Fall of the First Cities

The Standard of Ur – Peace, Sumerian, 2500 BC
Queen of the Night, Sumerian, 2000 BC

In 1849 British explorer William Loftus was in what is now modern Iraq, when his party was beset by Bedouin tribesmen. Seeking refuge, he held up on a nearby hill. Trapped atop it, while trying to negotiate his release, Loftus turned to exploring his environs and discovered numerous clay tablets covered in an unknown writing. It turned out that he had camped on the ziggurat of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur. With this tale of its rediscovery video podcaster Paul Cooper begins the episode on the Sumerian empire in his history series about lost empires, Fall of Civilizations. A history series that is distributed freely and I watched on YouTube.

No one knows where the Sumerians came from, but they were not local. All of the other languages in the region are derivatives of Aramaic. Sumerian is completely different, with no known relatives. A millennium before the pyramids of Gaza or Stonehenge were built, at a time when the wooly mammoth still roamed Siberia, the first Sumerian cities were founded. Likely the first human cities ever created and first among them was the great city of Ur. The Sumerian civilization was so old that memory even of its existence had faded until its rediscovery. But why should we care about this dusty old civilization? Cooper makes their ancient struggles relevant to us today through the shared adversity of climate change.

Sumerian culture began after the last ice age. At that time the Persian Gulf was a river valley, where the Tigris and Euphrates had merged and flowed together until reaching the Arabian Sea, about where the Strait of Hormuz is now. Melting glaciers caused rising sea levels that relatively quickly, within a few millennium, created the Persian Gulf. One of the Sumerian’s founding stories is very similar to the Jewish story of Noah. Could the rapidly flooding Persian Gulf be the origin for their version of Noah’s flood?

So, the Sumerian culture was born out of climate change, but it was also climate change that led to its downfall. In the third millennium BC the weather in the Middle East became much more arid. The Sumerian empire was well established by this time and was able to cope with this change primarily through irrigation, but thousands of years of irrigated farming caused a slow but steady build up of salt in the soil. This salt first hurt the wheat crop, but also eventually destroyed the barley crop. When both crops failed, this water empire was doomed.

In Cooper’s podcast numerous archeological artifacts were shown. Pictured here are a few that were used. They come from the British Museum. The Standard of Ur was mistakenly first thought to be a battle standard, instead of the box that it was. It vividly portrays many aspects of everyday life, in peace and war. The Queen of the Night ruled the Sumerian underworld and the souls of the dead.

The Standard of Ur – War, Sumerian, 2500 BC

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