ca. 7000 B.C. -
The Early States of Mesopotamia
In contrast to the desert of the Arabian Peninsula to
the south and the rugged mountain ranges to the north,
Mesopotamia ("land between the rivers"), situated
between the Tigris and Euphrates provided fertile land
for cultivation. Early inhabitants, therefore, called
their home 1 Sumer
("cultivated land"). One of the earliest civilization of
the Near East developed here. Complex societies
flourished and were later organized into city-states
like Uruk. Over time, great empires developed who
managed to extend their power well beyond the two
The discovery of the treasures of ancient Ur put the
Sumerians once again in a prominent position on the
world stage. They had been absent for more than 4,000
years. The Sumerians were the people who transformed the
vast, flat lower valley between the Tigris and Euphrates
into the Fertile Crescent of the ancient world. Sparsely
inhabited before the Sumerians, this area is now
southern Iraq. In the fourth millennium все, the
Sumerians established the first great urban communities
and developed the earliest known writing system.
bust of a Sumerian lady of the court at Ur wearing
headgear and other jewelry, 300 B.C.
The City-States of Sumer
The advancement of hydraulic engineering led
to the formation of the city-states, which were distinguished by
The first communal settlements
grew along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in response to the
development of organized irrigation systems. These settlements
merged about 3000 B.C. to form irrigation and flood control
provinces. Around 2800-2400 B.C.— the Early Dynastic
period—centrally controlled city-states arose and competed with
each other for political and economic dominance of the region.
The most significant of these were Ur, Uruk, Umma, Lagash, Adab,
Nippur, and Kish—whose rulers are known to us through the
surviving "kings lists."
Tombs with valuable
6 burial objects
testify to the high standard of living of the upper
social level of the city-states, as well as the
nature of these societies, which were dominated by
princes, kings, priests, and state officials.
Sumerian helmet made of gold from an Ur
king's tomb (third century B.C.)
6 "Tree of
Life" sculpture, third с. в.с.
4 A mosaic from Ur,
depicting groups of differing social status within the hierarchy
In addition to agriculture as the main economic engine, the mass
production of pottery is apparent in archaeological finds.
Minerals and raw material initially served as payment for the
labor. Later, 2 cylinder
seals provided a useful instrument for commercial control and
the verification of the delivery of goods. Seals and counter
markers served a well-organized food storage system and also
property allocation by officials.
2 Cylinder seal,
second century B.C., and modern molding
Some cities had seaports that later filled with sand as the
water level dropped in the Persian Gulf. Through sea and land
trade routes, the Sumerian culture expanded into northern
Mesopotamia and northern Syria.
In 1977 adventurer Thor
Heyerdahl proved that the ancient Sumerians were capable
of constructing seaworthy ships by sailingareed boat
replicated from the specifications of an original
THE FIRST CITY-STATES
Ancient Sumer was not a unified nation; rather, it was made up of a
dozen or so independent city-states. Each was thought to be under the
protection of a different Mesopotamian deity. The Sumerian rulers were
the gods' representatives on earth and the stewards of their earthly
treasure. The rulers and priests directed all communal activities,
including canal construction, crop collection, and food distribution.
The development of agriculture to the point where only a portion of the
population had to produce food made possible such an organization of the
labor force. Some members of the community could thus specialize in
other activities, including manufacturing, trade, and administration.
Such labor specialization is the hallmark of the first complex urban
societies. In the city-states of ancient Sumer, activities that once had
been individually initiated became institutionalized for the first time.
The community, rather than the family, assumed functions such as defense
against enemies and against the caprices of nature. Whether ruled by a
single person or a council chosen from among the leading families, these
communities gained permanent identities as discrete cities. The
city-state was one of the great Sumerian inventions.
CITY PLANNING AND RELIGION
The Sumerian city plan reflected the central role of the local god
in the daily life of the city-state's occupants. The god's temple formed
the city's monumental nucleus. It was not only the focus of local
religious practice but also an administrative and economic center. It
was indeed the domain of the god, whom the Sumerians regarded as a great
and rich holder of lands and herds, as well as the protector of the
city-state. The vast temple complex, a kind of city within a city, thus
had both religious and secular functions. A temple staff of priests and
scribes carried on official business, looking after both the god's and
the ruler's possessions.
A MARBLE-AND-GOLD INANNA?
The White Temple at Uruk towers over all other vestiges of that
ancient city, but a fragmentary white marble female head is also an
extraordinary achievement at so early a date. The lustrous hard stone
had to be imported at great cost. The head is actually only a face with
a flat back. It has drilled holes for attachment to a head and body,
possibly of wood. Although found in the sacred precinct of the goddess
Inanna, the subject is unknown. Many have suggested that the face is an
image of Inanna, but a mortal woman, perhaps a priestess, may be
Often the present condition of an artwork can be very misleading, and
the Uruk head is a dramatic example. Its original appearance would have
been much more vibrant than the pure white fragment archaeologists
uncovered. Colored shell or stone filled the deep recesses for the
eyebrows and the large eyes. The deep groove at the top of the head
anchored a wig, probably made of gold leaf. The hair strands engraved in
the metal fell in waves over the forehead and sides of the face. The
bright coloration of the eyes, brows, and hair likely overshadowed the
soft modeling of the cheeks and mouth. The missing body was probably
clothed in expensive fabrics and bedecked with jewels.
Invention of Writing
he oldest written documents are Mesopotamian records of
administrative acts and commercial transactions. At first,
around 3400-3200 все, the Sumerians (in Iraq) and their
contemporaries, the Elamites (in Iran), made inventories of
cattle, food, and other items by scratching pictographs
(simplified pictures standing for words) into soft clay with a
sharp tool, or stylus. The clay plaques hardened into breakable,
yet nearly indestructible, tablets. This accounts for the
existence today of thousands of documents dating back nearly
five millennia. The Sumerians wrote their pictorial signs from
the top down and arranged them in boxes they read from right to
left. By 3000-2900 все, they had further simplified the
pictographic signs by reducing them to a group of wedge-shaped
(cuneiform) signs. The development of cuneiform marked the
beginning of writing, as historians strictly define it. By 2600,
cuneiform texts were sophisticated enough to express complex
The Sumerian and Elamite languages do not belong to any of the
major linguistic groups of antiquity and are unrelated to each
other, yet historians do not doubt that these early peoples were
a major force in the spread of civilization. Thousands of
cuneiform tablets, for example, testify to the far-flung network
of Sumerian contacts reaching from southern Mesopotamia eastward
to the Iranian plateau, northward to Assyria, and westward to
Syria. Trade was essential for the Sumerians, because despite
their land's fertility, it was poor in such vital natural
resources as metal, stone, and wood.
The Sumerians also produced great literature. Their most famous
work, known from fragmentary cuneiform texts, is the
late-third-millennium Epic of Gilgamesh, which
antedates Homer's Iliad and Odyssey by some 1,500
years. It recounts the heroic story of Gilgamesh, legendary king
of Uruk and slayer of the monster Huwawa. Translations of the
Sumerian epic into several other ancient Near Eastern languages
attest to the fame of the original version.
One of the most powerful Sumerian city-states
was Uruk in southern Mesopotamia.
From its founding around 4000
B.C. until about 2000 B.C. 7
Uruk was an important trading center. In the center of the city
stood many great public buildings that probably served as
meeting places and religious buildings.
7 A vase from Uruk
decorated wlth animal depictions, ca. 3000 в.с.
Later these were built upon to create the chief shrine Eanna for
the city's goddess 8 Inanna.
The oldest known written tablets, presumably concerned with
commerce management, are from this period. At the time there
were approximately 20,000 people living in Uruk and a further
15,000-20,000 in the immediate area.
8 Gilgamesh in
battle with two bulls and a lion; modern molding of a cylinder
seal from the third century B.C.
Depictions on cylinder seals testify to armed conflicts with
neighboring peoples and the punishment of prisoners. The city
was completely reconstructed between 3100 and 2900 B.C. A
terrace was raised in the city center, upon which the main
temple was built. The terraced temple became the predecessor of
later temple towers of the Babylonians, the ziggurats. Writing
also evolved, with pictographs transforming into cuneiform.
URUK'S WHITE TEMPLE
The outstanding preserved example of early Sumerian temple
architecture is the 5,000-year-old White Temple at Uruk, the home of
Gilgamesh. Usually only the foundations of early Mesopotamian temples
can still be recognized. The White Temple is a rare exception. Sumerian
builders did not have access to stone quarries and instead formed mud
bricks for the superstructures of their temples and other buildings.
Almost all these structures have eroded over the course of time. The
fragile nature of the building materials did not, however, prevent the
Sumerians from erecting towering works, such as the Uruk temple, several
centuries before the Egyptians built their stone pyramids. This says a
great deal about the Sumerians' desire to provide monumental settings
for the worship of their deities.
Enough of the Uruk complex remains to permit a fairly reliable
reconstruction drawing. The temple (whose whitewashed walls lend it its
modern nickname) stands on top of a high platform, or ziggnrat, 40 feet
above street level in the city center. A stairway on the far side, not
shown, leads to the top but does not end in front of any of the temple
doorways, necessitating two or three angular changes in direction. This
"bent-axis" approach is the standard arrangement for Sumerian temples, a
striking contrast to the linear approach the Egyptians preferred for
their temples and tombs.
Like other Sumerian temples, the corners of the White Temple are
oriented to the cardinal points of the compass. The building, probably
dedicated to Anu, the sky god, is of modest proportions (61 X 16 feet).
By design, it did not accommodate large throngs of worshipers but only a
select few, the priests and perhaps the leading community members. The
temple has several chambers. The central hall, or cella, was set aside
for the divinity and housed a stepped altar. The Sumerians referred to
their temples as "waiting rooms," a reflection of their belief that the
deity would descend from the heavens to appear before the priests in the
cella. How or if the Uruk temple was roofed is uncertain.
The Sumerian idea that the gods reside above the world of humans is
central to most of the world's religions. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to
receive the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew God, and the Greeks placed
the home of their gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. The elevated
placement of Mesopotamian temples on giant platforms reaching toward the
sky is consistent with this widespread religious concept. Eroded
ziggurats still dominate most of the ruined cities of Sumer. The
loftiness of the great temple platforms made a profound impression on
the peoples of the ancient Near East. The tallest ziggurat of all, at
Babylon, was about 270 feet high. Known to the Hebrews as the Tower of
Babel, it became the centerpiece of a biblical story about the insolent
pride of humans.
Uruk is thought to have
been the home of the 5,
9 legendary ruler
Gilgamesh, the hero of the most important ancient
Gilgamesh is said to have ruled sometime between 2600
and 2700 B.C. and is counted among the kings of the
first dynasty of Uruk (ca. 2700-2350 B.C.). Besides
numerous heroic deeds, Gilgamesh is credited with the
construction of Uruk's six-mile-long (9,7 km) protective
city wall. The epic, handed down in a number of ancient
Near Eastern languages and in various versions from the
third to the first millennia в.с, in some passages shows
parallels to the Old Testament story of Noah and also to
the saga of Hercules.
9 Facade of a
temple of Inanna in Uruk, 15th/14th century B.C.
5 Statue of
Gilgamesh with a lion,
from an Assyrian palace, eighth century B.C.
The Construction of the City Wall by
"[The hero Gilgamesh] built the wall of Uruk-Haven
Look at its wall, which gleams like [copper?]...
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork
Is not [even the core of] the brick structure made of
(Gilgamesh epic, first tablet)
Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian
Lagash and Umma
The history of the Sumerian
city-state Lagash in southern Mesopotamia, which competed
fiercely with neighboring Umma, is well documented. The rivalry
between the city's princes and the priesthood are typical of the
political conditions in the Sumerian city-states. Under the
reign of Gudea the city enjoyed a period of great prosperity.
King Eannatum of the first
dynasty of Lagash (ca. 2494-2342 B.C.) succeeded in temporarily
subjugating Umma. The famous 1,
5 "Vulture Stele" depicts
the vanquished enemy in a net cast by the city god Ningirsu.
Internally Eannatum fought the influence of the priest caste,
which won the battle by helping the usurper Lugalanda to power.
Social tensions lay behind the ascension to the throne of
Urukagina, who promptly canceled the debts of the poorer classes
and cut back the income of the priests. With the help of these
disgruntled clergymen, Lugalzaggesi of Umma then conquered
Lagash somewhere around 2250 B.C .
He also controlled the cities of Urukand Adab, and thus declared
himself "king of Uruk and of the Land of Sumer." His plans to
unite Mesopotamia brought Lugalzaggesi into conflict with the
powertul ruler of Akkad, Sargon I, who defeated him before going
on to realize the project himself.
Lagash experienced its final period of prosperity during the 20
year reign of 3 Gudea.
His rule is associated less with military adventures than with
the building of systematic irrigation works and temples of
Vultures pick at the bodies of
detail from the "Vulture Stele," ca. 2454
King Eannatum of Lagash leads his army in
the battle against the city Umma,
fallen enemies lying on the floor; extract
from the "Vulture Stele," ca. 2454 B.C.
3 Statue of
Gudea of Lagash, 2141-2122 B.C.
Proto-Elam and Elam
2 Valley in
Lunstan, southwest Iran
Sumer, another early high culture emerged
2 southwest of
The Elam kingdom produced the oldest known inter-state
This little-known culture,
identifiable only by a form of script used around 2900 B.C., is
referred to as Proto-Elam. Out of it rose the later kingdom of
Elam, perhaps as early ac. 2700 b.c. Around 2300 B.C. the Akkadians occupied the empire until Elam regained its
independence in 2240 through an inter-state treaty—the oldest
surviving in the world. Several royal dynasties followed, with a
supreme monarch—resident in the capital Susa—ruling over several
4 Women generally played a larger role in Elamitic
society than in neighboring Sumer and Akkad. The wife, and often
the sister, of the king was a prominent figure. Upon his death,
she married his successor. Occasionally successors in the female
4 Women spinning,
eighth с. в.с.
In the history of Elam, periods of rule by foreign powers
alternated with times of Elamite expansion. Around 2004 B.C. the
Elamites destroyed Ur. Six hundred years later Elam came under
the rule of the old Babylonian Empire.
Then in 1155 B.C., the Elamites expelled the Kassites from
Babylon, ruling until 1100 when Nebuchadressar I of the second
dynasty of Isin pushed the Elamites back out of Babylon and
pillaged their capital 6
Only in 646 B.C. was Elam finally destroyed by the Assyrians.
The area then fell to the Persians and became the central
province of the vast empire forged by the powerful Achaemenid
fortification of Susa, Iran
The Kingdom of Akkad and the Third Dynasty of Ur
The Kingdom of Akkad (ca.
2334-2154 B.C.) was the first large territorial state in
Sargon of Agade founded the Kingdom of Akkad in 2334 в.c. Не
also founded the new capital city of Akkad, which gave the
kingdom its name. Sargon, which comes from the Akkadian title of
Sharrukenu ("legitimate king"), conquered Kish.
He broke Uruk's domination of Sumer and extended his kingdom to
the Mediterranean, Lebanon, and Аsiа Minor in numerous
military campaigns, ruling over many city-states and
With his royal title of "King of the Four Corners of Earth,"
Sargon made perhaps the first claim to world dominance.
Domestically, he trained administrators— the "sons of the
palace"—and was the first monarch to maintain a standing army.
The decline of the Akkadian kingdom began around 2250 B.C. The
Guti, a mountain people from Iran, then gained dominance over
Mesopotamia between 2230 and 2130. Subsequently, the kings Ur-Nammu
and Shulgi of the third dynasty of Ur (ca. 2112-2004 B.C.) ruled
the most important cities of Sumer and a large part of the
Kingdom of Akkad, pronouncing themselves the "Kings of Sumerand
The third dynasty of Ur strictly supervised the economy. Huge
numbers of laborers and craftsmen were employed in the service
of the state in the "grand households," which included the great
temples and palaces. The chancelleries produced documentation
which bears witness to complex administrative processes. A
standardized form was established for the high
temples—multi-storied structures with a central flight of
steps—called ziggurats. This form was used for the religious
edifices erected by and for the kings. The dynasty ended in 2004
B.C. with the destruction of Urby the invading Elamites.
However, the administrative structures survived and were adopted
and integrated by the new rulers who established themselves in
the dynasty's place.
7 Bronze head of an
Akkadian ruler, presumably Sargon of Akkad, 2334-2279 B.C.
8 Stele celebrating the victory of an Akkadian king, ca.
9 Procession of Akkadian prisoners, ca. 2340-2320 B.C.
"To Sargon, the king of the land, Enlilgave no enemy
from the upper
to the lower sea.... Sargon, the king of the land,
restored Kish, their
city he gave them as their abode... to Sargon, the king,
no enemy to form. 5400 warriors daily eat their meal
(Text from the Tablet of the Sargon)