Sumer (Akk. Šumer ī Sumerian Kengir) is the earliest known name of the land corresponding roughly to the southern half of Iraq. It was first settled about 5000 b.c.e. by agriculturists from the hilly regions to the north and/or east, known as Ubaidians because their remains were first uncovered in al-Ubaid, a tell near Ur. Nothing is known about their language except for traces left in a number of geographical names and words, relating to agriculture and technology, borrowed by the Sumerians. Following the settlement of the land by the Ubaidians, nomadic Semites from the north and west infiltrated the land as settlers and conquerors. The Sumerians themselves did not arrive until about 3500 b.c.e. from their original home, which may have been in the region of the Caspian Sea. Sumerian civilization, therefore, is a product of the ethnic and cultural fusion of Ubaidians, Semites, and Sumerians; it is designated as Sumerian because at the beginning of recorded history it was the Sumerian language and ethos that prevailed throughout the land.
History of a legendary character begins in Sumer in the first half of the third millennium with the three partly contemporaneous dynasties of Kish, Erech (Uruk), and Ur. Some of the outstanding rulers of this era were: Etana of Kish, a figure of legendary fame; Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh of Erech, three heroic figures celebrated in a cycle of epic tales; and Mes-anne-padda of Ur, the first ruler from whom we have contemporary inscriptions. The three-cornered struggle among these cities so weakened Sumer that for a century or so it came under the domination of the Elamite people to the east. It recovered during the reign of Lugal-anne-mundu of Adab (c. 2500), who is reported to have controlled not only Sumer but some of the neighboring lands as well.
Authentic history, recorded on significant contemporary documents, begins with the second half of the third millennium. The earliest-known ruler from this period is Mesilim (c. 2475), noted for arbitrating a dispute between the two rival city states, Lagash and Umma. In the century that followed, Lagash played a dominant political role in Sumer; under one of its rulers, Eannatum (c. 2425), it became for a brief period the capital of Sumer. Its last ruler, Urukagina (c. 2360), was history's first-known social reformer; the documents from his reign record a sweeping reform of a whole series of bureaucratic abuses and the restoration of "freedom" to the citizens. Urukagina was defeated by Lugal-zagge-si (c. 2350) of Umma, an ambitious king who moved his capital to Erech and succeeded in making himself ruler of all Sumer. By this time, however, Semites from the north and west had infiltrated northern Sumer, and one of their leaders, Sargon (c. 2325), defeated Lugal-zagge-si and conquered all Sumer, and indeed much of ancient western Asia. Later generations claimed that his power extended even to Egypt and India. Sargon built a new capital, Agade (biblical, Akkad), and following his reign the land came to be known as "Sumer and Akkad."
The Dynasty of Akkad endured for over a century. Toward the end of its rule, Sumer suffered a humiliating invasion by the Gutians from the Zagros hills, and thus came under Gutian domination for close to a century (c. 2200–2100). Throughout much of this period, however, the city of Lagash seemed to flourish, and one of its rulers, Gudea (c. 2140), whose statues and inscriptions have made him one of the figures best known to the modern world, exercised considerable power in spite of the Gutian overlordship.
Sumer was finally liberated from its Gutian yoke and, under the Third Dynasty of Ur, founded by Ur-Nammu (c. 2100), a king noted as the promulgator of the first-known law code, it experienced a remarkable renaissance. Ur-Nammu's son, Shulgi (c. 2080), was one of the great monarchs of the ancient world. A rare combination of statesman, soldier, administrator, and patron of music and literature, he founded Sumer's two leading academies at Nippur and Ur. The last of the dynasty, the pious, pathetic Ibbi-Sin (c. 2015), was a victim of infiltration by the nomadic Amurru from the west, of unrelenting military attacks by the Elamites from the east, and of traitorous intrigues by his own governors and generals. Ur was finally destroyed and Ibbi-Sin carried off to Elam, a calamity long mourned by the poets of Sumer in dolorous laments. Following the destruction of Ur, Ishbi-Irra, one of Ibbi-Sin's traitorous generals, established a dynasty in Isin (c. 2000) that lasted for some 200 years. Isin was destroyed by Rim-Sin (c. 1800), a king of neighboring Larsa, who, in turn, was subjugated by Hammurapi (c. 1750) of Babylon. With the reign of Hammurapi, the history of Sumer comes to an end, and that of Babylonia begins.
Sumerian society was predominantly urban in character; large and small cities dotted the landscape and shaped its social, political, and economic life. Physically the city was rather drab and unattractive. Streets were narrow, crooked, and winding; they were unpaved, uncleaned, and unsanitary. Houses were thick-walled mudbrick compounds of several rooms, with here and there a more elegant two-story home. But the city had its broad boulevards, busy bazaar, and tempting public square. Above all, there was the sacred precinct with its monumental temple and sky-reaching ziggurat. The citizen took great pride in his city and loved it dearly, as is manifest from the heart-breaking laments in which the poets bewailed its destruction.
The population of the city, which may have varied from 10,000 to 50,000, consisted of free citizens, serf-like clients, and foreign and native slaves. Some of the free citizens were high temple functionaries, important palace officials, and rich landowners; together these formed a kind of noble class. The majority of free citizens were farmers and fishermen, artisans and craftsmen, merchants and scribes. The serf-like clients were dependents of the temple, palace, and rich estates; they were usually given small plots of land for temporary possession, as well as rations of food and wool. Slaves were the property of their owners, but had certain legal rights: they could borrow money, engage in business, and buy their freedom.
The basic unit of society was the family. Marriage was arranged by the parents, and the betrothal, often accompanied by a written contract, was legally recognized as soon as the groom presented a bridal gift to the bride's father. Women had high legal standing: they could hold property, engage in business, and qualify as witnesses. But the husband could divorce his wife on relatively slight grounds and could marry a second wife if the first was childless. Children were under the absolute authority of the parents and could be disinherited or even sold into slavery.
Politically, the cities were governed by a viceroy who was subject to the king. Kingship was hereditary, but usurpers were frequent, and capitals changed from time to time. The king's word and authority were supreme, but he was not an arbitrary despot; as intermediary between the people and their gods, it was his responsibility to insure the prosperity and well-being of the land by leadership in war, the upkeep of the irrigation system, the building and restoration of the temples and their ziggurats, and the preservation and promotion of law and justice. There were also city assemblies of free citizens which originally wielded considerable power, but later became consultative bodies.
The Sumerians believed that the universe and everything in it were created by four deities: the heaven-god An, the air-god Enlil, the water-god Enki, and the mother-goddess Ninhursag. To help them operate the universe effectively, these four deities, with Enlil as their leader, gave birth to, or "fashioned," a large number of lesser gods and goddesses, and placed them in charge of its various components and elements. All the gods were anthropomorphic and functioned in accordance with duly prescribed laws and regulations; though originally immortal, they suffered death if they over-stepped their bounds. Man was created for the sole purpose of serving the gods and supplying them with food and shelter, hence the building of temples and the offering of sacrifices were man's prime duties. Sumerian religion, therefore, was dominated by priest-conducted rites and rituals; the most important of these was the New Year sacred marriage rite celebrating the mating of the king with the goddess of love and procreation. Ethically, the Sumerians cherished all the generally accepted virtues. But sin and evil, suffering, and misfortune were, they believed, also divinely planned and inevitable; hence each family had its personal god to intercede for them in time of misfortune and need. Worst of all, death and descent to the dark, dreary netherworld were man's ultimate lot, and life on earth was therefore man's most treasured possession.
The Written Word
Sumer's most significant contribution to civilization was the development of the cuneiform system of writing into an effective tool of communication. It began about 3000 b.c.e. as a crude pictographic script used for simple administrative memoranda, in which the signs represented ideograms or logograms; it ended up a thousand years later as a flexible phonetic syllabary adaptable to every kind of writing: legal, historical, epistolary, and literary. To teach and disseminate it, schools were established throughout the land, and thus formal education came into being. For purposes of instruction, the schoolmen developed a curriculum consisting of copying and memorizing especially prepared "textbooks" inscribed with long lists of words and phrases that covered every field of knowledge available to them: linguistic, botanical, zoological, geographical, mineralogical, and artifactual. An important part of the curriculum was mathematics, since no scribe could function as a competent secretary, accountant, or administrator without a thorough knowledge of the sexagesimal system of notation current throughout the land; the students had to copy, study, and memorize scores of tablets involving all sorts of mathematical operations, as well as numerous problem texts involving their practical application.
See also *Mesopotamia.
There are a number of biblical words that go back in all probability to Sumerian origin: ʿ anak (Sumerian naga), "tin"; ʿ eden (edin), "Eden"; gan (gan), "garden"; hekhal (egal), "palace"; ḥiddeqel (idiglat), "Tigris"; ʾ ikkar (engar), "farmer"; kisse (guza), "chair"; malaḥ (malaḥ), "sailor"; perat (buranum), "Euphrates"; shir (sir), "song"; tammuz (dumuzi), "Tammuz"; tel (dul), "mound"; tifsar (dubsar), "scribe"; tomer (nimbar), "palm-tree." Far more significant are the literary motifs, themes, patterns, and ideas that go back to Sumerian prototypes: the existence of a primeval sea; the separation of heaven and earth; the creation of man from clay imbued with the breath of life; the creative power of the divine word; several "paradise" motifs; the Flood story; the Cain-Abel rivalry; the Tower of Babel and confusion of tongues; the notion of a personal, family god; divine retribution and national catastrophe; plagues as divine punishment; the "Job" motif of suffering and submission; the nature of death and the netherworld dreams as foretokens of the building of temples. Not a few of the biblical laws go back to Sumerian origins, and in such books as Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs there are echoes of the corresponding Sumerian literary genres. Sumerian influence on the Hebrews came indirectly through the Canaanites, Assyrians, and Babylonians, although to judge from the Abraham story and the often suggested Ḥabiru-Hebrew equation, the distant forefathers of the biblical Hebrews may have had some direct contact with the Sumerians. The Biblical word for Sumer is generally assumed to be Shinar (Heb. שׁנְעָר; Gen. 10:10). It has also been suggested that Shinar represents the cuneiform šum (er) -ur (i), i.e., Sumer and Akkad, and that the biblical equivalent of Sumer is Shem (from cuneiform šum (er)); hence the anshe ha-shem of the days of yore in Genesis 6:4.
selected bibliography: S.N. Kramer, The Sumerians (1963), 343–6. specialized and detailed bibliography: C.J. Gadd, The Cities of Babylonia (cah2, 1962), 54–60; idem, The Dynasty of Agade and the Gutian Invasion (cah2, 1963), 49–54; idem, Babylonia c. 2120 – 1800b.c.e. (cah2, 1965), 50–56; idem, Hammurabi and the End of His Dynasty (cah2, 1965), 55–62.
[Samuel Noah Kramer]