IN ABOUT 5000 BC, the Sumerians settled Mesopotamia, the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They founded farming settlements, which, by 3200 BC, had grown into the world's first cities. As these cities flourished, the Sumerians developed the first known writing system. The Sumerian cities, linked by waterways, developed into a civilization based on a shared language, religious beliefs, art forms, and building styles. The cities traded with each other, but also fought for dominance. In c.2000 BC, eastern desert tribes in search of fertile land moved into the region, and the Sumerian civilization collapsed.
Sumerian cities consisted of mud-brick houses, palaces, and temples enclosed by a large wall. Every day, people left home to farm the surrounding land or fish the rivers. Many worked for the king or the temple. As food production increased, more people were free to work with stone or metal, produce textiles, or make the thousands of mud bricks necessary to build ziggurats and temples.
Sumerian artists were highly skilled. They decorated palace and temple walls with shell and stone inlays. Their craftworkers used imported stone to make statues of humans, animals, and gods. Metalworkers made exquisite jewellery of gold, silver, and rare stones, such as blue lapis lazuli and red cornelian, which they shaped into delicate animals and flowers.
The city of Ur
This ziggurat dominated the city of Ur, which was dedicated to the moon god Nanna. There were hundreds of gods in the Sumerian religion, and each city had its own special patron.
Competition between cities for farmland and materials led to almost endless warfare. The Standard of Ur, a gorgeously decorated wooden box, shows the ruler leading his soldiers against an enemy. The soldiers are equipped with copper helmets, felt cloaks, spears, and axes.
The Sumerians invented writing, using a cut reed to draw signs on damp clay. The signs, representing sounds, were combined to form words. The impressions gradually became more cuneiform (wedge-like).
Farming and fishing
Farming communities developed in Mesopotamia between 6000 and
5000 BC. Food was easy to grow in the fertile soil of the marshes.
Outside the marshes, the settlers gradually banded together, and built canals to irrigate the land. They cultivated the soil, and kept sheep, cattle, and pigs. Today, the Marsh Arabs of Iraq farm in a similar way to that of their predecessors, the Sumerians.