The Sumerians

[Kramer, S. N. Scientific American, 1957.]

Lived — head of Persian Gulf circa 5000 > 3000 years ago. Technological/social inventions foundations of civilisation.

Tigris/Euphrates = hot, arid land. 6000 years ago = windswept, barren. Irrigation systems + regional government. Emerged from — petty social order of the family and village > city state. 3rd millenium > Sumerian influence > whole Middle East (from India to Mediterranean).

For more than 2000 years — vanished from human record. Then archaeological discovery. Nineveh + Assyrian cities. Clay tablets + cuneiform. But — assyrians were Semitic. [Persia = Rock of Behistan — Old Persian/Elamite/Sumerian].

Cuneiform = syllabic, ideographic (Semitic = alphabetic) = derived from non-semitic. Assyrians took over cuneiform from predecessors.

Thus — ‘King of Sumer and Akkad’ = inscripti6n [Oppert, 19th century]. Akkad = north (Assyrians, Babylonians = Akkadian. Sumer = south (non-semitic language).

Thence — excavation of Sumerian cities = Lagash, Nippur, Shuruppak, Kish, Ur, Erech, Asmar. Archaeological discoveries = indication of life in Sumer 5000 years ago.

The Peoples of Sumer

Lived in lower Mesopotamia (Bagdad > Persian Gulf). Not first settlers. Sumerians preceded by another people. Ancient names of Tigris and Euphrates are Idigma and Buranun. Not Sumerian names.

Other Mesopotamian cities not Sumerian names (Kish, Ur, Nippur) = villages inhabited by earlier people. Pre-Sumeric words = farmer, herdsman, fisherman, plough, metal-smith, carpenter, weaver, potter, mason, merchant.

Sumerian predecessors = advanced civilisation [Copper Age?] Neolithic? NB — stone implements, pottery. NB- word for metal-smith. [If pre-Sumerians had a word for plough — must have had them! Sumerians did not therefore invent the plough. EWE, 29.5.81].

First settlers = occupied are before 4000 BC. Became inhabitable before that date (geological evidence). Sumerians arrived in 3000 BC.

Original home = city and environs of Aratta (near Caspian Sea). Sumerians united with predecessors. Developed civilisation. Etana = first king of united Sumeria = `…the man who stabilised all the lands.’

Fullest flowering circa 2500 BC. Their history came to an end some 800 years later (c 1720 BC). In 1720 BC = Hammurabi of Babylon = won control. Sumer disappeared into Babylonian kingdom.

Life in Sumer

Civilisation rested on — agriculture, fishing. Inventions — wagon wheel, plough [see above query], sail boat. Irrigation — canals, dikes, weirs, reservoirs. Developed — measuring, surveying instruments. Sexegesimal number system.

Craft inventions = potters wheel, metal casting, rivetting, soldering, engraving, cloth fulling, bleaching, dyeing. Manufactures = paints, leather, cosmetics, drugs, perfumes.

Economy = primarily agricultural + artisans and merchants. Silver coinage. About 12 cities — 10,000 > 50,000 people. Each city = walled + suburban villages, hamlets. Dominant Sumerian city feature = massive temple + ziggurat.

Each city = different tutelary god. City = god’s property. Thus — Nippur (Enid). Enlil = God of Air. Nippur— became chief religious/cultural centre. Hence — Enlil = father of all gods.

Original cities — governed by citizenry + elected governor. Two chambers (elders, men). Then each city acquired a ruler (elected, then later — hereditary). Sumerian history = record of bitter conflicts among its cities.

Most Sumerian families — one storey, mud brick houses. Grouped around open court. Well-to-do = two storey white washed houses + servants rooms, chapels, basement mausoleum.

Nether world beliefs = buried pots, weapons, jewels with dead. Music = harps, lyres, drums, tambourines, reed + metal pipes, + hymns, incantations. Also — carving, sculptures, clay tablets, cylinder seals.

Religion = simple, fatalistic theology. Personal lives ruled by gods. Chief gods = Enki (water); Ki (earth); Enlil (air); An (heaven). Created from a primeval sea. Each craft, pursuit = god personification.

Major gods = set of unchangeable laws which must be obeyed. Man — existed to serve and please the gods. Great gods > distant sky.

Temple professionals = priests, priestesses, musicians, eunuchs. Daily libations, animal and vegetable fat sacrifices. Periodic feasts, celebrations. Important = Royal ceremony of New Year.

Hence — God of Vegetation retired and returned to earth around time of new year. Sexual reunion with wife Inanna (Goddess of Love and Procreation). [Resurrection myth, Fertility ritual]. Revival and fecundity = mock marriage ceremony — between king (risen god) + priestess (representing Inanna). Marriage = prolonged celebration, ritual, music, etc. Projected their vision into past (to a Golden Age).

Sumerian poet thus —

Once upon a time there was no snake there was no scorpion,

There was no hyena, there was no lion, There was no wild dog, no wolf,

There was no fear, no terror,

Man had no rival.

Once upon a time…

The whole universe, the people in unison, To Enlil in one tongue gave praise.

Much of Sumerian cosmology and theology = easily recognisable. Mystic tale of dying god and his triumphant resurrection. Inanna = Aphrodite-like. Sumerian dying god = Dumuzi = biblical Tammuz.


Sumerians invented writing. Cuneiform system = main tool of written communication (West Asia

— 2000 years). Began — pictographic signs. Developed — signs into purely phonetic symbols.

90% of tablets = economic, legal, administrative. 5000 = literary works, myths, epics, lamentations, proverbs, fables, essays, commemorative narratives. 1000 years older than Iliad.

History of Sumer = history of wars. Etana = first recorded ruler of Sumer (at Kish). Not long after

— Meskiaggasher (King of Erech) ruled region from Mediterranean to Zagros mountains (NE of Sumer).

Kish > dominance again. Supplanted by Ur (first king = Messanepadda). Then Erech (Gilgamesh). Next — Lugalannemundu) (at Adab) — declined. Followed by Mesilim (Kish) > Lagash (last ruler of dynasty = Urukagina). Umma overthrew Urukagina and burnt Lagash.

Western Semites (under Sargon the Great) march in > new dynasty at Agade (origin of Akkadian). Sargon’s sons held on to empire (West Asia, Egypt, Ethiopia?).

Naramsin (grandson of Sargon) destroyed Nippur and was defeated by semi-barbaric invadres (Iranian mountains). Agade destroyed. Sumer overrun.

Rebuilding > Gudea (governor of Lagash). Rivalries again. Ur (under Ur-Nammu).

Srd defeated Lagash = ,5 Dynasty of Ur. Sumer’s last dynasty. NB — Ur-Nammu’s Code. Internal rivalries. Growing pressures — external peoples.

Semitic nomads soon overwhelmed Sumer from west + Arabian desert (Biblical Amorites). Took over Isin, Larsa, Babylon. Ur conquered by Elamites (to the east). Carried off king Ibbi-Sin.

For two and a half centuries Semitic rulers (Isin + Larsa) then (Larsa + Babylon) contested control. 1720 BC Hammurabi defeated Rim-Sin (last king of Larsa). Thence Babylon emerged as dominant south Mesopotamian city.

Archaeology and Literature

Code of Hammurabi = circa 1700 BC. Poem — ‘Enmerkar and Lord of Aratta.’ Circa 1800 BC. Statuettes = Tutub (modem Khfage) circa 2500 BC.

Also — Princess Enannatumma. High priestess of moon god Nanna. Sister of Lipit-{shtar — circa 1850 BC — presided over Ur’s reconstruction after Elamites.

Stone weights, bronze dnlls, axe heads, copper saw blades.

Diadems — Queen Shub-ad (circa 2500 BC) = Ur.

Leave a comment

Filed under Notes

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s