The Sumerian Problem

In 1625 Pietro Della Valle, an Italian composer, musicologist and author who lived during the Renaissance period, travelled and explored Asia. Born to a noble family, he cultivated a life full of literature and arms, and knew Latin, Greek, classical mythology as well as the Bible.

He also travelled to, and visited to the holy land during his travels, which is an area roughly located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an area that also includes the Eastern Bank of the Jordan River.

During his travels through the Holy land, he could not have picked a more dangerous time to go as the Ottoman and Persian Empires were at war and fighting over who would rule in Baghdad. This allowed for local bandits to take advantage of the situation, and so travel through these areas were chaotic and dangerous at the time. It was June 18th 1625 when they spotted a distant group of tribesmen on the horizon, their guides decided that they might be in danger, and began to search for place to hide. In the distance – they spotted the looming mass of a series of enormous ruins.

As Della Valle wrote in his diary: “Being suspicious of some Arabian vagrants, or vagabonds, for more security we were moved a mile further, and took up our station under a little hill, near some ruins of buildings, which we saw from far away.”

Della Valles group stayed in those ruins for several nights while their guides negotiated with the local ruler asking for safe passage. During the day, under the baking Iraqi sun, Della Valle passed his time by walking amongst those monumental ruins.

As he walked amongst these ruins, he noted in his diary that the constructions seemed to have been done with some very good bricks, and amongst them he would sometimes find tablets with a very strange inscription on them.

Amongst the clay tablets he found, there were also some black marble tablets, inscribed with the same symbols and letters that he had seen on the bricks and clay tablets. He also found some that seemed to be more like seals.

During this stay in the ruins, Pietro discovered several marble tablets with a strange writing he had never seen before. He also saw this writing on many of the walls in the ruins and decided to bring some of them back with him to England. These were the western world’s first encounter with the oldest language and civilization that has ever been recognized on earth.

And this is where the Sumerian problem begins

Upon studying the marble tablets and the newfound language, researches till this day have not been able to connect it with any other language on earth. Its distinctiveness is so troubling, that it has been dubbed “the Sumerian Problem”. Sumerian simply does not fit into any of the major linguistic groups, and it does not fit in with the Semitic languages that were spoken in the surrounding area at the time either, meaning that the Sumerians simply could not have originated there.

More evidence of this came on later, when French and American archeologists at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century made a huge discovery. They found vast amounts of cuneiform tablets in the ancient cities of Lagash and Nippur, these were similar to the already known Akkadian tablets, but when scholars were finally done deciphering the tablets, they found that numerous words and syllabic values did not completely fit with previously understood Semitic grammar, revealing to them that it was not Akkadian at all, but a rather completely unknown language type, namely Sumerian.

Easy to say, the Sumerian language was and still is an enigma, even more than 100 years after its initial discovery.

And it is important to note that the Akkadians came after the Sumerians. This happened when Sargon of Akkad(the Great) took over Sumer and reigned over Mesopotamia in 2334 BCE. What sets them apart though, is that they choose to keep using Sumerian on their tablets, even though Latin was used in the Middle Ages and early modern era.

Sumerian is understood to have been preserved by the Akkadians as the “language of learning and high cultural interchange” (Ziskind, 1972, 3), a direct testament to the Akkadian’s respect for their advanced culture.

Before we continue, it is important to note that archeologists and historians have a technical set of features that together constitute the definition of civilization.

These are mainly:

  • Large urban centers
  • Full-time specialist occupations
  • Primary producers of food paying surpluses to a deity or ruler
  • Monumental architecture
  • A ruling class, exempt from manual labor
  • A system for recording information (writing)
  • Development of exact, practical sciences
  • Monumental art
  • Regular importation of raw materials
  • A class structure(peasants, craftspeople, rulers)
  • A state religion/ideology
  • Persistent state structures

The discovery of the Sumerians therefore rattled many preexisting beliefs about the rise of human civilization.

As directly after the Ubaid period ended, roughly 300 years later – what is considered a historical blink of the eye – suddenly huge complex structures, theology, advanced technologies, science, math and government emerged.

These are inventions that were not only radical to their time, but inventions that would forever change the course of human history and culture.

The following is a list of just some of the inventions and technologies that the Sumerians have been credited for(Kramer, 1988):

  1. The invention of time based on increments of sixty
  2. Astronomy
  3. Mathematics
  4. Geometry
  5. The 360 circle
  6. Weights and measures
  7. Sailboats
  8. Maps
  9. Wind power
  10. A bicameral congress having a senate and a house of representatives
  11. Libraries
  12. Schools & universities
  13. The concept of professional careers
  14. Clergy
  15. The wheel
  16. Wheeled vehicles
  17. Economists
  18. Philosophers
  19. The concept of an end to the work or school day
  20. Labor unions
  21. Surgery
  22. Dentistry
  23. Optometry
  24. Pills
  25. Credit and financing
  26. Lawyers
  27. Bankers

Now, the general accepted theory for these incredible advancements in the span of only 300 years stem from increased competition for resources and a need for more workers.

Hence, a modern state almost identical to as we know them today, emerged from hunter gathers in only 300 years. This is the general accepted theory as it stands today, and is referred to by archeologists as the “Urban Revolution”.

The Sumerian Religion --- Laying the foundation

The Sumerians had a clear structure to their spirituality and rites, we know this from the writings that they left behind. Many of their Mesopotamian myths have come down to us today as written stories originally perpetuated by oral traditions.

And to establish a baseline narrative, we will go over what the accepted scholarly interpretation is first.

While there are many volumes of Sumerian texts just waiting to be studied, of those translated, more than fifty tell the story of the Sumerian gods known as the Anunnaki.

These stories are fragmented, and often do not form a coherent whole since there are different versions or variants in the stories, and they even sometimes reference to stories that still have not been found.

Numerous great figures still emerge with some consistency from the tablets and historical record.

The Mesopotamian religion is not only polytheistic in that it has many gods, but it is also quite difficult to know the exact number of gods as we can’t always distinguish if an unknown name is a god we haven’t classified yet, or if it is a god we already know. Only as more texts are discovered and deciphered will a clearer picture emerge.

What we do know though, is that chief among the Sumerian gods was the sky god Anu, consort of the goddess Ki, father of Enlil(god of air), Enki(god of the seas and fertility), and Inanna(goddess of war and love).

Anu was at one point in a love affair with Inanna, and is therefore referenced to either as his daughter or wife. The children of Anu also gave birth to a new generation of gods. Namely Enlil had a daughter named Nanna(goddess of the moon), who then had a son, Adad(god of storm), and these descendants of Anu were called the Anunnaki. Their offspring also belonged to the Anunnaki and occupied a special position in the Sumerian pantheon.

These Anunnaki were then served by the gods of a lower order, Igigi, tht were created only for the care of the supreme gods. According to Sumerian mythology, the Igigi at first tolerated the Anunnaki’s poor and unjust treatment, but eventually rebelled.

As the Igigi finally declared that they would no longer work for the gods and were also gods themselves, the Anunnaki reacted in shock by the ingratitude of the Igigi. So they decided to create a new slave species: humans.

To be continued in the next part of this series about the Sumerians and the Anunnaki connection.

A map of Mesopotamia at the time when the Sumerians ruled.

A sketch of the ruins of Ur during Della Valle's travels throughout Asia and the Holy land.

A black and white photo of a man over-looking the ruins of Ur.

The walls of the ancient city of Ur

The ruins of Ur, while they where still not fully excavated.

One of the clay tablets that Della Valle found during his stay in the ruins of Ur.

One of the black marble tablets that Della Valle brought with him home.

He also found some seals in the city ruins.

A copy of a Sumerian-Akkadian votive inscription from Rimush, King of Akkad.

In 1625 Pietro Della Valle, an Italian composer, musicologist and author, travelled and explored Asia during the Renaissance period. Born to a noble family, he cultivated a life full of literature and arms, and knew Latin, Greek, classical mythology as well as the Bible.

He also travelled to, and visited to the holy land during his travels, which is an area roughly located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an area that also includes the Eastern Bank of the Jordan River.

A map of Mesopotamia at the time when the Sumerians ruled.

During his travels through the Holy land, he could not have picked a more dangerous time to go as the Ottoman and Persian Empires were at war and fighting over who would rule in Baghdad. This allowed for local bandits to take advantage of the situation, and so travel through these areas were chaotic and dangerous at the time. It was June 18th 1625 when they spotted a distant group of tribesmen on the horizon, their guides decided that they might be in danger, and began to search for place to hide. In the distance – they spotted the looming mass of a series of enormous ruins.

As Della Valle wrote in his diary: “Being suspicious of some Arabian vagrants, or vagabonds, for more security we were moved a mile further, and took up our station under a little hill, near some ruins of buildings, which we saw from far away.”

Della Valles group stayed in those ruins for several nights while their guides negotiated with the local ruler asking for safe passage.

A sketch of the ruins of Ur during Della Valle's travels throughout Asia and the Holy land.

During the day, under the baking Iraqi sun, Della Valle passed his time by walking amongst those monumental ruins.

As he walked amongst these ruins, he noted in his diary that the constructions seemed to have been done with some very good bricks, and amongst them he would sometimes find tablets with a very strange inscription on them.

The walls of the ancient city of Ur

Amongst the clay tablets he found, there were also some black marble tablets, inscribed with the same symbols and letters that he had seen on the bricks and clay tablets.

He also found some that seemed to be more like seals.

During this stay in the ruins, Pietro discovered several marble tablets with a strange writing he had never seen before. He also saw this writing on many of the walls in the ruins and decided to bring some of them back with him to England. These were the western world’s first encounter with the oldest language and civilization that has ever been recognized on earth.

The ruins of Ur, while they where still not fully excavated.

And this is where the Sumerian problem begins.

Upon studying the marble tablets and the newfound language, researches till this day have not been able to connect it with any other language on earth. Its distinctiveness is so troubling, that it has been dubbed “the Sumerian Problem”. Sumerian simply does not fit into any of the major linguistic groups, and it does not fit in with the Semitic languages that were spoken in the surrounding area at the time either, meaning that the Sumerians simply could not have originated there.

More evidence of this came on later, when French and American archeologists at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century made a huge discovery. They found vast amounts of cuneiform tablets in the ancient cities of Lagash and Nippur, these were similar to the already known Akkadian tablets, but when scholars were finally done deciphering the tablets, they found that numerous words and syllabic values did not completely fit with previously understood Semitic grammar, revealing to them that it was not Akkadian at all, but a rather completely unknown language type, namely Sumerian.

Easy to say, the Sumerian language was and still is an enigma, even more than 100 years after its initial discovery.

One of the clay tablets that Della Valle found during his stay in the ruins of Ur.

And it is important to note that the Akkadians came after the Sumerians. This happened when Sargon of Akkad(the Great) took over Sumer and reigned over Mesopotamia in 2334 BCE. What sets them apart though, is that they choose to keep using Sumerian on their tablets, even though Latin was used in the Middle Ages and early modern era.

Sumerian is understood to have been preserved by the Akkadians as the “language of learning and high cultural interchange” (Ziskind, 1972, 3), a direct testament to the Akkadian’s respect for their advanced culture.

Before we continue, it is important to note that archeologists and historians have a technical set of features that together constitute the definition of civilization.

And this is where the Sumerian problem begins.

  • Large urban centers
  • Full-time specialist occupations
  • Primary producers of food paying surpluses to a deity or ruler
  • Monumental architecture
  • A ruling class, exempt from manual labor
  • A system for recording information (writing)
  • Development of exact, practical sciences
  • Monumental art
  • Regular importation of raw materials
  • A class structure(peasants, craftspeople, rulers)
  • A state religion/ideology
  • Persistent state structures

The discovery of the Sumerians therefore rattled many preexisting beliefs about the rise of human civilization.

As directly after the Ubaid period ended, roughly 300 years later – what is considered a historical blink of the eye – suddenly huge complex structures, theology, advanced technologies, science, math and government emerged.

One of the black marble tablets that Della Valle brought with him home.

These are inventions that were not only radical to their time, but inventions that would forever change the course of human history and culture.

The following is a list of just some of the inventions and technologies that the Sumerians have been credited for(Kramer, 1988):

  1. The invention of time based on increments of sixty
  2. Astronomy
  3. Mathematics
  4. Geometry
  5. The 360 circle
  6. Weights and measures
  7. Sailboats
  8. Maps
  9. Wind power
  10. A bicameral congress having a senate and a house of representatives
  11. Libraries
  12. Schools & universities
  13. The concept of professional careers
  14. Clergy
  15. The wheel
  16. Wheeled vehicles
  17. Economists
  18. Philosophers
  19. The concept of an end to the work or school day
  20. Labor unions
  21. Surgery
  22. Dentistry
  23. Optometry
  24. Pills
  25. Credit and financing
  26. Lawyers
  27. Bankers

Now, the general accepted theory for these incredible advancements in the span of only 300 years stem from increased competition for resources and a need for more workers.

Hence, a modern state almost identical to as we know them today, emerged from hunter gathers in only 300 years. This is the general accepted theory as it stands today, and is referred to by archeologists as the “Urban Revolution”.

The Sumerian Religion --- Laying the foundation

The Sumerians had a clear structure to their spirituality and rites, we know this from the writings that they left behind. Many of their Mesopotamian myths have come down to us today as written stories originally perpetuated by oral traditions.

And to establish a baseline narrative, we will go over what the accepted scholarly interpretation is first.

While there are many volumes of Sumerian texts just waiting to be studied, of those translated, more than fifty tell the story of the Sumerian gods known as the Anunnaki.

These stories are fragmented, and often do not form a coherent whole since there are different versions or variants in the stories, and they even sometimes reference to stories that still have not been found.

Numerous great figures still emerge with some consistency from the tablets and historical record.

The Mesopotamian religion is not only polytheistic in that it has many gods, but it is also quite difficult to know the exact number of gods as we can’t always distinguish if an unknown name is a god we haven’t classified yet, or if it is a god we already know. Only as more texts are discovered and deciphered will a clearer picture emerge.

What we do know though, is that chief among the Sumerian gods was the sky god Anu, consort of the goddess Ki, father of Enlil(god of air), Enki(god of the seas and fertility), and Inanna(goddess of war and love).

Anu was at one point in a love affair with Inanna, and is therefore referenced to either as his daughter or wife. The children of Anu also gave birth to a new generation of gods. Namely Enlil had a daughter named Nanna(goddess of the moon), who then had a son, Adad(god of storm), and these descendants of Anu were called the Anunnaki. Their offspring also belonged to the Anunnaki and occupied a special position in the Sumerian pantheon.

These Anunnaki were then served by the gods of a lower order, Igigi, tht were created only for the care of the supreme gods. According to Sumerian mythology, the Igigi at first tolerated the Anunnaki’s poor and unjust treatment, but eventually rebelled.

As the Igigi finally declared that they would no longer work for the gods and were also gods themselves, the Anunnaki reacted in shock by the ingratitude of the Igigi. So they decided to create a new slave species: humans.

To be continued in the next part of this series about the Sumerians and the Anunnaki connection.