Property and Ownership

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Property and Ownership


Property and Society. There is no native Mesopotamian term for the concept of property. In the written documentation, fields, orchards, animals, houses, furniture, and slaves are identified by terms such as the “field of Gimillu, the divination priest,” or the “ox of Enlil-bani, the metal-smith.” No written treatise on the concept of property— whether private, communal, or state—has ever been discovered, and given the Mesopotamian disinclination to commit abstractions to writing, none is likely to be found. The majority of legal documents from Mesopotamia, however, are overwhelmingly concerned with the proper disposition of what modern people would call property, and thousands of written cuneiform tablets refer to customs— some of which may well predate the invention of writing and written texts—for ensuring legal, unchallengeable, and fair treatment of individuals with property claims. Concern with property, its preservation, and its use shaped not only the Mesopotamian legal tradition but also economic and social practice, notably the ability to sell and to buy land and to transfer property through marriage and inheritance.

Immovable and Movable Property. Property can be divided into two main categories: immovable (land, with or without houses or other buildings) and movable (such as slaves, animals, furnishings, jewelry, silver, gold, and textiles—including clothing, carpets, and wall hangings). The most valuable and durable property in Mesopotamia, an agricultural society, was farmland, and Mesopotamian texts distinguish between fields (Sumerian: a-sha; Akkadian: eqlti) and orchards (Sumerian: kiri; Akkadian; kiru). A field had access to water, a canal or river; typically it was bordered on one side by its water source. An orchard was far smaller than a field and was also characterized by proximity to a water source; it represented a long-term investment in the cultivation of trees, most commonly date palms, the primary source of sugar in Mesopotamia.

Ownership of the Land. In a civilization such as ancient Mesopotamia, whose survival was dependent on agriculture, social and economic practices evolved to ensure the continued cultivation of land. The irrigation system functioned most effectively when agriculture was conducted on a large scale, and throughout Mesopotamian history the great institutions, the temple and the palace, were landlords with vast holdings. Because such a large percentage of the surviving documentation comes from the archives of temple and palace, it was once thought that there was no, or little, private landownership in Mesopotamia. However, as new sources have become available from private family archives, scholars have begun to discover that private land-ownership was more extensive than was previously thought.

Property and the Family. Specific needs of the Mesopotamian agricultural regime may have played a role in shaping regional social structures. For example, if a man had three children and divided his estate among them at his death and if those three children each had three children of their own and divided the property among them again— and so on, the original estate would be divided into extremely small parcels before many generations had passed. While there were no laws prohibiting the alienation—that is, the buying and selling—of land, written records from Mesopotamia indicate a tendency against it. Measures were taken to keep land within a family and to keep it from being broken down into plots too small to be viable agriculturally. Some of the earliest written records, the so-called ancient kudurrus (circa 2300 - circa 2100 b.c.e.), provide evidence that for a field to be sold all male members of an extended family had to consent. The inscription on one of these artifacts, the Black Obelisk of Manishtushu (circa 2269 - circa 2255 b.c.e.), lists multiple sellers for each of various fields, all identified as “brother-owners” descended from the same grandfather. Customary inheritance practices also helped to keep property in the family. Equivalent shares of an estate— movable and immovable—were calculated according to the number of children, plus one. A daughter received her share of her father’s estate in movable property as a dowry when she married, left her father’s household, and joined her husband’s. Sons received shares in the remaining movable and immovable property, according to a formula by which the eldest son received two shares worth of the immovable property.


Manishtushu (circa 2269 - circa 2255 b.c.e.) ruled the Mesopotamian empire conquered by his father, Sargon of Akkad. The inscription on the Black Obelisk, a stone, four-sided stele (about 1.5 meters tall) fashioned from black diorite (from the northern shore of the Persian Gulf) is a compilation of the king’s land purchases from several families in central Mesopotamia, Several male relatives participated in each sale— an indication that land was not owned by an individual but rather by a family or clan and that the male members of the family had to agree to the sale for it to be legitimate. According to one field sale recorded on the obelisk,

Ilum-aha, son of Ilulu, the “colonel”

Watrum, son of Lamusa, the steward

Ayar-ilum, son of Pu-balum, the shepherd

Sin-alshu, son of Ayar-ilum, son of Pu-balum

UD-ISH (and) Zuzu, 2 sons of Ishtup-Sin, grandsons of Irrara

Ama-Sin, son of Ashi-qurud

Pu-Dagan, son of Allala

Warassuni, son of Mesi-ilim

Total, 10 men, brother-owners of the field.

Grand total 17 men, descendants of Mezizi

821 iku of land,

its price 2736.2.4 bushels of barley,

its value 1 sheqel silver per 1 bushel,

its silver (equivalent) 45 minas 36 2/3 sheqels of silver-— (this is) price of the field; 7 minas minus 9 1/2 sheqels silver—(this is) additional payment of the field.

Sources: Ignace J. Gelb, Piotr Steinkeller, and Robert Whiting, Earliest Land Tenure Systems in the Near East: The Ancient kudurrus, Oriental Institute Publications, 104 (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1981).

J. N. Postage, Early Mfiopoiamia: Satiety and Economy at the Dawn of History (London&New Vork:Routledge, 1&2).

Adoption Sale. In ancient Nuzi, a city with a substantial Hurrian population on the northeast periphery of Mesopotamia (circa 1450 - circa 1350 b.c.e.), many tablets record a kind of “adoption-sale” transaction enabling individuals to accumulate land that presumably was not available for purchase. According to these tuppi maruti, or “tablets of sonship,” a couple adopted a man as their son and heir; he promised to provide his adoptive parents with food, clothing

and other rations for the duration of their lives, and in return he inherited their property. These texts are easily distinguished from conventional adoptions, in which parents took the responsibility for raising and providing for a child and promised to name him as one of their heirs (or their sole heir). They also differ from cases in which parents who had no male issue adopted a son-in-law so that he would inherit their land and keep it in the family.

Property and the State. The state—that is, the palace— took measures to perpetuate the agricultural system and preserve landed property within traditional family holdings. King Hammurabi of Babylon (circa 1792 - circa 1750 b.c.e.) wrote to one of his officials ordering the restoration of family property that had been wrongfully seized. When Hammurabi asked, “When is a permanent property ever taken away?” he was referring to the established customary legal principle that land was the permanent property of a family. Though parallels are sometimes drawn between the Mesopotamian system of ownership and the feudal system of medieval Europe, all the land in Mesopotamian was not considered de facto property of the king. Rather, evidence from “entitlement monuments” of Babylonia from the fourteenth through the seventh centuries b.c.e. indicates that not even the king could claim land without just cause. When, on occasion, kings did take land, they offered justifications such as creation of irrigation works, development of previously uncultivated land, or seizing land from an individual who had committed a crime.

Tenancy and Entitlements. Several statutes from the Laws of Hammurabi pertain to cultivation of land by people who had been granted the right to use land they did not own. “Crown lands” belonging to the palace were leased for a prescribed term to soldiers or others engaged in service to the king. Other landholders, notably temples, also leased land to tenant farmers. Tenants could be penalized or even lose the use of this land if they failed to meet certain production quotas or if they attempted to transfer it to other individuals. Tenants were protected by the crown, and penalties for taking away the land of a soldier or another tenant were severe. During the Kassite period in Babylonia (circa 1595 - circa 1155 b.c.e.), “entitlement monuments” (commonly, though erroneously, called “boundary stones,” or kudurru) were introduced to commemorate permanent transfers of land to individuals. Unlike leases giving crown land to an individual for a limited time or his lifetime, the grants recorded on these monuments made the land the permanent property of the individual and his family in perpetuity. Rather than reverting to the state or another owner, it could henceforth be passed down to succeeding generations, theoretically without end.


Ignace J. Gelb, Piotr Steinkeller, and Robert Whiting, Earliest Land Tenure Systems in the Near East: The Ancient kudurrus, Oriental Institute Publications, 104 (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1981).

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

Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, second edition, Society of Biblical Literature, Writings from the Ancient World Series, volume 6 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995).

Kathryn E. Slanski, The Babylonian Entitlement narus (kudurrus): A Study in Form and Function, ASOR Books, volume 9 (Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2003).

Piotr Steinkeller, Sale Documents of the Ur III Period, Freiburger Altorien-talische Studien, volume 17 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1989).