Wednesday, 2 March 2022

The Incredible Sumerians part 3 After the flood: Recovery, Kings and Emperors.

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The Incredible Sumerians part 3 

The recovery, peaceful times, lugals (Sumer's great kings) 

and, finally, empires before Sargon of Akkad.


Towards the end of the Uruk period (around 3100 BC) the Sumerian civilisation collapsed from the combination of continued climate change that brought both a terrible prolonged drought and a Great Flood (in southern-most Sumer). 

This catastrophic, once in a thousand year flood, is the one that inspired the biblical legend of the great deluge.

It was followed by a dark age, continuing at least for a couple of hundred years, but in many regions far longer. It would take almost seven centuries for the entire region and its surrounds to reach a full recovery.

During this period, trade dried up, larger settlements shrank and smaller settlements were poorly developed.

There would be two periods remaining when the Southern cities of Sumer would rise again and be powerful.

The first of the two periods was called the ‘Early Dynastic Period’ (2900 BC- 2270 BC)  named after the same period in Egyptian history. The terminology is a little confusing when applied to Sumer. Unlike Egypt, Sumer did not have a single 'pharaoh' or a single capital.

In between the two final periods where Sumer was dominated by the south, was the Akkadian Empire which was centred in the northern region.

The final period for a powerful Southern Sumer is called 'the third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III)' lasting little more than a hundred years  2112 BC – c. 2004 BC. After that Southern Sumer’s wealth, population and power collapsed and it increasingly began to return to desert.

Kish and the north of Sumer

For millennia, Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions were dominated by the great cities of Southern Sumer, especially Uruk.

During the dark age and the early recovery, there was one region that managed to keep the flickering candle of Sumerian civilisation alive. 

It was in the north, the ‘Uri region’, where the Tigris and the Euphrates emerge from mountainous gorges to first run on the alluvial plain. In many places there, the great rivers run above the level of the plain. It can still flood, but at different times to the south. 

While it is also not immune to the problem of drought and salinity, it is far more resistant than the then heavily irrigated South and it is more resistant to drought than the rain fed lands agricultural lands in the north. It has remained very productive through till today.

It only ever had one dominant city.

One day it would host the Akkadian Empire, centred on Akkad. Much, much, later it would be called the region of ‘Babylonia’ named after that ancient city and finally it would become home to Baghdad, the second largest city in the Arab world.

But this was five thousand years ago and Akkad and Babylon were small, unimportant towns. 

This was the time of the great city of Kish.

Kish not only survived the dark age, but thrived in the early after-math and around 2900 BC gained hegemony over all of Sumer. It defeated enemies from both Elam and the highland region of the Zagros mountains.

Ishtar's temple, Kish (Osama Amin). 

In one way this would prove to be a vision of the future, as Sumer declined due to climate change, but that process would take another 900 years. For the moment, Southern Sumer was nowhere near finished.

The Kish Civilisation

A place as great and enduring as Sumer had several ethnic minorities, especially in border towns.

The greatest ethnic minority was in the north of Sumer. They spoke the now extinct ‘Eastern’ Semitic languages (which included Akkadian).

One Archaeologist coined the term ‘Kish Civilisation’ to describe the shared culture of the Northern Sumer, Northern Mesopotamia  and the Northern Levant, but that term is highly misleading. 

The people of Kish obviously interacted and traded  (and sometime fought) with their cousins to the north. They did indeed share aspects of a culture that had incorporated both Semitic and the Sumerian culture, and the cultures of the advanced Neolithic peoples that had preceded both of them.

However, Southern Sumer had been the dominant culture of the region for millennia. The closer one moved towards it, the greater its influence over culture, mythology, language and politics.

Politically and culturally, the people of the Uri region were southern looking. They didn't see themselves as part of their northern neighbours. 

There were differences between the north and the south (which would contribute to friction later) but  they and the rest of Sumer saw them as part of Sumer.

2600 BC:  Widespread Recovery, Kish loses hegemony.

By 2600 BC the whole region (Southern Sumer, upper Mesopotamia, the Northern levant and Western Iran) were beginning to recover.

Kish could not maintain its economic and political dominance over its increasingly powerful and wealthy neighbours and while they increasingly thrived, it, for a time, contracted.

The great cities of Southern Sumer recover.

By 2600 BC powerful city states such as Uruk (especially) and also Ur, Lagash, Adab and later Umma emerged to compete with one another (for power, trade and prestige).

It was a great time.  

Sumer had a massive agricultural surplus (especially date, barley and vegetable oil). It exported wool, linen and finished goods like pottery, leather goods, baskets, wool, textiles and jewelry. It was short of almost everything else, even wood and stone.

Busy caravans and ships plied to and fro. Its merchants travelled into the neighbouring lands in search of resources and trade, and to set up trading colonies.

They didn’t yet have domesticated camels and the smaller horses of the time were not popular. Their best form of overland transport, when it was available, was via Sumer’s intricate canal system. 

Boats can transport far more than carts. Barges hauled by  mules and donkeys (being slowly led along ‘tow paths’) might be able to carry (slowly) a massive fifty times what they could with a cart on a dirt road.

The climate (for a period) was kinder for the whole region, and one new nearby civilisation to emerge in the east was the Indus Valley Civilisation. 

At its peak  (around 2500 BC) the 'IVC' far exceed Sumer in population and area, but sadly it was destined to suffer the same fate as Sumer. By 1900 BC it had succumbed to the drying climate and the influx of nomadic herders (in its case Aryans).

But that was in the future.

Recovery to the North, a Tale of two cities,.

Ebla (wiki)
Two great cities emerged in the Eastern Semitic people to the north of Sumer.  

Ebla was in the northern Levant and was partly protected from the events at the end of the Uruk period.
It recovered earlier, building its first royal palace around 2700 BC.  At its height, it controlled a relatively vast amount of territory, almost half the size of modern-day Syria (which is outlined on the map).

Mari (Wiki)

(on the Middle Euphrates), had a similar ethnic population and began life as a planned city (around 2900 BC). It was designed as the most northerly river port, strategically placed to capture the overland trade. It was briefly abandoned before being built again on old foundations around 2500 BC, after which it grew rapidly.

Both cities dominated their neighbouring settlements and had periods of prosperity and reverses, but they became particularly strong around 2500 BC ... and they were headed for a showdown.

Mari, the upstart, launched a war against Ebla around 2423 BC which lasted back and forwards for a hundred years. It often had the upper hand, until it was defeated by an alliance of Ebla, Nagar and Kish around 2300 BC.

More information , but still huge gaps

For Sumer’s long and early history (before 2600 BC) we have only have the results of limited excavations (as explained) and legendary accounts of hero-kings like Gilgamesh of Uruk, written many centuries after the events they describe. Added to this we have terse and unreliable entries in the Sumerian Kings list(s).

After 2600 BC, the Sumerians left lots of clay tablets, many unfortunately looted or damaged and grave goods (especially Ur). They also erected stêlai (stone monuments) mostly recording victories and also deposited celebratory stone vases in Nippur, the sacred city and home of Sumer's prime god Enlil.

We have some idea of Sumer's laws , literature, music, wisdom-literature and royal correspondence but there are major gaps, especially in our understanding of their political and military history.

Sumer had lots of literature but no historians, and the greatest pre-occupation of the industrious Sumerians was commerce.

Were Sumerian Cities constantly at war with each other?

Sumer, for its time, was highly urbanised and the most densely settled region in the world, it’s city-states often separated by little more than boundary stones or canals.

For this reason, early archaeologists assumed that Sumerian city states would be ‘constantly’ at war with one another for dominance and land and water rights. This is supposition has been repeated so often that it has passed into accepted fact.

The truth is a little different.

While the evidence is scant, it suggests that throughout most of Sumer’s very long history it was remarkable peaceful. Battles did occur between Sumerian city states but they were relatively uncommon, often smaller in scale and any destruction to cities or infrastructure was mostly minimal.

Lagash versus Umma, 2450 BC

Half way through the Early Dynastic Period, things began to change.

The first recorded conflict between Sumerian City states is also the most famous and is the one illustrated when claiming Sumerian city states were constantly at war with each other. 

At the time, it was certainly a major battle and it marked a turning point in Sumerian history, ushering in a time of increasing conflict.

Lagash spearmen 
Stele of vultures
It was related to the sharing of the fertile plain Gu-Edin that lay between the two cities. The powerful king of Kish first mediated in this dispute (and erected a stele to mark the event). According to him, Umma was using land that belonged to Ninĝirsu, the patron God of Girsu/Lagash and he suggested Umma pay yearly rent for any of this land that it used.

Umma was unhappy with this. The rent was rarely paid, and about a hundred years later Umma attacked Lagash (around 2450 BC).

Lagash routed the forces of Umma in one of the first known uses of the phalanx formation. It was still a relatively small affair by more modern standards as the cities were only  25 miles apart.

Still, for Umma to lose 3,600 of its citizen/soldiers was an unbelievable catastrophe for that time. It was enough for the city to revolt against its énsi’and murder him. 

At the conclusion, Lagash’s énsi Ean-natum made Umma pay tribute and celebrated by erecting the famous   ‘Stele of the Vultures’. This was an intricately carved limestone monument telling the story, including the role of the gods and showing vultures feasting on Umma’s dead soldiers. Sadly only fragments survived, preserved in the Louvre.

Eannatum didn't stop there, he conquered Ur and the Uri province, calling himself the king of Kish. He campaigned in Elam, destroying several cities including Susa, and forced Mari to pay him tribute.  

The last part of the 'Early dynastic ' period was characterised by would be emperors, great battles and destruction. It continued into the next period, the Akkadian Empire that used brutal military suppression to rule Sumer.

More on this in a minute (and in the next blog) but the point is, we must challenge the supposition that the Sumerian City states were constantly at war throughout most of their long history. It seems, apart from the second half of the EDP and Akkadian times, the reverse was true.

How might the Sumerians have avoided destructive conflicts?

Sumerians could not have survived in that hostile land if they did not learn to co-operate and share at all levels. It had to start that way from the beginning. 

Co-operation and a rules based order was steeped in the Sumerian DNA.

 The task of building and maintaining the complex system of canals against erosion and silting made it imperative. 

Historians may find it hard to credit, but how they did this is amazing.

Hierarchy of cities

How could they manage this without a central authority?

The government of Sumer over millennia was centred on their temples. Religion, not political power  was the glue that united the deeply religious Sumerians.

from Osama Amin
The leadership became slowly more secularised throughout the later 'Early Dynastic period' but the leader of each city was still seen as a personal representation of the city’s resident God.

According to the ‘Sumerian Kings list’, there was usually a single city (most often Uruk) that held hegemony (more or less) over all of Summer even  before the Great Flood.

The term ‘lugal’ (‘big man’) may have had an earlier meaning, but it came to mean the (or a) dominant ruler (on the occasions that there was more than one).  

The leading one was invested in a ceremony in Nippur, the sacred city, at the temple of Sumer’s prime God (Enlil).

Exactly how a senior lugal was chosen is not clear.

If a senior city lost a battle with another large city, it was said that the ‘kingship’ was ‘carried off’ by the victor to their city. Presumably this was a sign they had lost favour of the Gods, but this didn’t seem to be the main mechanism, at least not until the time of later troubles.

The lugal did not need to conquer all the cities of Sumer to gain hegemony, most often he didn’t have to conquer any at all. There must have been some other mechanism of gaining consensus amongst the cities and temples.

 Hegemony would tend to remain in one city (or at least one dynasty) with the agreement of religious and other leaders. The Sumerians saw this as the natural order of things (for them such a lugal was chosen by a group of the Gods) .

It was a very prestigious position, and likely involved some tribute.

There would be a number of local duties such as maintaining the city and its temples. Any great city and its lugal or ensi would also have lesser cities and towns under his direct control. 

He also had to mediate in disputes, dispense justice (and prevent conflict) sometimes involving cities outside his direct control.

If there was a period where one city did not have hegemony over all of Sumer, there were still a small number of strong cities (or religious centres) with a lugal that managed to exert considerable prestige in resolving disputes and preventing war.

The leadership within each city was predominantly hereditary, though the populous could chose another leader if one was unsuitable. A lugal might appoint an ‘ensi’ (governor) to a subordinate city (especially if that city had became subordinate after losing a battle).

It was a system that served the Sumerians well until late into what we call the ‘Early Dynastic Period'


From earliest times, life in a Sumerian city was centred around the temple complex. Records and the all important storage and management of grain and other goods was under the control of priests and priestesses. 

As explained, lugals (‘kings’) in dominant cities and ensi (‘lords’) in lesser cities began as priest/rulers and only slowly became secularised. They were expected to follow the example of the God Enlil and be supremely just and intolerant of evil.

Sacred Wisdom

When Enki created humans to serve the Gods, he passed down certain sacred wisdom. The custodians were the powerful religious hierarchy which spoke with the authority of the Gods.

We don’t now know its content,  but it is a large part of how the Sumerians maintained their civilisation in peace and order.

Cities were sacred

It was sacrilegious to sack a  (Sumerian) city.

It, the surrounding land, and its people, were literally owned by its patron God/Goddess.

While there was some private ownership, to some extent the economy was centralised around the temple complex. As farmers paid rent for their land in grain or labour. Commonly owned grain and goods were distributed to the city workers and the needy.

While the Gods lived in their own wonderous realms and sacred gardens, they were also believed to also live within their temple complex, which was their home on earth.

 Votive statues were their physical embodiment .

Everyday, a feast and other gifts were laid out before their major idol (it was later shared amongst the priests and priestess that dressed the God and cared for his/her house).

These same Gods were venerated throughout Sumer, they were not just limited to one city, though there was sometimes local variations. 

If this veneration was not enough to stop Sumerians damaging a God’s property, the Gods were well capable of bringing grave misfortune to anyone who offended them.

Armies of the time were not suited to sieges

Sumerians were not ones to leave anything to chance with barbarian raids from the desert and Zagros hills and mountains, the occasional attack by neighbours (especially Elam). There might have been local conflict though we haven't any direct evidence of this. Anyway, most larger cities were protected by walls with towers and had water-filled moats and the armies of the time were not well suited to siege warfare.  

Military Tactics of the Sumerians

Victories and defeats were recorded on monumental stones (plural stêlai) and towards the end of the EDP and the art and burial goods became increasingly militaristic.

As a result, we have a good idea of the weapons available, but not the tactics used. How they changed over time is discussed in the next blog.  

Most soldiers were conscripts and had to supply their own weapons. 

Metal (bronze age) armour was uncommon

The core of the Sumerian armies were citizen/soldiers with protective cloaks, spears and shields (presumably wicker, a bit like later Persian shields). They were armed with spears and the Sumerians seemed to have invented the use of the phalanx by the middle of this period. The spearmen were supported by javelin throwers and bowmen .

They had their own units of soldiers, one of which was a ‘Nu-Banda’ (containing 60-100 men). They seemed to have battle standards (carried on poles) in some ways similar to the later Roman ones.

The technology to produce bronze swords only appeared in the Agean and South-eastern Europe around 1700 BC.so they were not available.

 The Sumerians had a range of other personal weapons beyond the spears and bows and these included slingshots, battle axes, maces, and knives. 

With typical understated Mesopotamian humour, light skirmishers were called Nim which meant ‘flies’ and generals were called ‘Sagi-mah’ (‘cup-bearers’).

There was no cavalry.

They had chariots by 2450 BC. but these were little more than battle wagons and best for transport of VIPs into battle except for a brief period that is discussed in the next blog. 

There would be sappers and scaling ladders but, as it has been throughout most of history, capturing a city most often involved a siege, and this wasn’t very practical with citizen-soldiers.

Farmers were most easily available after planting and before harvest. Other citizens would have their own work to attend to. 

Summer temperatures were blisteringly hot in Sumer and winters could be cool.  The landscape outside the canal systems was largely desert, with large areas of brackish swamp near the rivers.

So there was a limited fighting season and limits to where wars could be fought, or armies could be mobilised.

Most battles occurred outside the city walls and usually ended with the loser agreeing to pay tribute in grain (and forced labour) and to recognise the dominance of the victorious city.

Things change

       In the just over six hundred years that marked the ‘Early Dynastic Period’  lugals and ensis grew in wealth and secular power, though they continued to be seen as the representative of their city’s patron God or Goddess.

Administrative buildings began to be grander, and palaces for the 'secular' leader were built. 

Graves for these leaders became grander and filled with richer and richer grave goods.

Towards the end of this period, Sumer became more militaristic. 

Conflict between city states increased, grave goods showed more weapons and armour.

Art, as mentioned, began to increasingly portray warfare as opposed to the common themes of earlier times.

Warka vase, approx. 3000 
BC, from a gentler time

Lugals and Ensis had Shub-Lugal or household troops and the city guard which would be professional soldiers, better equipped and trained. 

The number of professional soldiers began to increase in the late Early dynastic period leading up to Sargon, the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire, who had a standing army of 5,400 men. 

It was an appreciable force in those days and a major advantage against a citizens-army but, of course, he had the cost of maintaining it..

Towards the end of the Early Dynastic period, military conflict began to increasingly be the way to establishing dominance between cities and sometimes hegemony over all Sumer.

And it was only going to get worse. 

Three other Sumerian Empire builders, and increasing violence.

We usually  give Sargon of Akkad the credit for establishing the world’s first Empire, but we know he was preceded by others.

Once again the exact events and time periods are a little uncertain. We already mentioned Ean-natum mid-way through the EDP and there were three others that followed him.

It was a very different time.

Greedy lugals struggled for ascendancy, using force to impose their will.

Kish (with help from nearby Opis) had been campaigning in the south to gain hegemony and tribute. 

Early in the EDP Kish had hegemony and it remained a respected city for some time even as it lost power for a time. As Sumer became more violent, the relationship between the southern Sumerians and their greatest racial minority in the north was beginning to sour. 

 We don’t know what damage they did down there, but the north-eastern border city of Hamazi (which was usually peaceful) took the opportunity to attack Kish and seize the kingship.

Hamazi was a trading city, flying somewhere under the radar, and described as ‘many-tongued’ indicating a mix of languages.

Now a second northern city was using violence to claim the kingship over all Sumer, and expecting the other cities (that weren’t involved) to simply concede and send them tribute and follow orders.

En (meaning lord) shag-kush-ana  

was the ruler of both Uruk and Ur, a very powerful position at the time, and he had had enough.

He sent a large punitive force into the Uri region  (around 2431 BC) to punish these northerly upstarts. 

What followed was incredible. He totally destroyed Kish, Opis and Ashak and maybe Akkad to the north, capturing or killing their kings. He expelled all the people of Hamazi from the regions they had occupied and took the fight to their city.

The destruction of several cities indicated more effective siege techniques and less worry about the city's resident Gods. 

The extra-ordinary level of violence he used is confirmed by a destruction  layer in Kish.

He returned home via Nippur to leave considerable booty dedicated to Enlil and exquisitely carved and decorated stone vases celebrating and describing his exploits.

He took the title en ki-en-gi lugal kalam meaning ‘lord of Sumer and king of all the land’.

We don’t know if he was an Empire Builder. It was a punitive raid, but he certainly showed them who was boss, and used force to claim the kingship over all Sumer. 

He was also said to attack Adab later, we don’t know how that went, but some time after his death Adab was said to seize the kingship from Ur.

  Lugal Anne- Mundu of Adab

was that city’s greatest king and was the one who took the kingship (hegemony) from Ur.

He was definitely the real deal as far as being an empire builder.

He subjugated the ‘four quarters of the world’ i.e. Elam, all the tribes of the Zagros mountains, northern Mesopotamia and Lebanon and forcing them to send him tribute. Thing like slaves, timber, metal, stone and maybe lapis lazuli (mainly imported from Afghanistan) that was always in demand in Sumer.

On his celebratory vase(s)  (placed in Nippur) it was claimed that he managed to introduce peace, contentment and prosperity to all he conquered.

His empire didn’t survive him either. Adab was defeated by the Semitic city of Mari (northern Mesopotamia) who ‘carried off the kingship’ but couldn’t hold it. This allowed the other powerful cities of southern Sumer to regain their independence and begin jockeying for supremacy.


emerged from this struggle. He began as the ensi of Umma but began conquering his neighbours until he got control of Uruk.

He didn’t just use this powerful position to exact revenge on Lagash (for the humiliation of a century before). He continued to spread Uruk’s hegemony across south and north until he was said to have fifty governors under his control.

Then he raided his neighbours as far as the Mediterranean.

One of the cities that resisted his power was long suffering Kish, which he conquered.

Unfortunately for him the King of Kish’s general (‘cup-bearer’, also governor of nearby Akkad) happened to be a man called Sargon.

Sargon regained Kish and then came south to Uruk . He captured Lugal-Zage-Si in battle and proceeded to establish the Empire that bears the name of his city.

Two seem to avoid punishment by the Gods, one doesn't

The first two  conquerors seemed to avoid punishment by the Gods.

Kish had two powerful divine protectors. 

The first was Zababa, a war God with monstrous strength that gained him the epithet “crusher of stones”. 

His name (like Inanna) suggests that he may have belonged to the people that preceded both the Sumerians and the Semitic people (the Proto-Euphrateans, likely the late Neolithic Samara culture or its successors).

The city’s second protector was his (then) spouse, Ishtar (the Semitic version of Inanna).

Sumerians (like the Greeks) allowed their Gods and Goddesses to exhibit slightly different aspects in different regions, and Ishtar was even more warlike than the Sumerian version.

Anyway, it was a pair no mortal king would want to face but En-shakushanna didn’t seem to care, and he didn’t stop with Kish, going on to attack the cities of other Gods.

The Sumerian Kings list gives him a (likely inflated) 50 years of reign. Unless he spent the whole time in a state of abject misery, he didn't seem to have been punished. 

On his celebratory vase there is a list of powerful Gods that backed him and it claims  he was commanded to punish the north “... when the gods commanded ... he sacked Kish ...”.

It seemed that the powerful Gods of Sumer accepted his mission to punish the north.  

And , he was safe from human retribution as well. Any people who survived his attack (and hadn’t been enslaved) were too busy trying to rebuild and were too terrified to take him on again.

That was likely his intention.

We don’t know how destructive Lugal- Anne- Mundu’s conquests were.

According to him (or his celebratory vase at least) his rule brought peace, happiness and prosperity to all he ruled.

Maybe it did.

Maybe everyone and their Gods were too busy being happy having him for a ruler, enjoying the peace and prosperity he brought. 

The Sumerian king’s list (which is notoriously unreliable) has him ruling for 90 years. Again, his empire seemingly didn’t survive his death.

Lugal-Zaggesi set out very differently and had a very different fate.

His celebratory vase  also gives a long list of the Gods that backed him and (like Lugal Anne- Mundu) claims that the lands ‘rejoiced’ under his rule, as unlikely as this sounds.

The people of Girsu/Lagash certainly had a different opinion of him. According to the lament for the fall of Lagash (and its related holy city, Girsu). “The man of Umma ... committed a sin against Ningirsu. ... Offence there was none in Urukagina, king of Girsu.”

So , it was a destructive raid but, unlike Enshakushanna’s attack, it was unprovoked.  

Nirgirsu, the local version of Ninurta at Girsu, was the very ancient Sumerian God of farming, healing (which included exorcism of demons), and the law. 

As Sumer became progressively more violent he also became a God of war, just in time to deal with Lugal-Zaggesi.

In a little over a decade after his conquests, Lugal-Zaggesi found himself in a cage with a collar around his neck, being hit over the head with a club (according to one carving) as he  was dragged to Enlil’s temple in Nippur to be humiliated. 

The same Enlil he claimed he was serving. 

It was likely not what he expected when he first set out.

I hope you have enjoyed this third blog on the Incredible Sumerians. 

Part 4, the final part,  will look at the Akkadian Empire and the Curse of Aggad, UR III and the fall of Sumer

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Thursday, 2 December 2021

The incredible Sumerians Part 2 : The First Cities and the time of the Great Flood

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The Incredible Sumerians, part 2 

The Uruk Period, the first cities, and the Great Flood

The second period of Sumerian history is called the Uruk Period  (4100–2900 BC) and is marked by the emergence of the world’s first cities.

Part A

Characteristics of a ‘City’ and ‘Civilisation’

The term ‘civilisation’ simply comes from the Roman word for city, but even in Roman times 'being ‘civil’ acquired a value judgment (of being a good Roman citizen). 

Restored Ziggurat of Ur

In sixteenth century France (in a world on the edge of the Age of Enlightenment) ‘being civilised’ acquired other value judgments : indicating sophistication, good manners, rationality, enlightenment and ‘superior’ behaviour (as contrasted with a more ‘primitive' society).

This can cause some confusion, but remember, for the noun (especially in Archaeology, anthropology and related disciplines) pare back the value judgments. It simply refers to a culture that has built cities.

It may not sound dramatic as the more nuanced adverb, but cities and urbanisation are a quantum leap forward in social organisation.

But what defines a city (in the ancient world) rather than a large agricultural community?

Childe, in the 1936 book (and later) defined a list of characteristics which included size and population density, sophistication, specialised workforce, taxation, monumental building, ruling class, symbolic representation, science, sophistication and organisation beyond kinship.

Characteristics of Urbanisation

To simplify somewhat: a city (urbanisation) is characterised by a large specialised central settlement inside of which much of populace is not directly involved in producing food.

It requires and is characterised by several things:

A significant, available, food surplus.

Each city has to be closely connected to agricultural towns, farms, fishing villages and herding camps that supply food and other resources to the city, in exchange for finished goods and services. 

Sumer, at its height, was the most agriculturally productive region in the world, serviced by complex irrigation and transport canals and it supported previously unheard of population density.

Stratified society.

In the city there is a full-time bureaucracy, military, a stratified society and complex industry. The specialisation allows economies of scale and more rapid advances in knowledge.


Transport aids the free flow of goods and services. Sumer was well serviced by canal transport. Uruk had such an extensive network of canals it has been called the ‘Venice in the desert’.

Since the Ubaid times Sumerians had oxen carts. The donkey was a very welcome addition, arriving in the middle of Uruk period.

 Currency and sophisticated trade.

Sophisticated trade cannot occur without some form of currency

From Palaeolithic times humankind have used commodities as the first currencies.

This is sometimes confused with barter but here, individuals (who are not traders) accept a well recognised commodity which has an understood value as a means of exchange. And they are prepared to do so in quantities beyond what they need for personal consumption.

In various cultures and times cattle or other livestock have become the currency for a (noblewoman’s) bride price, or to build a defensive tower. Flint, obsidian, metal, beads, shell -jewellery, axe heads, salt and rum have all been used at various times throughout human history.

Metal had to be imported into Sumer and didn’t come into its own until a later period. The predominant commodity used during the Uruk era for large purchases was grain.

Other commodities were used for smaller purchases. (In a later period, there is even the record of payment to a labourer in beer.)

Records and accounting

How can grain be used as a currency? Did the Sumerians carry bushels of grain around to pay labourers? Then, what did they do with them? No, the answer (at least for significant purchases) was the token system.

Tokens arose during the very beginning of the Neolithic period, paralleling the cultivation of grain and communal storage. If a landowner was to deposit his surplus of grain in a community warehouse, he would definitely want some record of what was his! The first examples in Northern Mesopotamia date back to 9,000 BC.

Stamp seals (carved in stone to be pressed into wet clay) were invented soon after, as a type of official signature and this technology arrived in Sumer with the first Neolithic farmers. 

During the Uruk period (5 millennia later) tokens and seals continued to evolve into a complex accounting system. There was never any need to lug bulk grain or other commodities around. Any large transfer of ownership was achieved by the token system, a bit like transfers recorded within a bank, but in this case it was administered through the community storehouse.

The centre of the community at that time was the temple. The leader of each city-state and its surrounding lands and towns was a king/priest. Priests and their acolytes were not only responsible for religion and holy ceremonies they were in charge of  higher learning, taxation, records, administration and running the communal granary.

Clay tablets and increasing use of symbols

Over time, different tokens were used until they covered something like sixteen important commodities. 

Tokens to aid calculations were also introduced . A small cone denoted 1, a ball was 10, and a large clay cone was 60.

Special round clay containers (bulla) were designed (like a lock box at a bank) to preserve a collection of tokens held inside. They could only be opened once (to prevent tampering). As these containers had a record of the contents and personal seals on the outside, it led to simple clay tablets being used instead for simpler records.

To improve security and to show the status of prominent dignitaries, , cylindrical seals were invented in place of simpler stamp seals. These were definitely a work of art. They were only an inch high but elaborately carved so they could be rolled onto wet clay to form an especially impressive signature.

Soon after, the Sumerians invented symbolic representation of numbers (with the main base 60) to further  assist with accounting and their solar calendar.

The whole system was becoming too cumbersome as society and trade became more complex.  

The world’s first form of writing

The need for Sumerians to represent more complex concepts led to the world's first true form of writing, pictorial writing around 3500 B.C .

Pictographs (picture words, and petroglyphs) in simpler forms date to Palaeolithic times.

This first form of Sumerian writing seemed to grow out of the token system and was logographic (each symbol represented a word (or morpheme).

Sometimes a ‘determinative’ was added (a symbol which specified semantic class) which meant the same symbol could be used for a range of items or concepts.

Drawing curves on clay is difficult, and the Sumerians soon began experimented with a range of writing systems (often concurrently and often combined).

As Sumerian writing predated Egyptian writing and the Egyptians did not show this phase of experimentation, it is generally accepted that it was the Sumerian writing that inspired Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Cuneiform, one of the world’s great writing systems

‘Cuneiform’ writing emerged around 3400 BC.  

Its name means ‘wedge shaped’ and it involved a wedge shaped stylus, elimination of curves and the use of highly stylised symbols. The writing also became from left to right (not top to bottom).

Cuneiform writing became amongst the greatest writing systems in antiquity. It lasted through to 100 AD. with many adaptations and was eventually used for writing fifteen languages.

Why was cuneiform so successful, apart from its specific adaptation to clay tablets? 

It was phonetic, or at least partly so.

Sumerian was mostly monosyllabic. If you ignore the accents, a lot of words are spelt the same way (they are homonyms). So the Sumerian šu (“hand”) could stand in for a lot of similar sounding words.

Also (in keeping with pictographs) a symbol could stand in for a series of related but different-sounding words “sun,” “day,” “bright” further reducing the number of symbols needed.

Semantic ‘determinatives’ continued to be used to keep the number of symbols within reasonable bounds, and pictographs continued to be used for names.

Contract for the sale of a field and a house
But the great problem for cuneiform writing is its complexity. There was eventually 700 different symbols and their shape and meaning could vary over time and place. 

It was finally displaced by alphabets (or at least what we call ‘abjads’ the consonant-only 'alphabets' like Phoenician writing).

These ‘alphabets’ were first invented by a group of Semitic workers and traders  living in Egyptian occupied lands of the Sinai and south Canaan around 2,000 BC. Vowels were added later to reduce ambiguities.

Alphabets were originally designed for writing on papyrus and parchment (with ink). When they are carved (e.g. wood or stone) with ancient technology, the characters have to have a more angular shape (which incidentally is one of the reasons runes were developed around 150 AD) .

Papyrus was easier to use than clay tablets but perhaps almost as important alphabets were so much simpler to learn and use.

There were attempts to simplify cuneiform writing. The best was by the clever Persians during the Achaemenid Empire (550 BC–330 BC). They used a cuneiform alphabet with 36 phonetic characters (including vowels) and 8 logograms. But the time for cuneiform writing was over and the Old Persian characters were eventually abandoned.

Even though writing emerged in the late Uruk period, we have scant written records from this time. The whole period is sometimes called the ‘proto-literary’ period because it was characterised more by the increasing use of symbols that led to the emergence of writing.

Tokens would become almost obsolete and contracts, vouchers, payrolls, accounts and private ownership was all recorded on clay tablets. Some of these were intended as temporary records, but there are something like tens of thousands of Sumerian and other tablets in the back rooms of museums around the world, some not yet not fully translated.

First urbanisation

Most will accept that world's first urbanisation was achieved early in the Uruk period (4100–2900 BC). 

For reasons already explained, archaeology is difficult in Sumer. Wood and stone were in short supply and most construction was mudbrick. There was a tendency to recycle and build on top of older layers. The oldest ruins ended up deep under layers of silt and overlain by more recent, but still important, archaeological remains.

But wasn’t there cities in the Neolithic period?

Some people have been tempted to claim Neolithic settlements as the world’s first cities. One example is Çatalhöyük in Turkey, but it never achieved urbanisation.



Jericho has also been suggested as the world’s first city or 'the world's oldest continually occupied settlement'. Unfortunately it is neither.

It is an impressive settlement dating back to the dawn of the Neolithic period but did not reach urbanisation until the early Bronze Age (maybe by 2600 BC.) when the Eastern Mediterranean coast and surrounding lands were coming into their own.

Jericho has often been abandoned, and so fails the test for the world’s longest continuously occupied settlement.

For instance, it was completely destroyed maybe in the 17th or 16th centuries BC. 

Likely this was by the Egyptians. 

Ahmose I defeated the Canaanite ‘Hyksos’ (foreign rulers of northern Egypt) around 1550 BC. and then campaigned as far as Byblos in Lebanon. A reasonable assumption is that he expelled many Canaanites from Egypt (or they fled before his armies), perhaps inspiring the Biblical story of the Exodus.

A small unwalled settlement was rebuilt there in the 15th century BC but it was soon abandoned and Jericho is said to have been empty till the 10th/9th centuries BC. despite claims that the Israelites under Joshua sacked it (probably in the mid-late 13th century BC).

Was Eridu the world’s first city, then?

In Sumerian tradition the old port city of  Eridu was Sumer’s (and hence the world’s) first city.

It was certainly one of the oldest Sumerian settlement of any substance, being established by famer-settlers in 5,400 BC and was a major settlement in the Ubaid period.

It was very well favoured, being well suited for irrigation and was by the sea for food and trading, handy to marshes and herding. Unfortunately the sea marched (a considerable distance) south under the influence of silting, falling sea levels in the first thousand years and the shallow fall of the land. The low basin where it was situated was especially prone to flooding and Eridu's fortunes fluctuated considerably. It was abandoned at times, but estimates of when this was vary enormously.

One gain from its growing distance to the sea was a massive expansion of the nearby marshes which (during the flood season) formed a giant lake the size of Galilea.

Sumer , with new coast line (Wiki)

Max Mallowan described Eridu as an 'unusually large city' of  ‘not less than 4000 souls’ covering 8-10 ha (20-25 acres) during the Ubaid period. Kate  Fielden said suggested it reached this size  ‘by 2900 BC’.

These estimates are over a thousand years apart ,showing just how murky our knowledge of this period is and how different estimates often contradict each other.

A more important question is, how a settlement of less than 10,000 could be called a ‘city’?

Uruk, the favourite

In Sumerian legends Inanna, the young (but mischievous) patron Goddess of Uruk, challenged her father, Enki, to a drinking competition. While he was drunk, she tricked him into giving her the important  Mes’ (the essence of civilisation) which she took from Eridu to Uruk.

The Mes’s form and characteristics were not specified, though it had some sort of physical form and she was able to put it on display. It was sometimes called a (minor) God in its own right. It included the knowledge, institutions, technology, laws and culture, anything that the Sumerians thought made civilisation possible.

It seems the Sumerians believed the main civilising force had passed from Eridu, the important settlement of Ubaid times to Uruk, the star of the Uruk period.

And impressive, it certainly was for its time, establishing cultural hegemony over a vast region.

White temple and Ziggurat (wiki)

It began around 5,000 BC. and soon absorbed a neighbouring town, resulting in not one but two temple districts. 

From 4000 BC the settlement had a massive ziggurat dedicated to Anu, the sky God. This went through 14 phases of construction, including, in the late Uruk period the erection of a great white temple on top  plastered with gypsum. 

This was 20 metres above the city and would have been able to be seen from a great distance. .

The second temple district,  Eanna (500 metres away) had more modern  temples and monumental buildings. Between the two were busy workshops and residential districts.

Throughout the whole period, which bears its name, Uruk grew rapidly. Unfortunately, the time periods are extremely imprecise but it seems to have reached urbanisation sometime in the early Uruk period. 

By 3700 BC it was said to have reached between 175–250 ac (70–100 ha). After Uruk, but still during this period, the culture of Uruk (and urbanisation) began to spread to other sites.

Uruk eventually managed to expand its sphere of influence as far as Upper Mesopotamia, northern Syria, western Iran and south-eastern Anatolia. The actual mechanism of this ‘Uruk Expansion’ is not fully understood but it seemed to be a combination of military expansion and cultural and trading dominance.  

The greater region and its surrounds was not exactly the one culture, there were regional difference and differences in language in places like Elam and Northern Mesopotamia.

By the end of the period, Uruk had reached 40-50,000 citizens with 80,000-90,000 in its surrounds.

Tell Brak, a little known contender

A team of American and British archaeologists surveying Tel Brak in Syria, believe they have found the world’s first city, and it was in Syria (Upper Mesopotamia) instead.

They published (in 2011) the culmination of over thirty years work and publications.

The original name of the city is  unknown but it was later called Nagar. It was founded during the earlier northern Halaf culture. Situated on a river crossing between Anatolia, the Levant and Sothern Mesopotamia it became an important trading and manufacturing hub absorbing the earlier ‘northern Ubaid’ culture.

During the Ubaid and Uruk period, its growth mirrored that of Sumer and it became the largest city of  Northern Mesopotamian at that time.

In the late Uruk period it had an Uruk enclave and considerable Uruk influence. Interesting this enclave was abandoned and levelled at the end of the Uruk period and the city suffered a significant contraction.

At the start of the Uruk period Tell Brak was already 55 hectares. 

It was bigger the Nineveh, then known as Ninua, not far from Mosul in northern Iraq. It was destined to become famous and the world's largest city by around 700 BC. Back then , it came second at 'only' 40 hectares. 

By the end of the Uruk period 'Brak' had reached 130 hectares, making it a serious contender with Uruk as the world’s first city.

It had a sophisticated temple which was wood panelled inside and a semi-colonnaded façade, the first of its kind. It is called the ‘eye’ temple for the particular alabaster and bone votive figures found inside thought to be representing the local all- seeing Goddess. It had strong walls and the presence of four mass graves suggest periods of warfare.

A similar but smaller city, Hamoukar, to the east was destroyed in around 3500 BC after a siege. The culprits are unknown but most suspect a military expedition from Uruk.  Civilisation had brought the wonderful benefits of siege warfare and the wholesale capturing of the defeated as slaves.

And the winner is?

Sadly due to the problems of excavation in Sumer, it is impossible to decide if the first city was Uruk or Tell Brak, but by the early Uruk period the world’s cities had begun to emerge.

The Sudden Collapse

Around 3100 BC. just when Uruk was at the height of its power, it and the cities of Southern Sumer faced some sort of relatively sudden catastrophe.

Uruk’s influence collapsed, long distance trade in and out of Sumer dwindled to a trickle

The Uruk culture ceased, only to be replaced by the inward looking  Jemdet Nasr Culture (3100 to 2900 BC ) which had been in the north but now showed an influence over the southern cities, even Uruk. 

Settlements became less dense and hand painted pottery emerged, suggesting the end of cheaper mass production.

Exactly what happened politically during this period is unclear but at the start of the next period, the early dynastic period 2900–2350 BC hegemony had already passed to the northern city of Kish which for a time controlled Uruk.

Kish was ruled by Akkadian (Semitic) kings and presumably had at least a strong Akkadian influence, if not a majority Akkadian population.  

Was it an invasion from the north?

Many Archaeologists believe that the fall of Uruk was due to migration of Semitic people into the northern regions but what does ancient DNA studies tell us about this?

It is harder to extract viable DNA from ancient samples in a warm climate, but recent studies show that the ancient natives of the Levant were distinct from the ancient people of Zagros (Iran) and Anatolia (Turkey).

They had connections with people of Arabia and north western Africa but had diverged from them by 13,000 BC or maybe even as early as 22,000 BC . 

The bulk of the DNA for modern day Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanians and Syrians (speakers of Levantine Arabic) come from this group. There has been the addition of other DNA over time (which is not too surprising in such a busy corridor for people movement).

In other words, the ancestors of the ('Levantine') Semitic and related people arose in the Levant in Late Palaeolithic times and were part of the Mesolithic Natufian culture (which began in 13,000 BC). 

It was they who were responsible for the earliest Neolithic culture beginning 10,000 BC. 

By 7,500 BC Neolithic culture had spread decisively across the whole fertile crescent including into what is now Syria, north of Sumer, giving rise to a number of Neolithic and Copper Age settlements and cultures. 

As soon as we have written records for these regions, the people north of Sumer were Semitic. Their languages were Eastern Semitic, which included Akkadian.

It seems most likely they were already there in Mesolithic, Natufian times and if not, they spread out in Neolithic times. So it wasn't they that invaded at the end of the Uruk period, they were already there. 

Climate change

Due to the loss of the ‘Indian’ Monsoon, Arabia had continued to dry out throughout the Uruk period, settlements withdrawing to oases and favourable areas of the coast.

For the rest of the Middle East, the Uruk period was colder and wetter (under the ‘Piora Oscillation’ 3900-3000 BC.)  Some archaeologists postulate the Uruk culture fell due to  a dry spell at the end of this period, causing a rise in salination.

Other invaders from the north?

In the north of the Levant between the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age the West Semitic people had a major genetic influx from the Zagros (Iran) region and the Caucasus.

While we don’t have data from the Syrians from this time, they show a similar genetic influence, so it is seems reasonable that a similar thing was happening to them about the same time.

As long distance trade seems to have been disrupted and Tell Brak and other northern settlements went into serious decline at this time, it was unlikely to be a peaceful process.

We can then postulate a drought affecting Sumer also affected surrounding regions and displaced people from the North and they worsened whatever the 'Urukians' and their northern Semitic neighbours were facing.

The Jemdet Nasr Culture can be traced back into Uruk times. It was the native culture of Northern Sumer  and most prominent in 'back water' settlements which had less influence from the dominant Uruk culture, so whatever disruption these invaders into the north caused, they did not displace the existing natives.

Rise of the Semitic People

The Sumerians (whatever their origin) were facing rising dominance of and competition from the Semitic people.

After all Kish was dominant in the early Dynastic period and Sumer was destined to be conquered by Akkad (which was close to Kish) in 2334 BC.  

The Mediterranean Bronze Age (beginning 3300 BC. ) is synonymous with the rise in power of the Semitic people, especially in the Levant. 

Bronze is not possible without long distance trade, especially by sea. Tin (for bronze) was variously sourced from places like Turkey and eventually Cornwall (2,000 BC).

With increasing sea and land travel, Egypt, the other great producer of grain, was no longer isolated and came into its own. It, like Sumer, became very wealthy but was short of wood and still used reed boats.

The eastern part of the Mediterranean was particularly favourable to sea transport due to the combinations of winds, currents, and general topography. Semitic people of the Levant (ancestors to the Phoenicians and others) had the cedar of Lebanon and other sources of wood.

They also stood across the land routes to and from Egypt and the important ports of the Eastern Med. 

They became the great sea and land traders achieving a dominance that would last millennia, through till the fall of Carthage in 146 BC.

Early in this period, the Southern Canaanites set up trading colonies in Egypt and they briefly conquered (as the Hyksos) the lower Nile (1650-1550 BC).

We can assume Tell Brak was a Semitic city, but it was not the last great city they built in the Levant or to the north of Sumer.

If it was the northern Semitic people who recovered from the catastrophe first, so an invasion from the north couldn't be the main cause of whatever catastrophe Uruk faced. 

It had to be something particularly affecting the south. We need to turn back to the effects of climate change. Drought and salinisation is a definite possibility, but was there something else?

Does the Great Flood Myth refer to a real event?

Climate change sometimes brings a period of climate instability, not just drought, maybe floods.

The Sumerians believed this period ended with the Great Flood.

Of course, the Sumerians were not the only ancient people to have a flood myth,  but it was their version that inspired many of the others including the Dravidians (Indians), the Romans, the Greeks ... and the Flood Myth in the Bible. 

Gustave Dore, Bible Illustration
The early books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy) are now thought to be first recorded when many Israelites were held captive in Babylon (from around 598 BC). 

They show multiple examples of Mesopotamian influence.

There are different versions of the Sumerian myth. They all include the tradition that previous Sumerian leaders lived for many centuries. 

The Sumerian ‘Noah’ was called Ziusudra and was the leading priest/king of all of Sumer.

 One later version bears an uncanny resemblance to the Biblical story. In this, the ‘Sumerian Noah’ lands on Mt. Nisir, ( meaning ‘mount of salvation’, where-ever that was) unlike the previous versions where he was washed down to Dilmun (part of nearby Arabia in the Persian Gulf) .   

Most modern archaeologists do not take this idea seriously. Part of the argument is that if the flood was a real event we should have records mentioning it earlier and the earliest version dates to 1600 BC  (Nippur)

Perhaps not.

Most versions of the ‘Sumerian Kings List’ take the flood as the starting point for Kish (some give a list the mythical kings before the flood), so we can push this date back many hundreds of years. It is also suspected that the original ‘SKL’ was written some time during the Akkadian empire (2334 – 2154 BC) but those copies have been lost, so that might get us a little closer.

It also goes without saying that (in this context) absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

After a great catastrophe (at a time when writing was only emerging and possibly followed by a time of cultural weakness in the South) it may not be surprising that we don’t have good records. In fact, this sort of situation is not unique in archaeology. 

One thing we know for sure about Sumer is that we have only recovered a small fraction of what was written, especially from the earliest of times.

Archaeological evidence on the other hand, shows there was not one, but several truly catastrophic floods between 4,000 and 2,000 BC. Some of these affected different parts of Sumer and some happened during the period of writing, and were recorded.

In 1964, Sir Max Mallowan  (eminent archaeologist and husband of Agatha Christie) was amongst several archaeologists who pointed to one apocalyptic flood, around 2900 BC, which fits the end of the Uruk Era.

It also involved a large area in the south, with silt and interrupted settlement at several sites.

If this was the ‘big one’ and the source of the myth, it wasn’t a once in a thousand year flood. It was Armageddon, the end of the world. It was sent by the Gods to eliminate mankind, or at least that’s the way it must have seemed to the people of Sumer.

They were well used to damaging floods, their settlements had massive dykes and flood defences, but they would have been overwhelmed. Crops, livestock, livelihoods, important food stores and infrastructure would have been gone.

They had plenty of reed boats, (canals were the main form of transport after all) but its hard to  know how effective they were in such a massive flood, and the ensuing chaos.

Following the fall of the Southern cities of Sumer, it was the Northern (Semitic) cities like Kish, Jemdet Nasr and Akkad that were amongst the first to recover. Whatever catastrophe struck, hit southern Sumer harder.

Not that the Flood Myths are anything like a historical account, but it is easy to believe such an event was imprinted on the Mesopotamian psyche with scars so deep that the legend lives on today, even five millennia later.

Whatever was the cause of the fall of Uruk, climate seemed to play a huge part. The Sumerians had taken their inhospitable land and with massive labour and ingenuity had  turned it into one of the most fertile places in Earth, but it was always ready to turn on them.

One thing about the Sumerians was their ability to recover, but even as they did, time was running out for them and their land.

I hope you have enjoyed this second blog on the Incredible Sumerians. 

Part 3 of this 4 part series will look at the Early Dynastic Period' : Recovery, Kings and Emperors 

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