Different civilizations throughout human history have impacted our modern-day society but none as much as the Sumerians. Sumeria was the first known major society and is credited with the firsts of many things including: the wheel, modern city structure, irrigation and agriculture, law, government, writing, business transactions (particularly bookkeeping), trading, religion, cosmology and origin myths. (Kramer)
The start of the Sumerian civilization is unclear, just like many things in history. What we do know is that they appeared around 10,000 BCE (Mark) in the fertile crescent between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers. They were Indo European with many different people making up a whole society. They had a few important things in common though among the cities like beliefs and according to their myths in the beginning, gods ruled over the Earth.
When they came here, they saw that a lot of work needed to be done. Anu was the god of gods, and he agreed that the labor was too great, and his son, Enki, brought the idea to create the man to bear that labor and with help from Ninki he did that. These laborers lived believing that they were here only for the benefit of the gods and that those gods controlled every aspect of their lives (Sitchin).
What a lot of people don’t know is that the Sumerian civilization managed to expand due to a variety of factors. Not only was this civilization very smart, but at the same time it was also nestled in a very advantageous area. The major Sumerian cities were located right along the rich river valley. Since many regions nearby were full of deserts and barren land, having a river and farmland managed to help make them prosperous.
Sumerians are also known for being one of the main important cultures mainly because they were innovators. They used their location to start trading and traveling. The early settlers had a bit of a challenge because they were dealing with floods during late spring, but they learned how to control it with the use of dikes. They also created a unique system designed to irrigate the crops and fields naturally (Kramer). This system was later used by the Greeks, Romans and is currently used by modern society.
First settlements and cities
One of the first settlements that the Sumerian civilization created was Ur, but others like Uruk, Eridu, Lagash, Nippur, and Kish appeared, and they managed to grow very fast. This fast growth allowed them to become independent cities as well as city-states after a few years. Uruk is the first known major metropolis in history (Kramer).
We don’t know the Sumerian capital because the center of power shifted from time to time. Uruk, Erech, Lagash, and Ur were the most important cities and since they became city-states later, it was extremely hard to pinpoint power to a certain location. Each of these large cities played a major role when it came to the expansion of the Sumerian civilization and taking it to new heights.
Rise to Power
Between 5000 and 3000 BCE, the agricultural communities started to grow, and they soon formed cities. They were mostly found near the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. It was between 2900 and 2400 when the peak of the civilization appeared, and that was due to multiple factors like manufacturing, food production and trade routes.
All these things were very attractive to many of the neighboring countries and kingdoms and as you can imagine, the speedy and expansive growth did become a problem for them. When you grow so large, there will always be people that vie for power and want to acquire it from you.
In order to make sure that every item is recorded and traded properly, many of the tradesmen wanted to create written records of their products. Having a hard copy for those traded items was one of the first signs of accounting in ancient times (Kramer). Traders had to rely on that information, otherwise they would not be able to handle and manage every transaction and item of inventory in a proper manner, something that was extremely hard to do at that time.
They began by using Sumerian writing for record keeping. As time went by, they also started writing contracts to show where the products came from and these contracts were used as proof that they purchased and sold items. This record keeping evolved into Cuneiform, done with a stylus, stamps and symbols on clay tablets (Kramer).
This was one of the earliest signs of a judicial system and it’s an approach that’s pretty much mandatory today. It’s amazing to see that the Sumerian civilization had one of the earliest legal systems in place, albeit in a very rudimentary manner. Nonetheless, every piece of information was there, they just had to track contracts and see whether they were paid or not.
The Sumerian government evolved over time, at first every city in Sumer had its own council of elders, the council being ran by a Lugal, a war leader. In time Lugals became kings and they created their own dynasties. The Sumerian civilization was the first one to establish a democratic system. They allowed people to elect a representative assembly. There were two houses; a senate with important citizens and a lower house created by those that had military duty.
Another important aspect here is that some of the clay tablets from the Sumerian times suggest that they had courts of justice in which people had a fair trial. One of the tablets also records one of the oldest crime trials in human history (Kramer).
Everything that was related to food distribution and production was controlled via the temple. As time went by a noble class arose, and this was due to land ownership, manufacturing, trade control, material wealth and other factors.
They were also some of the first to create amazing clay pottery pieces. Only a few survive nowadays, but they are masterfully created, a testament to the craftsmanship that pottery creators achieved at that ancient time. The Sumerians are also some of the first to use boats, especially round boats with hide added over a wooden framework.
Agriculture and Economy
As we mentioned above, the Sumerian civilization had some great lands to work with, but the challenge for them was that there was flooding from time to time. They developed an agricultural and farming system utilizing dikes and levees, that kept water aside while also having a proper irrigation system that would eventually bring in the water to plants, but in a controlled manner. That was hard to do in those ancient times, but they did invent a great irrigation system, something that’s still used in many places all over the world, albeit in a more modern version.
Sumerians farmed a wide variety of crops, such as turnips, dates, peas, barley, wheat and many other foods. They even raised cattle, fish, sheep and hunted some wildfowl along the river. As you can imagine, there was lots of food and it was one of the reasons why the civilization grew so much. Uruk was said to have over 80,000 people at it’s peak (Mark).
In the beginning they didn’t have copper to create tools, but they did search for it in the mountains to the North and East of their location with success. The Sumerians didn’t learn how to acquire copper from ore until 4000 BCE. By 3500 BCE they had excelled on to making bronze. It was only a matter of time until they would be able to manufacture various items.
They started to create clothes from local materials, not to mention they used stone, copper, and timber to manufacture items that they would eventually sell to the neighboring states. Merchants traveled up the two rivers to the Mediterranean Coast and Anatolia to trade these items.
Trading and Ports
Most tradesmen resided in large cities like Ur, Uruk and Eridu. Some suggest that these cities had up to 80,000 people, so they would be very similar to a metropolis these days. One of the most interesting things about all of this is that the Sumerians used the sea and rivers to get to as many locations as possible.
They were some of the first people in the world that started to travel by water to trade. As you already know, many of these things remain active and normal even these days, a testament to the amazing and lasting impact that they have had on our modern-day society.
Social Norms, Religion and Cosmology
One thing to know about the Sumerian people is that they worshiped hundreds of different gods. Each city had its own deity. They did have principal gods that all of them worshiped, but they also had a single god per city too. One thing to note is that Sumerians didn’t believe in afterlife and they were realistic about human limits. This is something that many religions are still following up to this date.
The center and soul of every city was the temple to the patron god, which was said to protect farmers and the entire city. Aside from slaves, the temple staff farmed some of the lands too, there were rents and offerings paid to the temple operation and those supported the poor.
Sumerians also were very obsessed with studying cosmology. They saw the universe as being one closed dome where we have a primordial sea. Under the earth where was a freshwater ocean named Abzu and the underworld.
Here’s where things get interesting, many of the stories and great epic content created by the Sumerian civilization resides in Adam and Eve, Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld as well as many other poetic works (Mark). These works are epic, and it goes to show just how expressive the society was at that time and how many great and progressive ideas they brought to the table. Some of the stories that are recorded in the older Hebrew Bible are very similar to the Sumerian mythology as well. Noah’s Ark is very similar to the Sumerian deluge myth, for example.
Modern Day Influences
As you can see, we are already using many of the systems that were created thousands of years ago by the Sumerian people. It’s rather surreal to see that our irrigation systems, modern law, economy and even the government system we use right now are inspired by what the Sumerian civilization did thousands and thousands of years ago.
We are all taught to believe that Greek and Roman civilizations were the ones that had a very modern society, but the Sumerian civilization was well before them, and they were true innovators for their time period and every time following. Of course, they did end up with numerous wars and military problems. Many of these led to their downfall but during its peak the Sumerian civilization spanned over hundreds of thousands of people. Some of the larger cities were enormous for that time.
With so many firsts accomplished by the Sumerians, they are indeed one of the most important civilizations of all time and certainly one of the most powerful ones as well. Our modern society still has a lot of evidence from the Sumerian systems and ideas, a clear indication that this was indeed the beginning!
Kramer, Noah S. “History Begins at Sumer.” Kramer, Noah S. History Begins at Sumer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1956. 388. Book.
Mark, Joshua J. “Mesopotamia.” 14 March 2018. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Article. 4 April 2019.
Sitchin, Zecharia. “The Lost Book of Enki.” Stichin, Zecharia. The Lost Book of Enki; Memoires and Prophecies of an Extraterrestial God. Rochester, Vermont: Bear and Company, 2002. 264.