Earned Knowledge L2, P4

What Happened Over Time

Mesopotamia, at 7,000 BC, even at 5,000 BC, was mostly a wide open place. But as rulership grew and spread, life there was progressively choked. By 3,000 BC, the entire area was controlled by centralized power… by a vast network of kings, overseen by a “king of kings.”

More than 100 factors of daily life were said to be ordained by the gods, and enforced by their representatives. And so life became stratified, which means that people were held in place: farmers and their children remained farmers, temple officials and their children remained temple officials, and so on.

In other words, the more rulership spread, the more the world of Mesopotamia was turned into a hierarchy, with people from the highest layers (kings, priests and nobles) telling people at the lower layers what they were expected to do, and punishing those who didn’t comply.

Sumerian cities were stratified into four primary layers:

  1. Nobles. At the top would be the temple overseer (called an en), as well as a ruler (called an ensi). Over time, the balance between temple and palace – between priest and king, en and ensi – varied. Also near the top were wealthy families, who owned large tracts of land. (A good deal of land in the city center was owned by the temple, and still other parts by the ruler.) People from these families met in assemblies to decide (or more likely to recommend) certain collective actions.
  2. Clients. Next were the clients: people who were important to those in the top layer. These were temple administrators, important craftsmen and the family members of the nobility.
  3. Commoners. The small farmers. Small farmers would own their land, but as a family, not as individuals. Some of them were probably chosen to sit in a second level of political assembly to decide or recommend certain things.
  4. Slaves. Being a slave wasn’t something that anyone would choose, but slaves did have certain rights under Sumerian law: They could engage in business, take loans, and even buy their freedom. Also important was the fact that if a slave married a free person and had children, the children would be free, not slaves.

Another part of this was the school system the Sumerians created. These were quite a lot like modern schools: Groups of students sitting still and obeying their teacher, doing drills and memorizing things. They competed to see who would get the best test scores, and so on. There were often different teachers for different subjects. The children who went to school, however, were from the upper classes, which helped create social stratification.

What made this whole system work was the formulation that began at Eridu: The belief, now held by almost everyone, that servicing the system was what the gods required… and that if the proper obligations weren’t met, terrible things would follow. But people weren’t particularly frightened into this; to them it was just “the way the world is.” And so the arrangement had little restraint and spread very far.

Temples make a nice example of this spread: The first temple at Eridu was about 12 feet by 15 feet. By the time a later city called Ur was prominent, its temple complex was 600 feet by 1,200 feet.

Rulership was an immensely profitable enterprise, not to mention giving the king or priest immense power. And so it was copied. Other aggressive people (mostly men) wanted to get in on the deal. Some started building such systems in distant places, while others wanted to get in on the Sumerian system. One group in particular, called Akkadians, took over Sumer’s central power at about 2,500 BC and held it for about two centuries.

After enough time and enough political take-overs (one dynasty replacing another), the progress of people in Mesopotamia more or less stopped. So many barriers and requirements were applied to them that independent and creative actions slowed very considerably. Rulership took over nearly everything, and in the process regimented almost everything.

They also taxed almost everything, as one late Sumerian complained: From one end of the state to another, there were tax collectors.”

There were reform movements, of course, but they didn’t change things for very long. After about 1750 BC, a string of foreign rulers took over a depleted Mesopotamian civilization, patching together empires that ran until 1,200 BC. This worked because the ideas begun at Eridu were still rooted in the Mesopotamian people, and it was always easier for them to play those roles than to try anything better.


Lesson Plan:

Proceed through the material slowly. Covering a couple of paragraphs per day is fine. What matters is that students understands the material, without gaps. We want them to know why things became a certain way. We’re far more interested in them grasping concepts than remembering facts.

For learning, schedules are secondary to understanding… more or less everything is secondary to understanding.

Encourage them to ask questions about the material, and try to address the why of everything.

Consider having the student or students build a water clock. Seeing one in a nearby museum is better than nothing, but building one themselves is better. We want this to be as physical as is practical. And if you do build one, make sure they understand that this is just a first model; that the people who made them in the old days spent many years improving their techniques.

Have the kid(s) figure out in which watches of the day or night they do certain things: Which watch they wake up in, going to bed in, starting their lessons in, and so on.

Consider trying Sumerian hair styles. Or try cooking Sumerian food. The most common ingredients were lamb, goat, pork, fish, garbanzos, lentils, onion, garlic, lettuce, turnips, cucumbers and honey.

Most of the lapis lazuli in Sumer came from Afghanistan. Pull out maps and have the student(s) figure out how they would travel between a city in Sumer and Afghanistan.

See if they can put together thoughts on how wood was brought into Sumer.



Paul Rosenberg