Never really a kingdom nor empire, more a collection of city-states with common customs and a sometimes central authority, Sumeria nevertheless is considered the world’s first “civilization.” Kingship (or more precisely, hegemony) came to be conferred by the priesthood, which tended to create successive short-lived dynasties from the rulers of established and influential city-states: Kish, Lagash, Ur, Uruk, Adab and so forth. At some point before 3000 BC, the Sumerians developed a written language (well, a logographic in their proto-literate period), so at least historians have some idea of what they were doing.
From these writings, and archaeological evidence in case there’s any doubt, it seems the Ubaidians were the first civilizing (standards for civilization not being high) force in the region that came to be named Sumer. They drained marshes along the River Euphrates, built mudbrick huts and walls, irrigated fields, developed weaving, leatherwork, masonry and pottery, and a written language. In time, they acquired another trait of civilized societies – the use of slaves, captured in the hill country to the north. Then they built a few towns, generally temple-centered with a central administration of some sort (usually a priest-king with a bunch of elderly advisers). With all this urbanization, Sumerian civilization finally coalesced sometime around the fourth millennia BC.
The evolution of the priest-kings into just plain autocratic kings occurred sometime around 2900 BC and begins the “Dynastic Period” of Sumer, recounted in the lengthy Sumerian King List. A number of dynasties held the kingship of Sumer for several years, and often multiple times (there were, for instance, five dynasties of Uruk and three of Kish). Hegemony over the city-state collective was conferred by the priesthood in holy Nippur. It is likely that the authority of the Sumerian king tended to be limited – except in his own city – but he was tasked with maintaining tranquility throughout Sumer nonetheless.
It appears they didn’t do a very good job. As the various surviving bits of writing and monuments show, the next few hundred years were marked by increasing violence, attested to by the building of high walls (like Gilgamesh did for his city of Uruk) and the disappearance of small villages in southern Mesopotamia. In time, the more influential city-states banded together for purposes of trade and defense. Also, in time, it was inevitable that some city-state would seek to lord it over the others permanently … by force of arms.
First to succeed was the dynasty of Lagash (c. 2500-2270), in the person of Eannatum, who annexed practically all of Sumer – Kish, Uruk, Larsa, and others – as well as reducing to a tribute client the city of Umma, Lagash’s arch-rival. The Lagash kings seemed to have used terror as a matter of state policy; the aptly-labelled Stele of Vultures depicts what happened to enemies of Lagash (it wasn’t nice). Eventually, the kings of Umma overthrew Lagash, conquered Uruk to make it the capital of their realm, which they claimed reached from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The Ummans were the last ethnic Sumerians to rule before the Akkadian Sargon the Great swept in.
From this point on, the fates of the non-Semite Sumerians and the Semitic Akkadians are inextricably intertwined. The Akkadian Empire reached its peak c. 2400 BC when Sargon’s superior troops overran most of the city-states they could reach. Bowing to the inevitable (and with Akkadians occupying Nippur that was prudent), the priesthood acknowledged the Akkadian hegemony over Sumer. The Semitic Akkadian language supplanted native Sumerian, which became over time a “literary language.” Akkadian customs mutated into Sumerian customs, and the religions blended into one pantheon.
Everything went smoothly for all concerned (save perhaps the slaves and peasants) until the Akkadian Empire collapsed, ushering in a regional Dark Age that lasted until the rise of the Third Dynasty of Ur around 2112 BC. It was a period of anarchy. Irrigation systems collapsed; fields lay fallow; and the barbarian Guti tribes from the Zagros Mountains swept over Sumer. These Gutians seemed to have had little regard for the niceties of civilization. Having installed themselves as rulers in most of the city-states, they showed no concern for agriculture, written records or public safety. They reputedly had all the Sumerian livestock released to wander freely; coupled with a severe decades-long drought and rocketing grain prices, this led to famine throughout the region.
In the midst of all this, the capital at Akkad was sacked – multiple times – so thoroughly (barbarians are really good at sacking) that its ruins remain undiscovered. Taking advantage of all this confusion, several of the more southerly Sumerian city-states managed to re-establish independent rule. As the Gutians, unable to handle all this domesticity, withdrew, the dynasty in Lagash rose to local prominence yet again. Around 2093 BC or so, the Lagash dynasty – now claiming descent from divinity – was declared by the Nippurian priests to have primacy over all others.
It didn’t last long, though. Within 50 years the second Lagash dynasty was replaced by the third dynasty of Ur, under the kings Ur-Nammu and his son Shulgi. When Utu-Hengal of Uruk (the next dynasty after Lagash) defeated the remnants of the Gutians under their last king Tirigan, Sumer was back. But the fifth Uruk dynasty ended abruptly after seven years (according to the King List) with the ascension of Ur-Nammu. Circumstances are hazy; some historians hypothesize a revolt by Ur, others believe that Nammu was somehow related to Hengal and became king peacefully. Whatever the case, Nammu and his son conquered or coerced all the city-states as far as northern Mesopotamia to take part in the “Sumerian Renaissance.”
The Renaissance saw refinement return, new stelae appear all over the place, religion rebounds after those atheist Guti left, agriculture flourishes again, and that cornerstone of civilization – a code of law – comes in the form of the Code of Ur-Nammu which set out a long list of crimes and prescribed punishments (mostly monetary, although leavened with some executions and limbs chopped off). Nammu also undertook great engineering projects, and art and literary works were sponsored by the wealthy. Developments in architecture and sculpture were especially noteworthy (the Ziggurat of Ur being one such accomplishment). So advanced was this age that it has come to termed Neo-Sumeria by historians just so they can keep track of it.
Shulgi outdid his illustrious father. He took decisive steps to formalize the procedures of his administration centered in the capital of Ur. He is credited with standardizing the bureaucracy, archival documentation, the tax system, and the calendar – all for which modern civilization should thank him. He established a standing army for his realm, putting all those well-documented taxes to work. So impressed was the priesthood that Shulgi was deified while he was still alive, which, unlike the present age, was a very rare honor.
But by the time of his grandson Ibbi-Sin, who ascended to the kingship in 1963 BC, things weren’t so rosy for Sumeria. Over the first twenty years of his reign, repeated raids and invasions by the warlike Amorites brought a growing lack of faith among his subjects in his ability to lead. Elam declared its independence and joined the general raiding of trade caravans and unguarded settlements. Things got worse. Ibbi-Sin fortified the areas around Ur and Nippur, without much effect.
Since the king didn’t seem to be able to defend Sumer, more and more city-states followed Elam’s lead and broke away from the tottering hegemony. The price of grain increased by 60 times the usual; plague ravaged several city-states; the Four Horsemen were abroad in Sumeria. In the last years of Sumeria, Ibbi-Sin governed only his own city-state of Ur. In 1940 BC, an Elamite army along with “wild” tribesmen from the Zagros sacked Ur and took Ibbn-Sin captive. He was taken to Elam and imprisoned, and died shortly thereafter (the cause of his untimely end isn’t recorded).
The glory of Sumer had passed. But its accomplishments – mostly because they were the first – have stood the test of time. The pundit Samuel Noah Kramer lists 39 in his seminal work, History Begins at Sumer, such as...
The Sumerians, farming in a semi-arid land along rivers, were the first to build irrigation ditches, canals and eventually reservoirs. While perhaps not the first to develop writing, they were certainly the most proficient at it – for many centuries, in fact – and they wrote everything down so it could be remembered by future generations. And they were the first to store all this scribbling, in depositories (so, the first “libraries"). In the process, they were also the first to develop all sorts of literary forms: love poetry, heroic tales, animal fables, autobiographies, elegies, and so forth.
What with all this writing, the Sumerians also developed the concept of a written contract (it goes without saying these got stored in the depositories so one could not wiggle out of an agreement), and that boon to finance “credit.” The idea that one only had to initially pay some of the asking price and “owe” the rest certainly spurred the Sumerian economy, if not all that attractive to sellers. They standardized numbers in order that one could keep track of all this. And so payments would be made in an orderly fashion, the Sumerians also were the first to divide the year into months and the day into standard increments.
Additionally, they were the first civilization to put the wheel to good use. Carts had wheels; plows had wheels; chariots had wheels. Trade, farming, and war didn’t take so long anymore. If the Sumerians didn’t invent the wheel (and historians have debated this point ad nauseam), they certainly found lots of uses for it. Too bad they didn’t have many horses.
The list of “firsts” goes on.
In the end, though, it was their lack of decent building materials – mudbricks just don’t make very tall or sturdy walls to keep out all those barbarians from the north, south and east – that brought about their downfall. In time, though, the Babylonian and the Assyrian empires would owe their formation to Sumer, the true “cradle of Western civilization.”