We begin our discussion of the geography of Sumer with the brief references from the Bible. In Genesis we read:
"And it came to pass, as they [they probably referring to the descendants of Cush] journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there (Gen. 11:2)." Shinar is the Hebrew word for the lower Tigris-Euphrates plain and is basically equivalent to Sumer. It is also at times referred to in the Hebrew as Senaar.
Referring to Nimrod, the account in Genesis tells us of the first cities established there: "And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar (Gen. 10:10)."
Babel would have been the city which contained the Tower of Babel, and would not have been Babylon, which is north near modern Bagdad. It may have been equivalent to Ur, as Ur was the Sumarian capitol. Ur, west of the Euphrates River, was the most southern Sumerian city.
Erech, (or Uruk), was north of Ur and on the east side of the Euphrates. Accad (Akkad) is the designation of a land as well as a city. It was farther north between the rivers, and may have been the ancient site of Kish, as this is where the first kingdom was established.
The location of Calneh is not known, but some have suggested that it is equivalent to the site of Nippur. It should be located near the other Sumerian sites.
Shinar is the Hebrew rendering of the the name. In the Greek Septuagint it is rendered Senaar. Wikipedia suggests that Shinar may be a corruption of the words Shene nahar (two rivers), or Shene or (two cities), or Sumer (land of the civilized lords or native land). Kramer indicates that it is a compound of the two words Sumer-Akkad (3786).
Sumer was located in the lower delta plain of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Originally it was much closer to the Persian Gulf, but in the intervening years the rivers have silted in the gulf so that the Sumerian sites are now over a hundred miles inland. The land was very fertile, but dry, but except for the rivers and marshes. This can be assumed as they had to use irrigation for their farm crops.
Comparing the climate and geography with modern Basra, which is in the same area, we can get some idea of the environment in ancient Sumer. Today the land is hot, dry and humid. Irrigation is required for farming. The area is interspersed with canals and marshes. There is a lot of wildlife in the marshes and wetlands, with a heavy reed growth in the marshes. The ancient Sumerians utilized these reeds for many things such as boats, homes and fuel.
Because the land was basically a large river delta, there was very little stone to be found. Most mineral and metals had to be imported, as well as precious gems and semiprecious stones. To compensate for the lack of stone, the Sumerians learned to work with the abundant clay and could fire it to make various implements as well as brick for construction. There were apparently abundant oil seeps, and the resultant bitumen, which they used for such things as waterproofing their boats and cementing the bricks for the infamous tower.
The Sumerians were widely traveled through their trade networks and military campaigns, and were aware of their geographical surroundings. They were familiar with India to the east, to the Mediterranean on the west. From the Caspian Sea to the north to areas in Africa in the south.
“By the third millenium B.C., there is good reason to believe that Sumerian culture and civilization had penetrated, at least to some extent, as far east as India and as far west as the Mediterranean, as far south as ancient Ethiopia and as far north as the Caspian (93).”
“The imports from Dilmun consisted of gold, copper and copper utensils, lapis lazuli, tables inlaid with ivory, "fisheyes" (perhaps pearls), ivory and ivory objects (combs, breastplates, and boxes as well as human and animal shaped figurines and end pieces for furniture), beads of semiprecious stones, dates, and onions (3601).”
“Sumerian influence, particularly at the religious and spiritual level, reached out for thousands of miles and in all directions (3611).”
“The Sumerians had accumulated no little information concerning foreign lands and alien peoples. Sumerian merchants roving far and wide by land and sea brought back with them reports of the strange places they visited and of the folk that inhabited them. So, too, no doubt, did the soldiers returning from successful military expeditions. Within the Sumerian cities themselves, there were considerable numbers of foreigners: soldiers captured in battle and brought back as slaves as well as freemen who had come to settle in the city for one reason or another. All in all, therefore, the Sumerian courtiers, administrators, priests, and teachers had considerable knowledge of foreign countries: their geographic location and physical features, their economic resources and political organization, their religious beliefs and practices, their social customs and moral tenets (3612).”
“The Sumerians themselves divided the world into four ubda's, that is, four regions or districts, which seem to correspond roughly to the four points of the compass (3621).” According to the Sumerian thinkers, the boundaries of these districts and of the lands in them were marked off by the gods at the time of the creation of the universe (3631).”
“Ur was one of the most important cities of ancient Sumer; in fact, it was the capital of Sumer (3721).”