Stone tablet inscribed with the Sumerian King List 3200-1200 BCE
Victory stele of Naram-Sin

The History of Sumer and The Sumerians – Sumer is the earliest known civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq, during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages, and arguably one of the first civilizations in the world along with Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley. Living along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, Sumerian farmers were able to grow an abundance of grain and other crops, the surplus of which enabled them to settle in one place. Proto-writing in the prehistory dates back to c. 3000 BC. The earliest texts come from the cities of Uruk and Jemdet Nasr and date back to 3300 BC; early cuneiform script writing emerged in 3000 BC.

Modern historians have suggested that Sumer was first permanently settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a West Asian people who spoke the Sumerian language (pointing to the names of cities, rivers, basic occupations, etc., as evidence), an agglutinative language isolate. These conjectured, prehistoric people are now called “proto-Euphrateans” or “Ubaidians”, and are theorized to have evolved from the Samarra culture of northern Mesopotamia. The Ubaidians (though never mentioned by the Sumerians themselves) are assumed by modern-day scholars to have been the first civilizing force in Sumer, draining the marshes for agriculture, developing trade, and establishing industries, including weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, masonry, and pottery.

Sumerian civilization took form in the Uruk period (4th millennium BC), continuing into the Jemdet Nasr and Early Dynastic periods. During the 3rd millennium BC, a close cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians, who spoke a language isolate, and Akkadian-speakers, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the 3rd millennium BC as a Sprachbund. Sumer was conquered by the Semitic-speaking kings of the Akkadian Empire around 2270 BC (short chronology), but Sumerian continued as a sacred language.

Native Sumerian rule re-emerged for about a century in the Third Dynasty of Ur at approximately 2100–2000 BC, but the Akkadian language also remained in use. The Sumerian city of Eridu, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, is considered to have been the world’s first city, where three separate cultures may have fused: that of peasant Ubaidian farmers, living in mud-brick huts and practicing irrigation; that of mobile nomadic Semitic pastoralists living in black tents and following herds of sheep and goats; and that of fisher folk, living in reed huts in the marshlands, who may have been the ancestors of the Sumerians.

Gudea of Lagash Girsu
A Sumerian statue of a praying Sumerian excavated in modern-day eastern Syria of c. 2400 BC.

The history of Sumer, taken to include the prehistoric Ubaid and Uruk periods, spans the 5th to 3rd millennia BC, ending with the downfall of the Third Dynasty of Ur around 2004 BC, followed by a transitional period of Amorite states before the rise of Babylonia in the 18th century BC.

The first settlement in southern Mesopotamia was Eridu. The Sumerians claimed that their civilization had been brought, fully formed, to the city of Eridu by their god Enki or by his advisor (or Abgallu from ab=water, gal=big, lu=man), Adapa U-an (the Oannes of Berossus). The first people at Eridu brought with them the Samarran culture from northern Mesopotamia and are identified with the Ubaid period, but it is not known whether or not these were Sumerians (associated later with the Uruk period).

The Sumerian king list is an ancient text in the Sumerian language listing kings of Sumer, including a few foreign dynasties. Some of the earlier dynasties may be mythical; the historical record does not open up before the first archaeologically attested ruler, Enmebaragesi (c. 2600 BC), while conjectures and interpretations of archaeological evidence can vary for earlier events. The best-known dynasty, that of Lagash, is omitted from the kinglist.

The Sumerian King List is an ancient stone tablet originally recorded in the Sumerian language, listing kings of Sumer (ancient southern Iraq) from Sumerian and neighboring dynasties, their supposed reign lengths, and the locations of the kingship. Kingship was seen as handed down by the gods and could be transferred from one city to another, reflecting perceived hegemony in the region. Throughout its Bronze Age existence, the document evolved into a political tool. Its final and single attested version, dating to the Middle Bronze Age, aimed to legitimize Isin’s claims to hegemony when Isin was vying for dominance with Larsa and other neighboring city-states in southern Mesopotamia. (Wikipedia)

Permanent year-round urban settlement may have been prompted by intensive agricultural practices. The work required in maintaining irrigation canals called for, and the resulting surplus food enabled, relatively concentrated populations. The centres of Eridu and Uruk, two of the earliest cities, had successively elaborated large temple complexes built of mudbrick. Developing as small shrines with the earliest settlements, by the Early Dynastic I period, they had become the most imposing structures in their respective cities, each dedicated to its own respective god. From south to north, the principal temple-cities, their principal temple complex, and the gods they served, were

  • Eridu, E-Abzu, Enki
  • Ur, E-kishnugal, Nanna (moon)
  • Larsa, E-babbar, Utu (sun)
  • Uruk, E-anna, Inana and An
  • Bad-tibira, E-mush, Dumuzi and Inana
  • Girsu, E-ninnu, Ningirsu
  • Umma, E-mah, Shara (son of Inana)
  • Nippur, E-kur, Enlil
  • Shuruppak, E-dimgalanna,
  • Sud (variant of Ninlil, wife of Enlil)
  • Marad, E-igikalamma, Lugal-Marada (variant of Ninurta)
  • Kish, Ninhursag
  • Sippar, E-babbar, Utu (sun)
  • Kutha, E-meslam, Nergal

Before 3000 BC the political life of the city was headed by a priest-king (ensi) assisted by a council of elders and based on these temples, but it is unknown how the cities had secular rulers rise in prominence from the earliest times. The development and system of administration led to the development of archaic tablets around 3500 BC-3200 BC and ideographic writing (c. 3100 BC) was developed into logographic writing around 2500 BC (and a mixed form by about 2350 BC). As Sumerologist Christopher Woods points out in Earliest Mesopotamian Writing: “A precise date for the earliest cuneiform texts has proved elusive, as virtually all the tablets were discovered in secondary archaeological contexts, specifically, in rubbish heaps that defy accurate stratigraphic analysis. The sun-hardened clay tablets, having obviously outlived their usefulness, were used along with other waste, such as potsherds, clay sealings, and broken mudbricks, as fill in leveling the foundations of new construction — consequently, it is impossible to establish when the tablets were written and used.”  Even so, it is proposed that the ideas of writing developed across the area, according to Theo J. H. Krispijn, along the following time-frame:

  • c. 3400 BC : Numerical Tablet
  • c. 3300 BC : Numerical Tablet with Logograms
  • c. 3240 BC : Script (Phonograms)
  • c. 3000 BC : Lexical Script
The Victory Stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, Sumerian archaic dynasties.
Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash, Early Dynastic III (2550–2500 BC).

The Cradle of Humanity in The Early Bronze Age

Estimation of absolute dates becomes possible for the second half of the 3rd millennium BC. For the first half of the 3rd millennium, only very rough chronological matching of archaeological dates with written records is possible.

The city-states of Ebla and Mari (in modern Syria) competed for power at this time. Eventually, under Irkab-Damu, Ebla defeated Mari for control of the region just in time to face the rise of Uruk and Akkad. After years of back and forth, Ebla was destroyed by the Akkadian Empire. Pottery seals of the Egyptian pharaoh Pepi I have been found in the wreckage of the city.

Lugal-zage-si of Umma rules from Uruk after defeating Lagash, eventually falling to the emerging Akkadian Empire

Since Akkad (or Agade), the capital of the Akkadian Empire, has not yet been found, available chronological data comes from outlying locations like Ebla, Tell Brak, Nippur, Susa and Tell Leilan. Clearly, the expansion of Akkad came under the rules of Sargon and Naram-sin. The last king of the empire, Shar-kali-sharri managed to mostly hold things together but upon his death, the empire fragmented. Finally, the city of Akkad itself was destroyed by the Guti.

First appearing in the area during the reign of Sargon of Akkad, the Guti became a regional power after the decline of the Akkadian Empire following Shar-Kali-Sharri. The dynasty ends with the defeat of the last king, Tirigan, by Uruk. Only a handful of the Guti kings are attested to by inscriptions, aside from the Sumerian king list.

Following the collapse of the Akkadian Empire after Shar-kali-sharri of Akkad under pressure from the invading Gutians, Lagash gradually regained prominence. As a client state to the Gutian Kings, Lagash was extremely successful, peaking under the rule of Gudea. After the last Gutian king, Tirigan, was defeated, by Utu-hengal, Lagash came under the control of Ur under Ur-Namma. Note that there is some indication that the order of the last two rulers of Lagash should be reversed.

Uniting various Sumerian city-states, Utu-Hengal frees the region from the Gutians. Note that the Sumerian king list records a preceding 4th Dynasty of Uruk which is as yet unattested.

In an apparently peaceful transition, Ur came to power after the end of the reign of Utu-Hengal of Uruk, with the first king, Ur-Namma, solidifying his power with the defeat of Lagash. By the dynasty’s end with the destruction of Ur by Elamites and Shimashki, the dynasty included little more than the area around Ur.

Sumer 15 Trilingual_inscription_of_Xerxes,_Van,_1973

During the Third Dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu of Ur defeated Utu-Hengal of Uruk and founded the Third Dynasty of Ur. Although the Sumerian language (Emegir) was again made official, Sumerian identity was already in decline, as the population became continually absorbed into the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) population.

After the Ur III dynasty was destroyed by the Elamites in 2004 BC, a fierce rivalry developed between the city-states of Larsa, more under Elamite than Sumerian influence, and Isin, that was more Amorite (as the Western Semitic nomads were called). Archaeologically, the fall of the Ur III dynasty corresponds to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. The Semites ended up prevailing in Mesopotamia by the time of Hammurabi of Babylon, who founded the Babylonian Empire, and the language and name of Sumer gradually passed into the realm of antiquarian scholars. Nevertheless, Sumerian influence on Babylonia, and all subsequent cultures in the region, was undeniably great.

During the third millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a sprachbund.

Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language of Mesopotamia somewhere around the turn of the third and the second millennium BC, but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the first century AD.

Cuneiform or Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing, was invented by the Sumerians. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means wedge shaped.

Emerging in Sumer in the late fourth millennium BC (the Uruk IV period) to convey the Sumerian language, which was a language isolate, cuneiform writing began as a system of pictograms, stemming from an earlier system of shaped tokens used for accounting. In the third millennium, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract as the number of characters in use grew smaller (Hittite cuneiform). The system consists of a combination of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs.

The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Semitic Akkadian (Assyrian/Babylonian), Eblaite and Amorite languages, the language isolates Elamite, Hattic, Hurrian and Urartian, as well as Indo-European languages Hittite and Luwian; it inspired the later Semitic Ugaritic alphabet as well as Old Persian cuneiform. Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–612 BC). By the second century AD, the script had become extinct, its last traces being found in Assyria and Babylonia, and all knowledge of how to read it was lost until it began to be deciphered in the 19th century.

The cuneiform writing system was in use for more than three millennia, through several stages of development, from the 31st century BC down to the second century AD. Ultimately, it was completely replaced by alphabetic writing (in the general sense) in the course of the Roman era, and there are no cuneiform systems in current use. It had to be deciphered as a completely unknown writing system in 19th-century Assyriology. Successful completion of its deciphering is dated to 1857.

Although music and songs amused kings, they were also enjoyed by ordinary people who liked to sing and dance in their homes or in the marketplaces. Songs were sung to children who passed them on to their children. Thus songs were passed on through many generations as an oral tradition until writing was more universal. These songs provided a means of passing on through the centuries highly important information about historical events.

The Oud is a small, stringed musical instrument used by the Mesopotamians. The oldest pictorial record of the Oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon. The image depicts a female crouching with her instruments upon a boat, playing right-handed. This instrument appears hundreds of times throughout Mesopotamian history and again in ancient Egypt from the 18th dynasty onwards in long- and short-neck varieties. The oud is regarded as a precursor to the European lute.

Mesopotamian music, while quite different from modern music, has recognizable aspects to any musician. The scale used in Mesopotamian music is what modern musicians would call the Lydian scale. Instruments in ancient Mesopotamia fall under a few categories, percussive instruments, horned instruments, reed instruments, and plucked instruments. There was a strict music theory that Mesopotamians, and there is some evidence for musical notation. Socially, the ancient Mesopotamians valued music differently in different circumstances, with beautiful music expected in social settings, and strictly religious music expected in religious settings.

Instruments of Ancient Mesopotamia include harps, lyres, lutes, reed pipes, and drums. Many of these were shared with neighbouring cultures. Contemporary East African lyres and West African lutes preserve many features of Mesopotamian instruments.

© Cormael 2018 06/09


  • Atlas of World Population History, Facts on File, New York – Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones (1978)
  • The Near East: Archaeology in the Cradle of Civilization – Charles Keith Maisels (1993)
  • Early Civilizations of the Old World: The Formative Histories of Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, India and China – Charles Keith Maisels (2001)
  • A dictionary of archaeology – Ian Shaw, Robert Jameson (2002)
  • Mesopotamia, the Invention of the City – Gwendolyn Leick (2003)
  • Syntactic Change in Akkadian: The Evolution of Sentential Complementation – Guy Deutscher (2007)
  • Sumer (ancient region, Iraq) – Encyclopedia Britannica (2012)
  • A History of Sumer and Akkad – Leonid W. King (2015)