The Tigris and Euphrates rivers supported successful farming and created surplus food. In c5300 BC, the Sumerians lived in southern Mesopotamia and they began to form in a number of independent city-states. The Sumerians apparently began to farm all year in c5600 BC and this enabled them to develop their cities and support larger populations. Large populations led to competition and the city-states of Ur, Lagash, Eridu were constantly at war with each other. The cities included a ziggurat (temple), were usually , rectangular in shape, were bounded by canals and markers, and were surrounded by high, protective walls. Sumerian empire began in c3500 BC in southern Mesopotamia, Akkad governed in the north. Over time the larger, more powerful city-states absorbed the smaller city-states. Sumeria faded in c2000 BC.

The Sumerian city of Nippur was built south of Baghdad in c5262 BC, and its fame claim was due to King Gilgamesh. He is widely known through the Epic of Gilgamesh as a demi-god, who rebuilt the Nippur city god's sanctuary. Gilgamesh was himself apparently king of the city of Uruk in c2650 BC. The Epic has a variety of elements of other mythic stories: the Odin warrior sagas, the Hebrew and Hindu flood accounts, the Hebrew abandoned baby as future leader saga, the Greek heroic oddyssey and monster-killer, and even the American super heros.


Mesopotamia : c2000 BC


Semitic people migrated into Sumeria in c4000 BC, probably from Syria and Arabia and were joined by Sumerians in 3300 BC, thought to be from Anatolia. In c4100-2900 BC, many Sumerian cities had grown to c10,000 people, who had a developed written language and who traded widely within southern Mesopotamia. Sumerian societies had become too large for simple tribal management and central government and trade specialisations had been developed. Apparently it was at this time that captured people were exploited as slaves. Slave labour in turn probably created the free time for larger families, which led to Sumerian colonies being formed from Turkey to Iran. Increasing wealth led to armies and the Sumerian soldiers had copper helmets and carried spears and axes. King Meskiaggasher expanded the empire from southern Mesopotamia to include the north to the Mediterranean, up to the Taurus and Zagros mountains. The first known Sumerian war was between two citiy-states in c2525 BC and a stele shows the king of Lagash leading his army.

A long list of Sumerian developments are still with us. They developed the wheel, arithmetic and geometry, irrigation systems, boats, luni-solar calendars, bronze, leather, saws, chisels, hammers, braces, bits, nails, pins, rings, beer, hoes, axes, knives, lancepoints, arrowheads, swords, glue, daggers, waterskins, bags, harnesses, armor, quivers, war chariots, scabbards, boots, sandals and harpoons.

Empire Declined

Eventually, the Sumerians had to battle the Semitic Akkadians, who had also migrated from Arabia. Sargon I conquered Sumer in c2330 and created the Akkadian Empire the first empire known to history. Sargon's empire did not last long, however. Soon after Sargon's death, other invaders swept into Mesopotamia, defeating Akkad. The Sumerians gradually lost control over their own city-states and fell under the hegemony of Agade - the city that would later become Babylon. However a century later a tribe called the Gutians from the Zagros mountains conquered Akkad until Sumer rose again in c2115 BC.

In c2300 BC, Sargon, the ruler of neighboring Akkad, invaded and conquered the city-states of Sumer. Sargon then built the first empire known to history, his empire did not last long, however. Soon after Sargon's death, other invaders swept into Mesopotamia, defeating his empire.

The Akkadians abandoned much of their own culture and absorbed much of Sumerian culture, including their religion, writing, government,, literature, and law. The Akkadians had also allowed the Sumerians nominal control over many of their defeated city-states, and in c2125, the Sumerian city of Ur rebelled against the Akkadians and gained control of the earlier Sumerian city-states of southern Mesopotamia. This revival of Sumerian fortune lasted only another century. However, the Sumerians left behind significant cultural inventions.[3] In c1900 BC, the Semitic Amorites conquered most of Mesopotamia and established their kings in Babylon. In 1792, the Amorite successor king, Hammurabi, gained control of Babylon and made it the centre of power, which superceded Sumeria.

Sumerian Government

Sumer was a collection of city states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had individual rulers, although as early as the mid-fourth millennium BCE the leader of the dominant city could have been considered the king of the region.

The Sumerians developed an early monarchy. Sumeria needed a new form of government to govern the large areas and large population. One of the first states in human history, the states of Sumer appear to have been ruled by a priest-king. Among the king's duties were leading the military, administering trade, judging disputes, and leading religious ceremonies. The priest-kings ruled through priestly bureaucrats who carefully surveyed land, assigned fields, and distributed surplus crops after the harvests. This new institution of monarchy was predicated on the legitimation of a collective authority beyond the tribal chieftainship and concepts of kinship. The Sumerians based the king's authority on divine selection, which evolved into acceptance of divine monarchs. This monarchial authority was accepted by the entire Mesopotamian region except the Hebrews who adopted kingship without divinity.

Sumerian Writing

The Sumerian government was predicated on an efficient bureaucracy's management of land and people. This middle management, which consisted largely of priests, bore all the responsibility of surveying and distributing land as well as distributing crops. Sumerian power was based on cities and the Sumerians who lived in those cities could not grow their own food. The Sumerian kings thus encouraged the farmers to grow surplus food, which the king's bureaucracy would manage with central storage and coordinated distribution. This distribution required record-keeping, which meant some form of writing. Archeologists have found tons of Sumerian stone tablet records filled with numbers recording food distribution. The early writing (besides the numerals) was actually recorded in picture form, termed pictographic writing. The Sumerians drew their picture words using reeds as a writing instrument on wet clay which was dried into permanent stone-hard tablets. Eventually, the Sumerians made their writing more efficient, and slowly converted their picture words to a short-hand consisting of wedged lines termed cuneiform writing.

Sumerian Science

Administration of agriculture required careful planning, since each farmer had to produce a far more food than he would eat. Effective bureaucratic record keeping required an efficient system of measuring time and the Sumerians invented a twelve month calendar based on the cycle of the moon. Since a year consisting of twelve lunar months is shorter than a solar year, the Sumerians added a "leap month" every three years to catch up with the sun. This interest in measuring long periods of time led the Sumerians to understand astronomy and to develop the zodiac to measure years. Record-keeping pushed the Sumerians into mathematical calculating. Numbers have to be added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided, and the Sumerians developed a sophisticated understanding of mathematics.

Sumerian Religion

Sumerian religion was polytheistic and their gods were incredibly powerful and anthropomorphic. Many of these gods controlled natural forces and were associated with astronomical bodies, such as the sun. The gods were creator gods; as a group, they had created the world and the people in it. Like humans, they suffered all the ravages of human emotional and spiritual frailties: love, lust, hatred, anger, regret. Among the gods' biggest regrets was the creation of human life; the Sumerians believed that these gods regretted the creation of human life and sent a flood to destroy their faulty creation, but one man survived by building a boat. While the destruction of the earth in a great flood is nearly universal in all human mythology and religion, we can't be sure if the Semites had a similar story or took it over from the Sumerians. According to the biblical book of Genesis, the patriarch Abraham, originally came from the Sumerian city of Ur.

Although the gods were unpredictable, the Sumerians tried to learn the future and they were struck by the regular movement in the heavens, which they tied to their gods' intentions. To follow star movements the Sumerians invented astrology, and astrology produced sophisticated astronomical knowledge and more sophisticated mathematics. This astrology produced a steady increase in the number of priests and scribes and accelerated learning and writing.

Sumerian Law

The most persistent and far-reaching Sumerian invention was codified law. While all cultures have some system of social regulation and conflict resolution, law is a distinct phenomenon. Law is a written and centrally administered system of retribution and conflict resolution. Scholars agree that the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi reproduces Sumerian law as a law of exact revenge, called lex talionis. This is revenge in kind: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life". Sumerian law was only partly administered by the state as the victim had to bring the criminal to court. Once in court, the court mediated the dispute, rendered a decision, and most of the time a court official would execute the sentence; however, often the victim or the victim's family had to enforce the sentence. Finally, Sumerian law recognized class distinctions; under Sumerian law, everyone was not equal. Harming a priest or noble person was a far more serious crime than harming a slave or poor person. Additionally, the penalties assessed for a noble's crime were often far harsher than the penalties assessed for a peasant.

Sumerian Ziggurats

Sumeria: c2800 BC traded with India via Persian Gulf


Ur's Tel el-Mukayyar Ziggurat


Sumerian clay & stone art c2600 BC


Re-built to c2112 BC

The Bible called one the Tower of Babel, but it was probably a ziggurat. Sumerian religion and the kings needed to distinguish themselves from the common citizens and they built the monumental public buildings called ziggurats. Inside Ur's city gates were broad avenues used for religious processions and civil victory parades. The largest building was a huge ziggurat, a pyramid-temple with terraced, sloping sides sometimes planted with trees and shrubs. On top of each ziggurat was a shrine to the city's chief god or goddess. The god of Ur was the Sumerian moon god Nanna. The first Sumerian dynasty ended in c2340 BC when Ur was attacked by Sargon of Akkad.

The Tel el-Mukayyar Ziggurat at Ur was 70m high x 64m wide and was built by King Shulgi in c2132. Shulgi reigned for 48 years and chose Ur as his capital, from which he controlled much of Mesopotamia. Shulgi may have built the ziggurat temple for himself, since he declared himself to be a god. The core of the ziggurat was built with 7,000,000+ bricks (each measuring around 25 x 16 x 7 cm and weighing c4.5 kg).  The bricks were made of mud and reeds; the reeds were pressed into molds that had been left to dry in the sun. Most of the baked bricks were stamped with the name and title of King Ur-Nammu. Note the weeper drains built to cope with rain. Some of the local stonework is original!

One of the Sumerian dynasties was founded at Ur, on the bank of the Euphrates on the shore of the Persian Gulf. The city was named for the third dynasty king - Ur-Nammu of c2142 BC, who wrote a legal code. The location was set for trade with the Indians, whose access was controlled by Dilmun (on Bahrain) from c3000 BC. The Indians, Dilmun, and the Sumerians all became wealthy by the trade and Ur became a vibrant city-empire.[2] Ur was abandoned when the Euphrates changed course in c450 BC.

Trade brought riches to the cities. Traders sailed along the rivers or risked the dangers of desert travel to carry goods to distant regions. (Although the wheel had been invented by some earlier unknown people, the Sumerians made the first known wheeled vehicles.) Archaeologists have found trade goods from as far away as Egypt and India in the rubble of Sumerian cities.

In c3000 BC, Sumerian astronomers living along the Tigris River noticed that there were roughly 360 days in the year. The missing five days were declared holidays. The number 360 was convenient since it was easily divisible, so the Sumerians divided each day into 360, which was later changed by the Babylonians to 24 hours with two levels of subdivisions. Use of minute and second is traced to the Latin translations of the Babylonian designations for these subdivisions: small bits (minuta = minutes) and secondary small bits (secunda minuta = seconds).


1          Adapted from Grahame Clark, World Prehistory, In New Perspective, pp. 74-84; Donald Crump, Splendors of the Past, Lost Cities of the Ancient World, pp. 34-71; and,,,,,,, and; Gilgamesh at,; Tore Kjeilen, Looklex Encyclopaedia, Sumer at,

2          Ur is considered by many scholars to be the city of Ur Kasdim mentioned in the Book of Genesis as the birthplace of the Biblical patriarch Abram (Abraham).

3          Washington State University, Richard Hooker, Mesopotamia, The Sumerians at,

4          Maps from, the University of Oregon Historical Atlas Resource; Sumer at; and Image:World 2000 BC at,

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