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Who Was the World's First King?

King Ashurnasirpa
This detail from an ancient Assyrian stone carving from Nimrud depicts a scene from the court of King Ashurnasirpal, in the British Museum. Ashurnasirpal is shown leading military campaigns against his enemies, engaging in ritual scenes with protective demons and hunting. He was not the first king. Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

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For much of human history, kings – male monarchs – wielded most of civilization's power. Men like William the Conqueror, Genghis Khan and Tutankhamun were incredibly important. From taxation to religious matters to warfare, kings had the final say on vital matters of every kind.

Given the significance of these men, it's reasonable to wonder: who was the world's very first king?

The answer, it seems, may be lost to the dust of history, simply because written records of the first king may not have survived time. It is, then, "possibly, an unanswerable question," says Mark Munn, a history professor at Penn State University, by email.

The primary challenge, of course, is that there are no complete historical records documenting kings who lived 5,000 years ago. There's also the matter of which ancient words referred to what we think of as kings. In the area around Egypt, for example, the word "pharaoh" didn't come into use until perhaps 1570 B.C.E.

The Sumerian King List

Some historians say that Egypt may lay claim to the world's first king, perhaps Iry-Hor or Namer. They point to the Sumerian King List, an ancient manuscript filled with the kings – real and fictitious – who once ruled the area around modern day Iraq. This text, discovered in the early 20th century, is so old that its first "pages" are inscribed on cuneiform tablets.

"According to a later Mesopotamian tradition enshrined in the Sumerian King List, the first king was Alulim, ruler of the city of Eridu. He lived in the mythological time before the deluge and is credited (in some manuscripts) with a reign of 28,000 years," says Eckart Frahm, professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Yale University, via email. "According to the same source, the first king after the deluge was a certain Gushur, who is said to have ruled in the city of Kish for 1,200 years." The Sumerian King List has some remarkable similarities to the early chapters of Genesis, including a story of a great flood or deluge, which in the Bible involved Noah's ark.

The Sumerian King List is anything but literal. It blends reality with mythology; thus, the kings supposedly had reigns lasting tens of thousands of years.

"Many of the individuals mentioned in the first sections of the Sumerian King List are, however, clearly fictitious figures, and this may well apply to the ... aforementioned ones [Gushur and Alulim]," says Frahm.

"Among the first rulers whose names are documented in contemporary written sources are Me (or Ishib)-baragesi of Kish, Akka-Inannaka of Umma and a certain HAR.TU (exact pronunciation unknown) of the city of PA.GAR (modern Tell Agrab). They probably ruled around 2700-2600 B.C.E."

Me-baragesi is called the first ruler of Mesopotamia (circa 2700 B.C.E.), and our evidence of his rule comes from inscriptions found on vase fragments. As the leader of Kish, a northern Babylonian city, he reportedly defeated Elam, a civilization found in what's now Iran, and then went on to lead his people for 900 years. Not including the ridiculous life span, Me-baragesi might be the first king in history.

But he's not the only claimant to this title.

"The first ruler whose reign we can somewhat see is that of the person buried in Tomb U-j at Abydos," says John Darnell, Egyptology professor at Yale University, via email. This tomb dates to about 3320 B.C.E. "Chronologically he appears to have been the first ruler of what we call Dynasty 0, the unified kingdom of Upper Egypt whose last ruler, Narmer, consolidates Upper Egyptian control of the north and establishes the First Dynasty.

"The oldest surviving element of identifiable royal regalia, a crook of the standard Egyptian crook and flail pair, was actually found during the re-excavation of the tomb by the German Archaeological Institute in Egypt (DAIK). The burial also contained numerous examples of marking systems, prominent amongst these a series of inscribed bone labels."

King Scorpion

Darnell says that researchers are still trying to decipher various parts of their findings, which may represent some of humankind's earliest forms of writing. Ultimately, they may point to an important battle that took place, one that gave rise to a unified civilization, led by a man who might – or might not – have been called Scorpion. (A tableau Darnell discovered at the site Gebel Tjauti, in the Theban Western Desert in Egypt, shows a carving of a scorpion above a falcon, a symbol that either means "king" or the god Horus in Egyptian history.)

ancient pottery, Horus
These ancient pieces of pottery bear the inscription of a falcon, a bird associated with the Egyptian god Horus.
Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Darnell, who has spent decades studying Egyptian history, says that "Scorpion" is "the earliest ruler for whom I believe we can suggest a designation, if not a personal name, for whose reign we can see events, and whose physical aspects have somewhat survived in his burial in Tomb U-j."

Darnell also says another inscription his team discovered points to early royalty. The large scale el-Khawy inscription is also of the same date paleographically, as Gebel Tjauti and demonstrates a monumental use of hieroglyphs at the start of the script.

"That inscription does appear to contain one definite phonetic sign value — akh, "luminosity," for the sign of the bald ibis," he says. "The inscription also makes a statement equating royal power with solar order, and thus is the first expression of divine kingship."

Indeed, many early kings claimed authority from the gods as justification for ruling. Frahm adds that many Mesopotamian kings even said they were gods but that notion was eventually discarded "perhaps because rulers often appeared all too human in the eyes of their subjects."

As to where the idea of kingship even came from, Frahm believes that was directly tied to a need to organize labor. In ancient Mesopotamia, there were large numbers of construction workers, farmers, craftsmen, shepherds and sellers of goods.

"To get this all done, a managerial class emerged – and syphoned off a share of the rural wealth for its own good," he says. "The person at the head of the administrative ladder – and possibly also of the military troops needed to protect the economic activities facilitated in this way – would eventually be considered 'king.' To legitimize the economic inequality inherent in the system, a royal ideology was created that promoted kingship as a divinely sanctioned institution."

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