Šamšī-Adad Palace


The Eastern Lower Town palace (Fig. 1) served as the main administrative center, residence and stronghold of the kings of Tell Leilan, ancient Šehna/Šubat-Enlil, during the late 19th and 18th century BC. Although other palaces of similar date have been excavated in Southern, Central and Northern Iraq, and along the Euphrates in Syria, the Tell Leilan Eastern Lower Town palace is the only major palace of this period from the Habur Plains of Syria. Unlike most other palaces found elsewhere in the Middle East, the Eastern Lower Town Palace was also excavated during the last twenty-five years, using modern techniques (Akkermans and Weiss 1991). Analysis of much of this material-including the animal bones, carbonized seeds, and sealings (Mesopotamian administrative devices)-is still ongoing. This excavation has already provided important new historical and archaeological material for the early second millennium BC; the complete analysis of the remains could revolutionize our view of economy, society and politics during this period.

Like most of the second millennium architecture at Tell Leilan, this palace (Fig. 2) was originally built by Šamši-Adad, who created a kingdom that united northern Mesopotamia, from the Tigris to the Euphrates, for 33 years. The Eastern Lower Town palace remained the center of government for this city for nearly 80 years, from probably about 1806 BC, when Šamši-Adad first established himself in this city, until 1728 BC when it was destroyed.

Two seasons (1985 and 1987) of excavation exposed about 10% of the massive palace complex. The area of the palace that was excavated included a probable throne room and associated entrance halls, the palace kitchens, and a series of store-rooms. More than 600 complete tablets, and more than 300 tablet fragments and sealings were found in this excavation. The largest cuneiform archive recovered from the Habur Plains of Syria. These records include international treaties, diplomatic correspondence and various administrative texts (Eidem 2008; Ismail 1991; Vincente 1991, 1995). They provide a framework for the history of northern Mesopotamia during the second half of the 18th century BC, forty years for which there was previously no documentation.

Figure 1.
Figure 2.

The Construction History of the Eastern Lower Town Palace

The 1985 and 1987 excavations at Tell Leilan exposed 1000 m2 of the Eastern Lower Town palace (Operation 3). The excavations revealed 25 rooms situated between two courtyards (Fig. 3). Four building levels were recovered: three pertain to this palace, while the most recent building level, building level I, represents the scanty remains of a “squatter occupation” following the abandonment of this building. The three building levels of this palace all contained epigraphic evidence which allows us to correlate its construction history with the reigns of the Leilan kings (Weiss and Ristvet 2008).

Building Level 4: Three rooms-9, 10, and 11-exposed in the northeastern corner of Operation 3 represent the oldest excavated building level (Fig. 4). Seal impressions found in this building level belonged to servants of Išme-Dagan and Šamši-Adad, suggesting that Šamši-Adad was responsible for the initial construction of this building.

Building Level 3: During the next phase, this palace was expanded into the previously open space to the south and the west. The ground plan of this palace survived with few changes for decades, until the building was finally abandoned. The excavation uncovered a series of rooms between two large northern and southern courtyards, including a “reception area”-probably the throne-room and main public area of this palace; the palace kitchens; and other work and storage areas.

The “reception area” was located in the central quadrant and contained the two courtyards (rooms 4 and 20) and the largest rooms in this palace: 1, 2/3, 5, and 6. These rooms were clean, symmetrical and carefully constructed. Courtyard 20 was carefully paved with square baked bricks and had doorways in its southern, eastern and western walls. Almost directly opposite the southern doorway, the bricks of the southern face of the northern wall of this courtyard were cut to form a symmetric curve extending 1.35 meters along this face. At each end of this curve, a deep posthole could be articulated along the plaster wall face (Fig. 5). In antiquity, the throne of the Leilan kings may have been set against this curve.

The areas west, northeast and southeast of the reception area contained a series of work-rooms, kitchens and storage areas (Fig. 6). The earliest sealings from this phase come from Šamši-Adad’s servants, suggesting that he built the Building Level 3 palace as well as the Building Level 4 one. The ashy deposits and burnt floors found everywhere in this palace may provide evidence that this occupation phase was destroyed violently, probably when Atamrum of Andarig seized this city from the Sukkalmah of Elam, a decade after Šamši-Adad’s death.

Building Level 2: Himdija of Andarig, Atamrum’s son, probably rebuilt this palace after it was destroyed during the conquest of Šehna/Šubat-Enlil. The plan of the palace and the function of the different areas changed little during this phase. Most of the artifacts found within the palace-including most of the tablets and sealings-come from building level 2 (Fig. 7).

Building Level 1: After the fall of Šehna/Šubat-Enlil, temporary settlers built ovens, a brick platform and a few fragmentary walls atop the ruins of the palace of the kings of Leilan, before the site was abandoned completely.

Figure 3.
Figure 4.
Figure 5.
Figure 6.
Figure 7.

The Archives of the Kings of Leilan

Four different archives of tablets and sealings were found in the Eastern Lower Town Palace (Fig. 8). They range from a diplomatic archive containing rare early Mesopotamian treaties (only short drafts had ever been found from this period anywhere in the Near East before) to an archive recording the wine that the Leilan kings served their guests and received from visitors.

Next to the throne room, in room 2 of the reception area, 60 tablets and 40 sealings from the archive of Jakun-ašar’s wine steward were found. Wine or beer archives have been found in similar locations in other Old Babylonian palaces, including the palace at Tell ar-Rimah, Iraq and the Northern Lower Town Palace at Tell Leilan. In a storage room southeast of the reception area, room 22, a diplomatic archive containing treaties, letters and administrative texts from the reigns of Mutija, Till-abnu, and Jakun-ašar was discovered. Nearby, in room 23 part of a series of kitchens, 50 clay sealings were found that belonged to Sin-iddin, the baker. Finally, a number of miscellaneous sealings and tablets were discarded in room 5 when this area went out of use.

These tablets and sealings illustrate the extent of the palace administration and highlight some aspects of the ideology that the Leilan kings used to justify their rule. Every state activity, from baking bread for the king’s servants and guests to swearing eternal brotherhood with neighboring kings (Fig. 9), was carefully recorded and controlled by a series of government officials: the palace functioned as the political and economic power base of the kings of Leilan.

The diplomatic archive also contained an unexpected literary text-a copy of the Sumerian King List (Fig. 10). This document was written in Sumerian, which by this time was a dead, literary language. It records the different cities where kingship “descended from heaven”, spanning the time from “before the flood” to ca. 1900 BC, less than 100 years before the palace was built. An analysis of the clay proves that it came from the area around Tell Leilan, and was thus written by a local scribe, like most of the other documents found here. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian King List was a potent document that a king could use to prove his legitimacy. Šamši-Adad and the other kings of Leilan copied and preserved it to indicate the importance of their north Mesopotamian capital.

Figure 8.
Figure 9.
Figure 10.

The Eastern Lower Town Palace Archives and the History of Tell Leilan

The 80 years that the Eastern Lower Town Palace housed the kings of Tell Leilan were full of dramatic incidents. This palace endured wars, sieges, and reversals of fortune. In the late 19th and early 18th century BC, many kings of the Near East tried to conquer the Habur plains-to secure its lush pasture and bountiful harvest for their own use. Šamši-Adad had probably established himself at Tell Leilan by the third year of his reign (1806 BC) 
(Fig. 11), after securing the throne in Ekallatum and Assur (Charpin and Ziegler 2003). He continued to expand his kingdom to the east and west until it encompassed the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates in northern Mesopotamia. Tell Leilan was uninhabited when he arrived, although the ruins of the third millennium city wall would have created an imposing space, dominated by the ruins of the Acropolis. Šamši-Adad renamed the city-whose third millennium name was Šehna-Šubat-Enlil-“The Residence of Enlil”-after the chief god of the Southern Mesopotamian pantheon. After Šamši-Adad’s death, in 1776 BC, his empire quickly disintegrated. One of his officials, Samija, retained control of Šubat-Enlil for about four years; it probably continued to belong to the domain of Šamši-Adad’s son, Išme-Dagan. Yet with Šamši-Adad dead, Samija and Išme-Dagan could barely hold onto the city. Nearly every king in the Near East hoped to conquer and plunder Tell Leilan, which was full of the wealth that Šamši-Adad had acquired while building his empire. For the next 10 years, from 1772-1762, no king was able to rule Tell Leilan for long; during this short period six different kings attempted to control the city. Some of their reigns-like that of the unlucky Zuzu who fell from the city wall, lasted for less than a year. Several kings of neighboring cities or countries-including the rulers of Elam in Iran and Andarig in northern Iraq-conquered and looted the city.

From 1761-1750 there is a gap in our records, but it seems that the political chaos had begun to abate. Most of the documents from the Eastern Lower Town Palace date from 1750-1728 and chronicle the activities of the three final kings of Leilan: Mutija, Til-abnu and Jakun-ašar (Fig. 12). The situation during their reigns differs from the frenzied political situation in the city ten years earlier. From 1761-1728, Tell Leilan was probably ruled by one family of kings. Til-abnu and Jakun-ašar were brothers, Mutija was probably their uncle, and their father Dari-epuh may also have been king. These kings controlled a small territory in the Habur Plains of Syria and conducted campaigns to the south and east in northern Iraq. Somewhere at Tell Leilan a colony of traders from Assur lived; a treaty between them and King Til-abnu attests to their presence. Hammurabi of Aleppo-in northern Syria-seems to have been the acknowledged overlord of all of northern Syria and Mesopotamia during this time. In 1728, this city’s fortunes took a final turn, when Samsu-iluna of Babylon, Hammurabi’s son and successor conquered the city and killed Jakun-ašar, its last king (Fig. 13).

Figure 11.
Figure 12.
Figure 13.

Works Cited

  • Akkermans, Peter M.M.G., and Harvey Weiss. 1991. Tell Leilan 1987: Operation 3. A Preliminary Report on the Lower Town Palace. Annales Archéologiques Arabes Syriennes 37/38:91-109.
  • Charpin, Dominique, and Nele Ziegler. 2003. Florilegium marianum V: Mari et le Proche-Orient à l’époque amorrite: Essai d’histoire politique. Mémoires de NABU, Vol. 6. Paris: SEPOA.
  • Eidem, Jesper. N.D. The Royal Archives from Tell Leilan 1: Old Babylonian Letters and Treaties from The Lower Town Palace. Yale Tell Leilan Research, Volume 2. London and New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Ismail, Farouk. 1991. Altbabylonische Wirtschaftsurkunden aus Tall Leilan (Syrien). Ph.D. Dissertation, Eberhard-Karls-Universität, Tübingen.
  • Vincente, Claudine. 1991. The 1987 Tell Leilan Tablets Dated by the Limmu of Habil-kinu. Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
  • ——. 1995. The Tall Leilan Recension of the Sumerian King List. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie. 85:234-270.
  • Ristvet, L. and Weiss, H. 2008. Micro-and Macro-Contexts of the Tell Leilan Tablets. In J. Eidem, The Royal Archives from Tell Leilan: Old Babylonian Letters and Treaties from The Lower Town Palace. London and New Haven: Yale University Press.