Ancient Near East

Discovery of Sumer: Unearthing the Cradle of Civilization

By 4500 BCE, humans settled in Mesopotamia, soon developing the region into the cradle of civilization.

craddle of human civilization mesopotamia

Sumer, often considered the cradle of civilization, remained a mystery until archaeologists in the late 19th century unearthed its remnants in the modern-day region of Iraq. Initially aiming to find Assyrian artifacts, French and British archaeologists accidentally discovered this much older civilization. For centuries, layers of silt from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, originating from the Turkish mountains, had buried Sumer’s existence. The discovery of Sumer not only revealed a forgotten civilization but also significantly extended the timeline of human history.

Mesopotamia’s Geographic and Environmental Challenges

The Tigris River, Photograph by Jane Sweeney, via National Geographic
The Tigris River, Photograph by Jane Sweeney, via National Geographic

Mesopotamia is characterized by its flat, expansive landscape with vast sand plains and minimal vegetation, stretching down to a swampy area near the Persian Gulf. This region has seen the sea recede since the last Ice Age, and it experiences a desert climate with sporadic rainfall, extreme midday heat, and potentially severe cold in winter and nighttime.

Despite the scarce rainfall, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers frequently flooded the region, devastating the Mesopotamian core areas. The geographical makeup of mud and sand flats towards the sea meant the absence of stone for construction and a lack of trees for building homes or boats.

Map of Ancient Mesopotamia, via Wikipedia Commons
Map of Ancient Mesopotamia, via Wikipedia Commons

Located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamia became known as the cradle of civilization. These rivers not only provided a steady source of water but also facilitated trade and transportation, crucial for connecting different regions. The landscape allowed for the development of large-scale artificial irrigation, exploiting the slight differences in the courses of these nearly parallel rivers before they converged into the Shatt al-Arab. This irrigation capability was instrumental in supporting the region’s burgeoning populations and cities.

The Rise of Sumerian Civilization

Image of Mesopotamia, by Jeff Brown Graphics, via ancient-origins.net
Image of Mesopotamia, by Jeff Brown Graphics, via ancient-origins.net

Around 3500 BCE, the Sumerians established a society in Mesopotamia that would leave a profound impact on world history. Despite the diverse ethnic composition of its population, Sumer is distinguished by its ability to harness and control nature, particularly through the development of artificial irrigation. This advancement in agriculture supported the growth of city-states like Ur, Eridu, and Uruk, each with populations exceeding 50,000 people five millennia ago.

The phrase “history began in Sumer” captures the significance of this civilization in human development, although it’s an overstatement to suggest that history starts in any one place.

The Impact of Clay

Clay tablet, a record of beer, 3100BCE-3000BCE, via the British Museum
Clay tablet, a record of beer, 3100BCE-3000BCE, via the British Museum

The Sumerians, thriving on the river plains, uncovered the immense utility of clay, which held the potential to redefine their civilization. Recognized as Sumer’s universal solution, clay was not only foundational in constructing temples but also marked the inception of writing. This versatile material was transformed into mudstone, utilized extensively for building houses, temples, step pyramids, and even formidable city defenses. In Uruk, for instance, the city boasted a ten-kilometer-long wall equipped with defensive towers, all crafted from clay. This marked clay as the cornerstone of building materials in early civilization.

Clay’s significance extended beyond construction to catalyze a pivotal advancement in human history: the invention of cuneiform, the world’s first written language. The Sumerians ingeniously used pointed objects to etch signs on clay tablets, which were then sun-dried.

The first known version of the Code of Ur-Nammu, date unknown, via Wikimedia Commons
The first known version of the Code of Ur-Nammu, date unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

This innovation was crucial for managing the logistics of food storage and distribution—a novel concept at the time. It facilitated not only the trading operations among city-states but also the organization of their internal administration. This system of writing, originating from Sumer, did not just document civilization; it propelled its further development.

Moreover, the combination of written language and the use of clay led to the evolution of numerical systems essential for modern understandings of time and space. It was here, in what is now Iraq, that concepts such as dividing an hour into 60 minutes, a minute into 60 seconds, structuring a week into seven days, and segmenting a circle into 360 degrees were conceived. These innovations underscore the profound impact of clay on the Sumerian civilization and its lasting contributions to human progress.

Artist’s impression of a Sumerian City, via the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq
Artist’s impression of a Sumerian City, via the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq

Clay was instrumental in creating the world’s first legal text, the Code of Ur-Nammu, which clarified the consequences for various crimes, ranging from adultery with slaves to murder. Enacted around 2100 BCE, this code was straightforward in its penalties, asserting that “a man who kills another man must die himself.” This early legal document, inscribed on clay tablets, provided a clear framework for justice, ensuring that all citizens were aware of the legal repercussions of their actions.

The integration of cities through canal systems not only facilitated trade and agriculture but also sparked conflicts, leading to what is considered the first recorded war. Around 2450 BCE, King Eannatum of Lagash defeated Umma in a dispute over canal control. This historic conflict is depicted on “The Stele of the Vultures,” a stone relic housed in the Louvre in Paris, which portrays scenes from these ancient battles. Following his victory, King Eannatum established a boundary stone inscribing the terms of peace, thus giving the world its first known peace treaty.

Despite its innovations and advancements, the Sumerian civilization, which thrived from around 4000 to 2000 BCE, eventually met its demise. The prevailing theory for this decline focuses on the diminishing agricultural productivity. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers, fed by melting snows from the Turkish mountains, carried high concentrations of salts. Over centuries, these salts accumulated in the soil due to irrigation and additional salt blown in from the Persian Gulf. This salinization progressively rendered the land infertile, undermining the very agricultural systems that had supported Sumer’s growth. Ultimately, the innovative irrigation techniques that had once revolutionized Sumerian society became the catalyst for its gradual downfall.

Successive Empires of Mesopotamia and Their Contributions

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, by H Waldeck, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, by H Waldeck, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons

The succession of empires in Mesopotamia began with the Akkadian Empire, established around 2334 BCE under the leadership of Sargon of Akkad. This empire is notable for its military achievements and the unification of the Sumerian city-states into a single state. The Akkadians adopted and further propagated the Sumerian cuneiform writing, strengthening their administrative capabilities through military expansions.

Following the Akkadians, the Babylonian Empire emerged around 1894 BCE, renowned for significant cultural and architectural advancements. The Babylonians expanded on the legal foundations laid by their predecessors by developing the Code of Hammurabi, which is among the earliest and most complete written legal codes. They also constructed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, an architectural marvel featuring tiered gardens that stood as a testament to their engineering and botanical expertise, symbolizing the zenith of Babylonian cultural achievement.

The Assyrian Empire, which rose to prominence around 2500 BCE, was marked by formidable military strategies and technological advancements, including the use of siege engines and iron weaponry. The Assyrians established a detailed bureaucratic system that managed the empire’s affairs efficiently, ensuring its long-standing dominance in the region.

The last major ancient empire in Mesopotamia was the Persian Empire, which began around 550 BCE. The Persians are celebrated for their contributions to art, literature, and philosophy, alongside their forward-thinking approach to governance, characterized by religious and cultural tolerance. This inclusivity fostered a cosmopolitan society where diverse groups could coexist and collaborate, enriching the empire’s cultural fabric.

These empires, each in their own time, significantly shaped the historical and cultural landscape of Mesopotamia, leaving a legacy of innovation, governance, and multicultural integration that continued to influence subsequent civilizations.

Legacy

The Ancient Mesopotamian Standard of Ur, 2500 BCE, via the British Museum
The Ancient Mesopotamian Standard of Ur, 2500 BCE, via the British Museum

Mesopotamia’s influence stretches far beyond its historical geographic boundaries, deeply affecting subsequent civilizations across the globe. Known as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia’s numerous contributions continue to captivate and inspire modern society. The region’s profound innovations underscore the remarkable capacity for human creativity and the sustained relevance of ancient advancements in shaping contemporary life.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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