History of Sumer

History of Sumer

The history of Sumer, taken to include the prehistoric Ubaid and Uruk periods, spans the 5th to 3rd millennia BC, ending with the downfall of the Third Dynasty of Ur around 2004 BC, followed by a transition period of Amorite states before the rise of Babylonia in the 18th century BC.

The first settlement in southern Mesopotamia was Eridu. The Sumerians claimed that their civilization had been brought, fully formed, to the city of Eridu by their god Enki or by his advisor (or Abgallu from "ab"=water, "gal"=big, "lu"=man), Adapa U-an (the Oannes of Berossus). The first people at Eridu brought with them the Samarran culture from northern Mesopotamia and are identified with the Ubaid period, but it is not known whether or not these were Sumerians (associated later with the Uruk period). [Some versions of Sumerian myths may also suggest Dilmun as a possible place of origin, although they may simply be referring to an idealized paradise. Most Sumerian mythology simply refers to the Mesopotamian region, suggesting their origins were there.]

The Sumerian king list is an ancient text in the Sumerian language listing kings of Sumer from Sumerian and foreign dynasties. Much of the earlier dynasties are likely mythical, and only a few of the early names have been authenticated through archaeology. The best-known dynasty, that of Lagash, is not listed there at all.


(All date ranges are approximate.)
*Ubaid period: 5300–4100 BC (Pottery Neolithic to Chalcolithic)
*Uruk period: 4100–2900 BC (Late Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age I)
**Uruk XIV-V: 4100–3300
**Uruk IV period: 3300–3000 BC
**Uruk III = Jemdet Nasr period: 3000–2900 BC
*Early Dynastic period (Early Bronze Age II)
**Early Dynastic I period: 2900–2800 BC
**Early Dynastic II period: 2800–2600 BC (Gilgamesh)
**Early Dynastic IIIa period: 2600–2500 BC (Early Bronze Age III)
**Early Dynastic IIIb period: ca. 2500–2334 BC
*Akkadian Empire period: ca. 2334–2218 BC (Sargon)
*Gutian period: ca. 2218–2047 BC (Early Bronze Age IV)
*Ur III period: ca. 2047–1940 BC

Earliest city-states

Permanent year-round urban settlement was probably prompted by intensive agricultural practices and the work required in maintaining the irrigation canals, and the surplus food this economy produced allowed the population to settle in one place, rather than follow herds or forage for food.

The centres of Eridu and Uruk, two of the earliest cities, had successively elaborated large temple complexes built of mudbrick. Developing as small shrines with the earliest settlements, by the Early Dynastic I period, they had become the most imposing structures in their respective cities, each dedicated to its own respective god. From south to north, the principal temple-cities, and the gods they served, were

*Eridu, Abzu, Enki
*Ur, Enunmah, Nanna (moon)
*Uruk, E-anna, Inanna
*Lagash, Eninnu, Ningirsu
*Nippur, Ekur, Enlil
*Shuruppak, ?, Ninlil (wife of Enlil)
*Marad, ?, Ninurta
*Kish, ?, Ninhursag
*Sippar, ?, Utu (sun)
*?, Ekishnugal, Dumuzi

Historians until recently agreed that before 3000 BC the political life of the city was headed by a priest-king ("ensi") and based around these temples, but some more recent authors have asserted that the cities had secular rulers from the earliest times.fact|date=January 2008

The development of a sophisticated system of administration led to the invention of writing of numbers about 3500 BC and ideographic writing about 3000 BC, which developed into logographic writing by about 2600 BC.

Pre-dynastic period

In the possibly mythical pre-dynastic period, the Sumerian king list portrays the passage of power from Eridu to Shuruppak in the south, until a flood occurred, from where it relocated to the northern city of Kish at the start of the Early Dynastic period. It would then pass back to Uruk, Ur, and Lagash until the Akkadians overtook the area.

Archaeologists have confirmed the presence of a widespread layer of riverine silt deposits, shortly after the Piora oscillation, interrupting the sequence of settlement, that left a few feet of yellow sediment in the cities of Shuruppak and Uruk and extended as far north as Kish. The polychrome pottery characteristic of the Jemdet Nasr period (3000–2900 BC) below the sediment layer was followed by Early Dynastic I artifacts above the sediment layer.

Early Dynastic period

The Early Dynastic Period began after a cultural break with the preceding Jemdet Nasr Period that has been radio-carbon dated to about 2900 BC at the beginning of the Early Dynastic I Period.

No inscriptions have yet been found verifying any names of kings that can be associated with the Early Dynastic I period. The ED I period is distinguished from the ED II period by the narrow cylinder seals of the ED I period and the broader wider ED II seals engraved with banquet scenes or animal-contest scenes. [Georges Roux, "Ancient Iraq", page 129]

The Early Dynastic II period is when Gilgamesh, the famous king of Uruk, is believed to have reigned. [Georges Roux, "Ancient Iraq", page 502] Texts from the ED II period are not yet understood. Later inscriptions have been found bearing some Early Dynastic II names from the King List.

The Early Dynastic IIIa period, also known as the Fara period, is when syllabic writing began. Accounting records and an indeciphered logographic script existed before the Fara Period, but the full flow of human speech was first recorded about 2600 BC at the beginning of the Fara Period.

The Early Dynastic IIIb period is also known as the PreSargonic period.

1st Dynasty of Kish

After a flood occurred in Sumer, kingship is said to have resumed at Kish.

The earliest Dynastic name on the list known from other legendary sources is Etana, whom it calls "the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries". He was estimated by Roux [Roux, Georges (1971) "Ancient Iraq" (Penguin, Harmondsworth)] to have lived approximately 3000 BC.

Among the 11 kings who followed, a number of Semitic Akkadian names are recorded, suggesting that these people made up a sizable proportion of the population of this northern city.

The earliest monarch on the list whose historical existence has been independently attested through archaeological inscription is En-me-barage-si of Kish (ca. 2700–2600 BC), said to have conquered Elam and built the temple of Enlil in Nippur.

Enmebaragesi's successor, Aga, is said to have fought with Gilgamesh of Uruk, the 5th king of that city. From this time, for a period Uruk seems to have had some kind of hegemony in Sumer. This illustrates a weakness of the Sumerian kinglist, as contemporaries are often placed in successive dynasties, making reconstruction difficult.

1st Dynasty of Uruk

Mesh-ki-ang-gasher is listed as the first King of Uruk. He was followed by Enmerkar. [Identified by David Rohl with Nimrod the Hunter, mentioned in the Bible as founding Erech] The epic "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta" [http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.] tells of his voyage by river to Aratta, a mountainous, mineral-rich country up-river from Sumer.Among the kings of Uruk who followed is Dumuzi, the Fisherman. He was followed by Lugalbanda, also known from fragmentary legends.

The most famous monarch of this dynasty was Lugalbanda's successor Gilgamesh, hero of the "Epic of Gilgamesh"—copies of which have been found as far off as Hattusas in Anatolia, Megiddo in Israel, and Tell el Amarna in Egypt.

1st Dynasty of Ur

ca. 26th century BC

Meskalamdug is the first archaeologically recorded king ("Lugal" from "lu"=man, "gal"=big) of the city of Ur. He was succeeded by his son Akalamdug, and Akalamdug by his son Mesh-Ane-pada.

Mesh-Ane-pada is the first king of Ur listed on the king list, and he is recognised as the first king of the Early Dynastic III phase (ca. 26th century BC), defeating Lugalkildu of Uruk and Mesilim of Kish. Mesh-Ane-pada thereafter assumed the title "King of Kish" for himself, a title that seems to have been used by most kings of the preeminent dynasties for some time afterward.

Mesilim of Kish achieved some kind of independence from Ur. He was also mentioned in some of the earliest monuments from Lagash that claim he arbitrated a border dispute between Lugal-sha-engur, high priest of Lagash, and the high priest of their traditional rival, the neighbouring town of Umma.

Dynasty of Awan

ca. 26th century BC

According to the Sumerian king list, Elam, Sumer's neighbor to the east, held the kingship in Sumer for a brief period, based in the city of Awan.

PreSargonic period

ca. 2500–2334 BC

2nd Dynasty of Uruk


Empire of Lugal-Ane-mundu of Adab

Following this period, the region of Mesopotamia seems to have come under the sway of a Sumerian conqueror from Adab, Lugal-Ane-mundu, ruling over Uruk, Ur, and Lagash. According to inscriptions, he ruled from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and up to the Zagros Mountains, including Elam. However, his empire fell apart with his death. (Sumerian records also show Nin-Kasalsi as the first ruler of the city of Adab. Like the later "King" of the 3rd Dynasty of Kish, Nin-Kasalsi was a woman.)

Kug-Bau and the Third Dynasty of Kish

Lugal-Ane-mundu's power may have been limited, however, as his reign seems to have been contemporaneous with the Third Dynasty of Kish, inaugurated by Kug-Bau or Kubaba, unique in the fact that she was the only woman ever to reign as "king". Before overthrowing the rule of Enshakushana of the 2nd Uruk Dynasty and becoming monarch, the king-list says she was a tavern-keeper.

In later centuries she was worshipped as a minor goddess, achieving important status in the Hurrian and Hittites periods, when she was identified with the Hurrian goddess Hannahannahfact|date=February 2007. In the post-Hittite Phrygian period she was called Kubele (Latin Cybele), Great Mother of the Gods.

Dynasty of Akshak

Akshak too achieved independence with a line of rulers extending from Puzur-Nirah, Ishu-Il, and Shu-Suen, son of Ishu-Il, before being defeated by the rulers in the Fourth Dynasty of Kish.

1st Dynasty of Lagash

ca. 25th century BC

En-hegal is recorded as the first known ruler of Lagash, being tributary to Uruk. His successor Lugal-sha-engur was similarly tributary to the first Dynasty of Ur.


Ca. 2500 BC Ur-Nanshe succeeded Lugal-sha-engur as the new high priest of Lagash and achieved independence from A-annepaddafact|date=March 2008, son of Mesannepada of Urfact|date=March 2008, making himself king. In the ruins of a building attached by him to the temple of Ningirsu, "terra cotta bas reliefs" of the king and his sons have been found, as well as onyx plates and lions' heads in onyx reminiscent of Egyptian work. These were dedicated to the goddess Baufact|date=March 2008. One inscription states that ships of Dilmun (Bahrain) brought him wood as tribute from foreign lands. He was succeeded by his son Akurgal.


Eannatum, grandson of Ur-Nina, made himself master of the whole of the district of Sumer, together with the cities of Uruk (ruled by Enshakushana), Ur, Nippur, Akshak, and Larsa. He also annexed the kingdom of Kish; however, it recovered its independence after his death. Umma was made tributary—a certain amount of grain being levied upon each person in it, that had to be paid into the treasury of the goddess Ninafact|date=March 2008 and the god Ningirsu.

The so-called "Stele of the Vultures", now in the Louvre, was erected as a monument of the victory of Eannatum of Lagash over Enakalle of Umma. On this, various incidents in the war are represented. In one scene, the king stands in his chariot with a curved weapon in his right hand, formed of three bars of metal bound together by rings, while his kilted followers, with helmets on their heads and lances in their hands, march behind him.

Eannatum's campaigns extended beyond the confines of Sumer, and he overran a part of Elam, took the city of Az on the Persian Gulf, and exacted tribute as far as Mari; however many of the realms he conquered were often in revolt. During his reign, temples and palaces were repaired or erected at Lagash and elsewhere; the town of Ninafact|date=March 2008—that probably gave its name to the later Niniveh—was rebuilt, and canals and reservoirs were excavated.

En-anna-tum I

Eannatum was succeeded by his brother, En-anna-tum I. During his rule, Umma once more asserted independence under Ur-Lumma, who attacked Lagash unsuccessfully. Ur-Lumma was replaced by a priest-king, Illi, who also attacked Lagash.


His son and successor Entemena restored the prestige of Lagash. Illi of Umma was subdued, with the help of his ally Lugal-kinishe-dudu or Lugal-ure of Uruk, successor to Enshakushana and also on the king-list. Lugal-kinishe-dudu seems to have been the prominent figure at the time, since he also claimed to rule Kish and Ur.

A silver vase dedicated by Entemena to his god is now in the Louvre. A frieze of lions devouring ibexes and deer, incised with great artistic skill, runs round the neck, while the eagle crest of Lagash adorns the globular part. The vase is a proof of the high degree of excellence to which the goldsmith's art had already attained. A vase of calcite, also dedicated by Entemena, has been found at Nippur.


After Entemena, a series of weak, corrupt priest-kings is attested for Lagash. The last of these, Urukagina, was known for his judicial, social, and economic reforms, and his may well be the first legal code known to have existed.

Empire of Lugal-zage-si of Uruk

ca. 2359–2335 BC short chronology

Urukagina was overthrown and his city Lagash captured by Lugal-zage-si, the high priest of Umma. Lugal-zage-si also took Uruk and Ur, and made Uruk his capital. In a long inscription that he made engraved on hundreds of stone vases dedicated to Enlil of Nippur, he boasts that his kingdom extended "from the Lower Sea (Persian Gulf), along the Tigris and Euphrates, to the Upper Sea" or Mediterranean.

His empire was finally overthrown by Sargon of Akkad, a Semite from northern Mesopotamia, who founded the first sustainable empire to survive after his death.

Akkadian Empire

ca. 2334–2218 BC short chronology

Akkadian rulers:


ca. 2334–2279 BC short chronology


ca. 2254–2218 BC short chronology

Gutian period

ca. 2147–2047 BC short chronology

2nd Dynasty of Lagash

ca. 2260–2110 BC

Kings of the 2nd Dynasty of Lagash:

Gutian Empire

ca. 2147–2050 BC short chronology

Following the fall of Sargon's Empire to the Gutians, a brief "Dark Ages" ensued.

5th Dynasty of Uruk

ca. 2055–2048 BC short chronology

The Gutians were ultimately driven out by the Sumerians under Utu-hegal, the only king of this dynasty, who in turn was defeated by Ur-Nammu of Ur.

"Sumerian Renaissance" (3rd Dynasty of Ur)

ca. 2047–1940 BC short chronology

Ur-Nammu of Ur defeated Utu-hegal of Uruk and founded the 3rd dynasty of Ur. Although the Sumerian language ("Emegir") was again made official, Sumerian identity was already in decline, as the population became continually more and more Semiticised.

After this "Ur-III" dynasty was destroyed by the Elamites in 2004 BC, a fierce rivalry developed between the city-states of Larsa, more under Elamite than Sumerian influence, and Isin, that was more Amorite (as the Western Semitic nomads were called). The Semites ended up prevailing in Mesopotamia by the time of Hammurabi of Babylon, who founded the Babylonian Empire, and the language and name of Sumer gradually passed into the realm of antiquarian scholars (although their influence on Babylonia and all subsequent cultures was indeed great). A few historians assert that some Sumerians managed to preserve their identity in a sense, by forming the Magi, or hereditary priestly caste, noted among the later Medes.

Archaeologically, the fall of the Ur III dynasty corresponds to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age.

ee also

*Babylonia and Assyria
*Invention of the Wheel
*Sumerian Farmer's Almanac
*History of writing ancient numbers


*cite book|author=Charles Freeman|title=Egypt, Greece, and Rome|publisher=Oxford University Press|year=1996


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