Life in the Sumerian City-states

Ancient Sumerian figurines praying - from the site of Tell Asmar ca. 1900 BCE
Ancient Sumerian figurines praying – from the site of Tell Asmar ca. 1900 BCE

The area in Mesopotamia that we refer to as Sumer was actually not a single country with any centralized form of government. Instead, it was a region that consisted of separate city-states that were ruled by their own ruler and often had their own special patron deity. Though trading with its neighbors, each city had their own independent economy that was generally based on agriculture and local goods.

The most prominent Sumerian city-states of Eridu, Nippur, Lagash, Uruk, Kish, and Ur all were along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers surrounded by plots of farmland that were considered to belong to the local god or deity. Each citizen of a city-state was dedicated to the deity (or deities) and considered to be part of a temple community consisting of priests, farmers, craftsmen, fishermen, gardeners, stone cutters, merchants, and sometimes even slaves. Life in Sumerian socieity revolved around the ziggurat, the large stepped temples found in nearly all Sumerian cities and dedicated to a particular god or several deities.

Ancient Sumer - 006

At the head of each city-state was the king. Along with being the temporal ruler, the king also acted as a sort of representative of the gods, thus having a religious role as well. Of course, one man, however divinely favored, can’t run a kingdom, so the king had several nobles and priests to help him to administer his realm. Like any absolute ruler, the king’s word was law and his people were expected, if not forced, to obey his every command. Of course in return, the king was expected to rule justly and to be the protector of his people. This also made him head of the army which was supported with taxes extracted from the people and the goods that they produced and sold. Scribes assisted in recording all financial contracts, taxes, sales of goods and other matters of important business. Special officials carefully monitored the sale of goods. Foreign goods coming from other city-states, either by boat along the rivers or by ox-drawn carts were generally heavily taxed. Most cities also had a standard system of weights and measures that helped with both commerce and record keeping.

Artist conception of a Sumerian city in ancient Mesopotamia.
Artist conception of a Sumerian city in ancient Mesopotamia.

Along with their religious duties, priests in Sumer also had other roles such as scribes, scholars, scientists and astrologers. They, along with the king, nobles and other officials were permitted to hold land, a right that most others, especially those who worked it, were not.

Ancient Sumerian mural depicting farmers and herders of different domesticated animals.
Ancient Sumerian mural depicting farmers and herders of different domesticated animals.

After the priests, the farmers also had an exalted role, though this was often symbolic since they held no special privileges and were mostly day laborers. All Sumerian cities relied on the yearly harvest for their survival. Crops grown in Mesopotamia included barley and wheat, olives, some fruits and grapes. Herdsmen raised cattle, sheep, and goats while fisherman caught fish from the nearby rivers.

Artist depiction of Sumerian artisans.  Source unknown.
Not sure where I got this depiction of Sumerian life from but it’s cool!

Most common Sumerians lived in small one-story apartments or houses alongside others. Many of these were set up around a central courtyard or small square and within walking distance to a market. Most markets sold nearly any type of good that an ancient Sumerian could want, from the latest textile designs to grains, leather goods, fruits and vegetables, crafts, pottery and jewelry for the ladies. Just like any market, there were also luxury items available, both those made domestically and others from lands far away.

Sumerian chariot from an ancient mural
Sumerian chariot from an ancient mural

In all, Sumerian city life remained unchanged for thousands of years. Even when other civilizations of Mesopotamia evolved and ruled over Sumerian lands, life pretty much went on as usual until the mid 500s BCE when first the Persians and later on the Greeks, Romans and other came into the region. These peoples successively brought new ways of life and foreign traditions that slowly replaced those of the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia.

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