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Ancient Sumerians: History, Civilization & Culture

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  • 0:01 Ancient Sumer
  • 1:00 Sumerian History
  • 2:25 Sumerian Civilization
  • 3:40 Sumerian Culture
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Sumerians developed one of the earliest complex civilizations in the world. In this lesson, we are going to explore Sumerian history and culture, and examine the legacies of their dominance.

Ancient Sumer

If it's really hot, you're surrounded by sand, and all you can think about is taking a boat out on the water, you know what time it is? It must be Sumer time! Get it? Sumer?

That joke will probably be funnier after this lesson, because by then you will actually have learned about Sumer, one of the first major civilizations in world history. The ancient Sumerians, who lived between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in an area known as Mesopotamia (roughly Iraq and Kuwait today), were an amazing group of people. They found a great place to settle down, and once doing so, they founded some of the world's oldest cities. The Sumerians were really the first to develop an advanced civilization, reaching a size and complexity never before seen.

So, what do you say? Let's get to know the ancient Sumerians, from the hot Sumer days to the cool Sumer nights.

Sumerian History

Mesopotamia is a pretty nice place to start a civilization. It's got temperate climates, fertile soils, and by around 7500 BCE people were starting to live there. These people just weren't the Sumerians. The Sumerians themselves arrived sometime around 5000 BCE, and we're not completely sure where they came from.

It's most likely they came from around the Caspian Sea, but it's hard to tell since the Sumerian language is a language isolate: it's not clearly related to any other known languages. Regardless, the Sumerians found their way to Mesopotamia and started creating permanent societies. Soon, these grew into major urban centers. The Sumerian city of Uruk, founded around 4500 BCE, is considered to be one of the oldest true cities in the world.

For the next few millennia, the Sumerians developed complex societies and major civilizations that did things like invent the wheel, the cart, the sailboat, irrigation techniques, legal codes, and systems of math. So, they were pretty busy. From about the third millennium BCE, the Sumerian cities thrived as part of the Akkadian Empire ruled by another Mesopotamian society, but eventually fell to invaders around 1750 BCE. Still, Sumerian culture remained for a few more centuries before finally disappearing.

Sumerian Civilization

So, what did life look like for the ancient Sumerians? Well, a Sumerian city was centered around a massive temple called a ziggurat in which the gods of that city were worshiped. Ziggurats were huge pyramid-shaped structures meant to look like mountains, which the Sumerians believed were the closest places on Earth to the heavens. Around the temple would be palaces and administrative buildings with homes beyond that, and outside of that were the farms that supported the city.

Sumerian cities were generally guarded by impressive walls that captured many people's attention. The walls of the nearby city of Babylon, influenced by the Sumerians, were especially famous, and appeared throughout ancient texts.

As far as class systems go, at the top of society was a king, an absolute monarch with divine authority. The king was generally attended by a council of elders, an advisory body that included the priests of the city. Priests were very powerful advisors who had the power to turn the gods against the king should he ignore their advice. Below the royal courts and temples were the common people, generally laborers, and below them were the slaves. That's Sumerian society in a nutshell.

Sumerian Culture

Like I said, the ancient Sumerians got pretty inventive and came up with some amazing technology for the time, which is one of the perks of being the world's first major civilization. Perhaps the most famous of their inventions, however, was a system of writing.

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