Reading History #6: The Sumerians and the Cities Between the Rivers

Copyright @ 2015 Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider:

  1. Why did the first civilization appear in Mesopotamia rather than somewhere else?
  2. How did the geography of Mesopotamia affect the nature of Sumerian religion.
  3. How do you explain the connection between religion and early government in Mesopotamia?
  4. What, according to the ancient Sumerians, was primarily responsible for the security and health their cities?

My mankind, from destruction will I save it. I will return the people to their settlements. Of the cities, certainly they will build their places of divine law, and I will make peaceful their shade. Of the houses of the gods, certainly they will lay their bricks in pure places. After kingship and the throne  of kingship had been lowered from heaven, Anu perfected the rites and exulted divine law. He founded the five cities in pure places.

– Sumerian Myth

By Hassan Janali, US Army Corps of Engineers, 2003

By Hassan Janali, US Army Corps of Engineers, 2003

While historians may argue over what exactly constitutes a civilization, they generally agree as to which one appeared first, and where.  The term Sumerian is now commonly given to the ancient people who formed the first civilization in the far south of present day Iraq, though they did not refer to themselves as Sumerians. The Sumerians were agricultural revolutionaries, not the first to farm, but the first to put their hands to a new sort of intensive farming and civil engineering that fundamentally altered how humans ordered their lives. Some of the first agricultural communities had appeared about five-thousand years before the Sumerians in regions that, not surprisingly, received enough annual rainfall sufficient for small farms. These lands are situated above the flood plains of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, a region that covers a great semicircle of foothills in present day western Iran, northern Iraq, and south-eastern Turkey. The so-called Fertile Crescent. Go to Google Maps and connect the cities of Tel Aviv in Israel, Aleppo in Syria, Urfa (Edessa) in Turkey, Mosul in Iraq, and Kermanshah in Iran and you will have a good baseline of where these prehistoric farming communities were located. Some of this land is situated between the two great rivers, a fact that led the founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (the first of its kind in the United States), James Henry Breasted, to name the region Mesopotamia, which literally means ‘between the rivers’ in Greek. But if farming took root in the northern portions of the Crescent, why did the first civilization appear in the far south?

Without written documents from the period of migration (writing had not yet been invented), we can only speculate about what brought the first settlers to the southern reaches of the Euphrates River, to an inland delta of marshland that receives little annual rainfall and possesses quite saline soil (not a good thing for crops) due to surrounding deserts and proximity of the Persian Gulf. Brackish waters, little rain, salty fields, and unpredictable and violent fresh-water flooding do not generally encourage settlement by farmers. And yet they came. And they settled. And they manipulated the harsh environment to their own ends. And, eventually, they built massive cities. Those who chose this path turned their back on the relative safety of the small settlements of the north, gave up life on the farm for the prospect of something else. Like all immigrants, the first Sumerians sought a different style of life, planted themselves in the marshes of the lower Euphrates, and literally elevated a civilized life from its muck.

Mesopotamia is conventionally divided between north and south, known in ancient times as Akkad and Sumer respectively. The first recognizable civilization appeared in a 700-sq. mile swathe of land in southern Mesopotamia, populated by a people we have named Sumerians because of the location of their cities. Sumer is a later Babylonian name for the region. The Sumerians called themselves uŋ saŋ giga or simply ‘the black-headed people’ and called their territory Kengir, meaning ‘place of noble lords.’ The language they used gives us a sense of how they viewed themselves as superior to, or more civilized than, the peoples who lived beyond their lands. There is much in that assessment considering the new type of existence they created in their great cities. Sumer, however, should not be thought of as a single state that embraced the entire region, but rather more as a loose collection of independent powers, each ruled from a single city, that all shared a common culture.

Let’s return to our initial question. What was so special about Sumer to prompt men and women to alter fundamentally the nature of their existence?

The answer literally lies under our feet, in the soil, but not for the reasons that might seem most logical. It is often thought, wrongly as it turns out, that the rich alluvial soil of the Euphrates and Tigris delta had enough growing power to keep a large population (remember our agreed upon requirements for a civilization) fed and, therefore, Sumer was a natural place to plant a large agricultural population. The facts of the ecoregion itself disprove this thesis. The waters are brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh), the suns burns intensely, there are no rocks for construction, the soils beyond the rivers are dry and saline. What now seems to be the correct view of Sumer’s fertility is that those lands only became fertile because of the engineering projects of those who moved there, that is AFTER the region was settled. What seems to have sustained the first settlement and initially attracted immigrants had less to do with the rivers and more to do with a serious of underground fresh-water springs. It was the springs that brought forth an abundance of life amidst the harsh conditions of the swamps. These springs have been discovered under nearly twenty layers of successive building projects at the ancient site of the city Eridu and prompted the construction of the first religious sanctuary of the Sumerians, a “primitive chapel” about ten feet square, nearly six thousand years ago.1 Fed from this underground spring, the marsh at certain times of the year was transformed into a sizable fresh water lake that supported a plethora of plant and animal life. Those who traveled to the site would have been assured sustenance and gave thanks to the god responsible. We know this because of the way Sumerians indicated a place name, that is, by a mark indicating a god followed by the mark indicating place. Thus, the location of this new community became the ‘fresh-water god place’. These springs, because they sustained large communities of settlers and allowed agriculture to flourish in an otherwise harsh environment, fundamentally changed the way human communities functioned.

Food historians who have identified eating patterns in Sumer provide some insight into why exactly humans might have preferred settling in the lower region of Mesopotamia despite the difficulties presented to traditional farming. The spring-fed lake of Eridu supported an incredible array of plant and animal life. A super-abundance of fish and fowl diversified the plant-rich diet of settlers. And this food surplus provided by Eridu’s god changed the whole equation of human existence, because people could begin devoting themselves things other than gathering food. For thousands of years small farming settlements in Sumer had taken advantage of the rich soils and fishing opportunities along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates systems, but around 3500 BCE, something had changed substantively in the nature of those communities, attracting more and more people to settled in these villages, villages that were fast becoming true cities. More people to feed meant more land was needed to grow food. And this need for more irrigated and farmed land led to new technologies and an increasingly organized labor force. The nexus of a large and sedentary population, cities, advanced technology, division of labor, and complex organization thus laid the foundations for the emergence of civilization.

The ‘black-headed people’ living in the cities  along the lower Euphrates River managed to change the basic rhythms of human existence, bringing order and complexity to the communal life. Drains and irrigation canals of unprecedented size and complexity, the type that spread out for miles from the banks of Sumerian rivers, required collective effort and management. And management, as any first year business major knows, entails leadership to plan, organize, and supervise. So for the same reason that, among hunters, the people more capable of organizing and successfully leading the hunt became tribal chieftains, among farmers, the people more capable at successfully managing the fields and bringing in a successful harvest more than likely (though the idea is still hotly debated among scholars) became the first leaders of cities.

Ask yourself what type of person might assume this position of new urban manager. Who by character or profession understands agriculture and commands enough authority to make people work?

Around the year 3500 BCE or so, that is, over a thousand years after the first devotees gathered at the edge of the ‘Fresh-Water God Place’ at Eridu, the Sumerians initiated a tech advance that,to borrow from Neil Armstrong, made one great leap for mankind: they invented the first system of writing. This proved indispensable for managing the entire urban system already in place and propelled humans into the historical era.

For hundreds of years priest-managers had kept crude production records for their cities. They recorded the production of the community, marking containers and indicating on clay tablets how much food was brought in and how much was doled out. But their early shorthand accounting fell short of being a true language. Initially, wedge-shaped pictographs scrawled into wet clay functioned as an accounting system, an advanced memory system for keeping tract of quantities of grain, sheep, cattle, beer, and wool. While this early form of visible communication helped control the food supply  in early cities, it certainly did not represent language. In fact the signs were not even written in the proper sequence of spoken language. However, by about 3500 BCE it had evolved into a system that represented much more than mere labeling and accounting. Sumerian writing — today called cuneiform (literally ‘wedge-shaped’) from the impressions formed when using the reed stylus to mark wet clay — which of course increased the efficiency and accuracy of record-keeping for the temple complexes, now also preserved abstract thought (thinking beyond what is physically in front of you) and facilitated long-distance impersonal communication. Writing, which is  much more reliable than verbal transmission for preserving detail and extensive ideas, also allowed for the preservation of stories deemed important for the community. With writing, people could pass along these stories from one generation to another, creating a common cultural tradition and a sense of history.

In a flash, then, when cuneiform allowed Sumerians to record actual thought and speech, man began writing more complex texts about his place in the universe (cosmology) and humans entered the historical era. The cuneiform technique quickly spread to Egypt and then later to eastern India, from whence it was carried to China – and modern Chinese, of course, still preserves logograms (signs that represent things) as essential elements in the language. Over the years cuneiform transformed into a phonetic language, where signs represent sounds instead of things themselves, and became the basic writing system for the main Near Eastern civilizations that followed, viz. the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Assyrians. It survived into the first century of the Christian Era, but was then forgotten altogether, all records silenced until the 19th century when three Assyriologists, Rawlinson (English), Hinks (Irish), and Oppert (French), deciphered it. The complex markings in clay, baked and preserved in ancient cities that had disappeared and been forgotten until the 19th century, proved to modern scholars that by 3500 BCE something qualitatively different was going on in the cities of Sumer.

So for about a thousand years, the period in which the first civilization was taking shape, ‘the black-headed people’ made fundamental advancements in art, science, technology, engineering, and abstract thought.They recorded detailed observations of their universe. Mathematics and astronomy were used to make sense of experience and observation, which led to the creation of the first lunar calendar. Glass making and weaving appeared. The wheel appeared, which, of course, made transportation much easier, but also enabled the more efficient production of better pottery (the potters wheel) and flour (rotary millstone). The smelting of metals (copper and tin mostly) was already underway and produced tools and weapons more useful than stone and wood. Around the year 3000 BCE, Sumerian metallurgists (those who work with metal) discovered how to combine copper and tin to produce bronze, and man entered the period often referred to as the Bronze Age (the era lasts until about 1300 BCE when iron replaced bronze). And all along the way an ever increasing population made further demands upon the ‘managers’ to maintain an adequate supply of food and an infrastructure capable of supporting the new urban lifestyle they had perfected. Cities had become the most dynamic centers of economic, political, intellectual, and cultural developments. As they remain to this day. 

Eridu and the House of Apsu

The temple which has grown high unites heaven and earth     Holy of Holies Eridu Apzu, shrine built for its prince     House, holy mound, where pure food is eaten     Watered by the Lord’s pure canal     Your great wall is kept in good repair     O Eridu with a crown on your head     House of Apzu, your place is a great place     In your place where they call upon Shamash     Where the oven brings forth good bread to eat (‘Mesopotamia Temple Hymn’ from Leick, pp.26-27)

Early Sumerian texts refer to the city of Eridu as the First City of the World, home to the god of life-giving waters and the care-taker of civilization, Enki. One tells us: “When kingship from heaven was lowered, the kingship was in Eridu.” The Sumerians had long made the connection between the new life-style found at Eridu and a divine presence, so it should not be surprising that their earliest cities are intimately tied to religion. Since cities, according to the Sumerians, received the creative and protective energies of the gods, it should come as no surprise that they concluded that all authority over the city, likewise, derived from heaven. As a consequence, religious ritual became fundamental to good government and urban order and demanded its own space within the city. A special precinct devoted to serving the god that made it all possible was at the heart of every Mesopotamian city, sacred space within the city that gave physical expression to the earthly rule of the gods.

The Sumerian fertility god Enki was associated with the location that spawned Eridu. Likewise, other gods had favored other cities, each had his or her favorite. Ur belonged to Nanna (moon god), Nippur to Enlil (wind god), Sippur to Shamash (sun god) Uruk to Anu (sky god) and Inanna (goddess of fertility), and so on. All the cities of Sumer arose over sacred ground, solid earth amidst the marshes of Mesopotamia. Fresh water coursed underneath and around, providing fertility, providing food, providing life. Geographically, Eridu existed on the edge of a vast desert, at the very point where a large fresh-watered lagoon separated the fertile marshlands from the salty waters of what is now known as The Persian Gulf.  The ziggurat, the Apzu, the great temple complex erected over the site of the earliest of chapels dedicated to the god that brought fresh-water bubbling to the surface, served multiple functions. It housed the priestly caste who helped the community maintain proper relations with the creative and destructive powers of the universe. The ziggurat also served as a communal storehouse for various foodstuffs that were offered in praise and thanksgiving for abundance. And of course it was the most important ceremonial site in the city. The memory of that life-giving water at Eridu was referenced by the installation of water basins in every temple throughout Mesopotamia, and is sustained even today in the Jewish mikveh, cleansing pools of Islamic mosques, and baptismal fonts of Christian churches. 2

Because it contained the House of Apzu, the most important spot of the Sumerian ceremonial world,  Eridu (‘The Mighty Place’) possessed deep symbolic importance for the entire civilization. Its seems to have functioned, therefore, primarily as a religious center. The fact that there existed a much larger and more dynamic city, Uruk, only seven miles away seems to indicate that many of the other typical activities associated with city life — government, commerce, productions — were carried out at a less venerated site. While Eridu supported a religious establishment, something along the lines of a Vatican City today, Uruk and Ur supported a more expansive range of human endeavor. It is in them that we see the true extent of the Urban Revolution in Mesopotamia.

The House of Apzu Beneath the Ziggurat at Eridu

The House of Apzu Beneath the Ziggurat at Eridu

The Cities of Ur and Uruk

Some cities so dominate the lands surrounding them that names become irrelevant in conversation. People refer to them simply as ‘The City’. Modern examples of this phenomenon include London, New York, and San Fransisco. The practice, however, is nothing new. In ancient Sumer, ‘The City’ referred to Uruk, which probably housed over 50,000 people by the time the Sumerians enter the historical era (with the invention of writing c.3500 BCE). The Sumerians constructed their ceremonial sites on lands that they had created from draining river marshes, building large platforms and structures that stood above the swells of the rivers, which regularly and often violently flooded. Once the temple with its storage rooms for surplus food was raised above the floods, platforms for housing followed. Sumerian civilization existed in what was shared. By about 3600 BCE, because of all of their technological advancements that dramatically increased food production, drawing in even more new immigrants, the Sumerians initiated new large-scale construction projects along the channels of the Tigris and Euphrates, replacing smaller villages with brick-built giants housing tens of thousands. The earliest significant construction project in The City (i.e. Uruk) required a substantial investment of skill and energy and the collective organization of thousands of workers over a long period of time.  No fewer than seven mud-brick structures of monumental size (some 25000 sq. ft, or half the size of a football field) were built as part of Uruk’s temple complex. One of the structures even used columns, the oldest discovered anywhere, and many of the walls were covered with brightly painted circles arranged in a variety of patterns. 3 The City may not have been able, like its sister Eridu on the horizon, to be the navel of the universe, but it was making a name for itself with the opulence of construction and the material wealth of its inhabitants.

While all cities had designated ceremonial sites like Eridu and Uruk’s for religious devotion, the new urban monsters — Uruk, Ur, Lagash, and Sippar — also housed large laboring populations as well as the personnel to control them. A new class of elite managers emerged to organize, supervise, and regulate labor carried out in the gods’ names. Surviving cuneiform tablets tell us exactly how much bread and beer temples paid out to their dependents. Not surprisingly, the managers and priests received a larger share than the manual laborers. 4

These early temple administrations were the first managing directors of the new cities, the first governing bodies. In other words, Uruk and the handful of larger Sumerian cities developed the first functional bureaucracy  in history. Uruk and Ur were both, like modern London or Washington, D.C., cities primarily devoted to administration, initially governing the cult centers and food supply. Later, as the urban environment became larger and more complex, so did the executive authority of the new ruling class.  They became political centers for the earliest recorded Sumerian kings who exercised regional control and dominated weaker cities with their armies. This single city-dominated region, then, became the first historically recognizable political unit, i.e. the city-state. While Sumerian priests had likely been the earliest authority figures in these cities, kings emerged because they possessed both the authority (supposedly god-given) and the means (an army) to force submission to their rule and protect the vast irrigation projects surrounding a city. They were capable of projecting authority beyond the walls and of subjecting those who might opposed the extension of city domination. The new urban aristocracy, the ruling class, worked alongside the priests to ensure good order throughout the territory controlled by a city. The close relationship between religion and government, a characteristic of most ancient civilizations, derives from the assumption that civilized life itself was dependent upon an elite groups’ ability to keep gods happy. This belief that a king is divinely appointed to rule over men still exists, at least in part, in places (Japan) and persisted in Western culture well into the 20th century (Russia).

As city populations increased and supportive irrigation systems spread further into the hinterlands, city leaders devised new methods for extending their authority miles beyond their residence. One of the more effective and ingenious innovations for long-distance communication came in the form of a small carved device, a cylinder, that allowed its owner to affix a unique imprint upon a wet clay surface. The cylinder seal allowed a king and his officials to extend their ‘voice’ of command by effectively signing documents, i.e. placing personal identifying stamps upon them. The person or note that possessed such a ‘sealed’ instruction, therefore, spoke with the authority of the king. The Sumerian kings at Uruk could now continue to reside in the city while delivering messages to other cities or send commands to distant military commanders. Authority itself became something much more than a local concern.

Cylinder seal and impression

Cylinder seal and impression

While an educated and literate bureaucracy used the cylinder seal for conquest and control, the commercial class also found them useful for an early type of quality control. Archaeologists have dug up piles of Sumerian clay pots used for transporting goods that were sealed with special ‘branding’ devices of individual merchants. These impressions, like the modern logo, ensured the integrity of the products, allowing a seller in city A to do business with buyers in cities B and C hundreds of miles away.

A Civilization Takes Shape

Architecture, a combination of design (art) and engineering (applied science and mathematics), reveals a great deal about a civilization. From first glance, a building informs. There is a certain commonality in many buildings that instantly speak of the culture that created them — at least there was prior to the twentieth century. The Gothic cathedral on the Close reminds us that we are predominantly descendants of the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition and does not strike us as especially incongruous in an urban setting in the United States. Would a pagoda or pyramid, say, sit as comfortably on the site? I expect not. And not because there’s anything wrong with constructing pagodas and pyramids, but rather because they run counter to the predominant cultural history of the United States. An adobe mission feels out of place in Boston, but not in Los Angeles or San Antonio.  Similarly, a Gothic cathedral in the heart of Beijing or Tokyo would strike us as somewhat misplaced.

Due mainly to its developments in organizational control, art, and commerce, the massive city of Uruk emerged as The Mesopotamian City, a hub of trade and administration unlike no other. It is no surprise, then, that the city boasted the most impressive architecture of the age. The monumental architecture of Uruk, some of the first landmarks of wealth, power, and prestige, provided a necessary cultural imprint upon all of Sumer. It birthed the unique cultural style that every civilization shapes in its own image. According to the anthropologist Gwendolyn Leick, Uruk’s investment in construction “helped to spread the ideology of culture” well beyond the vicinity of a single city, ultimately carrying it as far as modern day Syria and Iran. 5

Sumerians used dried-mud bricks to build massive walls around their cities for protection. Uruk, for example, possessed about six miles of walls with towers every thirty feet or so and could provide a great deal of security for up to 80,000 people. The most prominent building in the city was of course the ziggurat to the local god and the remnants of these structures remain extant. Uruk boasted a pair of great ziggurats dedicated to Anu, the sky god, and Inanna, goddess of love and fertility. It is interesting to note that in contrast to Egyptian civilization where the first monumental buildings, the pyramids, celebrated the divine king on earth (i.e. pharaoh) and served as his burial place, those constructed in Sumer concern the relationship between all men and the gods and served as places for the rituals of life rather then death. Recall that monumental architecture is one of our requirements for distinguishing a civilization, and, besides giving us a visual glimpse of culture, buildings often reveal what a civilization most values. What might we infer from the people who, for example, constructed Chartes Cathedral, or those who made the Forbidden City, or those who placed the Empire State Building in Manhattan?

Ziggurat at Ur

Ziggurat at Ur

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

The Empire State Building

The Empire State Building

Inferences based upon the remnants of material culture — things (skeletons, tools, jewelry, buildings, etc.) — are only part of the picture though, useful to anthropologists and archaeologists. The distinguishing feature of the historian remains his or her use of written records. Written records allow historians to understand a culture more deeply because, unlike say a clay pot, which provides insight into cultural themes and technique, literature preserves ideas. What people write about themselves provides greater insights into human thought than physical objects. What were Neolithic painters wishing to communicate when they scrawled stylized animals on the walls of their caves near Lascaux, France? What were they thinking? What was the purpose of the paintings in the first place? What is the story? We will never know completely because, while these Neolithic painters left us signs of their passing, such signs fall far short of communicating complete thoughts.

The Sumerians, however, have left us a mass of written records, accounts of their daily lives, records their religious thinking, and even a complete piece of heroic literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh in written form dates from c.2100 BCE and is among the world’s first known works of literature, that is a written story that is something more than mere record-keeping or battle boasting. It is also one of the first references we have of a Great Flood sent by an angry god to destroy those who disturbed the peace. Considering what you know about the importance of Uruk, it should come as no surprise that the epic hero of this story, Gilgamesh, the lordly king who had no equal, lived in Uruk.

The historical era, then, only came into being when the technology of writing first developed in the cities of Mesopotamia. Once scribes had access to a complete writing system they began to pass along much more information about themselves and the world they inhabited. We see in works like the Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh a Sumerian historical consciousness – that is, an awareness that later generations inherit the ideas, lessons, and stories important for the community of ‘black-headed people’ on the banks of the rivers.  The civilizations that used cuneiform — Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian — endured until 539 BCE, when Babylon was conquered and absorbed into the upstart Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great. [Think about it: you are closer chronologically to the historical Jesus than Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon, was to the first kings of Ur.] This means that the civilizational core elements of the ancient Near Eastern, the cultural and political traditions first established in Ur and Uruk, existed and mattered for more than half of all recorded history. The endurance alone demands our attention, but the dynamism and significance (yes, even today!) of the region keeps us interested.

INTERESTING: The name of the city of Sippar on the Euphrates River, home to the sun god Shamash, is derived from the Sumerian word for ‘a writing’ which may indicate that it was indeed named for important records kept in the ziggurat there. And archaeologist have indeed recovered thousands of cuneiform tablets from the site.


  1. Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization (New York: St. Martins Press, 2010), p.23
  2. Kriwaczek, p.29
  3. Amanda Podany, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short History. (Oxford University Press: New York, 2013), pp.18-19.
  4. Podany, pp.19-20.
  5. Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), p.54.



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