Kish was occupied from the Jemdet Nasr period (ca. 3100 BC), gaining prominence as one of the pre-eminent powers in the region during the early dynastic period.
The Sumerian king list states that Kish was the first city to have kings following the deluge,3 beginning with Jushur. Jushur’s successor is called Kullassina-bel, but this is actually a sentence in Akkadian meaning “All of them were lord”. Thus, some scholars have suggested that this may have been intended to signify the absence of a central authority in Kish for a time. The names of the next nine kings of Kish preceding Etana are all Akkadian words for animals, e.g. Zuqaqip “scorpion”. The East Semitic nature of these and other early names associated with Kish reveals that its population had a strong Semitic (Akkadian speaking) component from the dawn of recorded history,4 Ignace Gelb identified Kish as the center of the earliest East Semitic culture which he calls the Kish civilization.5
The twelfth king of Kish appearing on the Sumerian king list, Etana, is noted as “the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries”. Although his reign has yet to be archaeologically attested, his name is found in later legendary tablets, and Etana is sometimes regarded as the first king and founder of Kish. The twenty-first king of Kish on the list, Enmebaragesi, who is said to have captured the weapons of Elam, is the first name confirmed by archaeological finds from his reign. He is also known through other literary references, in which he and his son Aga of Kish are portrayed as contemporary rivals of Dumuzid, the Fisherman, and Gilgamesh, early rulers of Uruk.
Some early kings of Kish are known through archaeology, but are not named on the King list. These include Utug or Uhub, said to have defeated Hamazi in the earliest days, and Mesilim, who built temples in Adab and Lagash, where he seems to have exercised some control.
The Third Dynasty of Kish is unique in that it begins with a woman, previously a tavern keeper, Kubau, as “king”. She was later deified as the goddess Kheba.
Afterwards, although its military and economic power was diminished, Kish retained a strong political and symbolic significance. Just as with Nippur to the south, control of Kish was a prime element in legitimizing dominance over the north of Mesopotamia (Assyria, Subartu). Because of the city’s symbolic value, strong rulers later claimed the traditional title “King of Kish”, even if they were from Akkad, Ur, Assyria, Isin, Larsa or Babylon. One of the earliest to adopt this title upon subjecting Kish to his empire was King Mesannepada of Ur. A few governors of Kish for other powers in later times are also known.
Sargon of Akkad, the founder of the Akkadian Empire came from the area of Kish. In Akkadian times the city’s patron deity was Zababa (or Zamama), along with his wife, the goddess Inanna.
Kish continued to be occupied through the pre-Babylonian, old Babylonian, Kassite, and Neo-Assyrian Empire and Neo-Babylonian periods, and into classical Seleucid times, before being abandoned.