Monday, March 25, 2024

AKITU Festival “Chaldean Babylonian New Year” Past & Present




5300 BC-Present 

Celebrating Mesopotamian New Year on April 1st is dateable to the Babylonian First Dynasty, early second millennium BC. This Babylonian dynasty is a descendant of proto-Kali. [1] In that era, religious economic, and social aspects of life were modified and transformed from their earlier inherited patterns to be in accordance with Babylonians' own culture and fundamental values. However, before that era, celebrating Akitu/Akiti (in the Sumerian language) marked one of the two major New Year festivals, Akitu (Akkadian) and Zagmuk[2] (Sumerian), Festivals, which were celebrated by the mid-southerner Mesopotamians since the time of Proto-Kaldi in Eridu 5300 BC. 

Upon the growth in the supremacy of Ur of the Chaldeans, it took Eridu's place as the official ceremonial center until Babylon assumed control in the era of the Babylonian first dynasty. While there is no reference to the observance of Zagmuk and Akitu in the northern region before the (Sargonic dynasty 721-612 BC), those two events were known in the Babylonian region (Sumer and Akkad) since the Eridu era c. 5300 BC. This premise is demonstrated in the Sumerian/Babylonian mythologies of creation and the mythical journeys of the gods of ancient cities, which mentioned Eridu and its official god Ea/Enki, god Marduḫ’s father. Chaldeans follow the year 5300 BC as the starting date for celebrating the Chaldean Babylonian New Year’s Day because it is the date of founding Eridu (NUN-KI), their ancestors’ first capital. 

How about the question that remains to be answered: Was Akitu an innovation or even a common practice by the northern Chaldean people of the Assur region as some claim?

As evidenced, Assur State was founded as a small region in the era of the Babylonian king, Shamshi Adad I who did not use other than the Babylonian/Akkadian language and writing system; then the state of Assur vanished from the ancient Mesopotamian scene several centuries as the region fell under the hegemony of Mittanis and then Hittites until it reappeared in the reign of Ashur Uballit I c. 1363 BC. Up to that time, no physical evidence had reported the observance of Zagmuk and Akitu as festive events in the northern region because the Mittanis and Hittites invaders did not recognize the national events of the Babylonian region that were popular in the Akkadian period. 

These two festivals were of particular significance in Babylon (NUN-KI), Eridu (NUN-KI), Kish, Ur, and Uruk in the period before the Sumerian first culture supremacy c. 2900-2600 BC to the end of the Neo-Sumerian culture supremacy (Third Dynasty of Ur), 2112–2004 BC. The cities of Eridu of Ur and its Gods Enki/Ea (Marduk/Marduḫ’s father) and Nannar/Sin played a major role in those celebrations. 

Ancient mid-southerners Proto-Kaldi adopted the fall equinox, Zagmuk as the beginning of the New Year. It coincided with harvesting dates. They celebrated both spring and fall equinoxes with the same vigor and importance. Yet the beginning of the year (the literal translation of the Sumerian word Zagmuk) observed by the Sumerians centered on the ceremonies of the sanctity of the date palm, fertility, and renewal. Holy Matrimony/Hashadu in the Babylonian period stood for the marriage of Marduḫ, the national god, and his wife Sarpanitum. Every year, their marriage was reenacted by the Babylonian king and the high priestess of the temple, the divine Lady, Entum. The final standardization of the ceremonial rituals of Akitu dates back to the Babylonian First Dynasty when the two festivals were united and Zagmuk became part of the Akitu rituals; the Babylonian First Dynasty is also credited for adopting the first day of April as the first day of the year. 

In fact, the beginning of the second millennium BC was the decisive time for settling the choice between celebrating Akitu or Zagmuk events as the primary celebration. During the era of the first Babylonian dynasty, a semifinal systematization of daily life in Mesopotamia began in all aspects: religious, scientific, economic, literary, and social including the unification of the chronology. Thus, the Akitu Festival was chosen by Babylonians to mark the national New Year’s Day. No other cities’ celebrations were to take place from April 1st to April 11th, including the northern cities of Kalkhu, Assur, or Nineveh until the official and legitimate celebration in Babylon ended. It is also worth noting that those cities' celebrations were timewise shorter, inside the main temple of the city and on a very local level. 

Zagmuk and Akitu were originally derived from the idea of an agricultural root. Julye Julye Bidmead states in her book The Agricultural Background of Akitu Festival, p. 119, “The ancient viewed each as the onset of six-month equinox year.” The Akitu festival of the first month of Nissanu lasted at least from the first to the fifth of Nissanu as noted in a series of tablets dated from the reign of Ibbi-Sin of Ur while the Zagmug-Akitu festival of the fall, lasted for twelve days starting on September 15th.” On the eighth day of the ceremony, Tammuz is liberated from the underworld, which coincides with the fall/autumn solstice on September 23rd and the date of harvesting as well. “The season of dates harvesting starts in mid-September and ends in mid-October.” ~ Marguerite Rutten

The name Akitu is derived from a very ancient name a-ki-ti-she-gur10-ku5. It was the festival of sowing, harvesting, and wool shearing. It was celebrated in antiquity from March/Addaru to April/Nisannu as well as from mid-September/Elulu to October/Tishritu. To the public, it also meant the beginning of the New Year, especially in the pre-Sargonic I era, wherein Akitu was first celebrated as stated in the tablet obtained from Girsu, in the city of Ur of the Chaldeans, and after the official festivities end, it was celebrated in Nippur city. With the predominance of the first Babylonian Dynasty, Akitu started to be recognized as being the beginning of the year (Resh Shatti(m), ancient Babylonian). Hence, Akitu ended up being recognized as the official Babylonian New Year festival. 

The Babylonians alone celebrated Akitu on April 1st of each year. While elsewhere in Mesopotamia, particularly the northern Shubaru region/Assur, it was less importantly celebrated on subsequent dates because the other cities' patron gods were visiting Babylon. Traditionally, celebrating Akitu was largely to acknowledge the supremacy of God Marduk/Marduḫ. However, when Babylon was plundered and the statue of Marduk/Marduḫ was captive in Nineveh by the king Sennacherib in 689 BC, the magnificent celebrations in Babylon came to an end for a few years as Sennacherib celebrated Akitu in his capital Nineveh, making Assur the focal point of the celebration. A disrespectful move that widely angered the public.   

When Sennacherib’s sons Arda-Mulissu and another brother, Nabû-šarru-uṣur turned against Sennacherib for the destruction he inflicted on Babylon, his other son Esarhaddon, who succeeded his father, immediately had Babylon rebuilt and reinstated the celebratory ceremonies of the supreme ancient Mesopotamian god Marduk/ Marduḫ. Cambyses II, son of the Persian king Cyrus II, was the last king who took part in the ceremonies of taking the hand of God Marduk/ Marduḫ in Babylon in 529 BC. Before the destruction of Babylon’s ziggurat and the E-sagila temple in 482 BC in the reign of Achaemenid king, Xerxes I/Ahasuerus. However, celebrating Akitu continued in the Babylonian region up to the second half of the first century BC as indicated in the tablets excavated in the city of Uruk. It is also worth noting that Alexander the Great celebrated Akitu. [3]

People waited eagerly for April 1st since the Old Babylonian period. They flocked to Babylon the official capital of the land, the glory of kingdoms, and the beauty of the Chaldeans' pride, where lavish celebrations took place. These huge gatherings and pilgrims came from all over ancient Mesopotamia, including Ahwaz, and the sea strip stretching up to Qatra/Qatar and the high Euphrates area as far as Haran.

Akitu was celebrated in two stages and in two locations—in the temple of God Marduk/ Marduḫ, E-sagila, “the house that raises its head” situated in the Babylonian ziggurat at the Eridu sacred quarter, the loftiest part of the E-temen-an-ki tower, foundation house of heaven and earth. The other location was Bet Akitu temple located two hundred meters outside the northbound walls of the city. It is worth mentioning that since the early first millennium BC, God Marduk/ Marduḫ was usually called Bel, the Lord because his real name was considered too holy to be pronounced. Similar to the (Lord God) epithet used by the scribes of the Old Testament for Elohim/the Hebrew God. 

Akitu begins on April 1st and lasts for eleven days (some scholars add a twelfth day as part of the official ceremony) although that day was marking the departure of visiting gids heading back to their cities. On the first day, the Urigallu priests would recite sad prayers in the E-sagila temple. In their sad prayers, the priests would ask for Marduk/ Marduḫ’s forgiveness. On the fourth day, a high priest, Sheshgallu, recites the creation epic Enuma Elish in praise of Marduk/ Marduḫ. As the Sheshgallu performs this essential function in the Nisannu/April ritual, he is customarily accompanied by musicians Kalu and Naru, actresses—Mummeltu, and actors—Mummelu, who would play the events of the epic. 

After reciting the epic, the king heads to the temple of the god of writing, Nabu, son of God Marduk/ Marduḫ to receive the sacred scepter from the high priest. Then he travels to Borsippa, which is seventeen kilometers downstream from Babylon. He spends his night at the temple of the patron god of the city, Nabu, revered by both Babylonians and Assyrians. Therein, the Sheshgallu recites the epic of creation at the house of the New Year, Beth Akitu. The implication of the king’s visit to the temple of God Nabu is to help him release Marduk/ Marduḫ from captivity inside a mountain in the underworld, Kur, the land of the netherworld people. 

On the fifth day, the king returns carrying the statue of Nabu, which he eventually leaves behind at the southwestern gate, Urash gate. Then he lays down his crown, scepter, and sword by the gate of E-sagila temple. After a series of ceremonies, he is given back his royal insignia after cleansing him and them with the holy water. Returning the crown to the king means his power was renewed by Marduk/ Marduḫ to be allowed to enter the temple to complete the celebratory ceremonies. The remaining part of the fifth day is dedicated to offerings and incantation rituals carried out by the Mashmashshu priest. He slaughters a ram and sweeps the walls of the temple with its blood and then throws its head into the river. As a kind of a scapegoat which casts out demonic powers. 

The king performs another ritual in the afternoon of the fifth day. He is accompanied by the Sheshgallu as well. That ritual mainly revolves around a white wild bull. Meanwhile, the crowds would be fully excited, especially after Marduk/ Marduḫ’s chariot passes in the streets without its driver, as a sign of dreading chaos that might be about to befall the land before Marduk/ Marduḫ sets the universe in order. On the seventh day, the statue of Marduk/ Marduḫ and the other gods are cleansed and clothed in new attires. Following that, Nabu visits the warrior god Ninurta in his temple.

Together they join forces in a ceremonial play in which the statues of Nabu and Ninurta defeat two symbolic golden statues from the netherworld.

Then the priests depart with the statues of Nabu and Ninurta to the E-sagila temple to join the statue of the Supreme God Marduk/ Marduḫ.

During the next two days, barges arrive in Babylon, carrying statues of gods from Ur, Sippar, Kutha, Kish, Uruk, Nippur, and other cities. Next, the barges are placed on horse-drawn chariots. On the eighth day, after the liberation of Marduk/ Marduḫ, the population’s outbursts of rejoicing intensified. The statues of gods are assembled in the Chamber of Destinies in the order of their ranks, essentially to confer their combined strength on the restored god for the conquest of hostile forces and to give him the right to determine the destinies, that is, to renew fruitfulness and life during the forthcoming year. This ritual is performed by the king who enters the great hall, grasping the hand of the great Lord Marduk/ Marduḫ, and he places him in the main courtyard of the E-Sagila, where all gods grant Marduk/ Marduḫ absolute authority and recite his fifty compound names. 

After that, the parliament representative announces the next year's policy, just like the state of the union, this policy always contains blessings, fortunes, and successes. At a later time, the king goes in procession from the E-sagila riding the chariot of Marduk/ Marduḫ glowing in gold and silver followed by the chariots of the other gods while aromatic herbs burn with fragrance. They would head toward the river along with the singers and musicians playing the flutes. The gods’ adoring devotees kneel in front of them. Finally, the procession would leave Babylon, heading toward the temple of Bit Akitu, and after a short tour alongside the Euphrates, it reaches Bit Akitu, which is decorated with green foliage. The king then carries the statue of Marduk/ Marduḫ and brings it inside Bit Akitu where ceremonial hymns are chanted, including the ones dedicated to Ishtar, goddess of sex and war, as well as the songs dedicated to God Ea, father of Marduk/ Marduḫ and protector of Eridu. The last song is an alternating hymn in which the gods are asked why they are not in their temples. They replied that they had to be with Marduk/ Marduḫ at that important event. 

Then more offering ceremonies are performed in addition to enacting the sacred marriage hashadu on the ninth and tenth days in a chamber called Gigunu/Gagum at the E-sagila. It is designated to the high priestess. On the eleventh day, at the E-sagila temple, once more prayers and good wishes are recited for the New Year in the presence of all gods that participated in the procession. Afterward, the celebrations are concluded with a lavish public banquet for all Babylonians and pilgrims from other cities while singers recite hymns and play musical instruments.

The performers who partake in these celebrations are Astalu, the musician; Huppu, the dervish or performer of religious dances; Assinnu, the designated boy; Qapistu, the characters’ caster; Quluu, the back chanters; Kur garru, the lamenter and he is also one of the religious servants; Mubabbilu, the funny jester; Mummelu and Mummeltu, the actor and actress; Mustapsu, the wrestler; and Zammeru, the flutists.

On the twelfth day, statues of the gods that promised to protect Babylon, consolidate its rule, and have leniency on its people are returned to Marduk/ Marduḫ’s temple. The first statue to depart Babylon is of God Nabu’s, followed by the statues of the other gods. Similarly, the priests return to their temples and daily life resumes in Babylon and the rest of the land.


               Akitu Festival “Chaldean Babylonian New Year” Past and Present



        AKITU was and still is a Chaldean Babylonian New Year Festival. It has been scientifically proven that lunar and solar calendars were developed by proto-Kaldi, founders of Eridu 5300 BC. No other city in ancient Mesopotamia had the privilege to celebrate AKITU at the beginning of Nisanu/April, except in Babylonia. AKITU was the Babylonian Genesis, symbolizing the victory of goodness, law, and order over the defeat of evil and chaos. Our direct ancestors the proto-Kaldi, who started this celebration more than 7300 years ago, have handed out the torch to the modern Chaldeans the indigenous Mesopotamians of modern-day Iraq.

        AKITU is here, and with Akitu comes the hope and the commitment to rebuild our shattered world, heart to heart and hand in hand. Chaldeans the indigenous Mesopotamians will continue celebrating Akitu, the Chaldean Babylonian New Year Festival from April 1st to April 11th under their national symbol, the Chaldean National Flag in their homeland modern-day Iraq, and worldwide. HAPPY AKITU. 

Let us all make Akitu the New Year Festival a new beginning For all Chaldeans and friends worldwide.


Courtesy of Amer Hanna Fatuhi, Ph.D. |

[1] Proto-Kaldi: In 1988, historian Amer Hanna Fatuhi named pre-Sumerian culture Proto-Kaldi. This term was first used in his study entitled “Ur of Chadeans … An Iraqi Perspective”. Subsequently, it became common among Iraqi scholars since 1990s and worldwide in 2004.

[2] Zagmuk (Sumerian: 𒍠𒈬, ZAG.MU, literally "beginning of the year" , which means 'New Year.'

[3] Collins, Andrew W., Alexander the Great and the Kingship of Babylon, P. 130