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  • Nicola Giovanni Migliaccio

Uruk, The 'first' city throughout the ages

The rise of urbanisation and civilization has now intrinsically been associated with the ancient city of Uruk and the floodplains of the land of Sumer but this 'First' city did not simply light up like a match-stick ready to burn out, instead it lived on as a bustling city for several millennia.

Located almost 300 kilometres south of Baghdad the site of Uruk, known as Warka in Arabic, was mainly excavated by Julius Jordan and Conrad Presseur. They were financed by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft and worked since 1913. German archaeologists have continued their excavation of the site up to more recent times and since then many political complications have risen creating gaps in the research. Because of the latest of these issues in the area the team has instead focused on the publishing and further analysis of their finds. (The history and research on Uruk, Margarete van Ess).

The once mighty city walls, attributed to the legendary founder Gilgamesh, are still visible to the naked eye as a ridge in the earth. Sadly it is hard to collocate the mythical king himself in time, but attempts to do so place him in roughly the 27th century BCE (the city of Uruk throughout time, Uwe Finkbeiner), the walls, also difficult to date, have been estimated to belong to the early 3rd millennium BCE (The history and research on Uruk, Van Ess) there might after all be some truth in fiction!

But this city is far older than even myths let on. From the base of various 5th millennium settlements the city itself developed in the latter half of the 4th millennium, becoming one of the first large cities (reaching up to 250 hectares). (Brill's New Pauly, Uruk) Because of its large size it probably had to deal with administrative issues that might not have been as marked earlier. Thus creating the perfect stage for the development of writing (Uruk's beginnings and early development, Hans J. Nissen).

This period also saw the emergence of monumentality, proof of it is the Anu Ziggurat area where a massive terrace was modelled and on top of it a niched temple was erected, we can date it through radiocarbon analysis to the late middle 3rd millennium. Such a work must have taken a great deal of time and manpower and thus must have shaped the very lives of the inhabitants, furthermore it completely affected the area around it. Probably serving as a marker of urban power and identity. (Uruk's early monumental architecture, Ricardo Eichman).

Mosaics made by coloured clay cones were elements of design in Uruk for around a thousand years, from the middle of the fourth millennium to that of the third. (The clay cone mosaic technique, Margarete Van Ess).

The city of Uruk seems to have experienced its peak in the Early dynastic period but even far later we can see impressive works, for example the palace of the king Sin-Kashid in the Old Babylonian period. This was a large quadrilateral palace (the short sides were uneven but measured both over 100 metres while the long sides were around 142 metres long). It was probably destroyed by a fire as indicated by the charred wood and the deposited ash, while that must have been a real tragedy it allowed the preservation of the finds in some areas. These rooms probably served as storage but within them various tablets were found. Some of them point towards the existence of a school within the palace as they were of didactic nature. The majority however dealt with legal and administrative matters. (Uruk's babylonian palace and its texts, Anja Fugert and Shirin Sanati-Muller).

Political power however was no longer Uruk's forte. Monumentality however continued to be a crucial part of the city, just focused on a higher type of authority: the divine. The city kept and even reinforced its religious value in the mesopotamian world. For example, under Kassite rule, around the second half of the second millennium, temples were restored and embellished. An example of this is the temple of Karaindash, famous for its moulded brick reliefs. (The city of Uruk throughout time, Uwe Finkbeiner).

The tradition of kings rebuilding the temples and respecting the gods of Uruk continued on as empires rose and fell up until the Babylonian revolt against the Persian Xerxes in the early fifth century BCE. As punishment for the rebellion the local cult was abolished. But this did not end up being the end for religious activity, in fact in the Seleucid period two massive temples were erected for Anu and his divine wife, as well as the city goddess Inanna. These temples measured around 200 x 250 metres and were made of fired bricks, which in an area lacking in fuel such as Mesopotamia would have been massively expensive. (The city of Uruk throughout time, Uwe Finkbeiner)

After the Macedonian Seleucids came the Parthians from Iran, through their coinage a fairly solid chronology can be pushed up to ca. 200 AD. In the Parthian period a temple was erected to the previously unknown god Gareus in the southern part of the city. Still through coins we find traces of habitation only up to the second Sasanian king, while outside the city walls in the south-east Sassanian occupation seemed to have lasted until the fourth century of our era. But the city had already fallen into obscurity, from that point on we only have Arabic sources on the Sassanian border fortress of Orchoi. (The city of Uruk throughout time, Uwe Finkbeiner)

In conclusion, while Uruk might have been the first city to rise it definitely was not the first to fall. Instead it survived for an immense amount of time, obviously with its ups and downs but nonetheless it kept itself relevant for ages. It would perhaps be pleasant for Gilgamesh to know that indeed man might die but the city lives on, and now that the city too has died proof of its greatness has resurfaced. And the mighty walls still leave a mark on the ground where they had once been erected. 



R. Eichman, "Uruk's early monumental architecture", Uruk First City of Ancient World, Los Angeles 2019

U. Finkbeiner, "The city of Uruk throughout time", Uruk First City of Ancient World, Los Angeles 2019

A. Fugert and S. Sanati-Muller, "Uruk's babylonian palace and its texts", Uruk First City of Ancient World, Los Angeles 2019

H. Jörg Nissen, “Uruk” Brill’s New Pauly, Leiden 2006

M. Van Ess, "The clay cone mosaic technique", Uruk First City of Ancient World, Los Angeles 2019

M. Van Ess, "The history and research on Uruk", Uruk First City of Ancient World, Los Angeles 2019


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