“Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, and Hammurabi, king of Babylon, both had male lovers; Zimri-Lim’s queen refers to them matter-of-factly in a letter.”
-David F. Greenberg
For this week’s article, we will be going farther back than we have in a while, which also means we will be working with less information and primary sources than we usually have access to. Information about this man only became available in 1933 when the ancient city of Mari was discovered in Syria. There they discovered 20,000 tablets filled with writings. More than 3000 of these tablets are letters, one of which reveals that the King of Mari, Zimri-Lim, had male lovers. And that is who we will be looking at this week: a man who ruled Mari from 1775 B.C. until 1761 B.C. and led Mari through what is regarded as it’s most prosperous and peaceful years.
Zimri-Lim’s life was never an easy one. His father was assassinated in his palace by servants during a coup, and the young Zimri-Lim was forced into exile and unable to return to his home for a large chunk of his life. With Shamshi-Adad I taking over after Zimri-Lim’s father was killed, Shamshi-Adad’s son Yasmah-Adad was next in line for the throne. Yasmah-Adad had a short and a rather disappointing rule; he was set up in a marriage with Betlum, the daughter of Ishi-Addu of Qatna, and it was reported that he neglected his bride, causing diplomatic issues with Qatna. This failure caused led to a rise in support for Zimri-Lim, and he was able to raise an army shortly after Shamshi-Adad I died. He was then able to oust Yasmah-Adad and become King of Mari.
During his rule, he was able to repair diplomatic connections and make allies with the then King of Babylon, Hammurabi, keeping in close contact with the man without ever meeting. He also took the opportunity to turn the palace that saw his father’s assassination into a much safer place. The royal chambers became more private and secure while still maintaining ease of access between rooms. He also expanded on the palace in a much more literal way, building it up so that it covered eight acres and held almost three hundred rooms. He filled his home with bakeries, school rooms, wine cellars, archives, throne rooms, and audience chambers.
Within the Royal Palace, he was also able to build a family, including his wife, princess Shibtu the daughter of Yarim-Lim I. A woman who herself was quite accomplished, historian Abraham Malamat even described her as "the most prominent of the Mari ladies." She was a trusted queen; her husband left her in charge when he left, something that wasn’t entirely common. And from their correspondence alone it seems very clear that she loved her husband, as she would ask after his health and wellbeing, and together they had seven daughters.
These seven daughters would go on to marry well, and Zimri-Lim treated them better than most women at the time. He trusted their opinions and valued their voices; all of his relations with women in fact further supported the theory that he thought highly of women in general.
It was not just his politics that were impressive though. He is also remembered for the incredible feat of traveling from his capital to the coast, a one thousand mile round trip. This was an enormous journey for the time, as most people from Mari never had the chance to leave the city, much less travel to the sea. He was able to bring four thousand people with him, including his family and servants, and these people were able to see the coast and foreign lands for the first time. With this trip he was also able to make connections with the cities around his own, making way for his city to become a major trading centre.
And with this, we have to go back to a name that was mentioned in passing earlier: Hammurabi, a man who Zimri-Lim became very close to over the years. Unfortunately, their relations became less friendly due to a dispute over the city of Hīt, and in 1761 B.C. Hammurabi invaded Mari. After that, records of Zimri-Lim disappear, causing many to assume that he was killed in the invasion.
Though his life did not end in the happiest of ways, the end in no way defines the whole. The prosperity he led his country into and his love for his family remain the most remembered things about the man. This is in part because of the tablets retrieved, many of which contained personal correspondence from Zimri-Lim, and all of which have considerable historic worth.
Through these tablets, we are given the chance to discover more about a time far before our own and are given insight into the lives of those before us. One particular piece of insight that is especially relevant to this project is how they treated relationships between men at the time.
Though this is a record of the king, who undoubtedly had more privilege than any other citizen of Mari, his queerness was easily accepted. Historian David F. Greenberg saying “Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, and Hammurabi, king of Babylon, both had male lovers; Zimri-Lim’s queen refers to them matter-of-factly in a letter.”
Which not only sets a precedent for queerness existing from the earliest of times, but also a precedent for people’s ability to accept this aspect of humanity. While we can never know exactly what the wife thought of this situation, extramarital relationships were not uncommon, and this was an accepted form of them.
Zimri-Lim’s life can be kept as a reminder as we move forward; progress is not a linear thing. We often trick ourselves into believing that all of history has been filled with pain and punishment for queer people, but that is not the case. That narrative is a purposeful one. It is supposed to convince us that we are not natural, that what is natural is hatred of us. We must remind ourselves that this narrative is factually false. We have always existed, and we have always been loved, and nothing can erase that.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Charpin, Dominique. Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Eskridge Jr, William N. "A history of same-sex marriage." Virginia Law Review (1993): 1419-1513.
Gagnon, Robert AJ. The Bible and homosexual practice: Texts and hermeneutics. Abingdon Press, 2010.
Ishtup-Ilum, Governor-Prince of Mari. Basalt figure, c. 1800 BCE. From the palace of Zimri-Lim. National Museum, Damascus, Syria. Art Resource.
Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. "Women in ancient Mesopotamia." Women’s roles in ancient civilizations (1999): 85-114.
Pardee, Dennis. “The Mari Archives.” Ministry Magazine. Apr 1977.
Paulissian, Robert. "Adoption in ancient Assyria and Babylonia." Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 13.2 (1999): 5-34.