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Publisher's Summary

When American archaeologists discovered a collection of cuneiform tablets in Iraq in the late 19th century, they were confronted with a language and a people who were at the time only scarcely known to even the most knowledgeable scholars of ancient Mesopotamia: the Sumerians.

The exploits and achievements of other Mesopotamian peoples, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians, were already known to a large segment of the population through the Old Testament. The nascent field of Near Eastern studies had unraveled the enigma of the Akkadian language that was widely used throughout the region in ancient times, but the discovery of the Sumerian tablets brought to light the existence of the Sumerian culture, which was the oldest of all the Mesopotamian cultures. 

Although the Sumerians continue to get second or even third billing compared to the Babylonians and Assyrians, perhaps because they never built an empire as great as the Assyrians or established a city as enduring and great as Babylon, they were the people who provided the template of civilization that all later Mesopotamians built upon. The Sumerians are credited with being the first people to invent writing, libraries, cities, and schools in Mesopotamia (Ziskind 1972, 34), and many would argue that they were the first people to create and do those things anywhere in world.

There were many great cities in the ancient Near East that influenced the course of history. Babylon and Jerusalem are two of the better known, but Nineveh, Damascus, Ur, Uruk, Memphis, Thebes, and Sidon were just a few of the great cities where science and literature were created, theologies proposed, and empires born.

There are numerous reasons why these cities became prominent, many of which were related to the fortuitous circumstances of environment and politics, but for every one of the great cities, there were many more that flourished and then had their prestige overshadowed by the growth of their larger neighbors. These cities often played important roles in the historical processes of the region for a time, but due to numerous circumstances, their influence proved to be ephemeral.

One of the most interesting of these early ephemeral cities was Umma. Located in the southern region of Mesopotamia known as Sumer, Umma became a prominent Sumerian city in the early third millennium BCE, and while Uruk was the most important Sumerian city during that era, Umma was close behind in influence and power and for a time, seemed poised to become the most important place in Sumer.

A powerful dynasty arose in Umma that expanded its influence across southern Mesopotamia, uniting the Sumerian cities under one government, but the central position that Umma enjoyed proved to be temporary because Semitic conquerors from the north forced Umma and the other cities to accept their rule. Umma continued to exist and even prosper, and it eventually became a somewhat important city again under the Neo-Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur in the late third millennium BCE

 It was not until the sixth century BCE that Umma went unmentioned in the historical record during the Neo-Babylonian Period. By then, the city was a shadow of its former self, but some of the earliest known Mesopotamian historiographical inscriptions were recorded in Umma, the god of its city became an important deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and its merchants became well-known for introducing a type of silver standard for trade. Thus, even as Umma was forgotten even as far back as ancient times, it continues to fascinate modern historians and archaeologists.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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