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Sumer

Sumer

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The oldest human civilization known to mankind can be traced to Sumer. While nomadic tribes are known to have wandered the deserts of the Near East, the Fertile Crescent, a stretch of land rich in natural irrigation, attracted the earliest settlers. Among the earliest civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia, the society of Sumer has its roots as far back as 6500 BC.

Sumerian Civilization
The land of Sumer, to the south of Mesopotamia, was part of the rich Tigris-Euphrates Valley. The Sumerian civilization thrived in the regions that are now part of Iraq. Historical evidence shows that the Sumerian Civilization dates back to about 6500 BC Sumer is among the oldest known civilizations of the world. Non-Semitic wanderers found the fertile land ideal for agriculture, and an abundance of crop dissuaded the tribes from moving on at the end of every agricultural season. Sumerian civilization is believed to have been influenced by the culture of the Samarran tribes who had settled to the north of Mesopotamia. The culture of Sumer took on an individual identity in the Uruk Period (around 4000 BC).

Sumerian Royal Tombs
The tombs of the Sumerian royals were discovered by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, a British archaeologist. Sir Woolley started work in Ur, Mesopotamia, in 1922. Ur had been an important city-state in Sumer on the banks of the Euphrates. Between 1922 and 1934, Woolley discovered the site of many ancient Sumerian tombs including the tomb of Queen Puabi. The Royal Tombs of Sumer date back to 2600 BC. The seals, jewelry, tablets, and other artifacts found at the site cast much light on the civilization and its cultural and religious practices. The objects unearthed at the limestone tombs of Ur are currently on display in London at the British Museum.

Fun Fact: Agatha Christie based her novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, on Sir Woolley's discoveries.

Significant Cities of Sumer
The land of Sumer was dotted with many city-states. Evidence of at least twelve important city-states has been discovered by archeologists. Each of Adab, Akshak, Bad-Tibira, Erech, Kish, Lagash, Larak, Larsa, Nippur, Umma, Ur, and Sippar, centered around a temple. Each of the city-states had its own patron deity and was administered by a king (lugal) or a priest-governor (ensi). The boundaries of these states are believed to have been defined by man-made canals and stone walls.

Attempts to unite the rival states of Sumer were initially made by Etana, the king of Kish, in about 2800 BC. Internal rivalry, however, invited invasion by the Elamites and Akkadians. The Akkadian king, Sargon, is believed to have been the first monarch to unite all of Sumer in 2334 BC.

Sumerian Society
Agriculture formed the core of Sumerian civilization. The inhabitants of ancient Sumer were the earliest known civilization in Mesopotamia to have practiced farming and agriculture throughout the year. They carried out advanced agricultural operations, such as draining marshlands and developing an organized system of canals for irrigation. The Sumerian systems for storage of surplus produce and trade show that they were an advanced civilization.

It is believed that the society in Sumer encouraged division of labor. Weaving fabric, sewing clothes, leatherwork, masonry, pottery, ship building, and metalwork were popular occupations in ancient Sumer. The priests and royals hired scribes to record important events and activities. This made the scribes an elite class in Sumerian society.

Inventing the Wheel
The Sumerians are the first known civilization to have used a wheel. Archeologists believe that ancient Sumerians of the Uruk Period produced fast wheels. This resulted in the invention of chariots. Sumerians had discovered the use of wheel in the Ubaid Period (around 6500 - 4000 BC), but the wheels of this period were slow. The fast wheel was developed in the Uruk Era, revolutionizing the indigenous industries. Pottery was a major beneficiary of the wheel, as pots and earthenware could be mass produced. Wheels also gave a boost to irrigation and canal-building.

Sumerian Contributions
The greatest contribution of early Sumerian civilization to the world is writing. Sumerians were the earliest known civilization to move from an oral tradition to a written one, recording important events on clay tablets. They practiced cuneiform writing and recorded significant aspects of their society. The crops, taxes, myths and legends, the movement of the stars, and their religious practices were all recorded in ancient Sumer. Ur-Nammu, the monarch of the Third Dynasty of Ur, was the first known king to have a written code of laws. Cylindrical metal seals were used by priests and kings to record their dictates on clay. The Sumerians are also credited with the invention of boats and ships.

The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known written literature and an epic poem from Sumer. It is the story of the Sumerian king, Gilgamesh. The epic exalts the exploits of the ruler of Uruk and his friend, Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods. Gilgamesh went in search of immortality, as the tale goes, and met many fantastic creatures in strange lands. Gilgamesh is believed to have lived around 2500 BC. The best-preserved version of the epic comes from the personal collection of Assyrian monarch Ashurbanipal in the form of twelve clay tablets dating back to around the seventh century BC.

The Great Flood
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Uruk king meets Utnapishtim, a wise old man who tells him the tale of a great flood that was sent by the gods to destroy all of mankind. Utnapishtim recalls building a boat and rescuing all living things. This Sumerian myth seems to have been the origin of the Great Flood referred to in the Bible. The story of Noah's Ark is uncannily similar to the tale recounted by Utnapishtim to Gilgamesh. The Epic of Atrahasis recounts a similar story about a great flood in Sumer. It is quite likely that this myth refers to the shift of the North Pole, in about 10,000 BC, which may have ended the ice age.

Religion in Sumer
Each city-state of Sumer centered around a temple or ziggurat. Different city-states worshipped different deities, each a personification of a natural element or phenomena. Shamash, the sun god, and Nanna, the moon god, were commonly worshipped. The Sumerian religion was replete with rituals and symbolism. Mount Mashu, the twin peaks in Mesopotamia were considered sacred. The temples had their own priests and scribes who wielded much political power. Art in ancient Sumer was used for religious purposes. Elaborate sculptures were made and displayed in the temples. Ancient Sumerians believed in the afterlife. Evidence of this is found in the form of slaves entombed with the royals, possibly to serve them.

Ancient Sumer and Sumerian culture have fascinated historians and archeologists for a long time. Besides being highly advanced in matters of agriculture and technology, ancient Sumerians seem to have been innovative mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists. The Sumerians used a twelve-month calendar not unlike what is used in modern times. The sixty-minute hour and sixty-second minute are ideas derived from ancient Sumer. A highly developed system of trade also ensured a thriving system of calculations. The concept of a dozen is attributed to ancient Sumer. Units of measurement similar to the modern-day inch and foot seem to have existed in ancient Sumer. Despite being the oldest of human civilizations, Sumerian civilization effortlessly blended religion and theology with science and technology.

Conquest by the Akkadians and the Gutians in the second century BC overshadowed Sumerian culture. Despite a brief renaissance, Sumer fell once more, this time to the Amorite conquerors. Sumerian culture was gradually lost to the world.

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