Human Legacy Course/Mesopotamia & Sumer

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Human Legacy Course I
Mesopotamia & Sumer

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Hi and welcome to week 2, the Ancient Near East. Today, in this lecture, we're going to be looking at Mesopotamia and Sumer. Now, before we do that as usual, we're going to answer one question and that is:

Why might a wedding be held to ensure a good harvest? In the city of Ur, crowds began filling the streets to celebrate New Year’s Day, the last day of the spring festival. People made their way through Ur’s mazelike streets, past mud-brick houses and shops, to the city center. There, an immense temple rose to the moon god, Nanna, and his wife.

A hush fell over the crowd. A small group was solemnly climbing a stairway to a shrine atop the temple. The time had come for the festival’s main rite—the Sacred Wedding. In a symbolic ceremony the king of Ur was to marry a priestess. Surely this sacred rite would please the gods and lead to good harvests. Since their survival depended on the harvest, the people badly wanted the gods’ favor.

Geography Promotes Civilization[edit | edit source]

A map of Mesopotamia with agriculture limits
A map of the Fertile Crescent

In Southwest Asia a large band of fertile land forms an oasis in the midst of deserts and mountains. This region, sometimes called the Fertile Crescent, curves between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. Within the fertile region some of the richest soil lies between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Both of these rivers begin in Turkey and flow south through Iraq to the Persian Gulf. For centuries, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has been called Mesopotamia, which in Greek means “between the rivers.” There, geographic conditions helped bring about the rise of the world’s first civilization.

As early as 5500 BC people were farming in southern Mesopotamia. This flat, swampy region was well suited for agriculture. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers often flooded there in spring. The floods left behind a fertile mud called silt, which enriched the soil. In this rich soil early farmers grew grains such as wheat and barley. With plenty of food, the population grew, and villages formed.

Farming in southern Mesopotamia posed challenges, though. The region received little rain. Thus, water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates depended on rainfall and snow melt in distant mountains. Without warning, rivers could overflow, washing away crops and even villages. If river levels fell too low, crops would die during the hot, dry summers.

Over time, people in Mesopotamia developed methods to control water. They dug basins to store rainwater, canals to carry water to fields, and dikes to control flooding. These large projects required organization: people to assign jobs and allocate resources. As a result, leaders emerged and government formed. Slowly, a civilization developed.

Sumer[edit | edit source]

The people who developed this first civilization were the Sumerians. They called their land Sumer. Sumerian civilization would influence many later civilizations.

The Cities of Sumer[edit | edit source]

Large cities had begun to appear in Sumer by 3000 BC. Structures in these cities were built of mud bricks because other building materials were scarce. In each city center a large temple rose to the city’s chief god. At the heart of the temple, a pyramid-shaped structure called a ziggurat rose to the sky. For defense, a massive wall circled each city. Fields surrounded the city.

Over time, each city and the land it controlled formed a city-state, a political unit with its own government. As the city-states grew, they increasingly fought over land and water.

Religion & Government[edit | edit source]

Religion shaped life in the city-states. The Sumerians practiced polytheism, or the worship of many gods. They believed that the gods controlled all natural forces. The god Enlil, for example, ruled the air and storms. The Sumerians also believed that a god protected each city-state.

The Sumerians believed that the gods were like humans in many ways. The gods ate and drank, fell in love and married, and fought. At the same time, the gods had enormous power. They could bring rich harvests or raging floods, depending on their whims.

Because of these beliefs, the Sumerians worked hard to please the gods. The people built Ziggurats and temples where priests and priestesses offered the gods food and drink and held ceremonies.

Priests held a high status in Sumer and initially governed the city-states. As city-states battled for dominance, however, war chiefs began to rule as kings. These kings, who served as the gods’ chief representatives, performed ceremonies to please the gods. In time, many of the city-states’ kings formed dynasties. A dynasty is a series of rulers from one family.

Sumerian Culture[edit | edit source]

Sumerian civilization produced great cultural achievements. Perhaps the greatest was the development of the first writing system. With the ability to write down events, humankind moved from prehistory into the historical age.

Writing[edit | edit source]

The map of the Sumer Dynasty

Sumerian writing is called Cuneiform. To produce this writing, Sumerians used sharp tools called styluses to make wedge-shaped symbols on clay tablets.

Sumerians first used cuneiform to keep business accounts and other records. In time, they put their writing skills to new uses. They wrote works on law and grammar as well as works of literature, such as stories, poems, and songs. The best-known work of Sumerian literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of a legendary king.

Sumerians paid scribes, or writers, to create written documents. Becoming a scribe required years of schooling but was a way to move up in social class. Most scribes were men, but some upper-class women also learned to write.

Math & Sciences[edit | edit source]

The Sumerians developed a math system based on the number 60. Because of their system we still divide an hour into 60 minutes and a circle into 360 degrees. The Sumerians also learned to use geometry, which was necessary to build elaborate structures and irrigation systems.

The Sumerians also made many scientific advances. They invented the wheel, which they used both to make pottery and to build a variety of vehicles. Sumerians also invented the plow and learned to use bronze to make stronger tools and weapons. Archaeological remains show that Sumerians even built sewers. In addition, they collected and cataloged an impressive amount of medical knowledge. They even performed basic surgery.

The Arts[edit | edit source]

Ruins and artifacts provide us with examples of the Sumerians’ artistry and creativity. Sumerian architecture includes the use of arches, ramps, and columns, all visible on the ziggurats. Sumerian sculpture includes statues with large, wide-open eyes, as well as small objects carved out of ivory.

Perhaps Sumer’s most famous works of art are its cylinder seals, small stone cylinders engraved all around with detailed designs. Rolling a seal over wet clay left behind an imprint of its design. People used cylinder seals to “sign” documents or to show ownership.

Trade & Society[edit | edit source]

Sumerians obtained many of the materials for their buildings and art through trade. Sumer lacked many raw materials, such as wood and metals. To obtain these materials, Sumerians traded with people across Southwest Asia and beyond, exchanging woven textiles for metals, timber, and stone.

As trade enriched Sumer, a distinct social hierarchy, or ranking, developed. At the top were the kings, priests, and their principal agents. Next were large landowners and wealthy merchants. Below them were the majority of Sumerians—artisans, farmers, and laborers. At the bottom were slaves, many of whom had been captured in battle.

Sumerian men and women developed distinct roles as well. Men held political power and made laws while women took care of the home and children. A few upper-class women received educations and served as priestesses in the temples.

Empires In Mesopotamia[edit | edit source]

Over time, frequent warfare weakened Sumer’s city-states. Then one after another, invading peoples conquered the region. Because each new invader adapted aspects of Sumerian culture to its own society, Sumerian civilization continued to influence life in Mesopotamia.

Sargon's Empire[edit | edit source]

To the north of Sumer lived the Akkadians. About 2330 BC the Akkadian ruler Sargon I created a permanent army, the first ruler to do so. From the city of Akkad on the Euphrates River, Sargon used this army to conquer all of Sumer and northern Mesopotamia. In doing so, he formed the world’s first empire, a land that includes different kingdoms and people under one rule. The Akkadian Empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.

The Akkadians adopted cuneiform from the Sumerians and used it to write their language, which became the official language of the government. Sumerian, though, remained the main language for religious and literary texts. Sargon also kept many aspects of Sumerian society, such as the power of the priesthood. The priests’ influence in Akkadian society helped ensure the continuity of Sumerian culture.

Sargon’s empire lasted about 140 years. During that time, the Akkadians helped spread Sumerian culture far beyond the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. In the end, however, Sargon’s empire fell. Tribes from the east invaded and captured Akkad. A century of chaos followed during which several tribes battled for control of Mesopotamia.

The Babylonian Empire[edit | edit source]

One such tribe was the Amorites. They settled in Babylon on the Euphrates, near modern Baghdad, Iraq. In 1792 BC the Amorite king Hammurabi became king of Babylon. A brilliant warrior, he united all of Mesopotamia in what became known as the Babylonian Empire, named for its capital.

Hammurabi’s skills were not limited to the battlefield. He was also an able ruler and administrator who oversaw building projects and improved the tax-collection system to pay for them. He also increased trade so that the empire grew wealthy. Like Sargon before him, Hammurabi absorbed elements of the earlier cultures of the region. He honored the old Sumerian gods and allowed priests to retain their power and influence. During his reign, schools continued to teach the Sumerian language and cuneiform writing.

Hammurabi is most famous, though, for his code of laws. Hammurabi’s Code consists of 282 laws dealing with everything from trade and theft to injury and murder. The code was important not only because it was thorough but also because it was written down for all to see. People across the empire could read exactly what actions were crimes.

During Hammurabi’s long reign, Babylon became Mesopotamia’s greatest city. Yet after his death, Babylonian power declined. In less than two centuries, the Babylonian Empire had fallen.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

That is the end of your lecture. Here is your assignment:

  • Question #1: Where is the Fertile Crescent, and which part of it is also known as Mesopotamia?
  • Question #2: How did geographic conditions in southern Mesopotamia encourage the development of civilization there?
  • Question #3: What were some common features of Sumer’s city-states?
  • Question #4: How did geography influence religious beliefs in Sumer?
  • Question #5: In what ways did religion shape all aspects of government and life in Sumer?
  • Question #6: What is cuneiform, and why is it historically significant?
  • Question #7: Why was trade important in Sumer?
  • Question #8: Was Sumerian society fair? Why or why not?
  • Question #9: What is an empire, and what group of people created the world’s first empire?
  • Question #10: What three tribes conquered and ruled Mesopotamia after the decline of Sumer’s city-states? List the tribes in order.
  • Question #11: Why was Hammurabi’s Code a significant achievement?

Thank you very much for listening to this lecture and I look forward to looking at your assignments. Thank you, goodbye.