The Sumerian Alphabet
Episode 6: The Innovations of Mesopotamia
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
This lecture explores the major technological innovations produced by Sumer, the earliest civilization in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), which flourished between 2750 and 2150 BC. Sumer consisted of roughly a dozen city states. Six (Eridu, Kish, Ur, Uruk, Nippur and Babylon) are mentioned in the Old Testament.
Benjamin traces how initially these city-states were ruled (as were most towns and villages) by assemblies of leading male citizens elected for their seniority and status. In each instance, these leaders gave up their power to absolute leaders during periods of crisis. Because Sumer’s city-states were almost constantly at war, they all appointed kings, who in most cases granted themselves absolute power owing to their special relationship with the gods.*
In 2334 BCE, Sargon the Great overthrew the king of Kish, built a massive army and established the world’s first empire, comprising nearly all of Sumer.** The Akkadian Empire collapsed in 2150, in part from a mass uprising of its people and in part from and hostile nomadic invasions. Maintaining a large army is extremely expensive, and Sumerians became very resentful of the massive tribute (taxes) they were charged.
Among the important technologies to come out of Sumer were
- writing – dating from 3200 BC, the first written language involved the use of pictograms depicting animals, weapons and other goods accepted in tribute. Over 200 years, a written alphabet evolved in which letters represented speech sounds rather than objects. The first example of written literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh) dates from 2700 BC.
- the wheel – Benjamin and others speculate the first wheels were potters wheels turned on their side.
- bronze – an alloy made from combining tin and copper, bronze first appeared in 3000 BC. It was used mainly for swords, spears, shields, and armor, as well as jewelry for the ruling elite. A few wealthy farmers used bronze plows.
- shipbuilding – by 3000 BC Sumerian ships were were sturdy enough to sail from the Tigris/Euphrates rivers into the Persian Gulf, and by 2500 they were crossing the Arabian Sea to trade with civilizations in the Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan). Sumer exported woolen textiles, leather and jewelry and imported ivory, pearls and spices.
The Sumerian city-states were the first to demonstrate clear class stratification, consisting of
- kings and the military
- nobles owning large tracts of land
- subsistence farmers
- slaves (in some places 50% of the urban population) – in most cases these were either war captives or subjects who couldn’t pay their debts.
Women lost considerable status with the rise of city-states, with most consigned to child rearing and housekeeping. A few were allowed to participate in public life as scribes, priestesses, midwives, shopkeepers and textile workers.
The cities of Sumer saw the first emergence of a middle class engaged in specialized labor and crafts (bronze metallurgy, scribes, potters, textile workers, merchants and traders
*Sumerians believed all forces of nature had a spiritual aspect and named their first gods after them. In addition, each city-state had its own local god.
**At the peak of Sumerian civilization, Mesopotamia hosted a population of 100,000, the largest on the planet to that point.
This film can be viewed free on Kanopy.