The first empire in history arose from a hot, dry wasteland with no rain to nourish crops and no trees or stones to construct with. Despite this, its inhabitants created the world’s first settlements, complete with monumental buildings and massive populations—all of which were constructed entirely of mud.
Sumer ruled Mesopotamia, which encompassed the southern portion of modern-day Iraq.
Mesopotamia literally means “between two rivers,” referring to the Tigris and Euphrates. Early Sumerians used irrigation channels, dams, and reservoirs to divert river water and cultivate vast swaths of previously barren land around 5000 BCE. Agricultural societies like this were gradually forming all over the world.
The Sumerians, on the other hand, were the first to take the next move. They started to build multi-story homes and temples out of clay bricks made from river mud. They invented the wheel, specifically a potter’s wheel for turning mud into household goods and tools. About 4500 BCE, those clay bricks gave birth to the world’s first cities.
Priests and priestesses, who were considered royalty, were at the top of the city’s social ladder, followed by traders, craftspeople, fishermen, and enslaved citizens. The Sumerian empire was made up of separate city-states that functioned as small nations.
Language and philosophical beliefs tied them together, but they lacked unified power.
Uruk, Ur, and Eridu were the first towns, and there were eventually a dozen.
Each had its own king, who was a cross between a priest and a monarch. To conquer new lands, they also fought each other. Each city had a patron deity who was called the city’s creator.
The ziggurat, a temple built in the shape of a stepped pyramid, was the city’s largest and most prominent structure. Sumerians started to extend their territory around 3200 BCE. On chariots and waggons, the potter’s wheel found a new home. They made boats out of reeds and date palm leaves, with linen sails that took them across rivers and seas for long distances.
They established a trading network with the growing kingdoms of Egypt, Anatolia, and Ethiopia, importing gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and cedar wood to supplement scarce resources. The unexpected catalyst for the development of the world’s first writing system was trade. It began as an accounting method for Sumerian merchants doing business with foreign traders.
Cuneiform, an early pictogram scheme, evolved into a script after a few hundred years. The Sumerians developed the first written laws and the first school system, both of which were intended to teach the art of writing— as well as less glamorous inventions like bureaucracy and taxation. Scribes studied in the schools from dawn to dusk, from childhood to adulthood.
They studied accounting and mathematics, as well as copying works of literature onto clay tablets, including hymns, myths, proverbs, animal fables, fairy spells, and the first epics. The storey of Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk who was also the subject of legendary tales, was told on some of the tablets.
By the third millennium BCE, however, Sumer was no longer the only empire in the region, let alone Mesopotamia. Nomadic peoples from the north and east poured into the area in droves.
Some outsiders looked up to the Sumerians, following their way of life and writing their own languages in the cuneiform script.
Sargon, the Akkadian king, invaded the Sumerian city-states in 2300 BCE. Sargon, on the other hand, revered Sumerian civilization, and the Akkadians and Sumerians coexisted for centuries. Some occupying forces were only interested in plunder and destruction. Despite the spread of Sumerian civilization, the Sumerian people were wiped out by an onslaught of invasions by 1750 BCE.
Sumer then vanished into the desert soil, not to be seen again until the 19th century. However, Sumerian civilization survived for thousands of years, passing down to the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians.
Sumerian innovations and rituals were passed down through the Babylonians to the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman cultures. Some of them are still around today.