Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The History of Ancient Sumer

Part 1

Mesopotamia: The First Civilization

Authorities do not all agree about the definition of civilization. Most accept the view that "a civilization is a culture which has attained a degree of complexity usually characterized by urban life." In other words, a civilization is a culture capable of sustaining a substantial number of specialists to cope with the economic, social, political, and religious needs of a populous society. Other characteristics usually present in a civilization include a system of writing to keep records, monumental architecture in place of simple buildings, and an art that is no longer merely decorative, like that on Neolithic pottery, but representative of people and their activities. All these characteristics of civilization first appeared in Mesopotamia.

The Geography Of Mesopotamia

Around 6000 B.C., after the agricultural revolution had begun to spread from its place of origin on the northern fringes of the Fertile Crescent, Neolithic farmers started filtering into the Fertile Crescent itself. Although this broad plain received insufficient rainfall to support agriculture, the eastern section was watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Known in ancient days as Mesopotamia (Greek for "between the rivers"), the lower reaches of this plain, beginning near the point where the two rivers nearly converge, was called Babylonia. Babylonia in turn encompassed two geographical areas - Akkad in the north and Sumer, the delta of this river system, in the south.

Broken by river channels teeming with fish and re-fertilized frequently by alluvial silt laid down by uncontrolled floods, Sumer had a splendid agricultural potential if the environmental problems could be solved.

"Arable land had literally to be created out of a chaos of swamps and sand banks by a ’separation’ of land from water; the swamps ... drained; the floods controlled; and lifegiving waters led to the rainless desert by artificial canals."
In the course of the several successive cultural phases that followed the arrival of the first Neolithic farmers, these and other related problems were solved by cooperative effort. Between 3500 B.C. and 3100 B.C. the foundations were laid for a type of economy and social order markedly different from anything previously known. This far more complex culture, based on large urban centers rather than simple villages, is what we associate with civilization.
Prelude To CivilizationBy discovering how to use metals to make tools and weapons, late Neolithic people effected a revolution nearly as far-reaching as that wrought in agriculture. Neolithic artisans discovered how to extract copper from oxide ores by heating them with charcoal. Then about 3100 B.C., metal workers discovered that copper was improved by the addition of tin. The resulting alloy, bronze, was harder than copper and provided a sharper cutting edge. Thus the advent of civilization in Sumer is associated with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the West, which in time spread to Egypt, Europe, and Asia. The Bronze age lasted until about 1200 B.C., when iron weapons and tools began to replace those made of bronze. The first plow was probably a stick pulled through the soil with a rope. In time, however, domesticated cattle were harnessed to drag the plow in place of the farmer. Yoked, harnessed animals pulled plows in the Mesopotamian alluvium by 3000 B.C. As a result, farming advanced from the cultivation of small plots to the tilling of extensive fields.

"By harnessing the ox man began to control and use a motive power other than that furnished by his own muscular energy. The ox was the first step to the steam engine and gasoline motor."
Since the Mesopotamian plain had no stone, no metals, and no timber except its soft palm trees, these materials had to be transported from Syria and Asia Minor. Water transport down the Tigris and Euphrates solved the problem. The oldest sailing boat known is represented by a model found in a Sumerian grave of about 3500 B.C. Soon after this date wheeled vehicles appear in the form of ass-drawn war chariots. For the transport of goods overland, however, people continued to rely on the pack ass. Another important invention was the potter’s wheel, first used in Sumer soon after 3500 B.C. Earlier, people had fashioned pots by molding or coiling clay by hand, but now a symmetrical product could be produced in a much shorter time. A pivoted clay disk heavy enough to revolve of its own momentum, the potter’s wheel has been called "the first really mechanical device."

The Emergence Of Civilization In Sumer, c. 3100-2800 B.C.

By 3100 B.C. the population of Sumer had increased to the point where people were living in cities and had developed a preponderance of those elements previously noted as constituting civilization. Since these included the first evidence of writing, this first phase of Sumerian civilization, to about 28 B.C., is called the Protoliterate period. The original homeland of the Sumerians is unknown. It is believed that they came from the east, but whether by sea or from the highlands is unknown. Their language is not related to those major language families that later appear in the Near East - Semites and Indo-Europeans.

(The original home of the Semitic-speaking peoples is thought to have been the Arabian peninsula, while the Indo-Europeans seem to be migrated from the region north of the Black and Caspian seas. A third, much smaller language family is the Hamitic, which included the Egyptians and other peoples of northeastern Africa.) How would life in Protoliterate Sumer have appeared to visitors seeing it for the first time? As they approached Ur, one of about a dozen Sumerian cities, they would pass farmers working in their fields with ox-drawn plows. They might see some of the workers using bronze sickles. The river would be dotted by boats carrying produce to and from the city. Dominating the flat countryside would be a ziggurat, a platform (later a lofty terrace, built in the shape of a pyramid) crowned by a sanctuary, or "high place." This was the "holy of holies," sacred to the local god. Upon entering the city, visitors would see a large number of specialists pursuing their appointed tasks as agents of the community and not as private entrepreneurs - some craftsmen casting bronze tools and weapons, others fashioning their wares on the potter’s wheel, and merchants arranging to trade grain and manufactures for the metals, stone, lumber, and other essentials not available in Sumer. Scribes would be at work incising clay tablets with picture signs. Some tablets might bear the impression of cylinder seals, small stone cylinders engraved with a design. Examining the clay tablets, the visitors would find that they were memoranda used in administering a temple, which was also a warehouse and workshop. Some of the scribes might be making an inventory of the goats and sheep received that day for sacrificial use; others might be drawing up wage lists. They would be using a system of counting based on the unit 60 - the sexagismal system rather than the decimal system which is based on the unit 10. It is still used today in computing divisions of time and angles. Certain technical inventions of Protoliterate Sumer eventually made their way to both the Nile and the Indus valleys. Chief among these were the wheeled vehicle and the potter’s wheel. The discovery in Egypt of cylinder seals similar in shape to those used in Sumer attests to contact between the two areas toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C. Certain early Egyptian art motifs and architectural forms are also thought to be of Sumerian origin. And it is probable that the example of Sumerian writing stimulated the Egyptians to develop a script of their own.

The Land of the Two Rivers

The word Mesopotamia , derived from the Greek, means literally "between the rivers," but it is generally used to denote the whole plain between and on either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The plain was bordered to the north and east by mountain ranges, in whose foothills, as we have seen, agriculture was first practiced. To the southwest lay the forbidding deserts of Syria and Arabia . Each year the two great rivers were swollen with the winter snows of the northern mountains, and each year at flood stage they spread a thick layer of immensely fertile silt across the flood plain where they approached the Persian Gulf . This delta, a land of swamp rich in fish, wildlife, and date palms, was the most challenging and rewarding of the three natural units into which the river valleys were divided; and it was here, between 3500 and 3000 B. c., that agricultural settlers created the rich city-states of Sumer , of which the best known is Ur . The delta could only be made habitable by large-scale irrigation and flood control, which was managed first by a priestly class and then by godlike kings. Except for the period 2370-2230 B. c., when the Sumerian city-states were subdued by the rulers of Akkad , the region immediately to the north, the Sumerians remained prosperous and powerful until the beginning of the second millennium B.C. Immediately to the north of Sumer , where the two rivers came most closely together, the plain was less subject to flooding but made fertile by rainfall and irrigation. This area, known first as Akkad , was inhabited by Semitic peoples who subdued the Sumerians in the middle of the third millennium; but when a new Semitic people called the Amorites conquered the area about 2000 B. c. and founded a great new capital city of Babylon; the area henceforth came to be known as Babylonia . Except for invasions of Hittites and Kassites, who were Indo-European peoples from Asia , Babylonia continued to dominate Mesopotamia for a thousand years. The third natural region, called Assyria , stretched from the north of Babylonia to the Taurus range. Its rolling hills were watered by a large number of streams flowing from the surrounding mountains as well as by the headwaters of the two great rivers themselves. The Assyrians, a viciously warlike Semitic people, were able to conquer the whole of Mesopotamia in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Thus the history of Mesopotamia can be envisaged as a shift of the center of power northwards, from Sumer to Babylonia and then to Assyria.

The Rise of the Sumerian City States

Little is known about the origins of the Sumerian people, who spoke a language totally distinct from that of the Semitic inhabitants of the valleys to the north. The Sumerians probably moved down into the swamps of the delta under pressure of over-population of the foothills after 3900 B. c. Al- though at first they formed small agricultural villages, they soon found not only that the richness of the alluvial land permitted greater density of settlement but also that the vast engineering works in canals and dikes necessary to harness the annual floods required work forces of hundreds of men. Moreover, the layout and clearing of the canals required expert planning, while the division of the irrigated land, the water, and the crops demanded political control. By 3000 B.C. the Sumerians had solved this problem by forming "temple-communities," in which a class of priest-bureaucrats con- trolled the political and economic life of the city in the name of the city gods. All Sumerian cities recognized a number of gods in common, including Anu the sky god, Enlil the lord of storms, and Ishtar the morning and evening star. The gods seemed hopelessly violent and unpredictable, and one’s life a period of slavery to their whims. The epic poem, The Creation, emphasizes that mortals were created to enable the gods to give up working. Each city moreover had its own god, who was considered literally to inhabit the temple and who was in theory the owner of all property within the city. Hence the priests who interpreted the will of the god and controlled the distribution of the economic produce of the city were venerated for their supernatural and material functions alike. When, after 3000 B. c., the growing warfare among the cities made military leadership vital, the head of the army who became king assumed an intermediate position between the god, whose agent he was, and the priestly class, whom he had both to use and to conciliate. Thus, king and priests represented the upper class in a hierarchical society. Below them were the scribes, the secular attendants of the temple, who supervised every aspect of the city’s economic life and who developed a rough judicial system. Outside the temple officials, society was divided between an elite or noble group of large landowners and military leaders; a heterogeneous group of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen; free peasants who composed the majority of the population; and slaves.

The Sumerian Achievement

The priests and scribes of the temples must be credited with the great advances made by the Sumerians in both arts and science. Following the invention of cuneiform writing, a rich epic literature was created, of which the three most impressive survivals are the story of the creation, an epic of the flood which parallels in many details the Biblical story of Noah, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third man, is the classic hero of Mesopotamian literature, a majestic, almost overly powerful figure pressing the gods in vain for the secret of immortality. He is also a great lover of his city Uruk; and throughout the poem we find, perhaps for the first time in literature, the celebration of the appeal of the civilized life of a great city. Gilgamesh, we are told at the start of the poem, has built the great rampart which still today runs seven miles around the ruins of his city: Of ramparted Uruk the wall he built. Of hallowed Eanna, the pure sanctuary. Behold its outer wall, whose cornice is like copper. Peer at the inner wall, which none can equal. Seize upon the threshold which is of old. Draw near to Eanna the dwelling of Ishtar which no future kin, no man, can equal. Go up and walk on the walls of Uruk, Inspect the base terrace, examine the brickwork: Is it not the brickwork of burnt brick? Did not the Seven Sages lay its foundation? Sculpture, too, advanced to serve the needs of the temples and then of the kings. The earliest statues surviving show bearded figures with wide staring eyes and piously clasped hands who represent some form of fertility cult. Later work in limestone or alabaster shows the female goddess bringing water, once again the symbol of fertility, while the achievements of the Akkadian rulers during their brief hegemony are recorded on enormous sandstone tablets. Few portrait busts cast in antiquity rival the expressive dignity of the head of Sargon of Akkad. Even more demanding in artistic technique were the small cylinder seals used to roll one’s signature into the wet clay of a tablet recording a commercial transaction. Thousands of these tablets have been found in the temple compounds, proving that the bureaucrats of Sumer had developed a complex commercial system, including con- tracts, grants of credit, loans with interest, and business partnerships. Moreover, the planning of the vast public works under their control led the priests to develop a useful mathematical notation, including both a decimal notation and a system based upon 60, which has given us our sixty-second minute, our sixty-minute hour and our division of the circle into 360 degrees. They invented mathematical tables and used quadratic equations. Both for religious and agricultural purposes, they studied the heavens, and they created a lunar calendar with a day of 24 hours and a week of seven days. Much of this science was transmitted to the West by the Greeks and later by the Arabs. It is not surprising, however, that the achievement which the Sumerians themselves admired most was the city itself.

The Sumerian Writing System

Whether the Sumerians were the first to develop writing is uncertain, but theirs is the oldest known writing system. The clay tablets on which they wrote were very durable when baked. Archaeologists have dug up many thousands of them--some dated earlier than 3000 BC. The earliest writing of the Sumerians was picture writing similar in some ways to Egyptian hieroglyphs. They began to develop their special style when they found that on soft, wet clay it was easier to impress a line than to scratch it. To draw the pictures they used a stylus--probably a straight piece of reed with a three-cornered end. An unexpected result came about: the stylus could best produce triangular forms (wedges) and straight lines. Curved lines therefore had to be broken up into a series of straight strokes. Pictures lost their form and became stylized symbols. This kind of writing on clay is called cuneiform, from the Latin cuneus, meaning "wedge." A tremendous step forward was accomplished when the symbols came to be associated with the sound of the thing shown rather than with the idea of the thing itself. Each sign then represented a syllable. Although cuneiform writing was still used long after the alphabet appeared, it never fully developed an alphabet. As we have noted, the symbols on the oldest Sumerian clay tablets, the world’s first writing, were pictures of concrete things such as a person, a sheep, a star, or a measure of grain. Some of these pictographs also represented ideas; for example, the picture of a foot was used to represent the idea of walking, and a picture of a mouth joined to that for water meant "to drink." This early pictograph writing gave way to phonetic (or syllabic) writing when the scribes realized that a sign could represent a sound as well as an object or idea. Thus, the personal name "Kuraka" could be written by combining the pictographs for mountain (pronounced kur), water (pronounced a), and mouth (pronounced ka). By 2800 B.C., the use of syllabic writing had reduced the number of signs from nearly two thousand to six hundred. In writing, a scribe used a reed stylus to make impressions in soft clay tablets. The impressions took on a wedge shape, hence the term cuneiform (Latin cuneus, "wedge"). The cuneiform system of writing was adopted by many other peoples of the Near East, including the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians.

Sumerian Schools

Cuneiform was difficult to learn. To master it children usually went to a temple school. Using a clay tablet as a textbook, the teacher wrote on the left-hand side, and the pupil copied the model on the right. Any mistakes could be smoothed out. The pupil began by making single wedges in various positions and then went on to groups of wedges. Thousands of groups had to be mastered. Finally the pupil was assigned a book to copy, but the work was slow and laborious. Many first chapters of all the important Sumerian works have been handed down from students’ tablets, but only fragments of the rest of the books survive. The pupils also studied arithmetic. The Sumerians based their number system on 10, but they multiplied 10 by 6 to get the next unit. They multiplied 60 by 10, then multiplied 600 by 6, and so on. (The number 60 has the advantage of being divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30.) The Sumerians also divided the circle into 360 degrees. From these early people came the word dozen (a fifth of 60) and the division of the clock to measure hours, minutes, and seconds. The Sumerians had standard measures, with units of length, area, and capacity. Their standard weight was the mina, made up of 60 shekels--about the same weight as a pound. There was no coined money. Standard weights of silver served as measures of value and as a means of exchange. From the earliest times the Sumerians had a strong sense of private property. After they learned to write and figure, they kept documents about every acquired object, including such small items as shoes. Every business transaction had to be recorded. Near the gates of the cities, scribes would sit ready to sell their services. Their hands would move fast over a lump of clay, turning the stylus. Then the contracting parties added their signatures by means of seals. The usual seal was an engraved cylinder of stone or metal that could be rolled over wet clay. In the course of time cuneiform was used for every purpose, just as writing is today--for letters, narratives, prayers and incantations, dictionaries, even mathematical and astronomical treatises. The Babylonians and Assyrians adapted cuneiform for their own Semitic languages and spread its use to neighboring Syria, Anatolia, Armenia, and Iran.

Sumerian Cities

Sumerian towns and cities included Eridu, Nippur, Lagash, Kish, and Ur. The cities differed from primitive farming settlements. They were not composed of family-owned farms, but were ringed by large tracts of land. These tracts were thought to be "owned" by a local god. A priest organized work groups of farmers to tend the land and provide barley, beans, wheat, olives, grapes, and flax for the community. These early cities, which existed by 3500 BC, were called temple towns because they were built around the temple of the local god. The temples were eventually built up on towers called ziggurats (holy mountains), which had ramps or staircases winding up around the exterior. Public buildings and marketplaces were built around these shrines. The temple towns grew into city-states, which are considered the basis of the first true civilizations. At a time when only the most rudimentary forms of transportation and communication were available, the city-state was the most governable type of human settlement. City-states were ruled by leaders, called ensis, who were probably authorized to control the local irrigation systems. The food surplus provided by the farmers supported these leaders, as well as priests, artists, craftsmen, and others. The Sumerians contributed to the development of metalworking, wheeled carts, and potter’s wheels. They may have invented the first form of writing. They engraved pictures on clay tablets in a form of writing known as cuneiform (wedge-shaped). The tablets were used to keep the accounts of the temple food storehouses. By about 2500 BC these picture-signs were being refined into an alphabet. The Sumerians developed the first calendar, which they adjusted to the phases of the moon. The lunar calendar was adopted by the Semites, Egyptians, and Greeks. An increase in trade between Sumerian cities and between Sumeria and other, more distant regions led to the growth of a merchant class. The Sumerians organized a complex mythology based on the relationships among the various local gods of the temple towns. In Sumerian religion, the most important gods were seen as human forms of natural forces--sky, sun, earth, water, and storm. These gods, each originally associated with a particular city, were worshiped not only in the great temples but also in small shrines in family homes. Warfare between cities eventually led to the rise of kings, called lugals, whose authority replaced that of city-state rulers. Sumeria became a more unified state, with a common culture and a centralized government. This led to the establishment of a bureaucracy and an army. By 2375 BC, most of Sumer was united under one king, Lugalzaggisi of Umma.

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