Sumer- The First Civilization

4300 – 2334 B.C.E

Sumer – The World’s First Civilization

The world’s first civilization arose in Sumer, which is the ancient name for southern Mesopotamia, during the Uruk period. In these fertile, low-lying marshes, the land had to be drained and irrigated before it could be farmed, and flood barriers had to be built. All this required cooperation between different villages. As the population rose and pressure for reclaimed land grew, it must have made sense for these villages to unite to form towns, usually on the site of the shrine of the local god. These towns then grew to form cities.


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The first cities were built in about 3500. They were, in fact, city-states – independent states consisting of a city and the surrounding territory. There were around twelve of these city-states, the largest being Uruk, with a population of around 10,000. Uruk was the dominant city until around 3000. Other cities, such as Kish, Ur, Eridu, Lagash, and Nippur had populations of between 2,000 and 8,000. Each city worshipped its own deity and had at its center a large temple complex administered by priests. Gradually, the gods of each city became organized into a hierarchy, which changed as the power of the cities waxed and waned.


Invention of Bronze

If writing was a cultural revolution, the invention 3900 B.C.E. of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin or arsenic, was a technological revolution. Ornaments and small tools, such as needles, were made by hammering native copper and gold as early as 7000 B.C.E. by smelting it in adapted pottery kilns, in which hand- or foot-operated bellows were used to raise the temperature sufficiently to melt copper, and cast it in simple stone moulds. Copper was too soft for it to replace stone tools in everyday use, however, and it was only with the invention of bronze that the Stone Age truly came to an end. Bronze is much harder than pure copper and keeps an edge better. Though more costly, tools and weapons made of bronze are less likely to break than those made out of stone, are more easily re-sharpened, and, when worn out, can be melted down and recast.

A relative advance in metallurgy was the invention 3600 B.C.E. of the cire perdue, or ‘lost wax’, method of casting, which allowed complex three-dimensional shapes to be cast in metals such as bronze, gold, silver and lead. First a model of the object was made in wax. This was then covered in clay, which was heated to a temperature hign enough to melt the wax so that it ran out of the mould. Molten metal was then poured into the mould, which was broken open to reveal the completed object. The most common objects cast were farm and carpentry tools and weapons. These important developments probably originated in hte metal ore mining areas bordering Mesopotamia, perhaps Anatolia or Iran, but their use was very quickly adopted by the Mesopotamians.


Rise of Armies

With the rise of kingdoms and empires came the first formally organized armies. Most of the evidence for the nature of Sumerian armies comes from battle scenes in art and from weapons buried in high status graves, such as that of Meskalamdug, who ruled Ur 2600 B.C.E. Meskalamdug’s gold helmet and ornate gold dagger demonstrate that martial display was very important to Sumerian kings. In art, Sumerian war leaders are shown riding over their enemies in four-wheeled war wagons drawn by mules. Most Sumerian soldiers were infantrymen armed with bronze-tipped spears, daggers and axes. For protection, they wore a bronze or leather helmet, a metal-studded leather cloak and carried body-length rectangular shield. In battle, the soldiers formed a wall of overlapping shields which bristled with spears. On other occasions soldiers may have dispensed with their shields so that they could use a weapon in each hand. Representations of the bow are rare, but documentary evidence refers to the production of bronze arrow heads in very large quantities, demonstrating the importance of archery. The production and distribution of weapons was controlled by palace officials. Swords, metal armor and horse-drawn chariots were not used in warfare until the middle of the second millennium B.C.E



Religion was more dominant in Sumerian society than elsewhere in the ancient world, perhaps because few others felt more at the mercy of the gods. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers were subject to devastating floods and unpredictable changes of course. It was a land of high winds, dust storms, plagues and merciless droughts. It is understandable therefore that they turned to higher powers to impose some order and certainty on their lives. The first kings of these cities were, not surprisingly, priests.
Sumerians were polytheistic, meaning that they worshipped more than one god. The interesting thing about Sumerian polytheism was that each city-state had its own god that was worshipped only by its people. In addition, there were a bunch of gods that all the city-states. They believed that when disaster struck, it was because the gods were angry.




Sumerians built temples, called ziggurats, which were kind of like pyramids, to appease their gods.



PictureThe city temples doubled as distribution centers where surplus food and craft products were collected and then distributed to the townspeople or used for trade. Trade links were established with other parts of the Middle East, helping to spread Sumerian culture. The Sumerians also traded with places as far afield as Afghanistan and India. The problem of keeping track of the many transactions prompted the invention of writing.



The Sumerians developed a form of writing known as cuneiform. Scribes used this form of writing to set down laws, treaties, and important social and religious customs; soon the use of cuneiform spread over the trade routes to many other parts of the region.



Trade was also enhanced by the introduction of the wheel, a major development that greatly reduced the time it took to transport both goods and people between two points.



Sumarians also developed a twelve-month calendar and a math system based on sixty (as in sixty seconds and three-hundred-sixty degrees). They used geometry, as well, to survey the land and to develop architectural enhancements such as arches and columns.

Early Dynasty Period

Between 3000 and 2334, known as the Early Dynasty Period. Sumerian history entered a new and turbulent phase. As the population of the city-states grew, they came into conflict with each other over territory, and wars broke out. The cities defended themselves with large walls are armed themselves with bronze weapons. the art of this period depicts rulers trampling their enemies. The scribes, whose original purpose was to record commercial transactions, turned their skill to poetry, glorifying the epic deeds of conquering kings. The first slaves were recorded at this time, most likely prisoners of war. 

Kings became more secular in character as their authority came to depend on their armies as much as their priests. They established the first law codes and built opulent palaces next to the temple complexes. On their deaths they were given elaborate burials, accompanied by luxurious objects and even their sacrificed servants.


Epic of Gilgamesh


Gilgamesh is a legendary hero of Mesopotamian literature. His adventures were recorded by an Assyrian king in the seventh century B.C.E., but his origins go back much earlier than that. It is possible that the character of Gilgamesh was based on a king who ruled the Uruk between 3000 and 2500. The epic tells of a king of Uruk, part-god part-human, who is consumed with a desire for adventure and goes in search of eternal life. The epic may preserve something of early Mesopotamian history in the character of the wild man Enkidu, who is tamed by the gods and then helps a group of herdsmen. He is later brought to a farming city where he first fights, then became friends with, Gilgamesh. Enkidu’s progress could be seen to represent the gradual evolution of the Mesopotamians from wild hunter-gatherers to civilized city-dwellers.

Picture Picture

Content Sources:

A Short History of the World , Alex Woolf, Metro Books, New York, 2008.
The Ancient World, John Haywood, Quercus Books, Massachusetts, 2010.
The Princeton Review: Cracking the AP World History Exam, 2006-2007 Edition, Random House, New York, 2007.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Hurdman, MacDonald, Steele, Tames, Armadillo Books, Pennsylvania, 2011

About historymartinez

Social Studies Department Chair, Room A305 Tutoring Mondays @ 4:15 pm & Wednesdays @ 8:00 a.m.
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