Cities and Civic Institutions Are Invented in Mesopotamia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Sumerians ushered in the transition between increasingly complex society and civilization by 3800 b.c.e., producing civic institutions to structure new challenges developing from city life. The earliest major world city, Uruk, became a model for the development of other Sumerian cities.

Summary of Event

Between 5500 and 4500 b.c.e., numerous small agricultural settlements arose in northern and central Mesopotamia. In southern Mesopotamia, the Ubaidans built larger and more complex towns, the largest being Eridu (site south of present-day An Nāsirīyah, Iraq). Though only several in number, the Ubaidan towns produced bountiful food supplies through organized irrigation and cultivation of land outside the town. Inside the town, merchants and craftspeople plied their trades and obtained wealth. By 4300 b.c.e., the Sumerians, a people of unknown origins, migrated to southern Mesopotamia, bringing with them advanced methods of construction and water management. Because land that uses irrigation can feed at least ten times the number of people as land dependent on rainfall (disregarding the rich fertility of southern Mesopotamian soil, which allowed for three crops per year), population growth rapidly accelerated. Within three centuries, Uruk (site northwest of modern-day Muqaiyir, Iraq), with a population of about ten thousand, emerged as the largest city in Mesopotamia. Uruk dominated Mesopotamia for the next thousand years and became a model for twelve other large Sumerian cities. The thirteen cities stretching from south to north were Eridu, Ur, Larsa, Uruk, Bad-tibira, Lagash, Umma, Adab, Nippur, Larak, Akshak, Kish, and Sippar. Around each city grew many important and linked towns.

Large numbers of people living in a small area necessitated the development of civic institutions to provide structure and organize life. In Uruk and other Sumerian cities, the priestly class first established civic institutions. Priests served as engineers, administrators, scientists, landowners, and industrialists. They also were creators of popular beliefs about why society was structured to give the temple elite so much authority. In Uruk and other Sumerian cities, the largest structure was the temple. Priests were specialists in administration, in planning city and agricultural expansion, in drafting common people to work on irrigation and other community projects such as draining swamps, in organizing and monitoring trading activities, in employing the finer craftspeople for production of the highest quality products, in directing how and when planting should take place, and in running vast temple estates. It is estimated that about a third of the land in Sumerian city-states was controlled by the temples. The temple also played a role in organizing and controlling trade and in educating new priests to play a leadership role in the future.

Located near the temple were granaries and other storage facilities and the large houses of the wealthiest citizens. More modest houses of merchants and craftspeople formed a middle ring around the temple, and the poorer houses of the working class formed a densely populated ring on the fringes of the city. The temple contained a large inner space that was apparently used for storage and as a work area by artisans, craftspeople, and those involved in providing services for the priesthood. The inside of the temple may have housed an assembly hall used for meetings of a civic nature. All Sumerian city structures were built first by placing rounded mud bricks in alternating horizontal and vertical rows, then filling the gaps with plant matter and bitumen. Heavy rains made it impossible for most structures to survive more than a generation. For the cities, this meant continued urban renewal, with each generation aspiring to build bigger structures.

Taxes were paid to the temple, usually consisting of part of the crop, to ensure the continual operation of the priesthood. All this was natural because the people believed that human beings were created as slaves for the many arbitrary and wrathful gods and were destined to feed and venerate them or suffer cataclysmic destruction. Through burnt offerings from the top of the temple (ziggurat) and proper rituals, the priesthood cast itself as the first line of defense in warding off destruction from the heavens caused by the gods’ displeasure. The priests could also bring about intervention by the city’s patron god and goddess. Uruk’s protectors were Enlil, the god of wind and thunder, and Inanna (Ishtar), the goddess of love. There is much evidence that religious ceremonies were performed by priests and did not involve popular participation.

As a defense against destruction by more earthly forces, the position of king developed in Uruk and the other Sumerian cities. Sumerian cities tended to quarrel with each other about water rights, trading jurisdictions, and every other conceivable matter. The king (called lugal, or great man) lived in a great house (egal, or palace) second in size only to the temple. His powers appear to be justified by the temple, which cast the ruler as god’s representative on Earth. In some city-states, the ruler was called lord (en) or governor (ensi). Often there was a queen (nin) who played a role in both civic and religious affairs. The king was in charge of building city walls to protect the city as well as commanding soldiers armed with spears, battle axes, bows, swords, and daggers. Engravings indicate that soldiers probably were trained to fight in battle formations. Kings were also in charge of four-wheeled war chariots. The Sumerians are the people credited with inventing the chariot.

One institution that helped organize urban life was the city council of elders, which usually consisted of elder heads of leading families. Priests also appear to have sat on the city council. Agreement by both the temple and city council was usually needed in the selection of the right individual to be king.

Civil institutions, both secular and religious, were needed to stimulate and control the tremendous economic activity in Uruk and other city-states. Expansion of irrigation technology and the use of the plow caused large food surpluses, and the development of the potter’s wheel led to rapid production of ceramics. The use of donkeys, wheeled carts, and boats enabled production to be used for trade to obtain items needed in Uruk such as silver, copper, and timber. The lucrative nature of trade caused Uruk people to move to distant places and establish enclaves of traders and even permanent settlements. The complicated nature of commerce and trade led to recording contracts on clay tokens containing pictoforms of the contract, symbols representing numbers, and seals identifying the contracting parties. Within several centuries, the record keeping in Uruk in 3800 b.c.e. evolved into the Sumerian cuneiform system of writing. The more important clay tokens were first kept in temple archives and then in both palace and temple archives. Such records along with witnesses were used to settle business disputes in what must have been an early Sumerian version of a court system.


Scholarly debate continues about whether areas outside Uruk developed socially complex and technologically advanced societies on their own or whether Uruk was the primary influence leading to advancement of neighboring societies in what later became Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There is also debate over the degree of regulation of trade and commerce taking place in early Uruk. Yet it is clear that civil institutions and city life took root in Sumerian Mesopotamia, resulting in one of humanity’s first civilizations, and that this civilization had a complex social stratification structure with heads of leading families, a powerful priesthood, and the monarch occupying the top rungs. Lack of written records and limited archaeological evidence make it difficult to analyze with more precision the specific characteristics of social life and civic institutions in the world’s first cities.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bottero, Jean, ed. Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. A collection of fifteen articles by major scholars on social and cultural life in early Mesopotamia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kramer, Samuel N. The Sumerians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. An overview of the Sumerians, examining their lives and political and social organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nemet-Nejat, Karen R. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. An updated and well-organized account of daily life in ancient Mesopotamia written with the general reader in mind.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. A well-written and illustrated introduction to the growth of Mesopotamia based on interesting historical and archaeological data.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollack, Susan. Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A scholarly and well-illustrated anthropological study of life in Mesopotamia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Postgate, J. Nicholas. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. New York: Routledge, 1994. A readable description of city life, economic activity, and the roles of kings, priests, and scribes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothman, Mitchell S., ed. Uruk, Mesopotamia, and Its Neighbors: Cross Cultural Interactions in the Era of State Formation. New York: School of American Research Press, 2001. Twelve field and theoretical archaeologists discuss the causes of urban expansion, cross-cultural influences, and life in Mesopotamia in the fifth and fourth millennium b.c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woolley, C. Leonard. The Sumerians. New York: Norton, 1978. An overview of the development of Sumerian civilization from one of the world’s leading archaeologists.

Categories: History