Sumerian Cities (ca. 3500–2334 B.C.E.)
It is not until the fourth millennium that cities in the modern sense— that is, large settlements built around a central focus, usually a shrine, and inhabited by groups of people cooperating with one another in some form of a centralized administration—developed.
The prototype city of the period, Uruk (now known as Warka, about 150 miles southwest of Baghdad), was a city not only because it was large but also because it was fortiﬁ ed; it had a wall, which most villages did not. Uruk was inﬂ uenced by the settlement at Ubaid.
In fact, Ubaid paved the way for the more developed society of Uruk to the point where the latter’s temple was built on the remains of the former’s own shrine complex (Postgate 1994, 24). Although the tip of southern Iraq has not been excavated to the degree necessary to draw analytic comparisons with settlements in the north, Uruk is one site that has received fairly extensive attention, enough to merit a detailed study (Van de Mieroop 2004, 20).
Archaeological digs have uncovered an urban blueprint of shrines and temples, artistic tableaux inscribed on cylinder seals and written records that depict a highly sophisticated society. Uruk’s prosperity (derived in large part from agriculture) funded a class of craftsmen that turned out a distinctive form of pottery, including a quintessential article, “the so-called beveled-rim bowl” (Van de Mieroop 2004, 204).
One of the most precious objects to have been discovered by present-day archaeologists at Uruk was an alabaster vase that was carved with an intricate scene depicting, among other ﬁ gures, the goddess Inanna. The Uruk, or under its better-known name, Warka, vase was looted during the war in April 2003 but was miraculously restored almost intact to the Iraqi Museum several months later.
Uruk’s other innovation was its differentiated class-based society, in which people were known by their occupations. Tax records uncovered by historians point to a chain of command in which priest-kings were at the top, peasants at the bottom, and in between were landowners, temple ofﬁ cials, scribes, and merchants.
Uruk was not, of course, the only city of note in southern Iraq. There was also Jamdat Nasr, a later development. Much that we know of Sumer’s earliest city-states is conserved in two documents of the period, the Temple Hymns and the Sumerian King List. Composed in the Akkadian period, after the fall of Sumer, they refer to 35 different cities, the most important of them being Lagash, Larsa, Kish, Ur, Nippur, Eridu, and Sippar.
The mystery of their origins is best explained by Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim, who speculates that in Sumer, “a spontaneous urbanization took place . . . [and that] nowhere do we ﬁ nd such an agglomeration of urban settlements as in southern Babylon” (Oppenheim 1977, 110–111).For him, as for other scholars, the city is the only construct that made sense at the time: Arising out of fortuitous circumstances of soil, climate, water, and people, it catered to the needs of a large and settled population and hewed to an inclusive ideology built on the principles of equality and individuality.
Its citizens were not democratic in the strict sense of the word but followed a more patriarchal code built on consensus and collective justice. The most important buildings were the temples and, only later on, the palace, which managed to coexist with the corporate-minded landowners in the city, who may have instituted large, private farms worked by kinfolk and foreign laborers. A balance in power between the king, high priests, and landowners may have resulted in a more or less harmonious existence, in which economic and social tensions were muted.
Economy of the Early Cities
Ancient Iraq’s economy was largely based on agriculture, although trade in livestock products and the weaving of textiles were known. Cereal production was the mainstay of the agricultural economy, complemented by sheep, cattle, and pig herding. Cuneiform tablets also describe longdistance trade, with merchants traveling to and from Anatolia and Iran.
Agriculture was time consuming because in the south it depended on the steady maintenance of irrigation canals, which were prone to heavy silting caused by the mud deposits carried by the rivers. Farmers in antiquity knew that while the river waters were a boon to agriculture, they also spelled trouble if not kept under tight surveillance.
Because of the constant need to supervise the work carried out on irrigation channels, a centralized system was established whereby a class of people, for the most part overseers employed by higher patrons, were hired to keep the peasants in check and to see that the system of irrigation agriculture was fully carried out.
Historians theorize that people in southern Iraq developed complex forms of social organization based on group participation necessary to build and maintain canals and to keep rival groups away from their sources of water and stores of food. Eventually, this central administration was to culminate in a tightly organized, highly differentiated class system.