Around 6000-5000 BCE, the small farming settlements that dotted the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers coalesced into towns, the larger of which became some of the world’s first cities. The first cities in the Mesopotamian region were built by a group of people known as the Ubaid. Little is known about this ancient civilization because they left no written records and more or less disappeared or assimilated into the succeeding Mesopotamian tribes and cultures. Ubaid settlements however indicate that ss settlements became more permanent, the early reed-thatched huts that people had lived in before were replaced by sturdier, brick homes homes made from sun-dried clay.
The settlement believed to be the first city was Eridu, founded around 5400 BCE near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, over 7400 years ago! In fact, the Sumerian King List, which chronicles the kings of ancient Sumer, specifically states that Eridu was the first city in the world. Sumerian texts also state that it was one of five key cities that existed before a great flood, much like that described in the Bible. Though hard to prove definitively, archaeological consensus also points to Eridu as being the oldest known city on Earth.
Today, the ruins of what was Eridu lie in the desert, although 7000 years ago, it sat on the bank of the Euphrates river. Eridu’s association with the river is what also made it a religious center dedicated to Enki, the god of freshwater and wisdom. Ancient Mesopotamian texts tell of the creation of the world and its first king, Alulim, who descended from Heaven and took up residence in Eridu. The story goes that the ocean goddess Tiamat was causing trouble in the world, and none of the other gods had the courage to stop her. Enki, impressed with a certain Marduk, chose him to lead a force against Tiamat. Marduk agreed, but in return demanded to be made the most senior of the gods. Of course, the Mesopotamian god assembly (yes, even the gods had some form of representative government back then) had to approve of this. The wise and crafty god Enki knew that the older gods would reject Marduk as their overlord, so he called them all for a great feast with lots of wine. By the time he was done explaining his idea to the other gods, they had all been put into a drunken stupor and agreed to his plan without any objection. Pleased with this and his new authority, Marduk confronted and defeated Tiamat, slicing her body in half. It was from her body that the clouds formed and from her tears that the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers came into existence.
This story, more than just being a popular fairy tale, is unique in that it outlines a sort of accountability that all of the gods must have with each other. It teaches the Sumerians that as the gods must consult one another before making a decision and that all kings must also agree to rule by discussion and consent. Such a concept was quite revolutionary in those days. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every king held themselves up to such high ideals and codes of conduct.
Map: Where is Eridu today?
The map below shows the position of Eridu, isolated out in the desert of modern-day Iraq. If you zoom out or scroll the map a bit to the northeast, you will also find the location of the ancient city of Ur. It’s hard to believe that over 7000 years ago, the Euphrates river actually flowed through this same very land and the Persian Gulf was much closer to the site of the ancient city than it currently is.
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Other prominent Sumerian cities included Uruk, believed by some to be the first city instead of Eridu, the city of Ur, just a few kilometers north of Eridu, and Lagash, Larsa and Nippur in the northwest. By 2700 BCE, each of these cities may have covered several square kilometers and had over 30,000 inhabitants. Though similar in that they had a common language, religion and culture, these cities were not dependent within the larger Sumerian nation but instead independent city-states. Each one consisted of a densely populated town center with a temple, palace for the king, houses, markets and public buildings. Streets tended to be winding and narrow, as there was not much early layout planning done. The cities themselves were surrounded by tall and thick walls for protection against marauders and the well-equiped armies of other city-states. Outside of the walls were villages and farmland that supported life in the city. It was not until the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Greek eras that the majority of cities were either reorganized or built from scratch that they had any semblance of a logical layout.
As mentioned earlier, the lands and cities of Sumer did not form a cohesive single political unit. Each city-state had its own ruler and class of elites, as well as craftsman, workers and famers. The city-state and its people, including the king, priests, merchants, farmers and slaves were dedicated to their city’s patron deity, although these gods and goddesses were often recognized by other city-states as well. Priests were especially important and highly respected members of the community and acted as religious leaders, scholars, scribes and sometimes even as scientists.
At the top of the city-state’s hierarchy was the king, the ruler chosen by the gods to lead his people. To obey the king was to obey the gods. Supporting the king were nobles, many of whom were related to the king by marriage (kings often had several wives). The king also had the dual role of being both the administrative as well as the religious head of his domain. Although he was technically all-powerful, the king was nevertheless dependent on the support of the priestly class who conducted religious ceremonies and interpreted the stars for omens or signs from the gods.
Though farmers were responsible for producing food for the city, other workers such as craftsmen produced household and luxury items. For example, carpenters built houses, furniture, and storage units, weavers created cloth which were then sewn into clothing, and blacksmiths made primitive tools and weapons out of bronze. Though primitive, life in such cities was not too much different than that of people living in the developing countries of modern times.
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