Where It All Began: The Sumerians

Clay tablets with written inscriptions known as cuneiform represent the earliest writing we know of. They date back to around 3,000 BC, invented by the Sumerian people of Mesopotamia in Southern Iraq for the recording of such things as taxes, tributes and the allocations of rations or the movement and storage of goods.

The Sumerians are recognized today for many far-reaching contributions to world culture. They invented pottery, the first writing system, mathematics (arithmetic, geometry and algebra) and most impressively, they built one of the world’s oldest cities, in Uruk, nearly contemporaneously with the city of Memphis in Egypt.

But this is a fairly recent development. For centuries, the history of the Sumerians lay buried under sands for and hence, any references to them in ancient works were misunderstood by scholars since there was no known referent for the allusions. The land of Shinar, in the biblical Book of Genesis, for example, was thought to refer to some region of Mesopotamia but exactly which region was shrouded in mystery, for they had no idea any place like the land of Sumer – the biblical Shinar – had ever existed.

This situation changed dramatically in the mid-19th century when Western institutions and societies began sending expeditions to the Near East and the Middle East in search of physical evidence to corroborate biblical narratives. If a land such as Shinar had ever existed, it was reasoned, its ruins – along with those of any other structures and cities mentioned in the Bible – could be uncovered. What they uncovered was Sumer, in the hot muddy plains of Southern Iraq.


Covering much of the Middle East, the so-called Fertile Crescent east of the Mediterranean Sea has often been called “the cradle of civilisation” thanks to the emergence of city-states such as Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia, which became increasingly urbanised from around 6000 years ago.

Estimates of Uruk’s population vary wildly, but, by around 4900 years ago, it is thought to have housed more than 60,000 people, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Its communal works included temples and canals for irrigation. Uruk’s inhabitants invented the first known form of writing, cuneiform, and their texts include the earliest surviving great work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, about a legendary king of the ancient city.

The heart of the city was the temple complex, marked by the great ziggurats which would inspire the later tale of the Tower of Babel. Each city had its own protective deity who lived in the temple, protecting and guiding the citizens. For Uruk, the principal deities were Inanna (or Enanna), who is the goddess of love, war, beauty, sex, justice, and political power, and Anu, the divine personification of the sky, also regarded as a source of both divine and human kingship.

Goddess Inanna, later known as Ishtar on an Akkadian Empire seal, 2350–2150 BCE. She is seen equipped with weapons on her back, has a horned helmet, and is trampling a lion held on a leash.
3-D visualization of the ancient city of Uruk, Mesopotamia
Digital reconstruction of the White Temple and ziggurat dedicated to the god Anu, Uruk. C. 3517-3358 B.C.E. Source: artefacts-berlin.de; scientific material: German Archaeological Institute.

Excavators of the White Temple estimate that it would have taken 1500 laborers working on average ten hours per day for about five years to build the last major revetment (stone facing) of its massive underlying terrace (the open areas surrounding the White Temple at the top of the ziggurat). Although religious belief may have inspired participation in such a project, no doubt some sort of force (corvée labor—unpaid labor coerced by the state/slavery) was involved as well.

Section through the central hall of the “White Temple,” digital reconstruction of the interior of the two-story version White Temple, Uruk, c 3517-3358 B.C.E. © artefacts-berlin.de; scientific material: German Archaeological Institute.
Remains of the Anu Ziggurat, Uruk, c..3517-3358 B.C.E. A ziggurat is a built raised platform with four sloping sides—like a chopped-off pyramid. Made of mud-bricks—the building material of choice in the Near East, as stone is rare. Ziggurats were not only a visual focal point of the city, they were a symbolic one, as well, serving as the heart of the theocratic political system that revolves around a god as the ruler, and state officials such as priests and scribes operating on the god’s behalf. So, seeing the ziggurat towering above the city, one made a visual connection to the god or goddess honored there, but also recognized that deity’s political authority.
Male standing worshipper, Sumerian, c. 2900 – 2600 BC, Gypsum alabaster, shell, black limestone, bitumen, H: 29.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum.

In Mesopotamia deities literally inhabited their cult statues after they had been animated by the proper rituals, and fragments of worn statues were preserved within the walls of the temple. This standing figure, with clasped hands and a wide-eyed gaze, is a worshiper. It was placed in the “Square Temple” at Tell Asmar, perhaps dedicated to the god Abu, in order to pray perpetually on behalf of the person it represented. For humans equally were considered to be physically present in their statues. Similar statues were sometimes inscribed with the names of rulers and their families.

Leave a Reply