Background and History


term "Sumerian" is an exonym (a name given by another group of people), first applied by the Akkadians. The Sumerians described themselves as "the black-headed people" (sag-gi-ga) and called their land ki-en-gir, "place of the civilized lords". The Akkadian word Shumer possibly represents this name in dialect.

The Sumerians, with a language, culture, and, perhaps, appearance different from their Semitic neighbors and successors were at one time believed to have been invaders, but the archaeological record shows cultural continuity from the time of the early Ubaid period (5200-4500 BC C-14, 6090-5429 calBC) settlements in southern Mesopotamia.

The challenge for any population attempting to dwell in Iraq's arid southern floodplain was to master the Tigris and Euphrates river waters for year-round agriculture and drinking water. In fact, the Sumerian language is replete with terms for canals, dikes, and reservoirs, indicating that Sumerian speakers were farmers who moved down from the north after perfecting irrigation agriculture there.

The Ubaid pottery of southern Mesopotamia has been connected via 'Choga Mami Transitional' ware to the pottery of the Samarra period culture (5700-4900 BC C-14, 6640-5816 calBC) in the north, who were the first to practice a primitive form of irrigation agriculture along the middle Tigris river and its tributaries.

The connection is most clearly seen at Tell Awayli (Oueilli/Oueili) near Larsa, excavated by the French in the 1980s, where 8 levels yielded pre-Ubaid pottery with affinities to Samarran ware.

Sumerian speakers spread down into southern Mesopotamia because they had developed a social organization and a technology that enabled them, through their control of the water, to survive and prosper in a difficult environment where, other than a possible indigenous hunter-gatherer population in the marshlands at the head of the Arabo-Persian Gulf and seasonal pastoralists, they had no competition.

A distinctive style of painted pottery spread throughout Mesopotamia in the Ubaid period, when the ancient Sumerian cult-center of Eridu was gradually surpassed in size by the nearby city of Uruk. The archaeological transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift from painted pottery domestically-produced on a slow wheel, to a great variety of unpainted pottery mass-produced by specialists on a fast wheel.

The date of this transition, from Ubaid 4 to Early Uruk, is in dispute, but calibrated radiocarbon dates from Tell Awayli would place it as early as 4500 BC.By the time of the Uruk period (4500-3100 BC calibrated), the volume of trade goods being inexpensively transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large temple-centered cities where centralized administrations could afford to employ specialized workers. It is fairly certain that it was during the Uruk period that Sumerian cities began to make use of slave labor, and there is ample evidence for captured slaves as workers in the earliest texts.

Artifacts, and even colonies of this Uruk civilization have been found over a wide area - from the Mediterranean sea in the west, to the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, and as far east as Central Iran.

The Uruk period civilization, exported by Sumerian traders and colonists, had a stimulating and influential effect on surrounding peoples, who gradually evolved their own comparable, competing economies.

The cities of Sumer could not maintain remote, long-distance colonies purely by military force; the domestic horse did not appear in Sumer until the Ur III period - one thousand years after the Uruk period ended. The end of the Uruk period coincided with a dry period from 3200-2900 BC that marked the end of a long wetter, warmer climate period from ca. 9,000 to 5,000 years B.P. called the Holocene climatic optimum.

When the historical record opens, the Sumerians seem to be limited to southern Mesopotamia, although very early rulers such as Lugal-Anne-Mundu are indeed recorded as expanding to neighboring areas as far as the Mediterranean, Taurus and Zagros, and not long after legendary figures like Enmerkar and Gilgamesh, who are associated in mythology with the historical transfer of culture from Eridu to Uruk, were supposed to have reigned.

The term 'Sumerian' applies to speakers of the Sumerian language. The Sumerian language is generally regarded as a language isolate in linguistics because it belongs to no known language family; Akkadian belongs to the Afro-Asiatic languages.


In the earliest known period Sumer was divided into several independent city-states, whose limits were defined by canals and boundary stones. Each was centered on a temple dedicated to the patron god or goddess of the city and ruled over by a priest or king, who was intimately tied to the city's religious rites.Some of the major cities included Eridu, Kish, Lagash, Uruk, Ur, and Nippur. As these cities developed, they sought to assert primacy over each other, falling into a millennium of almost incessant warfare over water rights, trade routes, and tribute from nomadic tribes.

The Sumerian king list contains a traditional list of the early dynasties, much of it probably mythical. The first name on the list whose existence is authenticated through archaeological evidence, is that of Enmebaragesi of Kish, whose name is also mentioned in the Gilgamesh epics. This has led some to suggest that Gilgamesh really was a historical king of Uruk.

The dynasty of Lagash is well known through important monuments, and one of the first empires in recorded history was that of Eannatum of Lagash, who annexed practically all of Sumer, including Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Larsa, and reduced to tribute the city-state of Umma, arch-rival of Lagash. In addition, his realm extended to parts of Elam and along the Persian Gulf.

Lugal-Zage-Si, the priest-king of Umma, overthrew the primacy of the Lagash dynasty, took Uruk, making it his capital, and claimed an empire extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. He is the last ethnically Sumerian king before the arrival of the Semitic named king, Sargon of Akkad.

Under Sargon, the Semitic Akkadian language came to the fore in inscriptions, although Sumerian did not disappear completely. The Sumerian language still appears on dedicatory statues and official seals of Sargon and his heirs. Thorkild Jacobsen has argued that there is little break in historical continuity between the pre and post Sargon periods, and that too much emphasis has been placed on the perception of a "Semitic vs. Sumerian" conflict (see Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture by T. Jacobsen). However, it is certain that Akkadian was also briefly imposed on neighboring parts of Elam that were conquered by Sargon.

Following the downfall of Akkadian Empire at the hands of barbarian Gutians, another native Sumerian ruler, Gudea of Lagash, rose to prominence, promoting artistic development and continuing the practice of the Sargonid kings' claims to divinity. Later on, the 3rd dynasty of Ur was the last great "Sumerian renaissance", but already the region was becoming more Semitic than Sumerian, with the influx of the waves of Amorites who were to found the Babylonian Empire.

Earliest City-states

Inscriptions have been found bearing some early names from the King List. The first name on the List whose historical existence is attested archaeologically is that of Enmebaragesi of Kish, said to have conquered Elam and built the temple of Enlil in Nippur. His successor, Agga, is said to have fought with Gilgamesh of Uruk.

Another name from the King List, Mesannepada of Ur seems to have succeeded his father, Meskalamdug. Mesannepada also defeated Uruk and Kish, thereafter calling himself by the title "King of Kish".

Some of the earliest monuments from Lagash mention a certain Mesilim, king of Kish, who arbitrated a border dispute between Lugal-shag-engur, high priest of Lagash, and the high priest of a neighbouring town, Umma.

Empire of Lugal-anne-mundu of Adab

Following this period, the entire region of Mesopotamia seems to have come under the sway of a Sumerian conqueror from Adab, Lugal-anne-mundu. According to inscriptions, he ruled from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and up to the Zagros Mountains, including Elam. However, his empire fell apart with his death.

Dynasty of Lagash


At a later date, the high priests of Lagash made themselves kings, and a dynasty was founded there by Ur-Nina. In the ruins of a building, attached by him to the temple of Nina, terra cotta bas reliefs of the king and his sons have been found, as well as lions' heads in onyx, that remind one of Egyptian work and onyx plates. These were "booty" dedicated to the goddess Bau. One inscription states that ships of Dilmun (Bahrain) brought him wood as tribute from foreign lands.


Eannatum, grandson of Ur-Nina, made himself master of the whole of the district of Sumer, together with the cities of Uruk (ruled by Enshakushanna, of the King List), Ur, Nippur, Akshak, and Larsa. He also annexed the kingdom of Kish; however, it recovered its independence after his death. Umma was made tributary - a certain amount of grain being levied upon each person in it, that had to be paid into the treasury of the goddess Nina and the god Ingurisa.

The so-called "Stele of the Vultures," now in the Louvre, was erected as a monument of the victory of Eannatum of Lagash over Enakalle of Umma. On this, various incidents in the war are represented. In one scene, the king stands in his chariot with a curved weapon in his right hand, formed of three bars of metal bound together by rings, while his kilted followers, with helmets on their heads and lances in their hands, march behind him.

Eannatum's campaigns extended beyond the confines of Sumer. He overran a part of Elam, took the city of Az on the Persian Gulf, and exacted tribute as far as Mari; however many of the realms he conquered were often in revolt. During his reign, temples and palaces were repaired or erected at Lagash and elsewhere; the town of Nina --that probably gave its name to the later Niniveh-- was rebuilt, and canals and reservoirs were excavated.


He was succeeded by his brother, En-anna-tum I. During his rule, Umma once more asserted independence under Ur-Lumma, who attacked Lagash unsuccessfully. Ur-Lumma was replaced by a priest-king, Illi, who also attacked Lagash.


His son and successor Entemena restored the prestige of Lagash. Illi of Umma was subdued, with the help of his ally Lugal-kinishe-dudu of Uruk, successor to Enshakushanna and also on the king-list. This Lugal-kinishe-dudu seems to have been the predominant figure at the time, since he also claimed to rule Kish and Ur.

A tripod of silver dedicated by Entemena to his god is now in the Louvre. A frieze of lions devouring ibexes and deer, incised with great artistic skill, runs round the neck, while the eagle crest of Lagash adorns the globular part. The vase is a proof of the high degree of excellence to which the goldsmith's art had already attained. A vase of calcite, also dedicated by Entemena, has been found at Nippur.

After Entemena, a series of weak, corrupt priest-kings is attested for Lagash. The last of these, Urukagina, was known for his judicial, social, and economic reforms, and his may well be the first legal code known to history.

Empire of Lugal-zage-si of Umma

Urukagina was overthrown and his city Lagash captured by Lugal-Zage-Si, the high priest of Umma. Lugal-zage-si also took Uruk and Ur, and made Uruk his capital. In a long inscription that he caused to be engraved on hundreds of stone vases dedicated to En-lil of Nippur, he boasts that his kingdom extended "from the Lower Sea (Persian Gulf), along the Tigris and Euphrates, to the Upper Sea" or Mediterranean. His empire was finally overthrown by Sargon of Akkad, who founded the first Semitic Empire.

"Sumerian Renaissance" (3rd Dynasty of Ur)

Following the fall of Sargon's Empire to the Gutians, a brief "dark ages" ensued; however one prominent Sumerian ruler of this time was Gudea of Lagash. The Gutians were finally driven out by the Sumerians under Urukhegal of Uruk, who was in turn defeated by Ur-Nammu of Ur, who founded what is known as the 3rd dynasty of Ur. Although the Sumerian language ("Emegir") was again made official, the Sumerian identity was already in decline, as the population continually became more and more Semiticised.

After this dynasty was destroyed by the Elamites, a fierce rivalry developed between the city-states of Larsa, that was under more Elamite than Sumerian influence, and Isin, that was more Amorite (as the Semitic speakers had come to be called).

The Semites ended up prevailing in Mesopotamia by the time of Hammurabi of Babylon, who founded the Babylonian Empire, and the language and name of Sumer gradually passed into the realm of antiquarian scholars (although their influence on Babylonia and all subsequent cultures was indeed great). A few historians assert that some Sumerians managed preserve their identity in a sense, by forming the Magi, or hereditary priestly caste, noted among the later Medes.

Reference: Encyclopedia Britannica 1911





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