Sumerian civilization clay tablets

Wonderful history of Sumerian Civilization

Sumerian civilization originated in the Mesopotamian region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. And it is considered to be the first civilization of the ancient world. Sumerians made significant language, administration, and architecture advances throughout their culture and contributed much to the world.

Story of the Sumerians

Mesopotamia, or the fertile crescent, was first settled between 4500 – 4000 BC by non-Semitic groups. Present archeologists have named these non-Semitic people Ubaidians for the village Al-Ubayd, where their remains were first discovered. Later around 3300 BC, people called Sumerians who came from Anatolia established in Mesopotamia and started agriculture. Mesopotamia is a region with an arid climate. The only sources of water for Mesopotamia were the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. However, the rivers overflowed every spring and deposited a rich layer of silt in the surrounding flood plain. This silt created a suitable area for cultivation for the Sumerians around the river valleys. As a result of this rich soil, farming became a success, and people established small settlements near the river plains. Later, with the progression of agriculture, these small villages grew into large cities.

The history of the Sumerian civilization can be divided into three eras.

  • The Ubaid period – 4500 – 4100 BC
  • The Uruk Period – 4100 – 2900 BC
  • The Early Dynastic period – 2900 – 2334 BC

As mentioned earlier, the Ubaid people settled in Mesopotamia between 4500 – 4100 BC. These people were the first to use canals to increase agricultural productivity. Later, people who speak Sumerian immigrated to Mesopotamia from Anatolia. During the Uruk period, first settlements grew into large cities and developed into city-states.

Sumerian City-States

Around 3000 BC, the Mesopotamian region was home to at least 12 separate metropolises called city-states: Kish, Uruk, Ur, Sippar, Akshak, Larak, Nippur, Adab, Umma, Lagash, Bad-tibira, and Larsa. Every city-state was surrounded by a large wall, villages, and lands.

Every city-state had the following characteristics,

  • Temple and residential areas
  • Stockbreeding
  • Intensive agriculture
  • Highly specialized industries

With time, these city-states came to rule their surrounding area, forming a group of city-states. And these city-states altogether are called the Sumerian civilization.

And The Early Dynastic Period experienced the rise of the kings, formation of government and administration, and conflict between Sumerian city-states for land and water rights.

Ziggurat, Priests, and kingship

In the center of each city of the Sumerian civilization, there was a giant pyramid-shaped structure called the Ziggurat. And the Ziggurat was surrounded by a large temple complex, which also functioned as a town hall. Priests lived in these temple complexes, and they had great power in this civilization. They were able to control the irrigation system and other essential aspects of city life. The Sumerians believed in God and sought advice from priests on how to please the gods. The people gave grain and other materials to the priests for this service. As a result, the priests had a grain surplus, and they controlled much of the kingdom’s wealth.

The Sumerians believed in polytheism. That is, they believed in many gods and goddesses. Each city-state had its primary God (Nanna at Ur Inanna at Uruk). Also, they had had thousands of minor gods and goddesses. Sumerians believed that gods lived in the city’s temple. This Sumerian belief has later influenced the Egyptian beliefs about their gods and the development of the Pyramids.

With time, the city-states became wealthy and were subjected to various hostile attacks. These attacks created the need to protect cities. As a result, influential people attempted to defend the city in the face of hostile invasions. Initially, such leaders led city-states only in wars, and they ruled the city full time with time. Eventually, they gained the status of kings. Around 2375 BC, each city was ruled by a king. According to the literature Sumerian king was called “Lugal.” The king was responsible for the cultivation of the land, among other duties, and was bound to the gods. He was also the head of a community, which pooled their resources and shared their resources.

Sumerian king list

Sumerian king list is a clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform that records the history of kingship in Sumeria from the beginning to the second millennium BC. It is a compilation of names of the Sumerian city-states, their neighboring regions, and rulers. Sumerian king list can be classified as a quasi-historical record because it includes both mythical and historical information.

Sumerian king list starts with the line, “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu.”. Although archaeology has determined that Uruk is Mesopotamia’s earliest city, the king list demonstrate Eridu as the first city in the world, constructed from the watery marshes by their God of wisdom and water, Enki, who founded the concept of royalty and order in the region.

Then from lines 1 to 39, the Sumerian king list mentions eight kings have ruled the Sumeria before the great flood and the duration of their region. This section ends with the great flood by saying, “Then the flood swept over.” According to the great flood story, the gods wiped out humanity in flood, except for one man, Ziusudra, who is saved when Enki instructs him to build an ark and save two of each type of animal. This story is similar to the Old Testament story of Noah.

The next section of the document (from line 40 to 264) is about kings who have controlled the land from Kish. “After the flood had swept over, and the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kish.” The following section or the lines from 266 – 377 is devoted to the Akkadian ruler Sargon and his successors.

Economy

The Sumerian economy was dominated by four economic means: agriculture, poultry, fishing, and palm cultivation. Sumerians were able to create tools such as plows which made farming more productive. And consequently, this led to surplus production. As a result, people were freed from agriculture life, resulting in specialized in other professions such as pottery, carpentry, smithing, shipbuilding, weaving, etc.

The Sumerians recorded economic transactions and participated in a commerce network that stretched hundreds of miles using the world’s first writing. Moreover, they developed the idea of private property and ownership.

First Coins and Banks

Initially, the Sumerians engaged in trade using the barter system. For example, grains were used as a medium of exchange to buy food, clothing, or jewelry. But the disadvantage of this method is that there was no fixed criterion to determine the value of the goods. As a result, there were disagreements and disputes among the traders. As a solution to this, the Sumerians started using gold and silver as a medium of exchange over time. This is considered the beginning of the use of commodity money.

Moreover, Sumerians introduced the banking system to the world. They deposited their grains in the temples, and later they were able to get the grains back when they needed. Temples at that time served as lenders.

Language and Literature

The Sumerians are known for inventing the first writing system in the world. The development of trade led to the establishment of the writing system. As trade grew, Sumerians needed a way to identify their goods. They started marking the outsides of the containers for this purpose. Such symbols are called pictographs. The Sumerians began to draw drawings on clay tablets throughout time. At first, the diagrams depicted actual items. Later visuals reflected sounds and ideas as well. By mixing sounds, they could write different words. The Sumerians eventually abandoned pictures in favor of wedge-shaped symbols. Cuneiform is the name for this wedge-shaped lettering.

Sumerian Scientific Developments

According to historians, Sumerians discovered plows around 6000BC. They also used wheeled carts to transport goods.

The Sumerians were also specialized in metal works. Around 3200 BC, they were able even to manufacture bronze.

The Sumerians had a system of medicine based on magic and botany. They also knew the chemical removal processes in natural materials. Moreover, the surgical instruments that have been found show that they had a high knowledge of anatomy.

The most remarkable development of the Sumerians was in the field of hydraulic engineering. They were able to create a system of canals to control floods. Moreover, Sumerian farmers used the canal water of the Tigris and Euphrates for cultivation. And they were able to farm successfully with the water available through these canals.

The Sumerians developed arithmetic to keep records of trade in crops and commodities. Their number system was based on 60. Sumerians gave us the structure of the modern chronology of sixty seconds per minute and sixty minutes per hour.

Collapse of the Sumerian Civilization

The history of the Sumerian civilization was full of power struggles. Most city-states have tried to gain power over the other city-states. For instance, in 2400 BC, king Lugalzagesi of the city Umma conquered Ur and Uruk. These long-term struggles made Sumerian city-states vulnerable to external conquerors. In 2334 BC, Sumerian city-states were defeated by the great Sargon ruler of Akkad, who had ruled the city of Kish. This marked the beginning of the Akkadian empire and the end of the Sumerian civilization.

1 thought on “Wonderful history of Sumerian Civilization”

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