Sumerian Civilization

Sumerian Civilization

Sumer, the region of southern Mesopotamia was inhabitated by a group of people with unknown origins. The Ubaids are considered to be the first agents of civilization in this region. However this people were not as equipped as the Sumerians who came after them.

Sumer which came to be known in classical times as Babylonia coincides with modern day Iraq from north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. A flat and river-made land with no minerals, it was an unproductive land coupled with extremely hot and dry climate. However, the Sumerians believed to have been a group of creative and high spirited people converted the land to a civilization of highest order. By around 3100BCE, the population of Sumer had grown to a point where people where living in large settlements similar to cities.

Sumerian mythologies mentions Anunnaki, believed to have come directly from heaven. This was an advanced civilization from the tenth planet in the solar system that came down in the Persian Gulf around 432,000 years ago. They colonized the planet with the purpose of obtaining large amount of gold. Myth has it that Anunnaki gods merged their Anunnaki genes with the Homo erectus to create Homo sapiens to replace the miner population that rebelled against the conditions in the mines. Sumerian Civilization itself seems to have stemmed from this alien and mysterious people.

The Rise of Sumerian City States

The land of Sumer witnessed the origin of more than one significant feature of a present day civilization. Sumerian people were one of the earliest settlers that came up with the idea of irrigation. They channelized the rich silt-laden overflow of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and used it for the fields and gardens. One of the key inventions of the Sumerians was the brick mold which solved the problem of building material. They also developed the potter’s wheels, the wagon wheel, the plow, the sailboat, the arch, the vault, the dome, casting in copper etc. They devised a system of writing known as the cuneiform script which was inscribed on clay tablets.

In a land where water was a scarcity, it became a necessity for a stronger power to divide it equally among all concerned. This gave rise to the growth of governmental institutions and the rise of the Sumerian State. With the emergence of a centralized authority, emerged the city states of Sumer. The City states of Ur, Kish, Lagash, Adab, Nippur, Umma, and Uruk came to be the most distinguished of the Sumerian’s city states.

Sumerian society emerged into a complex one with nobility, priests and state officials at the top and farmers and slaves at the bottom.

The Sumerians, its culture and religion

The Sumerians organized their civilization according to the needs of the society. A large number of work-force was required to engineer the canals to maintain the vast farmlands. The efforts of this work-force made it possible to produce enough food to sustain a large population.

The economy of the city state was mostly agriculture based, however each city had its architects, artists and craftsmen. On the other hand, the armies of Sumer were infantry armies armed with bronze weapons and leather armor. An army was armed with a spear, dagger or sickle sword.

Sumerians aspects of religion, law and education were particularly distinct. There were more than 3,000 Sumerian Gods and Goddesses. Sumerians believed that there was no good and shining afterlife but only pain and suffering in Kur, located between the earth’s crust and the primeval sea. Sumerian Kings were bound to the same Kur. Another important aspect of Sumerian religion was the absolute inferiority of men to their gods. Law was also deeply ingrained in Sumerian culture.

The city’s god owned all land and only priest could know the god’s will. Sumerian priest in the beginning had a status similar to king which rendered them very powerful. One of the most famous priests was Gilgamesh of Uruk. The priest had a council of members which helped them in making decisions. During war, one of these members became the leader. These leaders however stayed in power even after the war ended and took their place as permanent kings. Kingship became hereditary and one of the world’s first monarchies was established in Sumer.

Sumerian bestowed their great gifts of civilization to the Akkadians that conquered them which held on to much of what the Sumerians had created including the complex form of writing called cuneiform. The crude pictorial writing developed into a phonetic system of communication that produced history and literature.


All Sumerian cities were built besides the river, either on the Tigris or the Euphrates. Sumerian City states consisted of the core city and a surrounding farmland. Each city was surrounded by sun-dried brick walls and adorned with bronze gates which was opened during daytime and closed at night. The houses of the priest and merchants were in the center of the town which was a two storey structure with wooden balconies looking out over the courtyard. Government officials, shopkeepers and artisans that consisted of the middle class had their houses behind the upper class’s houses. These houses were built around an open courtyard but were only one storey high. Further behind were the houses of the farmers, unskilled workers and fisherman.

The center of a Sumerian City consisted of a temple called Ziggurat. The Ziggurat which meant mountain of God or hill of heaven was a series of stepped square of rectangular levels. Grand stairways led to the top of the levels which was believed to be the home of God and only priest could enter this sacred place. Around this Ziggurat were the areas where artisans worked, farmers and traders stored their goods and children were taught how to write. The city fabric consisted of a mix of residences, commercial and industrial buildings.

Sumerian architecture

The Sumerians were the first to have made a conscious attempt of designing public buildings. Sun dried mud bricks was the main building material. Most facades of the buildings were whitewashed and painted to compensate the lack of attraction of other building material. Temples were the major building typology and were the principle architectural monuments of Sumerian city states

Uruk which was a major Sumerian City by 3300 BC had a population of around 40,000 people spread over an area of about 2sq.kms. The famous White Temple was located at Uruk which was an example of earliest development of Sumerian temples and Ziggurat. The temple was placed on a great mound or the Ziggurat.

Another architectural marvel of this period was the Great Ziggurat of Ur. It was built on the ruins of a previous temple. The complex comprised of the ziggurat, a court and another court attached to the main court.

Oval temple is another architectural style of temple with its massive oral walls surrounding the temple. The temple is raised on a single platform enclosed within the walls

The achievements of Sumer

The priest and the officials can be credited for the great advances made in the field of both art and science by the Sumerians. Following the invention of cuneiform writing, a rich epic literature was created. One of the epic stories created was the story of Gilgamesh who is believed to have built the great rampart of Uruk. Sculpture too advanced into a complex form during this time. The planning and organization of large public works, let the priest developed a useful mathematical notation, including both a decimal notation and a number based upon 60. They invented mathematical tables and used quadratic equations. They studied the heaven and created a lunar calendar.

The downfall of Sumer

By around 23rd century, the power of Sumerians declined to a point that they could not defend themselves. The Semitic ruler Sargon I was successful in conquering the entire country. He founded a new capital called the Agade in northern Sumer. Agade became the most powerful and the richest city of that time. The original inhabitants of northern Sumer and the conquering people merged together to become a new ethnical group. Sumer acquired the composite name Sumer and Akkad.

During Ur’s Supremacy, the Sumerian culture reached its highest state of development. However, shortly thereafter the cities lost their independence and gradually the Sumerians completely disappeared. Their language, writing, business organization, their scientific knowledge and their mythology were spread westward by the Babylonians and the Assyrians.


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