Rise and Fall of Sumer, the first-known empire in world history

Sumerian civilization

Sumerian civilization: Rise and Fall of Sumer

Located in the fertile crescent between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers of Lower Mesopotamia, Sumer is regarded as the “Cradle of Civilization.” Its people, the Sumerians, were known for their incredible inventions, buildings, and cultural influence all over Mesopotamia. The Sumerian influence waned after the Babylonian invasion around 1750 BC.
In the article below, World History Edu takes a look at the rise and fall of the Sumer Empire.

Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilization

Much of the region of Mesopotamia can be located in the modern-day Middle Eastern country of Iraq. But thousands of years ago, it served as the foundation for several civilizations and empires throughout history.

The name “Mesopotamia” is of Greek origin, which means “land between the rivers.” These rivers were the Euphrates and Tigris. The region fell under Greek influence when Alexander the Great conquered the land and spread Greek culture.

The reason why Mesopotamia is regarded as the “cradle of civilization” is because it was where some of the earliest cities and large populations and civilizations in history were emerged, serving as the blueprint for future empires and settlements.

Although the region was more of a desert, Lower Mesopotamia had rich and fertile soil. It was known as the Fertile Crescent. This was largely in part because of the yearly flooding of the rivers, which deposited nutrient-rich silt at its banks. The Sumerians were likely the first or one of the first of such people to settle in the region.

The Discovery of the Sumerian Empire

Before delving into the history of the Sumerian Empire, it is important to note that despite it likely being one of the first civilizations to have ever existed, it remained unknown until the 19th century. In fact, its discovery was completely by chance.

During the 1800s, several European archaeologists embarked on excavation projects in the Middle East, mostly focusing on areas such as Egypt and other lower parts of Mesopotamia. Their primary goal was to discover places that had been mentioned in the Holy Bible, as well in the accounts of Greek historians like Herodotus, and several other prominent travelers who had written about their experiences in Mesopotamia.

Claudius James Rich (1787-1821) – British Assyriologist

The expedition was successful, and the archaeologists made several discoveries. One of them, an Englishman named Claudius James Rich, managed to accurately map out the ancient cities of Babylon and Nineveh. Additionally, he discovered numerous artifacts in those areas, including bricks, tablets, and stones, which had inscriptions on them. Although most discoveries had been found in the areas he had mapped out; he also found other ancient scripts around modern-day Iran. But unlike the others, these scripts were written in a completely unrecognizable language.

Sumerian tablet recording a bill of sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, c. 2600 BC

Eventually, archaeologists were able to decode the language and discovered that it was Akkadian, which they initially called Babylonian. But with time, the archaeologists realized that the language was a particular type of ancient Akkadian writing, Cuneiform, which likely belonged to a group of people that existed long before the Babylonians. But who were those people?

As the texts were being translated, they discovered phrases like “Sumeri u Akkad”, which means “land of Sumer and Akkad” or “Kings of Sumer and Akkad.” It was there that archaeologists realized that there had been a previous civilization before the rise of the Babylonian Empire.

Read More: 12 Major Achievements of ancient Babylonian civilization

Did you know?

An account of barley rations written in cuneiform script on a clay tablet, c. 2350 BC

Invented by the ancient Sumer people, cuneiform writing system emerged more than 5,000 years ago. As a result, it is seen as the world’s first-known written language. And for over 3,000 years, the writing system dominated the landscape. Cuneiform was used by all the great civilizations that emerged from ancient Mesopotamia, including the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Elamites, Hatti, and the Persians.

The History of the Sumer Empire

Below is the history of the Sumerian civilization, including the origins of the Sumerians, as well as the various periods and rulers that shaped the region:

Origins of the Sumerian People

Sumerian civilization

Image: From the royal tombs of Ur

The Sumerians were Semitic people, especially since their immediate neighbors, like the Akkadians, were Semites as well. However, their language was not of Semitic origin. Many historians believe that due to this fact, the Sumerians were of a different ethnicity, as compared to their neighbors. Over the years, historians developed several potential locations where they might have migrated from.

They first considered Tibet, but then rejected that hypothesis, especially since there were no Asiatic elements that proved the Sumerians had originated from there. Next was India, and it had potential to be the original home of the Sumerians. At that time, the Indus Valley was also expanding and it was filled with vast and rich agricultural lands. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense why the Sumerians would leave that region to settle in the desert.

Another possible location was Iran. Like India, it also seemed highly likely, especially since it was in close proximity to Sumer. However, the Sumerians were almost always defending their lands against the Elamites and Gutians, who originated from Iran. It’s highly doubtful that they would have proudly claimed Iran to be their home.

Africa was the next possible location due to some artifacts like the Gudea Stele that the earlier Sumerians had sculpted. These designs portrayed the Sumerians as people with African features. However, that theory was also rejected, particularly because it would have been impossible for travelers in that period to trek across the Arabian Desert. And assuming they arrived in the region through the Mediterranean coastline, then they would have had the unpalatable encounter with other rival tribes.

So, what about the depictions on the Gudea Stele? Well, it was more of a design choice by artists during the age of artistic renaissance in the Sumerian city of Lagash.

The most possible homeland could be Caucasia, and many historians have developed several plausible theories to back this claim. Firstly, migration from the Caucasus Mountains to Mesopotamia was much easier. Because it wasn’t heavily populated, it is unlikely that the Sumer people would have encountered many other tribes while traveling.

It’s also been proposed that the reason why the Sumerians developed their own language that was much different from their Semitic neighbors was perhaps to preserve their culture and identity, especially since they were surrounded by numerous neighbors.

Additionally, several other artifacts from the Early Dynastic Period showed that the Sumerians had Caucasian features. Compared to their neighbors who had angular faces, the Sumerians had round faces. Despite Caucasia having the strongest claim, it has not been conclusively proven.

Note: Caucasia is a region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is made up of present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of Southern Russia.

Timeline of The Sumerian Empire

Sumerian civilization

Sumerian city-states

They are known to have settled in Lower Mesopotamia around 5000 BC, but it could have been way before that. Based on their discoveries, archaeologists tend to break down the lifespan of the Sumerian civilization into six distinct eras:

  • The Ubaid Period (5000 – 4100 BC)

  • The Uruk Period (4100 – 2900 BC)

  • The Early Dynastic Period (2900 – 2334 BC)

  • The Akkadian Period (2334 – 2218 BC)

  • The Gutian Period (2218 – 2047 BC)

  • The UR III Period/ The Sumerian Renaissance (2047 – 1750 BC)

The Ubaid Period (5000 – 4100 BC)

The Ubaid Period set the tone for the rapid development of the Sumer civilization. During this time, Ubaid settlers arrived in Lower Mesopotamia and put up their homes along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. At that time, agriculture was on the rise, and because of their access to water, the Sumerians were able to develop impressive irrigation systems that redirected river water to cultivate crops on a larger scale.

With an abundance of grains, the Ubaid people enjoyed food security which in turn afforded them the time and opportunity to explore other occupations to help generate more income. Some of them became merchants, priests, artisans, and scribes. As the society began to take shape, social classes also evolved. The elite or upper classes, like many other future civilizations, ruled over the others. They also had an organized religious system. In the Ubaid city of Eridu, the Sumerians had a temple where they worshiped. It was a single-room shrine with an altar and offering table.

However, life was not all that blissful. The early Sumerians encountered challenges during this period. The annual flooding of the rivers – caused by the melting ice caps from the nearby Taurus Mountains – disrupted agricultural activities. The silt deposits left behind after the floods also blocked their irrigation systems. The Sumerians also had to deal with the large underground salt deposits that affected the soil’s fertility. Additionally, they had to protect their land from threats and bouts of food shortages.

Pottery jar from Late Ubaid Period

But these problems didn’t stop the Sumerians from developing. They improved their irrigation systems by introducing the canal system. They built homes and several large villages also developed into bustling cities. At some point during this period, Eridu’s population was about 4,000 people. Trading activities also expanded, and their goods reached markets as far as Arabia. Eventually, they started using fishing boats on the rivers.

There were several inventions during the Ubaid Period apart from the agricultural advancements. The Sumerians are credited for being the earliest inventors of wheels, which artisans initially used in pottery making. Later, they discovered that these wheels could be used for other purposes such as traveling. The Copper Age also started during the latter part of this era, and the Sumerians started using metal tools for work.

The Ubaid Period was an amazing start for the Sumerians. It set the tone for the future development of the empire. Eventually, as items such as pots became more mass produced, it ushered in a new era called the Uruk Period.

The Uruk Period (4100 – 2900 BC)

During the Uruk Period, many cities sprung up across Mesopotamia, including Eridu, Lagash, Kish, Ur, and Nippur. The first most successful and biggest was the city of Uruk. At its peak, it served as the main trading and government administration hub. Therefore, it had a lot of influence and power over the other neighboring cities.

Founded by King Enmerkar around 4500 BC, Uruk became home to about 50,000-75,000 inhabitants. It was the place where the earliest forms of writing systems developed. The Sumerians initially used writing to keep inventory of their livestock and crops by using clay drawings to depict the items they had in stock. About 400 years later, that form of writing evolved from drawings to symbols and numbers.

During the Uruk Period, there was also a lot of architectural development. Therefore, inhabitants in various cities had more places of worship, and more homes were built. Goods, such as pottery, were also mass produced.

The people during this era were also talented in the arts. They were songwriters and poets. One of the most prominent stories to have ever come out of Uruk was the tale of the legendary Uruk King Gilgamesh.

In the Uruk Period, the neighboring cities often went into conflict with each other. As a result, priests from the ruling classes had to co-rule with warrior leaders. That was one of the earliest practices of kings ruling over individual cities in the Sumer Empire.

The city of Uruk remained an important location in Uruk long after the Uruk Period ended and the Early Dynastic Period commenced.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Kings from Ancient Mesopotamia

The Early Dynastic Period (2900 – 2334 BC)

In the early years of the Early Dynastic Period, it’s believed that a great flood destroyed several cities in southern and parts of northern Mesopotamia. In later Sumerian texts, this natural disaster was retold as the story of God’s wrath against humanity in the “Eridu Genesis.”  It also served as the inspiration for the Great Flood (i.e. the Deluge) in the book of Genesis in the Bible. It’s believed that the flood occurred around 2900 BC.

The Uruk period witnessed the rise of kings. And by the first phase of the Early Dynastic Period, these kings ruled alongside their religious priests. Sumerian kings saw to the needs of the people whereas the priests handled all religious affairs, including meeting the needs of the various gods which ruled in their city.

In the second phase of the period, there were more developments across Mesopotamia. Items like bread, clothes, and jewelry were mass produced and the cities grew wealthier.

The final phase of this period witnessed further rise of kings and monarchies across the cities in Mesopotamia, which in turn allowed cities like Kish and Uruk to become powerful. The Sumerian King List was a document that highlighted all the kings that ruled over Sumer, including the first female king Kubaba, who established the Third Dynasty of Kish.

During the reign of Kubaba’s grandson, Ur-Zababa, he had a dream where he was killed by Sargon, the Akkadian. Sargon had been discovered a royal gardener in Kish after being abandoned by his birth parents. He was raised under Ur-Zababa in the palace. The king’s dream came to pass, and when Sargon seized Kish from him, he fled, never to be seen again. Sargon eventually conquered the entire Mesopotamia and established the Akkadian Empire.

The Standard of Ur 

Discovered in the 1920s in the royal tomb in Ur, the Standard of Ur is a Sumerian artifact that dates to the 3rd millennium BC. The artifact, which measures 21.59 centimetres (8.50 in) wide by 49.53 centimetres (19.50 in) long, was from the ancient Sumerian city-state of Ur. Experts believe that it is more than 4,500 years old since it dates to the First Dynasty of Ur. Image: The Standard of Ur, located in the collection of the British Museum

The Akkadian Period (2334 – 2218 BC)

Sargon became the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire after conquering what he described as “the four corners of the universe.” According to Sargon’s scribes, the empire was expansive and started from the Persian Gulf through the lower section of Asia Minor and to the Mediterranean Sea and Cyprus. Though this claim has been disputed, the empire was the first to expand into other nations. In fact, it was during the time of this empire that many firsts occurred.

The Akkadian Empire was mostly successful largely due to military and administrative prowess of Sargon. He is credited with creating the capital, the city of Akkad, where he centralized all government activities. There was also relative peace and stability throughout Mesopotamia during the Akkadian Period.

There were numerous developments that took place in this era. Many roads were constructed, trade routes expanded, newer irrigation systems were adopted, and education flourished. The Akkadians are credited for being the first in developing some form of postal system.

Sargon would go on to rule for about 56 years and was succeeded by his son, Rimush, after his death. Over the years, the empire was left in the hands of many other rulers. However, the empire fell during the reign of Shar-Kali-Sharri after the invasion of the Gutians.

The Gutian Period (2218 – 2047 BC)

Not much is known about the Gutians. The only known accounts about the Gutians came from the Sumerians and Akkadians, who accused them of destroying their lands. Described as nomads who raided cities, the Gutians most likely hailed from the Zagros Mountains (located in modern-day Iran). Some of their kings appeared on the Sumerian King List, but it’s not known how they run their governments.

Nonetheless, the Gutians had come to occupy Sumer by 2218 BC. When the Gutians defeated the Akkadian Empire, they remained the dominant power in Sumer from 2218 until 2047 BC, when they were routed out by the citizens of Ur and Uruk.

The Ur III Period (2047 – 1750 BC)

Also known as the Sumerian Renaissance, this was an era of peak development in Sumer and the rest of Mesopotamia. There was a lot of development in the areas of arts and sciences. As a result, the Sumerians cemented their status as the main drivers of world civilization. All these occurred during the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2047 1750 BC).

In this era, the Sumerians also invented the concept of time through their sexigesimal system of counting, which is based on the number 60. With this system, they established the 60-second minute and 60-minute hour. They also introduced the idea of a 24-hour day by separating both day and night into 12 hours each, as well as the concept of holidays.

What were the Sumerians known for?

As the first documented civilization to have existed, the Sumerians are known for being the first and starting some of the things and phenomena that might seem common currently. For example, they instituted the basic concept of time, which the world still uses in the present day.

The Sumerians also were the first group of people to live in cities and other metropolitan areas, and as these urban areas developed so did religion. Several Sumerian religious stories or tales appear to serve as the inspiration for numerous stories and accounts in the Bible. It’s likely that the story of Noah and the Great Flood was inspired by the 2900 BC flood that destroyed the original cities of Sumer. Even the birth of Sargon is much similar to the story of Moses.

The Sumerians were also likely the firsts to engage in war with neighbors, particularly the Elamites. Many of these communities or civilizations fought against each other for power and territorial control.

The timeline of the Sumerians shows how they developed intellectually as well, from an illiterate group of settlers to developing the cuneiform. The language that the Sumerians spoke became the main language throughout Mesopotamia. And with their writing, they told amazing stories and poems, including “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, “The Myth of Adapa”, “The Eridu Genesis”,  “The Atrahasis”,  and Enheduanna’s Hymns to the goddess Inanna. Many of these texts inspired biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden and humanity’s fall.

Sumerian prisoners on a victory stele of the Akkadian king Sargon, c. 2300 BC. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Life in Ancient Sumer

The Sumerians are regarded as the creators of civilization; and through their innovative inventions, buildings, and governance, they played a role in shaping the history of the world. But what was life like for the Sumerians?


By 4000 BC, Sumer was divided into city-states. Canals and stones often served as the borders, and each city-state had a temple for a particular deity. The priests oversaw temple activities, while the king was the leader of the city-state.

The first five cities that existed before the Early Dynastic Period include:

  • Eridu

  • Bad-tibira

  • Larak

  • Sippar

  • Shuruppak

The other major Sumerian cities were as follows:

  • Uruk

  • Kish

  • Ur

  • Nippur

  • Lagash

  • Girsu

  • Umma

  • Hamazi

  • Adab

  • Mari

  • Akshak

  • Akkad

  • Isin

  • Larsa

There were also some minor/smaller city-states like:

  • Kuara

  • Zabala

  • Kisurra

  • Marad

  • Dilbat

  • Borsippa

  • Kutha

  • Der

  • Eshnunna

  • Nagar

Read More: 9 Greatest Cities from Ancient Mesopotamia


Mesopotamian gods

Each Sumerian city-state had a patron deity. For example, the patron deity of Ur was Inanna. Image: Akkadian cylinder seal from sometime around 2300 BC depicting the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud

The Sumerians were polytheistic in nature and they worshiped various gods and goddesses. Every city-state in Sumer had their own temples, gods, kings, and priests.

However, it was not uncommon for the gods in other city-states to be acknowledged elsewhere. After all, the various Sumerian city-states were loosely linked by religion and languge. Their earlier writings also largely influenced mythology, astrology, and religion in Mesopotamia.

They believed in a universal god, who they called An. The word “An” means “sky”, and An was revered as the king of the gods.

Also, at the temples in Eridu, the Sumerians worshiped Enki, who was the god of benevolence and wisdom. Eridu was also seen as the ruler of the freshwater depths beneath the earth, a healer, and a divine friend.

Other gods and goddesses that the Sumerians worshiped include Enlil, the god of storm, wind and rain (in the city-state of Nippur, and the Uruk goddess Inanna, goddess of love, sexuality, and war. There was also the sun-god Utu and the moon god Sin. Apart from these major deities, the Sumerians worshiped several other lesser gods.

The Sumerians believed that the gods created them out of clay to serve them. As a result, Sumerians were required to work in the temples. Some of them, however, opted to pay silver in place of their labor.

During funerals, the Sumerians buried the dead in cemeteries. They believed that all the dead souls traveled to some sort of underworld called Ereshkigal, where they would be prohibited by monster guards from leaving. During funerals, they often buried the dead with peace offerings that could be given to the guards of the underworld. Human sacrifices were also very common, and servants were often buried with kings and queens.

Read More: 12 Most Famous Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses


Sumerians adopted mystical elements when it came to the development medicine. But some of their practices were also very scientific. For example, they knew how to extract chemicals from nature. They were also familiar with anatomy and performed surgeries. This point is substantiated by archaeologists’ discoveries of surgical tools in that area.

The Sumerians are amongst some of the world’s earliest inventors, with one of their major inventions being an irrigation system to help combat floods. They used hydraulic engineering to develop canals that they used for farming.

Sumerian civilization

Sumerians made boats out of date palm leaves and reeds. They also developed the concept of time that the present-day world still uses. Image: Silver model of a boat, tomb PG 789, Royal Cemetery of Ur, 2600–2500 BC


As early as the Ubaid Period, the Sumerians were building structures. Of course, as Sumer expanded, these structures became more elaborate. The first homes were constructed with mud bricks and reeds. They also tended to have flat roofs and arched doorways.

As Sumer’s civilization expanded, the buildings became more elaborate. Builders and artists used terra cotta, mosaics, and beautiful paintings to decorate their homes and other public buildings.

Ziggurats were massive religious buildings in ancient Mesopotamia. Almost similar in shape to the mastaba (i.e. a tomb) in ancient Egypt, ziggurats were built in the form of terraced compound of successively receding levels. The Sumerians believed that their gods dwelled in the uppermost level of the ziggurats. This made the structure the most important in the city.

Around 2200 BC, structures called Ziggurats began to appear in Sumer. Reaching up to 170 feet in height, Ziggurats were temples that closely resembled pyramids. Some of those massive structures also had garden terraces. The most notable ziggurat has got to be the Neo-Sumerian ziggurat, the Great Ziggurat of Ur. Built around the 21st and 20th centuries BC, the structure was sited in the city of Ur near Nasiriyah (present-day Dhi Qar Province, Iraq). It was built in honor of the Mesopotamian god the moon Nanna (also known as Sin).

Ancient Sumer people held the belief that their gods resided at the topmost part of the ziggurats. This explains why access to those parts of the ziggurats was granted to only the high priests and other leading political officials.


Anu ziggurat and White Temple at Uruk. The original pyramidal structure, the “Anu Ziggurat” dates to around 4000 BC, and the White Temple was built on top of it c. 3500 BC

Language & Literary Works

One theory that attempts to determine the origins of the ancient Sumerians attempted to connect the Sumerian language with other world languages. For example, the Sumerian language was linked to the Ural-Altaic language system, which was the foundation for modern Hungarian and Finnish. According to this theory, both the Sumerians and Europeans were closely related, as their languages shared the same roots. The language only changed when the Sumerians headed south and the Europeans went to the north.

Some historians have also compared the Sumerian language to other Indic and Tibetan languages and have found that the Sumerians either originated from that region or that later Sumerians from that region who settled in Mesopotamia also changed the language.

Early records of the Sumerian language date as far back as 3100 BC. At the civilization’s peak, it was the main language of the entire Mesopotamia until the rise of the Akkadian Empire.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest achievements of the Sumerians was writing. They used writing to keep records of inventory, especially of livestock and crops. The cuneiform script is seen as the world’s first known writing system that was primarily used for accounting purposes and transcription. It largely remained that way for about three centuries until the coming of Enheduanna, who started using the script to produce original literary works. Image: Ancient Sumerian clay tablet inscribed with the text of the poem Inanna and Ebih

The Sumerians used the cuneiform writing system to keep records of historical events and information, especially inventory records of crops and livestock. They used reeds, which they cut from the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, to write on soft clay tablets. The texts they wrote could sometimes be aligned vertically or horizontally, but they preferred the horizontal form more. At the height of the Akkadian Period, several other states in Mesopotamia adopted cuneiform as well.

The cuneiform system was impressive. Most of the signs and symbols used often had different meanings. In some instances, the signs could mean an entire word, number or idea. However, more often than not, it usually was a syllable, which included vowels, consonants with vowels (or the other way), or even two consonants and a vowel. The cuneiform system of writing could record any sound from the mouth. Several other neighbors like the Akkadians, Amorites. Urartians, and Elamites also adopted this form of writing.

The Sumerians also wrote rules and regulations. For example, in the city of Ebla, the Sumerians wrote the Code of Er-Nammu on tablets. They also had an extensive collection of literary works. However, most of them got lost through time.


Right from the get-go when they arrived in Mesopotamia, the Sumerians practiced agriculture. They mostly grew grains and other cereals. Because of their high rate of cereal production, they were also likely the first to produce beer. They took beer so seriously that it was mentioned in the epic of Gilgamesh, “Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land…” Other crops that they planted included dates, garlic, onions, lentils, and mustard.

Sumerians also reared several domestic animals like pigs, cows, and sheep. They were also hunters and fishermen, often catching fish and other wild animals like the gazelle.

Agriculture was so important to the Sumerians that they wrote the “Sumerian Farmer’s Almanac”, which showed how the farmers would drain their fields after the annual floods, as well as other agricultural practices. The almanac also showed how by the Sumerian Renaissance, farmers switched from wheat to barley as the staple crop because barley was more salt-resistant. It made sense since the agricultural lands had high salinity levels.

The Sumerians also harvested their crops in the springtime, mostly done by groups of three persons acting as either the sheaf handler, reaper or binder. The Sumerian farmers also used threshing wagons, which were pulled by oxen to harvest grains.


Buoyed on by spectacular inventions, including a writing system, chariots, and wagons, the Sumer people began taking to the seas using boats made out of reeds and date palm leaves. They developed boats with linen sails that helped them transport excess agricultural produce to other parts of the region. They developed some of history’s first known trade network, which included rising kingdoms in Anatolia (present-day Turkiye), Ethiopia, and Egypt. Often times, Sumerian merchants would return from those places with gold, silver, exotic fabrics, and cedar wood.

Historians maintain that the cuneiform writing that the Sumerians developed was necessitated by the need for merchants to keep records of their transactions.


Sumerian Civilization

Image: Gold dagger from Sumerian tomb PG 580, Royal Cemetery at Ur.

The Sumerian city-states were constantly at war with outsiders and sometimes with each other. The first recorded war was between the city-states of Lagash and Umma around 2450 BC. Some of the events of that historic war were even captured on the Stele of the Vultures. The fragments of the stele, which originally measured at around 180 cm, dates back to the Early Dynastic III Period (c. 2555-234 BC). The stele celebrates Lagash’s victory over Umma in the mid-25th century BC. The stele credits Ningirsu, the patron god of Lagash, for aiding in their victory.

Sumerian civilization

Phalanx battle formations used by Sumerian king Eannatum during his fight against archenemy Umma. Found on a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures

Discovered at Tello (i.e. the ancient city of Girsu) in southern Iraq in the late 19th century, the artwork also shows the formation of the Sumerian army. The infantry consisted of men whose uniforms were copper helmets, spears, and shields. The Sumerians often used two-wheeled carts, which were driven by onagers. They mostly used the carts to transport items such as weapons. The Sumerian city-states also protected themselves from raids by building walls around the cities.

Sumerian civilization

Dated to the Early Dynastic III Period (2600-2334 BC), the Stele of Vultures commemorates the victory of Sumerian city-state Lagash over its neighbor Umma. The stele, which is currently on display at the Louvre in Paris, got its name because of the vultures that can be seen on some of the fragments. It is said that the stele was originally carved out of a single limestone slab. Image: Stele of the Vultures in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France

Did you know?

The Stele of Vultures is regarded as the earliest known war monument. The artwork, which dates back to between 2600 and 2350 BC, commemorates Lagash king Eannatum’s victory over his archenemy, King Ush of Umma.

Who were some of the prominent Sumerian rulers?

Sumerian civilization

Enthroned Sumerian king of Ur, possibly Ur-Pabilsag, with attendants. Standard of Ur, c. 2600 BC.

The “Sumerian King List” was a document that the Sumerians wrote concerning the succession of kings/rulers in the various city-states. It showed the divine start of kingships and how the earlier kings had centuries-long years of rule. Some of the rulers, especially in the earlier years of the Sumerian dynasties, were legendary figures, but there were many others whose earthly achievements brought much success to Sumer:


In Sumerian mythology, Gilgamesh was the ruler who embarked on a journey to seek immortality and bring peace to his people. He was believed to be the fifth king of Uruk and was regarded as wise. Gilgamesh appeared in several Sumerian literary works, including “Gilgamesh and Akka”, where he defeated his rival Akka, as well as “Gilgamesh and Huwawa”, which told the story of how the king killed Huwawa the Giant. According to legend, he also killed a bull sent by the goddess Inanna after he rejected her romantic advances.

Sumerian Civilization

Possible representation of Gilgamesh, the ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk who was later deified.

Mesanepada of Ur

Mesanepada was the first king under the First Dynasty of Ur. According to Sumerian history, his appointment as king was divine, from An (or Anu in Akkadian), the sky god and king of the gods. It was believed that Mesanepada ruled for 80 years. His reign was successful as he was credited with the building of the Enlil Temple in Nippur. He also founded the city of Ur, which rose to become one the major trading centers in Mesopotamia until the Elamites raided Sumer.

Urukagina of Lagash

Urukagina ruled over Lagash and Girsu in the 24th century BC. His biggest accomplishment as ruler was passing several reforms to help end corruption. He was described as a very kind ruler who exempted children, widows, and the poor from paying taxes. He also spoke in the defense of the poor and weak in society. Urukagina was praised for ensuring that all citizens were treated fairly under one law.


Enannatum ruled Lagash around 2500 BC, and the highlight of his reign was his ability to establish a reasonably thriving empire as well as set boundaries throughout the territory. He fought and defeated longtime rivals, the Elamites, and further expanded his lands into Akkad and Sumer. He undertook several construction projects, including palaces and temples, and also brought back order to the city of Nina in Nineveh.


Sumerian civilization

Statue of Gudea I, dedicated to the god Ningishzida

It is said that Gudea was probably not born in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash. Having arrived to the city in his youth, he quickly caught the attention of the Ninalla, the beloved daughter of Ur-Baba (2164–2144 BC), then-ruler of Lagash. Upon the death of his father-in-law, Gudea claimed the throne. During his reign (from around 2144 to 2124 BC) Lagash was ushered into a golden age, although still under slight control from the Gutians.


Statue of Ur-Ningirsu ruler of Lagash at the Louvre

Best known as the son of the famed Sumerian king Gudea, Ur-Ningirsu ruled the Sumerian city-state of Lagash, which is located in Southern Mesopotamia. His reign is said to have occurred around 2110 BC. The personal god of this Sumerian ruler was Ningishzida, the Mesopotamian deity of vegetation and the underworld. His equivalent in ancient Egypt is Osiris, the green-skinned god of resurrection, vegetation and the underworld.

Shulgi of Ur

Shulgi of Ur was regarded as one of the greatest Mesopotamian rulers during the Sumerian Renaissance. Having received a very sound education, Shulgi ensured that several scribal schools were built throughout the region to increase literacy.

Known as the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, Shulgi was committed to ensuring that the Mesopotamian cities were well-maintained. He also helped in the completion of the Great Ziggurat of Ur. It’s said that the religious structure was started by his father Ur-Nammu. The cities received financial support to help construct new roads, repairs, and build rest stops for travelers. His reign (from around 2094 to 2046 BC) is praised as the main driver of the Sumerian Renaissance Period.

Portrait of Shulgi as a builder, on a foundation nail. Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

The Fall of Sumer

In the latter years of King Shulgi’s reign, Sumer was plagued with threats from one of their fiercest Semitic neighbors, the Amorites. In response, Shulgi decided to build a 155-mile long wall on the eastern border to help protect his kingdom and stop the Amorites from invading. But the other sides were left exposed. Nonetheless, during Shulgi’s reign, the wall did indeed keep many of his enemies away from his kingdom, especially the Elamites.

When Shulgi eventually died, his successors all made improvements on the wall to fortify it further. But as the years passed, the rulers could not sustain the defensive structure of kingdom, and so the wall began deteriorate. At some point, all that the invaders had to do was simply walk around the wall and enter Sumer.

The Elamites were one of the first people to invade Ur. They captured the city’s king around 1750 BC. The Amorites also settled on the land, but years of farming and poor weather conditions made Ur unattractive to live in. Many of these Amorites decided to migrate to northern Mesopotamia. In the Bible, Abraham was one of the people to leave Ur and settle in Canaan under God’s command.

The destruction of Ur brought the Ur III Period to an end. The remaining Sumerians decided to head north as well. As time passed, the Sumerians lost their culture and language. They came to speak Akkadian, which at the time was the most dominant language.

As for the remaining Elamites and Amorites in Ur, they came together and became the Babylonians.

Read More: 10 Important Facts about Ancient Sumer

Exact reason why the Sumerian empire came to an end

The Sumer empire was basically a group of distinct city-states that predominantly occupied lower parts of Mesopotamia. They had no centralized control as they were only linked by language and religion. The various Sumerian city-states had their own kings and high priests. And for several hundreds of years, they fought among themselves.

As a result of those divisions, the Sumer people struggled to fend off attack from nomadic tribes from the north and the east.

By 2300 BC, a weakened Sumerian empire, along with its various city-states, was ripe for the taking for Sargon, a fierce military ruler from the north. Sargon, also known as Sargon the Great, would go on to become history’s first empire builder because he successfully brought the various independent Mesopotamian city-states together.

Intermittently, Sargon’s rule was threatened by uprisings in those conquered Sumerian city-states; however, the very astute ruler effectively suppressed those uprisings. It’s said that although he was Akkadian, he paid a great deal of respect to the Sumerian culture, ensuring that Sumerians and Akkadians lived side-by-side in peace.

However, not all the invaders of the Sumer people were as respectful as Sargon. Historians state that by 1750 BC, the Sumerian culture had faded away completely. And it was not until the 19th century AD that archeologists would discover its ruins.


At its peak, Sumer largely influenced all of Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, following the destruction of history’s first known civilization, much of its culture and identity got lost. However, there is no doubt that the Sumerians were pioneers of several inventions, artworks and stories that survived through many empires that came after it. In this regard, the Sumerian civilization, which originally merged from a hot, desert region, forever changed the ancient world.

Who knew that the accidental discovery of the once powerful ancient civilization back in the 1800s would answer some of the world’s biggest questions?

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