Sumerian Foreign Trading Connections



1. Because of the need of the resource-poor Mesopotamian societies to acquire raw material for construction, textile production and manufacture of symbols of rank, a wide trading network developed around and through the Iranian Plateau.


2. This commercial system included maritime and terrestrial routes that transported raw resources from the east in return for finished products (textile) and grain.


3. The traffic appears to have been somewhat one-sided with most recorded commodities flowing from east to west into Sumer. This may be because the textile and grain transported to the east have mostly perished and that the potentially largest trading partner, the Indus Valley civilization, was self-sufficient in these commodities.


4. Although archaeological information remains sparse, it appears that the civilization of Central Asia also participated in the broader commercial connections. Materials originating to the east and south appear in the early Kopet Dag and later BMAC towns while BMAC seals have been found on the Iranian Plateau and Persian Gulf..


Land Routes

1. Terrestrial traffic from the east crossed the Iranian Plateau, utilizing the scattered towns of the area as caravan rest sites as sources of specialized production, and possibly as shippers themselves. Thus Tepe Yahya produced and worked chlorite, Shar-I-Sokhta produced lapis lazuli and Mundigak was a funnel for commodities from Afghanistan and the Indus region.


2. This traffic supported the existence of local elites in the Iranian Plateau towns. These drew on the prestige and economic power provided by control of the traded value items and monopolization of distribution to enhance their own political positions. There thus developed a mutually re-enforcing relationship between the leaders of Mesopotamia and those of the towns of the Iranian Plateau.


Maritime Traffic: Commercial sea routes connected Mesopotamia with the east.

1. The eastern maritime traffic, probably emerging in the later Early Dynastic Period, describes a pattern that is generally similar to the terrestrial network with societies geographically intermediate between Indus and Sumer acting as producers of their own specific raw resources and /or acting as shippers in the wider traffic from the Indus region and possibly coastal Iranian centers.

2 Textual evidence from the Akkadian and Ur III periods (ca 2340-2000) mentions intensive involvement of Sumerian cities and unified states with the Gulf. Indeed Narim Sin asserts that he conquered Maggan and invaded Iran. The texts also mention ships from Maggan sailing via Dilmun to Akkad and the presence of colonies of Muluhhan traders living in southern Sumerian cities. Archaeologically, this contact is supported by the recovery of numerous Indus seals from Sumerian contexts.


The participants

1. Meluhha (Indus Valley)

This traffic would have commenced in the later Early Dynastic Period and continued beyond the end of Ur III, the period when the Indus Valley Civilization flourished.




2. Maggan (Oman)

Maggan probably refers to the area on both sides of the Persian Gulf near present-day Oman. Texts refer to it as an area that produced copper ores fro shipment north. Recent archaeological research in Oman has identified a flourishing society of this time with considerable copper working and many

Dilmun and Indus Valley seals. This is probably Sumerian Maggan.


3. Dilmun (Bahrain and Failaka)

Dilmun was a flourishing commercial society that possessed a similar, though distinct, material culture to Sumer. Dilmun probably used the same language numerous cuneiform tablets of Sumerian writing have been found on Bahrain and Failaka Islands.


The Dilmun authorities built temples and administrative architecture of ashlar masonry unlike the mud-brick construction of the Sumerian cities. They used circular stamp seals that have also been recovered from Sumer, the Iranian Plateau and the coastal Indus Valley port of Lothal.

Because Dilmun possessed no raw resources of its own it probably imported Mesopotamian food resources in return for acting as the principal transporter along the sea lanes that connected Sumer, Maggan and the Indus region.



Early contact with Egypt

1. The Egyptian connection represents an exception to the better-known eastern maritime connections. While there is no doubt that Mesopotamian influence was widespread, especially in Upper Egypt, in the Late Uruk period, the nature of the contact is still uncertain. Influence appears strongly in the emerging symbols of power at a time when the Pharaonic state was being formed and clearly played an important role in signaling (and possibly shaping) Late Predynastic Egyptian dominant ideology. It is not absolutely certain if the route of this contact was solely via Syria to the mouth of the Nile, by land traffic through the Levant, or via the Red Sea directly into Upper Egypt. Neither is it certain if this contact occurred as part of reciprocal commercial activity (for which there is no known Mesopotamian archaeological evidence) or accompanied some other, currently unknown, initiative.


2. In post-Uruk later periods there seems to have been little direct contact between Egypt and Sumer. While lapis lazuli found its way to Egypt from Afghanistan by means of the commercial route that long connected Byblos in Lebanon with the Nile Delta, there was no more formal contact until the great imperial period and widespread associated diplomatic and commercial activity of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages.