The Sumerian city-states rose to power during the prehistoric Ubaid and Uruk periods. Sumerian written history reaches back to the 27th century BC and before, but the historical record remains obscure until the Early Dynastic III period, c. the 23rd century BC, when a now deciphered syllabary writing system was developed, which has allowed archaeologists to read contemporary records and inscriptions. Classical Sumer ends with the rise of the Akkadian Empire in the 23rd century BC. Following the Gutian period, there is a brief Sumerian Renaissance in the 21st century BC, cut short in the 20th century BC by Semitic Amorite invasions. The Amorite “dynasty of Isin” persisted until c. 1700 BC, when Mesopotamia was united under Babylonian rule. The Sumerians were eventually absorbed into the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) population.
The dynastic period begins c. 2900 BC and includes such legendary figures as Enmerkar and Gilgamesh—who are supposed to have reigned shortly before the historic record opens c. 2700 BC, when the now deciphered syllabic writing started to develop from the early pictograms. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas, and neighboring Semitic groups adopted much of Sumerian culture for their own.
The most prominent Sumerian building was the religious temple, built atop a stepped tower called a ziggurat. Some ziggurats were as high as 70 feet. The temple was dedicated to the patron deity of the city. The people devoted great resources and labor to building these temples and to the houses of priests. The ziggurats housed workshops for craftsmen as well as temples for worship. The ziggurats were built of clay bricks joined together with bitumen, a sticky asphalt like substance. There were artisans who sculpted, cut gems, fullers who stomped on woven wools to soften cloth, and metal workers who crafted weapons as well as artistic creations.
Ziggurat at UR
The Ziggurat at Ur, a massive stepped pyramid about 210 by 150 feet in size, is the most well-preserved monument from the remote age of the Sumerians. It consists of a series of successively smaller platforms which rose to a height of about 64 feet, and was constructed with a solid core of mud-brick covered by a thick skin of burnt-brick to protect it from the elements. Its corners are oriented to the compass points, and like the Parthenon, its walls slope slightly inwards, giving an impression of solidity.
The ziggurat was part of a temple complex that served as an administrative center for the city, and it was also thought to be the place on earth where the moon god Nanna, the patron deity of Ur, had chosen to dwell. Nanna was depicted as a wise and unfathomable old man with a flowing beard and four horns, and a single small shrine to the god was placed upon the ziggurat’s summit. This was occupied each night by only one person, chosen by the priests from among everyone in the city. A kitchen, likely used to prepare food for the god, was located at the base of one of the ziggurat’s side stairways.
White Temple, URUK
The White temple was rectangular, measuring 17.5 x 22.3 meters and, at its corners, oriented to the cardinal points. It is a typical Uruk “high temple (Hochtempel)” type with a tri-partite plan: a long rectangular central hall with rooms on either side (plan). The White Temple had three entrances, none of which faced the ziggurat ramp directly. Visitors would have needed to walk around the temple, appreciating its bright façade and the powerful view, and likely gained access to the interior in a “bent axis” approach (where one would have to turn 90 degrees to face the altar), a typical arrangement for Ancient Near Eastern temples.
The north west and east corner chambers of the building contained staircases (unfinished in the case of the one at the north end). Chambers in the middle of the northeast room suite appear to have been equipped with wooden shelves in the walls and displayed cavities for setting in pivot stones which might imply a solid door was fitted in these spaces. The north end of the central hall had a podium accessible by means of a small staircase and an altar with a fire-stained surface. Very few objects were found inside the White Temple, although what has been found is very interesting. Archaeologists uncovered some 19 tablets of gypsum on the floor of the temple—all of which had cylinder seal impressions and reflected temple accounting. Also, archaeologists uncovered a foundation deposit of the bones of a leopard and a lion in the eastern corner of the Temple (foundation deposits, ritually buried objects and bones, are not uncommon in ancient architecture).
To the north of the White Temple there was a broad flat terrace, at the center of which archaeologists found a huge pit with traces of fire (2.2 x 2.7m) and a loop cut from a massive boulder. Most interestingly, a system of shallow bitumen-coated conduits were discovered. These ran from the southeast and southwest of the terrace edges and entered the temple through the southeast and southwest doors. Archaeologists conjecture that liquids would have flowed from the terrace to collect in a pit in the center hall of the temple.