Seated along the Euphrates River, Sumer had a thriving agriculture and trade industry. Herds of sheep and goats and farms of grains and vegetables were held both by the temples and private citizens. Ships plied up and down the river and throughout the Persian Gulf, carrying pottery and various processed goods and bringing back fruits and various raw materials from across the region, including cedars from the Levant.
Sumer was one of the first literate civilizations leaving many records of business transactions, and lessons from schools. They had strong armies, which with their chariots and phalanxes held sway over their less civilized neighbors. Perhaps the most lasting cultural remnants of the Sumerians though, can be found in their religion.
The aggrandizement of the king was at times taken to an extreme, as indicated by the royal cemetery of Ur from the 26th century BC in which archaeologists found not only extraordinary wealth and precious objects but also the corpses of as many as 74 attendants.
As we see in the tale of Gilgamesh and other literature, the Sumerians believed in an underworld for the spirits of the dead; and some kings as gods felt they wanted their servants there also. Obviously this was a major violation of life, and this practice seemed to die out after the Early Dynastic period.
Below the king or governor society had three distinct classes: aristocratic nobles who were administrators, priests, and officers in the army rewarded with large estates; a middle class of business people, school teachers, artisans, and farmers; and the lowest being slaves, who had been captured in war or were dispossessed farmers or those sold by their families. Slavery was not stigmatized by race but was considered a misfortune out of which one could free oneself through service, usually in three years.
Some of the young women were married to the god in the temple and were not celibate; some were prostitutes, and their children were often legally adopted. Laws made clear distinctions between the three classes. Though women had some rights, they were not equal to men. Thus from the beginning of civilization the sexism of patriarchal rule in the state and families is seen in the oppression by male dominance. The Sumerians were quite bureaucratic, documenting major transactions and legal agreements of all kinds, being the first to develop a system of laws, which influenced the law codes of Eshnunna and Hammurabi.
How then did these social hierarchies develop? Given the limited knowledge available, our explanations are speculative and uncertain. As the pastoral peoples traded with the farmers and villagers, more complex social organizations could function more productively. The manufacturing of pottery and other products led to specialization and trading by barter, as the Sumerians had no money system except for the weighing of precious metals.
As irrigation systems became more complex, planners and managers of labor were needed. Protection of surplus goods and valuable construction was required to guard against raiding parties. Those with the ability to organize and manage more complex activities tended to give themselves privileges for their success, and eventually social inequalities grew, as those who failed lost their privileges. Religion also became a part of this system of inequality, as religious leaders placed themselves above others in their service of the deities.
Laws apparently were devised to prevent abuses and as a way to settle disputes. Cities took the step from police protection under law to the organization of retaliatory attacks by an army. The skills of hunters selected over a long period of evolution seem to have given men (more than women) a tendency to gang up and work together in violent attacks. However, when the objects of these attacks became other men and the valuables found in another city, this tendency became self-destructive for the species. The survival instincts kept it within bounds so that it has not practiced to extinction (so far), but individual leaders who could gain social rewards for initiating such adventures appeared with increasing regularity. Apparently those individuals with better methods of resolving conflicts were not able to persuade enough people all the time to avoid such brutality. Yet the history of Sumer shows that war was counter-productive for most people and eventually led to the decline and fall of their culture.
After the fall of the last Sumerian dynasty about 2000 BC, some Sumerian scribes wrote chronicles of their long past. Although these have been lost, lists of their kings and some accounts edited into later Babylonian chronicles have been found. These claimed that their kings go back more than 240,000 years before the flood and come forward about 30,000 years after the flood. Such figures would take us back before Atlantis to Lemuria, which seems unlikely, though as one of the few agglutinative languages Sumerian does resemble Polynesian. More than five thousand years ago their advanced architecture using vaults, arches, and domes indicated a long development.
The first dynasty after the deluge was in the Akkadian region northwest of Sumer in the city of Kish, ten miles east of what became Babylon. According to Georges Roux, twelve of the kings' names were Semitic rather than Sumerian.
Thus from its historical beginnings the Sumerian civilization was mixed with Semitic influences. The first legendary Etana was said to have ascended to heaven on the back of an eagle. The oldest historical king, Mebaragesi, ruled Kish about 2700 BC and apparently overcame the Sumerians' eastern neighbor at Elam, for he is said to have carried away their weapons as spoil.
The second dynasty at Uruk in Sumer itself must have overlapped with the first, because it was the legendary fifth king of that dynasty, Gilgamesh, who was attacked by the last Kish king Agga. An ancient account told the following story: Agga having besieged Uruk sent envoys to Gilgamesh with an ultimatum. Gilgamesh went to his city's elders, suggesting that they not submit but fight with weapons. However, the elders came to the opposite conclusion.
So Gilgamesh took his proposal to the "men of the city," and they agreed with him. Gilgamesh was elated and said to his servant Enkidu, "Now, then, let the (peaceful) tool be put aside for the violence of battle." Gilgamesh then asked for a volunteer to go to Agga. Birhurturre, the head man, went and withstood torture; but when the awesome Gilgamesh ascended the wall and was seen by the foes, the foreigners felt overwhelmed and abandoned the siege.
The Uruk dynasty was well known in Sumerian tradition, as Gilgamesh was preceded by Meskiaggasher, son of the sun-god Utu, Enmerkar also sun of Utu who built Uruk, the shepherd Lugalbanda, who was also considered divine, and the fisherman Dumuzi, the legendary vegetation god who married the love goddess, Inanna. Tales of Gilgamesh became very popular.
Mesalim, who called himself King of Kish, erected a temple to Ningirsu in Lagash, for which he arbitrated a territorial dispute with Umma and set up a stele marking the border. However, he was overthrown, as was the last king of Uruk, by the founder of the Ur dynasty, Mesannepadda, whose name meant the hero chosen by An.
He and his successor rebuilt the Tummal temple at Nippur that had fallen into ruin. The peace between Lagash and Umma was maintained for about a century as Lagash king Ur-Nanshe built temples, dug canals, and imported wood from Dilmun. Meanwhile Mesannepadda sent gifts to the distant Mari. The rulers of Ur became extraordinarily wealthy as indicated by their royal tombs in the mid-27th century. A royal standard shows four-wheeled chariots pulled by asses and rows of prisoners presented to the king.
Eventually mountain people from Khamazi occupied Kish, while the Elamites encroached on Sumer. In Lagash Ur-Nanshe's grandson, Eannatum, who also built temples and dug canals, became a warrior, fighting back against the Elamites, conquering Ur and Uruk, and taking the kingship of Kish. Closer to home was the local conflict with Umma. Claiming his god commanded it, the governor of Umma raided the disputed field of Gu-edin, removed the marker set up by Mesalim, and invaded the territory of Lagash. However, Eannatum won the battle with the help of his god Enlil and captured in a great net his enemies, who begged for life.
A peace treaty was agreed upon with Enakalli, the next governor of Umma, and Mesalim's stele was restored to its former place. Umma was required to pay heavy taxes in barley, and Eannatum's victory was commemorated by a stele depicting vultures tearing up the corpses of the defeated. Eannatum boasted of killing 3,600 men of Umma and had to bury twenty heaps of his own men.
Later Eannatum had to fight a coalition of forces from Kish and Mari led by the King of Akshak; though he claimed victory, his little empire was declining. Umma once again seized the disputed canal, destroyed the stele of the vultures, and defeated Eannatum. However, his nephew, Entemena, regained the canal from Umma even though they were backed by foreign kings (probably from Mari), and he assigned his own governor to control the irrigation Lagash needed. Entemena also constructed new canals, attained a "brotherhood pact" with Lugal-kinishe-dudu who had united Uruk and Ur, and for a reign of peace and prosperity was deified by a grateful people with statues for nearly a thousand years. A second Eannatum was succeeded by a high priest of the warrior god Ningirsu, and for a time peace prevailed as the people of Umma were allowed to live in Lagash with religious and civil liberties.
However, conditions deteriorated as they were ruled by the distant kings of Kish who appointed the local governors, and the priesthood became corrupted and greedy for land and taxes. Finally a strong leader arose named Urukagina, who threw off the allegiance to Kish, proclaimed himself king of Lagash, and instituted sweeping reforms directed against the extortion of the priesthood. A priest was no longer allowed to "come into the garden of a poor mother and take wood" nor to take fruit as tax. Burial fees were greatly reduced. Temple officials were forbidden to take the god's revenues or to use temple lands and cattle as their own. Owners could refuse to sell their houses unless they got the price they asked. Widows and orphans were protected, and artisans did not have to beg for their food. At the same time as Urukagina was reforming the temple, he was rebuilding it and other shrines in Lagash.
Unfortunately after only eight years of this rule by the world's first known reformer, the army of Umma led by its governor, Lugalzagesi, attacked Lagash possibly not resisted by Urukagina, burnt the shrines, and carried off the divine image of Ningirsu. Assuming the existence of moral justice the chronicler lamented, "The men of Umma, by the despoiling of Lagash, have committed a sin against the god Ningirsu.
As for Lugalzagesi, ensi of Umma, may his goddess Nidaba make him bear his mortal sin upon his head!" Lugalzagesi went on to conquer and become king of Uruk and claim all of Sumer under the god Enlil from the lower sea (Persian Gulf) including the Tigris and Euphrates all the way to the upper sea (Mediterranean). However, to do this he had to ally himself with the cupbearer of Kish, where Lugalzagesi had begun life himself as a vassal. His reign of 24 years was to mark the end of that Sumerian empire in about 2390 BC, for the name of that Akkadian cupbearer was Sargon.