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Mesopotamia is the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Located in Asia, the civilization spanned on area shaped like a first quarter moon, stretching from eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea to the northern end of the Persian Gulf.
Spread out over portions of modern Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, Mesopotamia with its rich lands and the mild climate encouraged many migratory groups to form settlements. Mesopotamia was endowed with a continuous source of water from the rivers that flowed down from the north. Its low, level plains required water control to hold back flood, and the settlers learned to build dams and to drain marshes. It had deposits of clay, which could be turned into bricks for building. There was productive and fertile soil which could be easily cultivated.
The textual evidence permits an increasingly detailed view of Mesopotamian political and social history beginning in the middle centuries of the 3rd millennium B.C. Archaeological evidence provides important information about the physical realities of ancient Mesopotamia and about the lives of ordinary people. Mesopotamia had a stratified society in which kings and priests controlled much of the wealth. Early Mesopotamian society was a society of villages and cities linked together in a system of mutual interdependence. Cities depended on villages to produce surplus food to feed the nonproducing urban elite and craftspeople. In return, the cities provided the villages with military protection, markets, and specialist-produced goods. Cities and city states formed the basic units of the Mesopotamian social landscape during the 3rd millennium B.C. The three classes of Mesopotamian society were: • Free landowning class • Dependent farmers and artisans • Slaves Slavery was not a fundamental part of the economy, and most slaves were prisoners of war. Some scholars believe that the development of agriculture brought about a
decline in the status of women because men did the value-producing work of ploughing and irrigation. Women were able to own property, control their dowry, and engage in trade. The rise of an urban merchant class in the second millennium B.C.E. appears to have been accompanied by greater emphasis on male privilege and an attendant decline in women’s status.
Sumerians are a group of ancient people who built a civilization in the land of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia from the 4th - 2nd millennium BC. Sumer is a semi-arid desert and sparsely vegetated. The area where the Sumerians lived is lower Mesopotamia, from Baghdad down to the Persian Gulf. The population of Sumerian cities ranged between 7,000 and 20,000. They lived in a treeless lowland environment with fertile soils but no metal, little timber, and no precious stones. They obtained these commodities by trading with areas where such items were abundant perhaps initially on a village-by-village basis and alter in a far more organised fashion. They employed a sort of writing that has been deciphered, and their language is now known. They had discovered the use of bronze and they built great tower-like temples of sun-dried bricks. They had sheep, cattle, goats, and asses, but no horses. They fought in close formation, carrying spears and shields of skin. Their clothing was made of wool and they shaved their heads. They were organized in class and kinship ties probably remained the connective tissue of Sumerian civilization through most of its history. Major crops that the Sumerian grew were wheat, barley, vegetables, and dates. Cattle raising and fishing were given equal importance. Their staple diet was fish, mutton, goat, and pork.
GEOGRAPHY OF SUMER
In the lowest reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the land is marshy, and boats connect the small villages to one another. Fishing is important to the economy, and in the tall reed growths, birds and wild pigs were hunted. Before the full development of agriculture, the earliest settlements of Sumer-of hunters and fisher folk—were located in this southern marsh region. Two factors promised agricultural prosperity in Sumer: • The alluvial soil deposited here by the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers was extremely fertile • The two great rivers themselves assured the supply of fresh water The developing complexity of the economy and society that led to the rise of cities may be the result of a unique interplay of different environmental niches within southern Mesopotamia. The region contains not only fertile farmland but also marshes (with opportunities for fishing and hunting), steppe land (useful for grazing), and, further afield, mountains and sea (important for long-distance trade, reaching out to sources of raw materials such as wood, stone, and metals). One of the major factors in the rise of the Sumerian city-states was the need to organize an effective system of irrigation. Blisteringly hot in the summer, pleasantly cool in the winter, central and southern Mesopotamia has a dry climate. Irrigation is
required for successful agriculture. The Sumerians canalled the waters of Tigris and Euphrates rivers into the arid fields and turned Sumer into a veritable Garden of Eden. Although the Euphrates and Tigris swell in the late spring with the water melted from the snow-covered mountains of Turkey and northern Iraq, an annual overflow of the silt-bearing rivers was not critical for farming. Late spring, the period of flooding, does not coordinate well with the two growing seasons of winter and summer crops. Consequently, a sophisticated system of canals was developed to bring water to the fields at the appropriate times, and to protect newly sown crops from being washed away. To manage their irrigation systems they originated regional government, thus emerging from the petty social order of the family and village to the city-state. Once people started digging wells and irrigation canals in areas with many people and animals, disease and epidemics like typhoid and cholera quickly followed.
URBANIZATION IN SUMER
The rise of urbanization in Sumer was a unique phenomenon that began in 3500 B.C. Cities, a distinctive feature of the Sumerians, had come into being upstream of the lowlands in areas where only dry farming was possible. There are thirteen city-states in Sumer. The dominant feature of every Sumerian city was a massive temple mounted on a high terrace. The Sumerians build huge structures, called ziggurats, with steps to climb to the top. These were their temples, and religious ceremonies were held at the very top. People left offerings of food and wine on the steps of ziggurats for the gods. Inside the temple were rooms for the priest and a central shrine with a niche for the statue of god. The Ziggurat was built in the hearth of town, and was the centre of the daily life of the Sumerians. According to Gorden Childe, monumental public buildings not only distinguish each known city from any village but also symbolize the concentration of the social surplus. Every Sumerian city was from the first dominated by one or more stately temples, centrally situated on a brick platform raised above the surrounding dwellings and usually connected with an artificial mountain, the staged tower, or ziggurat. In Sumer, the social surplus was first effectively concentrated in the hands of a god and stored in his granary. Sumerian political organization was based on city-states that controlled the surrounding agricultural fields. The city- states were ruled by kings who set boundaries, regulated religion, provided justice, and led the armies. The elite kings, priests, and nobles controlled much of the land, which was worked by slaves. Although larger political empires occasionally coalesced, the city-state remained the elemental principle of political organization in Sumer. A Sumerian city was divided into different districts, residential, administrative (including palaces), industrial (including craft workshops), and a cemetery. Different social classes mixed; they were not segregated in their separate neighbourhoods. Similarly, overlapping of tasks occurred. Craft workshops were scattered throughout the residential districts. Features such as streets, walls, and water channels divided neighbourhoods. The canals were part of the larger regional system of watercourses and were routinely flowed through cities as well as alongside them demonstrate their supreme importance in Sumerian geography. The canals, being navigable, gave rise to separate markets, commercial centers, and harbours, all reachable by boat.
Money did not exist in ancient Sumer. Trade was an integral part of Sumerian life, a multifaceted activity absorbing the energies of many people. Local and long distance trade was voluminous. The Sumerians traded their grain surpluses to distant people for metals and other material they lacked. Temples would distribute food rations to those who laboured to them. Petty officials were allocated land for their services. Raw materials were obtained from the highlands and the Iranian plateaus to the east for the manufacture of weapons, ornaments and prestigious luxuries. Sumer was deficient in supplies of wood, stone, copper, tin, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. The Sumerians relied on a network of trade with other areas for procuring metal and other raw materials. Ships sailed up the rivers from the gulf carrying shell, carnelian, lapis lazuli, silver, gold, onyx, alabaster, textile, food, and other produce. Copper was brought to Sumer mainly from Iran and Anatolia; Tin from Iraq; Lapis lazuli and Turquoise from Iran. Although the Sumerians economy was primarily agricultural, their life was centred mainly in the cities. Many farmers, herdsmen, fishermen, merchants, craftsmen, architects, soldiers, doctors, scribes, and priests lived in the cities. Artisans and travelling merchants sold their products in the central town market, and were paid in kind or in money – usually silver coin in the form of a disk or ring. The population in the Sumerian cities ranged between 10,000 and 50,000. Each was enclosed by a wall and surrounded with suburban villages and hamlets.
Sumerian population were divided into various classes: • At the top, was the God king who was the descendent of the gods and was also in contact with them • The second were the noble, who were a leisure class • The third were the wealthy businessmen who lived in larger and better houses of the city • The fourth group included the artisans, farmers, smiths, leather worker, fishermen, bricklayers, weavers, and potters who had less wealth • The next class were the scribes who were given an important position and the literacy was an admired accomplishment • The last were the slaves who were the war captures or disposed farmers The life of the individual citizen in a Sumerian city was remarkably free and prosperous. The poorest citizen managed to own a farm and cattle or a house and garden. Most Sumerian families lived in a one story, mud brick house consisting of several rooms grouped around an open court. Sumerian extended family appears to have been a strong and durable unit, protected by laws governing rights of inheritance, recompense for injuries, etc. According to Nicholas Postgate, women were reasonably well treated both by law and custom in Sumerian society.
Religion was the central aspect of the ancient Sumerian society. Each of the Sumerian cities seems generally to have been an independent state with a god and a priest of its own. Each city had a temple which was the seat of a major god in the Sumerian pantheon. The temples were large and were staffed by priests and priestesses. High priests played a very important role in Sumerian society. They were believed to be the only people who could interpret a variety of signs in order to understand the will of the gods and goddesses who dictated human destiny. One of the most common methods of divination was reading sheep or goat intestines. There was no organized set of gods in Sumer - each city-state having its own patrons, temples, and priestkings. In temples, a complex, specialized hereditary priesthood served the gods as a servant serves a master. Humans were regarded as servants of the gods. The temples themselves were walled compounds containing religions and functional buildings. The most visible part of the temple compound was the ziggurat. The temple, the house of the divinity, was thus the focus of both ritual and economic activity. It also became the regional administrative centre. The Sumerian gods personified local elements and natural forces. The Sumerians held the belief that a sacred ritual marriage between the ruler and Inanna, goddess of love and fertility, brought rich harvests. Sumerians worshipped the following gods: • Ea (god of magic) • An (the supreme god of heaven) was the highest power in the universe and was sovereign of all gods. The main temple of An was at Uruk. • Enlil (god of water) was elevated to the highest rank as father of all gods. It belonged to the city of Nippur. The city of Nippur emerged as the religious centre of unified Sumer. It became Sumer’s chief religious and cultural centre. • Enki (lord of Earth) was worshipped as the god of sweet water.
In the crafts, the Sumerian inventions included the potter’s wheel, metal casting (of copper and bronze), riveting, soldering, engraving, cloth fulling, bleaching and dyeing. They manufactured paints, leather, cosmetics, perfumes and drugs. Prescriptions recorded on some of their tablets show that the Sumerian physician had command of a large assortment of material medica, prepared from plants, animals and inorganic sources. One of the greatest achievements of the Sumerians was the invention of the earliest known system of writing in man’s history, i.e., cuneiform script. The Sumerian script began as a set of pictographic signs devised by temple administrators and priests to keep track of the temple’s resources and activities. They inscribed the signs in clay with reed stylus which accounts for the curious wedge shaped characters. The clay of the country is very fine; they used it to write upon, and so it is that their inscriptions have been preserved to us. Sumerian scholars developed the signs into purely phonetic symbols representing word or syllables. More than 90% of the tablets that have been excavated in Sumer are economic, legal, and administrative documents. However, some 5000 of the finds are literary works: myths and epic tales, hymns and lamentations, proverbs, fables, and essays, which qualify as man’s oldest known literature. In addition, the tablets include a number of Sumerian textbooks, listing the
names of trees, birds, insects, minerals, cities, countries, and so forth. There are even commemorative narratives, which constitute mankind’s first writing of history. From the Sumerians invention of writing grew the first formal system of education – another milestone in human intellectual progress. They opened different schools, the head of the school was called the ‘school father’, and the pupils were called ‘school sons’. Other technologies developed by the Mesopotamians included irrigation, transportation (boats, barges, and the use of donkeys), bronze metallurgy, brick making, and engineering. Military technology employed in Mesopotamia included paid, full-time soldiers; horses; the horse-drawn chariot; the bow and arrow; and siege machinery. Mesopotamians also used numbers (a base-60 system) and made advances in mathematics and astronomy. The plains of the lower Tigris and Euphrates were occupied soon after about 5000 BC, in the Ubaid period. There were small fishing settlements in the beginning, but agricultural life was established soon thereafter. Material culture was limited. The significance of the Ubaid period also lies in evidence for Mesopotamian ventures into the Gulf, and in the fact that the temple, which was to develop into the urban institution par excellence, is already present. At this stage the temple was a simple shrine that would have housed the image of a deity. On temple floors were found the residues of worshipper offerings (fish bones, pottery, etc.) The early Sumerian cities, such as Ur, Uruk, and Shuruppak, each had their own rulers, who also controlled some surrounding territory.
URUK (4000 – 3100 B.C.)
Uruk was a major city in Mesopotamia. Uruk period (about 4000 – 3100 B.C.), the population rose, many more villages came into existence, there is evidence for the plough and the wheel, and, towards the end of the period, written records are attested. It was an important centre for religion and science as well, which is confirmed by thousands of clay tablets that have been dug up at the site. The late Uruk period, best represented at the extensive site of Uruk, also saw the invention of the cylinder seal, and experiments with the construction of large, monumental, temples. The range of materials in use widened considerably. How these developments in the south are linked with an 'expansion' up the Euphrates and eastward into what is now Iran, has not been worked out. Mesopotamian temple architecture, writing, and pottery forms appear to have been emulated by several communities outside Sumer, alongside their own material culture.
UR (2025 – 1738 B.C.)
The city of Ur was an important Sumerian city state between 2025 – 1738 B.C. It had four main residential areas in the city, and included homes, with baked mud brick foundations arranged along long, narrow winding streets and alleyways. Ur is famous for its burial tombs, which were magnificently furnished. Burials at Ur give us insights into people’s social standing. Kings and queens were buried with treasure.
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