c. 2150 BC – c. 2000 BC
Back to where I began, in a way. And the next one I have scheduled after this is the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, so it’s very much a back to the beginning for my History series. Except a thousand years later and with Neo-Sumeria at least, a much more organised state albeit one that didn’t last nearly as long. Because with Neo-Sumeria, it’s concentrated in the power of Ur. That city was the only ruling dynasty of this empire, so very different from early Sumer when power jumped around all of the Mesopotamian cities regularly, debatable that it was an empire but it did control nearly as much land as the Akkadian Empire a couple of centuries before. This was like the Sumerians getting one last blaze of glory on the Akkadians before fading away and letting Akkadian successor states in the form of Assyria and Babylon be remembered.
Neo-Sumer was located pretty much on similar territory to the Akkadian Empire, once the rulers of Ur reconquered the territory lost when Akkad fell to the Gutians. It was far looser control though, and the western edges were only controlled/loosely owned by the Ur-based dynasty much later, as they started from Ur and only moved outwards as they became more confident in attacking or subjugating other Sumerian cities. The likes of Ebla would have been client-states at best. Elam and Assyria were still on its borders and a number of less organised peoples were moving in on Sumer during this time, particularly the Amorites, who would take over the show after this Sumerian state collapsed.
Timeline & Personalities
After Akkad fell, the Gutians moved in and ruled for a couple of generations, I’m including them in this bit rather than their own section as they’re quite tied to Sumer, despite the Gutians possibly being history’s first migratory horde in that they stomped on civilisation and settled over it. That’s a pattern I’m going to enjoy explaining over and over again because that is one of the key points of history and it gets more and more intriguing each time a new horde comes to replace the old. In this case, however, there was no horde to replace the Gutians, as they were replaced by Ur in terms of power.
And the Gutians, although they destroyed Akkad, they did not supplant the entirety of Sumer, local dynasties out at Lagash survived. And it seems they did a terrible job at ruling what was left of the Akkadian Empire, they seemed to have a system whereby a high-ranking member of Gutian society would reign as king for 3 years and then pass it over to someone else – we have a king list for them and it’s all so uniform in terms of reign lengths that this must be the case. And yet none of them could restore the Sumerian area to full prosperity. But Ur could.
There’s little known about the Gutian Dark Age after the fall of Akkad and before the rise of Ur, thanks to the Gutians’ poor record-keeping. Utu-Hengal was the first ruler, coming in at 2119 BC or 2055 BC, depending on which chronology you take, he drove out the Gutians from his general area and began what we call the ‘Sumerian Renaissance’. Because it had huge churches and glorious works of art, and if I ‘m not being silly, it just means the Sumerian culture briefly flared up to dominance again. Utu was followed by Ur-Nammu, the most famous of these kings. I mentioned him in the first Sumer article and I’ll do that again, it’s because of his Code of Laws that he made, arguably the oldest surviving example of a law code in the world, which means I’ve gone through so many other states without talking about their laws. See, as I go through states I’ll have more aspects to talk about and hopefully these sections of mine can become a little more defined instead of me shifting them about pretty much as I please. Ur-Nammu properly codified his dynasty in control of his area and began expanding outwards. There’s debate about what relation Utu-Hengal had to Ur-Nammu as he might have been a governor or some kind of relative as it seems Ur-Nammu rises to power in an unusual way, possibly Utu-Hengal just handing the reigns off to him as Nammu was clearly a talented man.
Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi was very successful, managing to reform all the administrative processes that his father didn’t, and getting himself deified during his lifetime, which is quite unusual. He had poems commissioned to praise him that we have, which I’m sure isn’t that unusual but it’s an indication of his character. Shulgi’s son Amar-Sin expanded the empire northwards and westwards, on military campaigns.
Shu-Sin and Ibbi-Sin were the last two kings. Ibbi-Sin faced attacks from two fronts as the short-lived empire faced multiple enemies, an organised attack from the Amorites to the west and an Elamite invasion to the east. In 2004 or 1940 BC, depending on the chronology, Ur was sacked by the Elamites, Babylon and everything west fell under Amorite rule, Ibbi-Sin was taken captive and the last Sumerian ruler in history lost his throne.
Culture (and Laws)
As detailed in my first Sumer article, when I din’t think I’d do something separate for Neo-Sumer, these are some of the points from the Code of Ur-Nammu, normally attributed it to him, some dissenters attribute it to Shulgi but I see no evidence to support that being the case, Ur-Nammu seemed much more like the type of king to set down laws. There were many common laws, death for murder and robbery being key. As an example, here’s a very specific one: ‘If someone severed the nose of another man with a copper knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina of silver’ – I have to wonder how often that sort of thing happened.
There were also fines of silver for various other offences such as adultery and rape. Look at this one for an example of early equality: If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free, or this one for an example of their slave practices: If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt’. The Sumerians literally had a ‘wash their mouth out with salt’ law.
There were also 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.
The dynasty completed the construction of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, a huge building common to Ancient Mesopotamia, and the same sort of building detailed in the biblical story of Babel – this was one of the greatest, even though it was at Ur, not Babel, and the peoples were already speaking different languages at this point because…. while the Ur rulers attempted to bring back Sumerian as a language of culture and was the language of administration in this empire, the spread of the speech of the Akkadians was not going to be stopped and all new towns began to get Akkadian names, indicating that the populace was still speaking the newer language and Sumerian was beginning to take a Latin-esque position.
But it still dominated literature and written language, and there was a good amount of that coming out of this Sumerian Renaissance – if it was a literary renaissance, we don’t know if the Gutians stopped people making books. Anyway, the Epic Of Gilgamesh was definitely a popular writing around this time, people falling for the charms of the epic king – this could have been where that book first took shape.
Reclaiming the land from Gutian rule meant restarting the irrigation systems and reinstalling governors in all of the burnt cities, except for Akkad, which would be left to fade into history because resettling it would have been too helpful to historians. Textile manufacturing was also in place in Sumer at this time, meaning there wasn’t a purely agricultural society here anymore. And this government, under the law code and the manufacturing, shows a very centralised state, so possibly this is the closest we’ve found to an actual nation so far. As far as its eastern portion that was directly ruled by the kings of Ur goes.
The people lived and worked as labourers mostly under the rule of Ur, maybe because many of them were Akkadian speakers. Slaves were common as I’ve hinted above in the law codes. Militarily, I don’t see any news of new innovations in tech coming through so the spears and slings and bows approach still stands.
And that brings us to the end of the Sumerians. Next time, we’re back to Egypt and I’m going to cover the Pharoahs properly.
See also in History Of A Nation: Iraq
See also in History Of A Nation: Syria
See also in History Of A Nation: Kuwait