Sumer was an ancient civilization founded in the Mesopotamia region of the Fertile Crescent situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Known for their innovations in language, governance, architecture and more, Sumerians are considered the creators of civilization as modern humans understand it. Their control of the region lasted for short of 2,000 years before the Babylonians took charge in 2004 B.C.
Sumer was first settled by humans from 4500 to 4000 B.C., though it is probable that some settlers arrived much earlier.
This early population—known as the Ubaid people—was notable for strides in the development of civilization such as farming and raising cattle, weaving textiles, working with carpentry and pottery and even enjoying beer. Villages and towns were built around Ubaid farming communities.
The people known as Sumerians were in control of the area by 3000 B.C. Their culture was comprised of a group of city-states, including Eridu, Nippur, Lagash, Kish, Ur and the very first true city, Uruk. At its peak around 2800 BC, the city had a population between 40,000 and 80,000 people living between its six miles of defensive walls, making it a contender for the largest city in the world.
Each city-state of Sumer was surrounded by a wall, with villages settled just outside and distinguished by the worship of local deities.
The Sumerian language is the oldest linguistic record. It first appeared in archaeological records around 3100 B.C. and dominated Mesopotamia for the next thousand years. It was mostly replaced by Akkadian around 2000 B.C. but held on as a written language in cuneiform for another 2,000 years.
Cuneiform, which is used in pictographic tablets, appeared as far back as 4000 B.C., but was later adapted into Akkadian, and expanded even further outside of Mesopotamia beginning in 3000 B.C.
Writing remains one of the most important cultural achievements of the Sumerians, allowing for meticulous record keeping from rulers down to farmers and ranchers. The oldest written laws date back to 2400 B.C. in the city of Ebla, where the Code of Er-Nammu was written on tablets.
The Sumerians were considered to have a rich body of literary works, though only fragments of these documents exist.
Sumerian Art and Architecture
Architecture on a grand scale is generally credited to have begun under the Sumerians, with religious structures dating back to 3400 B.C., although it appears that the basics of the structures began in the Ubaid period as far back as 5200 B.C. and were improved upon through the centuries. Homes were made from mud bricks or bundled marsh reeds. The buildings are noted for their arched doorways and flat roofs.
Elaborate construction, such as terra cotta ornamentation with bronze accents, complicated mosaics, imposing brick columns and sophisticated mural paintings all reveal the society’s technical sophistication.
Sculpture was used mainly to adorn temples and offer some of the earliest examples of human artists seeking to achieve some form of naturalism in their figures. Facing a scarcity of stone, Sumerians made leaps in metal-casting for their sculpture work, though relief carving in stone was a popular art form.
Under the Akkadian dynasty, sculpture reached new heights, as evidenced by intricate and stylized work in diorite dated to 2100 B.C.
Ziggurats began to appear around 2200 B.C. These impressive pyramid-like, stepped temples, which were either square or rectangular, featured no inner chambers and stood about 170 feet high. Ziggurats often featured sloping sides and terraces with gardens. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of these.
Palaces also reach a new level of grandiosity. In Mari around 1779 B.C., an ambitious 200-room palace was constructed.
Sumerians had a system of medicine that was based in magic and herbalism, but they were also familiar with processes of removing chemical parts from natural substances. They are considered to have had an advanced knowledge of anatomy, and surgical instruments have been found in archeological sites.
One of the Sumerians greatest advances was in the area of hydraulic engineering. Early in their history they created a system of ditches to control flooding, and were also the inventors of irrigation, harnessing the power of the Tigris and Euphrates for farming. Canals were consistently maintained from dynasty to dynasty.
Their skill at engineering and architecture both point to the sophistication of their understanding of math. The structure of modern time keeping, with sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour, is attributed to the Sumerians.
Schools were common in Sumerian culture, marking the world’s first mass effort to pass along knowledge in order to keep a society running and building on itself.
Sumerians left behind scores of written records, but they are more renowned for their epic poetry, which influenced later works in Greece and Rome and sections of the Bible, most notably the story of the Great Flood, the Garden of Eden, and the Tower of Babel. The Sumerians were musically inclined and a Sumerian hymn, “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” is considered the world’s oldest musically notated song.
The very first ruling body of Sumer that has historical verification is the First Dynasty of Kish. The earliest ruler mentioned is Etana of Kish, who, in a document from the time, is credited as having “stabilized all the lands.” One thousand years later, Etana would be memorialized in a poem that told of his adventures in heaven.
Recommended for you
The most famous of the early Sumerian rulers is Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who took control around 2700 B.C. and is still remembered for his fictional adventures in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first epic poem in history and inspiration for later Roman and Greek myths and Biblical stories.
A devastating flood in the region was used as a pivotal point in the epic poem and later reused in the Old Testament story of Noah.
Sumerian Power Struggles
Somewhere around 2600 B.C., a power struggle erupted between the leaders of Kish, Erech and Ur, which set off a “musical-chairs” scenario of rulers for the region for the next 400 years.
The first conflict resulted in the kingdom of Awan seizing control and shifting the ruling body outside of Sumer until the kingship was returned to the Kish.
The Kish kept control briefly until the rise of Uruk King Enshakushanna, whose brief dynasty was followed by Adabian conqueror Lugalannemundu, who held power for 90 years and is said to have expanded his kingdom up to the Mediterranean. Lugalannemundu also conquered the Gutian people, who lived in the Eastern Iraqi mountains and who would later come to rule Sumer.
In 2500 B.C. the only woman to rule the Sumerians, Kubaba, took the throne. She is the only female listed on the Sumerian King List, which names all rulers of Sumer and their accomplishments. Kubaba’s son, Puzur-Suen, eventually reigned, bringing in the fourth dynasty of Kish, following a brief ascendency of Unzi, the first in the Akshak Dynasty.
This last Kish dynasty ruled for a century before Uruk king Lugal-zage-si ruled for 25 years before Sargon took control in 2234.
Sargon was an Akkadian whose past is shrouded in legends that some claim were ignited by Sargon himself. The claim is that he was the secret child of a high priestess who placed him in a basket and cast him off into a river, a story that was later utilized for Moses in the Old Testament.
Sumerian tradition says that Sargon was the son of a gardener who rose to the position of cupbearer for Ur-Zababa, king of Kish, which was not a servant position but a high official.
Ur-Zababa was defeated by the king of Uruk, who was, in turn, overtaken by Sargon. Sargon followed that victory by seizing the cities of Ur, Umma and Lagash, and establishing himself as ruler. His militaristic reign reached to the Persian Gulf.
Sargon built the city of Agade as his base, south of Kish, which became an important center in the ancient world and a prominent port. Agade was also home to Sargon’s army, which is considered the first organized standing army in history and the earliest to use chariots in warfare.
Sargon took control of the religious cultures of the Akkadians and the Sumerians, making his daughter Enhedu-anna the head priestess of the moon god cult of Ur. Enheduanna is best remembered for her transcriptions of temple hymns, which she also wrote and preserved in her writings.
Sargon ruled for 50 years, and after his death, his son Rimush faced widespread rebellion and was killed. Rimush’s brother Manishtushu met the same fate.
Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin, took the throne in 2292 B.C. Naram-Sin considered himself divine and was leveled with charges of sacrilege.
The Gutians invaded in 2193 B.C. following the reign of the last Akkadian king, Naram-Sin’s son Sharkalisharri. Their era is marked by decentralized chaos and neglect. It was during Gutian reign that the grand city of Agade decayed into wreckage and disappeared from history.
The final gasp of Sumer leadership came in 2100 B.C. when Utuhegal, king of Ur, overthrew the Gutians. Utuhegal’s reign was brief, with Ur-Nammu, the former governor of Ur, taking the throne, starting a dynasty that would rule for about a century.
Ur-Nammu was known as a builder. Figurines from the time depict him carrying building materials. During his reign, he started massive projects to build walls around his capital city, to create more irrigation canals, construct new temples and rebuild old ones.
Ur-Nammu also did the considerable work of constructing an organized and complicated legal code that is considered the first in history. Its purpose was to ensure that everyone in the kingdom, no matter what city they lived in, received the same justice and punishments, rather than rely on the whims of individual governors.
Ur-Nammu also created an organized school system for state administrators. Called the Edubba, it kept an archive of clay tablets for learning.
What Happened to Sumer?
In 2004 B.C., the Elamites stormed Ur and took control. At the same time, Amorites had begun overtaking the Sumerian population.
The ruling Elamites were eventually absorbed into Amorite culture, becoming the Babylonians and marking the end of the Sumerians as a distinct body from the rest of Mesopotamia.
The Sumerians. Samuel Noah Kramer.
Ancient Mesopotamia: Leo Oppenheim.
Sumer: Cities of Eden. Denise Dersin, Charles J. Hagner, Darcie Conner Johnston.
FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn’t look right, click here to contact us!
Subscribe for fascinating stories connecting the past to the present.