Sumer, Mesopotamia

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal, 2500 BCE
An ancient Sumerian cylinder seal dating to about 2,500 BCE. Ze'ev Barkan /

Perhaps as earlly as 5500 BCE, a civilization arose along the riverbanks of Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq and Kuwait - a civilization known to its neighbors as Sumer.  It would grow in power and prestige for thousands of years, based on the relatively new technology known as agriculture, accomplished here using elaborate irrigation canals and dams.  The Sumerian civilization survived and dominated much of the southern Fertile Crescent until about 1700 BCE, when Babylonia arose under its great leader Hammurabi, and took control of the region.

Origins of Sumer:

The first settlers in southern Mesopotamia, who may or may not have been the ancestors of the Sumerians, are known as the Ubaid people or the Proto-Euphrateans (named for the Euphrates River).  They were growing crops before 5000 BCE, and used other stone and clay technologies such as hoes, axes, knives, bricks, statues, and pottery.  

We don't know whether the Ubaid or Proto-Euphratean cultures gradually evolved into the Sumerian culture, or if the Sumerians actually moved into the area from elsewhere.  In either case, legend tells us that the founder of the first Sumerian city, Kish, was a king called Etana.  Etana united all of the peoples of the region, according to the stories, sometime between about 3000 and 2500 BCE.  Of course, the stories also say that Etana ruled for 1,560 years, and that he flew to heaven on the back of an eagle, so they are not the most factual of sources.

The Glory Years:

Whatever their origins, solid archaeological evidence proves that the Sumerians invented a number of important items and ideas (although some were separately developed in China, India, or elsewhere as well).  These inventions include the wheel, writing, irrigation systems, and sailing boats.


The Sumerians also were among the first people to live in large, complex cities.  Great cities of Sumer included Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Larsa, Isin, Lagash, Nippur, and Kish.  All of these names are actually taken from the Ubaid language, however, rather than Sumerian, indicating that they were founded as small villages long before they developed into great cities.

Within the cities, people pursued specialized trades such as leatherwork, metalwork, pottery, masonry, and weaving.  The rich floodplain of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers provided enough food to support large cities full of non-agricultural workers.  Another Sumerian innovation remains with us today; their mathematical system was based not on 10 but on 60, so they were the first to divide the hour into 60 minutes and the minute into 60 seconds.  They also considered the night and the day each to be 12 hours long.

Sumerian merchants and traders participated in an amazingly far-flung trade network.  Items found in the ruins of Sumerian citie include beads from Bahrain, obsidian from what is now Turkey, lapis lazuli stones from Afghanistan, and tree resin from Mozambique, in southeast Africa.  The famous Sumerian work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, mentions the famed cedar wood of Lebanon as a very desirable trade good.

Complex trade requires complex record-keeping.  As a result, Sumerian writing evolved from pictograms into the much more efficient cuneiform system, in which a wedge-shaped stylus is pressed into wet clay in different combinations to form syllables.  Thousands of examples of clay tablets survive, covered with cuneiform writing.  However, unlike neighboring languages which were from the Semitic family, Sumerian is a language isolate - it has no known liguistic relatives.  This has made interpreting the cuneiform tablets a serious challenge for archaeologists and linguists.

Fall of the Sumerians:

During the reign of Shulgi of Ur, 2029 - 1982 BCE, the Sumerians built a giant border wall 250 kilometers (155 miles) long.  It was supposed to keep the Semitic barbarian tribes, known as the Amorites, out of Sumer.

 As with the Great Wall of China and other such attempts, this tactic did not work for long.

In 1750 BCE, the Amorite armies of Elam, a nearby city-state, breached the Sumerian wall and conquered Ur.  They captured the Sumerian king and replaced him with a Semitic ruler.  Gradually, the Semitic culture and languages swamped the older Sumerian tradition in Mesopotamia.  

Among the Amorites who lived in Ur after its fall was a man called Abraham, who left the city and moved south to found the land of Canaan.  Abraham would become the original patriarch of the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim faiths.