The Emergence Of Civilization In Sumer, c. 3100-2800 B.C.
By 3100 B.C. the population of Sumer had increased to the point where people were living in cities and had developed a preponderance of those elements previously noted as constituting civilization. Since these included the first evidence of writing, this first phase of Sumerian civilization, to about 28 B.C., is called the Protoliterate period.
The original homeland of the Sumerians is unknown. It is believed that they came from the east, but whether by sea or from the highlands is unknown. Their language is not related to those major language families that later appear in the Near East – Semites and Indo-Europeans. (The original home of the Semitic-speaking peoples is thought to have been the Arabian peninsula, while the Indo-Europeans seem to be migrated from the region north of the Black and Caspian seas. A third, much smaller language family is the Hamitic, which included the Egyptians and other peoples of northeastern Africa.)
How would life in Protoliterate Sumer have appeared to visitors seeing it for the first time? As they approached Ur, one of about a dozen Sumerian cities, they would pass farmers working in their fields with ox-drawn plows. They might see some of the workers using bronze sickles. The river would be dotted by boats carrying produce to and from the city. Dominating the flat countryside would be a ziggurat, a platform (later a lofty terrace, built in the shape of a pyramid) crowned by a sanctuary, or “high place.” This was the “holy of holies,” sacred to the local god. Upon entering the city, visitors would see a large number of specialists pursuing their appointed tasks as agents of the community and not as private entrepreneurs – some craftsmen casting bronze tools and weapons, others fashioning their wares on the potter’s wheel, and merchants arranging to trade grain and manufactures for the metals, stone, lumber, and other essentials not available in Sumer.
Scribes would be at work incising clay tablets with picture signs. Some tablets might bear the impression of cylinder seals, small stone cylinders engraved with a design. Examining the clay tablets, the visitors would find that they were memoranda used in administering a temple, which was also a warehouse and workshop. Some of the scribes might be making an inventory of the goats and sheep received that day for sacrificial use; others might be drawing up wage lists. They would be using a system of counting based on the unit 60 – the sexagismal system rather than the decimal system which is based on the unit 10. It is still used today in computing divisions of time and angles.
Certain technical inventions of Protoliterate Sumer eventually made their way to both the Nile and the Indus valleys. Chief among these were the wheeled vehicle and the potter’s wheel. The discovery in Egypt of cylinder seals similar in shape to those used in Sumer attests to contact between the two areas toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C. Certain early Egyptian art motifs and architectural forms are also thought to be of Sumerian origin. And it is probable that the example of Sumerian writing stimulated the Egyptians to develop a script of their own.
The Rise of the Sumerian City States
Little is known about the origins of the Sumerian people, who spoke a language totally distinct from that of the Semitic inhabitants of the valleys to the north. The Sumerians probably moved down into the swamps of the delta under pressure of over-population of the foothills after 3900 B. c. Al- though at first they formed small agricultural villages, they soon found not only that the richness of the alluvial land permitted greater density of settlement but also that the vast engineering works in canals and dikes necessary to harness the annual floods required work forces of hundreds of men. Moreover, the layout and clearing of the canals required expert planning, while the division of the irrigated land, the water, and the crops demanded political control. By 3000 B. c. the Sumerians had solved this problem by forming “temple-communities,” in which a class of priest-bureaucrats con- trolled the political and economic life of the city in the name of the city gods.
All Sumerian cities recognized a number of gods in common, including Anu the sky god, Enlil the lord of storms, and Ishtar the morning and evening star. The gods seemed hopelessly violent and unpredictable, and one’s life a period of slavery to their whims. The epic poem, The Creation, emphasizes that mortals were created to enable the gods to give up working. Each city moreover had its own god, who was considered literally to inhabit the temple and who was in theory the owner of all property within the city. Hence the priests who interpreted the will of the god and controlled the distribution of the economic produce of the city were venerated for their supernatural and material functions alike. When, after 3000 B. c., the growing warfare among the cities made military leadership vital, the head of the army who became king assumed an intermediate position between the god, whose agent he was, and the priestly class, whom he had both to use and to conciliate. Thus, king and priests represented the upper class in a hierarchical society. Below them were the scribes, the secular attendants of the temple, who supervised every aspect of the city’s economic life and who developed a rough judicial system. Outside the temple officials, society was divided between an elite or noble group of large landowners and military leaders; a heterogeneous group of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen; free peasants who composed the majority of the population; and slaves.
The Sumerian Achievement
The priests and scribes of the temples must be credited with the great advances made by the Sumerians in both arts and science. Following the invention of cuneiform writing, a rich epic literature was created, of which the three most impressive survivals are the story of the creation, an epic of the flood which parallels in many details the Biblical story of Noah, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third man, is the classic hero of Mesopotamian literature, a majestic, almost overly powerful figure pressing the gods in vain for the secret of immortality. He is also a great lover of his city Uruk; and throughout the poem we find, perhaps for the first time in literature, the celebration of the appeal of the civilized life of a great city. Gilgamesh, we are told at the start of the poem, has built the great rampart which still today runs seven miles around the ruins of his city:
Of ramparted Uruk the wall he built. Of hallowed Eanna, the pure sanctuary. Behold its outer wall, whose cornice is like copper. Peer at the inner wall, which none can equal. Seize upon the threshold which is of old. Draw near to Eanna the dwelling of Ishtar Which no future kin, no man, can equal. Go up and walk on the walls of Uruk, Inspect the base terrace, examine the brickwork: Is it not the brickwork of burnt brick? Did not the Seven Sages lay its foundation?
Sculpture, too, advanced to serve the needs of the temples and then of the kings. The earliest statues surviving show bearded figures with wide staring eyes and piously clasped hands who represent some form of fertility cult. Later work in limestone or alabaster shows the female goddess bringing water, once again the symbol of fertility, while the achievements of the Akkadian rulers during their brief hegemony are recorded on enormous sandstone tablets. Few portrait busts cast in antiquity rival the expressive dignity of the head of Sargon of Akkad. Even more demanding in artistic technique were the small cylinder seals used to roll one’s signature into the wet clay of a tablet recording a commercial transaction. Thousands of these tablets have been found in the temple compounds, proving that the bureaucrats of Sumer had developed a complex commercial system, including con- tracts, grants of credit, loans with interest, and business partnerships. Moreover, the planning of the vast public works under their control led the priests to develop a useful mathematical notation, including both a decimal notation and a system based upon 60, which has given us our sixty-second minute, our sixty-minute hour and our division of the circle into 360 degrees. They invented mathematical tables and used quadratic equations. Both for religious and agricultural purposes, they studied the heavens, and they created a lunar calendar with a day of 24 hours and a week of seven days. Much of this science was transmitted to the West by the Greeks and later by the Arabs. It is not surprising, however, that the achievement which the Sumerians themselves admired most was the city itself.