The Civilization of Ancient Sumer - Ancient Mesopotamia for Kids Illustration

Ancient Mesopotamia for Kids
Ancient Sumer

Ancient Sumer was a bustling place. The cities were built along the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. Long docks were built along the sides of the rivers so that ships could easily dock and unload the goods they had to trade. Ships brought food, drinks, clothes, jewelry, wine, and other goods up and down the rivers. Banquets were held with music and dancing. Poets would recite verses about great kingly deeds. Golden cups filled with sweet delicious date wine would be lifted in toast to their host.   

Art: The Sumerians were wonderful craftsmen. They made jewelry of precious gold and lapis, fancy chairs, and unglazed vases that kept water cool. They were not very good at sculptures because their artists did have stone with which to work. But they made beautiful things with the materials on hand. One of the things they did very well was to create colorful mosaics in intricate and beautiful patterns using little pieces of painted clay. Archaeologists have found remains of their mosaics, helmets, harps, jewelry, pottery, decorated tablets and cylinder seals. 

Music: The Sumerians must have loved music because musical instruments, made of wood or bone, have been found by archaeologists in their tombs.

Religion: The ancient Sumerians believed in many, many gods. They believed that everything that happened to them – good and bad – was the result of a god’s pleasure or displeasure. Their daily life was spent seeking ways to please and appease their gods. To the ancient Sumerians, all gods were important.

Ziggurats: Ziggurats were temples. The Sumerians believed that powerful gods lived in the sky. They built huge structures, called ziggurats, with steps climbing up to the top. Religious ceremonies were held at the very top. People left offerings of food and wine. The priests enjoyed these offerings, as the gods could not eat for themselves.  The Ziggurat was built in the center of town. It was also the center of daily life. Except for festivals, which, for the most part, were gloomy things, the Ziggurat courtyard was gay and lively. You might see an artist painting, a boy racing by on his way to school, someone milking a cow, or making a basket. From the top of the Ziggurat, you could see the protective wall built about the entire town, and over the wall to the farmlands beyond.

Education: The ancient Sumerians believed in education. Record keeping was very important to them. They wrote everything down. They wanted their sons to learn how to read and write. Public education probably began with the Sumerians.    Schools were attached to temples. Only boys went to school. Teachers were very strict. Students had to do a perfect job, or they were punished. Most students wanted to go to school. Someone who could read and write could always find a good job.  

Classes of People: There were four main classes of people in ancient Sumer  – the priests, the upper class, the lower class, and the slaves.  

The Priests: The priests were powerful. They were in charge of making sure everyone behaved in a way that would make the gods happy. They were the doctors of the time. If you were sick, you called for a priest. There is a written record of two priests, by the bed of a sick boy, dressed to look like fish to better speak with the water god. (This author does not know why the priests wanted to talk to the water god. Perhaps the boy became sick in the water or from drinking the water.)   

The Upper Class: Men and women wore jewelry, especially rings. Men wore skirts and had long hair, curly moustaches, and long beards. Women wore dresses, off one shoulder. They had long hair, which they braided or wore up in fancy arrangements. It was easy to tell who were the priests. The priests shaved their heads. Everyone wore cloaks made from sheep wool to keep warm in winter. 

Homes: The rich lived in large homes, and the poor lived in small homes. Most homes were clustered around the Ziggurat and each other. Most houses shared walls, like townhouses do today. There was little wood and stone available for building materials. People built their homes of sun-dried brick. Doors led into a small family courtyard. Stairs led up to the second floor, and then to the roof. The roofs were flat. People cooked and slept on their roofs, when weather permitted. As the cities grew, there were rich sections of town and poorer sections of town, but all families had a home of their own.  

The Lower Class: In ancient Sumer, people were paid for their work. If they ran a shop or worked in the fields, they were paid for their goods or labor. Stealing was a serious crime and punishment was severe. Everybody paid, even the king. Although the lower class did not have the luxury lifestyle of the rich, they were comfortable. They worked very hard, but they had homes. They wore jewelry, although perhaps it was not made of gold. They followed the clothing fashions of the time as much as possible. There was no law that said they could not move up the social scale, or more likely, have their children move up the social scale by becoming a scribe, or a priest or priestess.    

The Slaves: When the Sumerians conquered another town, they brought prisoners back with them to act as slaves. Slaves worked for the king, the temple and the wealthy. Slaves were bought and sold. Records have been found recording the amount paid for a slave. Typically, a slave bought at auction cost less than a donkey but more than a cow.     

Women: Women could freely go to the marketplace, buy and sell goods, handle legal issues, own property, and start their own business. Upper class women, like members of the royal family and those who gave their life to the temple as priestesses, could learn how to read and write. Some women even had jobs running parts of the town or jobs in city government. There were many female goddesses. Some cities selected a goddess rather than a god as their patron. Women were not equal to men, but they did have rights.

Sumer grew rapidly.  Soon there were more than half a million people. About four out of five of those people lived in the cities, make Sumer the world's first urban culture.

City-States: To protect themselves, small towns attached themselves to big cities. This created a system of city-states. The civilization of ancient Sumer was composed of 12 major city-states. Each of these city-states had its own military and its own government. But the people in all the Sumerian city-states (cities) spoke the same language, believed in the same gods, and moved freely from one city-state to another, to trade and also to live. They also went to war with each other. The laws of all the city-states were pretty much universal. Everyone knew them and was expected to obey them. This was understood.

Uruk: In these early days, towns were walled for additional protection. The city of Uruk, located on the Euphrates River side of the land between two rivers, controlled 76 nearby villages and was enclosed within a 4-mile long wall of brick!

Ur: The capital of ancient Sumer was the city-state of Ur. Ur was also located on the Euphrates River to the south of Uruk. The river-trade kept the city well supplied with everything, including wealth. When the river changed its course, the city of Ur lost its wealth and its power.

Sumerian Inventions: The ancient Sumerians were very clever. They invented many things to make their life more comfortable and to help their civilization grow. They put wheels on carts and probably invented the sail for sailboats. They developed the first written language, called cuneiform.  They invented cylinder seals as a form of identification. Each cylinder seal was different and owed by one person. This allowed people to sign contracts with their personal cylinder seal. They invented the first super hero, Gilgamesh. They may have invented kilns for bricks and plows for their fields. They are credited with inventing many other tools and implements to help with building and farming.

History's First Empire - Sumer (animated, Ted-Ed)

Daily Life in Ancient Sumer

The Royal Tombs at Ur

Classes of People



Religion and the Gloomy Gods

Cylinder Seals and Contracts

Cuneiform - The First Written Language

Gilgamesh - The First Superhero

Inventions - Lots of Firsts like the wheel and the first sailboat

Art & Craftsmen

Music and Instruments (hear it!)

What does it take for a group of people to become a civilization?

Free Powerpoints about Ancient Sumer

Interactive Quiz about the Land Between Two Rivers (with answers)