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𒊕 𒈪 𒂵
c. 4500 – 2300 BC
Sumerian city-states along the Alaius
Sumerian city-states along the Alaius
Common languagesSumerian
Historical eraNeolithic, Bronze Age
• Established
c. 4500 BC
• Disestablished
c. 2300 BC
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Furzat period
Today part ofTerranihil

Sumeria is the earliest known civilization in the historical region of the Ancient Caelean Coast and Alaia, emerging during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in the fifth millennium BC. It is also one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Living along the valley of the Alaius and its tributaries, Sumerian farmers grew an abundance of grain and other crops, which enabled them to form urban settlements. Sumerian cuneiform to inscribe the Sumerian language dates back before 3000 BC.


Sumeria comes from Sumerian for 'the black-headed people' (𒊕 𒈪, saĝ-gíg, 'head' + 'black', or 𒊕 𒈪 𒂵, saĝ-gíg-ga, 'head' + 'black' + 'carry'). The Akadians called Sumerians ṣalmat-qaqqadi, meaning 'black-headed people', in the Akadian language.

Sumerians more often referred to themselves as Kenger, meaning 'Country of the noble lords' (𒆠𒂗𒄀, 'country' + 'lords' + 'noble').


In the late 4th millennium BC, Sumeria was divided into many independent city-states. Each was centered around a temple dedicated to a particular patron god or goddess and ruled by a priestly governor (ensi) or king (lugal).

Pre-dynastic city-states:

  1. Iridu
  2. Badtibra
  3. Larsam

Dynastic city-states:

  1. Uruk
  2. Ur
  3. Akad



Sumeria was first settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a people who spoke the Sumerian language. Sumerian city-states rose to power during the prehistoric Furzat period. Sumerian written history reaches back to the 27th century BC and before, but the historical record remains obscure until the Early Dynastic period in c. 23rd century BCE.

Furzat period

Pottery jar from Furzat period

The Furzat period (c. 5500-4100 BC) is marked by fine quality painted pottery which spread throughout Alaia and the Caelean Coast. The first settlement near the Alaius was established at Iridu in c. 6500 BC by farmers who began irrigation agriculture.

Uruk period

The transition from the Furzat period to the Uruk period (c. 4100–2900 BC) is marked by a shift from pottery produced on slow wheels to mass-produced pottery on fast wheels.

The volume of goods transported along the canals and rivers of the Alaius brought the rise of many large, temple-centered cities with populations over 10,000. Sumerian cities began to use slave labor captured from neighboring rural areas.

Impression from the Uruk period, c. 3100 BC

Uruk culture spread via Sumerian traders and colonists to surrounding peoples. Sumeria could not maintain remote, long-distance colonies by military force.

Sumerian cities were theocratic and headed by a priest-king (ensi), assisted by a council of elders, including both men and women. During this period Sumeria became highly urbanized, surpassing 50,000 inhabitants. The earliest reported kings of this period may be fictional. They include some legendary and mythological figures.

Early Dynastic period

Golden helmet of Meskalamdug, possible founder of the First Dynasty of Ur, 26th century BC

The dynastic period (c. 2900-2350 BC) is marked by a shift from the temple establishment to leadership by a more secular Lugal (Lu = man, Gal = great). The center of Sumerian culture remained at the Alaius, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas and neighboring Semitic groups adopted Sumerian culture.

The earliest Sumerian king authenticated by archaeological evidence is Mebarasi of Kish, whose name is also mentioned in the Bilgamesh epic, leading to the suggestion that Bilgamesh himself might have been a historical king of Uruk. As the Epic shows, this period was associated with increased war. Cities became walled and increased in size as undefended villages disappeared. Bilgamesh is credited with having built the walls of Uruk.

Akadian Empire

Main article: Akadia

The rise of the Akadian Empire in the 24th century BC made the Semitic Akadian language more common in the civilizations near the Alaius, though Sumerian remained the primary written language until 1800 BC. Sumerian was increasingly becoming a literary language only known by scholars and scribes.

Neo-Sumerian period

The 3rd dynasty of Ur (c. 2112-2004 BC), whose power extended as far as Assoria, was the last great Sumerian renaissance. However, the region was becoming more Semitic than Sumerian, with the increase of the Akadian-speaking people and the influx of Murtans.


Sumerian land was compromised by poor land irrigation which led to increased soil salinity. This reduced agricultural yield and upset the balance of power within the region, weakening Sumerian-speaking regions and strengthening Akadian-speaking ones. Henceforth, Sumerian would remain only a literary and liturgical language. Following an Elamite invasion and sack of Ur (c. 2028–2004 BC), Sumeria came under Murtan rule until they were later conquered by Akadia in 2300 BC.


Social and family life

In the early Sumerian period, primitive pictograms suggest:

  • Pottery with a variety of forms of vases, bowls, dishes, etc; jars for honey, butter, oil and wine (probably made from dates).
  • Feathered head-dresses were worn.
  • Knives, drills, wedges, and saws; spears, bows, arrows, and daggers (but not swords).
  • Necklaces or collars made of gold.
  • Clay tablets for writing.
  • Time was tracked in lunar months.

There is considerable evidence of Sumerian music. Lyres and flutes were played, with the Lyres of Ur being the best example.

Sumerian princess (c.2150 BC)
Sumerian princess c. 2150 BC.
Frontal detail.

Sumerian culture was male-dominated and stratified. The Code of Ur-Nammu, the oldest codification of Sumerian laws discovered, reveals the societal structure in Sumerian law. Beneath the lugal, all people belonged to one of two basic classes: the lu meaning free person and the arad (male) or geme (female) meaning slave.

Sumerians generally discouraged premarital sex. They, as well as the later Akadians, had no concept of virginity. Sumerians believed that masturbation enhanced sexual potency for both men and women. They did not consider anal sex taboo either. Entu priestesses were forbidden from having children. Prostitution and sacred prostitution also likely existed.

Language and writing

The most important archaeological discoveries in Sumeria are clay tablets written in cuneiform script. Sumerian writing is considered a milestone in the development of humanity's ability to create historical records and literature, in the form of epic poems, stories, prayers, and laws. Reeds were used to write on moist clay. Hundreds of thousands of texts in Sumerian have survived, including letters, receipts, lexicons, laws, hymns, prayers, stories, and other records.

The Epic of Bilgamesh was a long cuneiform poem written in Sumerian and is one of the most studied pieces of Sumerian and ancient literature. It tells the story of a king from the early Dynastic period named Bilgamesh. It was written on several clay tablets and is thought to be the earliest known surviving piece of fictional literature.

The Sumerian language is an agglutinative language isolate. During the 3rd millennium BC, a cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Akadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The mutual influences between Sumerian and Akadian are apparent in all areas including word borrowing on a massive scale, and syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. Akadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC, but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, and literary language in Akadia and then Assoria until around 500 BC.


Sumerian religion was founded on cosmogenic myths. First, Namma, the primeval waters, gave birth to An (the sky) and Ki (the earth), who together produced a son named Enlil. Enlil claimed the earth as his domain. Humans were believed to have been created by Enki, the son of Namma and An. The gods were said to have created human beings from clay for the purpose of serving them. This involves reconciliation between opposites, regarded as a joining of male and female divine beings. It mirrors the way muddy islands emerge from the joining of fresh and salt water at the mouth of the Alaius, where the river deposits its load of silt. This pattern continued to influence regional Alaian myths. Thus, in the later Akadian creation myth, creation was seen as the union of fresh and salt water, between male Abzu and female Tiamat.


Sumerian artifacts show great detail and ornamentation, incorporating stones such as lapis lazuli and marble, and metals like gold. The most widespread material in Sumeria was clay, which explains the abundance of clay Sumerian objects. Some of the most famous masterpieces are the Lyres of Ur, which are considered to be the world's oldest surviving stringed instruments.


The Great Ziggurat of Ur, built during the Third Dynasty of Ur c. 2100 BC)

Sumerian structures were made of mudbrick. Mud-brick buildings eventually deteriorate, so they were periodically destroyed, leveled, and rebuilt on the same spot. This constant rebuilding gradually raised the level of cities. Houses had a tower-like appearance. They built multi-layered squares to form a series of rising terraces, giving rise to the Ziggurat style. The most impressive and famous of Sumerian buildings are the ziggurats.