The temple, which was in continuous use from the
Early Dynastic III to the Ur III period, stood on a high mudbrick platform and was surrounded
by an oval enclosure wall (Collins 2003, p. 84). The building presents us a rich assemblage
of architectural technologies of cladding and decoration at the time. Two beautifully con-
structed columns that flanked the entrance were built from palm logs covered with a coating
of bitumen and inlaid with mother of pearl, pink limestone, and black shale (fig. 15.3). The
copper alloy high relief figure of the famous lion-headed Imdugud bird clasping two stags
topped the entrance to the temple while the facade was decorated with a row of copper bulls,
shell-inlaid narrative friezes, and elaborate multi-colored clay nails (fig. 15.4). This iridescent
and luminous quality of the materials used on the building (mother of pearl, shell, copper
alloy, black shale, limestone, among other materials) perhaps speaks to the notion of me, as
a craftly representation of the divine — divine power made visible through the tantalizing
exotic materials of faraway lands, as illustrated in the famous passage in Enmerkar and the
Lord of Aratta (lines 37–54), where Enmerkar, king of Uruk, asks Inana to have the lord of
Aratta provide precious exotic materials (“stones of their hills and mountains”) for the build-
mes “become evident in Kullab” (line 53) (Vanstiphout 2003, p. 58).
More interestingly, on the facade of the temple of Ninhursag at Tell al Ubaid, an inlaid
narrative relief panel represents the temple as a cattlepen (figs. 15.5–6). The narrative se-
quence, made with inlaid Tridacna shells and limestone on a bitumen and black shale back-
ground, depicts a milking scene with the dominance of human figures on the left and cattle
on the right, while the composition is centered on the image of the temple. The vertical
linear features in the representation of the temple most likely allude to the reed construction
(upright reed bundles fastened together with bands of rope). The scene of cattle emerging
from a gate is also known from Late Uruk cylinder seal designs and low relief decoration on
an alabaster troughs (see discussion in Hall and Woolley 1927, pp. 113–14; and Winter 2010,
p. 203). The architecture of this temple may be considered as an archaizing representation
of an archetypal enclosure of a reed structure as cattle pen, as one would associate with the
long-term building practices in the marshy landscape of the south. In light of the above dis-
cussion of Mesopotamian cities and temples as cattlepen and sheepfold, this scene becomes
not just symbolically linked to Ninhursag, “lady of the steppe,” but evocative from a political
point of view as well. The political discourse operates on multiple levels here, both through
the exuberant use of precious materials and prestigious craft technologies in the decoration
of the temple facade (power over exotic resources of exotic landscapes), and its adherence
Ömür Harmanşah
to the worldview associated with pastoral power. The deliberate contrast in materials and
technologies between the representation of the temple on the inlaid panel as an archetypal
reed construction versus the luxuriously clad architectonics of the actual temple itself is
striking. In my view, it points to the idealization of the temple household as a site of produc-
tion grounded in the traditions of animal husbandry (therefore prosperity and fecundity),
all embodied in the visual and architectural metaphor of the cattlepen. Speaking from this
example, then, the architectural metaphor plays with temporality, both with references to
a prosperous distant past in the collective Mesopotamian memory and a promised future
guaranteed by the builder-king, while the representations remain deeply embedded in the
oral culture of mythological tales and political discourses. Furthermore, the architectural
metaphor also plays with materiality, shifting our focus from vernacular reed constructions
of deep antiquity to the current ruling power’s luxuriously sponsored monuments. While
the decorum is maintained, political messages are also delivered.
The Shepherd and the Pastoral Power
In line with the literary, spatial, and visual metaphors of cattlepen and sheepfold, Meso-
potamian rulers of the late third and early second millennium used “shepherd” [sipa] as a
royal title, as sponsors of the making of those places.18 In a cone inscription from Ur, Rim
shepherd of the broad
steppe,” would “multiply cattle and sheep in the cattle pens and sheepfolds” (Frayne 1990,
E4.2.14.4, lines 20–24). If the fecundity of the land depended on the maintenance of its cit-
ies and temples, it was the shepherd who took credit for “building cattle pens and founding
19 Ur
Namma was called “the foremost shepherd of Enlil” while Šulgi took on the title of being
“the shepherd of the black-headed-people” or “shepherd of the land,” among others.20 In
Examples can be multiplied, especially for the late third and early second millennium ,
but it is evident that the early Mesopotamian rulers seem to have chosen to be “shepherds” as
“the benevolent guardian” of their people. The shepherdship is then demonstrated through
the construction and maintanence of sheepfolds and cattlepens. In a hymn to Rim-Sîn, king
of Larsa (1822–1763 ), it is declared to him that at the city of his kingship, Larsa, “where
the mes of rulership have been cast,” he has rightly been “chosen for the shepherdship of
Sumer and Akkad.21
18 For a thorough survey of the occurrences of Sume-
rian sipa, see Westenholz 2004 and Seux 1967, pp.
441–46. For Akkadian rēʾû (= sipa) in the literature,
see Seux 1967, p. 244–50. It is clear that the royal
epithet “shepherd” was a long-term aspect of Meso-
potamian kingship, so much so that the Late Assyrian
rulers, who had a keen interest in establishing their
ties to the ancient heroes of Mesopotamia, used it in
the Iron Ages as well. See also Selz 2010, p. 10.
A xxiv 9; A xxv 22; B viii 17 and B ii 7; most recent
editions of the texts are found in Edzard 1997, pp.
1996, pp. 129–96. The phrase is alternatively as “righ-
teous shepherd” or “faithful shepherd.
20 Reisman 1969, p. 17, no. 61. See also Šulgi X 40,
where Šulgi is given “the shepherdship of all the
lands” [sipa-kur-kur-ra]; Klein 1981, pp. 138–39.
21 Postgate 1992, p. 261, text 14:1. In other texts,
Rim-Sin is referred as the “true shepherd”; see Kuhrt
1995, vol. 1, p. 79. Compare the expression for Šulgi
in Šulgi D, line 60: “Enlil, the king of all the lands,
[gave] you the shepherdship of the land” (Klein 1981,
pp. 74–75).
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
This correlation of metaphorical expressions in the mytho-poetic language of the Su-
merian compositions suggests an illuminating semantic nexus between the architecture
of the city and the temple complex as the cattlepen and the sheepfold, and the king as the
shepherd, holding the main institutions of the Mesopotamian society. As Anand Pandian has
recently argued, one could see this very relationship in the Foucaultian concept of “pastoral
power” as a form of “biopolitics” of the state, referring to “the government of a population
modeled on the relationship between a figurative shepherd and the individual members of a
flock” (Pandian 2008, p. 86). However, it is important to note that these metaphors point, not
necessarily to a de-humanizing, enslaving discourse of the state toward its people, but, on
the contrary, to the intimate and very genuine care that a shepherd offers to the well-being
of his flock, as Pandian elegantly argues. This is somewhat in contrast to modern Western
conceptualizations of shepherding as a political metaphor. In the context of everyday prac-
tice in early Mesopotamian cities, cattlepen and sheepfold appear as the perfect spatial
metaphors that speak of this very intimacy and care between the king and his subjects. The
literary evidence suggests that this was a prominent political discourse used by several of the
early Mesopotamian kings and explains the reasons why construction of cities and temples
occupy such a large space in their public monuments.
What I aim to do in this paper is an attempt to capture the cultural imagination of the
early Mesopotamian city in the city laments of the early second millennium  with a
focus on the spatial metaphors of tur₃ and amaš, cattlepen and sheepfold, which present a
nostalgic understanding of the then-lost cities of the Mesopotamian past. The urban space
is reconstructed as a sheltering enclosure for the primary animals of domestication, sheep
and cattle, while pastoralism and animal husbandry are imagined as primordial occupation
of the early urban life. The concepts of me and giš-hur support this mytho-poetic and utopic
conceptualization of the origins of the city — as divinely sanctioned and constructed spaces
that are then maintained by appropriate rituals and divine powers. Here, I borrow Paul
Ricoeur’s definition of cultural imagination as “a map of ideas, stories, and images a society
has about itself that integrates human action through interpretative schemas” (Kaplan 2008,
pp. 204–05). Three important concepts in understanding cultural imagination are ideology,
utopia, and memory. Ideology is an exchange between makers of political discourse and the
audience of that discourse, and it aims to consolidate social order for the good of a dominant
class. Utopia is innovative thinking that shatters that social order for the sake of liberation,
and project the society to an imagined ideal that is either located in the future or the past.22
Memory is a collectively shared vision of the past, an aspect of identity and belonging; col-
lectively produced and politically manipulated body of the knowledge of the past (embedded
in orality, texts, monuments, and visual culture).
In the rapidly changing urban environment of the early second millennium , we see
the articulation of a vision of ancient cities as archetypal enclosures of cattlepen and sheep-
fold, which constituted the spatial components of pastoral power while evoking nostalgic
22 See Pongratz-Leisten 2006 on a Mesopotamian ex-
ample of an urban utopia constructed in the texts of
Ömür Harmanşah
notions of primordial pastoral life and its associations of prosperity and moral purity. In the
context of the political rhetoric of the kings of First Dynasty of Isin, the benevolent and car-
ing king appears as a builder of cities and by definition becomes the shepherd of his flock.
This reflection on the early Mesopotamian past by the early second-millennium kings is a
creative one that somehow establishes an evolutionary perspective from pastoral lifestyles
to agricultural and mercantile urban economies.
The visual metaphors that were associated with the city, the temple and the urban archi-
tectural corpus, and the visual metaphors that glorified the corporeal image of the king, were
derived from similar concepts. As it is evident in the long-term concept of the Mesopotamian
king as a devoted builder, the “roi-bâtisseur,” the king had to build cities, temples, and other
monumental buildings not only for satisfying the spatial needs for the functioning of urban
institutions, but also for the maintenance of a worldly order (Lackenbacher 1992). The spec-
tacular layout of his cities, the perfection of his architectural projects and the performance
of urban rituals, were intimately linked to the perfection of the bodily image of the king,
which was always the focus of attention in the public sphere. This “corporeal integrity of the
monarch,” to use Michel Foucault’s term (2006) was maintained through a set of practices,
performances, and discourses ranging from building activities to state spectacles involving
the king’s own body; from the bringing of exotic raw materials and goods to state-sponsored
literary compositions. The divine and politicized power of the Mesopotamian ruler became
manifest in the king’s own bodily image: while the urban image of his cities, both of which
were endowed with divinely inspired qualities of craftsmanship. This ideological agenda of
the perfection of the king’s image then is used as a legitimation for the acquisition of exotic
and precious raw materials and skilled craftsmanship from marginal landscapes.
Mesopotamian literary sources are rich for understanding the image of the city in the
late third- and early second-millennium collective imagination. In the Mesopotamian poems
of this time period, the image of the city was associated with metaphors of the cattlepen and
sheepfold that were heavily charged with socio-symbolic representations of economic pros-
perity, civilization of the inhabited world, and its maintenance through cultural institutions.
In the discursive structure of these texts, the body of the king, the rituals of his city, the
craftly artifacts in the public sphere, as well as public monuments of the city, all derive their
material power from the divine mes endowed to them, and by this means constitute coherent
components of a utopic ideal of worldly order. We must, of course, situate this utopic ideal
in the political context of such state-sponsored literature under the Ur III and Isin-Larsa
kings. Equally important, however, is the task for us to trace the intimate dialogue between
the social practices, particularly building practices at the time of the composition of these
poems and the literary representations that emerge in them. The Mesopotamian city then
can only be understood through the careful parsing of social imaginations, official ideologies,
as well as material practices in the making of the social world.
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
Figure 15.2. Tell al Ubaid, Temple of Ninhursag. Isometric reconstruction. Early Dynastic period
(ca. 2600 ) (Hall and Woolley 1927)
Figure 15.1. Sealing with representations of reed structures with cows, calves, lambs, and ringed
Ömür Harmanşah
Figure 15.3. Tell al Ubaid, Temple of Ninhursag. Inlaid columns with red limestone, shell, and
bitumen. Early Dynastic period (ca. 2600 ) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia
Figure 15.4. Tell al Ubaid, Temple of Ninhursag. Copper bull sculpture from the frieze.
Early Dynastic period (ca. 2600 ) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
Figure 15.5. Tell al Ubaid, Temple of Ninhursag. Tridacna shell-inlaid architectural frieze with bitumen
and black shale. Early Dynastic period (ca. 2600 ) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
Figure 15.6. Tell al Ubaid, Temple of Ninhursag. Tridacna shell inlaid architectural frieze with bitumen
and black shale. Early Dynastic period (ca. 2600 ) (Hall and Woolley 1927)
Ömür Harmanşah
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... The trope of the king as benevolent and paternalistic protector, for example, relied heavily on caprine imagery. The king was a shepherd; the people, his flock; the city, his sheepfold (Harmanşah, 2013). The ruler Gudea of Lagash, for example, was repeatedly styled the "true shepherd" (e.g., Black et al., 1998Black et al., -2006 c.2.1.7), ...
The article pursues the question, whether Mesopotamian tradition developed a notion of utopia. Gudea's Building Hymn offers the basic material for the discussion of concepts such as paradise, Isle of the Blest, and utopia brought about by human action. It will be shown that, while linking the imagery of utopia to the moment of the building ritual, the text, in addition, draws the picture of Gudea as a peaceful ruler who, just by his correct cultic performance, succeeds in creating an urban utopia.
This article examines the built environment of urban Babylonia based on cuneiform evidence. It describes the experience of urban living from the point of view of the people who were the ordinary inhabitants of Babylon and the other cities of southern Mesopotamia, and contrasts their perspective with the high-level ideals projected by the ruler. It discusses the writings of the common people about the city.