Sumer (ki.en.gi) lies between the rivers Tigris, in the East, (íd idigna) and Euphrates (íd buranun), in the West. They originate from the mountains in the north (Anatolia), flow almost parallel to each other for over thousands of miles, get closer and closer to each other, to finally mix their waters before flowing into the ‘Lower Sea’ (Persian Gulfe). Everybody knows that.
But when you get in Sumer, you will soon find out that there is not one Tigris and one Euphrates but… several of them! The rivers flow along ridges that rise above plain level, so that after the annual floods, they do not always go back to their beds, but “move around” because the Land of Sumer is very flat.
Therefore, Tigris and Euphrates are a maze of intertwining branches. In some regions and in some years, both rivers are so close to each other that they almost connect. The landscape of Sumer is composed of rivers and canals, patches of marshes, old meanders and old levees that indicate ancient riverbeds. Those dried out courses may be reflooded, naturally by the next floods or artificially by human beings who choose to use them as irrigation channels or artificial pools. Patches of marshes may suddenly appear or disappear here and there, while pieces of land may be suddenly located too far away from a river course to be cultivated and turned into a new desert land.
Sumerian landscape is elusive, ever-changing. It can be a bit disturbing, but it is also fascinating if you go back every year, or if you travel at different times of the year.
Sumerian geography. Sumerians are not as as accurate as we are with names of seas and mountains. They do not ‘name’ the mountains in the north, the region further north for them is called Subartu. The Persian Gulf is the Lower Sea, the Mediterranean Sea is the Upper Sea. They know the whereabouts of distant kingdoms they trade with, but not where they are precisely. You will learn more about this when you visit Meskalamdug Museum in Ur.
Annual Floods – how does it work?! Volume of water of the Euphrates and Tigris vary throughout the year. Snowmelt in the northern mountains provokes waters flood in the southern plain. After the high waters in spring, the volume of water progressively diminishes up to a very low level in the Autumn. River flood deposits sediments, such as small rocks and minerals, that later become obstacles for future floods. The next year, water flooding bumps into those sediments, so that rivers change their course, creating new meanders and channels, leaving full areas as desert but watering new ones.
Several riverbeds but two rivers – It is not always easy to identify the main riverbed, even though it is wider in most cases. But Sumerians do recognise two individual rivers, and name them as such íd idigna and íd buranun – íd means both ‘river’ and ‘canal’ in Sumerian –Secondary branches are often named after the main city (or a village) settled on their banks.