- The first important ancient people to inhabit Mesopotamia, specifically the flat-lands of southeastern Mesopotamia near the Persian Gulf, the region called Sumer by the Babylonians. The Sumerians were well entrenched in the area by the fourth millennium B.C. and began to build large-scale cities there in the last few centuries of that millennium.The Sumerian Problem Modern scholars are still unsure who the Sumerians were and where they originated. These questions lie at the core of what has come to be called the Sumerian problem. Some scholars argue that the Sumerians were the descendants of the original hill peoples who migrated onto the plains beginning in the sixth millennium b.c. That would mean that they were part of the pre-literate culture in the region, often referred to as Ubaidian, and that the Sumerians introduced the first examples of writing, using cuneiform symbols. Other experts think that the Sumerians were not indigenous to the region. According to this view, they migrated into the Near East and onto the plains of Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium from the east, possibly from India. If that is true, the Sumerians displaced and/or intermarried with the indigenous Ubaidians and used and improved upon a writing system that was already in place.One strong argument for the second theory is the fact that the Sumerian language was different from the one originally spoken in Mesopotamia. Numerous important place names in the region, such as Ur, Eridu, and Uruk, are not Su-merian. In fact, Sumerian is unlike any other known tongue, living or dead. Some scholars suggest that the Sumerian language may be remotely related to the Dra-vidian languages of India, which are themselves related to Elamite, the early language of southern Iran, the region adjacent to eastern Sumer.Language aside, from a racial and ethnic standpoint the Sumerians were not a separate, distinct social group. Like the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and many of the other Mesopotamian peoples who succeeded them, the Sumerians were part of a large racial and ethnic melting pot. There was a general culture with many similar religious and social customs, and new groups entering the area were usually assimilated. A convenient modern analogy would be that the various peoples who inhabited the cities and regions of southern Mesopotamia from about 3300 to 2200 B.C. shared a common culture called Su-merian, just as people of various races and ethnic backgrounds living in U.S. cities share a common culture called American.The First Cities The later peoples of Mesopotamia absorbed many aspects of Su-merian culture largely because, as the creators of the first major civilization in the region, the Sumerians established a number of important cultural and logistic precedents and models. Among the most important of these was the construction of the first major cities and city-states shortly before the dawn of what modern scholars call the Early Dynastic Period, lasting from about 3000 to 2350 b.c. The first true city mayhavebeenEridu,thenlocatedvery near the shore of the Persian Gulf, which has since that time receded about 125 miles (201 km) southeastward. Another possibility is that Uruk, located northwest of Eridu, was the first actual urban center supporting a large population, and Eridu served mainly as a ceremonial center. In any case, the Sumerians believed that Eridu was the home of the first king and the first civilized arts and works, a situation that scholars refer to as the "Eridu genesis." According to the Sumerian King List, which dates from about 2125 b.c., the first earthly king ruled Eridu for thousands of years. Only later, the Sumerians held, did the main seat of kingship move to other Su-merian cities, including Kish, Ur, and La-gash.These and other early Sumerian cities, also including Adab, Larsa, Nippur, Larak, Umma, and Sippar, began as small villages covering only a few dozen acres. But by the start of the Early Dynastic Period, each had several thousand inhabitants. That growth continued apace. Between 3000 and 2700 b.c., for example, Uruk grew into a city of several tens of thousands of people, whose houses, shops, and temples were surrounded by a defensive wall 6 miles (9.7 km) in circumference.It is important to emphasize that these early cities were not dependent units within a larger Sumerian nation. Instead, they were independent city-states, each in a sense a tiny national unit in its own right. In the third millennium B.c.atypi-cal Sumerian and, in a more general sense, Mesopotamian city-state consisted of a densely populated central town surrounded by dependent villages and farmland. There was trade between the cities and also with regions outside of Mesopotamia. But in an earnest effort to maintain self-sufficiency and independence, each city planted a wide variety of crops and built irrigation canals to make sure the fields had sufficient moisture. The farmlands and outer villages of a city-state were tightly organized and controlled. Nippur, for example, was eventually surrounded by as many as two hundred dependent villages, all distributed along five large irrigation canals and about sixty smaller canals. The ruler of the city-state's urban center, as well as his advisers and leading nobles, ordained how much each farm or farming area was expected to produce and oversaw maintenance of the canals. The urban centers themselves were also closely organized and overseen by the state. Most of these central cities probably looked much like Uruk. About a third of that city was composed of private homes and shops; another third was made up of gardens and other open lands administered by the government; and the last third consisted of temples and the sanctuaries (sacred territories or properties) surrounding them.As separate political states and entities, the Sumerian cities often became rivals for power, resources, territory, or all of these things. And from time to time, they fought among themselves. In about 2600 b.c., for instance, Uruk defeated Kish. Soon afterward, Ur also defeated Kish. But by circa 2500 b.c., Kish had regained its lost power and held sway in the region surrounding it. In the same period, Lagash and Umma sparred with each other repeatedly, as highlighted in the victory of Lagash over Umma depicted in the famous Stele of the Vultures. Numerous other such contests among the Sumerian cities occurred. At times one city-state would amass an unusual amount of power and prestige and dominate most of the others for a generation or a century or so. When this happened, the defeated cities were vassals of the city in power, which means that their leaders were required to show allegiance to the king of the most powerful city. Then the balance of power would shift and another city or group of cities would rise to prominence. Yet all of the players remained steadfastly Sumerian in language and culture and made no attempt to eradicate the gods, temples, social customs, laws, or other major facets of the defeated cities. As scholar Norman B. Hunt puts it:The balance of power [in ancient Su-meria] was continually shifting from one dynasty to another, and with that the center of power moved between city-states, but there is little [evidence] to suggest that there were any cultural or ideological [political or religious] shifts. We do not, for instance, see the wholesale displacement of city-state deities, which remained as they were even under the control of a different dynasty. And it is unlikely that local populations saw change that significantly altered their daily lives. (Historical Atlas of Ancient Mesopota-mia,p.43)Kingship and the First Empires These repeated rivalries and wars among the Su-merian city-states required a great deal of central organization and political and logistical control on the part of local governments. In other words, strong leadership was needed for any given city to remain a viable player in the rough-and-tumble world of Sumerian affairs. As a natural result, therefore, the institution of kingship grew stronger over time. And this, in turn, stimulated even more wars since the more powerful the kings became, the more likely it was that they would desire to expand the power and prestige of their individual cities. In this way, as the great Assyriologist Samuel N. Kramer explains:The story of Sumer is largely a tale of warfare, as the rulers of its dozen or so city-states, which were bound only by a common language and culture, vied for mastery of the entire region. . . . The Tigris-Euphrates plain became the scene of constant battle, a broad stage across which marched a pageant of ancient armies led by warrior-kings with exotic names. (Cradle of Civilization, p. 35)In this stormy situation, it was only a matter of time before one strong ruler, from either Sumer or Mesopotamia's northern portion, variously called Akkad, Assyria, and other names, would manage to conquer the entire region and create the world's first empire. As it turned out, this feat was accomplished by Sargon of Akkad (reigned ca. 2340-2284 b.c.). He swiftly captured the Sumerian cities, and by incorporating them into his empire, with its highly centralized government, he caused the old Sumerian city-state system more or less to collapse.Sargon's imperial state, ruled by himself and a few successors, lasted for just over a century. When it fell apart, the Su-merian cities were still very much intact. But now they fell under the sway of other imperialists: at first, and briefly, an invading hill people, the Guti, and then the dynasty of Ur-Nammu (reigned ca. 2113 - 2096 b.c.), the empire known as the Third Dynasty of Ur. Following the decline of the Third Dynasty of Ur came the Old Babylonian period, roughly encompassing the first four centuries of the second millennium b.c. This era witnessed the rise of new empires, including those of the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Once more, the older Sumerian cities became incorporated into larger imperial units. As a result, by about 1800 b.c. the inhabitants of these cities no longer thought of themselves asSumerians; and by about 1600 b.c., or perhaps earlier, the Sumerian language ceased to be spoken by the public on an everyday basis. However, Babylonian and other Mesopotamian scribes, scholars, and priests kept that language intact for some sacred and official purposes. And many Sumerian ideas, customs, gods, and so forth remained integral facets of the Mes-opotamian cultures that followed.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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