Uruk: The World’s First Big City

Cities began to emerge about the same time in various places around the world. But most archaeologists agree that it is fair to claim Uruk as one of the world’s first cities.

One of the most important cities in southern Mesopotamia, Uruk played a leading role in the early urbanization of Sumer in the mid-4th millennium BC. It is considered the first true city in the world, the origin of writing, the first example of architectural work in stone and the building of great stone structures, the origin of the ziggurat, and the first city to develop the cylinder seal which the ancient Mesopotamians used to designate personal property or as a signature on documents.

At its height c. 2900 BC, Uruk probably had 50,000–80,000 residents living in 6 km2 (2.32 sq mi) of walled area, making it the largest city in the world at the time.

 Sumerian Ruins at Uruk
Sumerian Ruins at Uruk. Nik Wheeler / Corbis NX / Getty Images Plus

Where is Uruk?

Located in the southern region of Sumer (modern day Warka, Iraq), Uruk was known in the Aramaic language as Erech which, it is believed, gave rise to the modern name for the country of Iraq. Greek historians called this area Mesopotamia, or “the land between the rivers.” Those rivers were the Euphrates to the west and the Tigris to the east, both of which flowed from the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia (now Turkey) in the north down to the Persian Gulf in the south.

In ancient times, Uruk was situated on the eastern banks of a channel of the Euphrates River. Over the millennia, however, the channel dried up, and its course shifted away from the city by about 19 km (12 miles).

The Uruk Period

The site of Uruk is believed to have been settled as early as the Ubaid period (which lasted from around the 7th to the 4th millennium BC). According to the Sumerian King List, it was founded by King Enmerkar sometime around 4500 BCE. Although Uruk’s history may be traced archaeologically to the 6th millennium BC, and perhaps even further back, the city’s rise to prominence occurred only around 3800 BC. As Uruk became the main force of urbanization and state formation, the period that lasted roughly from 3800 to 3200 became known as the Uruk period.

The Uruk period is characterized by the formation of the first city states in Mesopotamia. During the preceding Ubaid period, villages were established in southern Mesopotamia, and these grew into towns. This urbanization continued, with Uruk leading the way. The urbanization of this ancient city is evident in the creation of monumental architecture.

The city was most influential between 4100-c.3000 BCE when Uruk was the largest urban center and the hub of trade and administration.

Cylinder-seal of the Uruk period and its impression, c.3100 BC.
Cylinder-seal of the Uruk period and its impression, c.3100 BC. (IMAGE by wikipedia)

Writing, Beliefs, and Everyday Life

A great deal is known about Uruk because of excavations of the site beginning in 1850 and because the earliest writing in the world comes from there, dated to about 3500 BCE. People in Uruk wrote on clay tablets with reeds. The writing is called “cuneiform,” named after the wedge-shaped reeds that writers pressed into wet clay. Since clay tablets are more durable than the silk, bark, bamboo, or papyrus used by other people for writing, many of Uruk’s tablets have survived and are now held in museums throughout the world.

From inscriptions found in Uruk we know that its people built a temple to a sky god called An and another one to his daughter, Inanna, goddess of love and war (later known as Ishtar). Inanna served as the patron goddess of Uruk; its inhabitants believed that they attracted her there by building a special house for her, staffed with priests and servants. The priests managed the people’s contributions and gradually built up their power, using temples as centers for the redistribution of surplus food.

Digital reconstruction of the White Temple and ziggurat, Uruk (modern Warka), c. 3517-3358 B.C.E.
Reconstruction model of the sanctuary of Anu – the ‘White Temple’ on top of the high terrace, which was built around 3500 BC. / © artefacts-berlin.de; scientific material: German Archaeological Institute

As people learned to farm, they changed their clothing from wild-animal skins to what they could make from their domesticated animals and plants. In Mesopotamia this meant that most people wore woolen garments made from the fleece of their sheep, even in hot weather. Only the elite could wear linen, a textile made from the fibers of flax plants, because the process of making it took much longer than weaving or knitting wool.

READ MORE: Sumerian Art & Architecture

Uruk at Its Height

By 5,000 years ago Uruk held 40,000–50,000 people, and after another few hundred years it reached its peak of 50,000–80,000 inhabitants. By that time there were 11 other cities between the rivers, and they engaged in frequent warfare with each other over land, water, and other resources. Priests gradually had to share their power with warrior leaders, a system that eventually evolved into a single king ruling each city.

Early clay tablets in Uruk contain a “standard professions list,” which listed a hundred professions from the king down through ambassadors, priests, and supervisors and on through stonecutters, gardeners, weavers, smiths, cooks, jewelers, and potters. The social structure was topped by a small ruling and priestly elite, with a much larger group of commoners who either owned property or did not, and a bottom small group of slaves, those who were captured in war, convicted criminals, or people heavily in debt.

As a single authoritarian ruler emerged to lead Uruk and its surrounding farms and villages, historians say that the first state emerged almost simultaneously with the first city. The state consisted of powerful elites who could coerce labor and tribute. Why did the majority of people allow a few people so much power? This is difficult to answer, but on the one hand it seems that the elites took power as more resources became available. On the other hand, it seems that citizens gave power in exchange for organization, which permitted large-scale projects like irrigation, and for security and protection. What may have begun as consensual power may have evolved into coercive power as elites accumulated more resources.

Early writing tablet for recording the allocation of beer; 3100–3000 BC; height: 9.4 cm; width: 6.87 cm; from Iraq
Early writing tablet for recording the allocation of beer; 3100–3000 BC; height: 9.4 cm; width: 6.87 cm; from Iraq (IMAGE by wikipedia)

Writing began in Uruk as a way to keep track of how many sheep, goats, and measures of grain passed through the central warehouses. It began with pictures made in wet clay representing the various goods. After about 400 years people had figured out how to use symbols and abstract numbers instead of drawing a picture for each item. They used a small wedge to represent one, a small circle to represent 10, a large wedge for 600, and a large circle for 3,600. Their system of numbers was based partly on 10 and partly on 60 for measuring grain. This latter base-60, or “sexagesimal,” system led to viewing a circle as 360 degrees.

After about a thousand years, people in Uruk had developed their system of writing sufficiently to compose hymns, funeral songs, and superhero epics.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Poets in Uruk also gave us our first superhero story — in fact, our first recorded story of any kind — The Epic of Gilgamesh. The semi-mythical king Gilgamesh, according to the chronology presented in the Sumerian king list, ruled Uruk in the 27th century BC. The tale imagines Gilgamesh as 2/3 divine and 1/3 human. He has a friend, Enkidu, who becomes citified and stops living as a wild hunter. They go on many adventures together, one of which results in Enkidu being condemned to death, and Gilgamesh has to accept the loss of his friend. This beautiful story has several modern versions.

Uruk: The World’s First Big City 1
Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh and King Gilgamesh

Decline of Uruk and Mesopotamia

The fortunes of Uruk fluctuated in the following millennium. At times, Uruk was able to maintain its independence. During other periods, however, the city was subjected to foreign rulers.

During the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2334 BCE), which followed the Uruk Period, Uruk was still the seat of power in the region, though in a much diminished state, and the major dynasties of the time ruled from the city. The great wall of Uruk, which was said to have been built by King Gilgamesh himself, still rose around the city when King Eannutum forged his First Dynasty of Lagash in 2500 BCE and established the first empire in the region.

Despite all the amazing innovations by its people, Uruk faced eventual decline. After Mesopotamia experienced several hundred years of constant warfare, Sargon of Akkad (ruled 2334–2279 BCE) conquered most of it. A serious drought occurred in about 2250 BCE. By 1700 BCE all of southern Mesopotamia had declined into a backwater of other empires. The underlying reasons seem to be environmental.

A man and a child stand in the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk. Iraq
A man and a child stand in the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk. Iraq. (Image by Nik Wheeler/Corbi)

Uruk continued to be a significant city for the various civilizations that came to rule over Mesopotamia, including the Akkadians, Assyrians, Achaemenids, Seleucids and Parthian.

Uruk was continuously inhabited from its founding until c. 300 CE when, owing to both natural and man-made influences, people began to desert the area. It was completely empty by the time of the Arab conquests in 634 CE.

The site of Uruk was discovered in 1849 by William Kennett Loftus who led the first excavations from 1850 to 1854.

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