In Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias, a broken statue lies in the empty desert, its pedestal hollowly boasting, “My name is Ozymandias, king of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
The conquerors on this list boasted that they had “all the lands at [my] feet” or promised to make “Egypt taste the taste of my fingers!” But in the end, they, too, have been largely forgotten. Look upon their works and despair.
Civilization was born in ancient Sumeria, in the rich lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But by 2330 BC, the region was in an uproar and ancient cities lay in ruins. The culprit was Lugalzagesi, the king of Umma. Before inheriting the throne, Lugalzagesi was a priest of the goddess Nisaba and he has been labeled an “ecstatic” and a “bone fide berserk” by historians seeking to explain the unprecedented destruction he unleashed.
Shortly after inheriting the throne of Umma, Lugalzagesi also became king of Uruk, probably through marriage. He then launched a series of frenzied campaigns against the kingdom of Lagash, eventually conquering the city itself. A priest of Lagash reported that he “set fire to the [temples] . . . he plundered the palace of Tirash, he plundered the Abzubanda temple, he plundered the chapels of Enlil and Utu.”
In another inscription, the defeated king of Lagash bitterly cursed the conqueror: “The leader of Umma, having sacked Lagash, has committed a sin against Ningirsu. The hand which he has raised against him will be cut off! May Nisaba, the god of Lugalzagesi, ruler of Umma, make him bear the sin.”
But the conquest of Lagash only increased Lugalzagesi’s strength. Before long, he was ruler of all Sumeria, lord of primeval cities like Ur, Zabala, and Nippur. His armies raided from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean: “Enlil, king of all lands, gave to Lugalzagesi the kingship of the nation, directed all eyes of the land toward him, put all the lands at his feet . . . from east to west, Enlil permitted him no rival.”
Enlil must have changed his mind. Lugalzagesi’s conquests soon brought him into conflict with a minor ruler named Sargon. In a stunning upset, Sargon’s well-drilled troops defeated the primitive armies of Sumeria. Lugalzagesi was paraded in chains through Nippur and was soon all but forgotten, while Sargon of Akkad went on to found the first great empire in history.