The Forgotten Civilization of Ancient Sumer

Sumer is recognized as the cradle of man’s modern origins; the world’s first advanced civilization. Known for their innovations in language, governance, architecture and more, Sumerian civilization flourished from 4500 to 1900 BC

Sumer was a civilization that flourished in the 6000 years ago in the southern part of what is now Iraq. The heartland of Sumer lay between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia. At that time, the two rivers formed at the Persian Gulf flow deltas branched with a significant flow. Having abundantly the main human resource, food, the Sumerians were able to develop a prosperous civilization from all points of view.

Known for their innovations in language, governance, architecture and more, Sumerians are considered the creators of civilization as modern humans understand it. Their control of the region lasted for short of 2,000 years before the Babylonians took charge in 2004 B.C.

Origin of Sumerian Civilization

The people of Sumer referred to themselves as “Black Headed Ones” and to their land as “Kiengir”, the “Country of the noble lords”as seen in their inscriptions.

The origin of the Sumerians is not known. Many historians think that cities and towns were first formed in Sumer around 5000 BC. Nomads moved into the fertile land and began to form small villages. This early population—known as the Ubaid people—was notable for strides in the development of civilization such as farming and raising cattle, weaving textiles, working with carpentry and pottery and even enjoying beer. Villages and towns were built around Ubaid farming communities. Eventually these villages and towns developed into the civilization of the Sumer.

Whenever the Sumerian civilization was first established in the region, by 3600 BCE they had invented the wheel, writing, the sail boat, agricultural processes such as irrigation, and the concept of the city.

Mesopotamia was situated within the Fertile Crescent, where the geography, climate and presence of water encouraged the growth of agriculture. 

An artist’s illustration of Mesopotamia
An artist’s illustration of Mesopotamia (IMAGE by Jeff Brown Graphics)

Sumerian Cities and Governments

Their culture was comprised of a group of city-states, including Eridu, Nippur, Lagash, Kish, Ur and the very first true city, Uruk. These city-states often fought each other. They built thick wall with rooms for the soldiers around their cities for protection.

The fortifications of the city of Uruk, built around 2000 BC, consist of a double wall, the main wall is 4–5 meters thick, with a total length of 9, 5 km, protected by about 800 towers, with gates only to the north and south. Farmland was outside the walls, but people would retreat to the city when invaders came. Uruk has been estimated to have had a population of 50,000–80,000 at its height; given the other cities in Sumer, and the large agricultural population, a rough estimate for Sumer’s population might be 0.8 million to 1.5 million.

Each city-state had its own ruler. They went by various titles such as lugal, en, or ensi. The ruler was like a king or governor. The ruler of the city was often the high priest of their religion as well. This gave him even more power.

In addition to the king or governor, there was a fairly complex government with officials who helped to organize city building projects and keep the city running. There were also laws that the citizens must follow or face punishment. The invention of government is often credited to the Sumerians.

A Sumerian city consisted mainly of the houses of the inhabitants, the temple, a market, and the granary.

The ruins of Ur, with the Ziggurat of Ur visible in the background
The ruins of Ur, with the Ziggurat of Ur visible in the background (IMAGE by wikipedia)

Sumerian Language And Literature

The Sumerian language is the oldest linguistic record. It first appeared in archaeological records around 3100 B.C. and dominated Mesopotamia for the next thousand years. It was mostly replaced by Akkadian around 2000 B.C. but held on as a written language in cuneiform for another 2,000 years.

They wrote on tablets of clay, later evolving the script that to us is known as cuneiform, or “wedge-shaped.” The origin of written language (c. 3200 B.C.E.) was born out of economic necessity and was a tool of the theocratic ruling elite who needed to keep track of the agricultural wealth of the city-states. Very detailed records on clay tablets of offerings, rations, taxes and agricultural work have come down to us. 

Early writing tablet for recording the allocation of beer; 3100–3000 BC; height: 9.4 cm; width: 6.87 cm; from Iraq
Early writing tablet for recording the allocation of beer; height: 9.4 cm; width: 6.87 cm; from Iraq (IMAGE by wikipedia)

Over 500,000 of these clay tablets have been discovered, highlighting the breadth of knowledge this civilization possessed and the lengths to which they attempted to preserve it. The oldest written laws date back to 2400 B.C. in the city of Ebla, where the Code of Er-Nammu was written on tablets.

Sumerian Art and Architecture

Architecture on a grand scale is generally credited to have begun under the Sumerians, with religious structures dating back to 3400 B.C., although it appears that the basics of the structures began in the Ubaid period as far back as 5200 B.C. and were improved upon through the centuries.

The house of ancient Mesopotamia was built of bare bricks, reeds, mats and few planks of wood, which from the fourth-millennium had acquired a typical form, which had remained for several millennia and had not changed at all in the historical times. The buildings are noted for their arched doorways and flat roofs. There was also the statue of the protective god of the house next to a clay sacrificial, and besides it the exterior walls of the houses were painted with asphalt, but also with red stripes, this being the color that drove away from the demons.

Elaborate construction, such as terra cotta ornamentation with bronze accents, complicated mosaics, imposing brick columns and sophisticated mural paintings all reveal the society’s technical sophistication.

Sculpture was used mainly to adorn temples and offer some of the earliest examples of human artists seeking to achieve some form of naturalism in their figures. Facing a scarcity of stone, Sumerians made leaps in metal-casting for their sculpture work, though relief carving in stone was a popular art form.

Standard of Ur; 2600-2400 BC; shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli on wood; length: 49.5 cm; from the Royal Cemetery at Ur;
Standard of Ur; 2600-2400 BC; shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli on wood; length: 49.5 cm; from the Royal Cemetery at Ur; (IMAGE by wikipedia)

Under the Akkadian dynasty, sculpture reached new heights, as evidenced by intricate and stylized work in diorite dated to 2100 B.C. Palaces also reach a new level of grandiosity. In Mari around 1779 B.C., an ambitious 200-room palace was constructed.


Ziggurats began to appear around 2200 B.C. The ziggurat looked like a step pyramid with a flat top, featured no inner chambers and stood about 170 feet high. Here the priests would perform rituals and sacrifices. Ziggurats often featured sloping sides and terraces with gardens. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of these. Ziggurats are found scattered around what is today Iraq and Iran, and stand as an imposing testament to the power and skill of the ancient culture that produced them.

The Great Ziggurat

Reconstruction of the ziggurat at Uruk dedicated to the goddess Inanna
Reconstruction of the ziggurat at Uruk dedicated to the goddess Inanna (IMAGE by Jeff Brown Graphics)

One of the largest and best-preserved ziggurats of Mesopotamia is the great Ziggurat at Ur. The Ziggurat at Ur and the temple on its top were built around 2100 B.C.E. by the king Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty of Ur for the moon god Nanna, the divine patron of the city state. The massive step pyramid measured 64 m (210 ft) in length, 45 m (148 ft) in width and over 30 m (98 ft) in height. The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and, like the spire of a medieval cathedral, would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike. The height is speculative, as only the foundations of the Sumerian ziggurat have survived. In antiquity, to visit the ziggurat at Ur was to seek both spiritual and physical nourishment.

The structure had crumbled to ruins by the 6th century BCE of the Neo-Babylonian period, when it was restored by King Nabonidus. Its remains were excavated in the 1920s and 1930s by Sir Leonard Woolley.

Sumerian Science

Standard reconstruction of the development of writing, showing Sumerian cuneiform at the origin of many writing systems.
Standard reconstruction of the development of writing, showing Sumerian cuneiform at the origin of many writing systems.(IMAGE by wikipedia)

Sumerians had a system of medicine that was based in magic and herbalism, but they were also familiar with processes of removing chemical parts from natural substances. They are considered to have had an advanced knowledge of anatomy, and surgical instruments have been found in archeological sites.

One of the Sumerians greatest advances was in the area of hydraulic engineering. Early in their history they created a system of ditches to control flooding, and were also the inventors of irrigation, harnessing the power of the Tigris and Euphrates for farming. Canals were consistently maintained from dynasty to dynasty.

Astrology, botany, zoology, mathematics, and law would make up some of Sumer’s greatest achievements. 

Their skill at engineering and architecture both point to the sophistication of their understanding of math. The structure of modern time keeping, with sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour, is attributed to the Sumerians.

Sumerian Culture

Schools were common in Sumerian culture, marking the world’s first mass effort to pass along knowledge in order to keep a society running and building on itself.

Sumerians left behind scores of written records, but they are more renowned for their epic poetry, which influenced later works in Greece and Rome and sections of the Bible, most notably the story of the Great Flood, the Garden of Eden, and the Tower of Babel. The Sumerians were musically inclined and a Sumerian hymn, “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” is considered the world’s oldest musically notated song.


A Sumerian Wall Plaque Showing Libation Scenes
Wall plaque showing libations to a seated god and a temple. Ur, 2500 BCE (IMAGE by by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (CC BY-NC-SA))

The Sumerians worshipped hundreds of gods, with each city having its own patron deity. The principal gods were too busy to bother with the plight of individuals. For that reason, each Sumerian worshipped a minor god or goddess who was expected to interact with the major gods. The soul and center of each city-state was its temple to the patron god.

The Sumerians did not believe in a heavenly afterlife and were realistic about the limits of human goodness. They accepted that although the gods were above question, they were not always kind. The relationship with the gods was totally submissive, and their perception was that humans were created to serve the gods, thus diminishing, in the Sumerian view, the role of man in the universe.

Sumerian Economy and Trade

The Sumerians grew wheat, barley, peas, onions, turnips, and dates. They raised cattle and sheep, fished, and hunted wildfowl along the river. Food was generally abundant, and populations grew accordingly.

Since their homeland was largely devoid of timber, stone and minerals, the Sumerians were forced to create one of history’s earliest trade networks over both land and sea. With the development of the wheel and sail, transportation of goods became easier.

Their most important commercial partner may have been the island of Dilmun (present day Bahrain), which held a monopoly on the copper trade, but their merchants also undertook months-long journeys to Anatolia and Lebanon to gather cedar wood and to Oman and the Indus Valley for gold and gemstones.

The Sumerians were particularly fond of lapis lazuli—a blue-colored precious stone used in art and jewelry—and there is evidence that they may have roamed as far as Afghanistan to get it. Historians have also suggested that Sumerian references to two ancient trading lands known as “Magan” and “Meluhha” may refer to Egypt and Indus Valley civilization.

Evidence for imports from the Indus to Ur can be found from around 2350 BCE. Various objects made with shell species that are characteristic of the Indus coast, particularly Trubinella Pyrum and Fasciolaria Trapezium, have been found in the archaeological sites of Mesopotamia dating from around 2500-2000 BCE. Several Indus seals with Harappan script have also been found in Mesopotamia, particularly in Ur, Babylon and Kish.

Cylinder-seal of the Uruk period and its impression, c.3100 BC.
Cylinder-seal of the Uruk period and its impression, c.3100 BC. (IMAGE by wikipedia)

Relationships between Sumerians

For Sumerians, the family was very important, being considered, as in the present day, the foundation of the society. Just as the king was ruler over the city-state, so was the father/husband king over his house. The marriage was monogamous, and the woman, unlike other societies of that time, had more freedom, as in the Sumerians the role of mother was crucial. Being very high infant mortality due to lack of hygiene, the woman had to give birth to as many children as possible.

As for the holidays, everyone took part in them, and on these occasions, any social difference was erased, and there were also processions that ended with orgies.


Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh and King Gilgamesh
Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh and King Gilgamesh

The very first ruling body of Sumer that has historical verification is the First Dynasty of Kish. The earliest ruler mentioned is Etana of Kish, who, in a document from the time, is credited as having “stabilized all the lands.” One thousand years later, Etana would be memorialized in a poem that told of his adventures in heaven.

The most famous of the early Sumerian rulers is Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who took control around 2700 B.C. and is still remembered for his fictional adventures in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first epic poem in history and inspiration for later Roman and Greek myths and Biblical stories.

A devastating flood in the region was used as a pivotal point in the epic poem and later reused in the Old Testament story of Noah.

Sumerian Power Struggles

Somewhere around 2600 B.C., a power struggle erupted between the leaders of Kish, Erech and Ur, which set off a “musical-chairs” scenario of rulers for the region for the next 400 years.

The first conflict resulted in the kingdom of Awan seizing control and shifting the ruling body outside of Sumer until the kingship was returned to the Kish.

The Kish kept control briefly until the rise of Uruk King Enshakushanna, whose brief dynasty was followed by Adabian conqueror Lugalannemundu, who held power for 90 years and is said to have expanded his kingdom up to the Mediterranean. Lugalannemundu also conquered the Gutian people, who lived in the Eastern Iraqi mountains and who would later come to rule Sumer.

In 2500 B.C. the only woman to rule the Sumerians, Kubaba, took the throne. She is the only female listed on the Sumerian King List, which names all rulers of Sumer and their accomplishments. Kubaba’s son, Puzur-Suen, eventually reigned, bringing in the fourth dynasty of Kish, following a brief ascendency of Unzi, the first in the Akshak Dynasty.

This last Kish dynasty ruled for a century before Uruk king Lugal-zage-si ruled for 25 years before Sargon took control in 2234.

The Weld-Blundell Prism, inscribed with the Sumerian King List
The Weld-Blundell Prism, inscribed with the Sumerian King List (IMAGE by Ashmolean Museum)

What Happened to Sumer?

The Sumerians disappeared from history about 2000 B.C. as a result of military domination by various Semitic peoples. Sumer and the other Iraqi city-states were constantly engaged in internecine warfare, or warfare that is detrimental to both sides. In 2004 B.C., the Elamites stormed Ur and took control. At the same time, Amorites had begun overtaking the Sumerian population.

The ruling Elamites were eventually absorbed into Amorite culture, becoming the Babylonians and marking the end of the Sumerians as a distinct body from the rest of Mesopotamia.

In addition to this misfortune,there was a drought going on in Mesopotamia, so agriculture wasn’t at its peak anyway, so this concluded in an exhaustion of Sumerian resources. The population kept increasing, so as the demand for agriculture increased and the supply decreased, prices naturally skyrocketed.

After Mesopotamia was occupied by the Amorites and Babylonians in the early second millennium B.C., the Sumerians gradually lost their cultural identity and ceased to exist as a political force. All knowledge of their history, language and technology—even their name—was eventually forgotten. Their secrets remained buried in the deserts of Iraq until the 19th century, when French and British archaeologists finally stumbled upon Sumerian artifacts while hunting for evidence of the ancient Assyrians.

Since then, archaeologists have recovered numerous pieces of Sumerian art, pottery and sculpture as well as some 500,000 clay tablets, the vast majority of which have still yet to be translated.

Fun Facts About the Sumerians

  • Their number system was based on the number 60, like ours is based on the number 10. They used this when they came up with 60 minutes in an hour and 360 degrees in a circle. We still use these divisions today.
  • Some historians think that the ziggurat at the city of Eridu was the Tower of Babel from the Bible.
  • Some of the city-states were quite large. Ur is thought to have been the largest and may have had a population of 80,000 people at its peak.
  • Their buildings and homes were made from sun-dried bricks.
  • The Sumerian language was eventually replaced by the Akkadian language around 2500 BC.


The Sumerians. Samuel Noah Kramer.
Ancient Mesopotamia: Leo Oppenheim.
Sumer: Cities of Eden. Denise Dersin, Charles J. Hagner, Darcie Conner Johnston.

- Advertisement -

Latest News

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, offers and special announcements.

- Advertisement -

More Articles Like This

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, offers and special announcements.