I love history. So much so that I am a history graduate, voluntarily sabotaging my future career prospects to an eternity of talking about transferable skills in whatever I end up in. But I did it because that and writing are two of the things I love doing most in this world. So on Izzy Stars I’m going to have to do a regular history section – and history combined with geography is history, but even better. Good old political history. Of countries. Which will hopefully help some people learn things. If they are reading this. Which could happen.
c. 4000 BC – c. 2000 BC
As you will figure out from the title, we shall be talking about the Sumerians. And I have chosen them to start off with because arguably, they were the first civilization on Earth. Concepts of nation, state and country were definitely thousands of years off but as I want to start in antiquity, that’ll be true for all of the early ones I cover. And I shall go through history, covering each nation state as it emerged, and provide a commentary on their deeds that will hopefully be a bit more interesting to read than just looking them up on Wikipedia. Because that’s what I’ll be doing. And using a few other sources, which I will credit if I do use them. I want to have this as something I can continue for absolutely ages so I will be talking about small nations that emerge but there will be a limit, if a government was beyond tribal then I’ll talk about it, otherwise, I’ll skip over it. Mainly because there wouldn’t be a whole lot to talk about.
Time and Location
So, Sumer. Back in the depths of BC, chronologies are not particularly accurate, but the estimations of when Sumer was a powerhouse of a civilization date from around 4000-3500 BC, it’s no coincidence that Civilization games start in the timeframe they do, down to 2200 BC, when they were conquered by the Akkadians, who I’m sure will be up for examination fairly soon themselves. The Stone Age had been over for a thousand years, humans were in a period known to some as the Copper Age, leading into the Early Bronze Age, which is where civilization starts. Sumerians lived and farmed along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq, what was called for a long time in history Mesopotamia. Sumer is a name given to them by the conquering Akkadians and it is mainly through Sumer’s successors that we know about these people.
Despite me putting borders on that rough map, of course, they wouldn’t have had borders, or anything of the sort, Sumer as a nation was a loose collection of city states who probably just recognised that they had something in common with each other, each occasionally being the seat of the monarch. There were more important cities than Uruk and Ur but those are the two I have chosen to mark on the map as cities that would be recognised, particularly Uruk, as the probable seat of power for Sumer’s most famous denizen, Gilgamesh, around 2800 BC. And Gilgamesh is so special that he’s going to get a paragraph to himself. Now. This has nothing to do with the fact that Fate/Zero is my favourite anime ever.
The camp, confident demeanour that Gilgamesh exudes in Fate/Zero is probably fairly accurate from what we can tell, he is described as a demigod in the Akkadian epic where most of his story comes from – and what demigod do you know that isn’t an overconfident twit? Certainly none that I’ve ever come across in fiction. Ahem. Sumerian scholars who have far more expertise than me think that he was probably a historical figure but naturally, his deeds were exaggerated. That seems to be a common theme among depictions of Sumerians, the king list that we have unearthed for them has the kings from the dawn of time ruling for tens of thousands of years, with reign lengths slowly decreasing. Gilgamesh himself was held to have reigned for a mere 126 years. If you’re thinking that sounds similar to something else from about this time, i.e. the Old Testament, then that’s a good observation – these mythologies would have had similar themes, being not too distant from each other. Gilgamesh’s epic even makes reference to a Great Flood. Now he himself was probably a historical figure, we have confirmation of the existence of other characters in the epic and so it is likely he existed, probably without being the status of a demigod nor owning weapons that he could pull from a golden sphere of light to throw them at his enemies. The epic portrays him as an arrogant man who is sent an adversary by the gods, Enkidu, to rid him of his arrogance. After a long fight, Enkidu becomes the king’s companion and accompanies him on many adventures, where they encourage each other, fight beasts, collect adventuring trophies and defending Uruk. Enkidu then dies, spurring Gilgamesh through anger on to greater achievements, including the secret of eternal life. Again, these stories bear similarities to other ancient stories from around the same area and it’s possible and probable that there was some confluence and merging of myths.
As we move into later periods of Sumerian history, the more sure we can be that the rulers of this collection of cities existed and held real power in this area, with the names that they are given. There are depictions of cities fighting with each other and exerting superiority over each other, one such being the Stele Of The Vultures, depicting a victory by the city Lagash over the neighbouring Umma. Lagash was a powerful dynasty in the latter centuries of Sumerian power. Following their rule, the Akkadian Empire, separate from the loose Sumerian people by a language barrier, swept in and ruled for a couple of centuries. A brief Sumerian renaissance period followed around 2000 BC, under the city of Ur, which was responsible for producing one of the earliest known law codes, the Code Of Ur-Nammu, which gives a hint that the Sumerian society was structured. The codes include many common laws, death for murder and robbery, fines of silver for various other offences such as adultery and rape, rewards for returning slaves to captivity, indicating a healthy appetite for slavery, and a trial by water for those accused of sorcery, something that remained common for a long time throughout history. We can assume that earlier Sumer was also similar, although several of these laws were probably added as time progresses.
Not long after this, there was a decrease in the population and the amount of people who spoke Sumerian declined significantly that it was could no longer be the dominant cultural power in the region, remaining only as a liturgical language. The peasants would not notice much of a change save for the languages they spoke being different from their forefathers, but what we call Sumer would be soon giving full way to Akkadia, and in centuries to come, Assyrians and Babylonians.
From what we know, Sumerians lived much as you would expect people in the ancient world to live. The population was small, although it made up a considerable part of the world’s population at that time. They had developed pottery and used it for much of their everyday life. They were among the first people to develop writing and wrote on tablets of clay, often depicting historical epics like Gilgamesh. Sumerian people developed culture in all its forms available in the ancient world, writing, as well as music shows up. They developed early systems of counting, are famous for building ziggurats, had a developed system of agriculture with a wide variety of crops and farm animals, and had all types of technology from the wheel to bronze and leather. As long as you weren’t unlucky enough to be a slave or a human sacrifice, southern Iraq was the ideal place to be living in the 3rd millennium BC. I suppose the military engagements might also be a way to put you off…
Foreign Policy and Military
Not that there were many other nations to treat with, but the Sumerians seemed to do enough infighting among themselves to negate any adverse relations they could have with those. There seems to be indications of trade from Egypt to the Indus and perhaps even further so it is not like the ancient world was isolated, but trade was likely all that happened at this point. Militarily, the troops were largely spearmen, perhaps fighting in the disciplined phalanx formation that is associated with the Greeks centuries later, indicating a bit of discipline in the army. Early chariots are also attested to, although they would be perfected by other nations later down the line. They even, and this is said while later it will be taken for granted, used walls to defend their cities and used them to deter some foes.
So not a nation as such but the first civilization that got a significant amount of information from scholars, Sumer is one of the cradles of said civilization, it’s a shame we can only talk in such general terms about it, but you can see in their culture and societal setup that they would be an inspiration, directly or indirectly, for numerous cultures that would follow in their wake in the Middle East.