By 3,000 B.C.E., population growth had led to the rise of City-States and small kingdoms that were united in a network of trade stretching from the Indus to the Nile.
Although writing had developed in southern Mesopotamia around 3,500 B.C.E., very little is known about the actual historical developments of the region until a few centuries later. This time, at the beginning of history, is referred to as the Early Dynastic Period (2,900-2350 B.C.E.). This era is marked by the emergence of the City-State as a political institution, as well as increasingly innovative use of irrigation and building technology.
During this period there were around thirty cities in a interconnected network of trade and commerce in southern Iraq. They referred to their region simply as “The Land.” Future generations would divide the region region into Sumer and Akkad but only after the impression made upon “The Land” by Sargon of Akkad in the 23rd century BCE.
At this time, the Persian Gulf extended over 100 Kilometers further north from its current location, and the great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, each poured separately into it. Not far up these waterways lay Sumer, and the southernmost of the Sumerian City-States, such as Ur and Lagash. North of this, where the rivers came to their closest point , the land was known as Akkad. Here lie such cities as Kish and Sippar.
Politics of the City-State
The City-States of Sumer and Akkad developed around two primary institutions, the temple and the palace. In theory, each of the city-states was on land owned by the local deity and each city district was built around the appropriate temple. Early texts indicate that the temples were run by men with the title of En, which is commonly translated as ‘lord or ‘priest.’
By the beginnings of the Early Dynastic Period, the temple driven economy merged with a palace driven economy that took hold with the rise of secular leaders. Some of these rulers were termed Ensi’s, which can be translated as ‘governor,’ while others were primarily warlords known as Lugals, meaning literally, ‘big man.” There is still debate over the exact implication of these titles.
Gods of Sumer and Akkad
Relatively little is known about the religious practices of ancient Iraq. Historians have been able to trace the use of certain symbols that are recognized as representing divinity and, through this, to make some inferences. Some of these symbols are thought to trace their origins to flags or banners that may have held some significance in organizing early societies, perhaps as markers for temple households.
From these early symbols grew complex mythologies with hundreds of deities. Each city was associated with a particular god, such as Ur with its patroness Nanna, the Moon God. Within the cities the average person was more concerned with there own personnel deities and household gods, which were akin in concept to “Guardian Angels.” On a larger scale, all of the gods came under the authority of An, the Lord of Heaven, but he was thought to be well removed from mortal affairs.
Bronze Age Technology and the Ancient Trade Network
Although the domestication of plants and animals predates the rise of the City-States, this political unit was able to take production to a new level. Archaeological evidence shows that as city-states grew in size, its people were able to increasingly make use of irrigation canals and planned farming. With relatively simple advances such as the switch from flint sickles to copper, and some refinement of the plow, Sumer and Akkad were able to support much larger populations than had before been possible. Increased skill with brick building also allowed these people to be settled in densely populated walled cities.
This rise in the number of available workers made it possible for further specialization in the areas of food production and resource gathering, allowing for a cycle of continued population growth. During this period, metallurgy began to shape every aspect of life, including commerce. Consequentially, in the 3rd millennium B.C.E., one of the factors in a burgeoning regional trade network was the increasing demand for tin, an ingredient of bronze, needed in northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia where indigenous sources were lacking.
Due to the extensive amount of excavation conducted in southern Iraq, a great deal is known about the ancient civilizations that once dwelt there. In this land, the ruins of ancient cities literally dot the landscape with mounds known by the Arabic term tells. We also know that ancient Sumer and Akkad were part of a vast trade network, which implies far reaching cultural contact. However, due to the modern obstacles to ongoing archeological excavations in the region, much less is known about the civilizations who were also a part of this ancient trade network.
It is clear both from the archeological, as well as textual, record that trade contacts from Sumer and Akkad existed with the Nile Valley to the west, and with the Indus Valley to the east. Trade was also conducted up the Euphrates River into Syria, and farther north into the upper Euphrates valley, as well as south into the Persian Gulf. It was also during this time that lapis lazuli began making its way in regular supply to distant markets overland from Baluchistan in modern day Afghanistan.
Records from this Early Dynastic Period clearly indicate that, for a period of centuries, the City-States of Sumer and Akkad enjoyed prosperity provided by their rivers, and their location as a focal point of world commerce. As a result, goods and raw materials, as well as the technologies, religions and cultures of the varied peoples throughout the ancient Near East, began to blend together to form the basis for the great civilizations that would follow.