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Ancient Sumer: The World's First Great Civilization

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

A restored ziggurat in Iraq, historical location of the once mighty Sumerian civilization.

A restored ziggurat in Iraq, historical location of the once mighty Sumerian civilization.

The Sumerians were the first great power to emerge from the land “between the rivers” - the region otherwise known by its Greek name of "Mesopotamia".

Though the mighty Babylonian and Assyrian empires would one day dominate this part of the world, the achievements of the Sumerians pre-date the existence of both.

That being said, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century - when excavations of Assyrian ruins uncovered ancient tablets inscribed in Sumerian - that such a culture was even known to have existed.

Archaeologists identified the language as being non-Semitic, and named it for the royal title “King of Sumer and Akkad” that appeared frequently in the texts.

This was followed soon after by the discovery of the ruins of Ur – a prominent city-state that had been at the forefront of Sumerian achievement during the third millennium BC.

Over time, further excavations would reveal just how much is owed to this ancient culture, which had established complex political and social structures as early as 3100 BC.

Who were the Sumerians?

The Standard of Ur, in the British Museum. It is around 4600 years old, and was discovered in the 1920s in a tomb containing the skeleton of a ritually sacrificed man.

The Standard of Ur, in the British Museum. It is around 4600 years old, and was discovered in the 1920s in a tomb containing the skeleton of a ritually sacrificed man.

The exact origins of the Sumerians are unknown, but it's believed that they migrated to Mesopotamia from somewhere to the northeast of the region, around 3800 BC.

They brought with them advanced agricultural techniques and a language that has been classified as isolate (meaning it has no apparent link to any other language). They settled in the southern portion of the region, near where the Tigris and Euphrates converge to form one river that flows into the Persian Gulf.

The location was ideal for agriculture, due to the annual flooding of the rivers. At the same time, mountain ranges to the north and harsh deserts to the south formed a natural barrier to invasion.

The Invention of Writing

A Sumerian cuneiform tablet dated back to around 3000 BC. It is believed to be an administrative account of barley distribution.

A Sumerian cuneiform tablet dated back to around 3000 BC. It is believed to be an administrative account of barley distribution.

Draining the marshes and making the land suitable for farming required a sizeable workforce, as well as the establishment of a system geared towards the administration of large-scale agriculture.

Hence the rise of the world's first bureaucracy, which was made possible by the earliest recorded use of writing; though it's unclear whether the Sumerians developed the cuneiform text themselves or were introduced to it by people already present in the region.

Either way, by the third millennium BC, writing in Sumeria had reached levels of sophistication seemingly unmatched by other cultures at the time. There was even a class of scribes tasked with recording all administrative affairs and business transactions on clay tablets.

Other technologies that existed in Sumeria at the time include:

- The plow, the potter's wheel, and the use of wheeled vehicles.
- The domestication of various animals including the ox, donkey, and dog.
- The lunar calendar.
- Mathematical systems, developed by the priests to assist in the planning of public works.

Sumerian Gods and Priests

The ruins of a Sumerian temple in present-day Iraq. Sumerian city-states were built around temples dedicated to their patron deities (in this case, the wind god Enlil).

The ruins of a Sumerian temple in present-day Iraq. Sumerian city-states were built around temples dedicated to their patron deities (in this case, the wind god Enlil).

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By 3000 BC, 12 city-states had arisen in Sumer, sharing a common culture but constantly vying with each other for influence. The most prominent city-states were Eridu (the world's earliest recorded city), Uruk, Kish, and Ur (supposedly the birthplace of the biblical prophet Abraham).

A map of the ancient Sumerian civilization, located in what is now Iraq.

A map of the ancient Sumerian civilization, located in what is now Iraq.

Each city-state had its own anthropomorphic god or goddess and was governed by a priest class that ruled in the deity's name. The temple was the center of spiritual and temporal life and a symbol of the city's strength. The more wealthy and powerful a city-state; the larger and more elaborate its temple.

Administrators, artists, and craftsmen lived and worked on the temple grounds; while merchants conducted trade via river or overland caravan.

The ruins of the ziggurat (holy mountain) of Ur in Iraq. In the most powerful city-states, the temple usually sat atop a ziggurat that lifted it high above, so it could be seen even by farmers working outside the city walls.

The ruins of the ziggurat (holy mountain) of Ur in Iraq. In the most powerful city-states, the temple usually sat atop a ziggurat that lifted it high above, so it could be seen even by farmers working outside the city walls.

The Rise of Kings

The constant conflict between the city-states led to an increasing amount of power being placed in the hands of the powerful land-owning families that formed the military backbone of a city. These land-owning clans were each led by a lugal (big man).

By the third millennium BC, these great men had become influential enough to rival the priests. Some grew powerful enough to unite a city-state, or even several city-states, under their rule, effectively making them kings. This makes Sumer the earliest known example of monarchy aside from Ancient Egypt.

On the left, an Assyrian palace relief in the Louvre Museum, depicting the mythical warrior-king Gilgamesh holding a lion in one hand and a serpent in the other.

On the left, an Assyrian palace relief in the Louvre Museum, depicting the mythical warrior-king Gilgamesh holding a lion in one hand and a serpent in the other.

The first recorded Sumerian king was Etana, ruler of Kish - described by an ancient document as the man who “stabilized all the lands”.

Another prominent royal figure is Gilgamesh, a semi-mythical warrior who supposedly ruled the city-state of Uruk during the second millennium BC. Various poems and epics tell of him engaging in feats of strength and bravery, making him a precursor to ancient literary heroes like Heracles and Samson.

A tablet dating back to the Old-Babylonian Period, 2003-1595 BC, currently being held in the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq. It contains part of the "Epic of Gilgamesh" — the world's earliest known literary epic.

A tablet dating back to the Old-Babylonian Period, 2003-1595 BC, currently being held in the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq. It contains part of the "Epic of Gilgamesh" — the world's earliest known literary epic.

The Fate of Sumer

Sumer was weakened by constant conflict between the city-states, making it susceptible to invasion by the Akkadians, a Semitic people from the north. Akkadian king Sargon the Great finally conquered Sumer around 2300 BC.

However, his empire went into decline following his death, which allowed for a resurgence in Sumerian culture. But this renaissance was short-lived, as hostile tribes continued to pour in, eventually sacking the city of Ur around 2000 BC.

A lament dating back to the period describes the event, which signified the end of Sumer as a power in the region:

“Mothers and fathers who did not leave their houses were overcome by fire; The young, lying on their mothers' laps, like fish were carried off by the waters; In the city the wife was abandoned, the son was abandoned, the possessions were scattered about...O Nanna, Ur has been destroyed, its people have been dispersed”

Legendary Babylonian king Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 BC to 1750 BC, would incorporate both Sumer and Akkad into his empire. This may have meant the end of Sumer as a political entity, but the achievements of this ancient Middle-Eastern power would have a profound influence on all who followed.

References

  • Ancient Mesopotamia and the Sumerians. Retrieved from https://www.penfield.edu/webpages/jgiotto/onlinetextbook.cfm?subpage=1525827
  • Life in Sumer. Retrieved from https://www.ushistory.org/civ/4a.asp
  • Evolution of Sumerian Kingship (2018). Nijssen, Daan. Retrieved from https://www.ancientworldmagazine.com/articles/evolution-sumerian-kingship/

Comments

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on April 27, 2016:

Good to see this summary of the little known but very ancient civilisation of the Sumerians, Matthew. Fortunately I believe most of the Sumerian ruins are further south than the region recently occupied by ISIL / ISIS, and so sites such as Ur have not suffered so much from the cultural vandalism which has occured in northern Iraq. I hope that remains the case, because these places would be fascinating sites to visit, one day. Alun

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