Sumerian History & Language
The Sumerians were a people of mysterious origins, who migrated south from the mountains in Turkey in prehistoric times and settled in the hot, fertile delta in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Around 5000-4000 BC the Sumerians began to master flood control and irrigation and built walled settlements.
Sumerian stories, first passed on via oral traditions, come to us today as texts pressed on clay tablets that date from 2100 BC, near the end of their history. They recorded their myths in a phonetic script they invented, called cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”).
One of the the oldest written languages on earth, Sumerian became the scientific, sacred, ceremonial, and literary language for the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and many other surrounding cultures for centuries, despite the fact that, to become fluent, one had to master its separate dialects for men and women.
Importance of Sumer
For subsequent cultures, Sumerian – the language and culture – was admired as the equivalent of Greek in Roman society or Latin in medieval Europe. Sumerians encouraged this practice with stories of the glories of their rulers and gods. Conquerors of Sumer borrowed Sumerian stories in creating their own myths. The Bible itself indicates the importance of Sumer – Abraham and Sarah trace their lineage back to Ur, the last capital of Sumer, from which they migrated westward to Canaan (Genesis 11:26-13:12).
Ziggurat at Ur (artist’s rendering)
The Sumerians built ziggurats to replicate their cosmic mountain, complete with paradise, linking the heavens with humanity. Rising from the river delta, ziggurats were rectangular towers, stepped to look like a mountain, with trees and shrines at every level. At the peak, one or more temples were constructed with a main sanctuary and multiple side rooms with altars for making sacrifices.
The temples were lavishly decorated, with vividly colored mosaics and frescoes showing the whole range of life-giving community activities, including planting, harvesting, herding, and processions to temples. Beautiful flowers, guardian animals such as leopards and bulls, and mythical beasts such as eagles with lion heads and bulls with human faces, adorned porticoes and sanctuaries. These centers for ritual, towering above the deltas, grew to contain housing for the community’s priests, artists, engineers, scribes, and other tradespeople.
Sumerian stories and art celebrated the goodness of ordinary life in ways we can still understand, depicted as activities of paradise. Their myths tell of gods enjoying sexual pleasure, making music, dancing, traveling about having adventures, and encouraging fertility of the land.
The Sumerians told their stories of creation and paradise as a preface to their stories of their many gods. The prefaces were a literary formula such as “once upon a time when…” or “in the beginning when God created…” These recitations established the way the world was at its best, as a contrast to the stories they told of disasters, conflicts, violence, and war. Sumer became the lost primordial culture of West Asia. By the time Genesis was written, the Sumerians’ myths had been adapted and edited through more than 1,000 years of history in Canaan, where Abraham and Sarah, the legendary immigrants from Sumer had migrated.
Rita Nakashima Brock
and Rebecca Ann Parker