Sumer: One of the Most Mysterious Civilizations in History

The Great Ziggurat. © Bill Corbet

Sumerians populated the land between the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, in the southern part of modern day Iraq some 7000 years ago.

They have contributed significantly to the evolution of the human race, but even to this day we still do not know where the Sumerians came from and what language they spoke.

The Mesopotamian valley was settled by Semitic cattlemen tribes, which were forced north by migrating Sumerians. There was no connection between the two civilizations, and the origin of the Sumerian people is still quite unclear to this day. Neither their ancestors are known, nor which classification their language belonged to.

It’s a good thing that Sumerians left plenty of inscribed monuments behind. From such moments, we now know that “Sumerians” was a name used by neighboring tribes, while they actually called themselves sang-ngiga – “the black-heads”. They believed that their language is “holy” and thought it was the only appropriate language for the people (differing from the not so “holy” Semitic languages spoken by neighboring tribes).

But the Sumerian language was not uniform. It consisted of different dialects for men, women, fisherman and shepherds. It is unknown to this day how the Sumerian language actually sounded. Most homonyms allow us to believe that the language was based on tone (for example, modern Chinese language), and the meaning behind a spoken word frequently relied on intonation. After the fall of the Sumerian civilization, their language was still taught for some time in Mesopotamia, because most religious and literary texts used were written in it.


The Native Land of Sumerians

One of the biggest mysteries around the Sumerians remains their native land. Scientists are creating hypothesis on the basis of archeological data and findings coming from written sources. This unknown Asian civilization had to have been located on the sea shore.

The Sumerians ended up in Mesopotamia by way of rivers, and their very first villages appeared in the deltas of Tigris and Euphrates. They were obviously great sailors since they were able to navigate their way through unknown rivers and find an appropriate spot to dock.

Some scientists believe that the Sumerians originated from a mountainous country. It’s no coincidence that the words “country” and “mountain” are written out in the same way in their language. Also, Sumerian temples – ziggurats – resemble a mountain. They are structures with many steps with a wide base and a narrow pyramid-like peak, where the sanctuary was located.

One more important condition – that country must have had possession of developed technologies. The Sumerians were one the most evolved people of their time; they were the first in the entire Middle East which began using the bike, built an irrigation system and created a unique written language. According to one version, their legendary native land was located in South India.


Survivors of the Flood

It’s no coincidence that the Sumerians chose the valley between the two rivers (Mesopotamia). Tigris and Euphrates spring from the Armenian mountain grounds and they carry fruitful silts and mineral salts into the valley. That is why the land of Mesopotamia is so extremely bountiful. There flourished orchards, seeds and vegetables.

Besides that, there were fish in the rivers, wild animals came to drink from the water and there was plenty of food for livestock along the coastline. But all of this had a downside as well. Floods came from Tigris and Euphrates when snow began to melt in the mountains. Unlike the floods from the Nile River, those from Tigris and Euphrates could not be predicted.

The strong floods turned into true disasters destroying everything in their path – cities and villages, fields and killing animals and people. It is possible that when the Sumerians came across such a disaster, they created the legend of Ziusudra.

A terrifying decision was made in a meeting between all the Gods. It was to destroy all of mankind. Of the Gods, only Enki was a sympathizer of the people. He came in a dream to Ziusudra and demanded he build an enormous ship. Ziusudra did what he was asked and filled the ship with all his possessions, friends and family, different craftsmen to preserve the knowledge and technologies, livestock, beasts, and birds.

The doors of the ship were shut from the outside with resin glue. In the morning, a terrible flood began. It frightened even the Gods. The rain and the wind continued for six days and seven nights. In the end, when the water started pulling back, Ziusudra left the ship and made an offering to the Gods. Then, as a reward for his loyalty, the Gods gifted him and his wife with immortality.

This legend not only reminds us of the legend of Noah’s Ark, but also it would seem like the story written in the Bible was taken from the Sumerian culture.


Priest Kings and Builders

The Sumerian lands were never just one country. Actually they were a number of city states, each one with its own rules, consequences, rulers, and army. Only the language, religion and culture were same for all. The city states would battle against one another, trade goods, or make alliances with each other.

There were three rulers for every city state. The first and most powerful was called En. He was a priest king (actually En also could have been a woman). The main duty of En was to put together religious ceremonies – solemn processions and offerings. En also ruled over all temple properties, and sometimes properties of the whole community.

Construction of buildings was also very important in ancient Mesopotamia. The Shumerians are given credit for the invention of oven roasted clay bricks. City walls, temples, and barns were built from this new and tougher material. This was all under the rule of the construction worker king, Ensi. He also looked after the watering system, since the canals, gateways, and walls allowed, in part, for some control over irregular spills.

At times of war, the Sumerians chose one more leader, the warlord, called Lugal. The most popular warlord was Gilgamesh whose feats are immortalized in one of the most ancient literary works, The Epoch of Gilgamesh. In this story, the great hero challenges the Gods, fights beasts, retrieves the precious cedar tree to his hometown of Uruk, and even ventures into the underworld.


Sumerian Gods

Sumerians had an evolved religious system. A special homage was paid to three Gods – the God of the sky, Anu, God of the Earth, Enlil, and God of the water, Enki.

Also, each city had its own God. For example, Enlil was especially honored in the ancient city of Nippur. Citizens of the city believed that He gave to them important inventions such as the shovel and the plough, and also taught them to build cities and construct walls around them.

God of the sun (Utu) and God of the moon (Nannar) were also important for the Sumerians. And of course, one of the most important figures of the Sumerian pantheon was the Goddess Inanna, who was called Ishtar by the Assyrians and Astarte by the Phoenicians who copied the religious system of the Sumerians.

Inanna was the Goddess of love, fertility, and at the same time – war. Before anything else, she represented primarily carnal love and passion. It’s no surprise that in many Sumerian cities had a tradition, called “Celestial Marriage”, in which kings, in order to maintain fertile lands, people and livestock, spent one night with the high priestess Inanna, embodying the Goddess herself.

Like many Gods, Inanna was capricious and unpredictable. She often fell in love with a mortal, and may the Gods have mercy on he who rejects her! Sumerians believed the Gods created people by mixing their own blood with clay. After death, souls ended up in the underworld where there was nothing but clay and dust from which the dead would feed. To make afterlife more pleasant, the living would make offerings of food and drinks.


Cuneiform writing

The culture, language and religion of the Sumerians were first copied by Akkadians and then by Babylonians and Assyrians. The Sumerians are credited with the invention of the bike, bricks and even beer (even though they made the barley drink using a different technique from modern ones).

But the main accomplishment of the Sumerians was, of course, their unique writing system – cuneiform writing. This type of writing got its name from the shape of the written symbols, made with reed on wet clay, the most well-known material for writing at the time.

The Sumerian writing system originated from the system for calculating different goods. For example, when a person was counting his herd, in order to indicate each sheep, he would make a ball of clay, put the ball in a box and put a symbol on top of the box – the amount of balls equals the number of sheep in the herd.

Since each sheep in the herd was a different sex and age, there were symbols referring to the animal they represented. And in the end, the sheep were illustrated with paintings, called pictograms.

It was not very comfortable painting with reed so the pictograms became more of schematic illustrations, consisting of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines.

This ideogram began representing not only sheep (“udu” in Sumerian), but the syllable “udu” in the structure of complex words.

At first, cuneiform was created to serve when dealing with economic documentation. We have extensive archives from the ancient citizens of Mesopotamia. But later on, the Sumerians began documenting literary texts and even whole libraries full of clay tablets appeared and they were not in danger of catching fire, that would destroy them.