Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The History of Ancient Sumer

Part 2


The Sumerian temple was a small brick house that the god was supposed to visit periodically. It was ornamented so as to recall the reed houses built by the earliest Sumerians in the valley. This house, however, was set on a brick platform, which became larger and taller as time progressed until the platform at Ur (built around 2100 BC) was 150 by 200 feet (45 by 60 meters) and 75 feet (23 meters) high. These Mesopotamian temple platforms are called ziggurats, a word derived from the Assyrian ziqquratu, meaning "high." They were symbols in themselves; the ziggurat at Ur was planted with trees to make it represent a mountain. There the god visited Earth, and the priests climbed to its top to worship. The ziggurat continued as the essential temple form of Mesopotamia during the later Assyrian and Babylonian eras. In these later times it became taller and more towerlike, perhaps with a spiral path leading up to the temple at the top. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the main temple of Babylon, the famous Tower of Babel, was such a tower divided into seven diminishing stages, each a different color: white, black, purple, blue, orange, silver, and gold.

Each Sumerian city rose up around the shrine of a local god. As a reflection of a city’s wealth, its temple became an elaborate structure. The temple buildings stood on a spacious raised platform reached by staircases and ramps. From the platform rose the temple tower, called a ziggurat (holy mountain), with a circular staircase or ramp around the outside. On the temple grounds were quarters for priests, officials, accountants, musicians, and singers; treasure chambers; storehouses for grain, tools, and weapons; and workshops for bakers, pottery makers, brewers, leatherworkers, spinners and weavers, and jewelers. There were also pens for keeping the sheep and goats that were destined for sacrifice to the temple god. Horses and camels were still unknown, but sheep, goats, oxen, donkeys, and dogs had been domesticated. The plow had been invented, and the wheel, made from a solid piece of wood, was used for carts and for shaping pottery. Oxen pulled the carts and plows; donkeys served as pack animals. Bulky goods were moved by boat on the rivers and canals. The boats were usually hauled from the banks, but sails also were in use. Before 3000 BC the Sumerians had learned to make tools and weapons by smelting copper with tin to make bronze, a much harder metal than copper alone. Mud, clay, and reeds were the only materials the Sumerians had in abundance. Trade was therefore necessary to supply the city workers with materials. Merchants went out in overland caravans or in ships to exchange the products of Sumerian industry for wood, stone, and metals. There are indications that Sumerian sailing vessels even reached the valley of the Indus River in India. The chief route, however, was around the Fertile Crescent, between the Arabian Desert and the northern mountains. This route led up the valley of the two rivers, westward to Syria, and down the Mediterranean coast.

The Physical Appearance of the Sumerian City

All of the Sumerian cities were built beside rivers, either on the Tigris or Euphrates or on one of their tributaries. The city rose, inside its brown brick walls, amid well-watered gardens and pastures won from the swamps. In all directions, the high levees of the irrigation canals led to grain and vegetable fields. The trading class lived and worked in the harbor area, where the river boats brought such goods as stone, copper, and timber from the north. Most citizens lived within the walls in small, one-story houses constructed along narrow alleyways, although the more elaborate homes were colonnaded and built around an inner courtyard. By far the most impressive section of the city was the temple compound, which was surrounded by its own wall. Here were the workshops and homes of large numbers of temple craftsmen, such as gwiers, jewelers, carpenters, and weavers, the offices and schoolrooms of the scribes, and the commercial and legal offices of the bureaucrat-priests.

The king’s palace and graveyard was located near the temple; and, as Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur proved, an increasingly lavish form of ceremonial life was organized here as the kings gained greater control over the city’s surplus. Woolley himself de- scribed the growing horror his archaeological party felt as they slowly un- covered the royal graves, because they discovered not only elaborate golden daggers, headdresses of gold, lapis lazuli and camelian, fantastically worked heads of bulls, harps and lyres, sledges and chariots, but also lines of elegantly costumed skeletons laid carefully in rows. In a gigantic mass suicide, probably through the drinking of a drug, the king’s courtiers and some of his soldiers had gone to their deaths with their master. The most elaborate of the Sumerian buildings was the temple or ziggurat. Normally a huge platform or terrace was first constructed, upon which the temple could be built; but in later times, as the terraces grew to be like artificial mountains, they were built in huge steps or levels mounted by an elaborate stairway clearly symbolizing the ascent toward heaven. The purpose of these ziggurats is still unclear. We do know that they were not burial chambers like the pyramids of Egypt , nor were they for human sacrifice like the pyramids of Aztec Mexico. It has been suggested that they were a nostalgic re-creation of the mountains the original settlers had left, or an at- tempt to raise the city’s god above the material life of the streets below, or an attempt to reach closer to heaven. We do know that the creation of a temple was regarded as a god-imposed task for every ruler of any ambition. Gudea, ruler of Lagash about 2000 B.C., built fifteen large temples with the aid of the gods:

"Inscrutable as the sky, the wisdom of the Lord, of Ningirsu, the son of Enlil, will soothe thee," he was told. "He will reveal to thee the plan of His temple, and the Warrior whose decrees are great will build it for thee." The task proved enormous.

[Gudea] purified the holy city and encircled it with fires .... He collected clay in a very pure place; in a pure place he made with it the brick and put the brick into the mold. He followed the rites in all their splendor: he purified the foundations of the temple, surrounded it with fires, anointed the platform with an aromatic balm...

Gudea, the great en-priest of Ningirsu, made a path in the Cedar mountains which nobody had entered before; he cut its cedars with great axes. . . . Like giant snakes, cedars were floating down the water....

In the quarries which nobody had entered before, Gudea, the great en- priest of Ningirsu, made a path, and then the stones were delivered in large blocks.... Many other precious metals were carried to the ensi. From the Copper mountain of Kimash ... its copper was mined in clusters; gold was delivered from its mountains as dust .... For Gudea, they mined silver from its mountains, delivered red stone from Aeluhha in great amount ....

Finally, when the temple was finished, Gudea declared proudly:
"Respect for the temple pervades the country; the fear of it fills the strangers; the brilliance of the Eninnu enfolds the universe like a mantle."

Stories of Gods and Heroes

As the people in a city-state became familiar with the gods of other cities, they worked out relationships between them, just as the Greeks and Romans did in their myths centuries later. Sometimes two or more gods came to be viewed as one. Eventually a ranking order developed among the gods. Anu, a sky god who originally had been the city god of Uruk, came to be regarded as the greatest of them all--the god of the heavens. His closest rival was the storm god of the air, Enlil of Nippur. The great gods were worshiped in the temples. Each family had little clay figures of its own household gods and small houses or wall niches for them. The Sumerians believed that their ancestors had created the ground they lived on by separating it from the water. According to their creation myth, the world was once watery chaos. The mother of Chaos was Tiamat, an immense dragon. When the gods appeared to bring order out of Chaos, Tiamat created an army of dragons. Enlil called the winds to his aid. Tiamat came forward, her mouth wide open. Enlil pushed the winds inside her and she swelled up so that she could not move. Then Enlil split her body open. He laid half of the body flat to form the Earth, with the other half arched over it to form the sky. The gods then beheaded Tiamat’s husband and created mankind from his blood, mixed with clay. The longest story is the Gilgamesh epic, one of the outstanding works of ancient literature. The superhero Gilgamesh originally appeared in Sumerian mythology as a legendary king of Uruk. A long Babylonian poem includes an account of his journey to the bottom of the sea to obtain the plant of life. As he stopped to bathe at a spring on the way home, a hungry snake snatched the plant. When Gilgamesh saw the creature cast off its old skin to become young again, it seemed to him a sign that old age was the fate of humans. Another searcher for eternal life was Adapa, a fisherman who gained wisdom from Ea, the god of water. The other gods were jealous of his knowledge and called him to heaven. Ea warned him not to drink or eat while there. Anu offered him the water of life and the bread of life because he thought that, since Adapa already knew too much, he might as well be a god. Adapa, however, refused and went back to Earth to die, thus losing for himself and for mankind the gift of immortal life. These legends somewhat resemble the Bible story of Adam and Eve. It is highly probable, in fact, that the ancient legends and myths of Mesopotamia supplied material that was reworked by the biblical authors. It was during the Sumerian era that a great flood overwhelmed Mesopotamia. So great was this flood that stories about it worked their way into several ancient literatures. The Sumerian counterpart of Noah was Ziusudra, and from him was developed the Babylonian figure Utnapishtim, whose story of the flood was related in the ’Epic of Gilgamesh’. Immortal after his escape from the flood, Utnapishtim was also the wise man who told Gilgamesh where to find the youth-restoring plant.

The Old Sumerian Period, c. 2800-2300 B.C.

By 2800 B.C., the Sumerian cities had emerged into the light of history. This first historical age, called the Old Sumerian (or Early Dynastic) period, was characterized by incessant warfare as each city sought to protect or enlarge its land and water rights. Each city-state was a theocracy, for the chief local god was believed to be the real sovereign. The god’s earthly representative was the ensi, the high priest and city governor, who acted as the god’s steward in both religious and secular functions. Though endowed with divine right by virtue of being the human agent of the god, the ensi was not considered divine. Early Sumerian society was highly collectivized, with the temples of the city god and subordinate deities assuming a central role. "Each temple owned lands which formed the estate of its divine owners. Each citizen belonged to one of the temples, and the whole of a temple community - the officials and priests, herdsmen and fishermen, gardeners, craftsmen, stonecutters, merchants, and even slaves - was referred to as ’the people of the god X.’" That part of the temple land called ’common’ was worked by all members of the community, while the remaining land was divided among the citizens for their support at a rental of from one third to one sixth of the crop. Priests and temple administrators, however, held rent-free lands. In addition to the temples lands, a considerable part of a city’s territory originally consisted of land collectively owned by clans, kinship groups comprising a number of extended families. By 2600 B.C., these clan lands were becoming the private property of great landowners called lugals (literally "great men"). Deeds of sale record the transfer of clan lands to private owners in return for substantial payments in copper to a few clan leaders and insignificant grants of food to the remaining clan members. These private estates were worked by "clients" whose status resembled that of the dependents of the temples. In time, priests, administrators, and ensis became venal, usurping property and oppressing the common people. This frequently led to the rise of despots who came to power on a wave of popular discontent. Since these despots were usually lugals, lugal became a political title and is generally translated as "king." The Sumerian lugals made the general welfare their major concern. Best known is Urukagina, who declared himself lugal of Lagash near the end of the Old Sumerian period and ended the rule of priests and "powerful men," each of whom, he claimed, was guilty of acting "for his own benefit." Urukagina’s inscriptions describe his many reforms and conclude:
"He freed the inhabitants of Lagash from usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure (of their property and persons). He established freedom. The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful man."

The Fall of the Sumerian Cities

Around 2000 B.C. both Sumer and Akkad were attacked by barbarian invaders. The Amorites from Syria seized control in Akkad , and built a powerful new state around the city of Babylon . The Elamites from Iran took the city of Ur , sacked it, and burnt it down. When Ur was later rebuilt under Babylonian rule, its inhabitants remembered with terror the Elamite destruction of their beloved city:
0 Father Nanna, that city into ruins was made ...Its people, not potsherds, filled its sides; Its walls were breached; the people groan. In its lofty gates, where they were wont to promenade, dead bodies were lying about; in its boulevards, where the feasts were celebrated, scattered they lay. In all its streets, where they were wont to promenade, dead bodies were lying about; In its places, where the festivities of the land took place, the people lay in heaps ... Ur -its weak and its strong perished through hunger; Mothers and fathers who did not leave their houses were overcome by fire; The young, lying on their mothers’ laps, like fish were carried off by the waters; In the city the wife was abandoned, the son was abandoned, the possessions were scattered about...0 Nanna, Ur has been destroyed, its people have been dispersed.

The Last of the Sumerians

Within a few centuries the Sumerians had built up a society based in 12 city-states: Kish, Uruk (in the Bible, Erech), Ur, Sippar, Akshak, Larak, Nippur, Adab, Umma, Lagash, Bad-tibira, and Larsa. According to one of the earliest historical documents, the Sumerian King List, eight kings of Sumer reigned before the famous flood. Afterwards various city-states by turns became the temporary seat of power until about 2800 BC, when they were united under the rule of one king--Etana of Kish. After Etana, the city-states vied for domination; this weakened the Sumerians, and they were ripe for conquest--first by Elamites, then by Akkadians. The Sumerians had never been very warlike, and they had only a citizen army, called to arms in time of danger. In about 2340 BC King Sargon of Akkad conquered them and went on to build an empire that stretched westward to the Mediterranean Sea. The empire, though short-lived, fostered art and literature. Led by Ur, the Sumerians again spread their rule far westward. During Ur’s supremacy (about 2150 to 2050 BC) Sumerian culture reached its highest development. Shortly thereafter the cities lost their independence forever, and gradually the Sumerians completely disappeared as a people. Their language, however, lived on as the language of culture. Their writing, their business organization, their scientific knowledge, and their mythology and law were spread westward by the Babylonians and Assyrians


Before the mid-19th century AD, the existence of the Sumerian people and language was not suspected. The first major excavations leading to the discovery of Sumer were conducted (1842-1854) at Assyrian sites such as Nineveh, Dur Sharrukin, and Calah by the French archaeologists Paul Émile Botta and Victor Place; the British archaeologists Sir Austen Henry Layard and Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson; and the Iraqi archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam. Thousands of tablets and inscriptions dating from the 1st millennium bc, the vast majority written in Akkadian, were uncovered. Thus, scholars assumed at first that all Mesopotamian cuneiform inscriptions were in the Akkadian language. Rawlinson and the Irish clergyman Edward Hincks made a study of the inscriptions, however, and discovered that some were in a non-Semitic language. In 1869 the French archaeologist Jules Oppert suggested that the name Sumerian, from the royal title King of Sumer and Akkad appearing in numerous inscriptions, be applied to the language. In the late 19th century, a series of excavations was undertaken at Lagash by French archaeologists working under the direction of the Louvre and at Nippur by Americans under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. The French excavations at Lagash were conducted:
· from 1877 to 1900 by Ernest de Sarzec
· from 1903 to 1909 by Gaston Cros
· from 1929 to 1931 by Henri de Genouillac
· from 1931 to 1933 by André Parrot
The excavations at Nippur were conducted (1889-1900) by:
· John Punnett Peters
· John Henry Haynes
· Hermann Vollrat Hilprecht
Since 1948, excavations have been conducted by archaeologists working under the direction of the University of Pennsylvania, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and the American Schools of Oriental Research (after 1957 under the sole direction of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago). Other Sumerian excavations have been conducted at Kish
· Adab
· Erech
· Eridu
· Eshnunna
· Jemdet Nasr
· Shuruppak
· Tell al-Ubaid
· Tutub
· Ur
The canalled city of Kish, which was situated 13 km (8 mi) east of Babylon on the Euphrates River, is known to have been one of the most important cities of Sumer. Extensive excavations since 1922 have uncovered an invaluable sequence of pottery. Archaeologists also unearthed a temple of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus (r. 556-539 BC) and the palace of Sargon of Akkad, ruins that date from the 3rd millennium BC to about 550 BC.

A General History

During the 5th millennium BC a people known as the Ubaidians established settlements in the region known later as Sumer; these settlements gradually developed into the chief Sumerian cities, namely Adab, Eridu, Isin, Kish, Kullab, Lagash, Larsa, Nippur, and Ur. Several centuries later, as the Ubaidian settlers prospered, Semites from Syrian and Arabian deserts began to infiltrate, both as peaceful immigrants and as raiders in quest of booty. After about 3250 BC, another people migrated from its homeland, located probably northeast of Mesopotamia, and began to intermarry with the native population. The newcomers, who became known as Sumerians, spoke an agglutinative language unrelated apparently to any other known language. In the centuries that followed the immigration of the Sumerians, the country grew rich and powerful. Art and architecture, crafts, and religious and ethical thought flourished. The Sumerian language became the prevailing speech of the land, and the people here developed the cuneiform script, a system of writing on clay. This script was to become the basic means of written communication throughout the Middle East for about 2000 years. The first Sumerian ruler of historical record, Etana, king of Kish (flourished about 2800 BC), was described in a document written centuries later as the "man who stabilized all the lands." Shortly after his reign ended, a king named Meskiaggasher founded a rival dynasty at Erech (Uruk), far to the south of Kish. Meskiaggasher, who won control of the region extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Zagros Mountains, was succeeded by his son Enmerkar (flourished about 2750 BC). The latter’s reign was notable for an expedition against Aratta, a city-state far to the northeast of Mesopotamia. Enmerkar was succeeded by Lugalbanda, one of his military leaders. The exploits and conquests of Enmerkar and Lugalbanda form the subject of a cycle of epic tales constituting the most important source of information on early Sumerian history. At the end of Lugalbanda’s reign, Enmebaragesi (flourished about 2700 BC), a king of the Etana dynasty at Kish, became the leading ruler of Sumer. His outstanding achievements included a victory over the country of Elam and the construction at Nippur of the Temple of Enlil, the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon. Nippur gradually became the spiritual and cultural center of Sumer. Enmebaragesi’s son Agga (probably died before 2650 BC), the last ruler of the Etana dynasty, was defeated by Mesanepada, king of Ur (fl. about 2670 BC), who founded the so-called 1st Dynasty of Ur and made Ur the capital of Sumer. Soon after the death of Mesanepada, the city of Erech achieved a position of political prominence under the leadership of Gilgamesh (flourished about 2700-2650 BC), whose deeds are celebrated in stories and legends. Sometime before the 25th century bc the Sumerian Empire, under the leadership of Lugalanemundu of Adab (flourished about 2525-2500 BC), was extended from the Zagros to the Taurus mountains and from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Subsequently the empire was ruled by Mesilim (fl. about 2500 BC), king of Kish. By the end of his reign, Sumer had begun to decline. The Sumerian city-states engaged in constant internecine struggle, exhausting their military resources. Eannatum (fl. about 2425 BC), one of the rulers of Lagash, succeeded in extending his rule throughout Sumer and some of the neighboring lands. His success, however, was short-lived. The last of his successors, Uruinimgina (fl. about 2365 BC), who was noteworthy for instituting many social reforms, was defeated by Lugalzagesi (reigned about 2370-2347 BC), the governor of the neighboring city-state of Umma. Thereafter, for about 20 years, Lugalzagesi was the most powerful ruler in the Middle East. By the 23rd century BC the power of the Sumerians had declined to such an extent that they could no longer defend themselves against foreign invasion. The Semitic ruler Sargon I (reigned about 2335-2279 BC), called The Great, succeeded in conquering the entire country. Sargon founded a new capital, called Agade, in the far north of Sumer and made it the richest and most powerful city in the world. The people of northern Sumer and the conquering invaders, fusing gradually, became known ethnically and linguistically as Akkadians. The land of Sumer acquired the composite name Sumer and Akkad. The Akkadian dynasty lasted about a century. During the reign of Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin (r. about 2255-2218 BC), the Gutians, a belligerent people from the Zagros Mountains, sacked and destroyed the city of Agade. They then subjugated and laid waste the whole of Sumer. After several generations the Sumerians threw off the Gutian yoke. The city of Lagash again achieved prominence, particularly during the reign of Gudea (circa 2144-2124 BC), an extraordinarily pious and capable governor. Because numerous statues of Gudea have been recovered, he has become the Sumerian best known to the modern world. The Sumerians achieved complete independence from the Gutians when Utuhegal, king of Erech (reigned about 2120-2112 BC), won a decisive victory later celebrated in Sumerian literature. One of Utuhegal’s generals, Ur-Nammu (r. 2113-2095 BC), founded the 3rd Dynasty of Ur. In addition to being a successful military leader, he was also a social reformer and the originator of a law code that antedates that of the Babylonian king Hammurabi by about three centuries (see Hammurabi, Code of). Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi (r. 2095-2047 BC) was a successful soldier, a skillful diplomat, and a patron of literature. During his reign the schools and academies of the kingdom flourished. Before the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC the Amorites, Semitic nomads from the desert to the west of Sumer and Akkad, invaded the kingdom. They gradually became masters of such important cities as Isin and Larsa. The resultant widespread political disorder and confusion encouraged the Elamites to attack (circa 2004 BC) Ur and to take into captivity its last ruler, Ibbi-Sin (r. 2029-2004 BC). During the centuries following the fall of Ur bitter intercity struggle for the control of Sumer and Akkad occurred, first between Isin and Larsa and later between Larsa and Babylon. Hammurabi of Babylon defeated Rim-Sin of Larsa (r. about 1823-1763 BC) and became the sole ruler of Sumer and Akkad. This date probably marks the end of the Sumerian state. Sumerian civilization, however, was adopted almost in its entirety by Babylonia.

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