ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS           home | history

The Sumerians

By 7000 BCE, in what today is called Iraq, people who had been hunting and gathering their food started engaging in agricultural activities that required permanent settlement. By 4500 BCE people were in towns alongside more than 250 miles of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, to where these rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. The area was to be called Mesopotamia (Greek for "middle rivers"). They grew wheat and barley, raised farm animals, made pottery and wove fabrics. Tradesmen were crossing land and the sea to engage in commerce. They built seaworthy ships, and they imported from afar items made from the wood, stone, tin and copper not found nearby. 

Around 4000 BCE they began to be invaded by Sumerians, perhaps from around the Caspian Sea. Within a couple of hundred years or so the Sumerians dominated the area. What is called the Ubaid cultural period had ended. The Sumerians built better canals and improved the roads over which donkeys trod, pulling wheeled carts.

The Sumerians built on the rudiments of writing and numerical calculation they had found among those they invaded. They kept records, wrote arithmetic based on units of ten. Concerned about their star-gods, they mapped the heavens and divided a circle into units of sixty. Their priests were scribes and described events they thought were created by their gods.

Their towns grew. Ur, for example, became a city of about 24,000 people. In the center of each city was a temple that housed the city's gods, and around each city were fields of grain, orchards of date palms, and land for herding. Some land was owned by individual citizens. Some land was owned by a temple and rented to sharecroppers. A corporation run by priests became the greatest landowners among the Sumerians. They describing their land as owned by their gods, and the priests told those working the land that their drudgery was necessary to allow the gods their just leisure. In some cities the priests sat with a council of elders.

With economic inequality there was a need to protect social order. Those with political influence were authoritarian and supported by priests and other elite members of society. Rulers drafted common people to work on community projects, and common people were obliged to pay taxes to the government in the form of a percentage of their crops, which the government would either sell or use to feed soldiers and other employees.

At first, Sumerian education was for priests and took place in temples. Then it children of the affluent, but this changed. Education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent paid for by the affluent. Common people were to remain illiterate. Most if not all students were males. Not believing in change, there was no probing into the potentials of humankind or study of the humanities. Their study was rote learning of complex grammar and practice at writing. Students were encouraged with praise while their inadequacies and failures were punished with lashes from a stick or cane.

Wealth and power were prized and Sumerian rulers sent men out to plunder people in the nearby hill country. Not being egalitarian, their drives against others included the taking of slaves as domestics or concubines. The Sumerian name for a female slave was mountain girl, and a male slave was called mountain man. They justified their slavery claiming that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

The primary political unit was a city. And with a growth in population and the disappearance of swamps that insulated city from city, there was an inability to resolve conflict. With the gods seen as the creators of events, the wars were seen as between their gods. Around 2800 BCE, Kish had become the first of the Sumerian cities to dominate all of the other Sumerian cities. Soon, Kish's supremacy was challenged by the city of Lagash, the two cities separated by only eighteen miles. Lagash won and launched a bloody conquest against its Sumerian neighbors and extended its power beyond Sumerian lands.

Not everybody accepted the way things were — something authoritarians would never be able to suppress. A Sumerian complained of the futility of war, writing "You go and carry off the enemy's land; the enemy comes and carries off your land." In the city of Lagash in 2380 BCE people revolted. Lagash's bureaucrats had grown in wealth. Taxes had been increased and personal freedoms more restricted. The revolt put in power a god-fearing ruler named Urukagina who reduced taxes and rid the city of usurers, thieves and murderers — the first known reforms.

CONTINUE READING: Babylon Conquers

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