Name: Date: Ancient Mesopotamia – Lesson 2 Sumer and Babylon

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Ancient Mesopotamia – Lesson 2

Sumer and Babylon

You have read about southern Mesopotamia’s large surpluses. These allowed an increasing number of people to live as skilled workers in cities. By 3000 B.C. – around the time that Menes unified Egypt – about a dozen small cities dotted southern Mesopotamia. This region was also known as Sumer. The people of Sumer’s cities valued their independence highly. They often fought against being ruled by other cities. However, all Sumerians shared a rich cultural heritage. They worked hard to control the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to produce food crops. They worshiped similar gods. The Sumerians made some of the world’s first wheeled vehicles and sailboats. They also made simple machines, such as pottery wheels. In addition, early Sumerians explored new ideas in math and science. The invention of writing helped to bring the ancient cities together. Laws, letters, records, stories, instructions, riddles, and proverbs could all be widely shared, thanks to cuneiform. Cuneiform was the system of writing invented in Sumer.

A System of Writing

Some historians believe that cuneiform was first developed to record farm surpluses. Ancient Sumerians used sharp reeds to scratch the records into wet clay tablets. The dried tablets became permanent records. In 3500 B.C. – the time of the oldest tablets that have been found – cuneiform symbols looked like the things they described. Over time, however, Sumerian scribes developed faster ways to write. They simplified their figures so they could be formed more quickly. Look at the chart on this page for examples. About 500 signs were regularly used! These signs could also be combined to form more complex words. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform signs represented sounds and ideas as well as objects.

School in Sumer

As in ancient Egypt few people could write. Even kings could not. It was an honor to be able to go to school and learn to be a scribe. Boys and, very rarely, girls spent years studying in local schools. First they learned how to make clay tablets and reed “pens.” Then students practiced over and over how to write the basic signs of cuneiform. Scribes in Sumer also had to study mathematics so they would be able to keep accurate records. Trained scribes could and did write almost anything. They even wrote love letters for people and sealed them in clay “envelopes!” Scribes also recorded stories, laws, and songs. The sturdy ancient tablets have survived thousands of years. They have helped historians to piece together a detailed picture of early Mesopotamia.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

1. Where was cuneiform developed?

2. How were the materials used for cuneiform and hieroglyphics similar and different?

3. Why did cuneiform symbols grow less picture-like as time passed?

4. How did the rules to become a scribe differ from Egypt to Mesopotamia?

City-States of Sumer

Cuneiform writing first appeared in about 3500 B.C. Over the next thousand years, Sumerian life centered around the city-states of southern Mesopotamia. A city-state is a self-governing city that also governs surrounding villages. Through cuneiform we know about an early Sumerian mythical hero named Gilgamesh. Read the following passage about Gilgamesh. Think about what made him a hero to the ancient Sumerians.

The great Gilgamesh was one who knew everything. He had seen all there was to see and done all there was to do. He had built the walls of the city, Uruk. Look at its brickwork! Nobody could build a better wall. It was made of copper and burnt brick, and was wide enough to walk upon. Gilgamesh was part god and part man, and as strong as an ox. He was the strongest in the land, and the best fighter.

Living in a Sumerian City

City-states often went to war to gain control of precious river water. For this reason strong walls were built to protect against attack. Large gateways in city walls allowed people and goods to get into and out of cities. City gates were also where people gathered to buy fresh vegetables and other goods. Goods were brought to the cities by farmers and traders. The king’s palace could be seen from almost everywhere in a city. The palace was where a city-state’s planning and decision making took place. Kings served as generals, judges, and canal overseers. Unlike Egyptian pharaohs, though, Sumerian kings were not considered to be gods.

Religion in Ancient Sumer

In the center of most ancient Sumerian cities stood a towering mud-brick building. That building was a ziggurat. A ziggurat was a large building with a temple on its peak. Since these temples were located in the center of cities, historians believe that religion was very important in Sumer. Like the Egyptians, Sumerians’ religious beliefs involved polytheism. Polytheism is a belief in many gods and goddesses. Each city-state had a special god or goddess. That god or goddess was worshiped at the city’s ziggurat. People also worshiped other gods and goddesses at home. One favorite was Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Another was Enki, the god of water.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

5. Who was Gilgamesh? What did the Sumerians believe about Gilgamesh?

6. Why did the Sumerians build walls around their cities?

7. What role did the king’s palace play in a city-state?

8. What evidence suggests that religion was important to Sumerians?

Uniting the City-States

In time the city-states were united under one ruler – Sargon, king of the city-state Kish. Sargon rose to power about 2300 B.C. His rule began a new period in Mesopotamia’s history. Sargon expanded his empire to the northern end of the Fertile Crescent, in what is present-day Syria. Along the Mediterranean Sea, Sumerians traded with the ancient seafaring people called Phoenicians. The Phoenicians also traded with merchants from Egypt. Phoenicians sent wine and timber to Sargon’s city-states. In return they received Mesopotamia farm products and other goods. Cuneiform writing spread through the Fertile Crescent along with trade goods. Other cultures began using cuneiform to write out their own languages. Because cuneiform was used throughout his empire, Sargon could send instructions and govern over great distances.

The Rise of Babylon

Sargon’s rule lasted about 56 years, until about 2279 B.C. Then the city-states rebelled against the empire. Almost 500 years would pass before another empire controlled Mesopotamia. During those years a group of people from the Syrian desert moved into northern Mesopotamia. They created a small kingdom centered around a city-state called Babylon.

A Northern Empire

About 1800 B.C. Babylon’s king, Hammurabi, began a drive to gain control over the old city-states of Sumer. Hammurabi and the Babylonians dammed key parts of the Euphrates. This gave them the power to cut off the flow of water or cause terrible floods downstream. Next, Hammurabi’s armies attacked the weakened Sumerians. Hammurabi also won control of the city-states around Babylon. He created a huge empire. The empire of Babylonia under Hammurabi became rich and powerful. Shipments of silver, copper, timber, and wine poured into Babylonia. These goods came from people in what are today Turkey, Iran, and Syria. In exchange people in Babylonia sent grain and fruits. Servants even floated ice from distant mountains down rivers to refrigerate food and drink. Under Hammurabi Mesopotamia’s center of power shifted north to Babylon. Yet many Sumerian traditions remained. Babylonians used cuneiform to communicate in writing. In fact the world’s first dictionaries were created so Babylonians could adopt Sumerian culture and language.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

9. Who unified the Sumerian city-states, and where was he from?

10. What brought on the collapse of the Sumerian Empire?

11. What new ruler marched through Mesopotamia in about 1800 B.C.?

12. What strategy did he use to weaken the Sumerians?

A Code of Law

When Hammurabi gained control of Sumer, he set out to act as the Sumerian kings had done. He oversaw projects to build and repair canals. Hammurabi also acted as a judge. He used some of the laws that Sumerians had written down hundreds of years before him. In 1901 archaeologists found a large stone pillar from ancient Babylon. The pillar was inscribed with over 200 laws written in cuneiform. Imagine historians’ excitement when they realized that the laws had actually been formed by Hammurabi himself. They had been written almost 4,000 years before they were discovered! The Code of Hammurabi is one of the world’s oldest codes of law. A code of law is a written set of laws that apply to everyone under a government. The pillar shows that slavery existed in Babylonia and that not everyone was treated equally under the law. Copies of the pillar were also found outside of Babylon. This suggests that Hammurabi meant for his laws to be followed throughout the empire. Cuneiform made this possible.

Read the following excerpt from the Code of Hammurabi. What does it tell you about what justice meant to Hammurabi and other Babylonians?

So that the strong may not abuse the weak, to give justice to the orphan and the widow, I have inscribed my precious words…

If a Freeman has put out the eye of another Freeman, they shall put out his eye.

If he breaks the bone of another Freeman, they shall break his bone.

If he puts out the eye of a Poor Man, or breaks the bone of a Poor Man, he shall pay 1 mina (17.5 ounces) of silver. If he puts out the eye of a Slave of another Freeman…, he shall pay half his price.

The “New” Babylonia

After Hammurabi died, about 1750 B.C., Babylonia began to fall apart. The city-states in the south rebelled again, much as they had against Sargon. Powerful armies from the mountains to the north and east began taking the empire’s territory. Throughout western Asia new powers overthrew old ones. During this time of change, however, Babylon remained one of the most powerful cities in the Fertile Crescent. Just as Hammurabi had used Sumerian ideas, new rulers respected the history of “Old Babylonia.” They worshiped its gods and passed down its legends – many of which had begun in Sumer. In 689 B.C. Babylon was destroyed by powerful rulers from a northern Mesopotamian city called Nineveh. About 60 years later the Babylonians were able to rebuild Babylon and make it the capital of an even stronger empire.

The “New” Babylon

The new Babylon soon became the world’s largest city. It grew famous for its great beauty and technology. Two massive walls and a moat now protected Babylon. The city was split in two by the Euphrates River but was connected by a movable bridge and an underwater tunnel! At the center of the city stood a huge ziggurat. It was 200 yards wide and rose 100 yards into the sky. Elsewhere were grid-style streets, sewer and water systems, and three- and four-story homes. Babylon was also known for its marvelous “hanging gardens.” Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what they looked like.

Sorrow in Babylon

Not everyone thought of Babylon as a wonderful place. To some who were brought to the great city, Babylon was anything but beautiful and certainly not home. One poet wrote:

By the rivers of Babylon,

There we sat,

Sat and wept,

When we thought of home.

These newcomers were prisoners. They were brought from what is today Israel.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

13. What is the Code of Hammurabi and why was it created?

14. What brought about the growth of the New Babylon?

15. What made the city magnificent?

Why it Matters

One cuneiform tablet reads:

The gods alone live forever under

the divine sun. But as for humans,

their days are numbered. All their

activities will be nothing but wind.

It is hard to believe that the ruins of an ancient Mesopotamian city-state were once home to thousands of people. Yet this land was covered with green fields and bustling cities. The people who lived here shared many of the same concerns that we have today. The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians left records of their civilizations in cuneiform writing. Ideas formed in ancient times – about schools, literature, science, and law – echo into our own time. Despite the ancient scribe’s prediction, the legacy of Mesopotamia has not been lost.

Main Ideas

  • Cuneiform probably developed as a way to keep track of farm supplies and surplus. The system was later expanded to communicate more complex ideas as well.

  • Mesopotamia was not always unified into a single empire. Both government and religion greatly shaped life on a local level.

  • Cuneiform writing helped Sargon, king of Kish, to rule over great distances.

  • The rise to power of Hammurabi made Babylon one of the world’s richest and most powerful cities in ancient times.

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Achievements of Mesopotamian Civilization





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