Sumer was an ancient civilization founded in the Mesopotamia region of the Fertile Crescent situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Known for their innovations in language, governance, architecture and more, Sumerians are considered the creators of civilization as modern humans understand it. Their control of the region lasted for 2,000 years before the Babylonians took charge in 2004 B.C. Today few people, beyond the scholars know much, if anything about Sumer. I think that is a travesty given what they contributed to evolution of civil society. Hence this blog. Please enjoy.
Sumer was first settled by humans from 4500 to 4000 B.C., though it is probable that some settlers arrived much earlier. This early population—known as the Ubaid people—was notable for strides in the development of civilization such as farming and raising cattle, weaving textiles, working with carpentry and pottery and even enjoying beer. Villages and towns were built around Ubaid farming communities.
The people known as Sumerians were in control of the area by 3000 B.C. Their culture was comprised of a group of city-states, including Eridu, Nippur, Lagash, Kish, Ur, and the very first true city, Uruk. At its peak, around 2800 BC, the city had a population between 40,000 and 80,000 people living within its six miles of defensive walls, making it a contender for the largest city in the world.
The language of Sumer is the oldest on linguistic record. It first appeared in archaeological records around 3100 B.C. and dominated Mesopotamia for the next thousand years. It was mostly replaced by Akkadian around 2000 B.C. but held on as a written language in cuneiform for another 2,000 years. Cuneiform, which is used in pictographic tablets, appeared as far back as 4000 B.C., but was later adapted into Akkadian, and expanded even further outside of Mesopotamia beginning in 3000 B.C. Writing remains one of the most important cultural achievements of the Sumerians, allowing for meticulous record keeping from rulers down to farmers and ranchers. The oldest written laws date back to 2400 B.C. in the city of Ebla, where the Code of Er-Nammu was written on tablets.
Architecture on a grand scale is generally credited to have begun under the Sumerians, with religious structures dating back to 3400 B.C., although it appears that the basics of the structures began in the Ubaid period as far back as 5200 B.C. and were improved upon through the centuries. Homes were made from mud bricks or bundled marsh reeds. It is interesting that some modern-day architects are looking at mud-brick construction as an environmentally-friendly building material.
Ziggurats began to appear around 2200 B.C. These impressive pyramid-like, stepped temples, which were either square or rectangular, featured no inner chambers and stood about 170 feet high. Ziggurats often featured sloping sides and terraces with gardens. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of these. (See the picture above).Palaces also reach a new level of grandiosity. In Mari around 1779 B.C., an ambitious 200-room palace was constructed.
Sumerians had a system of medicine that was based in magic and herbalism, but they were also familiar with processes of removing chemical parts from natural substances. They are considered to have had an advanced knowledge of anatomy; surgical instruments have been found in their archaeological sites.
One of the Sumerians greatest advances was in the area of hydraulic engineering. Early in their history they created a system of ditches to control flooding, and were also the inventors of irrigation, harnessing the power of the Tigris and Euphrates for farming. Canals were consistently maintained from dynasty to dynasty.Their skill at engineering and architecture both point to the sophistication of their understanding of math.
The structure of modern time keeping, with sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour, is attributed to the Sumerians.
Schools were common in Sumerian culture, marking the world’s first mass effort to pass along knowledge in order to keep a society running and building on itself.
Sumerians left behind scores of written records, but they are more renowned for their epic poetry, which influenced later works in Greece and Rome and sections of the Bible, most notably the story of the Great Flood, the Garden of Eden, a baby in a basket (Moses), and the Tower of Babel were all stories copied from Sumerian writings. The Sumerians were musically inclined and a Sumerian hymn, “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” is considered the world’s oldest musically notated song.
In 2500 B.C. the only woman to rule the Sumerians, Kubaba, took the throne. She is the only female listed on the Sumerian King List, which names all rulers of Sumer and their accomplishments.
Sargon, another Sumer ruler, built the city of Agade as his base, south of Kish, which became an important center in the ancient world, and a prominent port. Agade was also home to Sargon’s army, which is considered the first organized standing army in history, and the earliest to use chariots in warfare.
Ur-Nammu, a later Sumer ruler, did the considerable work of constructing an organized and complicated legal code that is considered the first in history. Its purpose was to ensure that everyone in the kingdom, no matter what city they lived in, received the same justice and punishments, rather than rely on the whims of individual governors. The US today could learn something from this 4,700 year-old civilization! Ur-Nammu also created an organized school system for state administrators. Called the Edubba, it kept an archive of clay tablets for learning. Another great idea the US could learn from – this Sumerian school probably taught ethics, as well!
In 2004 B.C., the Elamites stormed Ur and took control.The ruling Elamites were eventually absorbed into Amorite culture, becoming the Babylonians and marking the end of the Sumerians as a distinct body from the rest of Mesopotamia.
This a classic case of forgetting history, its lessons and its achievements. It is probably the most important topic for any education system today, and yet, it’s been discarded in many western countries for shallow, and generalized topic called social studies. The basics of history and geography have all but disappeared. Apologies for the introduction of one of my persistent hobby-horses.