It was with great sadness that I read a recent article in the New York Times documenting the pillaging and destruction of Mesopotamian archaeological sites in Iraq. Although these Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian sites — and previous excavations — receive scant attention outside small groups of antiquities scholars, they are of critical importance to our understanding of human history. It was in this area, after all, that the first civilizations and city-states arose.
The first distinctively Sumerian villages and small cities appeared around 4,500 BCE. At lower stratigraphic levels (i.e., before 4,500 BCE), archaeologists have discovered evidence of smaller-scale agricultural communities known generally as the Ubaidian (we do not know what they called themselves because they did not yet have writing).
As these small settlements grew or were conquered by outsiders, they eventually acquired their Sumerian characteristics. By 3,500 BCE, several Sumerian villages had grown into city-states with populations in the tens of thousands; these city-states began building the first monumental architecture, usually in the form of ziggurats that were part temple complexes and part royal quarters. These were impressive structures:
The Sumerians were the authors of many “firsts.” They were the first to engage in large-scale irrigation agriculture; the first to live in populous urban settings that we call city-states; the first to develop stratified societies with specialized occupations; the first to organize and maintain standing armies; the first to develop mathematics and writing; the first to propagate laws and formulate the concept of property. They were also the first to engage in systematic and organized spiritual practices that fit the definition of what we today call “religion.”
This latter point is critical to the historian of religion. As Samuel Noah Kramer (1963:112) observed in his classic The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character:
In the course of the third millenium B.C., the Sumerians developed religious ideas and spiritual concepts which have left an indelible impress on the modern world, especially by way of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On the intellectual level Sumerian thinkers and sages, as a result of their their speculations on the origin and nature of the universe and its modus operandi, developed a cosmology and theology which carried such high conviction that they became the basic creed and dogma of much of the ancient near East.
One can, in other words, find much of Sumerian religion in all near eastern religions that followed: Akkadian, Babylonian, Judaic, Greek, Roman, Christian, and Muslim. None of these religions sprouted sui generis from new revelations or prophets — all simply built upon and revised the Sumerians’ original formulations.
Sumerian theologians and priests developed several concepts that became key components of these later religions. First, they conceived of the gods in anthropomorphic terms — the gods were like humans but divine. Second, the cosmological or heavenly order was modeled on the earthly order. Here I paraphrase Kramer:
Sumerian theologians took their cue from human society as they knew it and reasoned from the known to the unknown. They noted that lands and cities, and palaces and temples, fields and farms — in short, all imaginable institutions and enterprises — are tended and supervised, guided and controlled by living human beings; without them lands and cities became desolate, temples and palaces crumbled, fields and farms turned to desert and wilderness. Surely, therefore, the cosmos and all its manifold phenomena must also be tended and supervised, guided and controlled by living beings in human form.
Then, too, on the analogy with the political organization of the Sumerian city-state, it was natural to assume that at the head of of the pantheon was a deity recognized by all the others as their king and ruler.
As for the technique of creation attributed to these deities, Sumerian theologians developed a doctrine which became dogma throughout the Near East, the doctrine of creative power of the divine word. All that the creating deity had to do, according to this doctrine, was to lay the plans, utter the word, and pronounce the name.
Although the Sumerians were polytheistic and had a pantheon of deities, there were already hints of an emergent monotheism:
The four most important deities were the heaven-god An, the air-god Enlil, the water-god Enki, and the great mother goddess Ninhursag. By far the most important deity in the Sumerian pantheon, one who played a dominant role throughout Sumer in rite, myth, and prayer, was the air-god Enlil.
In addition to the idea of human-like deities who interacted with people and responded to supplication or prayer, the Sumerians developed elaborate doctrines, rites, myths, creeds, and temples. I will be discussing these in future posts which will clearly demonstrate the profound and enduring influence Sumerian religion had on later developing faiths that today are known as “world religions.”