| Among the earliest civilizations were the diverse peoples living in the fertile valleys lying between the Tigris and Euphrates valley, or Mesopotamia, which in Greek means, "between the rivers." In the south of this region, in an area now in Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia, a mysterious group of people, speaking a language unrelated to any other human language we know of, began to live in cities, which were ruled by some sort of monarch, and began to write. These were the Sumerians, and around 3000 BC they began to form large city-states in southern Mesopotamia that controlled areas of several hundred square miles. The names of these cities speak from a distant and foggy past: Ur, Lagash, Eridu. These Sumerians were constantly at war with one another and other peoples, for water was a scarce and valuable resource. The result over time of these wars was the growth of larger city-states as the more powerful swallowed up the smaller city-states. Eventually, the Sumerians would have to battle another peoples, the Akkadians, who migrated up from the Arabian Peninsula. The Akkadians were a Semitic people, that is, they spoke a Semitic language related to languages such as Hebrew and Arabic. When the two peoples clashed, the Sumerians gradually lost control over the city-states they had so brilliantly created and fell under the hegemony of the Akkadian kingdom which was based in Akkad, the city that was later to become Babylon.
But that was not the end of the Sumerians. The Akkadians abandoned much of their culture and absorbed vast amounts of Sumerian culture, including their religion, writing, government structure, literature, and law. But the Sumerians retained nominal control over many of their defeated city-states, and in 2125, the Sumerian city of Ur rose up against the Akkadians and gained for their daring control over the city-states of southern Mesopotamia. But the revival of Sumerian fortune was to be short-lived, for after a short century, another wave of Semitic migrations signed the end of the original creators of Mesopotamian culture.
While the Sumerians disappear from the human story around 2000 BC, the invaders that overthrew them adopted their culture and became, more or less, Sumerian. They adopted the government, economy, city-living, writing, law, religion, and stories of the original peoples. the culture the later Semites inherited from the Sumerians consisted of the following:
The Sumerians seem to have developed one of the world's first systems of monarchy; The very first states in human history, the states of Sumer, seemed to have been ruled by a type of priest-king, called in Sumerian, a ; among their duties were leading the military, administering trade, judging disputes, and engaging in the most important religious ceremonies. The priest-king ruled through a series of bureaucrats, many of them priests, that carefully surveyed land, assigned fields, and distributed crops after harvest.
This requires some sort of distribution mechanism, which requires the greatest of all inventions of civilizations, the bureaucrat. And to make sure that the entire mechanism works, the newly urbanized needs to invent a tool to make the bureaucrat's life easier: record-keeping. And record-keeping means writing in some form or another.
The first writings, in fact, were records—tons of records: stone tablets filled with numbers recording distributed goods. The early Sumerian writing was pictographic writing. The Sumerians would scrawl their picture words using reeds as a writing instrument on wet clay which would then dry into stone-hard tablets, which is very good because it's hard to lose your records if they are big old heavy tablets. Eventually, the Sumerians made their writing more efficient, and slowly converted their picture words to a short-hand consisting of wedged lines created by bending the reed against the wet clay and moving the end closest to the hand back and forth once. And thus was born a form of writing that persisted longer than any other form of writing besides Chinese: cuneiform, or "wedge-shaped" (which is what cuneiform means in Latin) writing.
All this administration of agriculture required much more careful planning, since each farmer had to produce a far greater excess of produce than he would actually consume. And all the bureaucratic record keeping demanded some kind of efficient system of measuring long periods of time. So the Sumerians invented calendars, which they divided into twelve months based on the cycle of the moon. Since a year consisting of twelve lunar months is considerably shorter than a solar year, the Sumerians added a "leap month" every three years in order to catch up with the sun. This interest in measuring long periods of time led the Sumerians to develop a complicated knowledge of astronomy and the first human invention of the zodiac in order to measure yearly time.
We know very little about the early Semitic religions, but the Semites that invaded Mesopotamia seem to have completely abandoned their religion in favor of Sumerian religion. Sumerian religion was polytheistic, that is, the Sumerians believed in and worshipped many gods. These gods were incredibly powerful and anthropomorphic, that is, they resembled humans. Many of these gods controlled natural forces and were associated with astronomical bodies, such as the sun. The gods were creator gods; as a group, they had created the world and the people in it. Like humans, they suffered all the ravages of human emotional and spiritual frailties: love, lust, hatred, anger, regret. Among the gods' biggest regrets was the creation of human life; the Sumerians believed that these gods regretted the creation of human life and sent a flood to destroy their faulty creation, but one man survived by building a boat. While the destruction of the earth in a great flood is nearly universal in all human mythology and religion, we can't be sure if the Semites had a similar story or took it over from the Sumerians. This is, of course, a question of contemporary significance: according to Genesis, the originator of the Hebrew race, the patriarch Abraham, originally came from the city of Ur.
Scholars agree that the Code of Hammurabi, written by a Babylonian monarch, reproduces Sumerian law fairly exactly. Sumerian law, as represented in Hammurabi's code, was a law of exact revenge, which we call lex talionis. This is revenge in kind: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life," and reveals to us that human law has as its fundamental basis revenge. This great invention, law, would serve as the basis for the institution of law among all the Semitic peoples to follow: Babylonians, Assyrians, and, eventually, the Hebrews.