Monday, April 23, 2012

Sumerian Origins - The City

Sumerian civilization was urban in nature. It consisted of a number of city-states with populations of about 100,000 to 300,000 each. The inner city would be walled, surrounded by suburban villages and farmland. The focal point of each city was a massive staged tower or ziggurat. The populace consisted of a minority of elite nobility, soldiers and priests. The majority of the people were farmers and cattle breeders, fishermen and merchants, masons and carpenters, and tradesmen in general. There were also some professionals such as doctors, architects, and scribes. The population was also divided into classes: nobility, commoners, clients and slaves.
From Kramer we read: “Sumerian civilization was essentially urban in character, although it rested on an agricultural rather than an industrial base. The land Sumer, in the third millennium B.C., consisted of a dozen or so city-states, each having a large and usually walled city surrounded by suburban villages and hamlets. The outstanding feature of each city was the main temple situated on a high terrace, which gradually developed into a massive staged tower, a ziggurat, Sumer's most characteristic contribution to religious architecture (994). The temple was the largest, tallest, and most important building in the city, in accordance with the theory accepted by the Sumerian religious leaders and going back no doubt to very early times that the entire city belonged to its main god, to whom it had been assigned on the day the world was created. In practice, however, the temple corporation owned only some of the land, which it rented out to sharecroppers; the remainder was the private property of individual citizens (1002). Even the poor and lowly own houses, gardens, and fishery ponds (1025).”
“Priests, princes, and soldiers constituted ... only a small fraction of the city's population. The great majority were farmers and cattle breeders, boatmen and fishermen, merchants and scribes, doctors and architects, masons and carpenters, smiths, jewelers, and potters. There were of course a number of rich and powerful families who owned large estates; but even the poor managed to own farms and gardens, houses, and cattle. The more industrious of the artisans and craftsmen sold their handmade products in the free town market, receiving payment either in kind or in "money," which was normally a disk or ring of silver of standard weight. Traveling merchants carried on a thriving trade from city to city and with surrounding states by land and sea, and not a few of these merchants were probably private individuals rather than temple or palace representatives (1012).”
“The total area of the temple estates … would comprise a considerable fraction of the territory of the city-state, but only a fraction. This temple land, which could not be bought, sold, or alienated in any way, was divided into three categories: (1) nigenna-land that was reserved for the maintenance of the temple; (2) kurra-land allotted to the farmers working the nigenna land and also to artisans and some of the administrative personnel of the temple in payment for their services (this land could not be inherited and could be exchanged or taken away altogether by the temple administration whenever it decided to do so for one reason or another); and (3) urulal-land allotted in exchange for a share of the crop to different individuals, but especially to personnel of the temple to supplement their income. As for the land which did not belong to the temple and which comprised by far the larger part of the territory of the city-state, the documents show that much of it was owned by the 'nobility,' that is, the ruling princes and their families and palace administrators as well as the more important priests. These noble families often possessed huge estates measuring hundreds of acres, much of which they obtained by purchase from the less fortunate citizens. The labor on these estates was performed by clients or dependents, whose status resembled that of the dependents of the temple, who were clients of the more prosperous temple officials and administrators. The rest of the land-that is, the land not owned by the temple or the nobility-belonged to the ordinary citizens of the community, probably more than half of the population. These free citizens or commoners were organized in large patriarchal families and also in patriarchal clans and town communities. The hereditary land in the possession of the patriarchal families from the earliest days could be alienated and sold, but only by some member or members of the family-not necessarily the head-who acted as the chosen representative of the family community. Ordinarily, other members of the family participated in the transaction as witnesses, thus indicating their agreement and consent; these witnesses received a payment, just as the sellers themselves did, although it was usually more or less nominal. In many cases unpaid witnesses on the side of the buyer were also recorded, and sometimes representatives of the government took part in the transactions (1034).”
“The population consisted of four categories: nobles, commoners, clients, and slaves. The nobility owned large estates, partly as private individuals, partly in the form of family possessions, which were worked by free clients or dependents as well as slaves. It was the nobility, too, which controlled the temple land, although this land gradually came under the domination of the ruler and later even became his property. The upper house of the assembly, or "town meeting," probably consisted of the members of the nobility. The commoner owned his own plot of land in the city-state, but as a member of a family rather than as an individual (1049).”
“Turning from the socioeconomic structure of the Sumerian city to its more material aspects, we might start by trying to estimate the size of its population. This can hardly be done, however, with any reasonable degree of exactness since there was no official census; at least no traces of any have as yet been found. For Lagash, [the researcher] Diakanoff ... estimates a free population of about 100,000. For Ur, at about 2000 BC. C. L. Woolley ... estimates a population of some 360,000 souls (1198).” Kramer feels that Woolley's estimate is too high and cuts it to 200,000. In contrast, the Book of Jasher mentions that Nimrod mobilized a force of 600,000 men to work on the Tower of Babel (Jasher 7:23).
“Except for ... the sacred area of the city with its main temples and ziggurat, the Sumerian city was hardly an attractive site. To quote Woolley, 'If the residential quarters excavated at Ur give, as presumably they do, a fair sample of the city as a whole, we see something that has grown out of the conditions of the primitive village, not laid out on any system of town-planning. The unpaved streets were narrow and winding, sometimes mere blind alleys leading to houses hidden away in the middle of a great block of haphazard buildings; large houses and small are tumbled together, a few of them flat-roofed tenements one story high, most of them two stories, and a few, apparently of three. Lanes sheltered by awnings and lined with open booths correspond to the bazaars of the modern Middle Eastern town (1203).'”
The Sumerians themselves viewed their cities more positively. They had: “'lofty gates' and avenues for promenading as well as boulevards where feasts were celebrated. [Each] city had a public square (1209).”
“The average Sumerian house was a small one-story, mud-brick structure consisting of several rooms usually grouped around an open court. The well-to-do Sumerian, on the other hand, probably lived in a two-story house of about a dozen rooms, built of brick and plastered and whitewashed both inside and out. The ground floor of the two-story house consisted of a reception room, kitchen, lavatory, servants' quarters, and sometimes even a private chapel. For furniture there were low tables, high-backed chairs, and beds with wooden frames. Household vessels were made of clay, stone, copper, and bronze; there were also baskets and chests made of reeds and wood. Floors and walls were covered with reed mats, skin rugs, and woolen hangings. Below the house there was often a family mausoleum where the family dead were buried, although there also seem to have been special cemeteries for the dead outside the cities (1209).”


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