The destruction of the city of Ur on the fall of its empire around 2000 BC made an enormous impression. A poet wrote a lament in eleven songs telling the terrible story, which takes place both on earth and in the heavens. In it, Ningal, the goddess of Ur, appears as a suppliant before the great gods, charged with the accomplishment of the decrees of Fate. In the end, the catastrophe will be undone and what remains “hung on a nail” before the temple of Enlil, the great god of Sumer.
The text is an example of the lament – a genre also exemplified in the Lamentations of the Bible – which is attested in Mesopotamia from the Early Dynastic Period (2600-2340 BC) onward, but flourished more particularly around 2000 BC, a time when the land witnessed several destructive invasions and wars broke out between the cities as they struggled for power after the fall of the Ur III Empire. Unlike most liturgical laments, with their stereotyped formulations, this is a very fine poem, composed and recited in response to a particular event: the destruction and rebuilding of the city of Ur. It tells of the decision of the great gods to allow the outrage (namely, the destruction of their temples), describes the sack of the city, and then reports the gods’ final change of heart.
The Lament for UR
The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion
The goddess of Ur seems to be the mourning or lament leader and, on command, the people mourn. (“the goddess of Ur, Ningal, tells how she suffered under her sense of coming doom.”)
When I was grieving for that day of storm, that day of storm, destined for me, laid upon me, heavy with tears, that day of storm, destined for me, laid upon me heavy with tears, on me, the queen.
Though I was trembling for that day of storm, that day of storm destined for me — I could not flee before that day’s fatality. And of a sudden I espied no happy days within my reign, no happy days within my reign. Though I would tremble for that night, that night of cruel weeping destined for me, I could not flee before that night’s fatality. Dread of the storm’s floodlike destruction weighed on me, and of a sudden on my couch at night, upon my couch at night no dreams were granted me.
And of a sudden on my couch oblivion, upon my couch oblivion was not granted. Because (this) bitter anguish had been destined for my land — as the cow to the (mired) calf — even had I come to help it on the ground, I could not have pulled my people back out of the mire. Because (this) bitter dolor had been destined for my city, even if I, birdlike, had stretched my wings, and, (like a bird), flown to my city, yet my city would have been destroyed on its foundation, yet Ur would have perished where it lay. Because that day of storm had raised its hand, and even had I screamed out loud and cried; “Turn back, O day of storm, (turn) to (thy) desert,” the breast of that storm would not have been lifted from me. Then verily, to the assembly, where the crowd had not yet risen, while the Anunnaki, binding themselves (to uphold the decision), were still seated, I dragged my feet and I stretched out my arms, truly I shed my tears in front of An.
Truly I myself mourned in front of Enlil: “May my city not be destroyed!” I said indeed to them. “May Ur not be destroyed!” I said indeed to them. “And may its people not be killed!” I said indeed to them.
But An never bent towards those words, and Enlil never with an, “It is pleasing, so be it!” did soothe my heart. (Behold,) they gave instruction that the city be destroyed, (behold,) they gave instruction that Ur be destroyed, and as its destiny decreed that its inhabitants be killed. Enlil (wind god or spirit) called the storm.
The people mourn.
Winds of abundance he took from the land. The people mourn.
Good winds he took away from Sumer. the people mourn.
Deputed evil winds. The people mourn.
Entrusted them to Kingaluda, tender of storms.
He called the storm that annihilates the land. The people mourn.
He called disastrous winds. The people mourn.
Enlil — choosing Gibil as his helper — called the (great) hurricane of heaven. The people mourn.
The (blinding) hurricane howling across the skies — the people mourn — the tempest unsubduable like breaks through levees, beats down upon, devours the city’s ships,
(all these) he gathered at the base of heaven. The people mourn.
(Great) fires he lit that heralded the storm. The people mourn.
And lit on either flank of furious winds the searing heat of the desert.
Like flaming heat of noon this fire scorched.
The storm ordered by Enlil in hate, the storm which wears away the country,
covered Ur like a cloth, veiled it like a linen sheet.
On that day did the storm leave the city; that city was a ruin.
O father Nanna, that town was left a ruin. The people mourn.
On that day did the storm leave the country. The people mourn.
Its people(‘s corpses), not potsherds, littered the approaches.
The walls were gaping; the high gates, the roads, were piled with dead.
In the wide streets, where feasting crowds (once) gathered, jumbled they lay.
In all the streets and roadways bodies lay.
In open fields that used to fill with dancers, the people lay in heaps.
The country’s blood now filled its holes, like metal in a mold; bodies dissolved — like butter left in the sun.
(Nannar, god of the Moon and spouse of Ningal, appeals to his father, Enlil)
O my father who engendered me! What has my city done to you?
Why have you turned away from it?
O Enlil! What has my city done to you?
Why have you turned away from it?
The ship of first fruits no longer brings first fruits to the engendering father, no longer goes in to Enlil in Nippur with your bread and food portions!
O my father who engendered me! Fold again into your arms my city from its loneliness!
O Enlil! Fold again my Ur into your arms from its loneliness! Fold again my (temple) Ekishnugal into your arms from its loneliness!
Let renown emerge for you in Ur! Let the people expand for you: let the ways of Sumer, which have been destroyed, be restored for you!
Enlil answered his son Suen (saying): “The heart of the wasted city is weeping, reeds (for flutes) of lament grow therein, its heart is weeping, reeds (for flutes) of lament grow therein, its people spend the day in weeping.
O noble Nanna, be thou (concerned) about yourself, what truck have you with tears?
There is no revoking a verdict, a decree of the assembly, a command of An and Enlil is not known ever to have been changed.
Ur was verily granted a kingship — a lasting term it was not granted.
From days of yore when the country was first settled, to where it has now proceeded, Who ever saw a term of office completed? Its kingship, its term of office, has been uprooted. It must worry. (You) my Nanna, do you not worry! Leave your city!”
The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998- .