What Makes a Civilization?


The first civilization was that of the Sumerians who became an urban society around 3500 BC.
What do you think urban means?

About how long ago did Sumer's urban society begin?

Sumer may very well be the first civilization in the world. From its beginnings as a collection of farming villages around 5000 BCE and its final collapse around 2000 BCE, the Sumerians developed a religion and a society which influenced both their neighbors and their conquerors.

Do you know the meaning of BCE? If not, look for clues to bring you close to the meaning.

Sumerian cuneiform, the earliest written language, was borrowed by the Babylonians, who also took many of their religious beliefs. Sumer was a collection of city states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had individual rulers. The leader of the most powerful city could have been considered the king of the region.

Sumer had a thriving agriculture and trade industry. Herds of sheep and goats and farms of grains and vegetables were held both by the temples and private citizens. Ships traveled up and down the river and throughout the Persian gulf, carrying pottery and other goods and bringing back fruits and various raw materials from across the region, including cedars from the Levant.

Sumer was one of the first literate civilizations leaving many records of business transactions, and lessons from schools. They had strong armies, which with their chariots and phalanxes kept control over their less civilized neighbors. Perhaps the most lasting cultural remnants of the Sumerians though, can be found in their religion.


The Story of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh (GIHLguhmehsh)legendary Sumerian king who was the hero of Sumerian and Babylonian tales.
He was called the Powerful, the Perfect, and the Wise.

The Gilgamesh Legend

Gilgamesh, one of the few surviving Mesopotamian legends (c. 2700 B.C.), is about the fear of death and the search for immortality. When Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is so revolted by his physical decay that he seeks the secret of immortality. He wants a Body without Organs, one that does not die or rot or stink. After a long journey, he meets Utnapishtim, a man who has been granted immortality by the gods. Utnapishtim rescued all living things by gathering them into an ark so that they survived the Flood, and for this the gods blessed him.

What name do our biblical stories give for Utnapishtim?

Sumer itself was divided into a dozen or so city-states. Chief among these were Ur, Kish, Lagash, and Uruk. The latter was the city-state ruled by Gilgamesh.

What does latter mean?

Although The Story of Gilgamesh is a legend, Gilgamesh was in fact a real king who reigned around 2500 B.C.. He is known to have built the city of Uruk. The citys streets were wide enough to accommodate chariots and wagons. On either side of the major streets, the homes of the well-to-do were laid out in neat rows. Behind these were alleys where farmers lived in small, flat-roofed huts. Here, too, resided such artisans as potters and smiths. Standing high above such ordinary houses were the temples of the many gods the people worshipped. Truly, the city must have been one of the most magnificent cities in Mesopotamia.

Gilgamesh holding a lion that he captured.

What is a legend?

Our knowledge of The Epic of Gilgamesh can be traced to 12 stone tablets that are today in the British Museum in London. The tablets are written in cuneiform, the wedge-shaped writing used by the Sumerians. The story of Gilgamesh and his adventures predates the invention of writing. It was passed down through word-of-mouth until around 2000 B.C. when the Sumerians, using cuneiform script, recorded the epic on clay tablets.

From these tablets the legend of Gilgamesh became known to the world. The tablets also contain the Babylonian account of the Great Flood, and they relate the story of the Babylonian equivalent of the biblical Noah. Stories about the flood appear in the literature of many ancient societies.

The Story of Gilgamesh deals with one mans search for immortality.

Gilgamesh is a historical figure who ruled the city-state of Uruk around 2500 b.c. He is mentioned in the Sumerian list of kings as reigning after the flood. He is said to have ruled for 126 years; certainly an exaggeration, but we can conclude that he enjoyed a long reign.

Ancient peoples believed their gods and goddesses played an important and active role in their lives.

In the epic (long poem or tale about the adventurous deeds of gods and heroes), Enkidu, the wild man who becomes Gilgameshs companion and joins him in his quest for adventure and excitement, is a mythological character.

Can you think of any other character in fact or fiction who has searched for a way to stay forever young?

Want to read more? A delightful retelling of the Gilgamesh story for children, beautifully illustrated, can be found in Ludmilla Zeman's Gilgamesh the King (1992).