In the beginning, all roads lead to Sumer; until recently, it was the earliest recorded civilization (currently, the oldest extant documents are from Egypt). The Sumerians were a non-Semitic people. The remains show them to be generally short and stocky, with high, straight noses and downward sloping eyes. Many wore beards, but some were clean-shaven. Most, though, looked like Francis Shaeffer, with a clean-shaven upper lip, but a beard around the chin.
        They wore fleece and finally woven wool. The women draped the garment from the left shoulder, while the men bound it at their waists and left the upper half of their body bare.
        Styles changed gradually over time, and later on, the male clothing moved up toward the neck, at least among the upper class. Slaves, from beginning to end, both male and female, went about naked from the waist up, however.
        On their heads, the Sumerians wore a cap; on their feet, they wore sandals; wealthy women sometimes wore shoes of soft leather, lacking heels, that they laced up.
        Bracelets, necklaces, anklets, finger rings and ear rings made the women of Sumer into show windows of their husband's prosperity.
        When the civilization of Sumer was already a thousand years old, around 2300 BC, we find written accounts of creation, a primitive paradise, and a flood that destroyed the world:

After Anu, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursag
had fashioned the black-headed people,
Vegetation sprang from the earth,
Animals, four-legged creatures of the plain,
Were brought artfully into existence
[37 lines are unreadable]
After the....of kingship had been lowered from heaven
After the exalted crown and the throne of kingship
Had been lowered from heaven,
He perfected the rites and exalted the divine ordinances...
He founded the five cities in pure places,...
Then did Nintu weep like a....
The pure Inanna set up a lament for its people,
Enki took council with himself,
Anu, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursag....
The gods of heaven and earth uttered the name of Anu and Enlil
Then did Ziusudra, the king, the priest of...,
Build a giant...;
Humbly obedient, reverently he...
Attending daily, constantly he...,
Bringing forth all kinds of dreams, he...,
Uttering the name of heaven and earth, he...[...]
the gods a wall...,
Ziusudra, standing at its side, listened.
"Stand by the wall at my left side...,
By the wall I will say a word to you,
Take my word,
Give ear to my instructions:
By our...a flood will sweep over the cult-centers;
To destroy the seed of mankind...,
Is the decision, the word of the assembly of the gods.
By the word commanded by Anu and Enlil...,
Its kingship, its rule will be put to an end.
[about 40 lines missing]
All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful,
Attacked as one,
At the same time, the flood sweeps over the cult-centers.
After, for seven days,
the flood sweeps over the cult centers.
After, for seven days and seven nights,
The flood had swept over the land,
And the huge boat had been tossed
About by the windstorms on the great waters,
Utu came forth, who sheds light on heaven and earth,
Ziusudra opened a window of the huge boat,
The hero Utu brought his rays into the giant boat.
Ziusudra, the king,
Prostrated himself before Utu.

        Utu is the Sun god, equivalent to Akkadian Shamash. The translation above is based on the translation by Poebel in ANET. The text was found in Nippur.
        The Sumerians formulated lists of their ancient kings, and gave them extremely long reigns. The time before the flood was said to be a period of 432,000 years. Two kings from after the flood that are listed were Gilgamesh and Tammuz. Legends told about these two kings were so impressive that Tammuz entered the pantheon of Babylon and later became known as Adonis to the Greeks.
        Gilgamesh became the hero of the Babylonian epic poem which bears his name, and which also contains an account of the flood. Until recently, these king lists and the names in them were thought to be purely fanciful. But in the 1930's, Sir Leonard Woolley, while excavating a building at Ur on the Ubaid level, found an inscription indicating that the structure had been erected by the son of the founder of the First Dynasty of Ur, a person up till that time regarded as fiction.
        Gilgamesh, too, has been found to be a real person, with inscriptions telling of the buildings he built.
        The earliest written documents were found in Uruk and are dated to 3100 BC. These texts are not deciphered and perhaps are not decipherable. Fifty to seventy percent of the signs cannot be recognized at all, and so defy analysis.
Those few signs that are recognizable appear to be logographic. There are none that represent syllables. There are no grammatical markers. There are no mood markers. Those handful that can be puzzled out take the form:

5 sheep PN receive.

        Therefore, the best guess is that these earliest documents are mostly administrative and economic in nature.
        When the signs are examined, they are clearly mostly abstract: that is, they have lost their supposed original pictographic form. This implies that these earliest of known tablets do not represent the first attempts at writing; the nature of the writing on them indicates considerable previous evolution in the writing system. These tablets are simply the earliest that have so far been discovered, nothing more.

History of the Sumerian Language

Archaic Sumerian (c. 3000-2600 BC)

        The first Sumerian literary texts are dated to 2600 BC, including a number of hymns and even some proverbs. Remember, this does not mean that they were not writing literary texts before 2600 BC, it is only that none have been discovered earlier than this, yet. At the end of each of these literary tablets we find a statement as follows:

"PN wrote this tablet."

        What is particularly significant about this is that although the inscriptions are written in Sumerian, the names of the scribes are already SEMITIC. Already, at the earliest examples of Sumerian texts that have survived, we are at the place where we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Sumerian power and influence.
        The language of Akkadian (better known to non-specialists by its two dialects, Assyrian and Babylonian) is already becoming increasingly important.

Classical (Old) Sumerian (c. 2600-2300 BC)

        Most texts of this period were uncovered at Lagash. They fall into several different types or genres, among which are:

1. Administrative texts
2. Inscriptions
3. Letters

Neo-Sumerian (c. 2300-2000 BC)

        Beginning about 2334 BC (and lasting till 2154 BC), Sargon established his dynasty of Akkad. This is the beginning of the submergence of Sumerian. It is hard to say precisely when the Sumerian language died out as a spoken tongue, but this certainly must be when the decline began. It was, most likely, a dead language by 2000 BC.
        There was a brief revival of the Sumerian language which lasted between 2112 and 2004 BC, the period of time referred to as the Ur III or Third Dynasty of Ur. Most of the Sumerian tablets that scholars have to read originated during this period.

Post-Sumerian (c. 2000 BC to 50 AD)

        During this final period in the history of the Sumerian language, it was used only in literature; the native language of those writing these texts was usually Akkadian. Many apparent grammatical errors can be noted in these late texts.

The Nature of the Sumerian Language

        Sumerian apparently was divided into two dialects known as Emegir and Emesal; the language as a whole, they referred to as Emeku, meaning, "the people's language".
        Emesal was "the women's language" while Emegir was "the men's language". We think men and women have trouble communicating now! How about if we spoke mutually intelligible dialects?
        Sumerian is not alone among languages in dividing the language used by men and women or between upper and lower classes. For instance, in modern Japanese, there is a whole class of pronouns which are reserved for use by the emperor.
        What are the differences between Emegir and Emesal?

1. Phonological: Emesal is more conservative, perhaps representing an earlier stage of the language. For example:

En - lord (Emegir)
Umun - lord (Emesal)

        En is possibly derived from Umun, as follows (in the development of the language over a long period): Umun > Emen > En. There is not always this sort of relationship between the two dialects, however.

2. Lexically

Dug - good (Emegir)
Zeb - good (Emesal)
Nin - queen (Emegir)
Gashan - queen (Emesal)

        Written Sumerian was not an attempt to reproduce speech. It was not originally designed to render the spoken language in permanent form. Instead, it was intended as a mnemonic device -- a method for jogging the memory.
        So, for instance, if the scribe wanted to remember to say "He built the temple." he would merely write "Build Temple".
        As a result, it makes it very difficult to understand Sumerian, particularly the oldest texts. The later texts, written as Sumerian became a dead language are much easier to read because the language was written less as a mnemonic device and more as a reproduction of speech.
        Another problem with the early texts is that the signs were not always written in the proper, but rather in whatever order was prettiest or best fit the space available. Once again this practice changed as the language died.
        Sumerian is an ergative, agglutinative language. English, by way of contrast, is a nominative-accusative language. That is, English uses a nominative case for the subject of a transitive verb or intransitive verb and an accusative case for the direct object.
        Sumerian is an ergative language. That is,

1. The subject of a transitive verb is put in the ergative case.

2. The subject of an intransitive verb and the direct object of a transitive verb both get put into the absolute case.


Lugal.e e.0 munandu
The king a house he builds
Lugal.0 i.gin
The king does good

Isolating Language


Example: Chinese

Each morpheme is expressed by a separate word.

Inflecting Language


Verbs contain within themselves number, gender, and person.

Example: Hebrew, Akkadian, Latin

eqtol - "I will kill"
yiqtol - "he will kill"
tiqtol - "you (m.s.) will kill"



Examples: Sumerian, Turkish

Separate morphemes are combined in one word.
namtilanishe -- "For his long life"

        Sumer in Sumerian is called Kienger. In Akkadian, it was called Shumeru. This is where the English designation originates.
        From about 3000 BC on the clay tablet records found in the ruins of Ur present an account of the accessions and coronations, uninterrupted victories and sublime deaths of petty kings who ruled the city states of Ur, Lagash, Uruk and the rest; the writing of history is a very ancient thing.
        One king, Urukagina of Lagash, was a royal reformer, an enlightened despot who issued decrees aimed at correcting the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and of everybody by the priests.
        The high priest, according to one of his edicts, must refrain from "coming into the garden of a poor mother and taking the wood from it, or gathering tax in fruit from it."
        Burial fees were to be cut to one fifth of what they had been; and the clergy and high officials were forbidden to share among themselves the revenues and cattle offered to the gods.
        It was the king's boast that he "gave liberty to his people" and the tablets that come down to us from this man reveal the oldest known code of laws in history.
        The reign of Urukagina of Lagash ended in the normal manner: another king, named Lugal-Zaggisi invaded Lagash, overthrew Urukagina, and sacked the city.
        The temples were destroyed, the citizens were massacred in the streets, and the statues of the gods were taken away into bondage.
        One of the world's earliest known poems, 3800 years old, describes the destruction of Lagash:

My soul sighs in anguish for the city and its precious things;
My soul sighs in anguish for Lagash and its precious things.
The children are in distress in holy Lagash
Because the invader has pressed into the splendid shrine
And stolen away the Exalted Queen from her temple!
O Lady of my desolated city, when will you return?

        After Lugal-Zaggisi comes Lugal-Shagengur, Lugal-Kigubnindudi, Ninigi-dubti, Lugal-Andanukhunga...but we will pass over most of these kings.
        Meanwhile, another group of people, Semitic by background -- had built the kingdom of Akkad under the leadership of Sargon I, who established his capital at Agade, 200 miles northwest of the Sumerian city states.
        A monolith found at Susa portrays Sargon with a long beard, dressed in royal authority. His origin, despite his end, was not royal. In fact, no father is listed for him, and his mother, from all indications, was a temple prostitute. Of course, you know what that makes Sargon.
        His origins are described this way in a relatively late text:

My humble mother conceived me; in secret she brought me forth. She placed me in a basket boat of rushes; with pitch she closed my door.

        The text goes on to say that, rescued by workmen, he became a cupbearer to the king, grew in favor and influence, and, as so often happens in these situations, he rebelled and killed his master, thereby becoming the ruler of Agade.
        Sargon I called himself "King of the Universe", but he actually, at that time, ruled only a tiny corner of Mesopotamia. Historians refer to Sargon I as Sargon the Great, because in the course of his career he invaded many cities, captured much booth, and left behind many, many widows and orphans.
        Among his victims was Lugal Zaggisi, the king who had overthrown Urukagina and sacked Lagash. Sargon defeated him and took him away in chains to Nippur.
        Sargon marched north, south, east and west, conquering Elam (and washing his weapons in symbolic triumph in the Persian Gulf, crossing western Asia, reaching the Mediterranean, establishing the first great empire in recorded history.
        He ruled for a total of fifty-five years.

        In the end, his empire was in revolt.
        Three sons succeeded him in turn; the third, Naram-sin, was a great builder, but the only things left of his building projects are a few scattered bricks with his inscription on them, reminding one of the poem Ozimandius.
        By the twenty-sixth century BC, Lagash was once again flourishing under an enlightened monarch named Gudea. He was a short, plump, right jolly old elf...He was not known as a great warrior. Instead, he was noted for his literature and his piety; that is, he built a lot of temples.
        In one of his inscriptions he writes:

        During seven years the maidservant was the equal of her mistress, the slave walked beside his master, and in my town the weak rested by the side of the strong.

        The sentiment expressed is good, but chances are the reality, just as it is in the mouths of our current crop of politicians, is probably somewhere else.
        Meanwhile, Ur was experiencing one of its most prosperous epochs. Its greatest king, Ur-Engur, brought all of western Asia under his control and he promulgated for all Sumer the second oldest code of laws in history (that we know of).
"By the laws of righteousness of Shamash forever I establish justice."

        He beautified Ur with new temples and built lavishly in the subject cities of Larsa, Uruk and Nippur.
His son, Dungi, continued his work through a reign of fifty-eight years. He ruled so wisely, at least in retrospect, it is claimed that his people ultimately deified him as the god who had restored their ancient paradise.
        But soon the Elamites from the east and the Amorites from the east and the Amorites from the west swept down upon Ur, captured its king, and plundered the city.
        For two hundred years Elam and Amor ruled Sumer. When speaking of something lasting 200 years 4000 years ago, it seems like a short time, particularly since we don't have detailed records. But try to put it into our present context: this is a period equal to the age of the United States, a period in which many lifetimes passed.
        After two hundred years, in 2123-2075, 1728-1686, or 1792-1750, Hamurrapi, king of Babylon, came from the north. He retook from the Elamites the cities of Uruk and Isin; he bided his time for twenty-three years, then invaded Elam itself; he captured its king, established his sway over Amor and distant Assyria, and built an empire of unprecedented power, and disciplined it with a universal law.
        From this time till the rise of Persia, the Semites would rule the land between the two rivers (i.e. Mesopotamia). Of the Sumerians, nothing more is heard. Their little chapter in the book of history is finally complete. But Sumerian civilization remained. The culture of the southern cities passed north along the Euphrates and Tigris to Babylonia and Assyria as the initial heritage of Mesopotamian civilization.


        The basis of Sumerian culture: soil made fertile by the annual overflow of the rivers swollen with the winter rains. The overflow was perilous as well as useful. The Sumerians learned to channel it safely through irrigation canals that crisscrossed their land.
        This irrigating system, dating from 4000 BC, was one of the great achievements of Sumerian civilization and certainly its foundation.
        Out of these carefully watered fields came great crops of wheat, barley, dates and many vegetables.
        The plow appeared early, drawn by oxen.
        The Sumerians made some use of copper and tin, and occasionally mixed them to produce bronze. Now and then -- very rarely -- they made implements of iron. Still, metal of any kind was something of a luxury and a rarity. Theirs was basically a stone-age civilization.
        Most Sumerian tools were made of flint. Some, like the sickles for cutting the barley were made of clay. Certain finer articles, such as needles and awls were made of ivory or bone.
        Weaving was done on a large scale under the supervision of overseers appointed by the king. Socialism is not a recent development.
        Houses were made of reeds, usually plastered with an adobe mixture of clay and straw moistened with water and then baked by the sun. These huts had wooden doors, revolving on sockets made of stone. The floors were beaten earth.
Cows, sheep, goats, and pigs roamed about the dwellings, living with the people.
        Goods were carried chiefly by water upon the canals. Land transportation was gradually developing, however. Here and there in the ruins are business seals bearing indications of traffic with Egypt and India.
        There was no coinage yet. Trade was normally conducted by bartering, though gold and silver were already in use as standards of value and were often accepted in exchange for goods -- sometimes in the form of ingots and rings of definite worth, more generally in quantities measured by weight in each transaction.
        Look at Genesis 23:14-16:

        Ephron answered Abraham, "Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you? Bury your dead."
        Abraham agreed to Ephron's terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.

        A system of credit existed by which goods, gold or silver, might be borrowed, interest to be paid in the same material as the loan, and at rates ranging as high as 33% per year. And you thought high credit card rates were a recent innovation!
        Rich and poor were stratified into many classes and gradations; slavery was highly developed, and property rights were sacred.
        Between the rich and the poor, a middle class took form, composed of small-business men, scholars, physicians, and priests.
        Medicine flourished and claimed a specific treatment for each and every disease.
        A calendar of uncertain age and origin divided the year into twelve lunar months, adding an extra month every three or four years to reconcile the calendar with the seasons (just like the Hebrew calendar of the Old Testament and of modern Judaism).
        Each city gave its own names to the months.
        And indeed, each city, as long as it could, maintained a jealous independence and indulged itself a private king, called an Ensi.
        However, by 2800 BC, the growth of trade made such municipal separation impossible, and generated "empires" in which some dominating personality subjected the cities and their Ensis to his power.
        The despot lived in an atmosphere of violence and fear. At any moment he might be dispatched by the same method he had used to get the throne in the first place.
        The despot lived in an inaccessible palace, whose two entrances were so narrow that only one person could enter at a time.
        To the right and left were recesses in which guards could examine every visitor, or else pounce on him with daggers if he were unacceptable.
        In ancient times, wars were waged honestly and frankly for the purpose of obtaining commercial routes and goods. There were no euphemisms about making the world "safe for democracy" or any similar claptrap.
        In the empires that came and went social order was maintained through a feudal system. After a successful war the ruler gave tracts of land to his valiant chieftains, and exempted such estates from taxation. These men kept order in their territories and provided soldier and supplies for the never ending exploits of the king.
        Finances of the government were obtained by taxes in kind, stored in royal warehouses, and distributed as pay to officials and employees of the state.


        King Ur-engur proclaimed his code of laws in the name of the great god Shamash; government had, at the very start of human civilization, recognized the political expediency of gaining heaven's blessing for its actions.
        Since they came in handy, gods became innumerable. Every city and state, every human activity had some inspiring and disciplinary divinity to help legitimize the human government.
        Sun worship expressed itself in the cult of Shamash, the "light of the gods", who passed the nights in the depth of the north, until Dawn opened its gates for him; then he mounted the sky like a flame, driving his chariot over the steeps of the firmament; the sun was merely the wheel of his fiery chariot.
        Nippur built great temples to the god Enlil and his consort Ninlil.
        Uruk worshipped especially the virgin earth goddess Innanna (later known to the Semites of Akkad as Ishtar -- from which is derived the name Esther and the English word "star"); she was the goddess of love, or more properly, lust.
Kish and Lagash worshipped Ninkarsag, a powerful mother goddess who grieved with the unhappiness of men and interceded for them with sterner deities.

Ningirsu was the god of irrigation, the "Lord of Floods."
Abu or Tammuz was the god of vegetation.
Sin -- the god of the moon.

        The air was full of spirits -- beneficent angels, one each as protector to every Sumerian, and demons or devils who sought to expel the protective deity and take possession of body and soul. These were concepts that would find their way ultimately into Persion theology, and then even into popular Christian theology.
        Most of the gods lived in the temples, where they were provided with revenue, food, and wives.
        Life after death was conceived of as a dark abode of miserable shadows, to which all the dead descended indiscriminately.
        Women were attached to every temple, some as domestics, some as concubines for the gods or their duly constituted representatives on earth.
        Marriage was a complex institution regulated by many laws. The bride kept control of the dowry given her by her father in marriage, and though she held it jointly with her husband, she alone determined its bequest.
        She exercised equal rights with her husband over their children.
        In the absence of the husband or a grown son, she could administer the estate, including her home.
        She could engage in business independently of her husband, and could keep or dispose of her own slaves.
        But in all crises, the man was lord and master. Under certain circumstances he could sell his wife, or hand her over as a slave to pay his debts.
        The double standard was already in force, as a corollary of property and inheritance. Adultery in the man was a forgivable whim; in the woman, it was punished with death.
        She was expected to give many children to her husband and the state. If she was barren, then she could be divorced for that reason alone; if she claimed she didn't want to have any more children, the husband could have her executed by drowning.
        Children had no legal rights; their parents, simply by the publicly disowning them, could have them banished from the community.