Sumerian History


Evidence of inhabitation of the lands that would become Sumer date prior to 5500 B.C. It is probable that earlier settlements existed, but the rising waters of the Persian Gulf forced the settlers further north. These initial settlements were located around the marsh lands of the south. It is not known where these first settlers came from as they have not left any tell-tale signs. It is known that their language was not Sumerian as the cities of Ur, Eridu, Uruk, and Nippur are legacies of their langauge.

These early settlers confined themselves mainly to small villages. The structures of the villages were constructed from mat, clay, and sun dried brick. The economies of the villages were sustained with herding, fishing, and agriculture. They also brought with them agricultural and industrial skills.

Small towns and cities were also forming by this time. These early towns probably arose around storehouses that held surplus stores, religious objects, and other valuables. Over time these storehouses evolved into temples and sites of religious festivities. The early religious complexes dominated the cities. They served as redistribution centers of grains and the priesthood held power. The population of the early cities numbered perhaps 2,000-8,000 with Uruk sustaining the largest at about 10,000.

Arrival of the Sumerians

Sometime in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C. the Sumerians arrived in the fertile plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Like those who arrived before them it is not known from where the Sumerians hailed. Their language has no known relatives. The arrival of the Sumerians brought about a burst of growth and development, such as the animal drawn plough.

It was during this period that the abandonment of the open villages began. The continual threat of raids forced villagers to seek the protection afforded by larger cities, and as a result the size of the cities swelled. The increased interaction brought about an increase in innovation in architecture, agriculture, and engineering. However, without a doubt the most important development of this period was writing. This was a slow process that began about 4000 B.C. The initial foray into writing was for accounting purposes as merchants needed a system to detail transactions. Writing developed from the use of small three dimensional tokens which were pressed into clay. These pictographs were used to represent wheat, sheep, et cetera. It was not long, however, before the limitations of pictographs became apparent and phonetics began to develop. The result was cuneiform.

Early Dynastic (2750-2335 B.C.)

The Early Dynastic period heralded a period of constant war between the city-states of Sumer. One of the key reasons behind this was the fertile grounds of the Sumerian plain. The populations of the cities continued to rise (estimates put Uruk at 50,000) and because of this the importance of the fertile grounds also rose. The result was a constant struggle for control of the land. There were also ambitious war lords eager for the spoils of war. Thirdly, the desire for a united Sumer, such as that achieved by Kish, pushed some kings into conquering their neighbors. Whatever the reason the small open villages all but vanished due to the warfare.

Several developments took place during this period in time. The continual state of warfare prompted city rulers to erect massive walls around the cities. Bronze weapons of war were manufactured in increasing quantities. The first written records of slavery, captives taken in battle, appear. The surplus of food allowed the creation of specialist occupations, such as bronze casters, potters, stone masons, and weavers.

The constant state of war also gave rise to kingship becoming a permanent fixture. In years prior an individual was chosen to be lugal (big man) in times of crisis and held the post only for the duration of the emergency. With the constant state of war, however, the position became permanent. The early kings claimed divinity with the gods in an effort to retain their kingship. They also assumed the duties of the priesthood to ensure good relations with the gods, plentiful harvests, and economic stability. A large retinue of retainers helped the king to hold on to his position. These retainers were owned by the king and were used as soldiers and builders of public works, such as canals, temple building, et cetera. The earliest of these kings to be historically verified is En-men-barage-si (2615-2585 B.C.) of Kish

Documented history began in the latter part of the Early Dynastic period. This period in time was dominated by a rivalry between Ur, Uruk, and Kish. The First Dynasty of Kish came to an end when it was vanquished by Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, circa 2600 B.C. The First Dynasty of Uruk came to an end when Mes-Ane-Pada (2650-2525 B.C.) established the First Dynasty of Ur and claimed the title "King of Kish" indicating his rule extended over all of Sumer. Power eventually shifted back to Kish where Mesalim (c. 2500 B.C.) mediated over a border dispute between Umma and Lagash. The dispute between the two city-states ended with Umma invading and conquering Lagash. Lagash eventually rebelled while under the reign of Eannatum (2454-2425 B.C.) and re-established the boundary set by Mesalim. Uru-inim-gina came to the throne of Lagash around 2351 B.C. and proved to be a remarkable ruler. He was renowned for his social and ethical reforms and is responsible for the earliest surviving law code, all of which were aimed at protecting the poor and less privileged. Unfortunately, Uru-inim-gina's rule came to an end when Lagash was conquered by Lugal-zage-si of Umma circa 2350 as he unified Sumer.

Lugal-zage-si's rule was ended when the Akkadians exterted their rule over Sumer. Sargon of Akkad conquered Sumer and had Lugal-zage-si brought before him in a neck stock. Sargon succeeded in uniting Sumer and Akkad, though his successors were forced to deal with constant rebellions.


It was during the reign of Naram-Sin (2254-2218 B.C.) that a new threat arose from the mountains in the northeast. These were the Gutians, barbarian tribesmen who preyed on villages and travelers. The Gutians practiced hit-and-run tactics and were long gone before regular troops could arrive to deal with the situation. Their raids crippled the economy of Sumer. Travel nearly ceased as did work in the fields resulting in famine. The result was a Gutian dynasty established during the reign of Naram-Sin of Akkad. Umma, who had experienced a resurgence in power during the struggle with Akkad, once again fell upon hard times. It was not until Umma submitted to Gutian rule did they begin to recover. The Gutians had no power south of Umma, and it was in Uruk that Utu-hegal (2133-2113 B.C.) came to the throne. Utu-hegal succeeded in driving out the Gutians when he defeated Tirigan in 2130 B.C. Utu-hegal's victory revived the political and economic life of southern Sumer.

Third Dynasty of Ur

Utu-hegal eventually intervened in a border dispute between Lagash and Ur. Despite having a vassal in Ur, Utu-hegal sided with Lagash. This prompted Ur-Nammu (2112-2095) of Ur to usurp control in 2112 B.C. Almost immediately Ur-Nammu resumed his conflict with Lagash when he attacked and conquered the city installing his own governor. The remainder of his rule, however, was relatively peaceful and he set about settling social issues as well as embarking on rebuilding projects to fix the devastation caused by the Gutians.

Shulgi (2094-2047 B.C.) followed Ur-Nammu. He found it necessary to erect a defensive wall along the northwest border to protect his lands from the rising threats of nomadic tribes. It was during the reign of Ibbi-Sin (2028-2004 B.C.) that the raiders from the Mardu tribe finally broke through the wall resulting in widespread panic and a breakdown in communications. Ibbi-Sin had difficulty controlling his provinces and eventually his control was limited to Ur. One of Ibbi-Sin's generals, Ishbi-Erra, rebelled and was given rule over Isin in an attempt to placate him. The calamity prompted Elam to resume hostilities. Ur came under attack from Elam and the Mardu, and eventually gave in after a lengthy siege ending the rule of Ibbi-Sin and the Third Dynasty of Ur. During the entire time Ishbi-Erra was able to hold out at Isin.


Ishbi-Erra began to openly seek control over Sumer in 2016 B.C. when he began to enforce his will over cities in the north. After conquering Ur the Elamites left a garrison in the city. It wasn't until ten years passed that Ishbi-Erra drove the Elamites from Ur thereby gaining control over all of Sumer.


Larsa began its rise to prominence under the rule of Gungunum (1932-1906 B.C.) when he captured Ur. The dynasty of Larsa would prove to be the final chapter in the history of an independent Sumer. Amorites swept in and captured Larsa circa 1834 B.C. However, only two Amorites sat on the throne before the Babylonians under Hammurabi invaded. The last king of Larsa, Rim-Sin (1823-1763 B.C.), was captured by Hammurabi in 1763 B.C. as Sumer was absorbed into the Babylonian empire.

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