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Sumer (so͞oˈmər) and Sumerian civilization (so͝o-mērˈēən). 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 B.C. a prehistoric village culture in the area. By 3000 B.C. 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 B.C. 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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a historical region in southern Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now the southern part of Iraq.

Until the end of the third millennium B.C., Sumer was inhabited primarily by Sumerians and, to a lesser extent, the Akkadians, an Eastern Semitic people who circa 2400 B.C. founded the city of Agade, from which the northern regions of Sumer, as far as the latitude of the modern city of Baghdad, came to be called Akkad. The time when the Sumerians settled southern Mesopotamia remains obscure; during the period of the Jemdet Nasr archaeological culture and probably during the period of earlier cultures— the Uruk and Ubaid (Ubayd or Obeid) cultures (fifth and fourth millennia B.C.) —the population was Sumerian (seeJEMDET NASR). A class society and state emerged in Sumer circa 3000 B.C. (the Protoliterate period). Researchers refer to the period 2700–2300 B.C., when a genuine writing system—the cuneiform system—had developed, as the Early Dynastic period.

The Early Dynastic period was characterized by numerous city-states, whose centers were vast temple domains, surrounded by large family communities. The chief producers were the community members, who possessed full rights, and temple clients, or dependents who were deprived of the ownership of the means of production. Slavery was a recognized institution. There was a wealthy community elite. The economy was based on river irrigation; floodwaters were collected in reservoirs, a practice that gave rise to continuous wars for head channels and irrigated fields. The military chieftains of individual city-states alternately achieved temporary hegemony over neighboring cities; the earliest well-known chieftains were the rulers of the First Dynasty of Kish and the First Dynasty of Uruk (or Erech) (28th and 27th centuries B.C.) and later rulers of Ur, Lagash, and other city-states. (SeeKISH; URUK; UR; and LAGASH.)

Within the cities a struggle was waged for power over the temple domains between the priestly-clan nobility and the secular palace nobility, which supported the ruler’s claims. The best-known manifestation of this struggle was the reform instituted by Urukagina (Uru’inimgina) in Lagash in the 24th century B.C. (seeURUKAGINA). The last Early Dynastic ruler was Lugal-zaggesi, the ruler of Umma, which bordered on Lagash, and later of Uruk as well (seeLUGAL-ZAGGESI and UMMA). The king of the city of Agade, Sargon I the Ancient (seeSARGON I THE ANCIENT), subjugated Umma, Uruk (Erech), Lagash, and other independent Sumerian states and established the Kingdom of the Four Regions of the World in Mesopotamia (Akkadian dynasty, 24th to 22nd centuries B.C.). The state of Akkad was destroyed by the onslaught of mountain Guti tribes. At the end of the 22nd century B.C., the Guti were driven out by the king of Uruk, Utu-khegal, after whose death power passed to Ur-Nammu, founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur and the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. The economy of this state was based on vast royal domains administered by an enormous apparatus of officials and overseers. Workers were reduced, in effect, to the status of slaves. The economic, political, and cultural life of the communities died out. Under the Third Dynasty of Ur, the pantheon of gods was unified, and kings were deified during their lifetimes. The idea of man’s slavelike dependence on the gods was inculcated. Circa 2000 B.C., the Third Dynasty of Ur fell as a result of the incursion of the Amor-ites, Western Semitic stock raisers, and the Elamites, a mountain people. (For information on Sumerian culture, seeBABYLONIAN AND ASSYRIAN CULTURE.)


Struve, V. V. “Novye dannye ob organizatsii truda i sotsial’noi strukture obshchestva Sumera epokhi III dinastii Ura.” Sovetskoe vostokovedenie, 1949, vol. 6.
Tiumenev, A. I. Gosudarstvennoe khoziaistvo drevnego Shumera. Moscow-Leningrad, 1956.
D’iakonov, I. M. Obshchestvennyi i gosudarstvennyi stroi drevnego Dvurech’ia: Shumer. Moscow, 1959.
Fischer Weltgeschichte, vol. 2. Wiesbaden, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the S region of Babylonia; seat of a civilization of city-states that reached its height in the 3rd millennium bc
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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