Great Institutions: Temple and Palace

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Great Institutions: Temple and Palace


The “Great Institutions.” From prehistoric times, prior to circa 3300 b.c.e., until the end of ancient Mesopotamian civilization in the early centuries of the Common Era, two great institutions, the temple and the palace, played an integral role in the economy. The functions of these two institutions were greatly interdependent, and while the relative importance of each institution varied over time, evidence for the operations of the temple is both earlier and more extensive than that relating to the operations of the palace. Moreover, the temple never completely lost its major position in the Mesopotamian economy.

The Temple. It is necessary to appreciate the ideology behind the temple in order to understand its significant— but not exclusive—role in the various productive, redistributive, and commercial sectors of the Mesopotamian economy. The word temple is expressed in Mesopotamian languages as “house of the god” (Sumerian: e-dingir; Akkadian: bit ilim), and evidence from as early as the third millennium b.c.e. indicates that the temple was organized as a large household with the deity at its head. As in any household, the head or owner of the household and its properties was served by a staff of personnel working in various capacities, all of whom were overseen by an administrative bureaucracy. As the landlord and owner of resources under its control, including the labor of persons dependent on it for support, the god was the ultimate owner of all temple products and profits. This vast enterprise was administered by the temple bureaucracy. Because records they generated are so prominent in the body of available evidence, modern economic historians once concluded that the Mesopotamian economy was dominated by the temple, giving rise to the characterization of ancient Mesopotamia as a “temple-state economy.” Recent research, however, has modified the overall picture, and a less extreme view of the Mesopotamian economy has emerged, one in which the temple, the palace, and what might be called private enterprise each play a role.

Economic Role. As a major property owner, the temple was in a position to benefit from large-scale economic undertakings. The most complete picture from the third millennium b.c.e. is provided by an archive of some 1,800 inscribed tablets from the temple of the goddess Ba’u, a second-rank temple in the Sumerian city of Girsu, part of the larger city-state of Lagash. Dated to the first half of the twenty-fourth century b.c.e., the tablets detail the economic activities of the temple: cultivation of cereal crops, vegetables, and fruit trees; maintenance of irrigation systems; husbandry of sheep, goats, cows, and donkeys; and fresh- and saltwater fishing. Large-scale agriculture and animal husbandry enabled the temple to accumulate a surplus; that is, the temple produced more food, wool, and other products than it needed for the sustenance of its dependents. The surplus enabled the temple to devote some of its resources to specialized production and commercial ventures. The temple engaged in large-scale textile manufacturing, the most economically significant Mesopotamian commercial venture. Rations lists from the textile workshop of the Ba’u temple attest to a workforce of more than six thousand laborers, most of them women, along with children. The agricultural surplus also allowed the temple to invest in the infrastructure necessary for longdistance trade, such as large boats for transportation and warehouses for storage. Access to ready capital enabled the temple to fund long and expensive trading trips, and at

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times the temple acted as a “bank,” granting loans, and as a charity, taking in the children of poor parents. The temple also used its accumulated surplus to finance other kinds of undertakings beyond the reach of family households, such as maintaining specialized workshops for artisans and craftsmen manufacturing luxury goods and everyday items from leather, wood, metal, and stone.

Emergence of the Palace. The nature of the economic— and political—relationship between the temple and the palace is still not clear for most periods of Mesopotamian history. The broad picture seems to be that the temple was the only major political and economic institution in prehistory. Archaeological excavations reveal construction during the mid to late third millennium b.c.e. of a new kind of building complex: a palace; that is, the physical residence of the king and his extended royal and bureaucratic household. The Early Dynastic II period (circa 2750 - circa 2600 b.c.e.) Palace A in the city of Kish—the earliest building identified as an example of monumental, secular architecture—had a massive entrance and decorated reception rooms with columns—features shared with later palaces built in other Mesopotamian cities. This new development in monumental architecture is evidence for the rise of secular leaders, and the appearance of royal inscriptions (circa 2400 b.c.e.) indicates the emergence and rise of kingship. Thereafter, the palace, as the locus for the king’s authority, took its place as a powerful institution separate from the temple. It would be a mistake, however, to consider kingship altogether secular; there was no such thing as the modern American principle of “separation of church and state.” Ideologically, kingship was always closely connected with religious belief; the gods were believed to have chosen the kings, who reigned by the gods’ grace. For three centuries, beginning with Naram-Sin of Akkad (circa 2254 -circa 2218 b.c.e.), Mesopotamian kings even went so far as to claim to be gods ruling on earth. Over time, as the power of the king grew, the palace claimed a sizable portion of the economy, income that might otherwise have gone to the temple, and it is clear that at times the palace had access to the temple’s economic resources. The most enduring images of kingship depict the king as shepherd and as bringer of water, thus productivity, to the land— suggesting the roots of Mesopotamian royal ideology in the realm of animal husbandry and agriculture, the foundations of the Mesopotamian economy. Nevertheless, the temple consistently retained a significant role in Mesopotamian production and trade, and its economic role was never completely eclipsed by that of the palace.


J. N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (London & NewTork: Routledge, 1992).

Piotr Steinkeller, “The Administrative and Economic Organization of the Ur III State: The Core and the Periphery,” in The Organization of

Power: Aspects of Bureaucracy in the Ancient Near East, edited by McGuire Gibson and Robert D. Biggs (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1987), pp. 19–41.

Marc Van de Mieroop, Society and Enterprise in Old Babylonian Ur (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1992).

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Great Institutions: Temple and Palace

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