Mesopotamia - The Sumerian Culture

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Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Mesopotamia: The Sumerian Culture

The earliest human civilization was at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq. This area was probably settled at least a thousand years earlier, but it did not become a civilization until about 3500 to 3200 BC. Shifting riverbeds left deposits of silt that made the soil unusually fertile. This, in turn, attracted settlers and eventually led to large urban centers.

The culture that developed in Mesopotamia was remarkably sophisticated. This civilization gave the world its first written language, its first organized religion, the basics of modern mathematics, the wheel, and the first literary epic.

Written Records

The earliest written records ever found date from about 3100 BC. They are inventory lists and similar records incised in clay tablets; the Sumerians did not have paper. Over time, the clay hardened; in that state, it is practically indestructible, and archaeologists continue to find and decipher clay tablets from the remote past. The clay tablets also contained fragments of literary works. The Descent of Inanna, which narrates the life of the goddess Inanna, is the world’s oldest surviving narrative poem. The Sumerians prided themselves on their literary achievements; the Sumerian language remained the language of educated people in this region for centuries, as Latin would later in Western Europe.


By 2250 BC, the Sumerians had refined their religious beliefs into a system. They were polytheistic, meaning that they believed in many gods. Each god or goddess oversaw an aspect of nature or human relations such as air, water, or war. The creation of a sophisticated theology led to the development of a class of priests. As in many later civilizations, priests were better educated and more literate than most other people. This gave them standing and authority within the community.

The Sumerians built impressive shrines and temples in honor of their gods. Ziggurats—stepped pyramids, in which each level has a smaller perimeter than the one below it—were simple in design but massive in size. Their large scale shows the central importance of religion to the Sumerian culture.

Mathematics and Science

Sumerian achievements in science and math were equally impressive. They developed the wheel for use in making pottery and then realized its enormous potential for transportation. Sumerians also understood the concept of the decimal point and the seven-day week.

Politics and Government

In its early days, the Sumerian civilization was a loose collection of city-states that often warred with one another, jockeying for control. The most important urban centers were Ur, Uruk, Akkad, and Mari. These cities were religious centers as well as seats of government.

In about 2334 BC, Sargon I, king of Akkad, conquered all of Mesopotamia. It remained united under his rule and that of his successors for about the next two hundred years. This period in Sumerian history is called the Akkadian era. It was characterized by a divergence between church and state and the evolution of a professional class of soldiers. The size of the Akkadian Empire led inevitably to the development of a large bureaucracy; no empire could be run efficiently without an army of civil servants. The Akkadian era ended about 2191 BC, when the Sumerians retook power and Ur became the center of the Mesopotamian civilization. As time went on, Akkadian and Sumerian culture would diverge more and more.

Archaeologists have unearthed many luxury objects at Sumerian sites, including musical instruments, game boards, and jewelry. These artifacts allow us to draw numerous conclusions about the Sumerians. First, there must have been a wealthy class in the society: people can order and purchase jewelry and musical instruments only when they have disposable income. Second, the objects’ fine quality shows that the Sumerians were skilled artisans and jewelers. Third, the presence of many metal items proves that the Sumerians traded with other civilizations, since there are no natural sources of metal in this area. Historians believe that the Sumerians traded their surplus crops to the Indus Valley civilizations in exchange for metals.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Early Civilization Practice Test

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