Sumer

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Sumer

Sumer (sōō´mər) and Sumerian civilization (sŏŏ-mēr´ēən). The term Sumer is used today to designate the southern part of ancient Mesopotamia. From the earliest date of which there is any record, S Mesopotamia was occupied by a people, known as Sumerians, speaking a non-Semitic language. The questions concerning their origin cannot be answered with certainty. Some evidence suggests that they may have come as conquerors from the East (possibly from Iran or India). At any rate, as modern excavations have shown, there was in the 5th millennium BC a prehistoric village culture in the area. By 3000 BC a flourishing urban civilization existed. Sumerian civilization was predominantly agricultural and had a well-organized communal life. The Sumerians were adept at building canals and at developing effective systems of irrigation. Excavated objects such as pottery, jewelry, and weapons show that they were also skilled in the use of such metals as copper, gold, and silver and had developed by 3000 BC fine artistry as well as considerable technological knowledge. The Sumerians are credited with inventing the cuneiform system of writing. Between the years 3000 and 2340 the kings of important Sumerian cities, such as Kish, Uruk, and Ur, were able from time to time to extend their control over large areas, forming various dynasties. However, Mesopotamia was also the home of a group of people speaking Semitic languages and with a culture different from that of the Sumerians (see Semite). From the earliest times the Semites were in contact with Sumerian culture, and the increasing Semitic strength, which was already present in the north, culminated in the establishment (c.2340) of the Akkadian dynasty by Sargon, who for the first time imposed a wide imperial organization over the whole of Mesopotamia. This conquest gave impetus to the blending, already long in progress, of Sumerian and Semitic cultures. After the collapse of Akkad (c.2180) under the pressure of invading barbarians from the northeast, peace and civilization were maintained only in Lagash, under Gudea. However, the Sumerians were able to recover their political prestige and had a final revival under the third dynasty of Ur (c.2060). After this dynasty fell (c.1950) to the W Amorities and the Guti, a tribe from Elam, the Sumerians were never again able to gain a political hegemony. With the rise of Hammurabi, the control of the country passed to Babylonia, and the Sumerians, as a nation, disappeared.

See C. L. Woolley, The Sumerians (1929, repr. 1971); S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (1971), Sumerian Mythology (1973), and In the World of Sumer (1986).

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