The Sumerians were the first known people to settle in Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago. Located in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia between the T
The Sumerians were the first known people to settle in Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago. Located in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern day Iraq), Sumer was often called the cradle of civilization. By the 4th millennium BC, it had established an advanced system writing, spectacular arts and architecture, astronomy, and mathematics. The Akkadians would follow the Sumerians, borrowing from their culture, producing a new language of their own, and creating the world’s first empire.
Who Were the Sumerians?
The origin of the Sumerians remains a mystery till this day. They called themselves Saggiga (the “black-headed” or “bald-headed ones”) and their country, Kengi (“civilized land”). Some believe they came from around Anatolia or modern day Turkey. Others suggest they might have come from India and were Caucasian in origin. They were established in southern Babylonia, in what is now Iraq, by at least 3500 BC.
The origin of the Sumerians remains a mystery till this day. ( swisshippo /Adobe Stock)
Located in what the ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia, meaning “the land between the rivers,” Sumer was a collection of city-states or cities that were also independent nations, some of which endured for 3,000 years. Beginning around 3500 BC, the Sumerians began to build walled cities, including Ur, the capital of the civilization. Each of these cities contained public buildings, markets, workshops, and advanced water systems, and were surrounded by villages and land for agriculture. Political power originally belonged to the citizens, but as rivalry between the various city-states increased, each adopted the institution of kingship.
The Sumerian Temple and Key Inventions
Each city-state was believed to be under the rule of a local god or goddess and their temples dominated the towns architecture. The most famous temple, the Ziggurat of Ur was a three-storied, 15m (49 ft) high building constructed from mud bricks in the form of pyramidal graduated terraces. It formed a complex of temples and included the royal palace. On top of the structure was a shrine dedicated to the god of that city.
The nature of the famous Ziggurat of Ur has been described in a previous Ancient Origins article:
“The Great Ziggurat of Ur was dedicated to the moon god Nanna, who was the patron deity of the city. As the Mesopotamian gods were commonly linked to the eastern mountains, the ziggurat may have functioned as a representation of their homes. Thus, the people of Ur believed that their ziggurat was the place on earth where Nanna chose to dwell […] The people of ancient Mesopotamia believed that their gods had needs just like their mortal subjects. Hence, a bedchamber was provided for Nanna in the shrine on top of his ziggurat. This chamber was occupied by a maiden chosen to be the god’s companion. On the side stairway of the ziggurat’s north western part is a kitchen, which was likely used to prepare food for this god. The god’s mortal servants had to be provided for as well, and the outer enclosure of the ziggurat contained a temple storehouse, the houses of the priests and a royal ceremonial palace.”
The Sumerians were among the first known cultures to develop many benchmarks that are used to define a “civilization”. They are credited with the establishing codes of law, the plow, the sailboat, and a lunar calendar. They also developed a numerical system, based on the number 60 that is still used to measure seconds and minutes. However, probably the most famous legacy is their writing system.
The Sumerians devised one of the earliest writing system known as cuneiform or wedge-shaped symbols. The earliest known cuneiform inscriptions were found in the lower Tigris-Euphrates Valley in what is now southeastern Iraq and date from about 3,000 BC. Writers made the symbols by pressing a pointed instrument called a stylus into wet clay tablets .
The tablets were then dried in the sun to preserve the text. Hundreds of thousands of these tablets have survived, providing a window into Sumerian culture, economy, law, literature, politics, and religion. Their writing system would influence the style of scripts in the region for the next 3,000 years.
An example of a Cuneiform Tablet. ( homocosmicos/Adobe Stock)
While the cuneiform writing system was created and used at first only by the Sumerians , it didn’t take long before neighboring groups adopted it for their own use. By 2,500 BC, the Akkadians, a Semitic-speaking people that dwelled north of the Sumerians, starting using cuneiform to write their own language.
However, it was the ascendency of the Akkadian dynasty in around 2,300 BC that positioned Akkadian over Sumerian as the primary language of Mesopotamia. While Sumerian did experience a short revival, it eventually became a dead language used only in literary contexts. Akkadian would continue to be spoken for the next two millennium and evolved into later forms known as Babylonian and Assyrian.
Where is Akkad?
The Sumerians may have been one of the first known civilizations, but it was the Akkadians that formed one of the first known empires. A Semitic group, they moved into southern Mesopotamia during the early part of the third millennium and gained political control of the area.
The civilization was founded by Sargon the Great , and was a collection of city states under the control of Sargon’s city, Akkad. Sargon reigned from approximately 2334-2279 BC and conquered all of southern Mesopotamia as well as parts of Syria, Anatolia, and Elam (now western Iran) establishing the region’s first Semitic dynasty.
Bronze head of a king of the Old Akkadian dynasty, most likely representing either Naram-Sin or Sargon of Akkad. Unearthed in Nineveh (now in Iraq). In the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad. ( Public Domain )
Sargon is known almost entirely from the legends that followed his reputation through 2,000 years of Mesopotamian history, but not from documents written during his lifetime. This lack of contemporary record is explained by the fact that the capital city of Akkad, which he commissioned, has never been located and excavated. It was destroyed at the end of the dynasty that Sargon founded and was never inhabited again, at least under the name of Akkad.
The Curse of Akkad
“The Curse of Akkad ” was written within a century of the empire’s fall and attributes Akkad’s downfall to an outrage against the gods after the temple of Enlil was plundered:
For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.
The Rise and Fall of a Mesopotamian Empire
In 2350 BC, Sargon conquered all the Sumerian city-states, uniting them under his rule, creating the first Mesopotamian Empire. He defeated the armies of Sumer in two battles and captured Lugalzagesi, the Sumerian king who had united (or conquered) all of Sumer and earned the title of “King of Kish”.
For the next two centuries the Akkadians would rule Sumer, during which time the cities carried out many revolts against them. Around 2,100 BC, as Akkad declined, the city of Ur took its place rising to prominence a century after its fall, and the city-states once again became independent.
The Akkadian empire collapsed sometime after 2,200 BC. Historians blame its downfall on tribes of mountain people called Gutians who conquered many parts of Sumer, or possibly point at administrative incompetence, a poor harvest, provincial revolt, or perhaps even a giant meteor. Climate change has of course been thrown into the mix as well and evidence of a long drought, and changing winds and ocean currents have been provided to support that idea.
In a 2019 study , fossil coral records from Oman were given as new evidence that frequent winter shamals, or dust storms, and a prolonged cold winter season also contributed to the collapse of the ancient empire . Assyria and Babylon would grow to dominate the area afterwards.
From 2112 to 2004 BC, a dynasty based at the city of Ur revived Sumerian culture to its greatest height, even though the Sumerian language had begun to fall out of use. By 2,000 BC, it was no longer being used and was replaced as a spoken language by Semitic Akkadian.
Weight of ½ mina dedicated by King Shulgi and bearing the emblem of the crescent moon: it was used in the temple of the moon-god Nanna at Ur. Ur III period. ( Public Domain )
Although Sargon’s dynasty only lasted around 150 years, it created a model of government that influenced all of Middle Eastern civilization and left a permanent imprint on Mesopotamian civilization for the millennia that followed.
Top Image: Illustration of Mesopotamia. Source: Jeff Brown Graphics