UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


3500 BC - 2400 BC - Sumer

Contemporary Iraq occupies the territory that historians traditionally have considered the site of the earliest civilizations of the ancient Near East. Geographically, modern Iraq corresponds to the Mesopotamia of the Old Testament and of other, older, Near Eastern texts. In Western mythology and religious tradition, the land of Mesopotamia in the ancient period was a land of lush vegetation, abundant wildlife, and copious if unpredictable water resources. As such, at a very early date it attracted people from neighboring, but less hospitable areas. By 6000 B.C., Mesopotamia had been settled, chiefly by migrants from the Turkish and Iranian highlands.

Sumer is the ancient name for southern Mesopotamia. Historians are divided on when the Sumerians arrived in the area, but they agree that the population of Sumer was a mixture of linguistic and ethnic groups that included the earlier inhabitants of the region. Sumerian culture mixed foreign and local elements. The Sumerians were highly innovative people who responded creatively to the challenges of the changeable Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Many of the great Sumerian legacies, such as writing, irrigation, the wheel, astronomy, and literature, can be seen as adaptive responses to the great rivers.

As recently as two hundred years ago, the existence of Sumer was unknown. Scholars searching the Middle East for traces of the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Assyria‹ known to them from Greek classics and biblical references began discovering evidence of the seminal Sumerian civilization from which much of ancient and even modern civilization has evolved.

The precariousness of existence in southern Mesopotamia led to a highly developed sense of religion. Cult centers such as Eridu, dating back to 5000 B.C., served as important centers of pilgrimage and devotion even before the rise of Sumer. Many of the most important Mesopotamian cities emerged in areas surrounding the pre-Sumerian cult centers, thus reinforcing the close relationship between religion and government.

The Sumerians first appeared about 4800 B.C. at a place called Al-Ubaid. During the next few centuries they established other cities primarily along the southern half of the Mesopotamian river system. They were not indigenous: from where they originated is debated by scholars.

A series of successive kingdoms - Sumer, Akkadia (also spelled Accadia), Assyria, Babylonia - built cities with monumental architecture, in which trade and commerce were thriving, and even early forms of plumbing were invented for the ruling class. The most important city-states were Uruk, Eridu, Kish, Lagash, Agade, Akshak, Larsa, and Ur (birthplace of the prophet Abraham). The various city states which comprised the Sumerian civilization continued to rise and fall in influence during these two millennia. Ur, Lagash, Kish, Eridu, Lar Sa, Babylon, Erech, and others - each ruled by a king - were in constant conflict, and their dominion over each other and over surrounding peoples shifted as often as the course of the rivers along side which their cities were built.

Theirs was an urban civilization in which architects were familiar with all the basic architectural principles known to us today, the artist possessed the highest skills and standards of excellence, and the metal worker had a knowledge of metallurgy and technical skill which few ancient people ever rivaled. The merchant carried on a far-flung trade facilitated by the development of the wheel and axle and the sail-driven boat. The armed forces were well organized and victorious. Agriculture was productive and prosperous. Indeed, the great wealth accumulated by their civilization enabled the Sumerians to live in relative luxury for some 2000 years or more.

The emergence of urban life led to further technological advances. Lacking stone, the Sumerians made marked improvements in brick technology, making possible the construction of very large buildings such as the famous ziggurat of Ur. Sumer also pioneered advances in warfare technology. By the middle of the third millennium BC, the Sumerians had developed the wheeled chariot. At approximately the same time, the Sumerians discovered that tin and copper when smelted together produced bronze--a new, more durable, and much harder metal. The wheeled chariot and bronze weapons became increasingly important as the Sumerians developed the institution of kingship and as individual city-states began to vie for supremacy.

Historians generally divide Sumerian history into three stages.

  1. In the first stage, which extended roughly from 3360 BC to 2400 BC, the most important political development was the emergence of kings who, unlike the first priestly rulers, exercised distinct political rather than religious authority. Another important feature of this period was the emergence of warring Sumerian city-states, which fought for control of the river valleys in lower Mesopotamia.

  2. During the second phase, which lasted from 2400 BC to 2200 BC, Sumer was conquered in approximately 2334 B.C. by Sargon I, king of the Semitic city of Akkad. Akkadian hegemony over southern Mesopotamia lasted only 200 years. Sargon's great-grandson was then overthrown by the Guti, a mountain people from the east.

  3. The fall of the Akkadians and the subsequent reemergence of Sumer under the king of Ur, who defeated the Guti, ushered in the third phase of Sumerian history. In this final phase, which was characterized by a synthesis of Sumerian and Akkadian cultures, the king of Ur established hegemony over much of Mesopotamia. Sumerian supremacy, however, was on the wane. By 2000 BC the combined attacks of the Amorites, a Semitic people from the west, and the Elamites, a Caucasian people from the east, had destroyed the Third Dynasty of Ur. The invaders nevertheless carried on the Sumero-Akkadian cultural legacy.

The civilized life that emerged at Sumer was shaped by two conflicting factors: the unpredictability of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which at any time could unleash devastating floods that wiped out entire peoples, and the extreme fecundity of the river valleys, caused by centuries-old deposits of soil. Thus, while the river valleys of southern Mesopotamia attracted migrations of neighboring peoples and made possible, for the first time in history, the growing of surplus food, the volatility of the rivers necessitated a form of collective management to protect the marshy, low-lying land from flooding. As surplus production increased and as collective management became more advanced, a process of urbanization evolved and Sumerian civilization took root.

The development of successful agriculture, which relied on the region's fertile soils and an irrigation system that took advantage of its consistent water supply, led to the development of the world's first cities. The development of stable agriculture through irrigation meant people no longer had to follow changing sources of food. With this stability farmers in the region were able to domesticate animals such as goats, sheep, and cattle. They successfully grew crops of barley and other grains, from which they began to produce dietary staples and other products, such as bread and beer. As their agricultural practices became more successful, farmers were able to create surpluses. In order to ensure the crop yield, a system of canals was dug to divert water for agriculture and lessen the impact of annual floods. With these advances, a significant population of successful farmers, herders, and traders were able to move beyond subsistence agriculture.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:48:45 ZULU