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The basic unit of Sumerian civilization — political, economic and religious — was the city-state. Each state consisted of a city, some times multiple cities, with its surrounding territory, including dependent towns and villages and associated fields and irrigation works. In theory, each city-state was under the special protection of its own god, and although multiple gods were worshipped, the total identification of each city with its god was both the defining and unifying feature of Sumerian civilization. 

The cuneiform names for some of the earliest cities incorporate a sign representing the raised mound of the main temple platform, which (then as now) was clearly visible across the flat alluvium plain.

Evidence suggests that at the end of the Uruk Period and the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period, some city-states were united into leagues of some sort: perhaps for purposes of trade, for sharing manpower on large-scale projects, or perhaps for mutual protection. But these affiliations were informal at best and did not persist.

One of the striking characteristics of the classic Mesopotamian city-state is its individualism and resistance to centralized control (a useful fact to consider in today’s political context). And while the individual city-states were united by force into states and empires after the inevitable collapse of older regimes, these new alliances would just as inevitably decompose into the more enduring city-state political units.

Another striking feature to keep in mind is just how small the area of Sumer actually was: about the size of Northern Ireland, with few natural boundaries between the various city-states.  Eridu, Ur, Uruk and Larsa were actually within sight of one other, competing for resources and dominance with about a dozen other city-states, such as Lagash, Umma, Kish, Adab and Shurrupak. The only exception was Nippur, which housed the temple of Enlil, the paramount god of the pantheon, and thus was treated as a kind of national shrine.

Temple and Palace: Two Key Institutions.  The temple in Sumerian city-states functioned primarily as economic institutions, central authorities which collected and distributed surpluses: agricultural goods and products of the specialized industries, such as metal working and weaving, which they supervised.

Temples played a role with religious, economic and social dimensions that we still do not fully understand (the very terms “religious,” “economic” and “social” are modern constructs that we use todescribe behaviors and structures for which there was no true counterpart in ancient times).

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In theory, the Sumerian city was the actual property of its main deity, and the temples of those gods – including their spouses and children - were large landowners and cultivated extensive holdings by means of dependent labor.

But temples owned only a part of the land. The rest belonged to private individuals and the palace, the second “great organization” in the typical city-state.

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The Sumerian word for palace literally means “great household” and its members included the ruling class or nobility and their families and administrators. 

Commoners apparently owned their land as member of a family or clan, rather than as individuals, and hereditary land could be bought and sold only by certain family members.

The ruling class had large estates, where labor was performed by a group of clients or dependents that resembled the temple dependents.

Despite the importance of temples, from an early time, supreme political power resided in the secular figure of the king, and it was the king who led military efforts, often in struggles against other cities for control of irrigated land, one example being the famous border dispute between Umma and Lagash during the Early Dynastic III period (2540-2350 BC).

The contentious and independent behavior of the individual city-states outside Sumer contrasts with the Sumerian tradition, as embodied in the Sumerian King-List, that kingship had descended from heaven after the Great Flood and was held by various cities, in turn, implying a kind of hegemony over the whole land.

Some members of the King-List, mythological figures such Gilgamesh (who is said to have reigned a thousand years), are fictitious. Other names on the List did exist. Excavation has yielded evidence of differing rulers and cities.  For example, there seems to have been an early period of domination by the city of Kish, and the title ”King of Kish” was assumed by some later kings to indicate control over all of Sumer.

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Cuneiform writing from this period is better understood by scholars, as the system is simplified, using a combination of syllables, word signs, and determinatives to indicate names of deities, gods and people, geographical features, and objects such as stone and metal.

It was from this period that the first true works of literature, hymns, myths and epics emerged, including early versions of the Gilgamesh story — Gilgamesh, listed in the Sumerian King List, who built the fabled walls of Uruk.

Significant questions remain about this Early Dynastic period (a timeframe that scholars divide into three units, Early Dynastic I, II and III with the entire range dating from 2900 to 2336 BC.

Probably the most famous artifacts discovered from this period are from the Royal Tombs at Ur, circa 2500 BC, where kings and queens were buried with magnificent gold, sliver, lapis and carnelian jewelry, vessels, musical instruments and weaponry, as well as attendants who were presumably sacrificed with them.

The practice at Ur remains a great mystery, with no parallels (yet) discovered at any other sites, except for some scant evidence at Kish and only occasional hints in surviving cuneiform texts.

We do not know if the fabulous artifacts and high culture discovered at the Royal Tombs was unique to Ur. The answers may still be uncovered in unexcavated still-unidentified sites that remain undisturbed.

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Sargon and the Akkadian Dynasty: circa 2350-2200. The Akkadian dynasty, which conquered and unified Sumer with the Akkad people from the North, was founded by Sargon, a charismatic figure of mythological dimensions. His name, which means "the king is true (legitimate),” cannot have been his birth name. Legends describe him as an abandoned baby, put in a basket in the river and favored by the goddess Ishtar. He was reputedly the cupbearer to the king of Kish, and came to power through a palace revolt, assuming the coveted title “King of Kish”.  His 56-year reign included numerous battles to subdue the Sumerian city-states and many further conquests including Mari and Ebla in Syria and forays into the Ammanus and Taurus mountains, establishing what some historian call the first empire.

While the Akkadian kings are credited with many administrative firsts (including the year name system and a unified system of weights and measures), they had difficulty controlling their empire and faced frequent uprisings, especially among the Sumerian city-states. Both of Sargon’s sons appeared to have been killed after brief reigns in palace rebellions. But his grandson Naram Sin was truly a worthy successor, even extending the empire as far as Aleppo in Syria and southern Turkey. Probably Naram Sin’s most significant innovation was in the conception of kingship: he deified himself, writing his name with the divine determinative, the cuneiform sign used to identify the name of a god.

Ancient texts indicate that the Akkadians founded a new capital city, Agade, which has given its name to the dynasty and language—but its location is still unknown. Probably it was located in the vicinity of Kish or the later Babylon, the “capital district” in which so many royal capital cities were founded, including Baghdad. 

The Akkadian period is distinguished by outstanding artwork of exceptional realism in metal and stone statuary and relief sculpture, and in glyptic (cylinder seal) art. Most famous are the magnificent bronze head, probably of Naram Sin, and the Stele of Naram Sin, showing the king wearing the horned crown of divinity, conquering the Lullubi barbarians. Another famous piece is the Basetki statue, a life sized copper statue of a seated man (all that survives is the lower section). Much of what has survived is fragmentary, hinting at what might be found if the actual site of Agade is ever located.

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Although Akkadian power was certainly weakened by numerous internal revolts, tradition attributes the fall of the Akkadian dynasty to an invading horde from the mountains to the east — the Gutians — in what would later become a recurring theme in Mesopotamian history (internal strife leading to conquest by outsiders). The mythological explanation for the collapse was hubris, the pride of Naram Sin which drew the wrath of the gods. After a brief period of anarchy under  Gutian control, the Sumerian city-states began to reassert themselves. And at about the same time as references to the Gutians appear, texts also mention a West Semitic people, the Martu, or Amorites.

Ur III, the Bureaucratic State: circa 2112-2004. Even as the Gutians controlled Akkad, independent dynasties arose in Sumer, at Lagash (where the ruler Gudea is well known from sculptures and other art works) and Uruk, whose king claimed to have driven out the last of the Gutians. This ruler’s governor at the city of Ur, known as Ur Nammu, assumed power as king of Ur and established the Ur III dynasty, which ruled for more than a century. This period marks a reversion to Sumerian as the official language, although both Sumerian and Akkadian populations had shared common culture for centuries (some of the Ur III kings even had Akkadian names). And Ur III rulers borrowed much from their Akkadian predecessors, including the concept of a Mesopotamian state and its administration, as well as the divine title for most of their kings.

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During his 48-year reign (an exceptionally long period for ancient times), Ur Nammu’s son Shulgi introduced sweeping administrative reforms that greatly stabilized the state, and achieved an unprecedented degree of economic and administrative centralization. To minimize the risk of rebellion, Shulgi appointed civilization governors directly accountable to the king and military governors in newly conquered territories, with an efficient system of messengers and way stations.

Shulgi established a system of schools to provide uniform scribal and administrative training for members of the prospective bureaucracy (as well as to create a flourishing literary tradition, including many hymns praising him) and introduced new accounting and recording procedures (including calendars, and standardized weights and measures)  and new types of archival records. At the same time, he protected and extended his control through military campaigns into Syria and Iran and diplomatic alliances, including dynastic marriages. He also embarked on an ambitious building program, particularly at Ur, where he built the still-famous Ziggurat as the core of a sacred precinct, dedicated to the moon god Nanna, Ur’s tutelary deity.

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Shulgi praised himself in royal hymns, in which he recounted his impressive intellectual and physical accomplishments. Not only was he able to read and write, but was an accomplished linguist who spoke five languages, and was an athlete. He claimed to have run from Ur to Nippur and back (a distance greater than a marathon) and swam the Euphrates.

The Ur III dynasty is best known for the tremendous quantity of clay tablets, numbering in the tens of thousands, produced by the careful record keeping of the bureaucratic administration. Unfortunately, many of these tablets have come from illicit excavations. Thus their context has been destroyed, as a carefully excavated archive provides much more information about how ancient systems functioned that the individual tablets, even if fully translated. A huge number of texts have been recovered from Drehem, where Shulgi established a central depot for the receipt of thousands of sheep and cattle, delivered by the Sumerian cities on a rotating basis as offerings.

Texts detail laborers working in agricultural fields, digging canals, towing boats, cutting reeds and herding, and records indicating their level productivity and wages paid out in rations in the form of bread, beer, etc. Weaving establishments, staffed by female weavers, were large-scale industrial establishments not unlike modern factories, and produced the textiles that were a key export. The herds of sheep which produced the wool numbered in the tens of thousands.  Other well-documented trades and crafts include forestry, pottery and metallurgy.

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Collapse of Ur III and the Amorites. The break-up of the Ur III state appears to have come about through a confluence of factors. Pressure  from the Amorites to the west forced Ur to build a defensive wall during the reign of one of Shugi’s sons, the first known example of a major defensive barrier, which seems to have been about as effective as the Maginot line. But the Amorites kept up pressure, as did the Elamites from southern Iran. Gradually, the last Ur III king began to lose control, first of more distant provinces, then of the city-states of the Sumerian heartland. Also, the very ambitiousness of the structure of Ur III — the extremely centralized state — contributed to the decline, as it was less able to respond and adapt to emergencies such a famine.

By the time the Elamites conquered Ur and took its luckless king, Ibbi Sin, away in chains, circa 2000 BC, the empire was merely a shell.

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