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Cylindres de Gudea

© 2006 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities

Iselin Claire (based on a text by André-Salvini Béatrice)

Mesopotamian history was marked by the rulers' constant desire to be seen as meritous by the gods and glorious by their subjects. One way they fulfilled this desire was by commissioning great buildings. These two cylinders were commissioned by King Gudea of Lagash, who ruled in around 2100 BC, as a literary and historical record of the construction of the temple of Ningirsu and the enthronement of the divine king and queen of Lagash during the ceremony to mark the new year.

Cylinder A: The principal phases of the construction of the temple of Ningirsu

The decoration of Cylinder A refers both to human and divine involvement in the construction. It records the god Enlil's order to Ningirsu "to build a temple in our city [Girsu]" and that "a prince of great understanding will apply his understanding" to the project. Ningirsu immediately appeared to Gudea in a dream to inform him about the temple, describing how it should look, and telling him of his future glory: "I will spread the respect for my temple over the whole world, the whole universe from the far horizon will gather there in my name, and even [the distant lands of] Magan and Meluhha will leave their mountains and come to it" (cylinder A, IX). As Sumer was rich in farmland but poor in building materials, Gudea ordered wood, metal, bitumen, and blocks of stone for the temple from as far away as the shores of the Mediterranean and the Indus valley. When the materials were finally all delivered to Lagash, Gudea ordered a purification ceremony for the city and its inhabitants, and then set to work to build a majestic temple to the god. Cylinder A should be read in parallel with the inscription on the statue of Gudea known as the Architect with a Plan (AO2).

Cylinder B: The enthronement of the divine couple in the temple and the ceremony of the sacred marriage

Cylinder B records the episodes after the completion of the temple, when the god and his paredra, the goddess Bau, were officially invited to take possession of the temple. The major rite led up to the hierogamy, or sacred marriage, of the divine couple. This was a fertility rite which guaranteed the renewal of life in all its forms - human, animals, and plants. When the goddess married her paredra, the sun returned to Sumer, providing abundant crops for the following year. Gudea provided Ningirsu with divine and human servants responsible for food, war, agriculture, fishing, and building, giving them powers as far as the borders of his state, including the plains, swamps, and fields. The wedding scene, shrouded in mystery, is mentioned in just a few brief lines. Next comes the ritual meal, after which "the rites have been completed and the decrees fulfilled." Thanks to the prince's actions, his kingdom will enjoy a time of plenty, all inequalities between master and slave, the weak and the strong, will be done away with, widows and orphans will be protected, and justice will be done.
The rite of the sacred marriage was practised throughout the Mesopotamian era. It was celebrated at the new year - in other words, in the springtime - so that the wedding was renewed annually, bringing life back to the parched land. At the ritual wedding, the king represented the dead god brought back to life. The Sumerians called the god Dumuzi and the Akkadians Tammuz.

The inscriptions recording Gudea's building program

Gudea's reign was dominated by the reconstruction of the temple of Ningirsu, tutelary god of Lagash. Gudea had a number of commemorative inscriptions built into the temple, in the foundations, beneath the doors, and in the walls. These mainly take the form of bricks with hand-written or stamped inscriptions, stone or metal tablets, copper figurines ending in a point like nails, and clay cones and nails whose head was designed to stick out of the wall.


André B., Photographie du cylindre B, in André B., Ziegler Christiane, Naissance de l'écriture : cunéiformes et hiéroglyphes, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1982, n 169, p. 227.
Averbeck Richard E., "Rituel Formula, Textual Frame and Thematic Echo in the Cylinders of Gudea", in Young Gordon D., Chavalas Mark W., Averbeck Richard E., Crossing Boundaries and Linking Horizons. Studies in Honor of Michael C. Astour, Bethesda, Maryland, 1997, pp. 37-93.
Averbeck Richard E., A Preliminary Study of Ritual and Structure in the Cylinders of Gudea (Dissertation, Pennsylvania, 1987), University Microfilms International, Ann Harbour, Michigan.
Edzard Dietz Otto, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia. Early Periods, vol. 3/1 : Gudea and his Dynasty, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1997, pp. 68-88 (cylindre A) et pp. 88-106 (cylindre B).
Jacobsen Thorkild, "The Cylinders of Gudea", in Jacobsen Thokild, The Harps that Once : Sumerian Poetry in Translation, New Haven et Londres, 1987, pp. 386-444 (cylindre A, pp. 388-425 ; cylindre B, pp. 425-444).
Sarzec Ernest de, Découvertes en Chaldée, Paris, E. Leroux, 1884-1911, vol. I, p. 66 et vol. II, pl. 33-35 (cylindre A), pl. 36 (cylindre B).
Thureau-Dangin François, "Les Cylindres de Goudéa", in Textes cunéiformes du Louvre, Tome VIII (TCL8), Paris, P. Geuthner, 1925.
Thureau-Dangin François, Les Inscriptions de Sumer et d'Akkad, Paris, E. Leroux, 1905, pp. 134-174 (cylindre A), pp. 174-199 (cylindre B).

Technical description

  • Cylindres de Gudea

    Vers 2120 avant J.-C.

    Tello, ancienne Girsu

  • Terre cuite moulée

    H. : 56,50 cm. ; D. : 33 cm.

  • Fouilles E. de Sarzec, 1877 , 1877

    MNB 1511, MNB 1512

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, c. 2350–2000 BC
    Room 228
    Vitrine 5 : La construction du temple, 2150 - 2000 avant J.-C.

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