What country did they live in?
The Sumerians lived in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC. Mesopotamia – or the Fertile Crescent – was a region in the Middle East between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the territory of modern Iraq, Iran and Syria. Ancient Sumeria was very small; it occupied only a narrow stretch of this territory, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers reach the Persian Gulf. Their territory was mostly inside the modern-day borders of Iraq, with small stretches of land in Kuwait, Iran and Arabia. Sumerian traders are known to have sailed down the Gulf as far as modern-day Qatar and Bahrain, and to have traveled upstream to Haran, in the neighborhood of the modern-day cities of Mosul and Tikirit.
Since the land between these two rivers was very fertile, people first started practicing agriculture (farming), there. Sumer became home to the first civilizations and cities because of the development of farming. In the beginning these cities were independent, each city being a state or nation of its own. Each city had its own king, laws, gods, and calendar. The biggest cities were Eridu, Kish, Lagash, Uruk, Ur, and Nippur. The rulers of these cities led their people into constant wars.
What did their buildings look like?
The Sumerians built houses, palaces and temples using mud bricks. Good stone is not found in the Euphrates delta, so it had to be transported at great expense over long distances. Small quantities of precious stone would be used to cover the brick in places, but most Sumerian buildings were brick.
Sumerians made bricks by scooping wet mud into a wooden frame. The bricks would be all of the same size, but slightly rounded on top. The Sumerians preferred low, wide bricks to the standard shape we use today. Hot sunshine would evaporate most of the water from the brick, which hardened. Builders only rarely fired their bricks to make them totally hard. This meant that heavy rains and floods would usually destroy Sumerian buildings. Fired bricks would be decorated with paints or glazes, and assembled to form pictures on walls. Sometimes the Sumerians covered walls of brick with an added layer of mud, into which they would push cones of colored clay to decorate walls.
The most famous type of Sumerian architecture was the Ziggurat . Ziggurats were many-storied structures like Egyptian pyramids, or wedding cakes. Each layer was square, with a smaller layer built on top. Stairs on the outside of the ziggurat led up the sides to the top of the building. This put the top platform of the ziggurat high in the air. There the Sumerian priests put temples to their gods. It is possible they also watched the movements of the stars from observatories there, built very high on a platform of mud brick. On these large platforms were built smaller and smaller platforms, creating a pyramid shape. Originally they were made out of mud brick but Ziggurats from later times were made out of fired bricks, which were glazed and adorned with pictures or faced with stone carvings.
Most people's houses did not look like this. They were simple mud brick huts, similar to those found all over the Middle and Near East. Many of them had courtyards at the center, with chambers for eating and working on the main floor, and rooms for sleeping either at the back or upstairs. We do not know what the roofs of these houses were like, but we can guess. They were built of heavy sticks set into the wall in one direction, and lighter sticks laid over them in another direction, and covered with a layer of mud.
What did they eat?
As Sumerians were mostly agricultural people, they ate what they farmed: wheat, barley, lentils, beans, garlic, onions, milk and milk products. They made bread and beer from grains. Meat, usually from goats or sheep and occasionally cattle, was probably rare in their diets; the animals were too expensive to kill. They ate apples and other kinds of foods.
Records of ancient Sumerian laws show that oxen — cattle bred, de-horned and neutered for work — were valuable but potentially dangerous animals. When they escaped, they did damage to fields and sometimes injured or killed people. Sheep and goats were probably more common. The wool and leather from the animals was also useful, because it could be turned into clothing, armor, or tools.
What did they wear?
Their clothing was mostly made out of wool and flax, which is a plant with blue flowers. The stem of flax was used in making the clothing. Clothing was also made out of other products they could grow themselves.
The men of Sumer often had long hair with a parting in the middle. Many had long beards as well, although some men preferred to be clean-shaven. The men's attire consisted of long skirts and no shirts. Women wore floor-length gowns that covered the left shoulder. The right shoulder and breast were left bare. They also wore their hair long, and most would braid their locks into one long braid which they then wrapped around the top of their heads. When they had company, they would simply wear headdresses.
Princesses wore bright colored clothes and expensive jewelry made out of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian.
Heavier clothing was worn in the winter and lighter clothing was worn in the summer.
Social status was determined by the quantity and quality of jewelry and clothing a person owned but they did not wear a lot of clothing because of where they lived (in a warm, dry climate).
What did their writing look like?
Sumerians were the first to invent writing. They wrote with sharpened sticks made of reed – a plant that grows on the banks of rivers. One of these sticks is called a stylus . When you push this kind of pen into a tablet of raw clay, you’ll get lines that look like wedges: thicker on one side, thinner on the other. That is why their writing is called Cuneiform , which means "wedge-shaped".
Writing consisted of small pictures. At first, these pictures were drawn into the clay with the stylus. There was a different picture for each word. That meant that a person had to know thousands of these pictures to read and write. Only very educated people, called scribes, were able to read and write. The scribes found drawing pictures to be very hard even in smooth wet clay, so they invented standard ways to combine wedges to form the pictures. After many centuries, they created very quick combinations of wedges that formed the pictures.
Children went to schools to learn how to be scribes. They began by reciting prayers to their gods and promises to their teachers to study hard and learn well. Then they learned to shape clay into many kinds of tablets — rounded squares for legal contracts, and large oblongs for poetry, and cylinders or prisms for royal decrees. They also copied out word lists — rows of symbols that belonged to specific categories, like the names of kings, and the words for different kinds of jobs, and words for different products available in the markets of the city. The teachers used sticks to beat slow learners, but also gave special tutoring to the students of parents who paid extra. After learning many words, scribes practiced making whole documents by copying out famous laws, poems and songs. This made them fast and accurate scribes.
Scribes wrote numbers with the back end of the stylus, and used different symbols for 1, 5, 10, 20, and 60. So the number "157" would be written with two 60s, a 20, a 10, a 5 and two 1s (60+60= 120 + 20 = 140 + 10 = 150 + 5 = 155 + 1 +1 = 157). Scribes could add and subtract. Some seem to have known how to multiply and divide, but most did not. Highly trained scribes appear to have known some geometry and astronomy, but the Sumerians did not have an accurate calendar.
What did they believe?
Sumerians had many gods. An was the god of the sky, Enki the god of water, Enlil the god of air, Ki the goddess of the earth, Inanna the goddess of fertility and many more. Plus, they had lots of local deities; each town had its own.
The sky god An was very important, but not always very smart. In one story, he decided to destroy all humans one day, because their noise was tremendous and it kept him awake. An ordered Enki to send a flood to destroy everyone, and Enki did so. But An had forgotten that people give the gods sacrifices of food, drink, and incense. Because of this, the gods nearly starved because An was upset about a little noise.
Fortunately, a Sumerian named Utnapishtim had gotten warning of the flood from Enlil, the god of air. Enlil told Utnapishtim to build a boat, and sail away on the flood with useful plants and animals in the boat. The old Sumerian man had done so, and when the flood waters receded, he sacrificed to the gods. The food revived An and the others, and they recognized their folly at last. Never again, they promised, would they try to wipe out humans.
A version of this story is recorded in the Hebrew Bible, which is repeated in the Christian Bible.
What is their history?
The Sumerians began as a series of powerful city-states. Each city had its own god and looked after itself and ruled the surrounding countryside. They fought each other as well as made alliances. This culture lasted from about 2900 - 2400 BC. They had a very distinct culture and their style of architecture, writing and religion spread throughout the Middle East.
The Akkadians settled North of Sumer along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and copied many of the Sumerians' ideas. Later on, one of the Akkadian kings, Sargon I conquered all the city states of Sumer and Akkad and created the world's first empire. His reign lasted about 60 years (2371 - 2316 BC) and his empire stretched from the coast of Lebanon to Iran. When Sargon died, his empire broke up and the Sumerians and Akkadians were invaded by other groups of tribesmen from the mountains.
After this, the dominant forces in the Middle East were the Babylonians and Assyrians. These two civilizations were descendents of the Akkadians who had ruled over the whole area, but they split into separate empires. The Assyrians were in the North and the Babylonians were in the South. The Sumerians as a people no longer existed, though their writing, architecture and religion influenced the civilizations in this area for centuries after.They had over 100 gods.
Are some of them famous even today?
The most famous of Sumerians is Gilgamesh, legendary king of Uruk. He is known due to the Epic of Gilgamesh, a collection of Sumerian legends, later translated and written down in Akkadian. It tells about the adventure of Gilgamesh, his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man raised by animals, and his journey to obtain the secret of immortality.
In the Epic, Gilgamesh is portrayed as a young king full of arrogance and pride. Gilgamesh is a bully, and has no friends. The gods are worried because Gilgamesh is so unkind to his people, so they send Enkidu, a wild man every bit Gilgamesh's equal, to be his friend. When they meet each other, Gilgamesh starts a fight, but he discovers that Enkidu is so strong that he cannot win; but Enkidu discovers the same thing about Gilgamesh. As soon as they have tired each other out, without one or the other winning, they become fast friends. Enkidu teaches Gilgamesh kindness, while Gilgamesh teaches Enkidu to be civilized. Both grow up to be very handsome.
Gilgamesh decides he needs a tree for the roof of his palace, so he proposes a quest to the cedar forest to cut down a tree. Enkidu is horrified and warns Gilgamesh of the terrifying monster Humbaba who guards the forest. Gilgamesh manages to persuade his friend to go anyway, and they go on the quest in search of the tree. Together they meet and kill the monster, and chop down the tree.
But the death of Humbaba makes the gods angry. Further, the goddess Inanna sees Gilgamesh and wants him for her husband. But Gilgamesh tells her that she has already had too many husbands, and she has used them all up — she even kills them when she tires of them! Gilgamesh prefers being a bachelor, thank you. Angered, Inanna persuades her father to release the Bull of Heaven in Uruk, to destroy Gilgamesh and his people. The Bull runs wild in the streets, for to touch it is death. Many are slain by the touch of the Bull, its horns or its flanks or its tail.
Enkidu and Gilgamesh go out to destroy the Bull, and they succeed in killing it. But the Bull manages to touch Enkidu, who sickens and dies. Gilgamesh is heartbroken, and refuses to let anyone care for the body or bury his friend. He delays so long that maggots begin falling out of Enkidu's eye sockets and nostrils. Finally, Gilgamesh consents to the burial of his friend, but he cannot bear the thought of dying himself. His mother tries to console him and tell him that death is normal, but the king of Uruk will not hear it. He resolves to go to the ends of the earth in search of a cure for dying — a way to become immortal.
He faces many perils on his trip. First he travels through the tunnel that the Sun uses when traveling underneath the earth. He enters it at sunrise, and races to the other end, hoping to get out before the hot sun comes in at sunset, and burns him alive. He makes it, but then he must confront the scorpion monster. However, the scorpion monster's wife tells her husband to leave the human alone, he is so tired. The scorpion monster allows Gilgamesh to live, and guides him to Sudri, a woman who keeps a tavern for the gods at the end of the earth. Sudri refuses to give Gilgamesh the secret of eternal life, but the boatman offers to guide Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim, who lives forever. Together, Gilgamesh and the boatman cross the Waters of Death, though not without some trouble.
The next chapters of this epic form the story of Utnapishtim, the king who saved humankind of the Great Flood. His tale is very similar to the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he cannot handle living forever, because he cannot even stay awake seven days. Despite his weariness, Gilgamesh agrees to stay awake for seven days. Mrs. Utnapishtim promises to bring Gilgamesh a loaf of bread every day so that he can eat. No sooner than she goes away to prepare the loaf for the first day, but Gilgamesh falls asleep! He sleeps all through all seven days. When he wakes, he insists to Utnapishtim that he only dozed a moment — but the seven stale and moldy loaves of bread beside him prove otherwise. Utnapishtim denies Gilgamesh the secret, and takes him back to the boatman.
The boatman is sympathetic to Gilgamesh, though, and tells the king of Uruk that Utnapishtim gets his eternal life from a plant under the water. If Gilgamesh only dives into the water and brings up the plant, he will have eternal life. Gilgamesh, now thinking of home, decides to get the plant and bring it home to his royal gardens in Uruk. There, it will make everyone immortal, and the whole city will thank him. He dives into the water, retrieves the plant, and returns across the water. There, while he sleeps, a snake comes along and devours the plant. Not until he is within sight of the walls of his home city, Uruk, does Gilgamesh realize that his journey was for nothing. He weeps, but consoles himself with the knowledge that he has built a strong city which will endure long after he is dead and gone.
What is left of them today?
Though Sumerians as an ethnic group do not exist anymore, they left many technological inventions, like the wheel (which made transport easier and quicker), the potter’s wheel, baked clay, the cuneiform script, and lots of agricultural inventions: irrigation systems, agricultural tools and even beer-brewing. They were the first people to use natural forces to do some of their own work by fitting sails to boats. They were also the first to make astronomical observations, and to measure time in 60-minute hours and 60-second minutes. Their priests invented clocks too, some were just like kinds of sundials and others were a type of water clock, with water dripping slowly from a pottery jar. The peasants in Sumeria were the first ones to find out how to harness animals to plows, instead of cultivating the land with hand hoes, and this allowed people to grow much more grain.
Recent collaboration between archeologists and DNA analysts tell that there is a strong connection between the marsh Arabs of Iraq and Iran and the Sumerian culture.