top of page

Women of Mesopotamia: Pioneers in History

It is March 8th 2024, and it is international Women's Day, an opportunity to celebrate the cultural achievements of women in our community. This year, we take a look back at some female pioneers of ancient Mesopotamia who challenged modern stereotypes, inspired legends, and commanded great power and prestige. Take a deeper look at some of these legendary women:

Shiduri - The Wise Tavern Keeper

The "Epic of Gilgamesh" has had a profound impact on global literature, with themes that seem timeless. Throughout the poem, female characters support or challenge Gilgamesh in various ways. Ishtar provokes Gilgamesh throughout his journey, whilst priestess Shamhat 'tames' Enkidu the wild man. Yet there is another, Shiduri, the keeper of a tavern who meets Gilgamesh as he contemplates death and immortality following the death of Enkidu.

"Humans are born, they live, then they die,

This is the order that the gods have decreed.

But until the end comes, enjoy your life,

Spend it in happiness, not despair [….]

That is the best way for a man to live."

Her wisdom resonates with us today, despite being written 1000s of years ago. The pursuit of immortality is futile, and that we should take time to our enjoy lives. Gilgamesh ignores this advice and continues to pursue his dream of becoming immortal, and ultimately fails. Shiduri's words offer a practical and humble vision for life, a contrast to the arrogance of King Gilgamesh. Those fans of anime, can watch her in the Type-Moon series where she continues to support Gilgamesh in his adventures.

Puabi - The Queen and Her Treasures

Queen Puabi’s funerary ensemble. Royal Graves of Ur, ca. 2500 BC. Courtesy of the Penn Museum

The treasures of Queen Puabi are well known - the delicate gold crown and brightly coloured jewellery show her wealth and status, conjuring images of the society in which she lived. Despite the incredible finds found in her tomb, very little is known about the woman behind the gold. Some cylinder seals found in the tomb reveal clues - "Nin" or "Eresh," the Sumerian word for queen, yet there is no known connection to a ruling king? Did she rule in her own right, exerting power and authority throughout the realm? Some have suggested that she was a wife of King Meskalamdug, due to the proximity of his grave, though no solid connection has been found in the literary texts. The incredible artefacts tell us a great deal about Sumerian culture at the time - precious stones from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gold and Silver from Iran. A vast trading network came together in Ur, where they resulted in an era of creativity and majesty, now preserved in items held in the National Museum of Iraq, the British Museum, and the Penn Museum.

Yet her grave asks a number of morbid questions. British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered "death pits" outside her tomb. Inside were the remains of five armed men, a wooden sled drawn by a pair of oxen, four grooms for the oxen, and a wood chest or wardrobe which probably contained textiles, long since decomposed. Three more attendants crouched near the wardrobe, surrounded by metal, stone, and clay vessels. At the opposite end of the pit were twelve female attendants, all wearing a less elaborate version of Queen Puabi’s headdress. Such a burial could only be done for a woman who wielded great respect and authority.

The name Puabi, itself is semitic-Akkadian, suggests that close cultural ties between the Sumerians and Akkadians were present at the highest level of society, again offering a fascinating glimpse into Mesopotamian palace life.

Enheduanna - First named Poet in history

The daughter of Sargon of Akkad, Enheduanna took the post of high priestess of Sin, most likely preserving the traditional practices of the Sumerian subjects that they had just conquered. Her writing, though primarily religious hymns, also documents a rebellion against the new Akkadian ruling class, where she also played a crucial role. "The Exaltation of Innanna" is a prayer asked the goddess to intervene and support the Sargonid family from rebellion, and to restore her to her rightful role at the Ziggurat of Ur after she had refused to crown the rebel king and as result, exiled. Naram-Sin, grandson of Sargon, ended the rebellion, and it is most likely that Enheduanna returned to her role in Ur although we cannot be sure.

Disk of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon, Ur, Akkadian period, ca. 2300 BC. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Her other work, also in the form of hymns, goes into great details about the powers of Inanna, as well as the goddess' achievements and adventures - one example includes her plan for revenge against the non-believers of the Hamrin mountains, despite the God An not believing in her ability.

Enheduanna is the first poet to have a work assigned to them based on historiography, her name now preserved across millenia highlighting the creativity of Mesopotamian women for future generations.

Ennigaldi - Builder of the First Musuem, Daughter of the Last Babylonian King

When Nabonidus ascended the throne of Babylon in 556BC, he was keen to follow procedures that his predecessors had done. Being unrelated to the previous kings, it was important that he strengthen his claim to the throne, and look like a legitimate ruler. In this respect, his daughter became high priestess to the God Sin, becoming the 'entu,' dedicating herself to worship at the ziggurat of Ur. Within this role she was seen as the 'earthly wife' of the God, and spent a great deal of her time performing rites and prayers for the prosperity of Babylonia and the life of the king. In addition, the great estates owned by the temple were also managed by her. With such a significant part of the administrative and religious life of the country, Ennigaldi also spent time teaching future priestesses. When Babylon was conquered by the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, Nabonidus was deposed but allowed to retire with grace, and it seems his daughter's position as high priestess was unaffected.

The museum in the foreground of the Ziggurat of Ur

Even during these uncertain times, her passion for her work and education, extended beyond religious teaching. Ennigaldi had a developed interest in archaeology and established what has been described as "the first museum" in history." The high priestess was passionate about collecting objects from the past, and established a dedicated building to house these historical pieces. Just 150 meters from the Ziggurat of Ur, the ruins of this first museum can still be seen today, yet it was not simply a treasury of the past - Ennigaldi established a research programme for ancient artefacts to build her museum, documenting and cataloguing them to the extent that even small display texts labeled the items.

The fate of Ennigaldi is unknown but with climate shifts affecting the city of Ur, causing rapid depopulation during the Persian occupation, we know that the museum was still active in 500BC.

Shammu-Rammat/Semiramis - The Assyrian Queen who Inspired the Legends

Shammu-Rammat was queen to Shamsi-Adad V of Assyria and became an iconic symbol in European understanding of the ancient Near East, outstripping her husband's fame. Her life is little recorded whilst her husband was king, but documentation increases when her son Adad-nirari III ascends to the throne. Ruling from Nimrud, the Assyrian empire was facing political and economic challenges, and kings were forced to respond to them when they arose.

assyrian stelae
Pazarcık Stele detailing the achievements of Adad-nirari III and Shammu-Ramat, Archaeological Museum, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

During the reign of her son, she continued to use the title of 'queen,' causing much debate around scholars today. Did she co-rule with her son? Was she a regent until he was of suitable age? Nothing is certain, other than the fact that she wielded great authority at the court in Nineveh, being infleuential in major decisions that affected the Assyrian Empire (though she seems to be written out of history by later accounts, ignoring her memory or achievements). Contemporary stelae, written accounts on stone, detail how she accompanied her son on military campaigns into what is now modern southern Turkey. 'Adad-nirari III, son of Shamsi-Adad and Shammu-Rammat' is an interesting text as previously the mother was never mention, clearly Shammu-Rammat wielded enough power and authority to upturn historical traditions. Simirlaly, at the ancient temple of Nabu in Nimrud, dedications to her and the king were put in place by the local governor.

Vardkes Sureniants. Semiramis Staring at the Corpse of Ara the Beautiful, 1899. National Art Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan

The end of her life remains a mystery, but her life has inspired the great legend of Semiramis - a Mesopotamian heroine whose tales passed into Persian storytelling before being documented by Greek and Roman writers. Whilst different versions exist, they almost all agree that Semiramis marries the founded of Nineveh, Ninus, always being more famous than him. According to the legends, she successfully supports a siege in Bactria (modern Afghanistan), invents clothes that mask the gender of the soldiers, builds a great mausoleum to her husband in Nineveh, founded the city of Babylon and builder of the Hanging Gardens, warrior against the Armenians. In later versions of the stories (these negative accounts are concurrent with the rise of Christianity) , Semiramis is killed by her son, who accuses her of many sexual scandals which is contrast to the roman accounts in which she seizes the throne for herself and murders her lovers to keep it.

The power and adventures of the real Shammu-Rammat clearly inspired the legends of Semiramis, but the real woman behind the character is often forgotten in favour of the legendary character. Semiramis' adventures have no historical accountability, but look deep and you can see how the actions of a queen who defied tradition, inspired a character that would later be painted by some of Europes most famous artists, her life presented through opera, and referenced in rock songs.

Creative Iraq is committed to supporting our female creatives through our accessible workshops, services, and mentorship opportunities. We are an equal opportunities organisation that supports all who want to pursue their ambition in arts and culture. Follow us to see what events we have coming up soon or check out our shop to support their products!

31 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page