More than 4,000 years ago, when humanity was still testing the waters of civilisation as we know it, when settlements and villages were beginning to coalesce into cities, kingdoms and for the first time ever an Empire, a man called Naram-Sin ruled as king of Akkad in Mesopotamia. Actually he proclaimed himself “King of Akkad, King of Sumer, King of the four corners of the world, King of the Universe.” Well, I never said humility was Naram-Sin’s problem.
Naram-Sin’s grandfather was a man called Sargon and Sargon was the first ever human to become the ruler of an Empire, back in the mists of time somewhere in the 23rd or 24th Century BCE. But where Sargon was the first to be an emperor, Naram-Sin was first to consider himself divine. Even his name was written with a small qualifier that indicated his status as divine. Incidentally the meaning of his name was ‘Beloved of the moon God Sin’.
History has of course made us a bit immune to rulers claiming themselves to be divine and we’ve seen many a king and emperor proclaim themselves rulers of both the spiritual and temporal domains. But four thousand years ago, when Naram-Sin added that dash of divinity to himself, I wonder how his subjects and those around his lands viewed it. We certainly know how he wanted posterity to view it, thanks to a magnificent monument that survives to this day.
The monument is called the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin and it is currently located at the Louvre Museum. It is an impressive work which is more than six feet in height. It depicts the scene of victory following a battle between Naram-Sin, unmistakably and spectacularly depicted on the centre left and the Lullubi, a mountain tribe.
It is a work that is so full of action and movement. Naram-Sin is twice the size of any other figure in the work. He is effortlessly ascending a mountain, over the slain bodies of his enemies. There is a certain flow to his posture – you can almost imagine him moving up that mountain, looking up to the gods (depicted as stars), almost as if for approval. Every other figure in the monument also gazes up at Naram-Sin. There is a vague upward lift to the entire scene. The clearest nod to Naram-Sin’s divinity is his head gear with horns. Until then only the Gods were depicted with horned crowns in Mesopotamia so Naram-Sin’s crown is a first for a human king. The king also is shown to have complete control over life and death of others- something that was presumably only the remit of the gods.
We get the details of the battle from an inscription just above Naram-Sin’s head and besides the stars. This is how we know that it shows Naram-Sin winning over the mountain people of the Zagros. The stele also depicts a tree in the mountains which would have been an excellent geo-locator for people from those times who would have known exactly where this battle took place.
However, what is really interesting is that you find another set of better preserved inscriptions running below the stars (if you don’t know anything, you tend to think this is the inscription where you find out that this stele is about Naram-Sin, but it isn’t). The second inscription was done by a king from Elam (around modern Iran) in the 12th Century BCE (still more than 3000 years old). This king, a man called Shutruk Nakhunte, sacked the town of Sippar which is where presumably the stele was originally located, took the stele with him to the town of Susa and then inscribed this deed on the stele. Which is why the stele was found during excavations at Susa and which is why it ended up with the French and at the Louvre. Would be ironic to draw a parallel between European colonialists taking monuments to their museums from other parts of the world and an Elamite King taking an Akkadian stele back to Susa.
In any case, the stele survived and we have one clear depiction of Naram-Sin saved for posterity and I think that is a good thing. To have an image of the man who claimed to be akin to the gods as he would have wanted to see us. It is representative of every bit of ambition that humanity has had for itself.