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.
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.
The Sumerians must have loved music because musical instruments,
made of wood or bone, have been found by archaeologists in their
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.
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 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.
Classes of People: There were four main classes
of people in ancient Sumer
– the priests, the upper class, the lower class, and the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.