An Introduction to the Sumerian Civilization

About 6000 years ago, a civilization possessing a technology so advanced at the time that it seemed alien suddenly sprouted in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, part of the so-called “Fertile Crescent.”

The early Greeks were the first to call this area Mesopotamia, which means “land between rivers.” These people (we know them today as Sumerians) called themselves sag-giga, the “black-headed people,” and they called their lands ki-en-gir. The Akkadians, however, referred to these people as Shumer (which may actually refer to the language); the Bible refers to this region as Shinar. The area is today found in southeastern Iraq.

The events that took place there are considered as among the most crucial events in human history. The Sumerians, in just a short time after settling in Mesopotamia, developed a very sophisticated system of irrigation and agriculture. The irrigation system took full advantage of the waters of the two rivers, which resulted in the significant increase of their agricultural yields. The Sumerians then built magnificent cities, advanced governing laws, and invented a written language. Where did these people come from?

Unfortunately, historians are uncertain on the Sumerians’ origin. Some archaeologists maintain that the Sumerians’ origin is from lands northeast of Mesopotamia, while others say they are really from Anatolia. Indeed, no one is really quite sure where these people originally came from. When the Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia, there were already people living there (the Ubaidians), but they were quickly supplanted by the newcomers.

Ancient Sumerians invented the wheel, probably while spinning clay to make potteries on a simple wheel. Eventually, the wheel was used for transport, on carts pulled by donkeys. Later on, it was used for war chariots. They also invented a system of mathematics based on the number 60. We still divide the hour by 60 minutes, and the minutes by 60 seconds. The idea of dividing the circle by 360 degrees is also from them, as well as the division of day into 24 hours, and of the year into twelve months. Archaeologists found evidence that Sumerians developed writing as early as 3500-3000 BC. The Sumerians’ early form of writing was made up of pictures. The pictures were later on simplified, with symbols being used to represent sounds. This style of writing is known today as cuneiform, which is from the Latin word cuneus (wedge).

The Sumerians also seem to have developed one of the first monarchial systems of government. The early Sumerian states, which are the first states in human history, were ruled by a type of priest-king. Their government was actually a combination of monarchy and democracy. Elected officials in the Assembly also ruled the people: kings had to consult the Assembly in matters of state. Laws that were written down during Babylonian times were actually laws created by ancient Sumerians.

The Sumerians had twelve city-states, each with their own ruler, and with their own temple. One city, Ur, contained around 24,000 inhabitants. These city-states were surrounded by walls, which included nearby lands and villages. The central structure of the city is the temple, called ziggurats.

The Sumerians were polytheistic; that is, they worshipped many gods, including goddesses. Major deities were Enki, who put order to the universe, and Inanna (later known as Ishtar), the “Queen of Heaven.”

The society of the Sumerians had three classes: the upper class, which was made up of the nobility, priests, government officials, and warriors; the freemen, made up of merchants, traders, and artisans; and the lower class, made up of serfs and slaves. Women can own property, but they did not have the same rights as the men. A husband can divorce his wife for any reason, but a wife cannot initiate divorce proceedings on her own. However, women played a vital role in these ancient kingdoms. Their society was matriarchal, and women were highly respected.

At the start of every year, the goddess Inanna must enact a sacred “ritual marriage” with the ruler to ensure a bountiful harvest for the coming year. The goddess was represented by a priestess in this “marriage” with the king.

Other Sumerian inventions are the sailboat, frying pans, razors, cosmetic sets, pottery, and the plow. Sumerians also created a lunar calendar based on the lunar month and even mapped the stars into constellations, which later became the zodiac. These people also established the first formal schools.

There were many skilled Sumerian artisans. They made well-designed jewelry from gold and precious stones, furniture, and potteries. They also created colorful mosaics in intricate and beautiful patterns using bits of painted clay. Sumerians also used musical instruments like harp, reed pipes, drums, and lyres.

The modern world learned of the existence of Sumer through references in the literature of ancient civilizations; these literature speak of an even older civilization, which turned out to be that of the Sumerians’. Excavations in 1842 to 1854 in various places in Mesopotamia led to the discovery of this remarkable people and their achievements.

Mildred K. Pearson

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