Ed & Phil
S03 E07 Sumer transcript
Hate reading or just descaling the kettle? You can listen to our episode on Sumer.
We’re taking on the first country that ever existed. Sumer.
Wow. So it was actually a country with a leader and a flag and borders and everything.
No, it was more a collection of city states that took it in turns to dominate the civilisation we know as Sumer
I can’t believe you’ve been lying to me… for the last 4 seconds.
But these city states did speak the same language, and write in the same script, and share the same gods - with each city focusing on a particular god. So we could call it a nation of sorts.
We can also say that, as far as we know, Sumer was the world’s first urban civilisation. And lots of the things we associate with civilisation seem to have been invented in Sumer - writing, the wheel, government, irrigation and lots more things. And it had the first city we know of, Uruk…
This still sounds like a tenuous country to me.
That’s because you haven’t done any research. Again. Phil, name me one major city of Sumer. I bet you can’t.
Ur - founded in 3,800BC. I’m sorry for my lack of faith.
Where was Sumer?
It was located in what is today southern Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - hence the name Mesopotamia. Meso means between and potamus means rivers. The land between rivers.
And that’s why that’s called that.
Who were the Sumerians?
The Sumerians were a people based in the south of Iraq - and referred to themselves as the black-headed people. Presumably because they had terrible acne.
They also referred to their quote unquote country as Kengir, the 'Country of the noble lords.' Which is probably what Estate Agents would call them too.
They were definitely a combination culture. Start with some farmers in Eridu, throw in Arabian sea fishermen and top with a sprinkling of sheep and goat herders and you have the makings of a new people.
Aren’t all cultures combination cultures?
Woah there, Phil. You’re alienating our angry nationalist demographic. Culture is clearly immutable and based on national lines. We know, for example, that many stegosaurs considered themselves British. Probably.
Stegsaurus: Run, dinosaurs run! There’s a massive asteroid coming right for us!
Brexit dinosaur: Nah, that’s typical remoanasaurus project fear. Rather than being cataclysmic, this so called asteroid is a jurassic opportunity for a new era of prosperity and jobs for indigenous British dinosaurs.
What makes the early Sumerians really distinct from peoples around them was that their language was distinctly different from Semitic-speaking peoples such as the Akkadians or the Indo-European speaking peoples such as almost everybody else in the region.
The Sumerians very definitely had their own thing going - and that’s why we’re covering them as a country of sorts.
But Sumer didn’t come from nowhere. Before the Sumerians got their act together was the precursor Ubaid period starting in about 5,500BC.
But even before them, we think that canal irrigation kicked off in about 6,000 BC - probably in the north of Mesopotamia.
How long was Sumer around for?
From about 4500 – 1900 BC. But that’s a big chunk of time, so we can think of it in three periods.
First, there’s the Uruk period - 4100–2900 BC. That’s when Uruk, the first city, dominated the region.
Then you get the Early Dynastic period, which starts around 2900 BC and is where different cities compete to hold sway over their neighbours. This ends when a power called the Akkadian Empire takes over the area - but we won’t really be covering the Akkadians in great depth because… not Sumer.
Finally, you’ve got the Neo-Sumerian period from 2112–2004 BC. Or thereabouts. Phil, which city came to dominate that period?
Unbelievable. Right again. That’s when a city called Ur comes to dominate. And that’s like a golden age for Sumer with huge ziggurats (houses of the gods) and temples and some of the great steps forward for civilisation. But we’ll come back to that.
Now, I don’t want to get too bogged down in historical labels or dates, because these are just things we impose on history to make sense of it. It’s not like anyone was aware of this at the time.
New Year’s Eve...2113 BC.
3, 2, 1...Hooray! Happy Neo-Sumerian period!
So, I’ll try to make sure you know where I am in history when I talk about things, but some of this won’t be chronological, it’ll be thematic. So at these times, it’s more history jazz.
(Possible jazz version of Greensleeves)
What language did Sumerians write in?
Cuneiform - the first written language that we know of, which dates back to about 3500 BC. Shapes were marked into wet clay with a reed - in wedge shapes. Writing started as a way to keep records about agricultural output and trade. So the beauty of the written word really grew out of a rudimentary form of a Powerpoint flowchart (?). Sorry aspiring novelists, but writing’s always been about the money.
VO: (really fast)
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But think about how complex a new urban civilisation is. Think about the building projects and the trading hubs and the goods and services switching hands. Nothing had ever been done like this before and record keeping seemed to develop almost because it had to.
And because writing helped profits, it caught on quickly. If you want to get girls, learn Sumerian script. As the old saying goes… ladies love a man in cuneiform.
But it wasn’t just accounts. The Sumerians also recorded other things on stele - i.e. limestone slabs. When you’re just writing in clay, you can very quickly undo your mistakes - with the brown tippex we call more clay. The great thing about clay is that the tablets could be easily recycled. Others could be sealed in clay envelopes or, if they were to be permanent records, the clay could be baked in a kiln like pottery.
But only the most skilled of scribes were chosen to work in stone.
For example, the Stele of Vultures is all about the city of Lagash beating the snot out of its rivals in Umma. It’s called the Stele of Vultures because it shows defeated, decapitated soldiers being turned into a buffet for vultures.
This stele may have been carved as early as 2600 BC - really demonstrating mankind’s bastardic (new word) tendencies stretching back to early civilisation. But as they say, all’s fair in love and war.
Except for war crimes.
Yes. And ghosting people after a few dates.
So early writing was either for totalling up how much you have to sell or who you’ve killed lately? Nice.
Also, complaining about stuff.
[trip advisor in clay?]
As early as humans could possibly record whining about stuff, they did. One inscription complains about corruption and how much priests charged for burial rites, with the poor having to sell their children into slavery just to get by.
Wow. So injustice has existed for that long too?
Yes, though there were people who tried to reform all that. In the city of Lagash, a king called Urukagina lowered taxes, slashed the bureaucracy, broke the power of the priests and relaxed the legal code to try and give the ordinary man a better deal.
Yes, and for his efforts he was overthrown by the city’s elite and replaced with a neighbouring king. Leading us to one inexorable conclusion…
Don’t mess with the powerful.
That’s the one.
Speaking of kings, we know about some Sumerian kings because of the Sumerian kings list. Some of it we should take with a grain of salt. At the beginning of the kings list, these rulers seem to rule for an insane amount of time.
So first the kingship descends from heaven and settles in Eridu and then you have reigns of kings as long as 43,200 years and this goes on for 241,200 years. These lifespans seem huge, making the lifespans of the Old Testament seem like a flash in the pan. And then this section ends with the line "Then the flood swept over."
Which is also very biblical - because we’re pretty sure this is where the writers of the Old Testament swiped their flood myth from. And that’s not the end of the biblical connection. In fact the likes of Abraham were originally said to have some from Sumer. And maybe even Abraham’s god, Yahweh.
Wait. God’s from Sumer? I thought he was from Yorkshire.
But once you get the monster reigns of the Kings List out of the way, you start seeing more reasonable lengths - one king of Uruk is on the throne for 6 years.
Which was bad news for the servants and soldiers. Because by the time of Ur’s domination in the 3rd millennium BC, when kings and queens snuffed it, not only were they buried with immense riches but they also had their staff buried alive with them. That’s why there’s no Sumerian words for pension plan.
What gods did the Sumerians worship?
Well, gods tend to evolve and change - almost like they’re made up by people - but we can say by the second half of the 2nd millennium BC the Sumerian pantheon had been established. And they were:
Ishtar - goddess of love and war.
Anu - Father of the gods.
Enil - Lord of the Air - like an ancient Michael Jordan.
Enlil - god of wisdom and life giving waters.
They had a god of waters?
When you set up shop in a desert, life-giving waters are very important. Mainly for...giving life.
But why create a civilisation in a desert?
Well, you’d think there would be easier places to tame, but once the Sumerians worked out how to use irrigation to tame the fierce seasonal floods of their two rivers, they then had a pretty great agricultural zone. And although the region was dry, the water table was high - and the climate was extremely sunny - meaning you had pretty much year-round farming.
But it isn’t always sunny in Sumer. In fact the Sumerians even invented the concept of hell - or Sheol.
Thanks a bunch, Sumerians, for inventing a place that will go on to ruin many people’s lives.
Keep up that kinda talk and you’re going straight to Sheol.
Save me Anu!
Gods were really important to the Sumerians because they were a temple-focused society. The Sumerian god were said to literally inhabit the cities (hence cities important) and the gods made men so they could get human slaves to do the work while they skived off. The gods also owned the cities and lived in the ziggurats - which only the priests were allowed to enter - so that the priests who interpreted the will of the gods controlled the economy and had great power.
Wow. If I were to make up a religion so I’d never have to work again, that’s exactly what I’d say.
Get back to editing, Phil. Anu decrees it.
Ow! Bloody Anu.
Priest, your men came and took my family and sold them into slavery - and I can see that you’ve bought fine gold jewlerry with the proceeds. I demand you return them.
Let me check with Anu…..Anu says no.
You didn’t check with Anu. You just stuck your head in the zuiggurat door.
I’m sorry, but like your family… my hands are tied.
You might argue that without religion, there would have been no urban civilsation. You might also argue that without rotating religious festivals there would be no calendar and no concept of time.
Sumerian inventories for trade and wages were based upon the unit 60. And the Sumerians divided time into 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in a hour.
But why 60?
Ed tries to explain.
They knew that there were 365 days in a year, so they decided to split a circle into 360 degrees - removing the 5 for simplicity.
And the lunar calendar? That was the Sumerians too.
Speaking of time, let’s go back to the beginning and talk about Uruk.
What about Uruk?
Uruk was the first great city state, but one characterised by social stratification. Because as soon as you get a city you get…
“Oh, this is a marvellous area of the city. Short walk from the ziggurat, great canal access. Not like the area where we dump the donkey poo.”
Cities don’t feed themselves. You need agricultural populations to do that for you. So you get agricultural surpluses from rural populations in the form of taxation by the central authority who channel it to urban populations who need to eat but don’t do anything to facilitate that. They might be priests or court officials or merchants or estate agents.
The essence of civilisation, like it or not, is taxation. So get over it libertarians.
So what are normal people doing if they aren’t farming?
It was during the Uruk period that specific industries were standardised, like metalworking, pottery, textile making. This led to an increasing population of craftsmen which led to an increase in demand from the elite who in turn needed more craftsmen...which led to immigration.
Yet another trend that urban populations accept as necessary but rural people believe is an imposition.
And all this craftsmen crafting led to an explosion of technologies - the improved pottery wheel, the pottery kiln, the plough and even wheeled vehicles.
Oi, move that donkey! I need to get this pottery wheel and kiln to the temple in my new-fangled wheeled vehicle.
So, without Sumer, we’d never have Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost.
Chilling to think really.
And since temples were the greatest patrons of craftsmen, they could also control them - keeping temples at the top. As temples grew richer and bigger, their demands for craftsmen went up too. At first, temples in Uruk were just long central halls with side rooms - possibly for mothers and toddlers groups and coffee mornings.
And these grew into massive limestone buildings, like the White Temple of Uruk - with two staircases up to the roof for VIPs only - and the whole structure covered in plaster and ornate decorations….
“Lot of marbles and architectures and shit. Flying buttresses, lots of original artworks. Very impressive.”
(3:33 - https://123moviesd.com/episode/eastbound-down-2x2/)
Even dating back to 5150 BC, the fabled town of Eridu had a temple consisting of 18 mud brick structures. Probably a good idea. According to Sumerian, Enki raised Eridu from the sea and make it fertile. Then the god Anu popped down to Eridu with the Universal Decrees of Divine Authority - kind of a dos and don’ts for mankind.
Sounds like another, snappier list featured in the Bible…
Buzzfeed offices, Sumer, 5150BC
BF: Yeah, so, Yahweh these Universal Decrees of Divine Authority - we were thinking we need something snappier, something listicleier
Yahweh: Right… what did you have in mind
BF: We were thinking more along the lines of top 10 commandments you can’t believe you can’t live without - your mate won’t be able to covet number 4, something like that, I’m thinking stealing, that’s very hot right now murder is trending, great engagment with worshipping idles, coveting asses, which celebs’s asses are being coveted, let’s pencil this, we don’t want to bake anything into clay right now.
Yahweh: Yeah, let’s go with those arbitrary 10 commandments (lightning strike).
So with all these gods passing through, it was important that Eridu had suitably impressive mudbrick temples.
But the elites weren’t going to miss out on this building craze - hiring their own tradesmen to build them fancy compounds in the city centre. And they’d mark ownership with their very own cylinder seals carried with them - used as a personal signature to guarantee authenticity or make business deals.
And that’s how the new urban social stratification worked. Before the city of Uruk came about, authority and status was based on tribal associations and kinship. In the new city set up, it was based on your job.
And for most people this led to a rigid social structure, with little room for improving your circumstances. One way of breaking out of this was to join the army and go to war. Only by killing your fellow humans could you escape the gruelling ennui of civilised life.
Nice one, humans.
But all this innovation and immigration and conquest and building led to Uruk increasing in size by 4x in this early period of Sumer. At its height, Uruk covered an area of 600 hectares.
How big is that?
Nine times the size of Disneyland.
Phil: (Donald Duck)
Wow. That’s big!
Was that Donald Duck?
So, was Uruk an empire or what?
No, but Uruk dominated Sumer in the same way that an empire might. Uruk's king was powerful enough not to call himself King of Uruk, but King of Sumer. Ok, he wasn't, but the fact that he was using that title says a lot about the recognition of a thing called Sumer and Uruk's belief that they had the right to claim dominion.
At the end of the Uruk period, as it went into decline, other networks of settlements around it also got smaller and more fragmented.
During Uruk, writing came into its own. Writing allowed precise information to be carried over long distances and information could also be stored for later reference.
Yes, irrigation and crafts and trade is all well and good for civilisation building, but writing is next level.
Uruk became the centre of trade in the region from 4500BC - it was perfectly positioned between the Tigris and Euphrates and had access to canals vital for moving goods about.
And canals were really important to Mesopotamia. While it was fertile and able to churn out food, it was poor in resources such as stone, metal and timber - which the canals helped it import from Syria and Asia Minor. As well as ideas and artworks with Egypt and copper from the Indus Valley. In the early days of civilisation, the East really was where it was at.
Villages in the area grew because of trade and that trade was directed by and controlled from Uruk.
By 3300BC, Uruk had two large temple precincts. One devoted to the mother goddess, Inanna, and the other to the sky god Anu, whose temple was 5 storeys high - though I guess they need somewhere to park all those wheeled vehicles. Some of these building were covered in mosaics made from coloured clay cones.
What were the buildings of poor workers made from?
Well, not trees because there were precious few around this areas. So reeds, mud, asbestos...whatever, this is Uruk city baby. And while wealthy Sunerians wore fine dyed cloth skirts and shawls and plenty of jewelry, Sumerian peasants wore rough, itchy hemp.
Of course. And because this was a city, probably some of the rich kids wore itchy hemp to piss off their parents and be hipsters - but could go back to their lavish life any time.
I wanna live like sumerian peasent, I wanna live in huts made from reeds just like you
Wanna live like a sumerian peasant, till I get bored and go back to my 5 story temple of Anu
They also had a bureaucracy devoted to record keeping - so possibly inventing water coolers and temping. Uruk also produced pottery, metal objects, stone seals and stone vessels.
Uruk period artworks include the carved stone Warka Vase, which has different levels depicting a king, priests, men with baskets, sheep and plants. Then there’s the alabaster head of the Lady of Warka, a surprisingly realistic depiction of the goddess Inanna.
How can the depiction of a fictional character be surprisingly realistic?
Check out my depiction of MIchael Knight that I created by gluing macaroni to a piece of cardboard.
Looks nothing like him.
Exactly. Anyway, the goddess Inanna was highly revered, which seems to reflect the status of women in society. Sumerian women could own property, run businesses, become priestesses, scribes, physicians and act as judges and witnesses in courts. So being a woman was probably much better in Ancient Sumer than it was much of classical Greece.
As long as you were rich - which is pretty much true of whenever and wherever you’re born.
Actually in earlier cultures, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between rich and poor, so it seems that Sumer really helped get the inequality wheel rolling.
Thanks a bunch.
But just because there were rich and poor, it doesn’t mean we should think of Sumer as feudal. Yes, there definitely was stark inequality. Slavery existed but was not heritary. Slaves were usually debtors or prisoners of war - but slaves could eventually buy back their freedom.
And just because Sumer’s system required loads of people to be working the land or labouring, it doesn’t mean that they had the same conditions. Some were forced to work the land, others were free to travel around and decide when they wanted to work. And this latter group could then acquire land and status of their own.
So what would a visitor to a Sumerian city see?
Well, for one thing - people. Lots of them. In a largely rural world, it would have been incredible to enter a bustling city where tens of thousands of people lived and worked.
Priests, bureaucrats, students, merchants, builders, slaves. Dusty building sites sat next to lush public gardens. People lived crowded together in flat roofed houses, sometimes sleeping on the roofs on those hot summer nights, living elbow to elbow and sharing beer together - often used as a currency to pay workers - so you could literally drink away your wages.
The centre point of the city was the huge brick ziggurats, the sacred artificial mountains in the cities, would have been seen from miles away. Zigguarats were not a Sumerian invention - having been around since at least the fifth millennium BC and still in use until about the sixth century BC. And you’d be able to see them from far away, as you approached past the ploughed fields on the outskirts.
Then as you drew up to the city, you’d look up at its large 3-metre high city walls. To quote the Epic of Gilgamesh:
In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna for the god of the firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love. Look at it still today: the outer wall where the cornice runs, it shines with the brilliance of copper; and the inner wall, it has no equal. Touch the threshold, it is ancient. Approach Eanna the dwelling of Ishtar, our lady of love and war, the like of which no latter-day king, no man alive can equal. Climb upon the wall of Uruk; walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good?
Someone should break it to them that the walls of Uruk - not in great nick these days.
You’d tell him that you liked his book though?
Oh yeah, I’d say. Epic.
Within the city, the smiths and tanners would be working away on the outskirts. Go through the city gates and you’d see artisans producing tools, clothing, pottery and nicknacks.
Get closer to the centre and you’d find merchants negotiating - while laden barges pulled up at the canal docks to unload food and goods. Within the temple precincts would be the most skilled of craftsmen producing luxury goods for the city’s priests and elite.
So how did Uruk stop being number one?
Err, we don’t know. But we can see its demise in the archaeological record. And Uruk’s loss was another city called Jemdet Nasr’s gain and the Sumer show kept on rolling. And this is what we call the Early Dynastic Period where rival city states fight it out for control of limited agricultural resources for growing populations.
During this period a city called Enlil became an important temple city - and anyone who wanted to be seen as top dog had to get their favour. And the Monopoly board to do list didn’t end there. They also had to control the city of Nippur. So by the third millenium BC, anyone who wanted to dominate Sumer had to get the nod from Enlil and the mastery of Nippur. Like any HIgh King of Ireland had to control Dublin - listen to Viking Kingdom of Dublin for more on that. I bet the denizens on Enlil and Nippur were delighted about that.
And to compete with each other, these cities started to worry less about the religious side of things and divert resources into building larger and more splendid palaces to outdo each other. It was like Keeping up with the Kardashians, except Kardashian is an Armenian name and historic Armenia actually almost overlapped with Sumer - so I guess it’s like… Keeping up with the Kardashians.
So who were these cities that competed with each other?
Well, we’ve mentioned Nippur and Enlil, but there are quite a few - like Kish, Umma and Lagash.
And there’s a reason that the Early Dynastic is different to Uruk’s domination. Because what Uruk was more than anything was a temple focused city. The Early Dynastic Period is different because this is when the power starts to be focused in kings who are first separate both from the military and religion - but slowly become head of the army and then take on many religious powers. Because why have church/state separation when you can just Henry VIII the lot of it.
After 2500BC, we know that Kish was important because rulers of other cities called themselves King of Kish - even if they barely visited. Ask Charles, Prince of Wales about that.
Then Lagash and Umma were fond of warring with each other - as made clear by the Stele of Vultures.
Apparently a particularly big scrap between Umma and Lagash happened over a border dispute between the two. The trouble started over a disputed territory that was particularly fertile. THe canal on it was controlled by Umma and used by Lagash.
So the King of Umma ordered the canal to be drained reasoning:
“Well, it’s my canal so I’m perfectly entitled to drain it. And if anyone else should be using the canal, well that’s not my fault. And actually if I want to cut back Lagash’s rhododendron then it’s my right since it leans onto my land.”
Anyway, the King of Umma was soon to learn not to mess with Lagash, who were known to be particularly bellicose and lairy. Their city’s symbol was a lion-headed eagle, probably the most aggressive animal facemash of all time, and Nina, their goddess of fertility was also a goddess of war. Meanwhile, the god Ningirsu was god od irrigation…
Doesn’t sound too warlike.
In fact, the people of Lagash may have been the first citizens ever to have a revolt and get rid of their king because of too many taxes and restrictions. And if you’re wondering who came to power in Lagash? Why it’s our old friend Urukagina - who established perhaps the first law code in Mesopotamia.
By the way, the surviving representations of Sumerian warfare show mainly foot soldiers - looking very phalanxy - with a few chariots pulled by asses. There’s also a depiction of Ninurta, the god of war, gathering up the defeated soldiers of Umma in a large net. So maybe not 100% accurate.
But Umma was to get their own back when, in 2375 BC, their king Lugalzagesi, not only stuffed Lagash but also apparently conquered all other city states in Mesopotamia to become King of Sumer!
So Sumer became a country at last?
Well, apparently all the other kings bowed to him, but I bet a lot of them weren’t 100% into it.
Yeah, it may have looked like I was bowing to him? BUt actually I was wearing my longer robe and was crossing my ankles the whole time.
That’s jokes your majesty!
Anyway, it only lasted 24 years, at which point Lugalzagesi was conquered by Sargon of Akkad.
The rightwing Youtuber?
No, the significant person.
What then followed was the Akkadian empire - probably the world’s first empire. Although Sargon took the title King of Sumer and Akkad, we won’t be covering that time in any great detail since the Semitic-speking Akkadians were a totally different kettle of fish to the Sumerians. And besides, the empire lasts 200 years, goes into terminal decline - probably because of climate change and drought and the salinisation or exhaustion of the land - and then is conquered by a hill people called the Gutians. Apparently the Gutians weren’t into organised government so Sumer started to look deprived and dilapidated like a student’s flat. The land went into disrepair, canals filled with silt and shopping trolleys.
How much of this is true and how much of this is “eugh hill peoples” is anyone’s guess. The Gutians were described by contemporary sources as having the “intelligence of dogs and the appearance of monkeys while speaking a language similar to a confused babble.”
All right, snooty. They conquered you remember.
But anyway, lots of sources point to a dark age in Sumer which wasn’t like the European dark age, which wasn’t a dark age, but an actual dark age. Except for the fact that Lagash continued to keep things together in one form or another. So maybe just Dim age?
Then out of this quote on quote Dim Age comes…
The Third Dynasty of Ur
This is what some historians call the Sumerian Renaissance. It was a combination of good ole Sumerisn urban temple civilisations but incorporated with a new imperial structure than had been learned from Akkad.
The city? Ur.
The year circa? 2094 BC circa.
The man? Ur-Nammu.
No one can quite decide where Ur-Nammu got into power but most people agree that there was an existing King of Uruk who had done the hard work o actually defeating the Gutians in battle and that Ur-Nammu either figuratively or literally stabbed the king in the back and took the power and credit for himself.
And having worked in marketing for the last 5 years, all I can say is… sounds plausible.
But it doesn’t matter how you become King of Sumer and Akkad, it’s what you do with it that counts.
By 2100 BC and under Ur-Nammu’s leadership, the Third Dynasty of Ur took back control of the south of Mesopotamia, controlled Ur, Uruk and Lagash - thus uniting Sumer under one king. And later bits of Syria and Elam (modern day Iran) because once you’re on a roll - why not? Cities that Ur-Nammu didn’t straight take over he had chip in a tribute.
Ur-Nammu seems to have been beloved. One inscription calls him, “mighty hero.” In a hymn dedicated to Ur-Nammu, it describes him as perfect, protective, charitable, fair and the guarantor of fertile lands. While he probably commissioned the hymn himself, once you set something to catchy music and people start singing it in the shower, it basically becomes fact.
Ur-Nammu reigned for 17 years before dying (possibly in battle) before leaving it to his capable son Shulgi - who reigned for 48 very successful years.
How was there such a smooth transition of power? Because Ur-Nammu was a brand new king he did something very smart. Buttering up the religious powers, he managed to get succession to his son a matter of divine sanction.
During this time, rulers of other cities were demoted into governors - definitely reinforcing the power from the centre model of dare I say it...nation building.
These governors had to make sure taxation was collected. They also had to divide up agricultural surpluses, making sure that temple bureaucracies got their share and even the very poor got a piece of the pie.
Shulgi went on with the work of law codes and building projects that his father had started. Although Shulig married a semitic queen, he promoted himself as all Sumerian. Despite the fact that his family had Akkadian names, as did any new towns built and almost everybody spoke Akkadian.
But true Sumerian super hero or not, Shulgi seemed to be so popular in his lifetime that he was made a god.
I’m sure he had nothing to do with that suggestion.
True, but what he managed to get done during his administration might make him seem pretty godlike.
His initiatives included the centralisation of control, a national calendar, the establishment of a state army, the standarisation of the tax system, regulation of weights and measures, the protection of widows and orphans - and presumably puppies and kittens too - come on an easy win with the cuneiform media. Plus ziggurats and temple precincts were restored and improved. If Sumer could have spoken it might have said:
Joey from Friends:
I’m back baby!
But with mo empire, comes mo problems. Shulgi had to spend every year subduing populations on the outskirts of his expanding empire - basically inventing the practice of hiring mercenaries to do his dirty work out in the sticks.
The pesky Gutians were still at large and so were the Amorites in Syria - a nomadic pastoral population that caused trouble for the empire - as nomadic pastoral populations tend to do - I’m looking at you Huns/ Arabs/ Mongols.
And the wars against the Amorites were a pretty constant occupation for Shulgi’s successor, Amar-Sin, whose hobbies included building projects and losing chunks of Syria and Elam to rivals.
This turn in fortunes carried on under Amar-Sin’s brother’s reign, Shu-sin, who started to lose to the Amorites and Elamites and retreat to the Mesopotamian heartlands building a wall between the two rivers to hold them back. Because, as we know, walls always work - unless you… go around them.
Unperturbed by the limitation of walls, Amar-Sin’s son Ibbi-Sin (and try saying that after a few cups of Sumerian fermented cereal beverage) put up even more walls - even surrounding the cities of Ur and Nippur. Ibbbi-Sin was in so much trouble during his 20-year reign that he didn’t even have the ability to leave the city of Ur.
And because he was providing no protection to his fragmenting empire, his provincial governors abandoned him - rebelling and setting up their own power bases. Ibbi-Sin is reported to have been depressed at this time, convinced that the gods hated him.
And who can blame him? Finally, the Elamites invaded Ur and captured Ibbi-Sin. As the poem, the Lament for Sumer and Ur recounts:
An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursaja have decided its fate -- to overturn the divine powers of Sumer, to lock up the favourable reign in its home, to destroy the city, to destroy the house, to destroy the cattle-pen, to level the sheepfold; (...) that Elam, the enemy, should dwell in their place; that its shepherd, in his own palace, should be captured by the enemy, that Ibbi-Sin should be taken to the land Elam in fetters, that from Mount Zabu on the edge of the sea to the borders of Ancan, like a swallow that has flown from its house, he should never return to his city."
So the barbarians steam roller into the empire, capture the king and that’s the end of Sumer?
Yes and no. Like the fall of most empires, it was definitely about outside threats, but it was also a matter of problems from within.
One of the big problems with channeling water in open ditches is the build up of salt which gets into the soil and leads to the salinisation of the land. Salt? Not the best fertiliser.
This affected the agricultural surplus which was the whole reason urban civilisation got going in the first place. One the surplus declines, so does the very stability of the set up.
Meanwhile, climate change - which got going during the Akkadian era - was leading to a desertification of the area.
Analysis of sediment from this period demonstrated that the rivers were running low. This would have led to major food shortages - and records from Ibbi-Sin’s reign support this - demonstrating that the price of grain was exploding.
But survive or not, Ur had done its work. It had opened up markets in the East, exposing the region to Sumer’s way of life. And there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. Sumer was only the first of a long line of mighty civilisations that dominated Mesopotomia and the world beyond.
So, what was Sumer’s legacy?
Sumer was really, really special. Yes the Abaids before them had agricultural villages and irrigation, but until the rise of Uruk we hadn’t seen writing, bureaucracy or social stratification. All things necessary for civilisation. Or the kind of civilisation we know.
Forward to Space Communism.
Simmer down, Darth Stalin.
I suppose what I’m saying is that maybe we’ll find out that other civilisations were doing similar things earlier, but for now we have to bow down in awe at the incredible legacy of Sumer.
So apart from writing, the wheel, the way we measure time, the wheel, mass produced pottery, hydraulic engineering, the plough, government bureaucracy, mass produced bricks, mathematics - what have the Sumerians done for us?
And yes, Sumer’s achievements had to be rediscovered, but just because we forgot who we owed thes things to, it doesn’t diminish them.
Cuneiform, for example, didn't die out with Sumer. It was adapted and used by the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Neo Babylonians, the Persians and lasted with the Parthians until 100AD. The Latin alphabet we use has only lasted 2500 years, and if we don't switch to mandarin before the century is done, the climate may easily wash it away before we can outdo cuneiform.
And one of the greatest works dedicated to cuneiform is the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to 2100BC. A story that influenced many other stories - from Homer’s Odyssey to the Bible.
In it we see how Gilgamesh, the vain and self-important king of Uruk, is delighted with himself for being able to defeat anyone in combat. HIs father was a god and his mother was a human - which makes him, according to the tale, two-thirds god and one-third man. Sumerian mathematics not quite up to the usual standard there.
Either way, he’s deeply unpopular, disrespects the gods and is a serial rapist. So, not a good egg.
So the gods punish his pride by creating Enkidu - a wild and innocent man - to challenge the mighty Gilgamesh. Hearing of this, Gilgamesh sends Shamhat, a temple prostitute, to lure Enkidu from his wild existence through the corruption of carnal delights. This works and Enkidu finds himself abandoned by his animal friends for doing the dirty. Which would make a great Disney film. So he returns with Shamhat to Uruk.
When they finally fight they are so evenly matched that Gilgamesh is humbled and loves Enkidu like a brother.
So instead the pair go off to fight the demon Humbaba and get into scrapes. After killing the Bull of heaven, Enkidu is killed by the goddess Ishtar.
When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is in such despair that he puts on animal skins and roams the forests - before going on a quest to gain immortal life. Unfortunately he fails and has to admit that he’s mortal after all. He finally learns that the most important thing in life is to leave a good legacy.
The tale might be a very self-aware story of how Sumer had to come to terms with the mixed blessings of civilisation - leaving a simpler and more virtuous past behind. It also speaks to their obsession with leaving a legacy for future generations - which they certainly achieved.
If you knew Enkidu
Then you know why I feel blue
I’ll wear animal skins a nd repent my sins
Cos of Enki.
Can’t you see 60 degrees
Time for state bureaucracy
Here’s a sumer-y too.
It takes bureaucrats
Here in Sumer.
Irrigate the land, build up towns,
Worship gods when we feel down.
Here’s a sumer-y too.
We’ll collect the tax
Until we collapse.
Sumer, Sumer’s through. Sumer, Sumer’s through….