The Sumerian city states rose to power during the prehistorical Ubaid and Uruk periods. Sumerian history reaches back to the 26th century BC and before, but the historical record remains obscure until the Early Dynastic III period, ca. the 23rd century BC, when a now deciphered syllabary writing system was developed, which has allowed archaeologists to read contemporary records and inscriptions. Classical Sumer ends with the rise of the Akkadian Empire in the 23rd century. Following the Gutian period, there is a brief "Sumerian renaissance" in the 21st century, cut short in the 20th century BC by Amorite invasions. The Amorite "dynasty of Isin" persisted until ca. 1700 BC, when Mesopotamia was united under Babylonian rule.

(All date ranges are approximate.)

  • Ubaid period: 5300–4100 BC (Pottery Neolithic to Chalcolithic)
  • Uruk period: 4100–2900 BC (Late Chalcolithic to Early Bronze AgeI)
    • Uruk XIV-V: 4100–3300
    • Uruk IV period: 3300–3000 BC
    • Uruk III = Jemdet Nasr period: 3000–2900 BC
  • Early Dynastic period (Early Bronze Age II)
    • Early Dynastic I period: 2900–2800 BC
    • Early Dynastic II period: 2800–2600 BC (Gilgamesh)
    • Early Dynastic IIIa period: 2600–2500 BC (Early Bronze Age III)
    • Early Dynastic IIIb period: ca. 2500–2334 BC
  • Akkadian Empire period: ca. 2334–2218 BC (Sargon)
  • Gutian period: ca. 2218–2047 BC (Early Bronze Age IV)
  • Ur III period: ca. 2047–1940 BC


The Ubaid period is marked by a distinctive style of fine quality painted pottery which spread throughout Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. During this time, the first settlement in southern Mesopotamia was established at Eridu, ca. 5300 BC, by farmers who brought with them the Samarran culture from northern Mesopotamia. It is not known whether or not these were the actual Sumerians who are identified with the later Uruk culture. Eridu remained an important religious center when it was gradually surpassed in size by the nearby city of Uruk.



The Uruk period With the Uruk period in ancient Mesopotamia we see the very beginnings of writing and are, therefore, almost into a historical period! How exciting! I’m sure that’s how the ancient Mesopotamians felt about it.

As in the Ubaid period, the term “Uruk” refers to three things: a time period, an ancient city (now an archaeological site), and a material culture. The time period is ca. 4000-3000 BC, and the city is the main and almost the only source of information we have for the period.


The Uruk period saw the development of several cultural factors which marked the transition from relatively egalitarian, sedentary agricultural towns to what we would call a “civilization.”

One of these was the development of public architecture. This architecture was “monumental,” in that it was built to impress; it was “public” because it was meant to serve, belong to, or encompass the whole community rather than a single family (even if not everybody got to participate directly in what went on in these buildings).

The city of Uruk had two major public complexes in the Uruk period. One of these was the Anu ziggurat and White Temple, both dedicated to the Mesopotamian sky-god Anu. Several architectural features of the building complex had appeared first in the Ubaid period, showing the continuity between the two phases.

Several hundred meters from the Anu ziggurat is the “Eanna precinct,” dedicated to the rather alarming goddess Inanna, who was the patron goddess of Uruk.


Early Dynastic Period

The Dynastic period begins ca. 2900 BC and includes such legendary figures as Enmerkar and Gilgamesh—who are supposed to have reigned shortly before the historic record opens ca. 2700 BC, when the now decipherable syllabic writing started to develop from the early pictograms. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas, and neighboring Semitic groups adopted much of Sumerian culture for their own.

The earliest Dynastic king on the Sumerian king list whose name is known from any other legendary source is Etana, 13th king of the first Dynasty of Kish. The earliest king authenticated through archaeological evidence is Enmebaragesi of Kish (ca. 26th century BC), whose name is also mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic—leading to the suggestion that Gilgamesh himself might have been a historical king of Uruk.


1st Dynasty of Lagashca. 2500 – 2270 BC

The dynasty of Lagash, though omitted from the king list, is well attested through several important monuments and many archaeological finds.

Although short-lived, one of the first empires known to history was that of Eannatum of Lagash,  Prince- Gudea-Lagashwho annexed practically all of Sumer, including Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Larsa, and reduced to tribute the city-state of Umma, arch-rival of Lagash. In addition, his realm extended to parts of Elam and along the Persian Gulf. He seems to have used terror as a matter of policy—his stele of the vultures has been found, showing violent treatment of enemies. His empire collapsed shortly after his death.

Later, Lugal-Zage-Si, the priest-king of Umma, overthrew the primacy of the Lagash dynasty in the area, then conquered Uruk, making it his capital, and claimed an empire extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. He was the last ethnically Sumerian king before the arrival of the Semitic king, Sargon of Akkad.


Akkadian Empire ca. 2270 – 2083 BC (short chronology)

The Semitic Akkadian language is first attested in proper names of the kings of Kish ca. 2800 BC, preserved in later king lists. There are texts written entirely in Old Akkadian dating from ca. 2500 BC. Use of Old Akkadian was at its peak during the rule of Sargon the Great (ca. 2270 – 2215 BC), but even then most administrative tablets continued to be written in Sumerian, the language used by the scribes. Gelb and Westenholz differentiate three stages of Old Akkadian: that of the pre-Sargonic era, that of the Akkadian empire, and that of the "Neo-Sumerian Renaissance" that followed it. Speakers of Akkadian and Sumerian coexisted for about one thousand years, until ca. 1800 BC, when Sumerian ceased to be spoken. Thorkild Jacobsen has argued that there is little break in historical continuity between the pre- and post-Sargon periods, and that too much emphasis has been placed on the perception of a "Semitic vs. Sumerian" conflict. However, it is certain that Akkadian was also briefly imposed on neighboring parts of Elam that were conquered by Sargon.


2nd Dynasty of Lagash ca. 2093 – 2046 BC (short chronology)

Following the downfall of the Akkadian Empire at the hands of Gutians, another native Sumerian ruler, Gudea of Lagash, rose to local prominence and continued the practices of the Sargonid kings' claims to divinity. Like the previous Lagash dynasty, Gudea and his descendents also promoted artistic development and left a large number of archaeological artifacts.


3rd Dynasty of Ur ca. 2047 – 1940 BC (Sumerian Renaissance)

Following the fall of Sargon's Empire to the Gutians, a brief "dark ages" ensued; however one prominent Sumerian ruler of this time was Gudea of Lagash. The Gutians were finally driven out by the Sumerians under Urukhegal of Uruk, who was in turn defeated by Ur-Nammu of Ur, who founded what is known as the 3rd dynasty of Ur. Although the Sumerian language ("Emegir") was again made official, the Sumerian identity was already in decline, as the population continually became more and more Semiticised.

After this dynasty was destroyed by the Elamites, a fierce rivalry developed between the city-states of Larsa, that was under more Elamite than Sumerian influence, and Isin, that was more Amorite (as the Semitic speakers had come to be called).

The Semites ended up prevailing in Mesopotamia by the time of Hammurabi of Babylon, who founded the Babylonian Empire, and the language and name of Sumer gradually passed into the realm of antiquarian scholars (although their influence on Babylonia and all subsequent cultures was indeed great). A few historians assert that some Sumerians managed preserve their identity in a sense, by forming the Magi, or hereditary priestly caste, noted among the later Medes.