Ur: Reconstruction of the Remarkably Rich Ancient Sumerian City

reconstruction-ur-city-sumerian_1Reconstruction of the sacred precinct at Ur, circa 21st century BC.

Like many great cities of history, Ur started out as a lowly village in the Ubaid Period of Mesopotamia, close to circa 4th millennium BC. However by virtue of its ‘convenient’ location by the Persian Gulf, nearby to the point where the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates met, the settlement emerged as a major trading hub of the region (by the Bronze Age), with its commercial networks connecting realms as far as India.

And while the current location of Ur is further inland due to millennia of silting of both the rivers, the historical legacy of the great Mesopotamian city is still prominent, as can be gathered from the impressive (half restored) remnants of the Ziggurat of Ur which housed the shrine of Nanna.

Reconstruction of Ur

The first animation/image slide presents the grandiosely conceived scope of the Ziggurat of Ur, a magnificent structure that dominated the cityscape of the flourishing settlement. This was complemented by the locational aspect of the city itself, with its formidable walls also caressing the bends of the Euphrates.


The Emulation of God-Kings

Ruins of Ur with the famed half-restored ziggurat in the background. Credit: M.Lubinski / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now coming to the historical side of affairs, circa 2334 BC, the Akkadians carved up the first known all-Mesopotamian empire, thereby momentously uniting the speakers of both Sumerian and Akkadian. In fact, by the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, the Akkadians managed to create a culturally syncretic scope (that encompassed a melting pot of different ethnicity and city-states).

This ultimately paved the way for the emergence of Akkadian as the lingua franca of Mesopotamia for many centuries to come. However, beyond just cultural affiliations with the advanced Sumerians, the Akkadians also adopted (and loaned) many of the military systems and doctrines of their Mesopotamian brethren.

The two-way influence surely rubbed on the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2047-1750 BC), whose Sumerian kings openly emulated the heroic feats of renowned Akkadian rulers like Sargon the Great and Naram-Sin. And while many of these endeavors were clearly propagandist in nature, some translated to magnificent projects, like the aforementioned Ziggurat of Ur.

Possibly constructed under the orders of King Ur-Nammu, the step-pyramidal structure is estimated to have encompassed an area of 64 m (210 ft) in length x 45 m (148 ft) in width while rising to a height of around 100 ft. The building was completed during the reign of Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi, who promptly proclaimed himself as the divine ruler of the proximate lands.

The Renaissance

Watercolor illustration of the ancient desert city of Ur with pyramid temple, palace, buildings and lakes, surrounded by a city wall. Credit: Michael Brewer

Beyond just monumental structures, the Third Dynasty of Ur in many ways epitomized the apical stage of the Bronze Age realm of Ur. For example, as opposed to our popular notions denoting the Code of Hammurabi as the oldest set of codified laws, the actual honor possibly belongs to the Code of Ur-Nammu, which was inscribed circa 2100 – 2050 BC.

His son Shulgi took a step further by reforming the emergent kingdom into a highly centralized bureaucratic state. His amendments were complemented by personal resolve, so much so that a particular incident alludes to how the king covered (or ran) 100 miles (160.9 km) between Nippur and Ur and back again, in one day, in order to attend religious festivals in both cities.

During all of these far-flung administrative changes, the capital city of Ur itself became the bastion of culture and learning in southern Mesopotamia. The epoch coincided with the rise of trade and efficient urban management, along with the encouragement of artistic and scientific pursuits.

In that regard, it can be surmised from archaeological pieces of evidence that the residents of Ur possibly enjoyed better standards of living than many of the urban dwellers of contemporary Mesopotamian cities. The cultural prominence also accompanied the military power of Ur, the latter scope being epitomized by a massive defensive wall system that possibly stretched over 155 miles.

The royal scale of the city of Ur is aptly captured by the following animation concocted by the resourceful folks over at Zero One Animation


The Biblical Connection?

Source: Penn Museum

Like many renowned cities in the intertwining narrative of history, Ur declined in importance with the rise of Hammurabi’s Babylon, which was then followed by the interlude of the Hittites, Kassites, and Assyrians. And while during this millennium, the settlement was still ‘honored’ as a center of learning, its status as a royal capital was eroded by successive waves of more dominant powers in other parts of Mesopotamia.

Ur’s proverbial ‘last hurrah’ came in the form of a spurt of new construction projects, undertaken on the orders of Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. And by circa early 5th century BC, while the city was partially inhabited as a part of the Achaemenid Empire, it fell into an unrecoverable slump within a space of few decades – with the Persian Gulf receding far back from the river ports of the settlement.

Now interestingly enough, in Biblical sources, Ur may have been mentioned as being the birthplace of patriarch Abraham, with the Book of Genesis containing the name Ur Kasdim (roughly translated to Ur of the Chaldees). Now if we take the route of history, the Chaldeans, a Semitic-speaking group of people who emerged in Mesopotamia by circa early 9th century BC, were the rulers of Ur only in the late 7th century BC (possibly).

However according to most theories put forth by early 20th century historians relate to how such patriarchs (and matriarchs) were possibly based on composite personalities from the 2nd millennium BC, thus corresponding to the Bronze Age. To that end, some scholars suggest that the Book of Genesis may have confused Ur and Ura, with the latter being a Bronze Age city near Harran, northern Mesopotamia. Other theories advocate that the confusion may have occurred from the names of cities like Urkesh, Urartu, and Urfa.

On the other hand, the great city of Ur itself may have gradually fallen into disarray due to constant trickles of migration of its population to the other parts of Mesopotamia and Canaan. Once again reverting to the latter, the Book of Genesis clearly mentions how Abraham made his way to Canaan from his original homeland.

Now a few late 20th century scholars (including Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters) have presented their hypotheses regarding how many of the Biblical texts reflect the social conditions prevalent in the 1st millennium BC, corresponding to the Iron Age. Simply put, Abraham (or at least his historical counterpart) may have been born in the Iron Age, and his settling in the land of Canaan possibly reflected the migratory pattern of many Ur emigrants.

In any case, the last video (albeit with poor resolution quality) showcases the daily lives of the common residents of Ur, presumably during the early Bronze Age.


Article Sources: Ancient History Encylopedia / University of Pennsylvania Museum / Britannica / History-World

7 Comments on "Ur: Reconstruction of the Remarkably Rich Ancient Sumerian City"

  1. Why has disqus been removed from recent posts?

  2. Why reference the Bible? Name a more widely distributed book that is translated into more languages as a starting point for research on the earliest history of the human race if you can. If your not a historian and I’m not, referring to the Bible makes perfect sense. I’m not religious either, but I can find anything referenced in the Bible in a matter of seconds with my computer. Thinking that the Bible and other religious books aren’t important in their linkage to history is Astoundingly Juvenile.

  3. Dattatreya Mandal | July 28, 2017 at 10:55 am |

    We understand your point about the priority of history. However you should also understand our point concerning specifically the subject of Ur, since Biblical sources directly mention the word ‘Ur’. So it becomes important to provide the actual historical context in this regard and to explain if it matches up with any such Biblical source/anecdote. And this was done in the third sub-heading of the article, as opposed to any earlier mention of Bible in the post.

    Secondly, our ‘issue’ with your earlier comment relates to this part “this need to almost always bring it back to the bible is truly juvenile.” – mainly because it is not at all true. To that end, we actually have covered the reconstruction of Babylon itself (https://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/03/14/gorgeous-3d-animation-babylon/) and also Sumerian literature (https://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/07/21/world-oldest-known-literature-ancient-sumerian/) – and in both occasions didn’t need to, as you put it – ‘shoehorn’ Bible into the narrative. But in this case, the Biblical perspective was needed to make things clear for ultimately the priority of history – your point.

    And lastly, it doesn’t matter which culture ‘was important’ for the other culture; objective history takes every (accessible) parcel of literary evidence or even anecdote into consideration. Moreover, this also entails composite figures. So whether one likes it or not, or whether that figure existed or not, Abraham is without a doubt perceived to be the major founding figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Similar examples would also include Homer (probably a composite figure) and his epic poems, Sun Tzu (possible composite) and his ‘Art of War’ and even King Arthur (obviously composite) and his symbolization of Romano-British culture.

  4. Frederick Chris | July 28, 2017 at 8:10 am |

    I think doing that needlessly adds a biblical “filter” to the story of Mesopotamia/Babylon. The historical context of Babylon goes way past that of the bible, given that much of what is in the bible came from Babylon, and a lot more besides came from Babylon.

    Consider the comment immediately preceding yours; it suggests Abraham was crucial to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are obviously strong reasons to doubt he ever existed. At best, he was a composite figure, but he is a side-note in terms of Babylonian history. While Babylon was very important for the ancients Jewish societies, the reverse was not true and yet invariably, as I mentioned earlier, there is the desire to shoe-horn the ancient Jews into discussions of Ur and Babylon, which makes as much sense as constantly “shoe-horning” in the Phoenicians or Egyptians, although those two would have been far more significant in the Ancient Middle East.

  5. Paul J. Delmont | July 28, 2017 at 4:38 am |

    Abraham is the major founding figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which is why it was appropriate to mention the Hebrew Bible’s reference to Ur. That reference is undoubtedly the widest publicity Ur has had in some 2,000 years.

  6. Dattatreya Mandal | July 28, 2017 at 3:15 am |

    We have referenced the Bible to only bring out the historical context of the alleged connection between Biblical figures and the ancient city. If one goes beyond the sub-headings of the article (especially the third one), one can find that it talks about how Ur historically disintegrated over time to make way for other powerful states, and its Iron Age emigration pattern was possibly reflected by Biblical stories. Simply put, the scope is anything but ‘juvenile’ in our humble opinion.

  7. Frederick Chris | July 28, 2017 at 12:56 am |

    Such articles invariably feel the need to reference the bible; why? It is almost as if the story of places Ur only ultimately have significance in terms of the bible, a book written by people from a middling to minor state in the ancient Middle East. The period between now and the final collapse of the Babylonian Empire is shorter than the period between the first flourishing of civilisation around the ancient state of Ur and the final collapse of Babylon.

    This need to almost always bring it back to the bible is truly juvenile. It one is talking about Judea, than one certainly should highlight the bible, but it makes little sense to constantly refer to the bible when discussing non-Jewish societies.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.