Ancient Near East

The Rise of Sumeria’s cities: Eridu and Uruk

Before the rise of unified kingdoms, the ancient cities of Sumeria were founded, forming a network of trade and culture recognized as the world’s oldest Empire.

The Rise of Sumeria's cities Eridu and Uruk

Sumeria, recognized as the world’s oldest empire, predates even the ancient Egyptians and was a distant memory by the time the Romans began their imperial pursuits. Situated in the Fertile Crescent, bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Sumeria laid the groundwork for future empires in the region. It introduced revolutionary advancements that shaped the course of civilization, including writing, architecture, agriculture, and irrigation. The legacy of Sumeria is still celebrated today through the mystique surrounding ancient cities like Eridu, Uruk, Kish, Nippur, and Ur. Among these, Eridu holds the title of the oldest city, while Uruk is celebrated for its grandeur.

Origins and Early Inhabitants

Map showing the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Map showing the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The origins of the Sumerian people remain a subject of speculation, though evidence suggests they may have migrated from the Caucasus region. Upon settling in the Fertile Crescent, the Sumerians either displaced or assimilated with the existing inhabitants, often referred to as the Proto-Euphrateans or Ubaidians. These earlier groups had already established themselves as pioneers of civilization along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, excelling in crafts such as pottery, weaving, and masonry, and advancing agricultural techniques. When the Sumerians arrived around 5500 BCE, they likely absorbed much of this local knowledge, eventually establishing the first significant city-state.

Eridu: The First Sumerian City

Eridu Temple, final Ubaid period, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Eridu Temple, final Ubaid period, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Eridu, believed to be the first city founded by the Sumerians, was located at the southern edge of what is now southeast Iraq, on a site known as Tell Abu Shahrain. According to Sumerian mythology, the city was established by Enki, the deity of water, crafts, knowledge, and creation. The city’s layout centered around the temple to Enki, known as E-Abzu, believed to be located above an underground water source called Abzu. This focal point of worship led to the construction of successive temples, culminating in a large ziggurat, a structure emblematic of ancient Mesopotamian culture.

Eridu became a melting pot of various cultures, strategically positioned at the intersection of three distinct ecosystems, each contributing unique skills and knowledge. The fisher-hunter culture, possibly the original Sumerians from the Caucasus, excelled in using reeds for construction and boat-making. The Samarra culture contributed their expertise in canal-building and mudbrick construction, while the nomadic people from the semi-desert areas brought their lifestyle adapted to harsh environments. This integration of diverse cultures and technologies underpinned the development of Eridu and, by extension, the Sumerian civilization.

Eridu in Ancient Myths

The Statue of Enki Sails From Eridu by Balage Balogh, Source: ferrebeekeeper
The Statue of Enki Sails From Eridu by Balage Balogh, Source: ferrebeekeeper

Eridu holds a prominent place in Sumerian mythology as one of the earliest cities, alongside Bad-tibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak. In these legends, the mother goddess Nintur instructed her followers to cease their nomadic life in the desert and establish cities and temples. Following her guidance, Eridu was established, with rulers Alulim and Alagar presiding for nearly 50,000 years according to mythic records.

Another significant myth involves the god Enlil who, disturbed by the noise from these burgeoning cities, decided to cleanse the earth with a massive flood. Forewarned by the god Enki, the king of Shuruppak, Ziusudra, constructed a large boat to survive the deluge. This narrative parallels stories found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and later in Abrahamic texts.

Archaeological Excavations at Eridu

  • Excavation at Eridu, Source: Ur Region Archaeology Project
  • Remnants of the paint on the walls of Eridu can still be seen, from Tina Hager / arabianEye / Getty Images

The archaeological site of Eridu has undergone extensive excavations, revealing much about its historical phases. The first significant excavation began in 1855 under John George Taylor’s direction. The site was revisited in 1918 and 1919 by R. Campbell Thompson and H. R. Hall, respectively. Post-World War II excavations from 1946 to 1949 were conducted by Fuad Safar and Seton Lloyd from the Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities and Heritage.

In recent years, since 2019, Eridu has been the focus of a collaborative effort by French, Italian, and Iraqi archaeologists, ensuring the continued exploration and preservation of this ancient site. Each phase of excavation has contributed to a deeper understanding of Eridu’s role in early Mesopotamian civilization and its cultural significance across various eras.

Eridu flourished for nearly 5,000 years, but by 600 BCE, it was a ghost town. Historians believe its people pushed their land too hard. Intensive farming likely made the water too salty, rendering the fields useless. Faced with starvation, Eridu’s inhabitants had no choice but to seek a new home.

Uruk: Cradle of Civilization

  • Artist’s rendering of a section of the city of Uruk, Source: / Medium
  • What is left of the Temple of Anu, which rested at the top of a great Ziggurat, is a pale shadow of its former self, from Nico Tondini, Source: National Geographic

Uruk, established around 5000 BCE and situated approximately 100 miles northwest of Eridu along the northern bank of the Euphrates, emerged as a spectacular hub of early human civilization. At its zenith, the city boasted a population of 30,000 to 40,000 within its limits, with up to 90,000 in the surrounding areas, making it the most populous center of its time. The city’s considerable size and influence are underscored by its association with the legendary figure Gilgamesh, who reputedly ruled Uruk in the 27th century BCE.

Archaeological efforts in Uruk began as early as 1850, initiated by British archaeologist William Loftus. Subsequent excavations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including notable work by Julius Jordan of the German Oriental Society in 1912-1913, uncovered significant structures like the Temple of Ishtar and a massive 5.6-mile-long defensive wall.

These discoveries highlight Uruk’s architectural grandeur and strategic importance. Excavations have continued into the modern era, utilizing advanced technologies such as geophysical surveys and satellite imagery to further uncover the city’s past.

The “Uruk Period,” spanning from approximately 4000 BCE to 3200 BCE, marked a time of tremendous growth and cultural development, not just for Uruk but for all of Sumeria. This era saw the transformation of small villages into large urban centers, the establishment of social hierarchies, and the development of militaries and full-time bureaucracies, spurred by the advent of writing.

Uruk’s strategic location in a resource-rich area with expansive arable lands facilitated rapid population growth and economic prosperity. This enabled the city to develop industries in pottery, metalwork, and construction, while its craftsmen produced luxury goods that bolstered a robust trade network with other Sumerian city-states.

This period of expansion solidified Uruk’s role as a foundational city in the narrative of Sumerian and broader Mesopotamian civilization.

The Temple Districts

This proto-cuneiform tablet is an administrative account of barley distribution, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This proto-cuneiform tablet is an administrative account of barley distribution, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Central to the grandeur of Uruk were its two main temple districts, dedicated to significant deities of the Sumerian pantheon. The Eanna District, devoted to the goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar), featured construction that diverged from the typical mudbrick and adobe used throughout the region.

Notably, this district utilized substantial quantities of limestone, indicating the importance and sacred nature of the area. It housed several temples and numerous workshops, suggesting a bustling area of both religious and economic activity. It is believed that in this district, the world’s first writing system, cuneiform, emerged, marking a pivotal development in human history.

The Anu District was marked by the Anu Ziggurat, an L-shaped terrace that supported a large temple dedicated to Anu, the sky god. This construction project began around 4000 BCE and saw several modifications over the centuries. The most notable addition was the White Temple, constructed between 3200 BCE and 3000 BCE.

Sumerian Man in Prayer, 2750-2400 BCE, Source: Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden
Sumerian Man in Prayer, 2750-2400 BCE, Source: Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden

Built from limestone and coated in gypsum plaster, the temple’s reflective surface made it a brilliant landmark visible from great distances across the Sumerian plain. This gleaming structure served not only as a religious center but also as a beacon, attracting travelers and signaling the might and splendor of Uruk.

Beyond these religious centers, Uruk was meticulously planned with residential areas expanding outward. These residential districts were organized according to the professions of the inhabitants, indicating a highly structured societal organization.

The city was also distinguished by its extensive network of canals, which facilitated not only transportation and trade but also water management, essential for its agriculture and the daily needs of its sizable population. This sophisticated urban infrastructure underscores Uruk’s significance as a center of ancient urban development and its role as a model for future civilizations.

The Fall and Legacy of Uruk

By the close of the third millennium BCE, the once-thriving city of Uruk faced annexation by the expanding Akkadian Empire, marking the beginning of its decline. Although Uruk experienced a brief resurgence under the rule of the city-state of Ur, this revival was short-lived; the collapse of Ur around 2000 BCE precipitated a prolonged period of decline that lasted through the millennium.

An image from a virtual tour of the exhibition “Uruk – 5000 Years of the Megacity,” Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum
An image from a virtual tour of the exhibition “Uruk – 5000 Years of the Megacity,” Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum

It wasn’t until around 850 BCE that Uruk saw another revival, this time under the Neo-Assyrians, followed by the Neo-Babylonians, under whom it regained some of its former cultural significance. The city continued to hold importance during the Seleucid era in the late 4th century BCE and, to a lesser extent, under the Parthians. However, changes in the Euphrates River’s course likely expedited Uruk’s eventual decline.

Uruk remained inhabited, albeit as a shadow of its former self, until it was finally abandoned around 700 CE. Known as Erech in the Bible and located near today’s Warka in Iraq, Uruk’s story is a testament to the dynamic nature of ancient cities. The enigma surrounding Sumeria and its cities, including Uruk, continues to captivate historians, archaeologists, and the public alike.

The age-old civilization prompts us to reflect on both the differences and similarities between the Sumerians and ourselves, from their religious practices and societal structures to the very essence of daily life in such ancient times.

Advancements in technology have gradually peeled back layers of history, allowing us to explore and understand the intricate details of Sumerian life. Through virtual tours, archaeological excavations, and various forms of media, we continue to uncover the secrets of ancient cities like Uruk. Each discovery provides valuable insights into our ancestors’ lives, enriching our understanding of human history and the enduring legacy of ancient civilizations.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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