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The Ancient Sumerians: The World's First Empire

Updated on July 13, 2015
Ruins of the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq
Ruins of the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq | Source

The Sumerians were the first great power to emerge from the land “between the rivers” - the region otherwise known by its Greek name of 'Mesopotamia'. Though the mighty Babylonian and Assyrian empires would one day dominate this part of the world, the achievements of the Sumerians pre-date the existence of both.

That being said, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century - when excavations of Assyrian ruins uncovered ancient tablets inscribed in Sumerian - that such a culture was even known to have existed.

Archaeologists identified the language as being non-Semitic, and named it for the royal title “King of Sumer and Akkad” that appeared frequently in the texts. This was followed soon after by the discovery of the ruins of Ur – a prominent city-state that had been at the forefront of Sumerian achievement during the third millennium BC.

Over time, further excavations would reveal just how much is owed to this ancient culture, which had established complex political and social structures as early as 3100 BC.

The Rise of Sumer

The Sumerian Civilization
The Sumerian Civilization | Source

The exact origins of the Sumerians are unknown, but it's believed they entered Mesopotamia from the north-east around 3800 BC, bringing with them advanced agricultural techniques and a language that has been classified as isolate (meaning it has no apparent link to any other language).

They settled in the southern portion of the region, near where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers converge before spilling into the Persian Gulf. As such, they were well positioned to take advantage of the annual flooding of the rivers, and kept relatively secure from invasion by the northern mountain ranges and the harsh deserts to the south-west.

Draining the marshes and making the land suitable for farming would have required a sizeable workforce, as well as the establishment of a system geared towards the administration of large-scale agriculture. Hence the rise of the world's first bureaucracy, centred around the emerging city-states and made possible by the world's earliest recorded use of writing; though whether the Sumerians developed the cuneiform text themselves or were introduced to it by people already present in the region is unknown.

Either way, by the third millennium BC their use of writing had reached levels of sophistication seemingly unmatched by other cultures of the time. They had established a class of scribes tasked with recording all administrative affairs and business transactions on clay tablets.

Other significant contributions made by the Sumerian civilization include:

- The plough, the potter's wheel, and the use of wheeled vehicles
- Domestication of various animals including the ox, donkey and dog (though no horses or camels yet)
- The lunar calendar
- Mathematical systems, which were developed by the priests to help with the planning of public works
- Literary works such as the epic of Gilgamesh, regarded as the first heroic epic and a precursor to mythological heroes like Hercules and Samson. The Sumerians also had a creation myth and a flood myth.

Cities Built Around Temples

Ziggurat of Ur
Ziggurat of Ur | Source

By 3000 BC, 12 city-states had arisen in Sumer, sharing a common culture but constantly vying for influence. The most prominent city-states included Eridu (the world's first city), Uruk, Kish and Ur; each of which would rise to dominate Sumerian culture at various points in their history.

Each city-state was governed by a priest class that ruled in the name of an anthropomorphic god or goddess. The temple was the center of both spiritual and temporal life, with new additions being made over time to reflect the growing power and wealth of the city.

In most of the city-states, these additions included the construction of a ziggurat (holy mountain) - a pyramidal platform that would lift the temple high above the other structures so it would be visible for miles around. This made it a powerful symbol of strength to the peasants working in the countryside, and to visitors from other city-states.

Administrators, artists and craftsmen lived and worked on the temple grounds, and merchants conducted trade via the river or by overland caravan. Sumerians viewed themselves as the subjects of their city's patron deity, rather than of any particular ruler; but since the gods were fickle and cruel, it was all the more essential that the priests act as intermediaries to ensure their good will. As such, the ensi (high priest) was the chief authority in a Sumerian city-state, until the emergence of kings.

The First Kings

Statue of Gilgamesh
Statue of Gilgamesh | Source

Constant squabbling between the city-states led to an increasing amount of importance being invested in military power, which was in the hands of the 'lugals' (great men) – the leaders of powerful land-owning clans.

Over the course of the third millennium BC, these lugals would contend with the priests for influence; and in many city-states the strongest lugal would gain a position of authority superior to that of the priest caste. They were the first kings, and some of them were powerful and charismatic enough to unite several city-states under their rule.

The balance of power was constantly shifting between the city-states. The earliest recorded Sumerian king was Etana, ruler of Kish - described by one ancient document as the man who “stabilized all the lands”. Other notable examples include Mesanepada, who made Ur the dominant force in Sumer for a period; and Gilgamesh, who did the same for the city of Erech.

Legacy of the Sumerians

A Sumerian Deity
A Sumerian Deity | Source

Sumer was weakened by constant conflict between the city-states, while to the north, a Semitic people known as the Akkadians were growing in strength. Around the 23rd century BC, the Akkadian King Sargon the Great conquered Sumer, but his empire swiftly went into decline following his death.

This allowed Sumerian culture to regain its influence, but the renaissance was short lived. Invading tribes continued to pour in, and the region was plunged into political turmoil, culminating in the sacking of Ur around 2000 BC. A lament dating back to the period describes the event, which signified the end of the Sumer as a power in the region:

“Mothers and fathers who did not leave their houses were overcome by fire; The young, lying on their mothers' laps, like fish were carried off by the waters; In the city the wife was abandoned, the son was abandoned, the possessions were scattered about...O Nanna, Ur has been destroyed, its people have been dispersed”

Eventually, a semitic king named Hammurabi was able to unify Mesopotamia; incorporating Sumer and Akkad into the rising Babylonian empire. This may have been the end of Sumer as a political entity, but their achievements would have profound influence on the development of western culture, even if their story would remain untold until long after the civilizations that followed them had come and gone.


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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 22 months ago from Essex, UK

      Good to see this summary of the little known but very ancient civilisation of the Sumerians, Matthew. Fortunately I believe most of the Sumerian ruins are further south than the region recently occupied by ISIL / ISIS, and so sites such as Ur have not suffered so much from the cultural vandalism which has occured in northern Iraq. I hope that remains the case, because these places would be fascinating sites to visit, one day. Alun