The Fertile Crescent: Mesopotamia, Ur, and Sumer

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Ancient Mesopotamia

Fertile Crescent

Mesopotamia is located in an area known as the Fertile Crescent. Archeologists have found some of the earliest known sites of agricultural production in this area.

Although much of the Mesopotamian region received little or irregular rainfall, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers provided large amounts of freshwater, facilitating agricultural production and the development of early civilizations. The Greeks later recognized the significance of the river systems to these ancient societies and referred to the region as “the Land between the Rivers” or Mesopotamia.

The name Mesopotamia originates from two Greek words: The first word Mesos comes from medhyo, which means middle. The second word, potamos, means river. Put them together, and you get Mesopotamia, which means “a land between two rivers”.

*Hippopotamus means “horse of the river.”


The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers both originate in the Taurus Mountains of eastern Anatolia and flow southward to empty into the Persian Gulf. The rivers carry and deposit silt downstream, enriching the soil. In general, the richer soils and availability of water in areas that in the north otherwise had little rain, or else towards the south had concentrated months of rainfall followed by long, dry spells, encouraged settlement near the rivers. The areas closer to the Persian Gulf, known as Lower Mesopotamia, in particular, were attractive to early settlers because they had extremely fertile soils. People built some of the earliest cities, including Uruk, Eridu, and Ur, in Lower Mesopotamia.

Just as the rivers were definitely important to meet people’s everyday needs for water and for agricultural production, so they also facilitated trade. While people made use of local resources, like mud to build their homes, in general, Lower Mesopotamia lacked other desired resources, including wood, stone, and precious metals. Traders were able to use the rivers to bring in these resources from Assyria, Anatolia, the Levant, and areas adjacent to the Persian Gulf. Early Mesopotamians also obtained goods from as far away as what today are northern Pakistan and India. 

The first settlements that straddled the line between “towns” and real “cities” existed around 4000 BCE, but a truly urban society in Mesopotamia was in place closer 3000 BCE, wherein a few dozen city-states managed the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.  A note on the chronology: the town of Çatal Höyük discussed in the previous section existed over four thousand years before the first great cities in Mesopotamia.  It is important to bear this in mind, because when considering ancient history (in this case, in a section of a textbook), it can seem like it all happened quite rapidly, that people discovered agriculture, and soon they were building massive cities and developing advanced technology.  That simply was not the case: compared to the hundreds of thousands of years preceding the discovery of agriculture, things moved “quickly,” but from a modern perspective, it took a very long time for things to change.  

Sumer (c. 4500- 1750 BCE)

The first true cities emerged in the southern region of Sumer.  There, the two rivers join in a large delta that flows into the Persian Gulf.  Farther up the rivers, the northern region of Mesopotamia was known as Akkad.  The division is both geographical and lingual: ancient Sumerian is not related to any modern language, but the Akkadian family of languages was Semitic, related to modern languages like Arabic and Hebrew.  Urban civilization eventually flourished in both regions, starting in Sumer but quickly spreading north.

Sumer
Notice Akkad before its expansion into the Akkadian Empire (discussed further below)

One early Sumerian city was Uruk, which was a large city by 3500 BCE.  Uruk had about 50,000 people in the city itself and the surrounding region.  It was a major center for long-distance trade, with its trade networks stretching all across the Middle East and as far east as the Indus River valley of India, with merchants relying on caravans of donkeys and the use of wheeled carts.  Trade linked Mesopotamia and Anatolia (the region of present-day Turkey) as well.  

The economy of Uruk was what historians call  “redistributive,” in which a central authority has the right to control all economic activity, essentially taxing all of it, and then re-distributing it as that authority sees fit.  Practically speaking, this entailed the collection of foodstuffs and wealth by each city-state’s government, which then used it to “pay” (sometimes in daily allotments of food and beer) workers tasked with constructing walls, roads, temples, and palaces.

Uruk archaealogical site
Uruk archaeological site

Sumerian cities had certain characteristics in common. First, a temple complex or a ziggurat was usually the visual focus of the urban landscape. Sumerians believed that their entire city belonged to its main deity, and built a massive temple, the most important building in the city, to be the dwelling place of their city’s main god or goddess. A complex that comfortably housed many of the priests and priestesses who served the city’s deity surrounded each temple. In addition to attending to the religious needs of the community, temples complexes also owned land, managed industries, were involved in trade, and acted as banks. Their wide-ranging roles meant that temples often had additional outbuildings, like granaries and storage sheds, in the surrounding countryside. Sumerians were polytheistic, meaning they worshiped multiple gods and goddesses.

Because Sumerians believed each god had a family, they also built smaller shrines and temples dedicated to these divine family members. Therefore, each city would have a number of temples while many Sumerian homes had small altars dedicated to other gods. Sometimes, urban temples or ritual spaces were built atop a ziggurat, a solid rectangular tower made of sun-dried mud bricks.

Ziggurat comes from an Assyrian word ziqquratu, which means height.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur
The Great Ziggurat of Ur

Archaeological evidence shows that temple complexes were expanded and rebuilt over time and, by the late third millennium BCE, temples in many of the Sumerian city-states were raised on platforms or else situated on a ziggurat. The towering architecture of the ziggurat stressed the significance of the temple to the surrounding community. The best preserved ziggurat, the Great Ziggurat of Ur, was constructed with an estimated 720,000 baked bricks and rose to a height of about 100 feet. The people of Ur constructed this ziggurat for their patron deity, the moon goddess Nanna. They likely brought regular offerings to Nanna and also received food rations from the Great Ziggurat of Ur.

Sumerian Achievements

Alongside the development of religious belief, science made major strides in Mesopotamian civilization. The Mesopotamians were the first great astronomers, accurately mapping the movement of the stars and recording them in star charts.  They invented functional wagons and chariots and, as seen in the case of both ziggurats and irrigation systems, they were excellent engineers.  They also invented the 360 degrees used to measure angles in geometry, and they were the first to divide a system of timekeeping that used a 60-second minute.  Finally, they developed a complex and accurate system of arithmetic that would go on to form the basis of mathematics as it was used and understood throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Mesopotamians also invented the first systems of writing, first developed in order to keep track of tax records sometime around 3000 BCE.  Their style of writing is called cuneiform; it started out as a pictographic system in which each word or idea was represented by a symbol, but it eventually changed to include both pictographs and syllabic symbols (i.e. symbols that represent a sound instead of a word).  

Cuneiform comes from the Latin word cuneus, which means a wedge-shaped thing. Cuneiform was made using wedge-shaped writing tools.


While cuneiform was originally used just for record-keeping, writing soon evolved into the creation of true forms of literature.

Assyrian Cuneiform Script
Assyrian cuneiform script – Click the image to see it larger

Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform syllabary

The first known author in history whose name and some of whose works survive was a Sumerian high priestess, Enheduanna.  Daughter of the great conqueror Sargon of Akkad (described below), Enheduanna served as the high priestess of the goddess Innana and the god of the moon, Nanna, in the city of Ur after its conquest by Sargon’s forces.  Enheduanna wrote a series of hymns to the gods that established her as the earliest poet in recorded history, praising Innana and, at one point, asking for the aid of the gods during a period of political turmoil.

The following was written by Enheduanna when she was removed from her post by her brother Rimush during the turmoil surrounding his rule:

Me who once sat triumphant, he has driven out of the sanctuary.
Like a swallow he made me fly from the window,
My life is consumed.
He stripped me of the crown appropriate for the high priesthood.
He gave me dagger and sword—‘it becomes you,’ he said to me.
…
It was in your service that I first entered the holy temple,
I, Enheduanna, the highest priestess. I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Now I have been cast out to the place of lepers.
Day comes and the brightness is hidden around me.
Shadows cover the light, drape it in sandstorms.
My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.
Even my sex is dust.
Possible representation of Gilgamesh
Possible representation of Gilgamesh

Enheduanna did not record the first known work of prose, however, whose author or authors remain unknown. Remembered as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving work of literature, it is the best known of the surviving Mesopotamian stories.  The Epic describes the adventures of a partly-divine king of the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who is joined by his friend Enkidu as they fight monsters, build great works, and celebrate their own power and greatness.  Enkidu is punished by the gods for their arrogance and he dies.  Gilgamesh, grief-stricken, goes in search of immortality when he realizes that he, too, will someday die.  In the end, immortality is taken from him by a serpent, and humbled, he returns to Uruk a wiser, better king.

Like Enheduanna’s hymns, which reveal at times her own personality and concerns, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fascinating story in that it speaks to a very sophisticated and recognizable set of issues: the qualities that make a good leader, human failings and frailty, the power and importance of friendship, and the unfairness of fate.  Likewise, a central focus of the epic is Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality when he confronts the absurdity of death.  Death’s seeming unfairness is a distinctly philosophical concern that demonstrates an advanced engagement with human nature and the human condition present in Mesopotamian society.

Along with literature, the other great written accomplishments of the Mesopotamians were their systems of law.  The most substantial surviving law code is that of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, dating from about 1780 BCE.  Hammurabi’s law code went into great detail about the rights and obligations of Babylonians.  It drew legal distinctions between the “free men” or aristocratic citizens, commoners, and slaves, treating the same crimes very differently.  The laws speak to a deep concern with fairness – the code tried to protect people from unfair terms on loans, it provided redress for damaged property, it even held city officials responsible for catching criminals.  It also included legal protections for women in various ways.  While women were unquestionably secondary to men in their legal status, the Code still afforded them more rights and protections than did many codes of law that emerged thousands of years later.

Sargon and the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334 – 2100 BCE)

Akkadian Empire
Map showing the approximate extension of the Akkad empire during the reign of Narâm-Sîn (2254-2218 B.C.).

The first time that a single military leader managed to conquer and unite many of the Mesopotamian cities was in about 2340 BCE, when the king Sargon the Great, also known as Sargon of Akkad (father of Enheduanna, described above), conquered almost all of the major Mesopotamian cities and forged the world’s first true empire, in the process uniting the regions of Akkad and Sumer.  Sargon also created the world’s first standing army, a group of soldiers employed by the state who did not have other jobs or duties.  One inscription claims that “5,400 soldiers ate daily in his palace,” and there are pictures not only of soldiers, but of siege weapons and mining (digging under the walls of enemy fortifications to cause them to collapse).

Sargon himself was born an illegitimate child and was, at one point, a royal gardener who worked his way up in the palace, eventually seizing power in a coup.  He boasted about his lowly origins and claimed to protect and represent the interests of common people and merchants. Sargon appointed governors in his conquered cities, and his whole empire was designed to extract wealth from all of its cities and farmlands and pump it back to the capital of Akkad, which he built somewhere near present-day Baghdad.  

Story of the birth of Sargon

Sargon ruled the empire for over fifty years. His sons, grandson, and great-grandson attempted to hold the empire together. After about 200 years, attacks from neighboring peoples caused the empire to fall.

Hammurabi and the Babylonian Empire (c. 1792-1595 BCE)

Finally, there was the great empire of Hammurabi.  

By about 1780 BCE, Hammurabi conquered many of the city-states near Babylon in the heart of Mesopotamia. With well-disciplined foot soldiers armed with copper and bronze weapons, he conquered Mesopotamian city-states, including Akkad and Sumer, to create an empire with its capital at Babylon.

The darker orange shows Babylonia when Hammurabi became the ruler. The lighter orange is the territory he conquered.
The darker orange shows Babylonia when Hammurabi became the ruler. The lighter orange is the territory he conquered.

Although he had other achievements, Hammurabi is most famous for the law code etched into a stele that bears his name, the Stele of Hammurabi.

The Stele of Hammurabi 

As seen in the photo to the left, the upper part of the stele depicts Hammurabi standing in front of the Babylonian god of justice, from whom Hammurabi derives his power and legitimacy. The lower portion of the stele contains the collection of 282 laws.

One particularly influential principle in the code is the law of retaliation, which demands “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The code listed offenses and their punishments, which often varied by social class.

While symbolizing the power of the King Hammurabi and associating him with justice, the code of law also attempted to unify people within the empire and establish common standards for acceptable behavior. An excerpt of Hammurabi’s Code appears below:

6. If anyone steals the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.

8. If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefore; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.

15. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

53. If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.

108. If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

110. If a “sister of god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

127. If any one “point the finger” (slander) at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and can not prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked. (by cutting the skin or perhaps hair)

195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.

196. If a man put out the eye of another man his eye shall be put out. (An eye for an eye)

197. If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

202. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

203. If a free-born man strike the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.

205. If the slave of a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.

If you want to see the entire list of laws, click here.

Hammurabi also improved infrastructure, promoted trade, employed effective administrative practices, and supported productive agriculture. For example, he sponsored the building of roads and the creation of a postal service. He also maintained irrigation canals and facilitated trade all along the Persian Gulf. After Hammurabi’s death, his successors lost territory. The empire declined, shrinking in size. The Hittites, from Anatolia, eventually sacked the city of Babylon in 1595 BCE, bringing about the official end of the Babylonian Empire.

Life in ancient Mesopotamia

A Sumerian woman

Mesopotamia became a more patriarchal society, one in which the men were far more powerful than the women. Early Mesopotamian society was ruled by a “council of elders” in which men and women were equally represented, but that over time, as the status of women fell, that of men increased.

As for schooling, only royal offspring and sons of the rich and professionals, such as scribes, physicians, temple administrators, went to school. Most boys were taught their father’s trade or were apprenticed out to learn a trade. 

Girls had to stay home with their mothers to learn housekeeping and cooking, and to look after the younger children. Some children would help with crushing grain or cleaning birds. Unusually for that time in history, women in Mesopotamia had rights. They could own property and, if they had good reason, get a divorce.

In the city of Ur, most people were buried in family graves under their houses, along with some possessions. A few have been found wrapped in mats and carpets. Deceased children were put in big “jars” which were placed in the family chapel. 

Sumerian temples functioned as banks and developed the first large-scale system of loans and credit.

Mesopotamians ate things such as barley, onions, fish, grapes, turnips and apples. They were some of the first people to make beer and wine.

Although the rivers sustained life, they also destroyed it by frequent floods that ravaged entire cities. The unpredictable Mesopotamian weather was often hard on farmers; crops were often ruined so backup sources of food such as cows and lambs were also kept.

The Mesopotamians believed their kings and queens were descended from the City of Gods, but, unlike the ancient Egyptians, they never believed their kings were real gods.


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Fertile Crescent: By User: NormanEinstein – Own workThis image was based on a similar map from the 1994 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=471913

Uruk picture: By Photo: SAC Andy Holmes (RAF)/MOD, OGL v1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92957174
Trade routes of Mesopotamia: Corey Parson, original work, CC by-SA 4.0
Sumer: By ca:Imatge:Umma2350.png – This file has been extracted from another file: Umma2350.PNG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87560773
Ancient ziggurat: By Hardnfast, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3544015
Assyrian Cuneiform Script: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Assyrian_Cuneiform_Script_-_36562326005.jpg
Cuneiform syllabary: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sumero-Akkadian_cuneiform_syllabary.jpg
Gilgamesh: By Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=866865
Mesopotamia info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesopotamia#Culture
Sumerian princess: By Françoise Foliot – Private collection Wikimédia France, Paris, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83898092
Akkadian Empire: By Middle_East_topographic_map-blank.svg: Sémhur (talk)derivative work: Zunkir (talk) – Middle_East_topographic_map-blank.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11968698
Sargon tablet: By 0x010C – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45593152
Babylonia map: By MapMaster – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3578442

The exaltation of Inana: https://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.07.2&display=Crit&charenc=gcirc&lineid=t4072.p7#t4072.p7

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
    CC BY-NC-SA
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University
    CC BY-NC-SA

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest



2 thoughts on “The Fertile Crescent: Mesopotamia, Ur, and Sumer

  1. took me 1 1/2 to read this

    1. Thanks for leaving the comment. 🙂 In the Whirlwind History schedule, this page is scheduled in sections and is intended to be read over 3 days.

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