Sumerian Origins

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Sumerian Origins

Sumerian, a language, not a nationality

The word “Sumerian” is a term used to identify a language, not a group of people. However, over time it appears to have been redefined and is now considered a national identity. Those who spoke the Sumerian language are still of unknown origin. While we can hypothesize their possible roots and where they came from, no definitive evidence exists to determine the truth.

Possible Origins

1) A feasible assumption would imagine them, migrants from Iran, coming over the Zagros Mountains. Evidence exists to support that the prehistoric cultures of Iran shared similar pottery and tooling to cultures in prehistoric Iraq. They could have migrated westwards and settled in modern-day southern Iraq; intriguingly, this evidence could very well be the result of what we recognize today as the Ubaid Trade Routes.

2) Others maintain that the Sumerian people migrated from the North African coast through Levant and Syria. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to consider the likelihood of those migrants moving further into the Fertile Crescent. Unfortunately, physical descriptions throughout early texts, mythological writings, and preserved artifacts don’t agree with this theory.

3) Archaeological evidence in modern-day Turkey suggests that the Sumerians migrated along the Western Black Sea, down through Bulgaria and Greece, into Anatolia and Mesopotamia. This notion comes from the approximate age and visible progress of prehistoric settlements observed through their directional patterns across Anatolia, moving from West to East. This pattern appears to carry on through Syria and into Mesopotamia; however, there’s no relative sign of Proto-literate data to connect these advancements to Sumer.

4) Yet another theory states that the Sumerian people arrived from along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf. In Greek tradition, Oannes, the amphibious being, is described as a fish with the head of a man under his fish’s head and his fish’s tail the feet of a man. Oannes, Greek for the first of them, comes to Mesopotamia from the Persian Gulf, bringing with him the seed of civilization. In this same area, Eridu, one of the first antediluvian cities, was said to exist. Some claim Eridu to be the actual origin of the Biblical Garden of Eden.

5) Lastly, a theory based on migrant patterns, historical, descriptive accounts of Sumerian appearance, artifacts reflecting Sumerian practices, and their religious deities and parallel counterparts suggests the Sumerians migrated from the Caucus region. Likely through the Caucasus Mountains, through ancient Armenia, and down through northern and southern Iraq. Still, no one has ever documented clear-cut evidence to determine the accuracy of it all.

The Uruk Period

4,000 BCE, noted as the closing times of the Neolithic Era was the beginning of the Proto-literate period. Some describe the beginning of this period as an abrupt and rapid change, while others consider it a more casual transition. We can inspect evidence that implies both are correct, but we cannot distinguish which occurred. Six particular features mark this to be a new era or period in time: (1) The widespread utilization of various metals was applied in several forms. (2) A new variety of art and sculptures had begun to appear. (3) An increase in population and the solidification of a social and economic class system. (4) Increasing use of stone used in the building of monumental and megalithic structures. (5) The creation of the cylinder seal. (6) Most importantly, the origins of a writing system. Another term utilized in referencing this period is the Uruk Period. This term came to be as Uruk was known as the central location for the six changes referenced above. Uruk, or its ancient name Warka, was founded near 4500 BCE. Known as Erech in Gen.10.10, which is astonishingly from which Iraq derives its name.

Social Division and Religion

Uruk having absorbed some its population from surrounding Ubaid, Elamite, and Arabian settlements, was like an ancient melting pot. The city was divided among its social classes, the richest of which spoke Sumerian, which became the city’s preferred language over time. While the upper class of society gathered into smaller clusters of their own, the lower class had been pushed into their own districts. The largest portion of land was designated for the religious class, temples, and their priests. Religion through the Uruk period had centered around two temples. These were each built and named after other settlements near Uruk. Eanna, which represented the younger goddess Inanna, and Kulaba, which symbolized the sky god Anu. Some scholars suggest that in the earliest stages of Uruk, Kulaba was the city’s main temple. Inanna would later gain enough popularity to have her temple built.

The Jemdet Nasr Period

Throughout the Uruk Period, spanning 1,500 years, substantial improvements to Mesopotamian society were underway. The Jemdet Nasr Period is named thus in like manner as the Uruk Period. The Tell Jemdet Nasr site yields distinct evidence of additional advancements to society, enough so to classify this era as a period all its own. The following features rightly define the period: (1) Surrounding Ubaid settlements had emptied and their populations forced to be absorbed by larger central cities. (2) A structured and maintained society with the origins to establish record keeping. (3) A new and considerably superior method of pottery production was seen at this time. (4) Most importantly, the rise of the social upper class and their dominating political power. These key factors would lead directly toward what is known as the Early Dynastic Period of Sumer.

The Early Dynastic Period

There are defining solid characteristics which separate this period from its predecessors. The most revealed is the further advancement of an aristocratic class, their opposing lower class, and a religious/priesthood class. With numerous families becoming rich, typically, the oppression of the poor ensued. It wasn’t long before the rich would influence or force the poor into undesired crowds of their own. The institution of upper and lower-class societies issues a defining factor, a ritualistic necessity to any progressional period of humanity to advance. While the unfortunate poor continue to group, and the upper class continues to grow; finally, one individual rises to be ultimate. Through popularity, wealth, or other devices, from each city’s upper class arises a man above all. These individual, known as Ensi, En(insert their title), or Lugal(insert their title), were mankind’s first known rulers.

The Sumerian Kings List

Uruk wasn’t the only powerful city in the making. During the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods, up to 50 other settlements gathered in numbers, while the southern territories remained the most wealthy and influential throughout the region. Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak were among the earliest of them. Great ancient literature mentions these cities, such as the text of The Sumerian Kings List, a dynastic style list of kings, compiling the duration and span of their eminent reign. Until Sargon of Akkad, the List seems to comprise unusual lifespans, resembling the same tapering lifespans matching the antediluvian patriarchs in Genesis. But, if we take a closer look, compared to other ancient pieces of literature from Uruk and its surrounding settlements, we can begin to understand what this List truly is. Many scholars assume one king reigned over the entire region at a given time. This was based on “A King’s Divine Right to Rule,” declaring that a monarch, or a king, in this case, was subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. This right was only ever historically given by Enlil, The Lord of Air, God of the Sumerians. Except we can collect more evidence, additional pieces of literature revealing interactions between existing cities throughout the region of Sumer, proving that multiple rulers were at play, and each city had their own.

With the discovery of other Sumerian Cities, including texts confirming the existence of different rulers in the area (City of Lagash), we can be sure this List was not as most interpret it to be. With other kings not mentioned in the earliest portion of the Sumerian Kings List, it only confirms the List comprised of an alliance between the 5 mentioned antediluvian settlements during 3,000 BCE – 2,900 BCE. Comprehending archaeological evidence regarding how these settlements were affected by the flood can help us pinpoint the length of time from the initial fall of Eridu to when the flood took place. According to archaeological evidence, we note the population of Eridu absorbs into the larger city Uruk just before 3,000 BCE (Kingship moved from Eridu to Bad-tibira). Ancient historical texts as well as archaeological evidence places the founding of Kish and its first king at about 2,900 BCE (after the flood, Kingship was taken to Kish). This information leads us to conclude the flood mentioned in the Sumerian Kings List occurred just before the Early Dynastic Period, sometime between 3,000 BCE – 2,900 BCE.

Understanding the earliest portion of the Kings’ List is vital. If we are well informed of these dynasties simultaneously persevering through time, we can apply that knowledge further into the preceding dynasties. If we establish the founding of Kish to be approximately 2,900 BCE, then the portion of the List between the founding of Kish and the reign of Lugal-zage-si must have occurred between 2,900 BCE – 2,270 BCE. The names listed in this portion of the Kings’ List are numerous; however, this span would be more than sufficient to accommodate the reign of the 77 recorded rulers.

The Rise of Lugal-zage-si

These individually ruled cities, singularly connected through the Sumerian language, were not a united faction until the campaigns of Lugal-zage-si. Lugal-zage-si was considered the only king of the Third Dynasty of Uruk. Having defeated other rulers, he took control of all Sumer except for Akkad.

Lugal-zage-si’s rise to power was partly due to his determination but made attainable by society’s previous reforms. Throughout these newly founded Sumerian cities, further separation of the lower and upper classes, with a select few families gaining substantial wealth and power. Some of these cities, one city being Lagash, suffered a great deal from internal conflict. The wealthy and religious classes clashed over land ownership, resulting in struggling attempts to contain the issue. Nevertheless, by this time, the extent of damage was too great, causing the city to fall into ruin. Other rulers would do well to learn from this mistake and maintain a fit distinction between social and religious affairs. This created a preference among rulers for less internal conflict. With an appropriate division of classes now maintained, it would create an opportunity for those in power to concentrate on new objectives beyond city walls. Lugal-zage-si being the most influential among the imperialists, was first to unite the cities mostly through force. 


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