Sumeria is the world’s oldest empire (narrowly predating the Egyptians). It was already ancient history when the Romans took their first imperial steps. Thus, Sumeria was the catalyst for successive empires in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates. Everything that came after was the evolution of what Sumeria created, from writing to architecture to farming and irrigation techniques.
The names of Eridu, Uruk, Kish, Nippur, Ur, and many other ancient cities of Sumeria still evoke a sense of mystery and awe. Of them all, Eridu was the oldest, and Uruk was arguably the grandest.
The Beginnings of Sumeria
Nobody knows for sure where the ancient Sumerians came from, although there is strong evidence to suggest they came from the Caucasus region. They settled in the Fertile Crescent, either displacing or integrating the people who already lived there, who are often referred to as the Proto-Euphrateans or Ubaidians.
These Proto-Euphrateans were the original civilizers, building small settlements along the two mighty rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. They developed industries such as pottery, weaving, leatherwork, masonry, and metalwork. They learned techniques for agriculture and drained marshes. It is unknown how advanced the Sumerians were when they arrived, but it is plausible there was much to learn from the locals.
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It was the Sumerians, however, around 5500 BCE, who built the first powerful city-state.
The Founding of Eridu
Believed to have been the first city founded by the Sumerians, Eridu was also the southernmost, occupying a hill now known as Tell Abu Shahrain in southeast Iraq. According to Sumerian legend, the city was founded by Enki, the god of water, crafts, knowledge, and creation.
At the center of Eridu was the temple to Enki, E-Abzu, as Enki was believed to reside in an aquifer by the name of Abzu. The city that developed was built outwards from this center point. Successive temples were built on this site, culminating in a massive ziggurat – the temple design representative of ancient Mesopotamian culture.
Integrating local cultures, Eridu was built at the confluence of three ecosystems, each with its own distinct population of people. The fisher-hunter culture brought knowledge of fishing and construction, using reeds to build houses and boats. There was also the Samarra culture, who brought their knowledge of canal-building and mudbrick construction, and the nomadic people who lived out of tents in the semi-desert region. It is theorized that of these three groups, it was the fisher-hunters who were the original Sumerians who had migrated from elsewhere (likely the Caucasus).
Eridu in Myth & Legend
Along with Bad-tibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak, Eridu is listed in Sumerian myth as the first of the first five Sumerian cities. According to the myth, the mother goddess Nintur told her people to stop wandering the desert and build temples and cities. This they did, and Eridu was founded, after which the kings Alulim and Alagar ruled for almost 50,000 years.
The god Enlil, however, grew tired of the noise created by the cities and decided to sweep the land clean with a great flood. Upon discovering Enlil’s plan, Enki warned the king of Shuruppak, Ziusudra, and told him to build a large boat to ride out the flood. This tale is told in the Epic of Gilgamesh and re-envisioned in the texts of the Abrahamic religions as well.
Excavation of Eridu
The site has gone through four distinct phases of archeological excavation, starting with an expedition under the leadership of John George Taylor in 1855. The site was re-visited in 1918 by R. Campbell Thompson and again the following year by H. R. Hall. From 1946 to 1949, the site was excavated by Fuad Safar and Seton Lloyd of the Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities and Heritage. From 2019 onwards, the site has been the subject of ongoing excavations by a team of archeologists under the jurisdiction of a joint French, Italian, and Iraqi effort.
Decline of Eridu
Eridu was inhabited for around 5,000 years before being completely abandoned in approximately 600 BCE. The cause of this has been theorized to be overworking the land for agricultural purposes, which led to an increase in the salinity of the water table, eventually making the farming of crops untenable. This led the people of the area to abandon their city in search of more arable lands.
Founded around 5000 BCE, the city of Uruk grew to be a spectacular hub of human civilization, and at its height, contained around 30,000 to 40,000 residents and up to 90,000 people living in its environs, which would have made it the most populous center of human habitation at the time. It was located about 100 miles northwest of Eridu on the northern bank of the Euphrates.
Uruk was a huge city compared to its contemporaries, and it was home to the legendary Gilgamesh, who is said to have ruled the city in the 27th century BCE.
Excavation of Uruk
The excavation of Uruk first began in 1850 and was followed by another expedition in 1854, both led by British archeologist William Loftus. From 1912 to 1913, another expedition led by Julius Jordan of the German Oriental Society saw the discovery of the remarkable Temple of Ishtar, which was one of at least four major temples in Uruk. Jordan also discovered a 5.6-mile (9-kilometer)-long wall that enclosed the inner city and was built to a height of about 40 to 50 feet (12 meters to 15 meters). These walls are estimated to have been built around 3000 BCE.
Excavations continued under the direction of the German Oriental Society from 1931 until the outbreak of the Second World War, when operations were forced to cease. The expeditions resumed in 1954 with the Germans still at the helm of uncovering Uruk’s ancient mysteries. Currently, work continues under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute, and as new technologies become available, they are employed. This includes geophysical surveys, core sampling, and high-resolution satellite imagery.
How Uruk Prospered
The importance of Uruk in the formation of Sumeria as a cultural empire cannot be understated. From approximately 4000 BCE to 3200 BCE, the “Uruk Period” was an era of rapid expansion, not just for the city but for all of Sumeria.
During this period, small villages grew into large urban centers. Social hierarchies evolved, along with militaries. Full-time bureaucracies were established, which were possible by the development of a writing system. Trade flourished, and the entire region grew in prosperity.
Underpinning this growth and prosperity in Uruk was the fact that the city was located in an area incredibly rich in resources and with vast arable lands that stretched along the bank of the Euphrates. The geographic advantages facilitated fast population growth, which fueled a surplus production in food, thus freeing up a growing population to engage in pursuits that were not directly necessary for human survival. Industries around pottery, metalwork, and building flourished, while artists and architects contributed to the creation of Uruk’s culture. Other craftsmen and women created luxury goods, enabling a robust trade network with Sumeria’s other city-states to be established.
Districts of Uruk
At the heart of Uruk were two temple districts. One was devoted to the goddess Inanna (Eanna / Ishtar), and the other to Anu. In the 4th millennium BCE, these districts were built using a variety of materials. The Eanna District used massive quantities of limestone in its construction, which was unusual given the propensity for mudbrick and adobe structures prevalent throughout the city. Several temples graced this district, and amongst them were numerous workshops. It is likely from this place that the world’s first writing system developed – cuneiform.
The Anu District was characterized by a single L-shaped terrace, the Anu Ziggurat, upon which a large temple was situated, dedicated to the sky god Anu. Construction started around 4000 BCE, and the structure was altered many times over the next thousand years. Around 3200 BCE to 3000 BCE, the White Temple was built atop the ziggurat. Constructed of limestone and covered in gypsum plaster which reflected the sunlight, the temple could be seen from vast distances across the plain of Sumer, acting like a beacon of majesty, drawing travelers to the world’s greatest city.
Outside the temple districts, the houses spread out in all directions and were grouped into districts according to their owner’s profession. The city was also navigable by many canals which penetrated through the city, creating a network of waterways.
Decline of Uruk
By the end of the third millennium BCE, Uruk was annexed by the growing empire of the Akkadians and began to decline. It enjoyed a short-lived revival under the control of the city-state of Ur, but following the collapse of Ur in 2000 BCE, Uruk spent the next millennium in decline until the Neo-Assyrians annexed it in around 850 BCE. Under the Neo-Assyrians and the Neo-Babylonians, the city was revived. It continued to be an important cultural center under the Seleucids (late 4th century BCE) and, to a lesser degree, under the Parthians who came after, although a shift in the course of the Euphrates might have hastened the city’s demise.
Although a ghost of its former self, the city continued to be inhabited until 700 CE, when it was abandoned entirely.
Uruk is known as Erech in the Bible and is situated near the current city of Warka in Iraq.
Sumeria exists as a mysterious land full of enigmatic secrets. The sheer age of the civilization tempts the mind to wonder how different and how similar the Sumerians were to us. Some people wonder what the people were like – how their religion and society shaped them. Others are intrigued by the city’s appearance and how it must have felt to be there so long ago.
Advances in technology have allowed us to slowly uncover these mysteries in a slow, ongoing process, revealing the riddles of the ancient cities of Sumeria and giving us a great insight into the lives of our ancestors.