Make your own free website on
The Sumerians: First Civilization

Mesopotamia means "the land between the rivers," the Euphrates and the Tigris, to be exact. It covered the country now known as Iraq, and some of the area now called Syria and Turkey. It was in the plateau lands of southern Mesopotamia that some of the world's first cities arose. This region was called Sumer and it covered more than 10,000 square miles. It is believed the course of the rivers have changed quite a lot over the years, and that the ancient cities of Kish and Ur were originally water-lined cities.

Mesopotamia was not the ideal location to build a city. It was very hot in the summer, with little rain, dry land and few resources. There were no minerals, stone or metals, and few trees. The summers and winters were too dry. But then in the spring and fall, the land would flood, killing the crops. So why build a city here? Well, for one thing, those floods created rich soil. They were able to develop an irrigation system to bring the water to the dry parts of the land in a controlled way. They also learned to create man-made lakes to hold the extra water until it was needed.

CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS: Learn about irrigation, water storage, and the modern countries where all this is happening. You can create little ponds with irrigation in your backyard if you're not picky about the landscaping. (You just need one little digging corner somewhere.)

By 3000 BCE, there were thousands of people living in the 12 great cities of Sumeria. (Remind them that the first clans who settled down had only 20 or 30 per group. How will life be different with so many people in one area?) With so many groups, the people had formed city-states. (Children who haven't had much exposure to government may not understand this concept, but use the terms and they will become familiar.) A city-state consists of the city and the villages and farms nearby, which were controlled by the city. Each city-state was independent. There was no country at the time. (Try looking at a map of a large city in your area. Imagine that this city controlled itself and all the smaller cities around it.)

The people of this first civilization called themselves the black-headed people. We call them Sumerians. (You can find these people many times in the Bible.

These first city-states were controlled by priests. They collected taxes, ran the irrigation system, and controlled surplus food.

TALK ABOUT THIS: Would you like to have your entire government run by your church? How would life be different in our country if your church ran the government? What if the church in charge were not your church? How would this affect the way you live? What would be good? What could be bad? Throughout much of the history you will study over the next few years, the churches will be in charge. This is a different concept for most children, so spend some time talking about it now. If you don't have a church, talk about how your lives would be affected by living in a place where religion was mandatory or expected.

Temples and palaces were the main public buildings. The temples came first and were large. They were usually enclosed, and were built on a raised platform. they decorations were fancy. they were not just places of worship. The temple was run like a home, with the god or goddess at the head of the family, and all the citizens of the city as one of the people of the temple. There were priests, of course, but also bakers, brewers, gardeners, craftsmen, slaves, and merchants.

The people living in these cities lived in small houses with no windows. The houses were on narrow mud-brick streets. Wealthier people in the bigger cities might have two story houses with a courtyard. They would visit the temple, shop at a busy marketplace, and trade with people who lived as far away as India or Iran. Trade had come so far by now that even luxuries were being made: jewelry, musical instruments, even board games.

Sumer quickly realized it needed a way to keep track of business transactions, and this led to some important changes in civilization. Their solution to this was to create small clay or stone tokens, which they put into football-shaped clay containers. These were called bullae. (The singular form is bulla.) The tokens were different shapes to represent the items sold. They sealed the tokens into the bulla, preventing anyone from changing the contents. Then they decided there needed to be a way to keep track of what was in it, and this was an important decision. They began making marks on the wet clay. This may have led to the invention of writing, because, with the transaction recorded on the outside anyway, the tokens didn't seem necessary. Since they didn't have to store tokens in the bullah, they might have decided a flat tablet would suffice to record the record.

These first symbols were pictures of the items inside the bullah. these pictures were called pictographs. They were drawn on wet clay with a stylus. This is an activity you can do at home. Find pictures of the original pictographs, and try designing your own for modern items like computers and cars. Next, they made the symbols represent syllables by sound, rather like those puzzles for children with a picture of a cat, a plus sign, the letter a, another plus sign and a picture of a log. Add them up and you have catalogue, These puzzles are actually an ancient form of communication. Try doing some of these with your children. Gradually of course, the symbols were simplified and led to a simpler form of pictograph. When it changed enough, it became a whole new form. This new form was called cuneiform, meaning wedge-shaped. This had about six hundred symbols and many patterns, which led to a way to really communicate in writing. Writing was no longer just a system of sales receipts. Even poems and stories could be written with this new system.

It wasn't quite writing as we know it today, but it was getting close. Remind your children though, that writing was around for about a millennium before it was used for anything other tahn book-keeping. Writing was not a widespread skill at this time. Only scribes could do it, and the training was long, hard and boring. Anyone successfully completing the training though, was assured a good job and great respect. Even kings could not read and write. Most scribes were men, but there are a few records of women serving as scribes, perhaps when the father had no son to pass on his business to.

This system of writing continued in the Middle East for 2000 years, spreading into other countries and being used for a number of different languages. It would be a long time before writing advanced to the point of having an alphabet, and that's another story altogether.

With the advancement of writing, we finally have literature. The first recorded stories were the stories that had been passed around for generations orally. The story you will want to share with your children for this time period is the epic of Gilgamesh. He was a real king, but the epic, the world's first written epic, is made up. There are many children's versions of the story, so talk to your librarian.

At first, the Sumerians were ruled by priests, but eventually, as the cities developed enemies, the need for kings arose. The priests had to share power with the kings, who soon built impressive palaces for themselves, rivaling the temples. The palaces eventually became the center of the community, replacing the temples in this responsibility. It was also run like a home, but its head was a human leader, not a god. As a result, they held more signs of wealth and privilege than the temples did. Archaeologists have found tremendous numbers of vehicles, furniture, weapons, jewelry, and musical instrument in the tombs of the leaders.

As more and more people settled into city-states or communities, land, water and resources became more scarce, and, as today, people fought over them. Sometimes the nomads, those who had not settled down, wanted the land or the water. Other times the threats came from other city-states. Cities sometimes began building huge walls to shut out the world, and they began to develop militaries. The successful military leader was often chosen to be the king, just as often happens now. (George Washington was a military leader, and had to fight the desire of others that he become a king.) Religious leadership did not disappear. The priests were to work to keep the city-state's god happy, and it was believed the god gave the king his power.

The religion of these people was polytheistic, which means they believed there were many gods. There were four main gods who created the earth and continued to run it. These were An, ruler of the sky, Enlil, ruler of the air, Enki, over the water, and Ninhursag, the mother goddess. At first, the ruler of the sky was the supreme ruler, but the ruler of the air later took over. There were other gods below them, in several layers, with a total of about 3000. Every object, even rocks, had its own god. The Sumerians believed their gods, who could be good or evil, ruled every aspect of their lives, and that the purpose of humans was to serve the gods, even if you were a king.

Kingdoms gave way to entire empires, and we can credit Sargon with creating the first one. You might want to have your children research him, because his story is interesting, and different from that of most kings. He started as the child of a herder. and became a servant to the king. He is thought to have killed the king and taken over the kingdom. He founded a new capital, Akkad. He took his new army and conquered city after city until he had taken every city-state in Sumer. He moved on to conquer northern Mesopotamia, continued on to Iran, conquering as he went, moved west to the Mediterranean coast, and may have conquered all the way to Egypt. Suddenly Mesopotamia was no longer a group of independent city-states. Sargon tore down walls, and created one huge kingdom-an empire. He ruled about 55 years, until 2279, and his sons and grandsons ruled another 60 years after that.

Needless to say, there were problems. Independent people don't take kindly to being conquered and refused to become loyal followers. Without walls, the city-states were now easy targets for invaders. About 2250 BCE, the capital was destroyed by invaders and the empire came to an end.

One more important topic to cover on the subject of Sumeria is the impressive list of technologies they invented or improved. We have already mentioned their use of irrigation and of record keeping. They also invented the plow, and the sailboat and made bronze. They invented a mathematical notation based on the number sixty, and gave us our system for measuring circles and angles. We don't know for sure who invented the wheel, but the Sumerians were probably the first to put wheels on vehicles, and to use wheels in the making of pottery. In religion, they had a creation story, a flood story, the Tower of Babel, (which may have been a Sumerian ziggurat) the organization of the earth, and a personal god.

Children might be interested to know what their lives would have been like back then. Children were expected to completely obey their parents. Both parents had equal authority over the children. Those children who did not obey could be disowned or sold into slavery. Some children were adopted. They might, particulary if they were wealthy boys, go to school to study reading, writing, religion, law and medicine. The schools were called the edubba, meaning tablet schools. At first, they only trained scribes, but other subjects were later added. These educated children would become the scribes, the copyists, the librarians and the teachers. Children who did not go to school went to work. Girls usually became homemakers, or ran their own businesses. Soem were cloth spinners and weavers. The children's marriages would be arranged by the parents, and there was a good possibility they would have slaves to help them with their chores.

Slaves were often prisoners-of-war from other countries or other city-states. Some were children whose parents had sold them. Others were adults who were ordered to become slaves as court-punishments. Most slaves were well-treated only because healthy slaves could accomplish more. They usually sold for less than the price of a donkey. If they worked for someone else in their free time, they could earn their freedom.

Sumerians ate barley as their main food. It was made into cereal cakes and beer. Wheat was ground into flour. They also enjoyed honey made from dates. They grew vegetables, including chickpeas, lentils, onions, lettuce, turnips, and cucumbers. Milk and beer were the most popular drinks.


Terrie Bittner

This page has been visited times.