The Rise of Sumerian City-States Video

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  • 0:02 Geography of Mesopotamia
  • 1:29 Diplomacy of City-States
  • 2:54 Society and Government
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Before the great empires of Assyria and Babylon, many small city-states, such as Sumer and Ur, existed throughout Mesopotamia. This lesson takes a look at their societies and how they interacted.

Geography of Mesopotamia

A central key to understanding Mesopotamia's geography can be found in the name itself, which literally means land between the rivers. Mesopotamia, which makes up much of modern Iraq, is situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and is one of the first sites of agriculture and civilization in human history. However, unlike Egypt to the southwest of Mesopotamia, the rivers were not always a giver of gifts. Unlike the Nile's annual flood, both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers flood unpredictably, sometimes with enough fury to wash away whole villages. For the first Mesopotamians, this meant that a significant amount of effort had to go into preventing floods, as well as finding ways to irrigate the land.

On the other hand, it wasn't just farming that the rivers affected. These rivers provided natural paths from city-state to city-state, increasing communication and trade, but also increasing the opportunity for frictions to develop between local areas. Additionally, given the relatively flat land of the Mesopotamian plain, armies could march between the rivers quite easily. Whereas the Nile presented only one real path for conquest, running from south to north, Mesopotamian city-states were vulnerable on all sides. The period of time where city-states dominated Mesopotamia is known as the Sumerian Period.

Diplomacy of City-States

This vulnerability was compounded by the fact that, since so much had to be invested in defense, little could be made of the opportunity to grow one state's population enough to outpace its neighbors. Therefore, while all the city-states managed to grow rather substantial populations, any military action would have left the home city open to attack from a different direction. Even the most powerful city-states of this period, Sumer and Ur, were subject to these issues. Early leaders tried to forge alliances between other city-states and, in doing so, often tried to manipulate family connections. For example, a king may marry his daughter off to another leader, hoping that any grandson would rule both cities and, therefore, be more powerful than his peers.

This rarely worked out, and due to the presence of writing, the sources prove that. In one story, two sisters are married off to the same king, and while the younger sister is by far the prettier, the older sister manages to produce a son first. As the older sister instantly becomes more favored, the younger sister writes her father, begging him to come rescue her from the cruel clutches of her captor husband and evil big sister. Heartstrings being then what they are now, this was a sticky situation for the father to navigate without causing open war between the cities.

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