Near East


Records of the period before 2300 BCE come from various cities of Sumer: from Uruk, from Ur, and from the ancient sites of Lagash and Shuruppak. Together they tell us much about the life of these first literate peoples. Although all the cities recognized their common unity as Sumerian, and although the city of Nippur, with its god Enlil, was the religious focal point for all Sumer, there was no one seat of political power. Each of the cities or towns of Sumer was the head of a small city state, with continual bickering between neighbors.

One city state might obtain control over other, temporarily weaker, cities and then its ruler might merit the title of 'king'. An example of the changeable nature of politics at this time is furnished by the fortunes of the city of Lagash. At one time the 'king of Kish', Mesalim, interceded in a land dispute between Lagash and Umma. A generation later, although still preoccupied with its dispute with Umma, Lagash, under the leadership of Eannatum, defeated a ruler of Mari, a city lying north of Kish on the middle Euphrates.

The Sumerian head of a city state was called an ensi, and its clear that his power was considered to be delegated to him by the god of the city. He was the chief religious member of the community and represented the people in his dealings with the city god. The victory of one state over another was seen as a reflection on earth of similar events involving their respective gods. Moreover, the 'kingship' of Sumer, awarded by the god Enlil from his seat at Nippur, was already thought to be a matter decided in heavenly council.

Interesting light has been thrown on the position of the ensi by excavations at the city of Ur. There a vast cemetary was discovered which contained tombs so conspicuous that they can only have belonged to the members of a royal family, such as the one attributed to Queen Puabi. To accompany them in their afterlife, the dead had been supplied with massive quantities of gold, silver, other metals and precious stones, worked exquisitely into jewellery, vessels, armor and even musical instruments. In addition to these, they also contained grim evidence that slaves too were a possession in ancient Sumer. In one tomb more than seventy bodies were found, lying neatly ordered outside the central chamber which housed the king's body where they would continue to serve him loyally in the afterlife as they had before his death.

The lack of resistance on the parts of the attendants indicates a strong obedience to their sovereign and their gods. Certainly all the evidence suggests that religion was of utmost importance to the Sumerians. They believed that the gods ruled the earth and that humankind was created to be their servants. Each city was regarded as belonging to a particular god or goddess whose earthly home was the city's temple, the scene of many elaborate rituals conducted by a hierarchy of priests.

The temples also retained much of their wealth and often had a considerable labor force to work their lands for the patron deity not only owned the urban community but the cultivated fields and villages which made up the whole city state. Some land was worked by villagers directly for the gods, under the supervision of temple officers. Some was allotted to temple staff as a reward for their services and much was let to farmers who surrendered part of their produce to the temple as rent. The priests were the leading collectors of taxes.