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Mesopotamia: The First Civilization
Most accept the view that,
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.
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.
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
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.
As a result, farming advanced from the cultivation of small plots to the tilling of extensive fields.
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.
A pivoted clay disk heavy enough
to revolve of its own momentum, the potter’s wheel has been called
"the first really mechanical device."
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 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
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.
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.
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.
it is probable that the example of Sumerian writing stimulated the
Egyptians to develop a script of their own.
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
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.
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
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.
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,
The Sumerian Achievement
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:
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
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.
not surprising, however, that the achievement which the Sumerians
themselves admired most was the city itself.
tablets on which they wrote were very durable when baked.
Archaeologists have dug up many thousands of them - some dated
earlier than 3000 BC.
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.
The cuneiform system of writing
was adopted by many other peoples of the Near East, including the
Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians.
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 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
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.
Babylonians and Assyrians adapted cuneiform for their own Semitic
languages and spread its use to neighboring Syria, Anatolia,
Armenia, and Iran.
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
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 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.
By 2375 BC, most of Sumer was united under one king,
Lugalzaggisi of Umma.
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 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.
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.
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 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
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:
Finally, when the temple was finished, Gudea declared proudly:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Immortal after his escape from the flood, Utnapishtim was also the wise man who told Gilgamesh where to find
the youth-restoring plant.
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.
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
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.
private estates were worked by "clients" whose status resembled that
of the dependents of the temples.
Urukagina’s inscriptions describe his many reforms and conclude:
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:
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.
Their writing, their business organization,
their scientific knowledge, and their mythology and law were spread
westward by the Babylonians and Assyrians.
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,
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.
The French excavations at Lagash were conducted:
The excavations at Nippur were conducted (1889-1900) by:
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 (watch multimedia presentation HERE):
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
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.
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
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.
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.
His outstanding achievements included a victory over
the country of Elam and the construction at Nippur of the
Enlil, the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon. Nippur gradually
became the spiritual and cultural center of Sumer.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Sumerian civilization, however, was adopted almost in its entirety by Babylonia.