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The White Temple and the Great Ziggurat in the Mesopotamian City of Uruk


The Egyptian pyramids are not the only ancient mystery of the old world; the ziggurat also sustains a substantial position of wonder. The ancient land of Uruk was once located in southern Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates river, which corresponds to our present day Warka, in Iraq. It was founded by a king named Enmerkar around 4500 BC, and it was the home of the epic hero king Gilgamesh.

By 3200 BC, Uruk was one the largest cities in the world during its time, with an estimated population of over 40,000 people. Along with a developed agriculture system, the city thrived, and is considered to be the first true city in the world.

Uruk cultural expansion c. 3600-3200 BC ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The City of Uruk

The city was continuously inhabited until around 300 AD, when its citizens started to leave due to both natural and man-made influences. Uruk was left abandoned until William Loftus, working for the British Museum, began excavating and unveiling the ancient city.

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Under the rulership of Ur-Nammu, who united all the cities of Sumer into a single empire, a new type of building was created for the gods, and this was the beginning of the ziggurat (or temple tower). The Sumerians believed that the gods came from the mountains they could see in the distance, and that was a problem because their land was flat. It is believed that the ziggurats of Uruk were created to imitate mountains so that their gods could dwell in them, and be closer to their city. Because ziggurats were part of the temple complexes, it is believed that they were connected with religious rites; religion was a very important part of the ancient Mesopotamian culture.

Eanna of Uruk. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In the center of the Sumerian cities, temples of their favorite gods were built. But like many ancient structures, there is a great degree of uncertainty surrounding the reasons behind their construction, or how they were truly intended to be used.

Remains of the ziggurat and White Temple in Uruk. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

The Grand Construction

Predating even the oldest of the Egyptian pyramids, the ziggurat (coming from the Assyrian word for ''raised up'' or ''high'') was a huge platform with a series of smaller platforms on top. Visually, it resembles a step pyramid, with a flat top. The ziggurat was built with mud-brick since stones were scarce in that region. It had stairs, and ramps in some cases, leading upwards to its flat top area where a small temple would be placed. Ziggurats were often expanded in size and each time a rebuilding work was done, the mud-brick walls were knocked down and the remains used as the foundation for the new construction.

The White Temple of Uruk

One of the oldest standing ziggurats supported what came to be known today as the White Temple, which dates from around 3200 to 3000 BC, and it is believed to have been dedicated to the sky god Anu.

The White Temple and Ziggurat. ( aparthistory2015.blogspot.com)

With its whitewashed mud-brick walls, the White Temple would have been an imposing looking structure. Even with its modest size, with the rectangular surface area of its terrace measuring 45x50 meters, the Temple would have been visible from far away, even beyond the protective walls of the city. Its corners were oriented by the cardinal points. None of the three entrances of the Temple faced the ziggurat ramp directly. In Dr. Senta German's words, regarding the structure of the White Temple:

"The visitors would have needed to walk around the temple, appreciating its bright façade and powerful view, and likely gained access to the interior in a 'bent-axis' approach (where one would have to turn 90 degrees to face the altar) a typical arrangement for Ancient Near Eastern temples."

When describing the interior of the White Temple, Dr. German states:

"The north west and east corner chambers of the building contained staircases (unfinished in the case of the one at the north end). Chambers in the middle of the northeast room suite appear to have been equipped with wooden shelves in the walls and displayed cavities for setting in pivot stones which might imply a solid door was fitted in these spaces. The north end of the central hall had a podium accessible by means of a small staircase and an altar with a fire-stained surface."

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Unfortunately, not many objects have been found inside the Temple and, therefore, archaeologists lack clues that could possibly assist in unveiling information about the accurate uses of this building.

Reproduction of what would have been the inside view of the two-story version of the "White Temple". A postament in the center was probably used as an altar. © artefacts-berlin.de; scientific material: German Archaeological Institute

A last feature described in the reconstruction of the Temple was the presence of a system of shallow bitumen-coat conduits, which ran from southeast to southwest of the edge of the terrace and entered the Temple. Archaeologists are still unsure as of what kind of liquids would have flowed from the terrace to be collected in a pit placed in the center hall of the Temple, stated Dr. German. Speculation suggests that it was intended to be used for offerings, but the kind of liquid offering were involved remains a mystery to be discovered.


The White Temple and the Great Ziggurat in the Mesopotamian City of Uruk

The Egyptian pyramids are not the only ancient mystery of the old world the ziggurat also sustains a substantial position of wonder.

The ancient land of Uruk was once located in southern Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates river, which corresponds to our present day Warka, in Iraq.

It was founded by a king named Enmerkar around 4500 BC, and it was the home of the epic hero king Gilgamesh.

By 3200 BC, Uruk was one the largest cities in the world during its time, with an estimated population of over 40,000 people.

Along with a developed agriculture system, the city thrived, and is considered to be the first true city in the world.

The city was continuously inhabited until around 300 AD, when its citizens started to leave due to both natural and man-made influences.

Uruk was left abandoned until William Loftus, working for the British Museum, began excavating and unveiling the ancient city.

Under the rulership of Ur-Nammu, who united all the cities of Sumer into a single empire, a new type of building was created for the gods, and this was the beginning of the ziggurat (or temple tower).

The Sumerians believed that the gods came from the mountains they could see in the distance, and that was a problem because their land was flat.

It is believed that the ziggurats of Uruk were created to imitate mountains so that their gods could dwell in them, and be closer to their city.

Because ziggurats were part of the temple complexes, it is believed that they were connected with religious rites religion was a very important part of the ancient Mesopotamian culture.

In the center of the Sumerian cities, temples of their favorite gods were built.

But like many ancient structures, there is a great degree of uncertainty surrounding the reasons behind their construction, or how they were truly intended to be used.

Predating even the oldest of the Egyptian pyramids, the ziggurat (coming from the Assyrian word for “raised up” or “high”) was a huge platform with a series of smaller platforms on top.

Visually, it resembles a step pyramid, with a flat top. The ziggurat was built with mud-brick since stones were scarce in that region.

It had stairs, and ramps in some cases, leading upwards to its flat top area where a small temple would be placed.

Ziggurats were often expanded in size and each time a rebuilding work was done, the mud-brick walls were knocked down and the remains used as the foundation for the new construction.

One of the oldest standing ziggurats supported what came to be known today as the White Temple, which dates from around 3200 to 3000 BC, and it is believed to have been dedicated to the sky god Anu.

With its whitewashed mud-brick walls, the White Temple would have been an imposing looking structure.

Even with its modest size, with the rectangular surface area of its terrace measuring 45吮 meters, the Temple would have been visible from far away, even beyond the protective walls of the city.

Its corners were oriented by the cardinal points. None of the three entrances of the Temple faced the ziggurat ramp directly.

In Dr. Senta German’s words, regarding the structure of the White Temple:

“The visitors would have needed to walk around the temple, appreciating its bright façade and powerful view, and likely gained access to the interior in a ‘bent-axis’ approach (where one would have to turn 90 degrees to face the altar) a typical arrangement for Ancient Near Eastern temples.”

When describing the interior of the White Temple, Dr. German states:

“The north west and east corner chambers of the building contained staircases (unfinished in the case of the one at the north end).

“Chambers in the middle of the northeast room suite appear to have been equipped with wooden shelves in the walls and displayed cavities for setting in pivot stones which might imply a solid door was fitted in these spaces.

“The north end of the central hall had a podium accessible by means of a small staircase and an altar with a fire-stained surface.”

Unfortunately, not many objects have been found inside the Temple and, therefore, archaeologists lack clues that could possibly assist in unveiling information about the accurate uses of this building.

A last feature described in the reconstruction of the Temple was the presence of a system of shallow bitumen-coat conduits, which ran from southeast to southwest of the edge of the terrace and entered the Temple.

Archaeologists are still unsure as of what kind of liquids would have flowed from the terrace to be collected in a pit placed in the center hall of the Temple, stated Dr. German.

Speculation suggests that it was intended to be used for offerings, but the kind of liquid offering were involved remains a mystery to be discovered.

Top image: Digital reconstruction of the White Temple and ziggurat in Uruk. © artefacts-berlin.de scientific material: German Archaeological Institute.

By Marina Sohma / References:

Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia (accessed on Oct 10, 2016). The British Museum. Dr. Senta German, Khana Academy. Artefact: German Archaeological Institute (accessed on Oct 9, 2016). McGrall Hill Education (accessed on Oct 9, 2016).

This article was originally published on Ancient Origins and has been republished with permission.


The ziggurat was built to honor the main god of the city. The tradition of creating a ziggurat started by the Sumerians, but other civilizations of Mesopotamia, such as the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, also built ziggurats for local religions.

Ziggurat, pyramidal stepped temple tower that is an architectural and religious structure characteristic of the major cities of Mesopotamia (now mainly in Iraq) from approximately 2200 until 500 bce. The ziggurat was always built with a core of mud brick and an exterior covered with baked brick.


The White Temple and the Great Ziggurat in the Mesopotamian City of Uruk - History


Mesopotamian Ziggurat at Ur, c. 2100 B.C.

A ziggurat "to build on a raised area" is a temple tower of the ancient Mesopotamian valley and Iran, having the form of a terraced pyramid of successively receding stories.

Ziggurats were a form of temple common to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia.The earliest examples of the ziggurat date from the end of the third millennium BCE and the latest date from the 6th century BCE.

Built in receding tiers upon a rectangular, oval, or square platform, the ziggurat was a pyramidal structure. Sun-baked bricks made up the core of the ziggurat with facings of fired bricks on the outside. The facings were often glazed in different colors and may have had astrological significance.

The number of tiers ranged from two to seven, with a shrine or temple at the summit. Access to the shrine was provided by a series of ramps on one side of the ziggurat or by a spiral ramp from base to summit.

Notable examples of this structure include the Great Ziggurat of Ur and Khorsabad in Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamian ziggurats were not places for public worship or ceremonies. They were believed to be dwelling places for the gods. Through the ziggurat the gods could be close to mankind and each city had its own patron god.

Only priests were permitted inside the ziggurat and it was their responsibility to care for the gods and attend to their needs. As a result the priests were very powerful members of Sumerian society.

There are 32 known ziggurats near Mesopotamia. Four of them are in Iran, and the rest are mostly in Iraq. The most recent to be discovered was Sialk, in central Iran.

One of the best preserved ziggurats is Choqa Zanbil in western Iran, which has survived despite the devastating eight year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's in which many archeological sites were destroyed.

The Sialk, in Kashan, Iran, is the oldest known zigurrat, dating to the early 3rd millennium BCE.

Ziggurat designs ranged from simple bases upon which a temple sat, to marvels of mathematics and construction which spanned several terraced stories and were topped with a temple.

An example of a simple ziggurat is the White Temple of Uruk, in ancient Sumer. The ziggurat itself is the base on which the White Temple is set. Its purpose is to get the temple closer to the heavens, and provide access from the ground to it via steps.

An example of an extensive and massive ziggurat is the Marduk ziggurat, or Etemenanki, of ancient Babylon.

Unfortunately, not much of even the base is left of this massive structure, yet archeological findings and historical accounts put this tower at seven multicolored tiers, topped with a temple of exquisite proportions. The temple is thought to have been painted and maintained an indigo color, matching the tops of the tiers. It is known that there were three staircases leading to the temple, two of which (side flanked) were thought to have only ascended half the ziggurat's height.

Etemenanki, the name for the structure, is Sumerian and means "The Foundation of Heaven and Earth." Most likely being built by Hammurabi, the ziggurat's core was found to have contained the remains of earlier ziggurats and structures. The final stage consisted of a 15 meter hardened brick encasement constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar.

It has been suggested that the ziggurat was a symbolic representation of the primeval mound upon which the universe was thought to have been created. The ziggurat may have been built as a bridge between heaven and earth. The temples of the Sumerians were believed to be a cosmic axis, a vertical bond between heaven and earth, and the earth and the underworld, and a horizontal bond between the lands. Built on seven levels the ziggurat represented seven heavens and planes of existence, the seven planets and the seven metals associated with them and their corresponding colors.

Joseph Campbell in his Masks of God books says that there is archaelogical evidence supporting a direct link between Mesopotamian ziggurats and the pyramids of Egypt. Campbell also states that from Egypt, the Mesopotamian culture was passed on almost simultaneously on two separate fronts to Crete and India. From India it reached China and from there it crossed the ocean to the pre-columbian societies of Central and South America, which could explain the similarities between ziggurats and Mayan pyramids.

Campbell further explores the geometry of the ziggurat and its philosophical and spiritual repercussions. According to Campbell, ziggurats first appeared during a sudden scientific and philosophical golden age where such other discoveries were made such as the invention of the wheel, the discovery of the calendar and astronomy, as well as the invention of the written word. For Campbell these are all related.

The Earth needs 365 days to make a single revolution around the Sun, which is also an approximation of the number of degrees in a circle. Ziggurats, like all pyramidal structures, have a square base which could be encompassed within a circular area. The square base theoretically represents the additional five days. The five days can be seen in the four points of the square as well as the fifth point in the middle, which is the point of the square's equilibrium as well as the point of equilibrium of whatever circle that encompasses it.

The fifth point represents the bridge to heaven represented by the circle, a universally considered symbol for infinity and perfection, and the terrestrial world in turn represented by the square. The highest point of a pyramid is a projection of the square's center point. This can be interpreted as the earth's highest point being heaven's lowest.

Archaeologists dig up some of Nebuchadnezzar's legacy

Boraippa, Iraq - December 3, 1998 - Associated Press

After 20 years of digging, Austrian archaeologists say they have determined the design of a Mesopotamian ziggurat - a temple tower - built by King Nebuchadnezzar some 2,500 years ago. The temple tower consisted of seven terraces built of millions of mud bricks and rose 231 feet, the scientists say. It probably was similar to the many ziggurats built by Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler who ordered the destruction of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, they add.

The temple of Borsippa, 75 miles south of Baghdad, was constructed atop the ruins of a smaller tower from the second millennium B.C. Nebuchadnezzar's temple was dedicated to Nabu, the god of science and learning in Mesopotamia and the king's protector. Wilfrid Allinger-Csollich of the University of Innsbruck said that of all the temple towers built during the Nebuchadnezzar's 40-year reign, the Borsippa ziggurat has best survived the ravages of time.

The Austrians removed thousands of tons of debris from the mound that gradually built up around the tower over the ages and uncovered most of the ziggurat's remains, which still rise to 172 feet. The work revealed the tower's exact dimensions, Allinger-Csollich said. "We did not use high-tech, but rudimentary means. We just counted the number of bricks," he said.

The square bricks used by Nebuchadnezzar had standard dimensions -- 13 1/4 inches on each side and 3 1/4 inches in depth. The Austrians used mechanical shovels to reach the foundation, which they measured at 297 by 297 feet.

More than 1 million fired bricks were used for the first level's 3.3-foot-tall outer wall, Allinger-Csollich said. Given the Borsippa tower's height of 231 feet. The builders filled the inside of each level with tens of millions of unfired bricks held in place with cedar beams brought from Lebanon.

The Austrians determined the tower had three staircases and are in the process of calculating how many steps each had. Their picture of the temple's exterior is almost complete. The first two levels were covered with bitumen and were black. The third, fourth and fifth were decorated with blue-glazed bricks and possibly adorned with bulls and lions. The sixth and seventh terraces, close to the sanctuary, were wholly made of mud brick. For cultic purposes the Mesopotamians thought mud to be the purest of substances. On top was Nabu's residence with rooms for servants and priests and wings for his wife, Tachmitum, his children and daughters.

There must have been a big library of cuneiform tablets. Among the finds are several tablets and a foundation stone with inscriptions detailing why and how Nebuchadnezzar constructed the tower in Borsippa. One text says the king wanted the Borsippa built on the same design as that of the Tower of Babel, of which only the foundation survives in Babylon seven miles to the north. Another text quotes Nebuchadnezzar as declaring that Nabu's tower should reach the skies and be no less in grandeur than that of Babel, which was dedicated to the god Marduk.


What was at the top of the Anu ziggurat white temple?

Sometime in the Uruk III period the massive White Temple was built atop of the ziggurat. Under the northwest edge of the ziggurat an Uruk VI period structure, the Stone Temple, has been discovered. The Stone Temple was built of limestone and bitumen on a podium of rammed earth and plastered with lime mortar.

Beside above, what was the white temple used for? The main building of the temple is a simple concrete framed structure with a wooden roof. However, all the exteriors were covered in white plaster with glass inserts. The glass was used as a symbol of the wisdom of Buddha, and the white color represents the purity of the deity.

Also Know, what is the top of a ziggurat called?

According to Herodotus, at the top of each ziggurat was a shrine, although none of these shrines has survived.

The ziggurat was always built with a core of mud brick and an exterior covered with baked brick. It had no internal chambers and was usually square or rectangular, averaging either 170 feet (50 metres) square or 125 × 170 feet (40 × 50 metres) at the base.


Essay On Assyrian Art And Architecture

the Sumerians, city of Sumer, were technologically advanced, literate and full of impressive art and architecture. The Sumerian rules were based on priest or god’s representatives on Earth. Therefore, the priests directed all communal activities including constructions, crop collections, and food distribution. Consequently, the Sumerian cities were elaborately designed with monumental settings for the worship of their deities. Structures know as the ziggurats, consisted of enormous step&hellip


Uruk (modern Warka)

The site of Uruk, modern Warka, is located in southern Iraq about 35 kilometers east of the modern course of the Euphrates river. Settlement at the site began in the Ubaid period (5th millennium BC). In the Uruk period (4000-3000 BC) the site was the largest in Mesopotamia at 100 hectares. Uruk continued to grow in the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 BC), reaching a size of about 400 hectares. After the end of the Early Dynastic period, the city declined in size and significance until the Ur III period (2100-2000 BC), when the ruling dynasty pursued new building projects in the Eanna precinct. It is to this period that the massive ziggurat still visible today dates. Uruk declined again after the Ur III period, and was resettled in the Neo-Assyrian (883-612 BC) and Neo-Babylonian periods (612-539 BC). Occupation continued at Uruk in the Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian periods. Settlement at Uruk finally came to an end during the Sassanian period (224-633 AD).

History of Excavation

W. K. Loftus was the first archaeologist to visit Uruk in 1850 and 1854. During his excavations, he uncovered several small items, including a numerical tablet, and prepared a map of the site. R. Koldewey and W. Andrae, who would later excavate Babylon and Assur, each visited the site in the early years of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1912 that large scale excavations began under J. Jordan. After only one season of work, however WW I put an abrupt halt to work at Uruk. Jordan returned to the site in 1928, with A. Falkenstein serving as epigrapher. Jordon’s excavation set a precedent by concentrating primarily in the Eanna district of the site, the main religious complex in the center of Uruk. When Jordan became Director of Antiquities in Baghdad in 1931, German excavations continued under A. Nöldeke, E. Heinrich, and H. J. Lenzen until WW II forced a halt in 1939. Lenzen continued to direct excavations for the German Archaeological Institute after the war from 1953 to 1967. He was succeed by H. J. Schmidt until 1977, and R. M. Boehmer after 1980. The 39 campaigns of German excavations came to a halt in 1989 and in 2001, a team direected by M. van Ess returned to Uruk to begin mapping the site using subsurface magnetometry.

The Eanna Precinct in the Late Uruk Period

The Late Uruk period (3600-3200 BC) saw an explosion of Mesopotamian cultural development. Construction activities expanded, writing developed, pottery technology advanced, and great works of monumental art were produced. At Uruk, levels VIII to IV correspond to the Late Uruk period, though the greatest achievements are apparent in levels V and IV. The most prominent area of Uruk during the Uruk period was the sacred Eanna (“House of Heaven”) precinct dedicated to the goddess Inanna. Excavations there uncovered several monumental cult, administrative, and other public buildings, each rebuilt and reused over several occupation phases.

Uruk V

Uruk temples continued the architectural tradition of the preceding Ubaid period. Tripartite temple plans (i.e., a long central hall with rows of smaller rooms on either side) and niched and buttressed facades were characteristic of the earliest levels of the Uruk period. In Level V, the Limestone Temple, so called because the wall foundations (and possibly the entire building) were constructed of large slabs of limestone quarried from a site 80km from Uruk on the west side of the Euphrates, exhibited both of these classical Mesopotamian features.

Outside of the Eanna precinct, the earliest phases of the White Temple dedicated to the god Anu also probably date to the end of Level V. The niched and buttressed walls of the White Temple were covered with white gypsum plaster. The whole building was set upon a platform 13 meters high, a clear precursor to the ziggurat (a temple set on top of several stacked platforms) that would become so ubiquitous in later periods of Mesopotamian history.

Uruk IVb

In this level, the sacred precinct was entered from the south through the Mosaic Court. This building and its columns were made of small mud bricks, which were then faced with a layer of mud plaster. Red, white, or black baked clay cones were then pushed into the mud plaster walls, creating colorful geometric patterns along the pillars and walls.

To the southwest of the Mosaic Court, the Square Building had a large square courtyard with a long rectangular hall on each side. Both the interior courtyard and exterior facade of the building had the niching characteristic of Uruk temples, but the plan of the building was unique, and its function is not certain.

Northwest of the Mosaic Court, several buildings with tripartite plans may have been temples. Three other buildings may have been the residences of the officials in charge of the temples in the Eanna precinct.

The Stone Cone Mosaic Temple was constructed to the west, apart from the complex of temples and ceremonial buildings attached to the Mosaic Court. A buttressed wall surrounded the tripartite temple building, and the temple itself was decorated with colored stone cones which formed geometric patterns on the walls in the same fashion as the Mosaic Court.

Uruk IVa

In level IVa, the new buildings were constructed over the level IVb Eanna complex. The large Temple D (80x50 meters) stood on the filled-in courtyard of the building below it. Slightly smaller, Temple C lay to the northwest of Temple D, and exhibited a clear tripartite plan. Northwest of this building, the Pillared Hall was decorated with another stone cone mosaic. Just west of the Pillared Hall, the Great Court may have been a sunken area surrounded by benches.

Above the Stone Cone Mosaic Temple of Level IVb, and odd building named the Riemchengebäude was constructed. It was given its name by the excavators because of the 'riemchen' bricks characteristic of Late Uruk architecture. These are small compact bricks with a square section. The building consisted of a long corridor surrounding a central chamber with a separate room to the southeast. The function of the building is unclear, but it may have been the site of a religious ritual.

The City Wall

In the Early Dynastic I period in the first half of the third millennium BC, the citizens of Uruk probably first contructed the 9km long mud brick wall that enclosed the city. Although it has not been thoroughly excavated, this early date for the construction of the wall is inferred based on evidence from a cylinder seal impression. Throughout the history of occupation of the city, the wall underwent many repairs, the last of which dates to the 18h century BC.

The Development of Writing in the Uruk Period

Among the other technological advances that the Uruk period witnessed was the advent of pictographic representations on clay tablets and the development in stages of written language. From the Eanna complex of Uruk itself, nearly 5000 tablets from this earliest phase of writing were excavated primarily from rubbish dumps. Other more complete tablets from the same period have been found at sites in both in the northern and southern extents of southern Mesopotamia (see also proto-cuneiform).

These archaic tablets were used to fill in pits left by the levelling the Uruk IV buildings in order to build foundations for level III buildings. The tablets themselves, therefore, must date to a period prior to level III. The earliest phases of writing then dates to Uruk level IV, and more specifically, it probably dates to the latest subphase of that level, IVa. A second phase of writing is dated to Uruk level III, also called the Jemdet Nasr period because a large number of texts from this date were found at the site of Jemdet Nasr, just south of modern day Baghdad.

Although the first written tablets that appear in the Uruk IV period are quite underdeveloped in relation to the fully formed cuneiform systems of later periods, they did not appear spontaneously. Precursors to the Uruk tablets took the form of clay “tokens” sealed in “bullae” and clay tablets impressed with numerical notations. Tokens were simply lumps of clay fashioned into standardized shapes. Each shape represented a numerical unit (i.e., 1 or 10, etc.), and some may have represented a type of object (i.e., sheep or cloth). Often tokens were encased in bullae, hollow clay balls that were officially sealed by means of an incised cylinder seal which, when rolled over the surface of the bullae would leave a unique impression.

The second precursor to Uruk IV writing were simple clay tablets, sometimes with cylinder seal impressions, with rounded impressions representing numbers. These are very difficult to date and to interpret, as the shape of the impressions and the units of counting do not always correspond to what is know about counting systems in later periods.

In the Uruk IV phase, written documents come in three varieties:

(1) Clay “tags” with incised drawings that probably corresponded to the person receiving or selling the item(s) to which the tag was attached.

(2) Small tablets that combine impressed rounded numerical signs with incised pictographs representing objects or personal names.

(3) Larger tablets divided into sections, each containing impressions of numerical signs and incised pictographs representing objects or personal names. Sometimes, the numerical signs are added together and the total is incised on the back of the tablet.

In the Jemdet Nasr period, the majority of the texts fall into the third category, lists of numbers and associated commodities. A new category of texts also develops during the Jemdet Nasr period, though they may be a continuation of a type which has not been discovered in Uruk IV contexts. This lexical category continues into the following periods.

It is important to note that the purpose of all of these early forms of writing, including the Uruk IV and Jemdet Nasr period texts, along with their precursors, was to record economic transactions. Writing itself developed out of a need to remember exchanges of large numbers of goods among the inhabitants of those cities whose population had increased throughout the Uruk period so that face-to-face contact was no longer the norm. It was a tool of economic administration, not a means to record literature, history, or sacred ideas.

It took several centuries for the written language to develop so that it could represent the complexities of grammar and syntax. The earliest signs used in the Uruk texts, which were either pictographic representations of objects, symbols representing deities, abstract images, or numerical signs, eventually developed into the more abstract cuneiform signs characterized by horizontal and vertical wedges. In the Uruk IV and Jemdet Nasr phases, signs represented concepts or nouns, and perhaps simple verbs, but there is no grammatical relationship between those ideas represented on the texts. Sometimes signs were combined to form ideas related to both signs (such as the sign for disbursement which combines the sign for head with the sign for ration), and other times signs were combined to form words that sounded like those signs. In this way, signs which originally had a pictographically assigned meaning became associated with abstract concepts that sounded similar. For example, the Sumerian word for “life” is pronounced “til,” and the word for “arrow” is pronounced “ti.” In writing, the same sign, TI, is used for both ideas presumably because it is easier to draw an arrow than it is to draw the more abstract notion of life.

Later, the TI sign might be combined with other signs, whose sounds would act as the syllables that make up a longer word. Although it is generally agreed that the language represented on the archaic texts is Sumerian, it is only once the syllabic function of the signs was applied that language could truly be represented in a permanent medium.

The form of the signs also changed over time. Originally, pictographs were incised in clay using a sharp stylus. By the Jemdet Nasr phase, the sharp stylus was replaced by an angled stylus with a triangular tip. The result of pushing a stylus of this shape into wet clay is a wedge with a triangular shaped “head” and a long straight “tail.” The shape of these wedges provide the name we use for the writing system of Mesopotamia, “cuneiform,” Latin for wedge-shaped. As the use of the triangular stylus continued, the signs themselves became more and more abstracted into combinations of horizontal and vertical wedges that no longer bore much resemblance to their original forms. The range of sign forms used also decreased as the number of similar-looking signs reduced. <br>

The Spread of Uruk Culture

The name Uruk is also applied to the archaeological period corresponding to the fourth millennium BC (Uruk levels VIII-IVa). Not only did the written documents appear in this period, but the Uruk period also saw the rise of the first cities, monumental art and complex political structures. Prior to the Uruk period, maps of settlement in southern Mesopotamia show several sites of a small size, mostly under 10 hectares (0.1 km 2 ). These sites are evenly distributed over the landscape, and some may have been economic or religious centers. At the start of the Uruk period, the number and size of sites increased dramatically. Uruk itself swelled to 70 hectares (0.7 km 2 ). The reasons for such an extraordinary change are unclear. There may have been a sudden influx of new population groups or favorable changes in climate, but the trend continued into the Late Uruk period. By the end of the Uruk period, the site of Uruk occupied about 100 hectares (1 km 2 ), and more than half of the settled area of southern Mesopotamia was located in its vicinity.

The rapid increase in the size of the settled area of Uruk meant that new developments in the social structure of society were inevitable. The archaic texts, cylinder seals and monumental art all provide information about these changes. In the cylinder seals and seal impressions on tablets of levels IV and III, a bearded figure wearing a netted skirt and hat appears in religious, agricultural, or military scenes. This figure is generally understood to represent the ruler of Uruk, whose role as priest, provider, and protector is emphasized. The same figure also appears on the Lion Hunt Stela, a basalt stone monument which shows him attacking lions with a spear and with a bow and arrow. On the Warka Vase, an alabaster vessel over a meter tall, he is depicted in relief presenting an offering to Inanna. Below him runs a row of naked servants or priests carry offerings, and below them is a row of domestic animals and a row of plants growing from a river. The remarkable vessel clearly shows the shared view of a social hierarchy, at the bottom of which were the plants an animals that sustained society, and at the top of which were the ruler and the god, who managed and distributed those staples. The Uruk period marks the first instance when these roles were expressed in figurative art, and this type of royal propaganda is a theme that continues in the millennia of Near Eastern history that follow.

The types of artifacts found in Uruk levels V-IVa have been found at sites from the same period throughout the entire Near East. The most easily recognizable identifier of this period is the bevelled-rim bowl, a crude, handmade, mass-produced ceramic type with a distinctive rim. This type of pottery has been found in fourth millennium sites in southwest Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt. Other aspects of Uruk culture, such as the tripartite temple plan and niched and buttressed facades of the Eanna precinct buildings are found in northern and southern Mesopotamian contexts. Cylinder seals of a type that was developed in Uruk also spread throughout the Near East. The convergence of these artifact classes at sites outside of Uruk has prompted theories of the expansion of Uruk political control over Mesopotamia by the establishment of merchant colonies north and east of Uruk itself. Now archaeologists recognize the unique cultural development of northern Mesopotamia that can be seen at sites alongside or in place of Uruk culture, which suggests that the methods by which Uruk influence expanded are much more complicated than originally thought. There is no doubt, however, that the Uruk period, which saw innovations including writing, the cylinder seal, the plow, and wheeled vehicles constituted a crucial phase in the history of the Near East.

References

Ausgrabungen der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft in Uruk-Warka. Berlin: Mann. 17 volumes. 1946-2001

Ausgrabungen in Uruk-Warka, Endberichte. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern GmbH. 25 volumes. 1987-2003.

Boehmer, R. M. Uruk-Warka In Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, 294-298. New York: Oxford University, 1997.

Crawford, H. Sumer and the Sumerians. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1991.

Englund, R. K. Texts From the Late Uruk Period In Mesopotamien 1: Späturuk-Zeit und Frühdynastische Zeit. OBO 160, 15-233. Freiburg and Göttingen: Universitätsverlag and Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998.

Nissen, H., P. Damerow, and R. K. Englund. Archaic Bookkeeping: Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East. P. Larsen, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993

Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1992.

Roaf, M. The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. Oxford and New York: Facts on File, 1990.


Uruk: The first major city in the world, built by King Gilgamesh

One of the most important cities in ancient Mesopotamia, considered to be the first major city in the world, was Uruk. It was located between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, close to modern Samawah, Al-Muthanna, in Iraq.

Uruk played a leading role in the urbanization of the Sumer civilization in the 4th millennium BC. The legendary King Gilgamesh built the walls of the city, which covered an area of 2.32 square miles and had a population of almost 80,000. According to the chronology of the list of Sumerian kings, Gilgamesh ruled the city in the 27 th century BC.

Starting in 2000 BC, when there were struggles between Babylonia and Elam, the city slowly lost importance. But it was not abandoned, and it was inhabited throughout the later Seleucid and Parthian periods. The last inhabitants left the city after the Muslim conquest of Persia. It lay buried until the archaeologist William Loftus led excavations on the site in the years 1850 to 1854 for the British Museum.

He identified the city as the Aramaic Erech, the second city of Nimrod, from which it is believed the name of the modern state of Iraq is derived. In 1912, the archaeological team of Julius Jordan discovered another structure thought to have been built by King Gilgamesh, the Temple of Ishtar.

Part of relief from the Inanna Temple. Author: Marcus Cyron. CC BY-SA 3.0.

This temple was one of four in Uruk, and the structure of each was quite remarkable. They were constructed from brick and decorated with the most beautiful mosaics. During the Uruk Period (ca. 4000 to 3100 BC), the city was the center of urbanization and state formation. The expansion developed from agricultural villages to an urban center with a stratified society, a bureaucracy, and a strong military.

A massive ziggurat at the entrance of Uruk. Author: David Stanley. CC BY 2.0.

In its time, Uruk was located in Mesopotamia’s southern region on the present bed of the Euphrates river. The people traded in grains and other foodstuffs, and they also specialized in numerous crafts, but perhaps the most important innovation was the development of writing, which started in the city.

A cylinder seal. Author: Marie-Lan Nguyen. CC BY 3.0.

One of the most interesting objects discovered was a cylinder seal, which was used as a personal signature. Many historians compare this item with modern forms of personal identification. The seal was probably used for administrative purposes. Also, one of the earliest known tablets of writing was found during excavations of the site.

Sculpture of the King Lugal-kisal-si of Uruk.

The excavations of the city were complicated by the fact that throughout the centuries many other buildings were constructed on top of the ancient ones, forming structural layers from several different periods, such as the Ubaid Period. Besides being the birthplace of writing, Uruk was also the place where the first architectural works to be built in stone were constructed, including the massive structure of the Anu ziggurat.

Antiquities from the Uruk Period. Author: Ninaras. CC BY 4.0.

Uruk was divided into two sections known as the Eanna District and the Anu District. The sections were dedicated to the god Anu and his granddaughter, the goddess Inanna. The Eanna District was separated by walls from the rest of the city, and even today the reason for this separation is not certain. Some scholars believe that the district was used for ceremonial purposes and others think that, because the Anu District was the older part, it is connected with a legend in which the God Anu gives Inanna a private dwelling until her time to rise comes, hence why walls surrounded it.

The Eanna District is one of the earliest examples of monumental public architecture, which arguably makes it the first true city in human history. Unlike the Eanna District, the Anu District includes only one large terrace known as the Anu Ziggurat. Later, in the Uruk III period, a massive White Temple was built atop the structure, and in the Uruk IV period the Stone Temple was erected.

A most significant artifact was found here, known as the Mask of Warka or the Lady of Uruk, and is considered to be one of the first representations of the human face. The marble sculpture dates from 3100 BC and is probably a depiction of the goddess Inanna.


Ziggurat of Ur

The great Ziggurat of Ur has been reconstructed twice, in antiquity and in the 1980s—what’s left of the original?

Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 B.C.E. mud brick and baked brick, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq (largely reconstructed)

The Great Ziggurat

The ziggurat is the most distinctive architectural invention of the Ancient Near East. Like an ancient Egyptian pyramid, an ancient Near Eastern ziggurat has four sides and rises up to the realm of the gods. However, unlike Egyptian pyramids, the exterior of Ziggurats were not smooth but tiered to accommodate the work which took place at the structure as well as the administrative oversight and religious rituals essential to Ancient Near Eastern cities. Ziggurats are found scattered around what is today Iraq and Iran, and stand as an imposing testament to the power and skill of the ancient culture that produced them.

One of the largest and best-preserved ziggurats of Mesopotamia is the great Ziggurat at Ur. Small excavations occurred at the site around the turn of the twentieth century, and in the 1920s Sir Leonard Woolley, in a joint project with the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and the British Museum in London, revealed the monument in its entirety.

Woolley photo of the Ziggurat of Ur with workers, Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 B.C.E., Woolley excavation workers (Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq)

What Woolley found was a massive rectangular pyramidal structure, oriented to true North, 210 by 150 feet, constructed with three levels of terraces, standing originally between 70 and 100 feet high. Three monumental staircases led up to a gate at the first terrace level. Next, a single staircase rose to a second terrace which supported a platform on which a temple and the final and highest terrace stood. The core of the ziggurat is made of mud brick covered with baked bricks laid with bitumen, a naturally occurring tar. Each of the baked bricks measured about 11.5 x 11.5 x 2.75 inches and weighed as much as 33 pounds. The lower portion of the ziggurat, which supported the first terrace, would have used some 720,000 baked bricks. The resources needed to build the Ziggurat at Ur are staggering.

Moon goddess Nanna

The Ziggurat at Ur and the temple on its top were built around 2100 B.C.E. by the king Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty of Ur for the moon goddess Nanna, the divine patron of the city state. The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and, like the spire of a medieval cathedral, would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike. As the Ziggurat supported the temple of the patron god of the city of Ur, it is likely that it was the place where the citizens of Ur would bring agricultural surplus and where they would go to receive their regular food allotments. In antiquity, to visit the ziggurat at Ur was to seek both spiritual and physical nourishment.

Ziggurat at Ali Air Base Iraq, 2005 Ziggurat of Ur, partly restored, c. 2100 B.C.E. mudbrick and baked brick Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq

Clearly the most important part of the ziggurat at Ur was the Nanna temple at its top, but this, unfortunately, has not survived. Some blue glazed bricks have been found which archaeologists suspect might have been part of the temple decoration. The lower parts of the ziggurat, which do survive, include amazing details of engineering and design. For instance, because the unbaked mud brick core of the temple would, according to the season, be alternatively more or less damp, the architects included holes through the baked exterior layer of the temple allowing water to evaporate from its core. Additionally, drains were built into the ziggurat’s terraces to carry away the winter rains.

Hussein’s assumption

US soldiers decend the Ziggurat of Ur, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq (public domain)


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