Reading History (Sumer)

The First Civilization

Questions to consider during this unit:

1. How did farming change the nature of human interactions along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers?

2. What technical innovations did the Sumerians produce and how did each reshape life in Mesopotamia?

3. How is Sumerian religion related to the geography of Mesopotamia?

The first systematic farming communities appeared around the year 9000 BC between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (in what is now Iraq) and initiated one of the most profound transformations of human life. A 700-mile swathe of land in southern Mesopotamia (the word literally means ‘between the rivers’ in Greek) is generally considered to have produced the first recognizable civilization, populated by a people we know as the Sumerians. (Mesopotamia is conventionally divided between north and south, known as Akkad and Sumer respectively.) This process naturally occurred in a region that could, because of rich alluvial soil and an abundant supply of fresh water, readily support substantial agriculture and, therefore, a substantial population. In fact the farming was so good that agriculture workers could produce much more food than they could consume themselves. Agricultural surplus, you should recall, is a necessary precursor to any civilization because it allows people to spend time doing other things than gathering food. The planting, tending, and harvesting of crops first and foremost requires that people remain on-site.  For thousands of years small farming settlements had taken advantage of the rich soils and fishing opportunities along the banks of the two river systems, but around 3500 BCE, something changed in the nature of those communities and the techniques used to produce grain. As more and more people settled in these villages, more and more land was needed to grow food. The need for more land led to new technology and the organization of man-power to construct irrigation and work the fields.

Drains and irrigation canals of unprecedented size and complexity required collective effort and management. And these technologies reclaimed new lands from the muddy marshes and, in so doing, radically restructured how men lived together. At some point the villages merged into each other as the land that had separated them was claimed for irrigation or settlement.  The decision faced by these settlements was fight or cooperate, and there is plenty of evidence that both occurred regularly for centuries; but each option required even more organization and collective effort. Those who could organize men for war and collect resources to equip them became warlord commanders. Those who could ensure a good harvest by understanding the signs of the gods and keep the population fed – and keep the gods happy – ended up as priests.

Toward the end of this long process, about 3500 BCE or so,further technical developments fundamentally altered the nature of life further in Mesopotamia. A system of writing for the first time allowed for long-distance communication, the keeping of records, and the preservation of stories. Mathematics and astronomy allowed Sumerians to make sense of the universe in new ways. Glass-making and weaving facilitated new arts and crafts. The wheel made transportation much easier. And a method for smelting copper and tin from ore produced tools and weapons that proved a great advancement over stone and wood. And finally, those skilled in metallurgy discovered how to combine copper and tin to produce bronze – and thus around the year 3000 BCE we enter the period that is often referred to as the Bronze Age which lasted until about 1300 BCE when iron replaced bronze for tools and weapons. All of these advancements were accompanied by an increasing population and the construction of settlements to hold larger populations, i.e. cities, which became the most dynamic focal points of further economic, political, cultural developments.

The new cities of Sumer literally rose from the marshes of the Tigris and Euphrates and the clash of villages all along the southern reaches of the river systems. The more important ones were Ur, Eridu, Uruk, Lagash, and Sippar.  While there is some dispute as to when the people we call Sumerian (named for both the language they spoke and the region they occupied: Sumer) entered the region of Mesopotamia, their appearance fundamentally transformed the quality of city life in the areas under their control. The Sumerians were organizers, craftsmen, and builders and they are credited with creating the first system of written language. This first writing is known as cuneiform, literally ‘wedge-shaped’, because a series of wedge-shaped impressions made with the end of a cut reed on tablets of wet clay represented an array of ideas. Cuneiform began as a pictographic accounting system for the temples; priests made marks in wet clay in order to keep a record of what was coming in and going out of the communal storage sheds (the warehouses of the ziggurats). Certain marks (the pictograph) represented grain, certain marks represented goats and cattle. By c.2500 BCE, Sumerian scribes had reduced the writing to five basic wedge-shaped strokes, after which these impressions represented sounds rather than things. Cuneiform had become the first phonetic language and the basic writing system for the Babylonians, Hittites, and Assyrians to follow. The complex markings on wet clay prove that something qualitatively different was going on in the region ‘between the rivers,’ for it is only with writing that man entered the historical period.

Because land reclamation and irrigation was a life-and-death issue for these early cities, they were central to the religion of Sumerians. The Sumerians constructed ceremonial sites on lands that they had created from draining river marshes, building large platforms and structures — known as ziggurats — that stood above the swells of the rivers, which regularly and often violently flooded. Men collected around these religious sites, working together under the protection of their gods to produce enough food to support a growing population; these settlements became the first of the great Mesopotamian cities, each one ‘owned’ and protected by its own god or goddess. This helps explain the close relationship between religion and government characteristic of Sumerian civilization. From baked bricks, the Sumerians constructed impressive ziggurats hundreds of feet tall at the more important sites; they served as the dwelling places of the gods, places where man could serve them and display devotion.  Enki(aka EA), the god of fertility, ruled over the city of Eridu. Sumerians worshiped Innana, the goddess of fertility, at the city of Uruk. Shamash, the sun-god, ruled over Sippar, while Nanna, the moon-god, had his  temple in Ur.  Controlling food supply was the most important function in the community, and because the land and water were owned by the gods, then the foods they produced were also possessions of the gods. It should be no surprise to learn that these temple complexes (ziggurats) also served as warehouses for food storage. These cities, which quite literally housed the gods and the temples devoted to them, dominated their immediate surroundings, creating the first recognizable government and political unit, the city-state. Sumer, therefore, should not be thought of as a single state, but rather more as a loose collection of independent powers (each ruled from a single city) that all shared a common culture.

Other Sumerian gods of importance were AN (the sky god), KI (the earth goddess), APSU (Lord of fresh waters), and ENLIL (the Lord of Wind)

The 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 about 50-80,000 people. The most prominent building in the city, however, was the ziggurat to the local god. Archeologists have discovered eighteen separate temples beneath the ziggurat of Eridu. It is interesting to note that in contrast to Egyptian civilization where the first monuments constructed celebrate the divine king (i.e. pharaoh), those constructed in Sumer concern the relations between man and the gods. Recall that monumental architecture is one of our requirements for distinguishing a civilization, and that monumental construction often tells you what a civilization most values (we have the Empire State Building and Sears Tower, for example). The Egyptians first built royal tombs, but the Sumerians built massive temples.

Written records allow historians to understand a culture more deeply because literature provides insights into human thought. What were the Neolithic painters wishing to say when they scrawled their 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? We will never know the story completely because they did not possess writing and, therefore, have not preserved their thoughts. The Sumerians, however, have left us rich written records of their daily lives and even the first piece of real literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from c.2600 BCE and is among the world’s first known works of literature – perhaps the oldest as well. It is interesting to note that the city of Sippar is named for the Sumerian word for ‘a writing’ which may indicate that it was indeed named BECAUSE important records were kept in the ziggurat there.

INTERESTING: Eridu, which means ‘on the shore of the sea’ in Sumerian, was the most southerly of the great cities of Mesopotamia. Now go look at a map of the current Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and find ancient Eridu. You should see that the site of Eridu is some 200 miles from the northern shores of the Persian Gulf. What was once ‘on the shore of the sea’ is now well inland. This is a good example of just how much silt is being carried down these rivers.


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