Sumerian Cities and Architecture

Sumerian Cities

Sumerian towns and cities included Eridu, Nippur, Lagash, Kish, and Ur. The cities differed from primitive farming settlements. They were not composed of family-owned farms, but were ringed by large tracts of land. These tracts were thought to be “owned” by a local god. A priest organized work groups of farmers to tend the land and provide barley, beans, wheat, olives, grapes, and flax for the community.

These early cities, which existed by 3500 BC, were called temple towns because they were built around the temple of the local god. The temples were eventually built up on towers called ziggurats (holy mountains), which had ramps or staircases winding up around the exterior. Public buildings and marketplaces were built around these shrines.

The temple towns grew into city-states, which are considered the basis of the first true civilizations. At a time when only the most rudimentary forms of transportation and communication were available, the city-state was the most governable type of human settlement. City-states were ruled by leaders, called ensis, who were probably authorized to control the local irrigation systems. The food surplus provided by the farmers supported these leaders, as well as priests, artists, craftsmen, and others.

The Sumerians contributed to the development of metalworking, wheeled carts, and potter’s wheels. They may have invented the first form of writing. They engraved pictures on clay tablets in a form of writing known as cuneiform (wedge-shaped). The tablets were used to keep the accounts of the temple food storehouses. By about 2500 BC these picture-signs were being refined into an alphabet.

The Sumerians developed the first calendar, which they adjusted to the phases of the moon. The lunar calendar was adopted by the Semites, Egyptians, and Greeks. An increase in trade between Sumerian cities and between Sumeria and other, more distant regions led to the growth of a merchant class.

The Sumerians organized a complex mythology based on the relationships among the various local gods of the temple towns. In Sumerian religion, the most important gods were seen as human forms of natural forces–sky, sun, earth, water, and storm. These gods, each originally associated with a particular city, were worshiped not only in the great temples but also in small shrines in family homes.

Warfare between cities eventually led to the rise of kings, called lugals, whose authority replaced that of city-state rulers. Sumeria became a more unified state, with a common culture and a centralized government. This led to the establishment of a bureaucracy and an army. By 2375 BC, most of Sumer was united under one king, Lugalzaggisi of Umma.


The Sumerian temple was a small brick house that the god was supposed to visit periodically. It was ornamented so as to recall the reed houses built by the earliest Sumerians in the valley. This house, however, was set on a brick platform, which became larger and taller as time progressed until the platform at Ur (built around 2100 BC) was 150 by 200 feet (45 by 60 meters) and 75 feet (23 meters) high. These Mesopotamian temple platforms are called ziggurats, a word derived from the Assyrian ziqquratu, meaning “high.” They were symbols in themselves; the ziggurat at Ur was planted with trees to make it represent a mountain. There the god visited Earth, and the priests climbed to its top to worship.

The ziggurat continued as the essential temple form of Mesopotamia during the later Assyrian and Babylonian eras. In these later times it became taller and more tower-like, perhaps with a spiral path leading up to the temple at the top. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the main temple of Babylon, the famous Tower of Babel, was such a tower divided into seven diminishing stages, each a different color: white, black, purple, blue, orange, silver, and gold.

Each Sumerian city rose up around the shrine of a local god. As a reflection of a city’s wealth, its temple became an elaborate structure. The temple buildings stood on a spacious raised platform reached by staircases and ramps. From the platform rose the temple tower, called a ziggurat (holy mountain), with a circular staircase or ramp around the outside. On the temple grounds were quarters for priests, officials, accountants, musicians, and singers; treasure chambers; storehouses for grain, tools, and weapons; and workshops for bakers, pottery makers, brewers, leatherworkers, spinners and weavers, and jewelers. There were also pens for keeping the sheep and goats that were destined for sacrifice to the temple god.

Horses and camels were still unknown, but sheep, goats, oxen, donkeys, and dogs had been domesticated. The plow had been invented, and the wheel, made from a solid piece of wood, was used for carts and for shaping pottery. Oxen pulled the carts and plows; donkeys served as pack animals. Bulky goods were moved by boat on the rivers and canals. The boats were usually hauled from the banks, but sails also were in use. Before 3000 BC the Sumerians had learned to make tools and weapons by smelting copper with tin to make bronze, a much harder metal than copper alone.

Mud, clay, and reeds were the only materials the Sumerians had in abundance. Trade was therefore necessary to supply the city workers with materials. Merchants went out in overland caravans or in ships to exchange the products of Sumerian industry for wood, stone, and metals. There are indications that Sumerian sailing vessels even reached the valley of the Indus River in India. The chief route, however, was around the Fertile Crescent, between the Arabian Desert and the northern mountains. This route led up the valley of the two rivers, westward to Syria, and down the Mediterranean coast.

The Physical Appearance of the Sumerian City

All of the Sumerian cities were built beside rivers, either on the Tigris or Euphrates or on one of their tributaries. The city rose, inside its brown brick walls, amid well-watered gardens and pastures won from the swamps. In all directions, the high levees of the irrigation canals led to grain and vegetable fields. The trading class lived and worked in the harbor area, where the river boats brought such goods as stone, copper, and timber from the north. Most citizens lived within the walls in small, one-story houses constructed along narrow alleyways, although the more elaborate homes were colonnaded and built around an inner courtyard. By far the most impressive section of the city was the temple compound, which was surrounded by its own wall. Here were the workshops and homes of large numbers of temple craftsmen, such as gwiers, jewelers, carpenters, and weavers, the offices and schoolrooms of the scribes, and the commercial and legal offices of the bureaucrat-priests. The king’s palace and graveyard was located near the temple; and, as Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur proved, an increasingly lavish form of ceremonial life was organized here as the kings gained greater control over the city’s surplus. Woolley himself de- scribed the growing horror his archaeological party felt as they slowly un- covered the royal graves, because they discovered not only elaborate golden daggers, headdresses of gold, lapis lazuli and camelian, fantastically worked heads of bulls, harps and lyres, sledges and chariots, but also lines of elegantly costumed skeletons laid carefully in rows. In a gigantic mass suicide, probably through the drinking of a drug, the king’s courtiers and some of his soldiers had gone to their deaths with their master.

The most elaborate of the Sumerian buildings was the temple or ziggurat. Normally a huge platform or terrace was first constructed, upon which the temple could be built; but in later times, as the terraces grew to be like artificial mountains, they were built in huge steps or levels mounted by an elaborate stairway clearly symbolizing the ascent toward heaven. The purpose of these ziggurats is still unclear. We do know that they were not burial chambers like the pyramids of Egypt , nor were they for human sacrifice like the pyramids of Aztec Mexico. It has been suggested that they were a nostalgic re-creation of the mountains the original settlers had left, or an at- tempt to raise the city’s god above the material life of the streets below, or an attempt to reach closer to heaven. We do know that the creation of a temple was regarded as a god-imposed task for every ruler of any ambition. Gudea, ruler of Lagash about 2000 B. c., built fifteen large temples with the aid of the gods: “Inscrutable as the sky, the wisdom of the Lord, of Ningirsu, the son of Enlil, will soothe thee,” he was told. “He will reveal to thee the plan of His temple, and the Warrior whose decrees are great will build it for thee.” The task proved enormous.

[Gudea purified the holy city and encircled it with fires …. He collected clay in a very pure place; in a pure place he made with it the brick and put the brick into the mold. He followed the rites in all their splendor: he purified the foundations of the temple, surrounded it with fires, anointed the platform with an aromatic balm…

Gudea, the great en-priest of Ningirsu, made a path in the Cedar mountains which nobody had entered before; he cut its cedars with great axes. . . . Like giant snakes, cedars were floating down the water….

In the quarries which nobody had entered before, Gudea, the great en- priest of Ningirsu, made a path, and then the stones were delivered in large blocks…. Many other precious metals were carried to the ensi. From the Copper mountain of Kimash    … its copper was mined in clusters; gold was delivered from its mountains as dust ….  For Gudea, they mined silver from its mountains, delivered red stone from Aeluhha in great amount ….

Finally, when the temple was finished, Gudea declared proudly: “Respect for the temple pervades the country; the fear of it fills the strangers; the brilliance of the Eninnu enfolds the universe like a mantle.