The Sumerians Civilization

Hunter-gatherers had roamed that part of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent, and they had planted gardens. By 7000 BCE the crops they planted became a major source of food. They had begun farming, which required permanent settlement.

By 4500 BCE people archaeologists would call Ubaidians were living in towns in in Mesopotamia (Greek for “between two rivers”) near where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. The Ubaidians drained marshes. They grew wheat and barley and irrigated their crops by digging ditches to river waters. They kept farm animals. Some of them manufactured pottery. They did weaving, leather or metal work, and some were involved in trade with other societies.

By 4000 BCE to the south in Syria a society existed that had regional centers and a complex government. Here, as with the Ubaidians, people baked bread in huge ovens and manufactured fine pottery. In the year 2000 of modern times, at Tell Hamoukar, archaeologists discovered a protective city wall, and they described the place of their digging as more than a town. They described it as a city. And they found primitive hieroglyphics: markings for recording trade transactions.

It was around 4000 BCE that a people called Sumerians moved into Mesopotamia, perhaps from around the Caspian Sea. By 3800 BCE the Sumerians had supplanted the Ubaidians and Semites in southern Mesopotamia. They built better canals for irrigating crops and for transporting crops by boat to village centers. They improved their roads, over which their donkeys trod, some of their donkeys pulling wheeled carts. And the Sumerians grew in number, the increase in population the key element in creating what we call civilization — a word derived from an ancient word for city.

At least twelve cities arose among the Sumerians. Among them were Ur, Uruk, Kish and Lagash — Ur, for example, becoming a city of about 24,000 people. In the center of each city was a temple that housed the city’s gods, and around each city were fields of grain, orchards of date palms, and land for herding. Besides planting and harvesting crops, some Sumerians hunted, fished, or raised livestock. In addition to an increase in population, civilization was also about variety, and enough food was produced to support people who worked at other occupations — such as the priesthood, pottery making, weaving, carpentry and smithing. There were also traders, and the Sumerians developed an extensive commerce by land and sea. They built seaworthy ships, and they imported from afar items made from the wood, stone, tin and copper not found nearby.


Sumerian writing is the oldest full-fledged writing that archaeologists have discovered. The Ubaidians may have introduced the Sumerians to the rudiments of writing and recorded numerical calculation, which the Sumerians used with the rise in trade and to calculate and to keep records of supplies and goods exchanged. The Sumerians wrote arithmetic based on units of ten — the number of fingers on both hands. Concerned about their star-gods, they mapped the stars and divided a circle into units of sixty, from which our own system of numbers, and seconds and minutes, are derived.

The Sumerians wrote poetically, describing events as the work of their gods, and they wrote to please their gods. The Sumerians wrote by pressing picture representations into wet clay with a pen, and they dried the clay to form tablets. Instead of developing their writing all at once, as one might expect with divine revelation, they developed their writing across centuries. They streamlined their pictures into symbols called ideograms, and they added symbols for spoken sounds — phonetic letters — forming what is called cuneiform.

Early in Sumerian civilization, eighty to ninety percent of those who farmed did so on land they considered theirs rather than communal property. Here too the Sumerians were expressing a trend that was common among others. Another individual effort was commerce, and with a growth in commerce the Sumerians had begun using money, which made individual wealth more easily measured and stored. Commerce required initiative, imagination, an ability to get along with people and luck, and, of course, some merchants were more successful than others.

Farmers also benefited from luck, and they needed stamina, good organization and good health. And, as with merchants, some were more successful than others. Those who failed to harvest enough to keep themselves in food and seed borrowed from those who had wealth in surplus. Those who borrowed hoped that their next harvest would give them the surplus they needed to repay their loan. But if the next harvest was also inadequate, to meet their obligations they might be forced to surrender their lands to the lender or to work for him. When Sumerians lost their land, they or their descendants might become sharecroppers: working the lands of successful landowners in exchange for giving the landowners a good portion of the crops they grew.

Common Sumerians remained illiterate and without power, while kings, once elected by common people, became monarchs. The monarchs were viewed as agents of and responsible to the gods. It was the religious duty of their subjects to accept their rule as a part of the plan of the gods. Governments drafted common people to work on community projects, and common people were obliged to pay taxes to the government in the form of a percentage of their crops, which the city could either sell or use to feed its soldiers and others it supported.

Men Dominate Women

Physically stronger than women, men could rule women by brute force, and in societies where men were the warriors it was they who got together and made decisions for their entire society. Presumably before the time of the Sumerians, kings were chosen by the warriors, with the king as the leading warrior.

The Sumerians put the domination of men over women into law. If a husband died, the widow came under the control of her former husband’s father or brother, or if she had a grown son she was put under his control. A woman in Sumer had no recourse or protection under the law. A woman’s power, if she had any, was the influence of her personality within her family.


Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood and took place in temples. But this changed. Education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent families, which these familes paid for. Most if not all students were males. The students were obliged to work hard at their studies, from sun up to sun down. Not believing in change, there was no probing into the potentials of humankind or study of the humanities. Their study was “practical.” It was rote learning of complex grammar and practice at writing. Students were encouraged with praise while their inadequacies and failures were punished with lashes from a stick or cane.

War and Slavery

Sumerian kings sent men out to plunder people in hill country, and they acquired slaves. The Sumerian name for a female slave was mountain girl, and a male slave was called mountain man. The Sumerians used their slaves mainly as domestics and concubines. And they justified their slavery as would others: that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

As Sumerian cities grew in population and expanded, the swamps that insulated city from city disappeared. Sumerians from different cities were unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts over land and the availability of water, and wars between cities erupted — wars the Sumerians saw as between their gods. And the Sumerians made slaves of other Sumerians they had captured.

It was a new kind of warfare. In herding and hunter-gatherer societies — mobile societies — the entire community might enter the field of battle. In settled agricultural communities such as those of the Sumerians, the younger and stronger, maybe fourth or fifth of society, went to war. The others remained at home, working at farming or other chores.

Some people associate Uruk with the city commonly spelled Ereck in the Book of Genesis 10:10

Wars with distant people were fueled by the greed and ambitions of kings. The Sumerians described this in a poetic tale of conflict between the king of Uruk [note] and the distant town of Arrata. It was a tale written by a Sumerian some five hundred years after the event, a tale of which only fragments remain. Here was reporting as it would be for more than 3,000 years, as it would be with Homer and his Iliad, the sacred writings of Hindus and with the Old Testament, with gods in command and not disapproving of war.

Among the Sumerian cities was an impulse to be supreme, and, around 2800 BCE, Kish had become the first of the cities to dominate the whole of Sumer. Then Kish’s supremacy was challenged by the city of Lagash, which launched a bloody conquest against its Sumerian neighbors and extended its power beyond Sumerian lands. A bas-relief sculpture uncovered by archaeologists depicts a king of Lagash celebrating his victory over the city of Umma, the king’s soldiers, with helmets, shields and pikes, standing shoulder to shoulder and line behind line over the corpses of their defeated enemy.


Civilized societies had more diversity in opinion than existed in the less populous societies of hunter-gatherers. And civilized societies had dissent — something authoritarians would never be able to extinguish. Sumerians complained. A Sumerian complained in writing that he was a “thoroughbred steed” but was drawing a cart carrying “reeds and stubble.” Another complained of the futility of wars of aggression, writing “You go and carry off the enemy’s land; the enemy comes and carries off your land.”

Rather than docility, people in the city of Lagash instigated history’s first recorded revolt. This came after Lagash’s rulers had increased local taxes and restricted personal freedoms. Lagash’s bureaucrats had grown in wealth. The people of Lagash resented this enough that they overthrew their king — probably believing that they were acting in accordance with the wishes of the gods. They brought to power a god-fearing ruler named Urukagina, who eliminated excessive taxation and rid the city of usurers, thieves and murderers — the first known reforms.

Sargon and the Vanishing Sumerians

Sargon the GreatPossibly the head of
Sargon the Great

The Sumerians had a salinization problem. Evaporating water left behind layers of salt, and rising water tables brought more salt to the surface. Sumerians wrote of the earth turning white. A solution to the problem was to leave lands not watered for many seasons, to let the water table fall and let rain wash the salt down far below the surface. But this would have taken years. It was not done. Wheat is less tolerant of salt than barley, and Sumerian clay tablets describe the Sumerian diet changing from wheat to barley. Then the growing of barley and other crops diminished and the Sumerians suffered from hunger, malnutrition and disease. A Sumer weakened has been described as unable to defend itself.

Those who conquered the Sumerians were a Semitic people. A dynasty of Semitic kings came to rule the city of Kish. There, perhaps around 2200 BCE, a former cup-bearer to one of these kings overthrew the ruling dynasty. With good military tactics that included holding and fighting from high ground, he extended his rule. He defeated the Sumerian king of Nippur, where the Sumerian god Enlil was believed to dwell. He claimed that his victories were given to him by Enlil. And he became known as Sargon the Great.

Agade has not been located by archaeologists.

Sargon established his capital near Kish, at a city called Agade, [note] and his kingdom became known as Akkad — derived from the name Agade. His warriors became an aristocracy that lived off the taxes collected from conquered farmers and artisans. And his empire became commercial, with fortresses at strategic points along its trade routes. These were times in West Asia (the Middle East) when bronze weapons had replaced those of stone, and supplying an army with bronze weapons required control over trade routes that gave access to the tin and copper from which bronze is made. Perhaps responding to this need for tin and copper, Sargon extended his empire northwest into Syria, and some scholars speculate that he crossed the Taurus Mountains and extended his empire into the center of Asia Minor. He placed governors throughout his empire to rule in his name. He built himself a library of thousands of clay tablets. And to help unite his empire he built an efficient system of roads and a postal service.

Sargon passed power to his son, creating a new dynasty of kings. Around 2150 BCE, during the rule of Sargon’s grandson, Naramsin, a wave of nomads called Gutians, from the east, overran Agade and Sumer. Why Naramsin was unable to defeat the invaders is unknown. His empire may have been weakened by drought and famine or by plague. But like the Sumerians, the Akkadian people saw adversity as the work of displeased gods, and they interpreted the Gutian invasion as the result of their goddess Inanna having left their city because of Naramsin’s sins.

After only a hundred years Sargon’s empire became a memory, but Sargon remained as a legend. It was said that Sargon’s mother had abandoned him in a cradle of reeds, that she had placed the cradle on one of Mesopotamia’s great rivers and that Sargon had been found and adopted by Sumerians — a story similar to one which would emerge centuries later about a man called Moses.

Revival and Demise of the Sumerians

After the fall of Sargon’s empire, war erupted between the Sumerians and Gutians, and the Sumerians exterminated or evicted the Gutians. Sumerian civilization revived, including rule in the city of Ur by a king called Ur-Nammu, who, around the year 2050, created the first known code of laws. Ur-Nammu created retribution and punishment in the form of fines, superseding the justice of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. He was described as having removed the “grabbers” of the citizen’s oxen, sheep and donkeys, as having established laws that guarded an orphan or widow from anyone who might wish to exploit them, and as having guarded the poor from the rich.

The Sumerian renaissance lasted until about 1950 BCE, when Sumer was attacked by Elamites from the Zagros Mountains, just east of Mesopotamia. And Sumer was attacked by a Semitic speaking people from Syria who became known as Amorites (a word meaning westerner). The Amorites sacked and burned Sumerian cities. And Sumerians wrote lamentations, complaining that the blood of their people filled holes in their grounds like hot bronze in a mold. They wrote of bodies dissolving like fat in the sun and their cities covered with a shroud of smoke. What weakness if any among the Sumerians prevented them from successfully defending themselves remains unknown. But the Sumerian writers of lamentations saw their demise as the result of their gods having abandoned them like migrating birds.

The Amorites overran much of Sumer and settled along the Euphrates River just north of Sumer, where they founded the city of Babylon, and the Amorites settled to the north, along the Tigris River, in an area that included the city of Ashur. A Sumerian had described the Amorites as nomadic: as a people knowing no submission and having no house in their lifetime. The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament describes an Amorite as the grandson of Ham, youngest son of Noah, and describes an Amorite and other descendants of Noah as living between “the river of Egypt” and the Euphrates (Genesis 10:1-16 and 15:18-21). And in Amos 2:9, Amos describes the Amorites as being as tall as cedar trees.

By 1800 BCE, salinization had greatly diminished agriculture in southern Mesopotamia from what it had been many centuries before when Sumer was a more densely populated land.


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