Sargon and Ur-Zababa is a Sumerian poem, date of composition unknown, relating the rise to power of Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BCE), founder of the Akkadian Empire. The work is classified as a Mesopotamian folktale, relying on motifs such as the dream vision and the scheming king, but it may have been regarded as history in its time.
The poem might have been composed during the Ur III Period (2047-1750 BCE) when several other works concerning Sargon were written or committed to writing from oral tradition. The kings of the Ur III Period – especially Ur-Nammu (r. 2047-2030 BCE) and Shulgi of Ur (r. 2029-1982 BCE) – associated themselves closely with the Akkadian kings, specifically with Sargon and his grandson Naram-Sin (r. 2261-2224 BCE). This claim regarding dating is speculative, however, as no certain date has been given for the work.
The popularity of the poem is attested by the copies found in the ruins of ancient Mesopotamian cities dating to around the 7th century BCE when the region was controlled by the Assyrians. This clearly suggests tales concerning Sargon – and Naram-Sin – still resonated with audiences over a thousand years after their reigns. The work is unfortunately poorly preserved and exists only in fragments, as noted by scholar Jeremy Black:
Sargon and Ur-Zababa has been tentatively reconstructed from two manuscripts, a fragment from Uruk (Segments A and C) and a more complete tablet from Nippur (Segment B). While the events that concern the poem occur primarily in the north of Babylonia, the tablets on which it is recorded come from the south. (40-41)
The locations of the fragments also attest to the popularity of the piece and further suggest its origin in the Ur III Period when scribal schools – which used such texts as part of the curriculum – proliferated throughout Sumer under the reign of Shulgi of Ur.
The piece is sometimes known as The Legend of Sargon of Akkad, but that title is far more commonly applied to another work relating Sargon's birth, youth, and conquest of the Sumerian city-states. Sargon and Ur-Zababa, on the other hand, focuses on a specific period in the future king's life when, in accordance with the will of the gods, he is delivered from the schemes of the king Ur-Zababa and, it is suggested, replaces him.
Sargon's Legend & Reign
Almost nothing is known of Sargon's life, and what is known comes from texts regarded today as belonging to the genre of Mesopotamian naru literature – the world's first historical fiction – which casts a famous figure (usually a king) as the main character in a fictional tale. The Legend of Sargon of Akkad is among the best-known pieces from this genre and presents Sargon as the illegitimate son of a priestess, set adrift on the Euphrates River, who is taken in and raised by a gardener, eventually becoming king of Akkad and Lord of Sumer. Black comments:
Little is known about Sargon's origins. According to a much later Akkadian legend , he was the illicit child of a priestess who, much in the manner of Moses in the Bible, was placed in a wicker basket and cast adrift upon the water, to be rescued and raised by a gardener. Such folktale motifs were also incorporated into Sumerian literature, including, in Sargon and Ur-Zababa, instances of dreams which foretell the future. This folktale motif is embedded within the narrative which has theological concerns, dreams being regarded as messages predicting a divinely ordained future which man alone cannot resist. (40)
Sargon, according to the poem, is favored by the gods who have him raised by the gardener, Akki, to become cupbearer to the king Ur-Zababa of Kish, whose reign they have decreed must end. Historically, at this time, Sumer was largely under the control of Lugalzagesi of Umma (r. c. 2358-2334 BCE), who was conquering the city-states and building an empire. In the poem, Ur-Zababa, growing suspicious of Sargon after an ill-omened dream, sends his cupbearer to the king with instructions to kill him. Lugalzagesi instead befriends Sargon, who turns on his former master, and together they conquer Kish.
Sargon then broke his pact with Lugalzagesi, defeated him in battle, and imprisoned him. After creating a professionally trained army and consolidating his power, Sargon revolutionized Mesopotamian warfare in leading his army on a campaign of conquest throughout the entire region, eventually establishing the Akkadian Empire (2334-2218 BCE), which would become legendary down through the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (912-612 BCE). Scholar Paul Kriwaczek notes:
For at least 1,500 years after his death, Sargon the Great ... was regarded as a semi-sacred figure, the patron saint of all subsequent empires in the Mesopotamian realm. Indeed, two much later kings, one who ruled Assyria around 1900 BCE and the other at the end of the eighth century BCE, adopted his official name, or rather title, Sargon  "Legitimate King", as if to steal a bit of his thunder for themselves. (111)
Kriwaczek is referring to the Assyrian kings Sargon I (r. c. 1920-1881 BCE), about whom little is known, and Sargon II (r. 722-705 BCE) who became as legendary as Sargon of Akkad, especially after his victory over the kingdom of Urartu in 714 BCE. The popularity of Sargon of Akkad among the Assyrians is attested, not only by these kings, but by the copies of works relating to him found in the ruins of the Library of Ashurbanipal (r. 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh and, as noted, elsewhere.