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Sumer and Akkad

Mesopotamia was the first of the great Ancient Civilizations. Its northern area, along the River Tigris, had first been settled during the seventh millennium BC. Various cultures are identified in the next 2000 years, spreading further westward and southward. The ‘Ubeid culture (5500-4000BC) is remarkable for the settlement of arid southern Mesopotamia, using the spring floods of the Euphrates to increase crop yields. New cities sprang up here with names later well known in history, such as Ur, Eridu and Nippur. Eridu had already as many as 4000 inhabitants and its area spread over some ten hectares.

Agriculture was intensified by use of irrigation systems and the plough. A complicated system of radial canals was constructed and maintained. The wheel was invented and boats were being built and sailed. It is interesting that the Sumerians were not great empire builders. During the mid third millennium BC, the rulers of the city of Lagash did manage to spread their rule over all of Sumer, as did the city of Ur later that same millennium. But by and large, the Sumerian civilization was one of independent city states. Their culture and writing spread in the early third millennium BC to the Semitic people who had settled north Mesopotamia known as the Akkadians. Sargon of Agade, an Akkadian king, founded the first empire recorded by history in the mid 24th century BC, and its size and the speed of its creation are impressive. It included all of Sumer, neighbouring Elam, and much of Syria. By 2250BC, this Akkadian empire had been overrun by the nomads of the east.

Sumerian Culture
The inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia called themselves Sumerians. Their language was unrelated to later Semitic or Indo-European languages. Their contribution to the advance of civilization is manifold, but none of its strands can rival that of the creation of the first real states and of the invention of writing in the fourth millennium BC. The first script was pictographic, on clay tables, developing later into wedge-shaped marks called cuneiform script. Some of the signs were used for words and others for syllables. The earliest use of writing was for accounts; but by 2500 BC, it was used already for literary creations.

The story of the Flood is well known in later versions from the Bible. The Tales of Gilgamesh can be read with enjoyment even today. A very few love songs have survived and also some animal fables, several hymns and some lamentations. In the early second millennium, Babylon became the centre of Mesopotamia, under Hammurabi. At this time, although Babylonian rulers used cuneiform script and their culture was deeply permeated by the Sumerian civilization, it was the Akkadian language that became the lingua franca of the Middle East, surviving as such for over a thousand years, and becoming the language of diplomacy.

Writing also enables us today to study some of the other facets of Sumerian civilization. Some of their laws were changed and reused, until they reappear among the laws of Hammurabi and those of the Old Testament. The use of legal precedent began in Sumerian law. The Sumerians did have a moral system derived from their gods. Their temples dominated their towns architecturally and spiritually. The famous Ziggurat of Ur was a three-storied building, 15m high, constructed from mud bricks in the form of pyramidal graduated terraces. It formed a complex of temples and included the royal palace.

Much Sumerian art survives to this day – mainly sculptures and reliefs. It is certainly not as impressive as Egyptian art of the same period, and portrays the Sumerians as rather stocky, round-headed people – not quite in accord with our Greek notions of beauty. But these people were the founders of civilization, for history and literature begin at Sumer.

Sumerian society
There is evidence that the Sumerians had a fairly established school system. Clay tablets have remained from the late Sumerian period giving some indication of what sort of instruction they received. As with most early education systems, it was primarily the sons of nobles who received an education. The upper classes had certain legal privileges not afforded to the rest of society, but even slaves could own property. In this society, women were also not treated as equals. They received half the food allowance that men did, and could be drowned for the crime of adultery (though men were allowed concubines). But they too were allowed to own property and lend money.

Physicians were recognized as a class. Many of their remedies ere recorded (most of their medicines were derived from myrtle, figs, willow, dates and thyme, and mixed with saltpetre or a sodium chloride preparation).

As is so often the case in ancient societies, the king held a supreme position role in religious, martial, and political affairs. Yet there were checks on his power both by law and custom, and as a consequence of the immense economic influence of the temples. For example, private property was considered inalienable, and as such even the king had to furnish remuneration for the ownership or use of land. Hammurabi is perhaps the most famous of Sumerian kings, best remembered for his famed code of laws which survives to this day (though most of the laws on which it was based have disappeared.

Also, contrary to the myth, he did not invent the “eye for an eye” doctrine; it was already firmly established). Apart from being an interesting look at the distribution of political power and ethical norms, the laws also provide some insight into the Babylonian economy. Barley was used as local money, while silver was the currency of trade and commercial calculations. Significant interest was charged on loans (up to a third of the sum in many cases!)

Babylon lasted little over a century and a half after Hammurabi’s death. Barbarians from the east overran Babylon, and for a long time thereafter, Mesopotamia was not a major force in history. It is interesting to note that perhaps one cause of its fall was ecological: after two millennia of intensive irrigation, the resulting damage to the soil may have contributed o the collapse of the civilization. .

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