From Cleopatra to Razia Sultan, history is full of powerful women who defied the norms of their time. But have you ever heard of Queen Kubaba? Ruler of Sumer around 2500 BC, she may be the first recorded female ruler in ancient history. Queen Kubaba (Ku-Baba) is a fascinating figure in Mesopotamian history, believed to have ruled the city-state of Kish in the third millennium BC. One of the earliest female leaders in history, her story is an important piece of the puzzle for understanding the role of women in ancient societies, writes Ancient Origins.
Kubaba and the list of kings
Kubaba’s name appears in a list known as the “King List”, which is the only written record of her reign. The list is exactly what the name suggests – a list of Sumerian kings. It notes briefly the duration of each individual reign and the city in which the ruler reigned. In this list she is called “lugal”, or king, not “eresh” (king’s wife). Of this comprehensive list, hers is the only female name attested in it.
Kubaba is one of the very few women to have ever ruled in their own right in Mesopotamian history. Most versions of the king list place her alone in her own dynasty, the 3rd Dynasty of Kish, following the defeat of Sharrumiter of Mari, but other versions combine her with the 4th dynasty, that followed the primacy of the king of Akshak. Before becoming monarch, the king list says she was an alewife.
The Weidner Chronicle is a propagandistic letter, attempting to date the shrine of Marduk at Babylon to an early period, and purporting to show that each of the kings who had neglected their proper rites had lost the primacy of Sumer. It contains a brief account of the rise of “the house of Kubaba” occurring in the reign of Puzur-Nirah of Akshak:
“In the reign of Puzur-Nirah, king of Akšak, the freshwater fishermen of Esagila were catching fish for the meal of the great lord Marduk; the officers of the king took away the fish. The fisherman was fishing when 7 (or 8) days had passed […] in the house of Kubaba, the tavern-keeper […] they brought to Esagila. At that time BROKEN anew for Esagila […] Kubaba gave bread to the fisherman and gave water, she made him offer the fish to Esagila. Marduk, the king, the prince of the Apsû, favored her and said: “Let it be so!” He entrusted to Kubaba, the tavern-keeper, sovereignty over the whole world .”
Her son Puzur-Suen and grandson Ur-Zababa followed her on the throne of Sumer as the fourth Kish dynasty on the king list, in some copies as her direct successors, in others with the Akshak dynasty intervening. Ur-Zababa is also known as the king said to be reigning in Sumer during the youth of Sargon the Great of Akkad, who militarily brought much of the Near East under his control shortly afterwards.
Ku-Baba, “the woman innkeeper who established the foundations of Kish,” is said to have ruled for 100 years. The catch here is that the list is not the most reliable historical source. He often blurs the line between history and legend. An example of this is the name of Enmen-lu-ana, who is said to have ruled for 43,200 years! Or Kubaba’s reign itself, which indicates that she had an unlikely 100 years at the helm of Sumer! At the same time, there is a possibility that the interpreted concept of time is different from the system we follow today. An innkeeper turned goddess? Next to Kubaba’s name is written “The Innkeeper Woman Who Established the Foundations of Kish.” Kubaba’s rise to power in Kish is shrouded in mystery, but it is agreed that she was an innkeeper, which may have been related to prostitution according to ancient Sumerian texts. The city of Kish was known for its wealth and power and played a significant role in the development of Mesopotamian civilization. Notable feminist revisionist scholars, such as Claudia E. Suter for example, have written that Kubaba was sometimes characterized as a brothel keeper, a way of denigrating her and demonstrating “the treatment of women in the male-dominated early Mesopotamian society”. On the contrary, brewing and selling beer in the ancient Mesopotamian world was a highly respected endeavor. There was an ancient association between the female divinity and alcohol, and according to theologian Carol R. Fontaine, Kubaba would be seen as a “successful business lady.” Lost 4,500-year-old palace of mythical Sumerian king discovered She is said to have been kind and fair to her customers, earning her a reputation as a benevolent person. Over time her reputation grew and she began to be worshiped as a goddess. This explains her ascension as queen, as she did not marry a king, nor did she inherit power from a parent. A cuneiform tablet from ancient Sumer depicts the importance of beer in the economy and society of ancient Mesopotamia.
There is a legend that those rulers who did not honor the god Marduk with fish offerings in the temple of Esagila met an unhappy end. Kubaba is believed to have fed a fisherman and in return asked him to offer his catch to the Esagila temple. Marduk’s benevolence in response is not surprising: “So be it,” said the god, and with that he “entrusted Kubaba, the innkeeper, with sovereignty over the whole world.” Some sources suggest that she was a member of the ruling Kish dynasty and that she inherited the throne from her father. Others suggest that she was an ordinary woman who rose to power through her own abilities and charisma. Whatever the truth, Kubaba was a wonderful leader who left a lasting mark on Kish. The Achievements of Queen Kubaba In ancient Sumerian tradition, the kingdom was not tied to a fixed capital, but rather moved from place to place, bestowed by the gods of a city and transferred at their will. Before Qubaba, who is the only member of the Third Dynasty of Kish, the capital was at Mari for more than a century and moved to Akshak after Qubaba. However, Kubaba’s son Puzer-Suen and grandson Ur-Zababa temporarily moved the capital back to Kish. Facade of the Temple of Inanna in Uruk, Iraq. Female deity pouring life-giving water.
One of Kubaba’s most significant achievements was the construction of a temple dedicated to the goddess Inanna. This temple was located in the heart of Kish and was one of the most important religious sites in the region. Kubaba is believed to have been a devoted worshiper of Inanna and the temple is a reflection of her religious beliefs and values. How the Universe Was Made: The Sumerian Version It’s Hard Not to Admire In addition to her religious projects, Kubaba was also a military leader at the head of a powerful army. She is said to have expanded Kish’s territory through a series of military campaigns that helped establish Kish as a major power in the region. Qubaba’s military power was an important factor in her rule and helped to ensure her continued dominance over Kish. Why did her reign end? Kubaba faced opposition from rival city-states and from Kish itself. Some say she was overthrown by her own subjects, while other better accounts suggest she abdicated the throne and retired into seclusion.
Photo: The Sumerian King List inscribed onto the Weld-Blundell Prism, with transcription / Public Domain