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The Sumerians

By 7000 BCE, on land that today is called Iraq. those who had been hunting and gathering food had begun farming that required permanent settlement. By 4500 BCE there were towns alongside more than 250 miles of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, to where the rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. People drained marshes and irrigated with river waters the wheat and barley that they grew. They had farm animals, made pottery, wove fabrics. There were tradesmen engaged in commerce by land and sea. A diverse people had developed a common culture. There were different occupations, including priests. The sharing of their hunter-gatherer ancestors had declined.

Where there had been small hunter-gatherer societies getting food for themselves, the producers of food were now able to support many who worked at other occupations – such as the priesthood, pottery making, weaving, carpentry and smithing with bronze. (For them the age of stone tools and weapons was over.) There were also traders, and the Sumerians developed an extensive commerce by land and sea. They built seaworthy ships, and they imported from afar items made from the wood, stone, tin and copper not found nearby. 

Around 4000 BCE they began to be invaded by migrants called Sumerians, perhaps from the northeast around the Caspian Sea. Within a couple of hundred years or so the Sumerians dominated. What is called the Ubaid period had ended. The Sumerians built better canals and improved the roads over which donkeys trod, pulling wheeled carts.

The Sumerians built on the rudiments of writing and numerical calculation they had found among those they had invaded. They kept records, wrote arithmetic based on units of ten, and concerned about their star-gods they mapped the heavens and divided a circle into units of sixty. Priests had become skilled as scribes, and they described events created by their gods.

Their towns grew. Ur, for example, became a city of about 24,000 people. In the center of each city was a temple that housed the city's gods, and around each city were fields of grain, orchards of date palms, and land for herding. Some land was owned by individual citizens. Some was owned by temple and rented to sharecroppers. A corporation run by priests became the greatest landowners among the Sumerians. They describing their land as owned by their gods. The priests told those working the land that their drudgery was necessary to allow the gods their just leisure. In some cities they sat with the council of elders.

There was a need to protect the economic inequality and social order. Rule was authoritarian, supported by priests and other elite members of society. Common people remained illiterate. Rulers drafted common people to work on community projects, and common people were obliged to pay taxes to the government in the form of a percentage of their crops, which the city could either sell or use to feed soldiers and other agents of the rulers.

Wealth and power were prized and Sumerian rulers sent men out to plunder people in the nearby hill country, and with this they acquired slaves as domestics or concubines. The Sumerian name for a female slave was mountain girl, and a male slave was called mountain man. They justified their slavery claiming that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

With a growth in population and the disappearance of swamps that insulated city from city, war developed between cities unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts. With the gods seen as the creators of events, the wars were seen as between their gods. Around 2800 BCE, Kish had become the first of the Sumerian cities to dominate all of the others. Then Kish's supremacy was challenged by the city of Lagash. Lagash won and launched a bloody conquest against its Sumerian neighbors and extended its power beyond Sumerian lands.

Not everybody accepted the way things were – something authoritarians would never be able to suppress. A Sumerian complained of the futility of war, writing "You go and carry off the enemy's land; the enemy comes and carries off your land." In the city of Lagash in 2380 BCE people revolted. Lagash's bureaucrats had grown in wealth. Taxes had been increased and personal freedoms more restricted. The revolt put in power a god-fearing ruler named Urukagina, who reduced taxes and rid city of usurers, thieves and murderers – the first known reforms.

CONTINUE READING: Babylon Conquers

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.