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.
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.
Located in what the ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia, meaning “the land between the rivers,” Sumer was a collection of city-states or cites 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.
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.
Photos taken of the Temple of Ziggurat of Ur, by Kaufingdude, 2007. (Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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.
An example of a Cuneiform Tablet. From Annals of Tukulti-Ninurta II, king of Assyria (890–884 BC), relating a campaign against Urartu. Found in Qalaat Shergat (ancient city of Assur). Photo by Jastrow, 2006. On display at the Louvre Museum. (Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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” 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.
Bronze head of Sargon of Akkad was the first Mesopotamian ruler to control both southern and northern Babylonia, thus becoming the king of Sumer and Akkad and inaugurating the Akkadian Empire. (Wikimedia Commons)
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. 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.
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.
Featured Image: Illustration of Mesopotamia. (Jeff Brown Graphics)