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Ancient Sumer


with thanks to The History Guide

What is good in a man's sight is evil for a god, What is evil to a man's mind is good for his god. Who can comprehend the counsel of the gods in heaven? The plan of a god is deep waters, who can fathom of it? Where has befuddled mankind ever learned what is a god's conduct?

Before Civilization

Between 9000 B.C. and the beginning of the Christian era, western civilization came into being in Egypt and in what historians call Ancient Western Asia (modern-day Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, south-western Russia, Iraq and Iran). The earliest permanent settlements occurred between 9000-6000 B.C. and were accompanied by the domestication of plants and animals. Between 4000-3000 B.C., the first cities appeared in response to the pressures of population growth, the organizational requirements of irrigation and the demands of more complex trade patterns. According to our previous definitions, these societies of Egypt and Ancient Western Asia correspond to what we would call civilization.

Around 10,000 B.C., many hunter-gatherers living along the coastal plains of modern Syria and Israel and in the valleys and hills near the Zagros Mountains between Iran and Iraq began to develop special strategies that led to a transformation in the human community. Rather than constantly travelling in search of food, people stayed in one region and exploited the seasonal sources of food, including fish, grain, fruits and game. At a community such as Jericho, people built and rebuilt their mud brick and stone huts rather than moving on as had their ancestors. In general, these communities began to focus on seasonal food sources and so were less likely to leave in search of new sources.

Just why hunters and gatherers in this region of the ancient world turned to agriculture is difficult to say. And there are a variety of problems associated with this transformation. For one thing, specialization in a relatively small number of plants or animals could spell disaster during times of famine. Some scholars have argued that agriculture developed out of an increased population and the development of a political hierarchy. In settled communities, infant mortality decreased and life expectancy rose. This change may have occurred since life in a fixed community was less demanding. The practice of infanticide decreased since children could now be used in rudimentary agricultural tasks. And as population growth put pressure on the local food supply, gathering activities required more coordination and organization and led eventually to the development of political leadership.

Settlements began to encourage the growth of plants such as barley and lentils and the domestication of pigs, sheep and goats. People no longer looked for their favorite food sources where they occurred naturally. Now they introduced them into other locations. An agricultural revolution had begun.

The ability to domesticate goats, pigs, sheep and cattle and to cultivate grains and vegetables changed human communities from passive harvesters of nature to active partners with it. The ability to expand the food supply in one area allowed the development of permanent settlements of greater size and complexity. The people of the Neolithic or New Stone Age (8000-5000 B.C.) organized fairly large villages. Jericho grew into a fortified town complete with ditches, stone walls, and towers and contained perhaps 2000 residents. Catal H in southern Turkey may have been substantially larger.

Although agriculture resulted in a stable food supply for permanent communities, the revolutionary aspect of this development was that the community could bring what they needed (natural resources plus their tool kit) to make a new site inhabitable. This development made it possible to create larger communities and also helped to spread the practice of agriculture to a wider area. Farmers in Catal-H cultivated plants that came from hundreds of miles away. The presence of tools and statues made of stone not available locally indicates that there was also some trading with distant regions.

Agricultural society brought changes in the organization of religious practices as well. Sanctuary rooms decorated with frescoes and sculptures of the heads of bulls and bears shows us that structured religious rites were important to the inhabitants of these early communities. At Jericho, human skulls were covered with clay in an attempt to make them look as they had in life suggesting that they practiced a form of ancestor worship. Bonds of kinship that had united hunters and gatherers were being supplemented by religious organization, which helped to regulate the social behaviour of the community.

Around 1500 B.C., a new theme appears on the cliff walls at Tassili-n-Ajjer. We see men herding horses and driving horse-drawn chariots. These practices had emerged more than fifteen hundred years earlier in Mesopotamia, a desert plain stretching to the marshes near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Chariots symbolized a dynamic and expansive phase in western culture. Constructed of wood and bronze and used for transport as well as for warfare, the chariot is symbolic of the culture of early river civilizations, the first civilizations in Ancient Western Asia.

Mesopotamian Civilization

The history and culture of Mesopotamian civilization is inextricably connected to the ebb and flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The earliest communities developed to the north but since rainfall in that area was so unpredictable, by 5000 B.C. communities had spread south to the rich alluvial plain. The economy of these communities was primarily agricultural and approximately 100-200 people lived in these permanently established villages. The alluvial plain in southern Mesopotamia ("land between the rivers") was far more fertile than the north but because there was little rainfall, irrigation ditches had to be constructed. Furthermore, the river beds of the Tigris and Euphrates rise and fall with the seasons and they change their course unpredictably. Southern Mesopotamia also had its share of flash floods which could destroy crops, livestock and village homes. Floods and torrential rains were a significant theme in Mesopotamian literature as depicted in the EPIC OF GILGAMESH.

The rampant flood which no man can oppose,
Which shakes the heavens and causes earth to tremble,
In an appalling blanket folds mother and child,
Beats down the canebrake's full luxuriant greenery,
And drowns the harvest in its time of ripeness.

Rising waters, grievous to eyes of man, All-powerful flood, which forces the embankments And mows down mighty trees, Frenzied storm, tearing all things in massed confusion With it in hurling speed.

Civilization emerged in Mesopotamia because the soil provided a surplus of food. With this surplus, people could settle down to village life and with these new settlements, towns and cities began to make their appearance, a process known as urbanization. With settlements and a surplus of food came an increase in the population, a well-defined division of labor, organization, cooperation and kingship. The emergence of cities involved interaction between people. Most cities evolved from smaller farming villages and with the practice of irrigation, which was necessary for villages distant from the Tigris and Euphrates, a stable food supply was produced. This, in turn, allowed increases in the number of people who inhabited each settlement.

Because the land closest to the river was the most fertile, there was a variation in terms of the wealth of these early farmers, which led to distinct social classes. At the same time, the construction of canals, ditches and dikes essential to irrigation demanded cooperation between different social groups. Decision-making, regulation and control of all food production and herding meant cooperation. And because more food could be produced by less people, some people gave up farming and became craftsmen, labourers, merchants and officials and this too required cooperation. The Mesopotamians built massive temples or ziggurats which housed the priestly class, the human representatives of the gods. The priests controlled the religious life of the community, the economy, land ownership, the employment of workers as well as the management of long distance trade.

Mesopotamian villages and towns eventually evolved into independent and nearly self-sufficient city-states. Although largely economically dependent on one another, these city-states were independent political entities and retained very strong isolationist tendencies. This isolationism hindered the unification of the Mesopotamian city-states, which eventually grew to twelve in number.

By 3000 B.C., Mesopotamian civilization had made contact with other cultures of the Fertile Crescent (a term first coined by James Breasted in 1916, an extensive trade network connecting Mesopotamia with the rest of Ancient Western Asia. Again, it was the two rivers which served as both trade and transportation routes.

The achievements of Mesopotamian civilization were numerous. Agriculture, thanks to the construction of irrigation ditches, became the primary method of subsistence. Farming was further simplified by the introduction of the plow. We also find the use of wheel-made pottery. Between 3000 and 2900 B.C. craft specialization and industries began to emerge (ceramic pottery, metallurgy and textiles). Evidence for this exists in the careful planning and construction of the monumental buildings such as the temples and ziggurats. During this period (roughly 3000 B.C.), cylinder seals became common. These cylindrical stone seals were five inches in height and engraved with images. These images were reproduced by rolling the cylinder over wet clay. The language of these seals remained unknown until to 20th century. But, scholars now agree that the language of these tablets was Sumerian.

Ancient Sumer

The Sumerians inhabited southern Mesopotamia from 3000-2000 B.C. The origins of the Sumerians is unclear -- what is clear is that Sumerian civilization dominated Mesopotamian law, religion, art, literature and science for nearly seven centuries.

Cuneiform Resources The greatest achievement of Sumerian civilization was their CUNEIFORM ("wedge-shaped") system of writing. Using a reed stylus, they made wedge-shaped impressions on wet clay tablets which were then baked in the sun. Once dried, these tablets were virtually indestructible and the several hundred thousand tablets which have been found tell us a great deal about the Sumerians. Originally, Sumerian writing was pictographic, that is, scribes drew pictures of representations of objects. Each sign represented a word identical in meaning to the object pictured, although pictures could often represent more than the actual object.

The pictographic system proved cumbersome and the characters were gradually simplified and their pictographic nature gave way to conventional signs that represented ideas. For instance, the sign for a star could also be used to mean heaven, sky or god. The next major step in simplification was the development of phonetization in which characters or signs were used to represent sounds. So, the character for water was also used to mean "in," since the Sumerian words for "water" and "in" sounded similar. With a phonetic system, scribes could now represent words for which there were no images (signs), thus making possible the written expression of abstract ideas.

The Sumerians used writing primarily as a form of record keeping. The most common cuneiform tablets record transactions of daily life: tallies of cattle kept by herdsmen for their owners, production figures, lists of taxes, accounts, contracts and other facets of organizational life in the community. Another large category of cuneiform writing included a large number of basic texts which were used for the purpose of teaching future generations of scribes. By 2500 B.C. there were schools built just for his purpose.

Sumerian Civilization Resources The city-state was Sumer's most important political entity. The city-states were a loose collection of territorially small cities which lacked unity with one another. Each city-state consisted of an urban center and its surrounding farmland. The city-states were isolated from one another geographically and so the independence of each city-state became a cultural norm with important consequences. For instance, it was held that each city-state was the estate of a particular god: Nannar (moon) was said to have watched over the city-state of Ur; Uruk had An (sky), Sippar had Utu (sun) and Enki (earth) could be found at Eridu. Nippur, the earliest centre of Sumerian religion, was dedicated to Enlil, god of wind (Enlil was supplanted by Marduk at Babylon). Each city-state was sacred since it was carefully guarded by and linked to a specific god or goddess. Located near the centre of each city-state was a temple. Occupying several acres, this sacred area consisted of a ziggurat with a temple at the top dedicated to the god or goddess who "owned" the city. The temple complex was the true centre of the community. The main god or goddess dwelt there symbolically in the form of a statue, and the ceremony of dedication included a ritual that linked the statue to the god or goddess and thus harnessed the power of the deity for the benefit of the city-state. Considerable wealth was poured into the construction of temples as well as other buildings used for the residences of priests and priestesses who attended to the needs of the gods. The priests also controlled all economic activities since the economy was "redistributive." Farmers would bring their produce to the the priests at the ziggurat. The priests would "feed" and "clothe" the gods and then redistribute the remainder to the people of the community.

Mesopotamian Civilization Resources With its rather large pantheon of gods and goddesses animating all aspects of life, Sumerian religion was polytheistic in nature. By far, the most important deities were An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursaga. An was the god of the sky and hence the most important force in the universe. He was also viewed as the source of all authority including the earthly power of rulers and fathers alike. In one myth, the gods address them in the following manner:

What you have ordered comes true! The utterance of Prince and Lord is but what you have ordered, do agree with.
O An! your great command takes precedence, who could gainsay it?
O father of the gods, your command, the very foundations of heaven and earth, what god could spurn it?

Enlil, god of wind, was considered the second greatest power of the universe and became the symbol of the proper use of force and authority on earth. As the god of wind, Enlil controlled both the fertility of the soil and destructive storms. This dual nature of Enlil inspired a justifiable fear of him:

What has he planned? . . .
What is in my father's heart?
What is in Enlil's holy mind?
What has he planned against me in his holy mind?
A net he spread: the net of an enemy; a snare he set: the snare of an enemy.
He has stirred up the waters and will catch the fishes, he has cast his net, and will bring down the birds too.

Enki was god of the earth. Since the earth was the source of life-giving waters, Enki was also god of rivers, wells, and canals. He also represented the waters of creativity and was responsible for inventions and crafts. Ninhursaga began as a goddess associated with soil, mountains, and vegetation. Eventually she was worshipped as a mother goddess, a "mother of all children," who manifested her power by giving birth to kings.

Although these four deities were supreme, there were numerous gods and goddesses below them. One group included the astral deities, who were all grandchildren and great-grandchildren of An. These included Utu, god of the sun, the moon god Nannar, and Inanna, goddess of the morning and evening star as well as of war and rain. Unlike humans, these gods and goddesses were divine and immortal. But they were not all-powerful since no one god had control over the entire universe. Furthermore, humans were capable of devising ways to discover the will of the gods and to influence them as well.

The relationship of human beings to the gods was based on subservience since, according to Sumerian myth, human beings were created to do the manual labour the gods were unwilling to do for themselves. As a consequence, humans were insecure since they could never be sure of the god's actions. But humans did make attempts to circumvent or relieve their anxiety by discovering the intentions of the gods; these efforts gave rise to the development of the arts of divination, which took a variety of forms. A common form, at least for kings and priests who could afford it, involved killing animals, such as sheep or goats, and examining their livers or other organs. Supposedly, features seen in the organs of the sacrificed animals foretold of events to come. Private individuals relied on cheaper divinatory techniques. These included interpreting patterns of smoke from burning incense or the pattern formed when oil was poured into water.

The Sumerian art of divination arose from a desire to discover the purpose of the gods. If people could decipher the signs that foretold events, the events would be predictable and humans could act wisely. But the Sumerians also developed cultic arts to influence good powers (gods and goddesses) whose decisions could determine human destiny and to ward off evil powers (demons). These cultic arts included ritualistic formulas, such as spells against evil spirits, or prayers or hymns to the gods to win their positive influence. Since only the priests knew the precise rituals, it is not difficult to understand the important role they exercised in a society dominated by a belief in the reality of spiritual powers.

The Code of Hammurabi

Mesopotamian men and women viewed themselves as subservient to the gods and believed humans were at the mercy of the god's arbitrary decisions. To counter their insecurity, the Mesopotamians not only developed the arts of divination in order to understand the wishes of their gods, but also relieved some anxiety by establishing codes that regulated their relationships with one another. These law codes became an integral part of Mesopotamian society. Although there were early Sumerian law codes, the best-preserved Mesopotamian collection of law codes was that of Hammurabi (fl.18th century B.C.).

The Code of HammurabiThe CODE OF HAMMURABI reveals a society of strict justice. Penalties for criminal offences were severe and varied according to the wealth of the individual. According to the code, there were three social classes in Babylonia: an upper class of nobles (government officials, priests, and warriors), the class of freemen (merchants, artisans, professionals, and wealthy farmers), and a lower class of slaves. An offence against a member of the upper class was punished with more severity than the same offence against a member of a lower class. The principle of retaliation ("an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth") was fundamental. It was applied in cases where members of the upper class committed criminal offences against their own social equals. But for offences against members of the lower classes, a money payment was made instead.

Mesopotamian society, like any other society, had its share of crime. Burglary was common. If a person stole goods belonging to the temples, he was put to death, and so was the person who received the stolen goods. If the private property of an individual was stolen, the thief had to make a tenfold restitution. If he could not do so he was put to death. An offender caught attempting to loot a burning house was to be "thrown into that fire."

Private individuals were often responsible for bringing charges before a court of law. To insure that accusations were not brought lightly, the accuser in cases of murder was responsible for proving his case against the defendant. If the accuser could not, he was put to death. Providing false testimony in a murder case meant the same fate.

Hammurabi's code took seriously the responsibilities of all public officials. The governor of an area and city officials were expected to catch burglars. If they failed to do so, public officials in which the crime took place had to replace the lost property. If murderers were not found, the officials had to pay a fine to the relatives of the murdered person. Soldiers were also expected to fill their duties. If a soldier hired a substitute to fight for him, he was put to death, and a substitute was given control of his estate.

The law code also extended into the daily life of the ordinary citizen. Builders were held responsible for the buildings they constructed. If a house collapsed and caused the death of its owner, the builder was put to death. Goods destroyed by the collapsed must also be replaced and the house itself rebuilt at the builder's expense.

Slavery was a common feature of Mesopotamian society. Slaves were obtained by war; others were criminals. Crimes such as striking one's older brother and kicking one's mother were punished by condemnation to slavery. A man could pay his debts by selling both his children and wife into slavery for a specified length of time. One could become a slave simply by going into debt.

Slaves were used in temples, in public buildings, and in the homes of private individuals. Most temple slaves were women who did domestic chores. Royal slaves were used to construct buildings and fortifications. Slaves owned by private citizens performed domestic chores. The laws were harsh for those slaves who tried to escape or who were disobedient. "If a male slave has said to his master, 'You are now my master,' his master shall prove him to be his slave and cut off his ear." Despite such harsh measures, slaves did possess a number of privileges: they could hold property, participate in business, marry free man or women, and eventually purchased their own freedom.

The number of laws in Hammurabi's code dedicated to land and commerce reveal the importance of agriculture and trade in Mesopotamian society. Numerous laws dealt with questions of landholding, such as the establishment of conditions for renting farmland. Tenant farming was the basis of Mesopotamian agriculture. Ten farmers paid their annual rent in crops rather than money. Laws concerning land-use and irrigation were especially strict. If a landowner or tenant failed to keep dikes in good repair he was required to pay for the grain that was destroyed. If he could not pay he was sold into slavery and his goods sold, the proceeds of which were divided among the injured parties. Rates of interest on loans were watched carefully. If the lender raised his rate of interest after a loan was made, he lost the entire amount of the loan. The Code of Hammurabi also specified the precise wages of labourers and artisans.

The largest number of laws in the Code of Hammurabi were dedicated to marriage and family. Parents arranged marriages for their children. After marriage, the party signed a marriage contract. Without this contract, no one was considered legally married. While the husband provided a bridal payment, the woman's parents were responsible for a dowry to the husband. Dowries were carefully monitored and governed by regulations.

Mesopotamian society was a patriarchal society, and so women possessed far fewer privileges and rights in their marriage. A woman's place was at home and failure to fulfil her duties was grounds for divorce. If she was not able to bear children, her husband could divorce her but he had to repay the dowry. If his wife tried to leave the home in order to engage in business, her husband could divorce her and did not have to repay the dowry. Furthermore, if his wife was a "gadabout, . . . neglecting her house [and] humiliating her husband," she could be drowned.

Women were guaranteed some rights, however. If a woman was divorced without good reason she received the dowry back. A woman could seek divorce and get her dowry back if her husband was unable to show that she had done anything wrong. The mother also chose a son to whom an inheritance would be passed.

Sexual relations were strictly regulated as well. Husbands, but not wives, were permitted sexual activity outside marriage. A wife caught committing adultery was pitched into the river. Incest was strictly forbidden. If a father committed incestuous relations with his daughter, he would be banished. Incest between a son and his mother resulted in both being burned.

Fathers ruled their children as well as their wives. Obedience was expected: "If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand." If a son committed a serious enough offence, his father could disinherit him. It should be clear that the Code of Hammurabi covered virtually every aspect of an individual's life. Although scholars have questioned the extent to which these laws were actually employed in Babylonian society, the Code of Hammurabi provides us an important glimpse into the values of Mesopotamian civilization.

The Akkadian Kingdom

The Sumerians were not the only people to inhabit the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. There were other groups of people who lived in permanent communities and who interacted with the Sumerians in times of peace and in war. By 2350 B.C., Semitic-speaking people united northern Mesopotamia with the Sumerian city-states and a new capital was set up at Akkad. The result was a centralized government under the authority of the king, his royal court, and the high class of priests.

The man most responsible for this development is assumed to be Sargon. Sargon, whose name is taken to mean "the king is legitimate," carried out more than thirty battles against the Sumerian city-states and eventually, these city-states were incorporated into the Akkadian kingdom.

The foundation of the Akkadian state was economic. Sargon and his royal court served as the focal point of all economic activity. Remember, at Sumer, this task was assumed by the priests of the temple. Sargon brought vast amounts of wealth to the capital city he also brought a huge number of royal servants and administrators, thus creating a bureaucratic organization to help rule his kingdom.

The Akkadian kingdom, like most Ancient Near Eastern kingdoms, also embraced a polytheistic religion. Their gods were anthropomorphic, that is, the gods took human form. And because the gods took human form, they also had human qualities: the gods could be foolish, intelligent, shy, humorous, jealous, angry or silly. Among themselves, the gods also had unequal status. The gods were derived from the world of nature for the simple reason that life in Mesopotamia was controlled or conditioned by the seasons. Theirs was a world of nature and in order to understand nature, the Mesopotamians gave human shape to the forces of nature. So, we encounter An, the sky god, Enlil, the god of air, Nanna, the moon god and Utu, the sun god. The Mesopotamians believed these gods were responsible for creating the universe and everything it contained, including humankind. The gods were also responsible for the smooth running of that world. The gods ruled the world of men through their earthly representatives, and in the case of the Akkadian kingdom, this meant Sargon. Hopefully, you can already notice the decreased status of the temple priests at Akkad. Although they still exist, and continue to serve a vital role, the mediator between the gods and ordinary men and women, is now Sargon.

Men and women were created by the gods to serve the gods to feed and clothe them, to honour and obey them. One thing absent from this religion, however, was that the gods did not specify any code of ethics or morality. Issues of good and evil were left to men and women to discover on their own. In the end, the gods gave the inhabitants of these early river civilizations an answer to the basic question why are we here? what is our role? And the answer was equally simple to serve the gods.


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