Uruk cylinder seal
The Sumerians didn’t establish an empire like the Romans did. They lived in a bunch of independent city-states like the Greeks. The first cluster Mesopotamian settlements were established in ancient Sumer around 3,500 B.C. These settlement grew into the city states of Ur (home of Abraham and the Chaldees in the Bible), Eridu, Uruk (Biblical city of Erech), Lagash, Nippur, Umma, Sippar, Larsa, Kish, Adab, and Isin.

Around 3000 B.C. powerful local leaders became the kings of the city-states. Kingdoms were forged by these kings whose armies conquered neighboring city states with lances and shields.

The city-states battled each other. Strong rulers were able to conquer their neighbors. Weak rulers were defeated. As time went on different city-states---such as Lagash, Uruk, Ur---were dominant. In general, however, the Sumerians appeared to have relatively peaceable during their 1,200 years of dominance in Mesopotamia. They didn’t make an effort create a large empire.

See First Villages, Early Agriculture

Categories with related articles in this website: Mesopotamian History and Religion (35 articles) factsanddetails.com; Mesopotamian Culture and Life (38 articles) factsanddetails.com; First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (50 articles) factsanddetails.com Ancient Persian, Arabian, Phoenician and Near East Cultures (26 articles) factsanddetails.com

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Uruk: The First City

Uruk (near Nasiriyah, 150 miles south of Baghdad) is regarded as the largest and oldest Sumerian city cities and is regarded by many scholars as humanity’s first great urban center and city. Built on a marshy delta of the Tigris and Euphrates and mentioned in the Bible as Erech, it dominated Mesopotamia from 3500 to 3000 B.C. when it featured hand-dug canals filled barges and boats, limestone temples, decorated palaces , luxurious gardens. Tens of thousands of people---including craftsmen, scribes, merchants, priests, laborers---lived in mud brick homes built along the Euphrates. The city was so famous one scribe said it was “like the rainbow, reaches up to the sky as the new moon standing in the heavens.

Uruk archeological site at Warka, Iraq

Uruk was so large and important it gave its name to an entire age of Sumerian history. The oldest known examples of writing were found here. It legendary king Gilgamesh was the subject of the oldest known epic. The great city wall that surrounded it said to have been built by Gilgamesh after his quest for eternal life failed. “Climb up in the wall of Uruk,” the story goes. “Walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry; is not the burnt brick good?” The wall was discovered by German archaeologists in the late 19th century.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “For thousands of years, southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) was home to hunters, fishers, and farmers, exploiting fertile soil, rivers, and abundant animals. By around 3200 B.C., the largest settlement in southern Mesopotamia, if not the world, was Uruk: a true city dominated by monumental mud-brick buildings decorated with mosaics of painted clay cones embedded in the walls, and extraordinary works of art. Large-scale sculpture in the round and relief carving appeared for the first time, together with metal casting using the lost-wax process. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Uruk: The First City", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, href="http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/uruk/hd_uruk.htm"> metmuseum.org \^/]

“Simple pictographs were drawn on clay tablets to record the management of goods and the allocation of workers' rations. These pictographs are the precursors of later cuneiform writing. Until around 3000 B.C., objects inspired by Mesopotamia were found from central Iran to the Egyptian Nile Delta. However, this widespread culture collapsed and Mesopotamia looked inward for the next few centuries. Yet cities such as Uruk continued to expand. \^/

“During the following Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 B.C.), when city-states dominated Mesopotamia, the city rulers gradually grew in importance and increasingly sought luxury materials to express their power. These goods, often from abroad, were acquired either by trade or conquest. At this time Uruk was surrounded by a massive wall, which according to tradition was built on the orders of King Gilgamesh. Although he may have been an actual king of Uruk around 2700 B.C., Gilgamesh became the hero of many later stories and epics.” \^/

Books: Boehmer, Rainer M. "Uruk-Warka." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, pp. 294–98.. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; Nissen, Hans J. "Uruk and the Formation of the City." In Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels, pp. 11–16.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

History of Uruk

The first inhabitants of Uruk arrived around 10,000 years ago, when the Euphrates branched into a vast marsh. The early inhabitants lived in mud-and-reed houses like those used by the Marsh Arabs today. Over time the marshes were turned into fertile agricultural areas with sophisticated irrigation systems and drainage canals and this in turn nourished a large city-state led by priest kings. A temple complex made with mud bricks honored deities such as Inana, the goddess of fertility, were built. A vast trade network was established. Uruk-style mosaics, made of baked clay cones, have been found as far away as Turkey and Egypt. At its height Uruk was home to about 40,000 people.

Uruk lasted until the late third millennia B.C. when it was invaded from the north by an alliance of Akkadians, Gudeans and Elamites. One ancient scribe wrote: “They seize your wharf and your borders. Shouts rang out, scream reverberated...Battering rams and shields were set up, they rent is walls.” The city was rebuilt and occupied by a succession of dynasties and endured to A.D. 300. By that time the Euphrates had moved several kilometers away.

Uruk map

Today the ruins of Uruk are spread out over an area of two square miles, with some some villages and homesteads interspersed with ruins and mounds. There are remains of mud brick buildings and some stone foundation but even many of them are remains of building built on top of ancient Uruk. A ziggurat to the sky god Anu is one of the best preserved structure but it looks like a sand castle had has been left out in the rain. Among the other remains are sections of the crumbled Western wall and piles of potsherds. The base of Enlil's great ziggurat is covered by dark fertile sand. The area is mostly desert. The Euphrates moved to the west long ago.

Uruk was excavated at the turn of the 20th century by German archaeologists. In recent years archaeologists with the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin have used magnetometers to map out many of the city’s canals and roads.

Uruk and the Bible

It is also believed Uruk is the biblical Erech (Genesis 10:10), the second city founded by Nimrod in Shinar. Genesis 10:10 in the King James Version of the Bible reads: 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

Genesis 10: 1-14 in the King James Version reads; 10 Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood. 2 The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. 3 And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah. 4 And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. 5 By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations. 6 And the sons of Ham; Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. 7 And the sons of Cush; Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtechah: and the sons of Raamah; Sheba, and Dedan.

8 And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, 12 And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city. 13 And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim,

Uruk temple


Located midway between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southeastern Iraq, Lagash (modern Telloh) was one of the most important capital cities in ancient Sumer, According to Encyclopaedia Britannica: “The ancient name of the mound of Telloh was actually Girsu, while Lagash originally denoted a site southeast of Girsu, later becoming the name of the whole district and also of Girsu itself. The French excavated at Telloh between 1877 and 1933 and uncovered at least 50,000 cuneiform texts that have proved one of the major sources for knowledge of Sumer in the 3rd millennium bc. Dedicatory inscriptions on stone and on bricks also have provided invaluable evidence for assessing the chronological development of Sumerian art. [Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]

“The city was founded in the prehistoric Ubaid Period (c. 5200–c. 3500 bc) and was still occupied as late as the Parthian era (247 bc–ad 224). In the Early Dynastic Period the rulers of Lagash called themselves “king” (lugal), though the city itself never was included within the official Sumerian canon of kingship. Among the most famous Lagash monuments of that period is the Stele of the Vultures, erected to celebrate the victory of King Eannatum over the neighbouring state of Umma. Another is the engraved silver vase of King Entemena, a successor of Eannatum. Control of Lagash finally fell to Sargon of Akkad (reigned c. 2334–2279 bc), but about 150 years later Lagash enjoyed a revival.

Lagash prospered most brilliantly under Gudea, who was probably a governor rather than an independent king and was nominally subject to the Guti, a warlike people who controlled much of Babylonia from about 2230 to about 2130. Lagash was endowed with many temples, including the Eninnu, “House of the Fifty,” a seat of the high god Enlil. Architecturally the most remarkable structure was a weir and regulator, once doubtless possessing sluice gates, which conserved the area’s water supply in reservoirs.”

Relief of Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash

Erbil, the World’s Oldest City?

Erbil in Iraq, some claim, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, occupied for more than 6,000 years, making it about a thousand years older than Damascus, which is usually considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Erbil has a high ''tell,'' an archaeological marvel consisting of layered towns that were built one on top of the other over thousands of years. Modern Erbil is the capital of Iraq’s autonomous province of Kurdistan. Home to 1.3 million people, mostly of Kurds, it is boomtown economy thanks to Kurdistan’s oil wealth.

In ancient times Erbil was known Arbela. It’s strategic location between the great Mesopotamian cities to the west and south, and the Zagros Mountains to the east, placed it at the heart of the ancient Near East’s most important cities and empires. The first mention of Arbela is found on clay tablets dating to about 2300 B.C. but what allow’s the city to make its claim as the world’s oldest are the layers that lay underneath those thought to date to 2300 B.C.

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The 100-foot-high, oval-shaped citadel of Erbil towers high above the northern Mesopotamian plain, within sight of the Zagros Mountains that lead to the Iranian plateau. The massive mound, with its vertiginous man-made slope, built up by its inhabitants over at least the last 6,000 years, is the heart of what may be the world’s oldest continuously occupied settlement. At various times over its long history, the city has been a pilgrimage site dedicated to a great goddess, a prosperous trading center, a town on the frontier of several empires, and a rebel stronghold. [Source:Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, September-October 2014 <|>]

“Yet despite its place as one of the ancient Near East’s most significant cities, Erbil’s past has been largely hidden. A dense concentration of nineteenth- and twentieth-century houses stands atop the mound, and these have long prevented archaeologists from exploring the city’s older layers. As a consequence, almost everything known about the metropolis—called Arbela in antiquity—has been cobbled together from a handful of ancient texts and artifacts unearthed at other sites. “We know Arbela existed, but without excavating the site, all else is a hypothesis,” says University of Cambridge archaeologist John MacGinnis. <|>

Uruk expansion

A team from Sapienza University of Rome recently used ground-penetrating radar to examine what lies under the center of the citadel, and found intriguing evidence of two structures buried some 50 feet below the surface. “This is the rubble of large stone buildings,” says Novacek, who believes this material may sit in late Assyrian levels, and could prove to be remnants of the electrum-coated temple. However, excavating a 50-foot-deep trench in the center of a high mound poses immense engineering and safety challenges, says Cambridge’s MacGinnis, who is advising the Iraqi-led team. Thus, instead of focusing on the center of the citadel and the possible remains of the temple, the excavators started work last year on the citadel’s north rim with an eye to exposing the ancient fortification walls. At the time, an abandoned early-twentieth-century house had recently collapsed, giving researchers a chance to remove and see beneath the most recent layers. Thus far, 15 feet of debris has been cleared away and investigators have uncovered mudbrick and baked brick architecture, medieval pottery, and a sturdy wall that may rest on top of the original Assyrian fortifications. Next the team will tackle two other small areas nearby before returning to the citadel to attempt the much trickier task of delving into the mound’s central interior. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, September-October 2014 <|>]

“The earlier fortifications include a 60-foot-thick wall that likely had a defensive slope and a moat. The city’s formidable construction, says Novacek, resembles that found at Nineveh and Assur, and places it “unambiguously among Mesopotamian mega-cities.” The layout differs from that in other Assyrian cities, where the walls were rectangular, with a citadel as part of the protective fortifications. Arbela, however, had an irregular round wall entirely enclosing both the citadel and the lower town. That design is more typical of ancient southern Mesopotamian cities such as Ur and Uruk—a hint, Novacek says, of Erbil’s ancient urban heritage. “This conjecture desperately needs empirical verification,” he cautions. Yet, if it can be proven, ancient Arbela might rank among the earliest urban areas and challenge the idea that urbanism began solely in southern Mesopotamia. <|>

“Other researchers are looking further afield, outside the city limits. A team led by Harvard University’s Jason Ur began to survey the area around Erbil in 2012. “It’s one of the last broad alluvial plains in northern Mesopotamia to remain uninvestigated by modern survey techniques,” says Ur, who also made use of old spy satellite photographs to identify ancient villages and towns that could then be explored. Examining 77 square miles, the team mapped 214 archaeological sites dating as far back as 8,000 years. One surprise was that settlements from between 3500 and 3000 B.C. contain ceramics that appear more closely related to southern Mesopotamian types than to those of the north. Ur says this may mean that the plain, rather than being peripheral to the urban expansion that took place in cities such as Ur and Uruk, was related in some direct way to the great cities of the south. This evidence further boosts Novacek’s theory that Arbela was, in fact, an early urban center.”

History of Erbil

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Geography has been both the city’s blessing and curse in this perennially fractious region. Inhabitants fought repeated invasions by the soldiers of the Sumerian capital of Ur 4,000 years ago, witnessed three Roman emperors attack the Persians, and suffered the onslaught of Genghis Khan’s cavalry in the thirteenth century, the cannons of eighteenth-century Afghan warlords, and the wrath of Saddam Hussein’s tanks only 20 years ago. Yet, through thousands of years, the city survived, and even thrived, while other once-great cities such as Babylon and Nineveh crumbled.[Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, September-October 2014 <|>]

“The first mention of Arbela is found on clay tablets dating to about 2300 B.C.. They were discovered in the charred ruins of the palace at Ebla, a city some 500 miles to the west in today’s Syria that was destroyed by the emerging Akkadian Empire. These tablets, some of the thousands found at the site in the 1970s, mention messengers from Ebla being issued five shekels of silver to pay for a journey to Arbela.

Erbil Citadel

“A century later, the city became a coveted prize for the numerous ancient Near Eastern empires that followed. The Gutians, who came from southern Mesopotamia and helped dismantle the Akkadian Empire, left a royal inscription that boasts of a Gutian king’s successful campaign against Arbela, in which he conquered the city and captured its governor, Nirishuha. Nirishuha, and possibly other inhabitants of Arbela as well, was likely Hurrian. Little is known about the Hurrians, who were members of a group of either indigenous peoples or recent migrants from the distant Caucasus. This inscription provides our first glimpse into the identities of the multiethnic people of Arbela. <|>

“In the late third millennium B.C. the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur began to build its own empire, and sent soldiers 500 miles north to subdue a rebellious Arbela. Rulers of Ur claimed, in contemporary texts, that they had smashed the heads of Arbela’s leaders and destroyed the city during repeated and bloody campaigns. Other texts from Ur record beer rations given to messengers from Arbela and metals, sheep, and goats taken to Ur as booty. Three centuries later, in an inscription said to have come from western Iraq, Shamshi-Adad I, who established a brief but large empire in upper Mesopotamia, tells of encountering the king of Arbela, “whom I pitilessly caught with my powerful weapon and whom my feet trample.” Shamshi-Adad I had the monarch beheaded. <|>

“By the twelfth century B.C., Arbela was a prosperous town on the eastern frontier of Assyria, which covered much of northern Mesopotamia. Over the next centuries, the Assyrians, a tight-knit trading people who built an independent kingdom just to the west and south of Arbela, became the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world had seen. This empire eventually subsumed the city, which became an important Assyrian center, although the city’s population seems to have retained a mix of ethnicities throughout this long era, which lasted until 600 B.C. <|>

“At the core of Arbela’s religious, political, and economic life in this period was the Egasankalamma, or “House of the Lady of the Land.” Assyrian texts mention the temple, dedicated to Ishtar, as early as the thirteenth century B.C., though its foundations likely rest on even older sacred structures. In Mesopotamian theology Ishtar was the goddess of love, fertility, and war. Martti Nissinen of the University of Helsinki has closely examined the 265 references to the goddess in Assyrian texts, and he suggests that the roots of this version of Ishtar may lay deep in the ancient Hurrian pantheon.” <|>

Tell Hamoukar

Tell Hamoukar

Tell Hamoukar is an interesting site, dated to 3500 B.C., in eastern Syria near the border of Iraq and Turkey. With a central city covering 16 hectares, it is as highly developed as sites in southern Iraq such as Uruk and Nippur and seems to debunk the theories that ancient civilization developed in southern Iraq and spread northward and westward. Instead Tell Hamoukar is offered as proof that several advanced ancient civilizations developed simultaneously in different parts of the Middle East. [Source: Natural History magazine, Clemens Reichel of the Oriental Institute of Chicago]

Excavations indicate that Tell Hamoukar was first inhabited around 4000 B.C. perhaps as early as 4500 B.C. By around 3700 B.C. is covered at least 13 hectares and displayed signs of an advanced civilization: a 2.5-meter-high, 3.4 -meter-wide defensive wall, large scale bread making and meat cooking, a wide array of cylinder seals, presumably used to mark goods. Many seals were used to secure baskets and other containers of commodities.

The simplest seals had only simple markings. More elaborate ones had kissing bears, ducks and a leopard with 13 spots. Scholars believed that more elaborate seals were used by people of high status and indicate a hierarchically-ordered society. But as advanced as Tell Hamoukar and other places in the area were they are not regarded as advanced as those in southern Iraq, where writing developed.

Tell Hamoukar contains a 500-acre site with buildings with huge ovens, which offer evidence that people were making food for other people. The city seems to have been a manufacturing center for tools and blades that utilized obsidian supplies further north and supplied the tools throughout Mesopotamia to the south. Other sites being excavated in northern Syria include Tell Brak and Habuba Kabira, both of which appear ro be much larger than previously thought.

A team led by Clemens Reichel of the Oriental Institute of Chicago and Syrian Department of Antiquities have been excavating Tell Hamoukar since 1999.. Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego is an archaeologist that specialize in north-south relations in Mesopotamia.

Warfare at Tell Hamoukar

The oldest known example of large scale warfare is from a fierce battle that took place at Tell Hamoukar around 3500 B.C. Evidence of intense fighting include collapsed mud walls that had undergone heavy bombardment; the presence of 1,200 oval-sapped “bullets” flung from slings and 120 large round balls. Graves held skeletons of likely battle victims. Reichel told the New York Times the clash appeared to have been a swift, rapid attack: “buildings collapse, burning out of control, burying everything in them under a vast pile of rubble.”

No one knows who the attacker of Tell Hamoukar was but circumstantial evidence points to Mesopotamia cultures to the south. The battle may have been between northern and southern Near Eastern cultures when the two cultures were relative equally, with the victory by the south giving them an edge and paving the way for them to dominate the region. Large amount of Uruk pottery was found on layers just above the battle. Reichel told the New York Times,”If the Uruk people weren’t the ones firing the sling bullets, they certainly benefitted from it. They are all over this place right after its destruction.”

Discoveries at Tell Hamoukar have changed thinking about the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia. It was previously though that civilization developed in Sumerian cities like Ur and Uruk and radiated outward in the form of trade, conquest and colonization. But findings in Tell Hamoukar show that many indicators of civilization were present in northern places like Tell Hamoukar as well as in Mesopotamia and around 4000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. the two placed were pretty equal.

Tell Umm el-Marra

Tell Umm el-Marra was a small Bronze Age city in the Jabbul Plain of northen Syria. Founded around 2800 B.C., it may be Tuba, a city mentioned in texts from Ebla. Tell Umm el-Marra’s location between the Euphrates and agricultural area around Aleppo suggest it may have been a regional trade center.

The mound at Tell Umm el-Marra is about nine meters high and covers an area of 20 hectares. Tombs contain evidence of animal and possibly human sacrifice. Excavations of a burial site called Tomb 1, dated to 2300 B.C., revealed the bones of two young women and two infants along with pottery and various ornaments in an upper layer of the tomb and the skeleton of two adult males and an infant buried in a middle layer of the same tomb. Beneath the skeletons of the two adult males were found the older remains of another adult.

The fact that people buried there were buried with valuable objects suggests they were members of the upper classes. In adjacent chambers are the remains headless bodies of equines (likely donkeys) and two sets of the puppies believed to be animal sacrifices. Swartz, who is the main archaeologist at the site, has theorized that the maybe the women and infants mentioned above were human sacrifices for the buried men.

Among the objects that were found were a gold pendant with rows of circles interspersed with lines; silver bracelets; gold and silver pins; a bronze torque (neck ornaments); bronze daggers; silver headbands; clay cylinders with unknown writing; silver vessels similar to those found in Ur; and scores of ceramic vessels. More valuable items tended to be found in graves of women rather then men.

from Arslantepe


Arslantepe, a remote site near the town of Malatya and the source of the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey, is regarded as one of the world’s oldest large towns. It was first settled around 4,250 B.C.. Among the firsts found found there the first known palace, the first known sword (cast from an alloy of copper and arsenic) and the first toothed locks opened with a key (similar to locks still used in parts of Africa and the Middle East). There are also tombs with evidence of what seems to be human sacrifice.

The palace at Arslantepe contains some of the world’s oldest and best preserved ancient wall paintings. They were made on plastered walls and consist of stylized representations of humans and animals. An ancient painters palette consisting of a flat stone with hollowed-out depressions for paint was found here. The evidence for human sacrifice is grave for a man in his 30s of 40s who was buried with three girls and boy in their teens who showed signs of being treated violently.

When Arslantepe was first settled in 4250 B.C., the social system seemed to be fairly egalitarian in that all the dwellings dated to this period seemed pretty much the same. In 4000 B.C. a fairly large temple was built. It also seemed to play a role in storing grain and distributing food. Thousand of storage jar and some measuring tools have been found inside. Later the first locks were used to lock storage rooms containing grain. As society developed, labor became more specialized and stratified with an elite class that ruled over the others. The first palace was built around 2500 B.C.

Susa and Its Art

Susa was Elam's capital, although it changed hands so many times in its 3,000-year history that it became a kind of cultural melting pot, with its art showing traces of influences as far away as the Indus Valley. In 1992 the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a exhibition called "The Royal City of Susa” that made this point. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, November 27, 1992]

clay accounting tokens from Susa

Perhaps the most outstanding works of art unearthed in Susa is the great limestone "Victory Stele of Naram-Sin," created in the third millennium B.C. near present-day Baghdad. It depicts a king crushing the bodies of his enemies underfoot as he strides up a mountain beneath wheel-shaped stars. The image is one of the oldest known of a conquering monarch, and its naturalistic carving, monumental size and fine state of preservation make it virtually unique.

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “Mesopotamia often dominated Susa politically and artistically. In some cases, art was simply imported directly from Sumer or Akkad. The Naram-Sin stele, for example, was hauled to Susa after an Elamite victory as a war trophy. Other works, among them the "Statue of Eshpum," depicting a bearded man with inlaid shell eyes, were made locally, but in Mesopotamian style. While modern viewers may find that style, with its rigid figures and staring faces, a little hard to love, the peculiarly tense, muscular power its figures project continues to cast a spell today.

Yet "The Royal City of Susa" gives fascinating evidence of a different sensibility at work as well, one that can be identified with the Elamite people of Iran. In some cases it appears as a distinctive set of forms or materials, like a tarlike sculptural compound that was first molded, then carved to imitate black stone. More often it emerges in the subtle inflections made to existing models.

“One of the show's most extraordinary objects, the almost life-size, headless statue of Queen Napir-Asu, is based on a Mesopotamian royal image type. The cone-shaped figure, a technical marvel of metal casting with a copper skin over a bronze core, weighs two tons and looks rooted in the earth. But the impression of massiveness is broken up by surface details of the utmost delicacy. The queen's layered skirts are covered top to bottom with minute decorative patterns; a palmette clasp secures the shawl on her shoulder; tiny incised lines articulate the joints of her tapering fingers.

“The liveliness generated by this flair for decorative detail is everywhere in the art of Susa. One finds it in the chocolate-colored design on the neck of a beaker from around 4000 B.C., where an apparently abstract pattern turns out to be a continuous band of standing birds with long vertical necks as thin as pen strokes. And again in an eighth or seventh century B.C. frieze of a woman sitting cross-legged and spinning, her elaborate coiffure looking like a miniature masterpiece of the weaver's art.

The sense of expressive immediacy found in this figure is another Susian characteristic and is nowhere more evident than in the dozens of small terra-cotta sculptures displayed in a large vitrine at the end of the exhibition. Some have religious significance, like the nude goddesses whoseem to have been universal emblems of fertility in the ancient world from Asia to Europe. A few figures here are especially striking, as in the case of one whose thighs balloon outward like pantaloons and another who supports her breasts in her hands and stares intently downward. Other of these terra cottas probably had secular uses, like the bow-legged lute player with a child clambering over his head, or the tubby little hand-modeled sheep set atop four movable wheels.”


Accounting tablet from Susa

Arrata is a mysterious Bronze Age city that is said to have existed around 2700 B.C. French-Iranian archaeologist Yousef Madjidzadeh thinks he found it near the town Jiroft in a desolate corner of Iran and thinks it may predate Mesopotamia. Arrata was celebrated in one of the world's oldest stories: a 4,000 years old epic about a clash between Arrata and the Mesopotamian city of Uruk. Arrata is described as a city of colorful architecture and excellent craftsmanship. “Arrata's battlements are of green lapis lazuli, it walls and its towering brickwork are bright red, their brick clay is made of tinstone dug out in the mountains where the cypress grows." [Source: Andrew Lawler, Smithsonian magazine, May 2004]

The site near Jirof, known as Konar Sandal, was discovered in 2000. Thus far archaeologists have uncovered a huge temple or fort, that resembled a ziggurat, made of four million mud bricks. Impressions made by cylindrical seals shows the people that lived there were probably literate. The site first came to the attention of archeologists in 2001 when a flash flood on the Hali River exposed thousands of ancient graves that were quickly plundered by looters. Stone vessels, carved with images of animals and decorated with semi-precious stones confiscated from tomb looters also turned up vessels found as far west as Syria and as far east as the Indus valley that have been dated to be 4,500 years old. A bronze goat head has been dated to possibly be 5,000 years old. Among the more beautiful objects are vessels made from green chlorite carved with bulls.

Overall though the archaeology for the various claims is rather weak. Many scholars doubt whether Aratta even existed and those that do believe it existed place it in western Iran or Armenia. There are no definite links between Arrata and the site near Jiroft and it is difficult to date most of the objects found there because nearly all the graves in the where they were found have been looted. Madjidzadeh estimates that 10,000 holes were dug by looters over a 1½ -year period and 100,000 objects were taken. Looters continued to work at night while archaeologists worked during the day.

Turkish and Syrian Sites Shows Early Spread of Culture

John Noble Wilford wrote in New York Times, “New discoveries in Turkey and northern Syria, two buried cities and intriguing clay tablets with cuneiform writing, are expanding the known horizons of early urban civilization and literacy well beyond the Sumerian city-states of southern Mesopotamia. Archeologists say the discoveries are among the most exciting in Mesopotamian studies in recent decades. They are confident that further excavations at the sites will provide answers to one of the most important questions in archeology: how and when did the phenomena of urban living and the first writing spread from their place of origin more than 5,000 years ago in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers far into adjacent regions” [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

Working in the Balikh River valley of southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, a team of American and Turkish archeologists found traces of a large city that apparently flourished in 2600 B.C. A single tablet with cuneiform inscriptions, the earliest known writing system, was found lying on the surface. Dr. Patricia Wattenmaker, an archeologist at the University of Virginia and director of the excavations, told the New York Times the discovery should overturn conventional thinking that confined the development of large urban centers of the period to southern Mesopotamia and dismissed the cultures to the north and west as mere backwaters. Further research, she said, could extend the known range of early literacy.

Excavations indicate that the site, known as Kazane Hoyuk, holds the remains of a city that spread over at least 250 acres, large for its time and place. One tentative hypothesis is that these are the ruins of Urshu, a northern city mentioned in some Sumerian texts. "Kazane's a huge place," said Dr. Glenn Schwartz, an archeologist at Johns Hopkins University who is familiar with the discovery, "and has to have been one of the most important political and economic centers of its region."

The other discovery that excited archeologists is the buried ruins of a smaller city of the third millennium B.C. at Tell Beidar in northern Syria. There European and Syrian archeologists have found a well-preserved temple, administrative buildings and a collection of as many as 70 clay tablets with Sumerian writing and Semitic names, as well as many other tablet fragments. And they have only begun to dig. "It's the most spectacular find this year in Syria," said Dr. Marc Lebeau, the leader of the discovery team, who is president of the European Center for Upper Mesopotamian Studies in Brussels. Dating of Tablets

Preliminary analysis places the time of the tablets and other artifacts at about 2400 B.C., during the Sumerian ascendancy in southern Mesopotamia and just before the rise of the Akkadian empire under Sargon the Great. The tablets that have been deciphered appear to be bureaucratic records of a robust economy, including lists of donkeys, oxen and sheep and the names of towns and villages.

The discoveries, Dr. Weiss said, were further evidence for the sudden rise beginning around 2600 B. C. of cities in nearly all directions beyond the bounds of southern Mesopotamia and may help account for this expansion. Was this the consequence of trade among independent people or incipient colonialism and imperialism? If these burning questions in Mesopotamian archeology can be answered, scholars will still be left to ponder the bigger question of how state societies and urban civilization happened to begin then and there in the first place.

Presence of a Strong Culture in Northern Mesopotamia (Southern Turkey)

Dr. Harvey Weiss, a Yale University archeologist, visited Tell Beidar and told the New York Times that it and Kazane Hoyuk "prove everything we've been saying about northern Mesopotamia for many years," namely that the cuneiform archive discovered in 1974 at Ebla, also in Syria, was not an anomaly but strong evidence of the widespread expansion of Sumerian urban civilization, beginning as early as 2600 B.C. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

If Ebla, near the city of Aleppo, revealed the civilization's western progression, excavations by Dr. Weiss at Tell Leilan, begun in 1979, produced the first strong evidence of its northern reach. Tell Leilan, identified as the ancient walled city of Shubat Enlil that experienced sudden growth in 2500, lies on the fertile plains of Syria near the borders of Turkey and Iraq. Nearby is the European dig site of Tell Beidar. Farther north is Kazane Hoyuk, at least twice as large as Tell Beidar and the same size as Tell Leilan or larger. Other scholars had previously failed to recognize this expansion phenomenon mainly because the most thorough excavations had until recently been confined to the Sumerian heartland in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley. "People used to think of ancient Mesopotamia as small and restricted, but not any longer," said Dr. Elizabeth Stone, an archeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Since early writing was associated with official record-keeping related to the collection and distribution of grain and goods and since Kazane Hoyuk was a city on known trade routes, Dr. Michalowski said: "I will stick my neck out and say it had to be a literate society. Other tablets may be found there. I've always thought Ebla was only a symptom of a much more widespread literacy in this period."

Mesopotamian-Era Cultures in Southern Turkey

Wilford wrote in New York Times “Dr. Wattenmaker was driving on the road south of the modern Turkish city of Urfa when she saw a prominent mound in the fields near an irrigation canal. In her initial survey last year, pottery shards were found scattered over the ground. Some were as much as 7,000 years old. Others were at least 4,500 years old and in the Sumerian style. This and other evidence gathered this year indicated that the site had been occupied almost continuously since 5000 B.C., and so should provide evidence of the transition from a simple farming society to an urban culture. It grew to be a large city about 2600 B.C. and was abandoned for an unknown reason around 1800 B.C. Wattenmaker’s research team included archeologists from the Universities of Chicago and Virginia, Istanbul University and the Urfa Museum. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

A worker found the baked clay tablet lying on the surface. It is 22 inches by 22, and encrusted in dirt. Cleaning away some of the dirt, archeologists saw the wedge-shaped cuneiform inscriptions typical of early writing, which was first developed by Mesopotamians about 5,000 years ago. Scholars are especially cautious in their assessment of the tablet because it was a "stray find." It was picked up on the ground, out of context with archeological ruins and in an area that had been disturbed by construction of the canal. Still, they said it appeared to be genuine and from the third millennium B.C.

"It's a tease," said Dr. Piotr Michalowski, a specialist in Sumerian and Babylonian languages at the University of Michigan, who is examining photographs of the tablet inscriptions. "It doesn't tell you much. It is not a connected narrative of any sort, just signs and not very good ones. Somebody might have been practicing writing, and wasn't good at it." Speculation of Literacy

Although archeologists said they could not yet determine the ancient name of this city, Dr. Michalowski said there was a "good degree of probability" that it was Urshu, which Sumerian inscriptions of 2100 B.C. refer to as a city in the highlands of Ebla; that would put it at some distance to the northwest. The site of Urshu has never been identified. But confirmation of this surmise will have to await the discovery of more and better tablets.

Preliminary study of the tablets at Tell Beidar, Dr. Lebeau said, showed that they are approximately the same age as the Ebla archive, probably a century or two later than the Kazane Hoyuk fluorescence, and that they provide a clear link between this ancient city, Ebla in the west and southern Mesopotamia. These are the first tablets of this period to be found in northern Syria, and archeologists expect to find more as they dig deeper at the site. The discovery team included archeologists from Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Syria.

Urkesh and Al Rawda in Syria

Urkesh was a fabled oasis kingdom in present-day Syria mentioned in the Bible and in ancient Egyptian tablets. So many tales sprung about Urkesh that archaeologists began to wonder if it really existed. It was the home of the Hurrians, who were contemporaries of the Sumerians and mentioned in the Old Testament as the Horites and in a clay tablet belonging to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet IV.

Urkesh was found in 1995 in northeastern Syria near the border of Turkey after a goat artifact inscribed with the name "Urkesh" in a lost language was found at the site. Urkesh was at its peak around 2400 B.C. It controlled an important copper trading route in what is now northeastern Syria. Archaeologists working there have found a building they believe is a royal palace. They also found animal figurines and copper daggers and spearheads and cuneiform tablets that identified rulers.

Al Rawda is an ancient city---occupied between 2400 and 2100 B.C.---in what is now central Syria whose entire layout was revealed without doing any excavation work using geomagnetic imaging, which measures the Earth’s magnetic force. Al Rawda’s flat topography and lack of modern buildings made it the ideal subject for this kind of imaging, The result is quite stunning in its details, The images show the locations of buildings, streets and alley laid out in a circular pattern within a circular defensive wall. The city was home to several thousand residents who grazed livestock, raised grapes and beans, and worshipped that city’s religious complex.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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