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FIRST SUMERIANS. Sumerians first arrived in region around 5000 BC Typical Paleolithic people motivated by search for game Settled in region and took up farming Built dams, dikes, and short canals to use water from the Euphrates Grew barley and dates and raised sheep and goats.

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first sumerians
  • Sumerians first arrived in region around 5000 BC
    • Typical Paleolithic people motivated by search for game
    • Settled in region and took up farming
      • Built dams, dikes, and short canals to use water from the Euphrates
      • Grew barley and dates and raised sheep and goats
sumerian city states
  • City-states gradually emerged over next 1000 years
    • Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Nippur, Kish, Umma, etc.
    • Larger than Neolithic settlements and displayed evidence of economic specialization and strong political organization
  • Included the urban center plus surrounding countryside
    • Each was also an independent political unit


sumerian agriculture
  • Each was crisscrossed by irrigation system of major canals and minor channels
    • Designed to bring water from Euphrates to farmland
  • Farmland divided into square and rectangle-shaped plots
    • Farmers worked land with plows, seed-drills, and stone hoes and received yield of 40:1
  • Other areas set aside as gardens and fruit orchards
  • Carts pulled by donkeys and boats on the canals took produce to the urban center itself
city characteristics
  • Each city surrounded by walls
    • Permanent garrisons of soldiers stationed in towers and at each gate
  • Wide boulevards crossed city, lined by houses of the wealthy
    • Rest of city made up of narrow, twisting alleys surrounded by small, flat-roofed huts
      • Homes of farmers, and small craftsmen
  • Most dominant structure in each city was its temple
    • Dedicated to patron god of the city
    • Largest structure in city
    • Resembled a gigantic stepped pyramid
      • Designed to look like mountains because Sumerians believed their gods liked to live on top of mountains
  • Cities originally governed by an assembly of adult males
  • Kings appeared who claimed to be representatives of the gods and who took control of most government functions
    • Called lugals
    • Not originally an hereditary position and the king’s power was limited to interpreting the will of the gods
    • But this position would become extraordinarily powerful in a relatively short period of time
general anarchy
  • Although an occasional city-state would temporarily control the region from time to time, more common were long, anarchic periods where the various city-states fought each other over boundaries and water rights
  • Constant warfare, shifting alliances, and double-crosses were important characteristics of ancient Sumer
sargon the great

From Akkad

North of Sumer

Originally settled by nomads from Arabia

Fairly untouched by Sumerian civilization for centuries

more sargon the great

Then conquered rest of Sumer, northern Mesopotamia, and Syria

In 2300 BC, led by a chieftain named Sargon, the Akkadians invaded and took over Kish

still more on sargon the great
  • According to legend, he was a poor orphan adopted by a gardener
  • Not a harsh ruler
    • By Mesopotamian standards
    • Respected and adopted Sumerian culture and civilization
the end to the world s first empire
  • Sargon was succeeded by his son, Naram-Sin
    • Called himself “King of the Four Quarters of the World”
    • Ruled in the same tradition as his father
  • After the death of Naram-Sin (around 2160 BC), the Akkadian Empire collapsed
    • Under pressure of new groups moving into the region from the Arabian Desert and Iranian highlands
    • Also because of a revolt of Sumerian city-states
  • Syrian city-state of Ebla took over Akkad after collapse of Akkadian Empire while Sumerian city-states regained their independence
    • Although Ur appears to have been first among them

Great Ziggurat at Ur

the babylonian empire
  • In 2000 BC, the Amorites moved into region from Arabia
    • Settled near Babylon and ultimately took it over
    • Amorites/Babylonians prospered and became wealthiest and more powerful people in Mesopotamia
  • Under King Hammurabi, they conquered the region
    • Babylonian Empire
    • Peak of Mesopotamia civilization
    • Produced first written law code
  • Empire collapsed shortly after Hammurabi’s death
    • Victim of new invading tribes and jealously independent spirit of Sumerian city states


invention of writing
  • As early as 3500 BC, the Sumerians used pictograms to represent certain physical objects
    • Drawn on clay
  • By 3500 BC, they began to use ideograms (symbols standing for abstract, non-physical concepts) and phonograms (symbols representing phonetic sounds)
    • Meanwhile pictograms became more stylized
cuneiform writing
  • Emerging writing system known as “cuneiform”
    • Means “wedge-shaped”
    • Impressed on clay tablets with wood stylus
  • Very complicated
    • Originally 2000 symbols
      • Reduced to 500 over time
    • Only small group of professional scribes could master it
      • After 15 years of training
      • A secret held by only a few specially-trained individuals
  • Developed in response to needs associated with raising and storing food and designing irrigation systems
  • Based on units of 60
    • Only used today to measure time and circles
    • Also had supplemental system based on units of 10
  • Invented system to measure metal and grain based on units of 60
  • Developed fundamental principles of geometry
    • Used to measure fields and design buildings
  • Invented first calendar
    • Based on phases of moon
    • Had 12 months
sumerian gods
  • At top of Sumerian pantheon of gods was An
    • Divine force, the creator, thought to be the sky
  • Below An came Enhil
    • Controlled the weather
    • Capricious
  • Then came Enki
    • Controlled fertility of the earth and abundance of harvests
      • Also capricious and cruel
  • Then 50 other major gods and a host of minor gods, demons, spirits, and the like
first creation myth
  • World was originally nothing but water
  • From this water, two forces—one male and one female—arose and created An through procreation
  • An then created the other gods, who then worked with him to make the sky, earth, and human beings
  • Sumerians believed the world was the conscious product of a divine force and that it was created for a divine purpose
    • Although this might be difficult for human beings to ascertain

Sumerian god

nature of religion
  • Sumerian gods did not pay much attention to mortals
    • More interested in drinking, partying, and fighting among themselves
  • Sumerians did not therefore worship their gods out of any sense of devotion or love
    • They worshipped them out of fear of the gods’ power and capriciousness
  • Sumerian religion was pessimistic
    • Reflected mentality of a people who had just recently raised themselves to the level of civilization in a land marked by a severe climate and where the dangers of flood and disease were always present (and also unexplainable and incurable)

Sumerian priest

religious dilemma i
  • Sumerians were proud of their achievements
    • But they worried about to what extent did their achievements, or at least their pride in their achievements, go against what the gods wanted
      • To what extent did man’s achievements upset the natural order created by the gods?
relgious dilemma ii
  • This dilemma was reflected in their mythology
    • Myth of Great Flood
      • Gods, angry at the pride of men, destroyed mankind (except one person) in order to teach humans a lesson
    • Myth of the “Garden of Eden”
      • Humans kicked out of this paradise by refusing to be passive and obey the rules of the gods
    • Mythology reflected Mesopotamian insecurity over the alleged contradiction between their growing belief in the importance of man and his earthly accomplishments and the ingrained belief that they were the insignificant creation of divine beings much more important than they were
gilgamesh i
  • Epic poem first written down around 2000 BC
    • Part of oral tradition for at least 1000 years before it was written down
  • Hero is legendary king of the city-state of Uruk
    • Began career as good ruler
    • But turned into a tyrant
    • Gods decide to punish him for his pride


gilgamesh ii
  • Gods send wild man named Enkidu to kill Gilgamesh
  • Gilgamesh recruits a prostitute to tame Enkidu
    • She does and Enkidu “became like a man” (ie., civilized)
    • Also becomes loyal companion of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh and Enkidu

gilgamesh iii
  • Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with his mortality and tries to find a way to cheat death
  • At first he tries to become so famous that his reputation will live forever
    • Fights and defeats numerous monsters
  • In the course of these adventures, Enkidu offends a god and is made to die
gilgamesh iv
  • Gilgamesh is devastated by Enkidu’s death
    • Mopes around for a while
    • Then searches for Ut-Napishtim
      • Sumerian Noah who survived the Great Flood
      • Person to whom the gods had given the secret of eternal life
gilgamesh v
  • Ut-Napishtim tells Gilgamesh how to find magic plant that will bring Enkidu back to life
    • Also tells entire story of the Great Flood
  • Gilgamesh finds plant after difficult quest
    • But a snake steals it from him before he arrives home
    • Story then suddenly ends

Gilgamesh tablet

  • Don’t mess with the gods
    • Gilgamesh defied the gods several times, only to be slapped down by them
  • Men can achieve but they must remember that they were only men
    • They must not try to alter the fate that the gods planned for them
    • Reflects the tension between the increasingly impressive achievements of man (and his pride in these achievements) and his fear that these achievements might upset the original plans of the gods

Gilgamesh on quest for magic plant

social classes
  • Establishment of a social hierarchy where some people had more power, wealth, and privileges than others
  • Equality originally prevailed in Sumerian city-states
    • But divisions soon appeared
      • First group to claim special privileges and status were priests
        • Gave up working and began to live off work of others
        • Temples given huge tracts of land which priests rented in small parcels to farmers
          • Lived off rent
further elaboration
  • Very early on, men began to stake out a special place for themselves in Sumerian society and drew tremendous wealth from their superior position
    • Soon joined by other groups
      • Kings and nobles because they defended city-state and maintained law and order
      • Merchants because they provided the commodities the city-state needed
      • Scribes because they had mastered the secrets of reading and writing
    • All exploited ordinary people who did not claim special status
  • Originated with practice of men selling themselves and/or their families to pay off debts
    • Supplemented by using pows as slaves
  • Demand for slaves increased as civilization progressed
    • Advance of civilization did not bring same benefits to everyone
      • Some benefited a great deal
      • Others saw a deterioration in their situation
  • Civilization brought important benefits but it also introduced inequality, exploitation, taxes, and slavery
the purpose of law
  • If inequality and exploitation become too naked, society will not survive
    • Ancient Mesopotamia rulers realized this
    • They established law to define the limits of exploitation
      • In order to prevent such terrible acts of oppression that it would have sparked the oppressed to rise up and the destroy the entire system
    • Law was invented by those on top to protect their superior status by limiting the abuses they theoretically had the power to commit
  • Several Sumerian city-states seem to have some sort of rudimentary law code by 2300 BC
    • But the man credited with implementing the first uniform law code was the Babylonian king Hammurabi
      • Applied to almost all of Mesopotamia
hammurabi s law code
  • Greatest of his accomplishments
    • Carved on a huge stone slab
      • Discovered in Syria in 1901
        • Probably carried off from Babylon after Ebla destroyed the Babylonian Empire
    • Contained 282 sections and incorporated many unique features
  • Basic feature was “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”
    • Revolutionary new legal principal
      • Earlier Sumerian laws calculated all punishments, no matter what the crime, in monetary fines
  • Punishments varied according to the social status of offender
  • Very harsh punishments
    • No concept of “cruel and unusual punishment”
  • Detailed regulation of economic life
  • Subsidiary status of women
  • Despite difficulties of climate and terrain, the ancient Mesopotamians made remarkable physical progress and established cities where large concentrations of people could live in relative peace and prosperity
    • Political, religious, and intellectual achievements were equally formidable
  • But new problems arose with the advance of civilization
    • Social stratification, inequality, injustice, etc.
    • Mesopotamians tried to at least limit these problems
      • Example was Hammurabi’s Code