Early Sumerian Times Essay

This essay has a total of 3642 words and 14 pages.

Early Sumerian Times

Sumer may very well be the first civilization in the world (although long term settlements
at Jericho and Catal Huyuk predate Sumer and examples of writing from Egypt and the
Harappa, Indus valley sites may predate those from Sumer). From its beginnings as a
collection of farming villages around 5000 BC, through its conquest by Sargon of Agade
around 2370 BC and its final collapse under the Amorites around 2000 BC, the Sumerians
developed a religion and a society which influenced both their neighbors and their
conquerers. Sumerian cuneform, the earliest written language, was borrowed by the
Babylonians, who also took many of their religious beliefs. In fact, traces and parallels
of Sumerian myth can be found in Genesis.

Sumer was a collection of city states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what
is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had individual rulers, although as early as the
mid-fourth millenium BC the leader of the dominant city could have been considered the
king of the region. The history of Sumer tends to be divided into five periods. They are
the Uruk period, which saw the dominance of the city of that same name, the Jemdat Nasr
period, the Early Dynastic periods, the Agade period, and the Ur III period - the entire
span lasting from 3800 BC to around 2000 BC. In addition, there is evidence of the
Sumerians in the area both prior to the Uruk period and after the Ur III Dynastic period,
but relatively little is known about the former age and the latter time period is most
heavily dominated by the Babylonians.

The Uruk period, stretched from 3800 BC to 3200 BC. It is to this era that the Sumerian
King Lists ascribe the reigns of Dumuzi the shepherd, and the other ante-diluvian kings.
After his reign Dumuzi was worshiped as the god of the spring grains. This time saw an
enormous growth in urbanization such that Uruk probably had a population around 45,000 at
the period's end. It was easily the largest city in the area, although the older cities of
Eridu to the south and Kish to the north may have rivaled it. Irrigation improvements as
well as a supply of raw materials for craftsmen provided an impetus for this growth. In
fact, the city of An and Inanna also seems to have been at the heart of a trade network
which stretched from what is now southern Turkey to what is now eastern Iran. In addition
people were drawn to the city by the great temples there.

The Eanna of Uruk, a collection of temples dedicated to Inanna, was constructed at this
time and bore many mosaics and frescoes. These buildings served civic as well as religious
purposes, which was fitting as the en, or high priest, served as both the spiritual and
temporal leader. The temples were places where craftsmen would practice their trades and
where surplus food would be stored and distributed.

The Jemdat Nasr period lasted from 3200 BC to 2900 BC. It was not particularly remarkable
and most adequately described as an extenson and slowing down of the Uruk period. This is
the period during which the great flood is supposed to have taken place. The Sumerians'
account of the flood may have been based on a flooding of the Tigris, Euphrates, or both
rivers onto their already marshy country.

The Early Dynastic period ran from 2900 BC to 2370 BC and it is this period for which we
begin to have more reliable written accounts although some of the great kings of this era
later evolved mythic tales about them and were deified. Kingship moved about 100 miles
upriver and about 50 miles south of modern Bahgdad to the city of Kish. One of the earlier
kings in Kish was Etana who "stabilized all the lands" securing the First Dynasty of Kish
and establishing rule over Sumer and some of its neighbors. Etana was later believed by
the Babylonians to have rode to heaven on the back of a giant Eagle so that he could
receive the "plant of birth" from Ishtar (their version of Inanna) and thereby produce an

Meanwhile, in the south, the Dynasty of Erech was founded by Meskiaggasher, who, along
with his successors, was termed the "son of Utu", the sun-god. Following three other
kings, including another Dumuzi, the famous Gilgamesh took the throne of Erech around 2600
BC and became in volved in a power struggle for the region with the Kish Dynasts and with
Mesannepadda, the founder of the Dynasty of Ur. While Gilgamesh became a demi-god,
remembered in epic tales, it was Mesannepadda who was eventually victorious in this
three-way power struggle, taking the by then traditional title of "King of Kish".

Although the dynasties of Kish and Erech fell by the wayside, Ur could not retain a strong
hold over all of Sumer. The entire region was weakened by the struggle and individual
city-states continued more or less independent rule. The rulers of Lagash declared
themselves "Kings of Kish" around 2450 BC, but failed to seriously control the region,
facing several miltary challanges by the nearby Umma. Lugalzagesi, ensi or priest-king of
Umma from around 2360-2335 BC, razed Lagash, and conquered Sumer, declaring himself "king
of Erech and the Land". Unfortunately for him, all of this strife made Sumer ripe for
conquest by an outsider and Sargon of Agade seized that opportunity.

Sargon united both Sumer and the northern region of Akkad - from which Babylon would arise
about four hundred years later - not very far from Kish. Evidence is sketchy, but he may
have extended his realm from the Medeterranian Sea to the Indus River. This unity would
survive its founder by less than 40 years. He built the city of Agade and established an
enormous court there and he had a new temple erected in Nippur. Trade from across his new
empire and beyond swelled the city, making it the center of world culture for a brief

After Sargon's death, however, the empire was fraught with rebellion. Naram-Sin, Sargon's
grandson and third successor, quelled the rebellions through a series of military
successes, extending his realm. He declared himself 'King of the Four corners of the
World' and had himself deified. His divine powers must have failed him as the Guti, a
mountain people, razed Agade and deposed Naram-Sin, ending that dynasty.

After a few decades, the Guti presence became intollerable for the Sumerian leaders.
Utuhegal of Uruk/Erech rallied a coalition army and ousted them. One of his lieutenants,
Ur-Nammu, usurped his rule and established the third Ur dynasty around 2112 BC. He
consolidated his control by defeating a rival dynast in Lagash and soon gained control of
all of the Sumerian city-states. He established the earliest known recorded law-codes and
had constructed the great ziggurat of Ur, a kind of step-pyramid which stood over 60' tall
and more than 200' wide. For the next century the Sumerians were extremely prosperous, but
their society collapsed around 2000 B.C. under the invading Amorites. A couple of
city-states maintained their independence for a short while, but soon they and the rest of
the Sumerians were absorbed into the rising empire of the Babylonians.

Seated along the Euphrates River, Sumer had a thriving agriculture and trade industry.
Herds of sheep and goats and farms of grains and vegetables were held both by the temples
and private citizens. Ships plied up and down the river and throughout the Persian gulf,
carrying pottery and various processed goods and bringing back fruits and various raw
materials from across the region, including cedars from the Levant.

Sumer was one of the first literate civilizations leaving many records of business
transactions, and lessons from schools. They had strong armies, which with their chariots
and phalanxes held sway over their less civilized neighbors. Perhaps the most lasting
cultural remnants of the Sumerians though, can be found in their religion.

The religion of the ancient Sumerians has left its mark on the entire middle east. Not
only are its temples and ziggurats scattered about the region, but the literature,
cosmogony and rituals influenced their neighbors to such an extent that we can see echoes
of Sumer in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition today. From these ancient temples, and
to a greater extent, through cuneiform writings of hymns, myths, lamentations, and
incantations, archaeologists and mythographers afford the modern reader a glimpse into the
religious world of the Sumerians.

Each city housed a temple that was the seat of a major god in the Sumerian pantheon, as
the gods controlled the powerful forces which often dictated a human's fate. The city
leaders had a duty to please the town's patron deity, not only for the good will of that
god or goddess, but also for the good will of the other deities in the council of gods.
The priesthood initially held this role, and even after secular kings ascended to power,
the clergy still held great authority through the interpretation of omens and dreams. Many
of the secular kings claimed divine right; Sargon of Agade, for example claimed to have
been chosen by Ishtar/Inanna. (Crawford 1991: 21-24)

The rectangular central shrine of the temple, known as a 'cella,' had a brick altar or
offering table in front of a statue of the temple's deity. The cella was lined on its long
ends by many rooms for priests and priestesses. These mud-brick buildings were decorated
with cone geometrical mosaics, and the occasional fresco with human and animal figures.
These temple complexes eventually evolved into towering ziggurats. (Wolkstein & Kramer
1983: 119)

The temple was staffed by priests, priestesses, musicians, singers, castrates and
hierodules. Various public rituals, food sacrifices, and libations took place there on a
daily basis. There were monthly feasts and annual, New Year celebrations. During the
later, the king would be married to Inanna as the resurrected fertility god Dumuzi, whose
exploits are dealt with below.

When it came to more private matters, a Sumerian remained devout. Although the gods
preferred justice and mercy, they had also created evil and misfortune. A Sumerian had
little that he could do about it. Judging from Lamentation records, the best one could do
in times of duress would be to "plead, lament and wail, tearfully confessing his sins and
failings." Their family god or city god might intervene on their behalf, but that would
not necessarily happen. After all, man was created as a broken, labor saving, tool for the
use of the gods and at the end of everyone's life, lay the underworld, a generally dreary
place. (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: pp.123-124)

It is notable that the Sumerians themselves may not have grouped four primary deities as a
set and that the grouping has been made because of the observations of Sumerologists.
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