The Sumerians

The Babylonian Collections of the University Museum

By: Leon Legrain

Originally Published in 1944

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The political independence of the Sumerians came to an end when Hammurabi united the north and the south, Akkad and Sumer, under the common rule of Babylon. But the culture they had introduced in the land before the middle of the fourth millennium-law and religion, art and science, architecture, war and civil organization, language and writing-was never forgotten, even after Semitic had become the common language of Babylonia and Assyria. It has left an indelible mark on the subsequent culture of neighboring peoples, Cassites, Hittites, Mitanni, Hurites, Urarteans, Syro-Hittites, even the Persians, who borrowed from the Sumerians their system of writing. Cuneiform characters were still used shortly before the Christian era, by the side of the more modern Aramaic alphabet. Hammurabi published his edicts both in Semitic and Sumerian. Sumerian never ceased to be the language of religion. Young scribes went to the temple schools to learn it. It was recited and sung in official liturgies. King Ashurbanipal sent his scholars to Nippur to copy ancient Sumerian legends and records in order to enrich his library.

Culture indeed begins with the Sumerians. Before them, the picture is very different. The first settlers had been attracted by the dry land which began to form in the middle of the lagoons. The fertile alluvial plain-the Gu-edin- must have looked to them as a paradise of God. To the Sumerians coming from the east into the land of Shinear, the conditions of life of the original settlers seemed very crude. A Sumerian legend of the Creation pictures them as “walking on the ground with their limbs and eating herbs with their mouth like sheep.” The reed huts and even the painted wares were poor achievements compared with the new culture. The Sumerians were town dwellers. They brought the mysterious art of writing, computation of time, reckoning in numbers and figures. They built walled cities, brick towers resting on terraces, and shrines to their celestial gods. They adorned them with mosaics and fresco paintings. They surveyed the land, opened canals and irrigated fields. An active boat trade was kept up with the Lower Sea, the Persian Gulf. They knew the roads to the Upper Sea, probably the Mediterranean. They used wheeled chariots and teams of asses. The local rulers, the patesis, were high priests in the shrine and princes in the palace. Each city was an independent state under the protection of its own god.

Cite This Article

Legrain, Leon. "The Sumerians." Museum Bulletin X, no. 3-4 (June, 1944): 35-36. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/2597/


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