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"Kill them all!" Some Remarks on the Annihilation of the Ya'ilanum Tribe (1781 B.C.E.).

My analysis of the military campaign carried out by the armies of the Upper Mesopotamian Kingdom in the lands of Qabra and Nurrugum (1781 B.C.E.) centers on the different treatment allotted by the armies of Samsi-Addu and Igme-Dagan to the populations defeated during that campaign. While the inhabitants of Nineveh were captured and some even incorporated into the army of Igme-Dagan, the tribe of Ya'ilanum was annihilated. This drastic action was the result of deep-seated prejudices of the leaders of the Upper Mesopotamian Kingdom against non-urban populations, who were frequently perceived as subhuman and dangerous beings meriting annihilation.


The purpose of this article is to study the massacre of the Ya'ilanum tribe perpetrated by the troops of the kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia in 1781 B.C.E. This massacre was a singular act within the military campaign led by Samsi-Addu and Igme-Dagan in the regions of Qabra and Nurrugum. No other population attacked that year underwent similar treatment. Unfortunately, in no place does the documentation available explain why Ya'ilanum was treated in this dramatically different way. Below we shall briefly reconstruct the military campaign of 1781 B.C.E. and attempt to identify the potential causes that may have led Samsi-Addu and Igme-Dagan to decree the total extermination of the tribe.


After a period of severe tension between the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia and that of Egnunna, the kings Daduga and Samsi-Addu reached a peace agreement in 1782 B.C.E. that put an end to the hostilities between the two kingdoms. This peace led to a new context of military cooperation that enabled Samsi-Addu to embark upon an expansionist campaign, in the course of which he launched a series of attacks against the kingdoms of Qabra and Nur-rugum in 1781 B.C.E., and against the Ya'ilanum tribe located in the inland regions of both kingdoms. (1) However, not all of the conquests unfolded in the same way, nor did they have the same consequences for the regions and populations conquered.

Thus, for example, during the attack on Nurrugum, Nineveh (2) suffered a long siege waged by the large army led by Igme-Dagan, the son of Sarnsi-Addu. (3) In a letter that Igme-Dagan himself sent to his brother Yasmah-Addu, king of Mari, he reports that the siege had prompted a serious famine inside the city. (4) Once the fall of Nineveh was consummated, (5) much of the population was taken prisoner. This was explicitly recognised by Sumiya in a letter to Yasmah-Addu, in which he states that Igme-Dagan "has not left any men inside the town of Nine[vehl." (6) Some of these prisoners joined the army of Igme-Dagan and were immediately deployed in the campaigns then being waged. (7) Others, according to their special skills (such as physicians), were treated differently. (8) Only one letter from Warad-Sin to Yasmah-Addu mentions the occasional use of violence against prisoners, citing the execution of 1,000 Nur-rugean soldiers captured in Nineveh. (9)

In short, as may be gleaned from all of this information, the conquest of Nineveh by the troops of the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia led to the capture of (much of) the population, and there were also isolated episodes of lethal violence against captured combatants, although not against civilians.

With regard to the campaign of Samsi-Addu in Qabra, according to an inscription of the king himself, his army destroyed the harvest of the lands of Urbel and occupied several fortified cities, establishing garrisons inside them. (10) They also captured the towns of A'innum and Zarniyatum (11) and occupied Sarri, a city which had been abandoned by its inhabitants before the arrival of the troops of Samsi-Addu: these people took refuge in Qabra. (12) Therefore, Samsi-Addu's campaign in Qabra had major consequences for the population: destruction of crops in Urbel, flight of the inhabitants of Sarri; yet there is no information as to the commission of acts of violence against civilians.

In the case of the Amorite tribe of Ya'ilanum, (13) the actions of the armies of the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia were totally different. Thus, at first, after the failure of diplomatic negotiations with the representatives of the tribe, Samsi-Addu ordered his son Yasmah-Addu to execute immediately all members of that tribe who were under his authority:
  Give an order that the sons (of the tribe) of Ya'ilanum, all
  those who are with you, must die tonight ... They must die
  and be bufriedi in the graves! (14)

Later, the troops of Eme-Dagan totally wiped out this tribe. We have two different accounts of the massacre, one from Igme-Dagan himself and another from his father, Samsi-Addu. In this latter version, Samsi-Addu seems to limit the slaughter solely to the tribal leaders (rubu) (15) and combatants (gibum): (16)
  Mar-Addu, the Ya'ilanumite, his princes and his whole army
  are dead. Not one man of them escaped. (17)

However, Igme-Dagan himself, the real author of the deeds, confirms in a letter to Yas-mah-Addu that the slaughter had actually included both soldiers and non-combatants:
  Mar-Addu and all the sons (of the tribe) of Ya'ilanum were
  killed. and all its servants and soldiers were killed, and
  not one enemy escaped. Rejoice! (18)

One last bit of testimony reinforces the brutality of the action, reporting that, once captured, the leader of the Ya'ilanum tribe, Mar-Addu, must have been decapitated and his head carried as a trophy to Yasmah-Addu. (19)

The ultimate result of the attack led by fgrne-Dagan was the total and complete annihilation of the Ya'ilanum tribe. The fact that the tribe is never again mentioned in the cuneiform documentation is proof that the extermination referred to in the texts did indeed take place. (20)

In short, the three examples studied from the campaign of 1781 B.C.E. show significantly different treatment of the vanquished by the aggressors: non-urban populations (Ya' ilanum): extermination: urban populations (Nurrugum, Qabra): deportation of some of the population, isolated acts of violence against captured soldiers, destruction of the basis of subsistence.

Unfortunately, no text discusses the motives that led the leaders of the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia to order and carry out the extermination of the tribe instead of treating the vanquished Ya'ilanum tribe in the same manner as the people of Nurrugum or Qabra. Charpin and Ziegler explain the brutality used against Ya'ilanum as a kind of punishment in reaction to the tribe's harsh opposition to the expansionism led by Samsi-Addu in that region. (21)

However, this explanation does not help us to understand fully this different treatment. In fact, a lack of evidence renders it impossible to determine whether the Ya'ilanum's opposition to the expansion of the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia was significantly stronger than the opposition of, for example, the city of Nineveh, which, as discussed above, forced Eme-Dagan to wage a long and costly siege in order to subjugate it. For this reason, we shall explore the possibility that the causes of this distinct treatment were deeper: the traditional animosity that Mesopotamian cities felt against the non-urban populations with which they came into contact.


In his analysis of eliminationist practices throughout history, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has identified five factors at their root: 1) the transformative power of the modern state, 2) structural conflicts within states, 3) the existence of a permissive international context, 4) the specific political situation that allows a leader to bring his eliminationist desires to fruition, and 5) the existence of an extensive series of beliefs which lead broad swaths of the dominant population to believe that exterminating a given human collective is both necessary and desirable. (22) Of all of these factors, notes Goldhagen, the only one that is not exclusive to the contemporary world, and therefore the only one that can help us to understand the episode we are studying here, is the last. For this reason, we shall analyse the possibility that there indeed existed a series of beliefs in ancient Mesopotamia that somehow permitted a massacre like that of the Ya'ilanum tribe to take place.

It is well known that in the Mesopotamian world there was mutual antagonism, which often turned violent, between the urban and non-urban populations. In recent years, historiography has tended to discount this clash, stressing instead the existence of reciprocal economic ties between urban and non-urban populations (exchanges of goods, nomads working as shepherds of the flocks owned by sedentary populations, the hire of troops from non-urban areas as mercenaries, etc.). (23) However, this more or less frequent peaceful contact, though real, does not imply that the overt clashes between urban and non-urban populations so often referred to in the sources did not occur or were unimportant. Yet beyond specific violent episodes, what we are interested in here is the variety of literary sources from Mesopotamia that reflect the existence of clear hostility and disdain by the urban world toward non-urban populations, (24) especially toward groups like the Amorites, (25) Gutians, (26) and Lullubeans. (27)

In these literary testimonies, we can see clearly how the city subjected these groups to a twofold process of dehumanization and moral degradation, turning them into collectives perceived as dangerous and harmful to society.

The process of dehumanizing the non-urban populations in Mesopotamia involved creating a series of images and stereotypes that described them and caricatured them as groups lacking the most elementary human attributes and qualities. Thus, individuals belonging to these populations are said to have a physical appearance closer to that of animals than of humans: "The Gutians, an unbridled people, with human intelligence but canine (28) instincts/feelings and monkey's (29) features"; (30) "(the Amorite), the monkey has [been allowed to come down] from its mountain!"; (31) "(Lullubeans), troops with bodies of cave-birds, a race with raven faces." (32)

Their behavior was also seen as more in line with their animal nature than with that of humans, lacking in intelligence: "The Amorites, a ravaging people, with the instincts of a beast, like wolves"; (33) "(the Gutians), a stupid people." (34)

Hence, these were groups who did not participate in the conventions common to civilization, since they lived neither in houses nor in cities but in the mountains: "the Maim, the powerful south wind who, from the remote past, have not known cities"; (35) "the Maim, who know no houses, who know no cities; primitives who live in the hills." (36)

Furthermore, they were incapable of producing their own food: "(The Martu) digs up truffles in the foothills, does not know how to bend the knee, and eats raw flesh"; (37) "Martu people, who know no agriculture"; (38) "the highland Martu, people ignorant of agriculture." (39) Nor did they bury their dead: "When (the Martu) dies he will not be carried to a burial place." (40)

This process of dehumanization was coupled with the formulation of a series of stereotypes that warned about the danger these groups posed to the moral order of the urban world. Their depraved practices threatened dramatically to pervert the religious, political, social, family, and sexual practices of urban Mesopotamian society, customs that defined the very essence of civilization: "Gutians, the fanged(?) snake of the mountains, who acted with violence against the gods, who carried off the kingship of Sumer to foreign lands, who filled Sumer with wickedness, who took away spouses from the married and took away children from parents, who made wickedness and violence normal in the land"; (41) "the Gutians ... did not know how to honor the gods nor how to perform divine rites and ceremonies correctly"; (42) "[an A]morite speaks [to] his wife: 'You be the man, [I] will be the woman.'" (43)

Several pieces of information clearly confirm that in the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia too the non-urban populations were perceived as groups of sub-humans who posed a serious threat to civilization. Thus, apart from the relatively frequent reports of military clashes with these populations (Turukkeans, (44) Benjaminites, (45) Lullubeans, (46) etc.), we also have several texts that confirm the deep disdain that Samsi-Addu felt for them. The best example of this can be found in a letter in which the king explains his desire to settle groups of Uprapeans in a sector of the bank of the Middle Euphrates so that they could somehow contain the hostility of the Rabbeans. Samsi-Addu very graphically concludes by revealing his true desires: "Then, the dogs will ravage each other." (47)

This letter, in which the non-urban populations are clearly dehumanized--the Uprapeans and Rabbeans are dogs, not human beings--shows without the shadow of a doubt that Samsi-Addu shared the negative view of these populations that was reflected in the Mesopotamian literature surveyed above.

The letter A.3297+ (48) is also highly relevant for this analysis. Here Samsi-Addu tells Yasmah-Addu of his plan for an attack on a Babylonian caravan to be carried out by the Suteans. This was obviously an illegal and despicable act in which, according to his point of view, regular troops of his kingdom should not be involved. Only bands of the non-urban population (the Suteans), who acted without any moral or legal constraints, might commit such an action.

Therefore, it is within this context of profound antagonism between the urban and nonurban world that we should analyse the campaign of 1781 B.C.E. and the differential treatment visited upon the vanquished. The inhabitants of Nineveh shared with their aggressors a lifestyle and a system of common values and beliefs. This common ground must have had an impact on the treatment they received. The best proof of the similarities between the two populations is the respect that Samsi-Addu showed to the sanctuary of the goddess Igtar of Nineveh, when he ordered that it be reconstructed immediately after the conquest of the city. (49) In this case, there was only a political rivalry, not a clash between two lifestyles.

In contrast, in the case of the Ya'ilanum no common ground existed: instead there was a set of deep-seated prejudices in Mesopotamia against the non-urban populations as discussed above. These prejudices cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally predisposed Samsi-Addu, Igme-Dagan, and their troops to treat the Ya'ilanum tribe in a completely different way. The twofold process of dehumanization and denunciation of the moral depravity of the non-urban populations created the frame of reference that led to the next step in the process, the eradication of the threat they entailed. Once the belief in the inferiority (as animals) and danger (as depraved beings) of these populations was accepted, their extermination ceased to be inconceivable and became permissible and even desirable. Since they were wild animals and therefore did not deserve respect, rights, or protection, their extermination was not only useful for the eradication of the (supposed) threat they posed, but their annihilation furthermore had no significance beyond that pertaining to, for example, a hunting party for lions.

Thus, the most convincing explanation of the utterly different ways in which Samsi-Addu, IAme-Dagan, and their troops treated the groups subjugated during the campaign of 1781 B.C.E. lies in this radical difference in perception of the conquered populations. The defeated urban populations had to be managed; the defeated non-urban populations could be annihilated.


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This paper has been produced in the context of the research project HAR2011-23572 (Ministerio de Ciencia y Competitividad).

(1). See Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 90ff. and Ziegler 2004a for a complete reconstruction of this process.

(2). Regarding the identification of Ninet and Nineveh in the texts from Mari, see Durand 1987: 224 and Ziegler 2004a: 19f., with bibliography.

(3). According to ShA 1 64:12, the army of Igme-Dagan was made up of 60,000 soldiers. However, this figure seems exaggerated; see Eidem 1985: 87; Abrahami 1992: 160.

(4). A.2728 (LAPO 17,515).

(5). The fall of Nineveh is mentioned in ARM 1 24 (LAPO 17, 518).

(6). A.4422: 29-31 (Ziegler 2004a: 24 n. 33).

(7). A.4329+ and A.4422 (Ziegler 2004a: 23 n. 32).

(8). ARM 4 63 (LAPO 18, 1034).

(9). M.8898 (Ziegler 2004a: 23).

(10). RIMA 1, A.0.39.1001, ii" 13-iii' 13.

(11). ARM 1 121 (LAPO 17, 524).

(12). ARM 449 (LAPO 17. 525). However, the town was not completely evacuated. In a letter from Samsi-Addu found in Shemshara. the king states that he was received by the elders of Sarri upon his arrival there (ShA 1 19).

(13). Regarding the geographic location of the tribe, see Eidem and Laessoe 2001: 23 and Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 93.

(14). ARM 1 8 (LAPO 17, 679): 11-17.

(15). CAD R, 39511.: "ruler, prince; important, influential person, nobleman."

(16). CAD S. 46: "troop of soldiers, army," but also "group of people. contingent of workers, people, population."

(17). A.3304:17-20 (Ziegler 2004a: 24 n. 36).

(18). ARM 4 33 (LAPO 17, 527): 14-21.

(19). A.3349 (Charpin 1994). See ARM 1 41 (LAPO 17. 751) on the distribution of the property of the Ya'ilanum tribe (Ziegler 2000: 25).

(20). Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 93.

(21). Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 94.

(22). Goldhagen 2009: 309ff.

(23). There is a plethora of literature on this subject. See, for example. Adams 1978: 334: Schwartz 1995: 2501.; Fleming 2009; Porter 2012: 13ff., with references to earlier bibliography. See Robertson 2006 for a recent historiographic survey of this subject.

(24). See Cooper 1983: 30ff.

(25). Regarding the identification of mar-tu and Amurru in the documentation of Ur III, see recently Verderame 2009: 24311. and Michalowski 2011: 82ff.

(26). See Hallo 2005 on the Gutians.

(27). See Klengel 1988 and Eidem 1992: 50-54 on the Lullubeans.

(28). See Da Riva 2007: 46f. on the significance of the use of the term "dog" as an insult in Mesopotamia.

(29). In Mesopotamia, the monkey was the prime example of stupidity; Da Riva 2007: 401.

(30). The Cursing of Agade, ETCSL 2.1.5, 11. 155-56.

(31). IbIgl , 3.1.18,1. 14- (Michalowski 2011:435).

(32). The Cuthaean Legend of Naram-Sin, I. 31 (Gurney 1955: 98-99; Westenholz 1997: 308-9).

(33). RIME 3/2, v 24ff.

(34). The Agum-kakrime Inscription (Longman 1991: 221).

(35). Ibbi-Sin 17 (RIA 2, 146, no. 98).

(36). Igme-Dagan ETCSL,11. 266-67. See also Enki and the World Order. ETCSL 1.1.3,11. 131-32.

(37). The Marriage of Martu. ETCSL 1.7.1,11. 135-36. 131-32.

(38). Lugalbanda and the Anzu Bird, ETCSL, 11. 304 and 370.

(39). The Cursing of Agade. ETCSL 45.

(40). The Marriage of Martu, ETCSL 1.7.1,1. 138.

(41). The Victory of Utu-Hegal. ETCSL 2.1.6, II. 1-7.

(42). Chronicle of the Esagila (Glassner 2004: 266-67).

(43). Lambert 1960: 226 II. 1-7.

(44). See, for example. ARM 1 69+ (LAPO 17, 452), ARM 4 23 (LAPO 17, 505), ARM 4 24 (LAPO 17, 506), ARM 4 76 (LAPO 16, 31), and cf. Eidem 1993; Yuhong 1993; and Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 114ff.

(45). ARM 1 43 (LAPO 17, 492) (Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 121f.).

(46). A.3006 (Charpin and Ziegler 2003: 43 n. 121).

(47). M.6278 (Ziegler 2004b: 109 n. 60).

(48). Ziegler 2004b.

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Author:Vidal, Jordi
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Date:Oct 1, 2013
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