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In this lesson, we explore the Old Sumerian Period, a period of Mesopotamian history where the growth of prosperous city-states led to intermittent periods of warfare.

Old Sumerian Period

For most native-born Americans, all they have ever known is democratic government. Democratic government and the principles of a free society, which we all live by, allow us to choose our leaders, enjoy many civil rights, and generally conduct our lives without fear of being beaten up by a strong man walking down the street.

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In ancient Sumer, however, democratic and free societies were virtually non-existent. In fact, the strong man you encountered walking down the street might not only beat you up and take your stuff, but if he was strong enough, he’d happily take control of the entire city!In this lesson, we’ll explore the rule of some of those strongmen during the chaotic Old Sumerian Period, its background, and some of the important cities and kings of the period.


So, exactly where and what was Sumer? Sumer was an ancient civilization that inhabited the lower region of Mesopotamia, beginning approximately around 5000 B.C. By the rise of Sumerian civilization, humankind in Mesopotamia had already pioneered agriculture in the region for several millennia.

The rise of agriculture switched humankind in this area from a mainly hunter-gatherer society to a more sedentary society with fixed homes and settlements. As agriculture and animal husbandry proved successful, these settlements grew into urban centers and cities. Soon these cities developed their own political systems, with general control over the surrounding countryside.

Kings and Warfare

Beginning around roughly 2900 B.C.

, ancient Sumerian civilization entered the Old Dynastic Period, or simply the Old Sumerian Period. Early forms of Sumerian writing had already developed, first appearing around 3200 B.C., so numerous clay tablets have been discovered by paleontologists and historians that tell us about the period.Perhaps the most important of these artifacts is the Sumerian King List.

Likely produced at some point early in the period to gratify and legitimize the rule of a Sumerian king, the list provides historians with both mythical and likely historically accurate information. For example, while the list details the reigns of Sumerian kings from the beginning of time – some of who it claims reigned for thousands of years – the list also includes seemingly more accurate and plausible details of the reigns of kings in the Old Sumerian Period.At the beginning of the period, about 30 city-states existed in Sumer. Though most of Sumer followed roughly the same ideology, each city-state had its own patron deity that it honored with temples and events.

The prosperity of these city-states caused each to want to expand. Not only did they decide to expand east, they also grew at the expense of one another. According to historians, throughout the Old Sumerian Period, Sumerian city-states were in constantly alternating states of war and peace. One city-state, for example, would gain supremacy over its neighbors, exacting tribute and taxation from these neighboring city-states until a succession of weak kings weakened the first city-state’s grip on regional power, or a new city-state or coalition of other city-states defeated it.Though the King List and other surviving ancient manuscripts and tablets offer some help, it’s still difficult for historians to piece together exactly who ruled what and where in this period. Regardless, we do know a few things. Likely the first dynasty of this period that gained hegemony over a large portion of Sumer was the city of Kish.

The Kings of Kish probably ruled for a few hundred years, before Kish was pushed out of the way by the city of Lagash. Kish still remained important, however, and future kings of Lagash often adopted the title of ‘King of Kish’ to grant their rule extra legitimacy. After Lagash, the city of Uruk took control of the region. The kings of Uruk ruled over Sumer until Sargon, the ruler of the city of Akkad, overthrew Uruk and established the Akkadian Empire. The Akkadian Empire eclipsed anything built by any of the dynasties of the Old Sumerian Period and, as such, the beginning of Akkadian rule, likely around 2300 B.

C., is considered the end of the Old Sumerian Period.

Lesson Summary

The Old Sumerian Period was one distinguished by times of warfare and strife.

This occurred partially because Sumerian city-states in Mesopotamia were so successful. Their ability to grow crops and store grain and city-states’ subsequent control over the countryside caused many of these cities and their kings to want to expand at the expense of others. The Sumerian King List helps us with some of the details, but much of the period is still hazy. We do know that the first city-state to gain prominence in ancient Sumer during the Old Period was likely Kish.

So important was Kish that later kings of other cities often took the ceremonial title, ‘King of Kish.’ After a few hundred years Kish was pushed out of the way by Lagash, who was in turn eclipsed by the city of Uruk. Around 2300 B.C., all were conquered by King Sargon of Akkad, who instituted the Akkadian Empire, ending the Old Sumerian Period.

Learning Outcomes

Recall the details of the video lesson as you:

  • Provide background information about ancient Sumer
  • Emphasize the significance of Kish and the Sumerian King List
  • Discuss the succession of rulers of the Old Sumerian Period
  • Name some of the city-states in ancient Sumer

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