Pagan Trinity - Holy Trinity Excerpts

Chapter 1 - Who were the Sumerians?

‘Looters destroy Iraq’s historical treasures’

So ran newspaper headlines in April 2003, when an orgy of destruction and looting followed the American conquest of Iraq (Figure 1.1). In the chaotic aftermath of war, the Iraq Museum and National Library in Baghdad were abandoned to their fate at the hands of roving mobs. The cultural desecration that followed was likened by many to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 AD, a wave of destruction that set Middle Eastern civilization back five hundred years . . .

And yet the disaster of 2003 was the very thing that brought the civilization of ancient Iraq to world attention as never before. Newspapers ran stories about the art of ancient Mesopotamia and explained the meaning behind this name . . . Meso-potamia . . . the Greek words for the land between two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates (Figure 1.1). Some even mentioned the region in southern Mesopotamia that is widely believed to be the cradle of human civilization . . . ancient Sumer, and its inhabitants, the mysterious people we know as the Sumerians.

‘Sumerian’ was not the name that these ancient people gave to their own culture, but the name given to them by the Assyrian peoples of northern Mesopotamia. In their own language, the Sumerians called themselves sag-gi-ga, the ‘dark-headed ones’. No-one knows the precise meaning of this expression, but the Sumerians are typically portrayed in their own art as having a rounded shaven head, prominent eyes, and clean-shaven chin. Their appearance is exemplified by Gudea, ruler of the city state of Lagash around 2200 BC, whose elegant diorite statues are displayed in the Musée du Louvre and the British Museum (Figure 1.2).

The Sumerians have rarely attracted the attention that they deserve in the history of civilization. In fact, the Sumerians practically invented civilization, a word which comes from the Latin civis(citizen) and actually means ‘life in cities’. Before the appearance of the Sumerians, ancient peoples had been living in settlements and villages for centuries, ever since the ‘agricultural revolution’ around 7000 BC. However, the Sumerians built the world’s first true cities in southern Mesopotamia, beginning around 5000 BC at Eridu and reaching a climax two thousand years later at Uruk.

Uruk is one of the first cities mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 10:10), where it is referred to in Hebrew as Erech. The city was inhabited for over four thousand years, and did not finally fall into decay until the third century AD. Today the site is known as Warka, and the ruined walls of the ancient city can still be traced in the desert of southern Iraq. Reaching up to fifty feet high, and with a length of over 6 miles (10 km), these walls enclose an area of over 550 hectares (5.5 square km). The archaeologist Hans Nissen highlighted the immense size of Uruk at the dawn of history by comparing an outline city plan of Uruk with other ancient cities (Figure 1. 3). The walls of Uruk enclose an area twice as large as Athens at the height of its power, and more than half the size of imperial Rome. Earlier prehistoric settlements such as Catal Huyuk and Jericho were tiny in comparison.

The achievements of the Sumerians are all the more remarkable when one considers that the land of Sumer had few natural resources . . . essentially no wood, stone or metals, or even any rain. In fact the only resource available to the Sumerians was the rich alluvial soil of the Mesopotamian plain, deposited over millennia by the flooding of its two great rivers. Because of the lack of rainfall in southern Mesopotamia, this land could only be cultivated by diverting river water through a complex system of canals to irrigate the fields. However, the organizational challenge of building this irrigation system provided the impetus for the development of complex social structures. Based on this achievement, the Sumerians were able to establish a thriving agricultural economy to support the earliest development of life in cities.

Despite the success of their civilization, the Sumerians remain a people of mystery. Their language, reconstructed by ‘Sumerologists’, is unrelated to any other known language. They appear in the archaeological record out of nowhere, sometime around 5000 BC, and fade away again three thousand years later, swamped by waves of Semitic immigration to the plains of Mesopotamia. But despite their enigmatic story, the Sumerians gave the world some of its greatest inventions and cultural institutions, and gave us a record of their achievements by the tool that they themselves developed . . . the art of writing.

Samuel Noah Kramer, one of the great Sumerologists of the twentieth century, summarized some of their most notable achievements in his best-selling book ‘History begins at Sumer’ . . . the first schools, the first law codes, the first love poetry, the first epic literature, the first libraries . . . and many other firsts. But all of these great achievements by the Sumerians were merely off-shoots from a development that drove their whole way of life and which represents their most important contribution to human civilization . . . the first organized religion.

Today, religion has almost become a dirty word, bringing to mind systems of dogma and doctrine, but the original meaning of religion (Latin religio) was much more experiential. The worshipper sensed a power outside himself, and had a feeling of reverence towards that power which led to worship. These experiences of divine power and of the desire to worship found their sharpest focus in the institution of the temple, which was first developed by the Sumerians, and which formed the cornerstone of their civilization. And here again, the city of Uruk was pre-eminent.

At its zenith around 3000 BC, the city of Uruk boasted the greatest temple complex of the ancient world. Described by one scholar as a veritable ‘cathedral city’, this Eanna Complex was built on a man-made platform equivalent in area to the Athenian acropolis (Figure 1.4). As shown in this figure, the Eanna Complex was laid out with a monumental scale of architecture, consisting of great open spaces and massive buildings. These included a huge square structure sometimes called a palace (E), and an immense temple (D) that was 200 feet long and 130 feet wide (60 x 40 m). With its grandiose long nave and many ancillary rooms, this temple was comparable in size with the Parthenon, built nearly 3000 years later. Together, these buildings speak eloquently of the dominant focus of Sumerian civilization, the worship and service of the divine power of the gods.