Ancient Sumerians – The Cradle of Civilization
The Anicent Sumerians are thought to be one of the first urban societies. In 4000 B.C., human beings in many parts of the world still hunted their prey, tended sheep, and lived in caves or huts. The evidence of any ancient civilization was elusive.1 In 1616, an Italian traveler, Pietro della Valla, identified the city of Babylon. Not only did he provide amazing descriptions of the Mesopotamian site, but he also brought back to Europe clay bricks bearing numerous wedge-shaped marks, that he had uncovered from great earth-mounds found at Nineveh and Ur.2 Archeologists realized that each great mound, tel, held the ruins of a city rebuilt in a single place time and again. Each layer revealed the earlier remnants of older Mesopotamian buildings, temples, statues, and tools. Clay tablets contained wedge-marks identical to Della Valle’s bricks. Since no one could interpret the marks, the clay tablets held onto their secrets. Over three centuries would pass before historians and archeologists would find the crucial clues which would unlock the deciphering symbol-key, not in Mesopotamia, but in ancient Persia (now Iran). After excavating down 25 meters to virgin soil, archeologists finally unearthed the mysteries of the Sumerians—the oldest known civilization on Earth (c4500–c1700 B.C.).
Ancient Sumerians – A Well-Documented Civilization
It’s one thing to paint pictures onto rocks or images on cave walls. Combining written symbols that transmit ideas, however, establishes a tangible record of the world’s first form of writing. By 3500 B.C., Sumerian people had developed an incredible tool for organizing and expressing their ideas, providing their people with an abundance of information.
The ancient Sumerians’ knowledge included how to control the yearly flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with levees and irrigation canals. Other teams of workers practiced advanced cultivation and harvesting techniques. Division of labor enabled the Sumerians to utilize their skills as craftsmen (carpenters, metalworkers, and sculptors), merchants, boatmen, priests, soldiers, even doctors. Keeping track of so many important things compelled them to create substantial documentation.
As their civilization grew, the Ancient Sumerians invented symbols to represent numbers, creating a system of arithmetic, based on two numerals—10 and 60. While we employ a base-10 system for our mathematical calculations and decimals, the Sumerians chose 60 as their base system. We still utilize the sexagesimal system (counting by 60) in some of our measurements—360° of a circle, minutes, and seconds of time.
It took the Sumerian scribes many hundreds of years to develop their system of writing. Their initial picture writings were clumsy and confusing. Soon their signs began to stand for words rather than objects. Pictures changed into wedge-shaped marks, which formed sentences when placed in a series, i.e. cuneiform . Eventually, each mark represented a sound instead of an idea or object. This significant step enabled Sumerians to convey in writing whatever they could convey by speaking.
Ancient Sumerians – A Mythical Civilization
As advanced as the Ancient Sumerians were in the areas of mathematics and communication, they lacked understanding of the forces of nature, causes for diseases, or famine. The Sumerians began to worship many of the forces of nature. Their whole world centered upon the power of deities, as well as countless demons, spirits, and ghosts. Their stories, some imaginative, others terrifying, helped the Sumerians explain their unpredictable and powerful gods.
Creation of the World – Enlil, the god of heaven and the air separated heaven and earth. He did not like being caught in the darkness, so Enlil forced himself on Ninlil (“lady wind” or “lady air”) who gives birth to Nanna (or Sin), the moon-god. Nanna sails across the sky in a boat, bringing light to the firmament, scattering the “little ones” (stars) like grain, and the “big ones” (planets) that walked like wild oxen around them.
The Bible describes, “a formless and empty earth” touched by God’s light-giving, order-making, and life-creating Word (Genesis 1:1-14; John 1:1-5).
The Creation of Man – The gods made clay from moist river mud and shaped it until arms and legs appeared, and then they gave the clay life. Sumerians believed that humans were created to serve the gods. Through worship and blind obedience to the desires of their gods, the Sumerians hoped to obtain protection from disasters such as diseases, droughts, and floods.
In the Bible, God creates man “in his own [God’s] image.” Like a potter, fashioning a vessel from clay, God formed man from the dust of the earth, giving him dominion over the rest of creation (Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 2:7).
The Great Flood – Long ago, there was a great multitude of people living long and fruitful lives. Because they made so much noise, the gods could not sleep. The irritated gods decided to destroy all of humanity by flooding the Earth. One god, Enki, pitied the humans and decided to warn one good man, Utnapishtim, who built a boat which held his family, possessions, and animals of the field. For six days and nights, the flood covered the earth, turning the rest of mankind to mud. When the waters subsided, Utnapishtim gave thanks and the gods gave him eternal life. But the deities decided the rest of humanity should die younger.
In the Bible, Genesis 6-8 records the wickedness of man, prompting God to wipe mankind from the face of the earth. Noah’s righteousness before the Lord saves his family from a watery death (Genesis 6-8).
1 Civilization is defined as “an advanced level of development in society that is marked by complex social and political organization, and material, scientific, and artistic progress.” – World English Dictionary, North American Edition, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.
2 According to Genesis 10:11, Nineveh was one of the Northern cities founded by the warrior/hunter, Nimrod, after leaving Babylonia. Ur was the homeland of Abraham and the starting point of his migration to Canaan (Genesis 11:28, 31; 15:7). Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of Ur (1922-1934) revealed a hilltop terraced pyramid or ziggurat, that served as the city’s temple dedicated to its mythical god.
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