SUMER (sū'mêr). One of the two political divisions, Sumer and Akkad, originally comprising Babylonia. Its principal cities were Nippur, Adab, Lagash, Umma, Larsa, Erech, Ur, and Eridu, most of which were on or near the Euphrates.

SUMER sōō’ mər (Sumer. kengir, Akkad. šumeru). The ancient name of the land located in what is today the southern half of Iraq in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Other names used in antiquity to denote this area are Babylonia and Shinar.


This region is never called “Sumer” in the OT. One scholar has proposed that the only remnant of the old name “Sumer” in the OT is the personal name Shem, one of Noah’s sons.


The northernmost limit of the ancient land of Sumer was prob. in the vicinity of modern Baghdad. Among the old cultural centers which fell within the borders of the land were the cities of Kish (Tell el-Oheimir), Kid Nun (Jemdet Nasr), Nippur (Niffer), Lagash (Telloh), Uruk (Warka), Ur (Tell Muqayyir), Eridu (Abu Shahrain), Shuruppak (Fara), Larsa (Senkere), and Umma (Jocha). Of these illustrious cities two (Uruk-Erech and Ur) are mentioned in the OT. Here also was located the city of Babylon, but it is not usually considered as a Sumer. city, since the period of its first flourishing (c. 1800 b.c.) follows the end of the Sumer. periods in the history of Iraq. The history of Sumer properly speaking is the history of her separate cities, since during the period under consideration these cities seldom acted in complete concert. Each city had its claims to fame: its local god, temples, monuments, or rulers. Among the more illustrious of rulers, Kish could claim Enmebaragesi, Akka, and Mesilim; Uruk could claim the famous Gilgamesh, around whose exploits were woven the Gilgamesh epic; Ur could boast Meskalamdug, Mesannepada, Urnammu, and Shulgi; Lagash could recount the deeds of Urnanshe, Urukagina, Gudea, and Eannatum. Each of the important cities had its own local deity or deities. Uruk had the goddess Inanna and the sky-god An. Ur venerated the moon-god Suen. Eridu was the cult center of the god of the sweet waters, Enki (also known as Ea). Nippur contained the temple of the air-god Enlil. In Sippar was the seat of worship for the sun-god Utu.


The arrival of the Sumerians

(c. 3300-3000 b.c.). Archeological excavations have demonstrated that the southern half of Iraq was inhabited before the coming of the Sumerians. Until quite recently the prehistory proper, the Stone Age of Iraq, was virtually unknown. The most ancient traces of man’s presence in Iraq were found in 1949 at Barda-Balka between Kirkuk and Suleimaniyah. They consisted of paleolithic flint tools: heart-shaped hand axes and flake side-scrapers. They have been attributed to the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic period, about 120,000 years ago. In southern Iraq the oldest known culture is that of a people somehow connected with the contemporary Halaf people in the N (c. 4500 b.c.). Traces of their presence have been found at Qal’at Hajj Muhammed (near Uruk) and at Eridu. They were followed by people whose culture is called Ubaidian from the name of the site (Tell el-Ubaid) where its remains were first identified. C. 4000 b.c. this people established the villages which grew into the cities of Eridu, Ur, Nippur, Kish, Adab, Kullab, Larsa, and Isin. Their language has been called “Proto-Euphratean” although all that is known of it is what has survived in certain pre-Sumer. nouns and the names of some Sumer. cities which may have been retained from pre-Sumer. times. This culture, first imported into the southern Delta, expanded northward along the two rivers and eventually spread through Upper Mesopotamia, northern Syria and Cilicia. Farmers in the S followed a simple method of “basin irrigation,” which, however, sufficed to support a growing population. The Ubaidians had already developed many skills and occupations, including those of the farmer, the cattle breeder, the fisherman, the potter, smith, stone mason, carpenter, reed-mat weaver, and worker in leather. The temple was always the largest and best constructed building in the Ubaid village. Furthermore, the same traditions of religious architecture were followed on the same site from the Ubaid period to early historical times (c. 4000-3000 b.c.). The temple, it would appear, was already the center of most economic, social, and governmental activities.

To the 500-year span of 3300 to 2800 b.c. have been assigned the Uruk and the Proto-Literate periods. To it one may assign the coming of the Sumerians. There is no such thing as a Sumer. “race.” The skulls from Sumer. graves are either dolicho- or brachycephalic. They suggest that the populace consisted of a mixture of Armenoid and Mediterranean races. The physical traits depicted on monuments—the big nose, the bulging eyes, the thick neck, and flat occiput—are conventional and do not indicate racial type. The same features have been observed on statues depicting Semites, while other statues representing Sumerians (e.g., Gudea) show a short, straight nose and a long head. It should be admitted at the outset that only language can serve as a criterion for identification of Sumerians. This language was agglutinative. Unfortunately, scholars have been unable to find any convincing example of a known language cognate to Sumer., although many have been suggested. The geographical background of their oldest myths and stories seems to have been typical of southern Iraq: rivers and marshes, reeds, tamarisks, palm trees. Archeological evidence suggests no major break in pottery style sufficient to prove a large scale immigration of “Sumerians” during the Uruk period. Indeed, many scholars wonder if it is not quite beside the point even to pose the question of when and from where the Sumerians arrived. As one writer puts it, “They may...represent a branch of the population which occupied the greater part of the Near East in early Neolithic and Chalcolithic times. In other words, they may have ‘always’ been in Iraq” (G. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 85). Nevertheless, other scholars insist that the Sumerians immigrated into southern Iraq no earlier than c. 3500 b.c. and most likely from a home in the N to the W of the Caspian Sea.

The early dynastic period

(c. 2700-2300 b.c.). From the so-called Sumer. king list one learns the names of a number of kings who reigned before and after the Deluge. It is unfortunately impossible to authenticate most of them from reliable historical evidence. The earliest ruler of the king list who has been attested independently by historical evidence is En-me-barage-si, who ruled c. 2700 b.c. over the city of Kish. The second earliest ruler so attested is Mes-anne-padda, king of Ur (c. 2650 b.c.). The traditional history of Sumer, however, begins with a king named Etana, who may have ruled Kish c. 2800 b.c. It appears that Etana ruled over more than the city of Kish itself. Rather, he exercised control over all of Sumer and even surrounding lands. If Etana of Kish built an empire, it soon passed to the neighboring city of Uruk. For not long thereafter a king named Mes-kiagga-sher of Uruk (c. 2750) extended his rule from the Sea (Mediterranean?) to the Zagros Mountains. During the reigns of his son, En-mer-kar (c. 2730), and his successor, the warrior Lugal-banda (c. 2710), there were a series of military and political encounters with a city far to the NE named Aratta. By the end of Lugal-banda’s reign the power of the ruler of Kish began to reassert itself. En-me-barage-si of Kish (c. 2700 b.c.) had defeated Elam and founded Sumer’s holiest shrine, the first temple of Enlil in Nippur, a center of pilgrimage for the Sumerians not unlike Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca. Probably contemporary with En-me-barage-si of Kish were the kings of Ur (Mes-kalam-dug and A-kalam-dug) to whom pertained the famous royal cemetery excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley. Their successor, Mes-anne-padda (possibly also known by the name Me-silim), assumed the position of hegemony among the cities of Sumer during the reign of Agga of Kish, En-me-barage-si’s son. A third contemporary of Agga of Kish and Mes-anne-padda of Ur was the famous Gilgamesh of Uruk (c. 2650 b.c.), about whose historical deeds was woven an elaborate fabric of legends. Precisely where historical truth ceases and poetic fancy begins in these tales is not always possible to determine. That he was in fact the ruler under whom the city wall of Uruk was built, as is claimed in the Gilgamesh Epic, can be substantiated on the basis of the character of the brickwork in the walls (the so-called “plano-convex” bricks). Another legend recounts Gilgamesh’s encounters with Agga of Kish, which likewise seems historical. The remainder of the epic, describing his noble quest for immortality, cannot be validated and prob. is nothing more than a folk tale. The generation of Agga, Gilgamesh, and Mes-anne-padda was followed by an interlude of foreign domination. The two foreign dynasties of Awan and Hamazi (coming from the mountains which border Iraq on the E) exercised control over a large part of Sumer. The foreigners were finally expelled by E-anna-tum, the ruler of Lagash (c. 2550 b.c.). He extended his control over the other Sumer. cities by defeating the armies of Ur and Uruk and Kish, and by settling a boundary dispute between his own city of Lagash and the neighboring city of Umma by force of arms. The last-named conflict was commemorated by a masterpiece of Sumer. sculpture, the Stele of the Vultures.

The cent. following E-anna-tum’s death (c. 2500-2400 b.c.) is somewhat confused. It appears that for short periods of time large portions of Sumer were controlled by Lugal-anne-mundu of Adab, En-shakush-anna of Uruk, and a group of foreign kings from the city of Mari on the Middle Euphrates. Shortly before 2400 b.c. there arose in the city of Lagash a ruler, Urukagina, who is the earliest known ruler to have left in writing a record of sweeping social reforms designed to eliminate greed, oppression, and exploitation of the poor by the ruling classes. He reigned over Lagash for eight years, until Lagash was conquered by Lugal-zagge-si, king of Umma. Lugal-zagge-si of Umma then proceeded to capture Uruk, and claimed in his inscrs. to have conquered all of Mesopotamia and Syria. If this is not sheer boasting without substance, it may only indicate that Lugal-zagge-si secured the submission of the Semites of Mari, who in turn exercised some form of loose political control over the Syrian groups farther to the W. Lugal-zagge-si reigned for about twenty-nine years (c. 2400-2371 b.c.).

The domination by the Akkadians and the Guti

(c. 2300-2100 b.c.). Persons or groups of persons who spoke languages belonging to the Sem. family were not new to Sumer in 2300 b.c. But c. 2300 for the first time a ruler arose to exercise political control over all of Sumer, Mesopotamia in the N, and Syria in the W, whose name and native language were Sem. His real name is not known. What is known is the royal name or title which he employed: Sharru-kin, which in his native language meant “legitimate king.” In history books he is usually called “Sargon the Great” to distinguish him from the other Sargons of later periods in the history of Babylonia and Assyria. So famous did he become and so popular did his legend become in later times that it is difficult to separate his actual deeds from those falsely attributed to him. The former must certainly have been impressive, if they were able to stimulate the latter. There is no reason to doubt that his effective realm included all of Sumer in the S, Assyria in the N, Syria and the Euphrates Valley in the W. More extravagant claims of his expeditions to central Asia Minor (Burušhanda), to Cyprus, Egypt, and possibly Ethiopia, are quite another matter. It is understandable that around the career and origins of such a man of accomplishments should grow up legends. A text written in the 7th cent. b.c. describes Sargon’s birth in terms similar to that of Moses: “My mother was an entu-priestess. My father I knew not....My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My priestess (entu) mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She placed me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose not over me. The river...carried me to Akki, the drawer of water,...who took me as his son and reared me,...appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for many years I exercised kingship.” The facts behind this romance are that Sargon was of humble origin and that, while serving as cup-bearer to Ur-Zababa, king of Kish, he managed to overthrow his lord and led an army against Uruk, where he met and defeated Lugal-zagge-si, whom he brought back to Kish in humiliation “in a dog collar” and exposed him at Enlil’s gate. Sargon reigned for fifty-five years (c. 2371-2316 b.c.), managing to hold together his far-flung possessions until the end. His son Rimush (reigned 2315-2307) was not so successful and on more than one occasion had to quell rebellion in his own palace. Rimush was succeeded by Manishtusu (2306-2292), Naram-Sin (2291-2255), and Shar-kali-sharri (2254-2230), none of whom were able to equal the successes of their great ancestor Sargon. The later legends ignore all of these but Naram-Sin, whom they cast as the typical “bad-luck ruler.” The legends portray him as impious and ill-fated and as the ruler during whose reign the empire collapsed. The truth of the matter is that Naram-Sin was far more capable than the other successors of Sargon. But toward the end of his reign he did meet a crushing defeat at the hands of the Guti, a semi-barbaric mountain folk. The kingdom of Akkad, however, survived until the end of the reign of his successor.

The Sumerian revival: the 3rd dynasty of Ur and the Isin-Larsa period

Social and economic institutions


From as early as the Ubaid period the temple of the city god occupied a central and pre-eminent role in the life of the city. The high priest of that temple and representative of the god was called the ensi. Most of the arable land surrounding the city was owned by the city god (i.e. by his temple). Peasants tilled that land and were given a portion of the produce to live on. Although the ensi supervised the economy of the city, the crises arising from threat of attack called for a convening of the people in two assemblies. A temporary war leader was appointed for each crisis by the assemblies. This leader was called the lugal (“bid man”). Like the OT judges, this lugal retired from his office after the threat had ceased. In time, kingship became a hereditary institution. Cities supported standing armies that were organized and well equipped. At first the “secular” lugal and the “cleric” ensi or sanga respected each other’s separate domains, but eventually the lugal came to control the temple as well as the palace.


Most of the citizens were farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen, but many made their livelihood in the crafts as masons, carpenters, smiths, potters, jewelers, merchants, scribes, and physicians. Despite the large temple land holdings, many persons held private property: farms and gardens, houses and cattle. Slaves were few in number at first. Most slaves were prisoners taken in battle. But freemen might become the slaves of others as punishment for certain offenses. In time of need parents could sell their children as slaves. The slave wore the brand mark of his owner. He could be flogged as punishment. But slaves could engage in business, borrow money, and buy their freedom.


Law was formulated in writing as early as Urukagina of Lagash (c. 2420 b.c.) and Ur-Nammu of Ur (c. 2150 b.c.). Private documents of law (contracts, deeds, wills, promissory notes, receipts) have been recovered. The supervision of the courts was in the hands of the city governor (ensi) or his representative (mashkim). Cases were heard by a panel of three or four judges (di-kud) who weighed evidence in the form of statements from witnesses and written documents. Conflicts in testimony were resolved by oath-taking. The decision of the judges was legally binding, but appeals could be made on the basis of new evidence.


The city-gods.

The prominence of the temple and its divine proprietor in the economy of the Sumer. city afford some indication of the nature of the pantheon so far as the ordinary layman was concerned. For him the complex and speculative cosmology and theology of the priest and scribe had little meaning. He was a member of an overgrown village family at the head of which was the ensi, who represented the city-god. He had little familiarity with the “functional” roles of the various gods venerated in his and other Sumer. cities. He did not choose to be born in this city, so he obviously did not choose his own god. Nor is there any evidence to show that persons transferred their residence and citizenship to a different town for religious reasons—at least not until Abraham, the son of Terah (Gen 11; 12). He was loyal to his city-god as he would be to his own father. Accomplishments of his city, whether in war or peace, were accomplishments of its god, and the god was thanked accordingly through dedications of statues, food offerings, or even the building of a new or larger temple.

The rituals and festivals.

“The Care and Feeding of the Gods” is what one scholar has called the process of the cult. Each god was housed in a temple, clothed with finely woven garments, fed with the daily food offerings, and entertained by the singing of daily hymns by the priests and their staff. The cult image was the god. If an invading army carried off the image, they carried off the god. At regularly specified times of the year the staff of the temple threw a “party” (called a “festival” or ezen) for the god—a party to which his divine cronies from other cities were invited. Their statues were brought over land or in river barges to the “host” temple, and, of course, crowds of human attendants filled the city. Calendars of such regularly scheduled (sag-ús) festivals were drawn up. The most glamorous of the yearly festivals was the akiti or New Year’s Festival. The high point of the activities was the sacred marriage ceremony, in which the reigning king was united in marriage to Inanna, the goddess of love and reproduction. The role of Inanna in the connubium was played by the high priestess (en, Akkad. entu), who was the bride of the kinggod and kept herself for him. To the Sumerians it appeared that all vegetation died and all animal life languished during the hot summer months. Since it was the task of the god of vegetation to foster it, it was assumed that he had either died or been kidnapped and removed to the nether world, where he remained during the summer. He returned at the time of the autumnal equinox (the Sumer. New Year) and, when he had joined with his wife, produced that remarkable revival of plant and animal life so long awaited by the land’s inhabitants. There were several such “dying gods” in Sumer, but the best known was Dumu-zi(d) (“true so n”), whose name was pronounced by the Semites as Tammuz. Some scholars see as further representatives of this divine type the Ugaritic Hadd or Ba’al, the Phoen. Adōnī, the Egyp. Osiris, and the Hitt. Telepinu.


Fr. Thureau-Dangin, Les inscriptions de Sumer et d’Akkad (1905); Th. Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List (1939); “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia,” JNES 2 (1943), 159-172; M. A. Beek, Bildatlas des assyrisch-babylonischen Kultur (1961); S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians (1963); G. Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964).