Sumer or Sumeria (land of the civilized kings) was the first urban civilization. It was located in ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, now southern Iraq, in the marsh flood plain of the delta region near the Persian Gulf.
Former hunter-gatherers of nomadic tribes became farmers and herders in the land of abundant fish, game and fertile soil. Thousands of years of spring floods, fed by snow melt from the distant Taurus Mountains, created silt deposits. The region is known as the Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilization.
Horses and camels were still unknown, but sheep, goats, oxen, donkeys, and dogs were domesticated.
The Sumerians adopted an agricultural lifestyle as early as 5000 BC – 4500 BC. Written records appeared around 3300 BC as city states grew.
The Sumerians are credited with many inventions including the wheel, sail boat, beer, irrigation canal, ox-drawn plow, sun-dried brick, high-rise building, writing, government, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, art and astronomy.
The concept of government arose from the need to organize the labor force to build and maintain the irrigation system.
Reliable irrigation increased crop yields and required fewer farmers, so more labor was available for other pursuits such as studying astronomy, mathematics, medicine, metallurgy, architecture, arts, and crafts. A writing system was needed to record the knowledge and data collected, events and transactions.
They developed the first known codified legal and administrative systems, including government officials, courts, jails, and records.
A sexagesimal mathematical system was developed, based on multiples of 6 and 10. The number 60 was associated with the highest-ranking deity An, the god of the sky. The Sumerians first started selling items by the dozen, 12 being one-fifth of 60. They invented a calendar based on 12 lunar months and a day with 24 hours. They first divided an hour into 60 minutes, a minute into 60 seconds, and a circle into 360 degrees, 60×6.
Sumer started the Bronze Age by smelting tin and copper together to make bronze, used for tools, military weapons, blades, spears and helmets. First to use the potter’s wheel, they later invented the wheeled cart and chariot.
City States of Sumer
The region of Sumeria consisted of city states formed around 3500 to 3000 BC. Primary cities were Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, Uruk, the city of legendary King Gilgamesh, Lagash, and Eridu. North of Sumeria was the region of Akkad, including the ancient sites of Bablyon, Kish and Nippur, and the area of modern Baghdad.
Uruk became the most urbanized city in the world, with a population of 80,000.
City states were governed by a high priest-governor (ensi) or by a secular king (lugal), assisted by a council of male and female elders.
Sumer declined when the climate went into a long dry cycle. After centuries of irrigation, the soil became salty and crops would not grow. As the Iron Age began, other areas became more important.
Scribes and Notaries of Sumer
The stylus was pressed at various angles to make picture symbols known as cuneiform that could be understood in foreign lands without requiring knowledge of phonetic pronunciation.
Later an alphabet of characters of the Aramaic language written in a Phoenician script replaced cuneiform as the predominant form of writing in the Middle East. Thousands of clay tablets have survived allowing scholars to study life in ancient Sumer.
Scribes were well-respected temple officials and stationed around the public marketplace and at city gates to do writing, translating, and adding notary public seals to transactions. The Sumerians used cylinder seals with text and images engraved in stone. The seal was rolled onto wet clay to create scenes of transactions and events. Seals were originally used to stamp legal documents, much like a notary seal is used today. Notaries were appointed by royal decree.
Parties signed items with personal seals made of stone, metal, or wood or used thumbprints. The king had a sealing ring. Multiple witnesses were used. Some clay tablets were encased in sealed clay envelopes for security.
Oaths were sworn before local gods (nam-erim-am) and before the king (mu lugal-bi ni-pad, in the name of the king he swore).
Banking, insurance, real estate and merchant transactions are recorded in the records of ancient Sumer and Phoenicia. Business organizations were formed to pool capital and share risk.
Initially, there was no coined money. Standard weights of silver served as measures of value and as a means of exchange, or food or trade goods were used for barter. Around 2500 BC, the shekel (she-kel, wheat-bushel) was a 1/3-ounce silver coin valued at one bushel of wheat or one month of labor.
The first law book was considered a creation of Enki, the god of wisdom. The Sumerian legal code highly respected property rights and contracts and was administered by priests. Elements of the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, 1754 BC, can be traced to Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu, written in 2100 BC.
Writing was also used for literature, in the form of poetic epics and stories, including The Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as prayers, letters, records and laws. Many texts survive in multiple copies because they were transcribed by scribes in training.
With the spread of writing, the first formal schools were established at the temples. Scribes, mostly young men, spent many years in school learning 1500 cuneiform symbols and practicing writing. They studied arithmetic since they also did accounting.
Only 1% of the population was literate. Nisaba, scribe of the gods, became the goddess of literacy, writing and accounting. Scribal school tablets often end with the phrase, ‘Praise be to Nisaba!‘
Enki and Master Scribe Endubsar
Endubsar (en-dub-sar, master-tablet-writer) was a master scribe from Eridu, offspring of Adapa and servant of the great god Enki. In the seventh year after the Great Calamity, he was summoned and carried aloft by two divine emissaries to Enki’s abode on an island in the River Magan.
There he wrote the true account of the beginnings and the past and the Great Calamity as dictated by the deep voice of Enki. He wrote for 40 days and 40 nights, in two columns on smooth two-sided blue tablets of lapis lazuli (gemstone) with a holy stylus made of electrum (alloy of gold and silver) and a tip of divine crystal.
Then he wrote his own attestation on another tablet and marked it with his seal as a witness and stored and locked the tablets in the divine chest made of acacia wood inlaid with gold on the outside. And Endubsar was blessed and sent forth to admonish the people to be righteous, for in that lies a good and long life. And the tablets are known as the Words of the Lord Enki to witness the past and foretell the future, for the future in the past lies.
Contract for Sale of Real Estate, Sumer, 2000 BC
Sini-Ishtar, the son of Ilu-eribu, and Apil-Ili, his brother, have bought one third Shar of land with a house constructed, next the house of Sini-Ishtar, and next the house of Minani; one third Shar of arable land next the house of Sini-Ishtar, which fronts on the street; the property of Minani, the son of Migrat-Sin, from Minani, the son of Migrat-Sin.
They have paid four and a half shekels of silver, the price agreed.
Never shall further claim be made, on account of the house of Minani.
By their king they swore.
(The names of fourteen witnesses and a scribe then follow.)
Month Tebet, year of the great wall of Karra-Shamash.
Sumerian Ziggurats and Temples
Each city center had a ziggurat (holy mountain), a step-sided pyramid built of mud bricks, with a temple on top to honor the city’s patron god. A staff of priests attended the temple and interpreted the will of the gods by studying the stars. Granaries, storehouses, workshops, offices, archives and libraries were usually located in or near the ziggurats.
Surrounding the ziggurat were mud-brick shops and large houses of nobles, military leaders, government officials and wealthy merchants. Then came the smaller houses of lesser merchants and craftsmen. Further away were houses made from reeds for free peasant farm workers, fishermen, laborers and slaves.
Ancient world trade routes stretched to the Mediterranean Sea, Anatolia, Syria, Persia, the Indus Valley, Bactria (Afghanistan), Egypt and Nubia. Trade with the East began 3000 years before the Silk Road. Colonies were established and spread their culture to other regions.
Akkadia and Babylonia
Classical Sumer ended with the rise of the Akkadian Empire and conquest by King Sargon in 2340 BC. Around 1700 BC, Mesopotamia was united under Babylonian rule. The Sumerians were eventually absorbed into the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) population.
Discovery Education Animated Videos of Sumer
Mesopotamia From Nomads to Farmers, 14 minutes
Mesopotamia The Development of Written Language, 12 minutes
The scribes and notaries of Sumer recorded stories and information that help us learn about their inventions, discoveries and ancient civilization. Thousands of clay tablets have survived.
The Origin of Sumer
Sumerians spoke a language unlike their neighbors. Scholars disagree on where they came from. Their advanced knowledge and civilization appeared from nowhere.
An interesting ancient astronaut theory is that the Sumerians acquired advanced knowledge from visiting space aliens known as the Anunnaki from the planet Nibiru. The Sumerians considered the space visitors to be gods and depicted them with wings and using rockets, antennas, space suits and flying vehicles. They used Mars as a way station.
In the Sumerian book of creation, the Enuma Elish, several tablets refer to the planet of the gods Nibiru (or Marduk), that elliptically orbits the solar system and returns every 3600 years.
The Sumerian knowledge of astronomy was thousands of years ahead of modern discovery. Some cylinder seals and tablets show all the planets of the solar system, with their accurate orbits and sizes in relation to each other.
Five planets are viewable with the naked eye, but the most recently added planets were not discovered until 1781 for Uranus, 1846 for Neptune and 1930 for Pluto. How did they know about the last 3 planets that had not been discovered?
The Sumerian book of creation includes multiple stories similar to the book of Genesis, written much later, including a great flood around 2900 BC, with God choosing a righteous man to build an ark to save good men and the animals.
Author Zecharia Sitchin (1920-2010) researched, read and interpreted cuneiform on ancient Sumerian and Akkadian seals and clay tablets to write several books, including his bestseller The 12th Planet.
1. The Adda Seal. Sumerian gods, left to right: 1. Inanna, winged goddess of love and war, the weapons rising from her shoulders symbolize her warlike characteristics. 2. Utu, sun-god, with rays rising from his shoulders, cutting his way through the mountains in order to rise at dawn. 3. Enki, god of subterranean waters and wisdom, with streams of water and fish flowing from his shoulders. 4. Usimu, his two-faced vizier (chief minister). by The British Museum Collections (Version 1 Version 2) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Sumerian tablet, 2600 BC, Bill of sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak. The Louvre Museum, Paris, [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
3. Endubsar, master scribe from Eridu, writing for Enki [Fair use, education]
4. Great Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq, by user:wikiwikiyarou [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
5. Sumerian cylinder seal, left: Eagleman astronaut on Earth, right: Fishman astronaut on Mars equipped to splashdown in water, center: flying spacecraft with extended panels and antennas, at Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia