2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology

Ancient Mesopotamia
Cities / Empires
Sumer: Uruk – Ur – Eridu
Kish – Lagash – Nippur
Akkadian Empire: Akkad
Babylon – Isin – Susa
Assyria: Assur – Nineveh
Dur-Sharrukin – Nimrud
Babylonia Chaldea
Elam Amorites
Hurrians Mitanni
Kassites Urartu
Kings of Sumer
Kings of Assyria
Kings of Babylon
Cuneiform script
Sumerian – Akkadian
Elamite – Hurrian
Enûma Elish
Gilgamesh – Marduk

Sumer (or Šumer, Sumerian ki-en-gir, Egyptian Sangar, possibly Biblical Shinar) was one of the early civilizations of the Ancient Near East, located in the southern part of Mesopotamia (modern day southeastern Iraq) from the time of the earliest records in the mid 4th millennium BC until the rise of Babylonia in the late 3rd millennium BC. The term "Sumerian" applies to all speakers of the Sumerian language. Sumer together with Ancient Egypt is considered the first settled society in the world to have manifested all the features needed to qualify fully as a "civilization".


The term "Sumerian" is an exonym first applied by the Akkadians. The Sumerians called themselves SAG.GI.GA "black-headed people" and their land KI.EN.GIR "land of the civilized lords". The Akkadian word Šumer possibly represents this name in dialect.

The Sumerians were a non- Semitic people and were at one time believed to have been invaders, as a number of linguists believed they could detect a substrate language beneath Sumerian. However, the archaeological record shows clear uninterrupted cultural continuity from the time of the Early Ubaid period (5200-4500 BC C-14, 6090-5429 calBC) settlements in southern Mesopotamia. The Sumerian people who settled here farmed the lands in this region that were made fertile by silt deposited by the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

City states

By the late 4th millennium BC, Sumer was divided into about a dozen independent city-states, whose limits were defined by canals and boundary stones. Each was centered on a temple dedicated to the particular patron god or goddess of the city and ruled over by a priest ( ensi) or king ( lugal), who was intimately tied to the city's religious rites.

The principal Sumerian sites (from North to South) were the cities of:

  • Mari -- 34°27′N 40°55′E
  • Agade -- 33°06′N 44°06′E
  • Kish (Tell Uheimir & Ingharra) -- 32°33′N 44°39′E
  • Borsippa (Birs Nimrud) -- 32°23′30″N, 44°20′30″E
  • Nippur (Nuffar) -- 32°10′N 45°11′E
  • Isin (Ishan al-Bahriyat) -- 31°56′N 45°17′E
  • Adab (Tell Bismaya) -- 31°57′N 45°58′E
  • Shuruppak (Fara) -- 31°46′N 45°30′E
  • Girsu (Tello) -- 31°37′N 46°09′E
  • Lagash (Al-Hiba) -- 31°26′N 46°32′E
  • Bad-Tibira (Al Medina) -- 31°46′N 46°00′E
  • Uruk (Warka) -- 31°18′N 45°40′E
  • Larsa (Tell as-Senkereh) -- 31°14′N 45°51′E
  • Ur (al Muqayyar) -- 30°57′45″N, 46°06′11″E
  • Eridu (Abu Shahrain) -- 30°48′57.02″N, 45°59′45.85″E

minor cities:

  • Sippar (Abu Habba) -- 33°03′N 44°18′E
  • Kutha (Tell Ibrahim) -- 32°44′N 44°40′E
  • Dilbat (Tell ed-Duleim) -- 32°09′N 44°30′E
  • Marad ((Wanna es-) Sadun) -- 32°04′N 44°47′E
  • Kisurra (Abu Hatab) -- 31°50′N 45°26′E
  • Zabala (Tell Ibzeikh) -- 31°44′N 45°52′E
  • Umma (Tell Jokha) -- 31°38′N 45°52′E
  • Kisiga (Tell el-Lahm) -- 30°50′N 46°20′E
  • Awan
  • Hamazi
  • Eshnunna
  • Akshak
  • Zimbir

Apart from Mari, which lies full 330 km northwest of Agade, but which is credited in the king list to have "exercised kingship" in the Early Dynastic II period, these cities are all in the Euphrates-Tigris alluvial plain, south of Baghdad in what are now the Bābil, Wāsit, Dhi Qar, Al-Muthannā and Al-Qādisiyyah governorates of Iraq.


The Sumerian city states rise to power during the prehistorical Ubaid and Uruk periods. The historical record gradually opens with the Early Dynastic period from ca. the 29th century BC, but remains scace until the Lagash period begins in the 26th century. Classical Sumer ends with the Akkadian Empire in the 24th century. Following the Gutian period, there is a brief " Sumerian renaissance" in the 22nd century, cut short in ca. 2000 BC by Amorite invasions. The Amorite "dynasty of Isin" persists until ca. 1730 BC when Mesopotamia is united under Babylonian rule.

  • Ubaid period 5300-3900 BC
  • Uruk IV period 3900-3200 BC
  • Uruk III period 3200-2900 BC
  • Early Dynastic I period 2900-2800 BC
  • Early Dynastic II period 2800-2600 BC
  • Early Dynastic IIIa period 2600-2500 BC
  • Early Dynastic IIIb period 2500-2334 BC
  • Lagash dynasty period 2550-2380 BC
  • Akkad dynasty period 2450-2250 BC
  • Gutian period 2250-2150 BC
  • Ur III period 2150-2000 BC

Ubaid period

A distinctive style of fine quality painted pottery spread throughout Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf region in the Ubaid period, when the ancient Sumerian religious centre of Eridu was gradually surpassed in size by the nearby city of Uruk. The archaeological transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift from painted pottery domestically produced on a slow wheel, to a great variety of unpainted pottery mass-produced by specialists on fast wheels. The date of this transition, from Ubaid 4 to Early Uruk, is in dispute, but calibrated radiocarbon dates from Tell Awayli would place it as early as 4500 BC.

The Ubaid pottery of southern Mesopotamia has been connected via Choga Mami Transitional ware to the pottery of the Samarra period culture (c. 5700-4900 BC C-14, 6640-5816 BC calBC) in the north, who were the first to practice a primitive form of irrigation agriculture along the middle Tigris River and its tributaries. The connection is most clearly seen at Tell Awayli (Oueilli, Oueili) near Larsa, excavated by the French in the 1980s, where 8 levels yielded pre-Ubaid pottery resembling Samarran ware. Sumerian speakers spread down into southern Mesopotamia perhaps because they had developed a social organization and a technology that enabled them, through their control of the water, to survive and prosper in a difficult environment then occupied by the fisher-hunter-gatherer population using a pre-pottery Arabian bifacial toolkit in the marshlands near the Persian Gulf and proto-Akkadian nomadic pastoralists.

Uruk period

By the time of the Uruk period (4500- 3100 BC calibrated), the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large temple-centered cities where centralized administrations employed specialized workers. It is fairly certain that it was during the Uruk period that Sumerian cities began to make use of slave labor (Subartu) captured from the hill country, and there is ample evidence for captured slaves as workers in the earliest texts. Artifacts, and even colonies of this Uruk civilization have been found over a wide area - from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and as far east as Central Iran.

The Uruk period civilization, exported by Sumerian traders and colonists (like that found at Tell Brak), had an effect on all surrounding peoples, who gradually evolved their own comparable, competing economies and cultures. The cities of Sumer could not maintain remote, long-distance colonies by military force.

The end of the Uruk period coincided with the Priora oscillation, a dry period from c. 3200- 2900 BC that marked the end of a long wetter, warmer climate period from about 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, called the Holocene climatic optimum. When the historical record opens, the Sumerians appear to be limited to southern Mesopotamia — although very early rulers such as Lugal-Anne-Mundu are indeed recorded as expanding to neighboring areas as far as the Mediterranean, Taurus and Zagros, and not long after legendary figures like Enmerkar and Gilgamesh, who are associated in mythology with the historical transfer of culture from Eridu to Uruk, were supposed to have reigned.

Early Dynastic

The ancient Sumerian king list recounts the early dynasties. Like many other archaic lists of rulers, it may include legendary names. The first king on the list whose name is known from any other source is Etana, 13th king of the first Dynasty of Kish. The first king authenticated through archaeological evidence is that of Enmebaragesi of Kish, the 22nd and penultimate king of that Dynasty, whose name is also mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic, and who may have been king at the time hegemony passed from Kish to Uruk once again. This has led to the suggestion that Gilgamesh himself really was a historical king of Uruk.

Lugal-Zage-Si, the priest-king of Umma, overthrew the primacy of the Lagash dynasty, took Uruk, making it his capital, and claimed an empire extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. He is the last ethnically Sumerian king before the arrival of the Semitic named king, Sargon of Akkad.

Lagash dynasty

The dynasty of Lagash is well known through important monuments, and one of the first empires in recorded history was that of Eannatum of Lagash, who annexed practically all of Sumer, including Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Larsa, and reduced to tribute the city-state of Umma, arch-rival of Lagash. In addition, his realm extended to parts of Elam and along the Persian Gulf. He seems to have used terror as a matter of policy - his stele of the vultures has been found, showing violent treatment of enemies.

Akkadian dynasty

The Semitic Akkadian language is first attested in proper names around 2800 BC. From about 2500 BC one finds texts written entirely in Old Akkadian. The Old Akkadian language period was at its height during the rule of Sargon the Great (2350 - 2330), but most administrative tablets even during that period are still written in Sumerian, as that was the language used by the scribes. Gelb and Westenholz differentiate between three dialects of Old Akkadian - from the pre-Sargonic period, the period of rule by king Sargon and the city of Agade, and the Ur III period. Speakers of Akkadian and Sumerian coexisted for about one thousand years, from 2800 to 1800, at the end of which Sumerian ceased to be spoken. Thorkild Jacobsen has argued that there is little break in historical continuity between the pre- and post-Sargon periods, and that too much emphasis has been placed on the perception of a "Semitic vs. Sumerian" conflict. However, it is certain that Akkadian was also briefly imposed on neighboring parts of Elam that were conquered by Sargon.

Gutian period

Following the downfall of the Akkadian Empire at the hands of Gutians, another native Sumerian ruler, Gudea of Lagash, rose to local prominence, promoting artistic development and continuing the practices of the Sargonid kings' claims to divinity.

Sumerian renaissance

Later, the 3rd dynasty of Ur under Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, whose power extended as far as northern Mesopotamia, was the last great "Sumerian renaissance", but already the region was becoming more Semitic than Sumerian, with the influx of waves of Martu ( Amorites) who were later to found the Babylonian Empire. Sumerian, however, remained a sacerdotal language taught in schools, in the same way that Latin was used in the Medieval period, for as long as cuneiform was utilised.

Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of the Sumerian lands was being compromised as a result of rising salinity. The evaporation of irrigated waters left dissolved salts in the soil, making them difficult for agriculture. There was a major depopulation of southern Mesopotamia, affecting many of the smaller sites, from about 2000 BC, leading to the collapse of Sumerian culture.


Following an Elamite invasion and sack of Ur during the rule of Ibbi-Sin (ca. 2004 BC), Sumer came under Amorite rule (taken to introduce the Middle Bronze Age). The independent Amorite states of the 20th to 18th centuries are summarized as the " Dynasty of Isin" in the Sumerian king list, ending with the rise of Babylonia under Hammurabi in the ca. 1730 BC.

Agriculture and hunting

The Sumerians adopted the agricultural mode of life which had been introduced into Lower Mesopotamia and practised the same irrigation techniques as those used in Egypt. Adams says that irrigation development was associated with urbanization , and that 89% of the population lived in the cities .

They grew barley, chickpeas, lentils, wheat, dates, onions, garlic, lettuce, leeks and mustard. They also raised cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. They used oxen as their primary beasts of burden and donkeys or equidss as their primary transport animal. Sumerians caught many fish and hunted fowl and gazelle.

Sumerian agriculture depended heavily on irrigation. The irrigation was accomplished by the use of shadufs, canals, channels, dykes, weirs, and reservoirs. The frequent violent floods of the Tigris, and less so, of the Euphrates, meant that canals required frequent repair and continual removal of silt, and survey markers and boundary stones continually replaced. The government required individuals to work on the canals in a corvee, although the rich were able to exempt themselves.

After the flood season and after the Spring Equinox and the Akitu or New Year Festival, using the canals, farmers would flood their fields and then drain the water. Next they let oxen stomp the ground and kill weeds. They then dragged the fields with pickaxes. After drying, they plowed, harrowed, raked the ground three times, and pulverized it with a mattock, before planting seed. Unfortunately the high evaporation rate resulted in gradual salinity of the fields. By the Ur III period, farmers had converted from wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley as their principle crop.

Sumerians harvested during the dry fall season in three-person teams consisting of a reaper, a binder, and a sheaf arranger. The farmers would use threshing wagons to separate the cereal heads from the stalks and then use threshing sleds to disengage the grain. They then winnowed the grain/chaff mixture.


The Tigris-Euphrates plain lacked minerals and trees. Sumerian structures were made of plano-convex mudbrick, not fixed with mortar or with cement. Mud-brick buildings eventually deteriorate, and so they were periodically destroyed, leveled, and rebuilt on the same spot. This constant rebuilding gradually raised the level of cities, so that they came to be elevated above the surrounding plain. The resultant hills are known as tells, and are found throughout the ancient Near East.

The most impressive and famous of Sumerian buildings are the ziggurats, large terraced platforms which supported temples. Some scholars have theorized that these structures might have been the basis of the Tower of Babel described in Genesis. Sumerian cylinder seals also depict houses built from reeds not unlike those built by the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq until as recently as A.D. 400.

Sumerian temples and palaces made use of more advanced materials and techniques, such as buttresses, recesses, half columns, and clay nails.


Sumerian culture may be traced to two main centers, Eridu in the south and Nippur in the north. Eridu and Nippur may be regarded as contrasting poles of Sumerian religion.

The deity Enlil, around whose sanctuary Nippur had grown up, was considered lord of the ghost-land, and his gifts to mankind were said to be the spells and incantations that the spirits of good or evil were compelled to obey. The world he governed was a mountain (E-kur from E=house and Kur=Mountain); the creatures that he had made lived underground.

Eridu, on the other hand, was the home of the culture god Enki (absorbed into Babylonian mythology as the god Ea), the god of beneficence, ruler of the freshwater depths beneath the earth (the Abzu from Ab=water and Zu=far), a healer and friend to humanity who was thought to have given us the arts and sciences, the industries and manners of civilization; the first law-book was considered his creation. Eridu had once been a seaport, and it was doubtless its foreign trade and intercourse with other lands that influenced the development of its culture. Its cosmology was the result of its geographical position: the earth, it was believed, had grown out of the waters of the deep, like the ever widening coast at the mouth of the Euphrates. Long before history is recorded, however, the cultures of Eridu and Nippur had coalesced. While Babylon seems to have been a colony of Eridu, Eridu's immediate neighbour, Ur, may have been a colony of Nippur, since its moon god was said to be the son of Enlil of Nippur. However, in the admixture of the two cultures, the influence of Eridu was predominant.

Historian Alan Marcus has been quoted as saying that "Sumerians held a rather dour perspective on life." One Sumerian wrote: "Tears, lament, anguish, and depression are within me. Suffering overwhelms me. Evil fate holds me and carries off my life. Malignant sickness bathes me." Another wrote, "Why am I counted among the ignorant? Food is all about, yet my food is hunger. On the day shares were allotted, my allotted share was suffering."

Though women were protected by late Sumerian law and were able to achieve a higher status in Sumer than in other contemporary civilizations, the culture was male-dominated.

There is much evidence that the Sumerians loved music. It seemed to be an important part of religious and civic life in Sumer. Lyres were popular in Sumer, see Sumerian music.

Economy and trade

Discoveries of obsidian from far-away locations in Anatolia and lapis lazuli from northeastern Afghanistan, beads from Dilmun (modern Bahrain), and several seals inscribed with the Indus Valley script suggest a remarkably wide-ranging network of ancient trade centered around the Persian Gulf.

The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to trade with far lands for goods such as wood that were scarce in Mesopotamia. In particular, cedar from Lebanon was prized.

The Sumerians used slaves, although they were not a major part of the economy. Slave women worked as weavers, pressers, millers, and porters.

Sumerian potters decorated pots with cedar oil paints. The potters used a bow drill to produce the fire needed for baking the pottery. Sumerian masons and jewelers knew and made use of alabaster (calcite), ivory, gold, silver, carnelian and lapis lazuli.


Early chariots on the Standard of Ur, ca. 2600 BC.
Early chariots on the Standard of Ur, ca. 2600 BC.

The almost constant wars among the Sumerian city-states for 2000 years helped to develop the military technology and techniques of Sumer to a high level. The first war recorded was between Lagash and Umma in 2525 BC on a stele called the Stele of Vultures. It shows the king of Lagash leading a Sumerian army consisting mostly of infantry. The infantrymen carried spears, equipped with copper helmets and leather shields . The spearmen are shown arranged in a phalanx formation, which required training and discipline, and so implies they were professional soldiers.

The Sumerian military used carts harnessed to onagers. These early chariots functioned less effectively in combat than did later designs, and some have suggested that these chariots served primarily as transports, though the crew carried battle-axes and lances. The Sumerian chariot comprised a four or two- wheeled device manned by a crew of two and harnessed to four onagers. The cart was composed of a woven basket and the wheels had a solid three-piece design.

Sumerian cities were surrounded by defensive walls. The Sumerians engaged in siege warfare between their cities, but the mudbrick walls failed to deter some foes.


Like other cities of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, Sumer was a polytheistic, or henotheistic, society. There was no organized set of gods, with each city-state having its own patrons, temples, and priest-kings; but the Sumerians were probably the first to write down their beliefs. Sumerian beliefs were also the inspiration for much of later Mesopotamian mythology, religion, and astrology.

The Sumerians worshipped An as the primary god, equivalent to "heaven"-- indeed, the word "an" in Sumerian means "sky", and his consort Ki, meaning "earth". Collectively the Gods were known as Anunaki ("heaven and earth"). An's closest cohorts were Enki in the south at the Abzu temple in Eridu, Enlil in the north at the Ekur temple of Nippur and Inana, the deification of Venus, the morning (eastern) and evening (western) star, at the Eanna temple (shared with An) at Uruk. The sun was Utu, was worshipped at Sippar, the moon was Nanna, worshipped at Ur and Nammu or Namma was one of the names of the Mother Goddess, probably considered to be the original matrix; there were hundreds of minor deities. The Sumerian gods (Sumerian dingir, plural dingir-dingir or dingir-a-ne-ne) thus had associations with different cities, and their religious importance often waxed and waned with the political power of the associated cities. The gods were said to have created human beings from clay for the purpose of serving them. The gods often expressed their anger and frustration through earthquakes and storms: the gist of Sumerian religion was that humanity was at the mercy of the gods.

Sumerians believed that the universe consisted of a flat disk enclosed by a tin dome. The Sumerian afterlife involved a descent into a gloomy netherworld to spend eternity in a wretched existence as a Gidim (ghost).

Sumerian temples consisted of a forecourt, with a central pond for purification (the Abzu). The temple itself had a central nave with aisles along either side. Flanking the aisles would be rooms for the priests. At one end would stand the podium and a mudbrick table for animal and vegetable sacrifices. Granaries and storehouses were usually located near the temples. After a time the Sumerians began to place the temples on top of multi-layered square constructions built as a series of rising terraces: the ziggurats.


Examples of Sumerian technology include: the wheel, cuneiform, arithmetic and geometry, irrigation systems, sumerian boats, lunisolar calendar, bronze, leather, saws, chisels, hammers, braces, bits, nails, pins, rings, hoes, axes, knives, lancepoints, arrowheads, swords, glue, daggers, waterskins, bags, harnesses, armor, quivers, scabbards, boots, sandal (footwear), harpoons, and beer.

The Sumerians had three main types of boats:

  • skin boats comprising of animal skins and reeds
  • clinker-built sailboats stitched together with hair, featuring bitumen waterproofing
  • wooden-oared ships, sometimes pulled upstream by people and animals walking along the nearby banks

Language and writing

The most important archaeological discoveries in Sumer are a large number of tablets written in Sumerian. Sumerian pre- cuneiform script has been discovered on tablets dating to around 3500 BC.

The Sumerian language is generally regarded as a language isolate in linguistics because it belongs to no known language family; Akkadian belongs to the Afro-Asiatic languages. There have been many failed attempts to connect Sumerian to other language groups. It is an agglutinative language; in other words, morphemes ("units of meaning") are added together to create words.

Sumerians invented picture- hieroglyphs that developed into later cuneiform, and their language vies with Ancient Egyptian for credit as the oldest known written human language. An extremely large body of hundreds of thousands of texts in the Sumerian language has survived, the great majority of these on clay tablets. Known Sumerian texts include personal and business letters and transactions, receipts, lexical lists, laws, hymns and prayers, magical incantations, and scientific texts including mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Monumental inscriptions and texts on different objects like statues or bricks are also very common. Many texts survive in multiple copies because they were repeatedly transcribed by scribes-in-training. Sumerian continued to be the language of religion and law in Mesopotamia long after Semitic speakers had become the ruling race.

Understanding Sumerian texts today can be problematic even for experts. Most difficult are the earliest texts, which in many cases don't give the full grammatical structure of the language.


Most authorities credit the Sumerians with the invention of the wheel, initially in the form of the potter's wheel. The new concept quickly led to wheeled vehicles and mill wheels. The Sumerians' cuneiform writing system is the oldest we have evidence of (with the possible exception of the highly controversial Old European Script), pre-dating Egyptian hieroglyphics by at least seventy-five years. The Sumerians were among the first formal astronomers, correctly formulating a heliocentric view of the solar system, to which they assigned 5 planets (all that can be seen with the naked eye).

They invented and developed arithmetic using several different number systems including a Mixed radix system with an alternating base 10 and base 6. This sexagesimal system became the standard number system in Sumer and Babylonia. Using this sexagesimal system they invented the clock with its 60 seconds, 60 minutes, and 12 hours, and the 12 month calendar which is still in use. They may have invented military formations and introduced the basic divisions between infantry, cavalry and archers. They developed the first known codified legal and administrative systems, complete with courts, jails, and government records. The first true city states arose in Sumer, roughly contemporaneously with similar entities in what is now Syria and Israel. Several centuries after their invention of cuneiform, the practice of writing expanded beyond debt/payment certificates and inventory lists and was applied for the first time about 2600 BC to written messages and mail delivery, history, legend, mathematics, astronomical records and other pursuits generally corresponding to the fields occupying teachers and students ever since. Accordingly, the first formal schools were established, usually under the auspices of a city-state's primary temple.

Finally, the Sumerians ushered in the age of intensive agriculture and irrigation. Emmer wheat, barley, sheep (starting as mouflon) and cattle (starting as aurochs) were foremost among the species cultivated and raised for the first time on a grand scale. These inventions and innovations easily place the Sumerians among the most creative cultures in human pre-history and history.

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