History of Ur, Iraq

by Major Brad Schutz

This is the story told to me by a little Iraqi guide, who's grandfather worked the Ur dig in some sort of assistant records-keeper capacity for a British archeologist; Sir Leonard Willy from 1922 to 1934. I cannot tell you if the story is true. I did tip the guide a couple of dollars and gave him some bottled water. All I can do is pass his tale along to the kids out there.

Way back in the course of time, about six thousand years ago (give or take a day or a decade) in the Fertile Crescent, there were three 'great' civilizations; the Babylonians, Sumerians, and Acadians. The Acadians and Sumerians were first, followed by the Babylonians. I think the Acadians were nomadic and spent the early days wandering about; herding goats, sheep, and gathering. The Sumerians apparently had their act together and were pretty prosperous at agriculture, which meant that they could pretty much stay in one place and set up permanent structures. They did, however, have a bit of a problem. They lived along the Euphrates River, and they had very little rock. They were known as the 'mud' civilization, being awesome pottery makers and mud brick construction experts. I suppose that the pottery of the time was pretty important, as there were few other methods of long term storage of grains and liquids that would defy the bugs, dry conditions, and mice. The capital city of the Sumerian civilization was located at the city of Ur (pronounced just like it looks). The city of Ur lasted until about 500 BC, when the Euphrates River bed shifted and left the city of Ur high and dry. The Babylonians came along a little later in the Fertile Crescent, also working the land, making their capital in the city of Babylon, which is in present day Al Hillah. They were master builders and gardeners, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were famous in the known world.

OK, back to Ur and the Sumerians. In Ur, there lived the first King of the Sumerians, Urnamu (sounds like they named the city after him). Please keep in mind that I am spelling the names just like the guide said them, so if you go looking them up in a history book, my spelling may be way off. Anyway, stuff was being invented in the early civilizations to make life easier. The inventions were pretty much centered in the capital city, where most of the people were. When the wheel was finally invented, it was invented in Ur (or at least that is what the guide tells me). The first wheel probably looked like a log, and was made out of mud. The wheel quickly was modified into the round thin cookie-cutter shape that we would recognize, and was rapidly paired with an axle to maximize its benefits. I guess Ur is home of the axle, as well. Writing first appeared in Sumerian culture. The first known writing is known as Cuneiform writing, and it pre-dates even the hieroglyphics' that are in Egypt. Of course, the Sumerians used mud to write on. Paper was not invented for a long time afterward, and if I remember my schooling correctly, it was invented in Egypt. The Sumerians used the writing for quite a few purposes, including writing that I found in the bricks around some tombs. I suppose the most important use of the writing was to record business transactions, and that would have caused the writing to spread around the region. Archeologists have found a number of pictures drawn in the mud tablets uncovered in excavation. The pictures show sequential pictures; a war chariot riding towards enemy, then the enemy under the wheels, then the chariot riders celebrating victory. My guide was trying to convince me that Ur was the home of the motion picture, but I wasn't buying it.

There were a succession of Kings and Queens in the city of Ur, and if I understood the guide correctly, Urnamu had built a palace and a temple to the moon goddess, Sien- Ornanor. The temple, known as the Ziggurat was made out of mud brick, and as you might imagine, it suffered quite a bit every time it rained. According to the guide, new brick was made and the temple was repaired as time went on. The Ziggurat, however, is still standing, and is the earliest known pyramid structure; predating the Egyptian pyramids by about 2000 years. The palace and the temple were in a walled off area known as the 'Sacred City'. The rest of the city of Ur surrounded the inner Sacred City, and had a city wall. Archeologists believe the walls (also made of mud brick) were about 12 to 15 feet tall, and would have been pretty imposing to the passer by of the day. The Ziggurat was originally about 80 feet in height, although only 52 feet remains today. It is a solid structure, and the last brick upgrade to the structure was done in the 1920s. As you walk up the Ziggurat, you start by walking up the recent 1920s construction, but the center top is the old stuff - the 6000 year old stuff. They used tar back then, and you can see it in the photos. The tar served two purposes, first to glue the bricks together, and the second is to shield the mud bricks from the ravages of the rain. The holes you see in the structure are called 'weep' holes, and allow water that seeps into the structure to evaporate, and allows the structure to settle with time. As you can see, the Sumerians were pretty good at building stuff out of mud. The view from the top of the Ziggurat is impressive.

There were a number of other 'firsts' in Ur. One of the kings went by the name of Nabookanezur. (No, I did not make this up!). As I questioned the guide, he also used the name 'Idoblamak' (They both sound like they were warped.) Archaeologists digging through some of the buildings he created found statues and statuettes of earlier kings. Looks like old Nabookanezur invented the first museum. Another king, whose tomb is nearby, was known as King Shulgee, who apparently used the Cuneiform writing to produce the first written laws. Not sure what the laws were, but Shulgee gets the credit for written law (and probably lawyers as well). King Shulgee added a couple of buildings inside the Sacred City, in one of which a number of arches are still standing. As this construction was long before any other construction, King Shulgee gets the credit for the oldest known arch. When Sir Leonard Willy was excavating the site back in the 1920s, he poured cement over the top of the arch to prevent it from caving in during the excavation.

Speaking of statues and stuff that has been found, there have been some really spectacular items pulled out of the ruins of Ur. Only five percent of the items are on display in a British museum, and many more were in Iraqi museums when the war broke out. The new Iraqi government, with the help of Coalition Soldiers, was able to save and salvage quite a bit of the artifacts, although many remain lost. Some of the items that have been found in the tombs and the palace grounds include a golden dagger (in the tomb of King Shulgee), a golden harp (roughly 4 foot in height, from the tomb of Queen Shabat).

Outside of the Sacred City, there are some other amazing artifacts. One building is claimed to be the home of Abraham, known in many religions to be the father of the Prophets. Abraham's father was fairly well-to-do, and the home has some 27 rooms. The country of Iraq rebuilt the walls of Abraham's house over the original flooring and foundation, and then invited the late Pope John Paul to come and meditate in Abraham's house. The Pope never had the opportunity to make the trip, but since I did, I can tell you that sitting in Abrahams house and thinking about what life was like thousands of years ago is a pretty neat thing to do, and something that I will remember doing for many, many years. As you look around the city of Ur, you see that the pottery these people made served a purpose even after it was broken. They mixed it into the bricks, making the bricks stronger. The citizens in Ur also solved a problem in their wells and drains. They lined the walls of the wells and drains with broken pottery. Water could seep through the pottery, but the silt and sand was blocked. Pretty smart. The three drains in Abraham's house are lined with pottery. Another neat site is a well that has been cut in half, top to bottom, by Sir Leonard Willy. By studying the silting patterns in the well, archeologists have found evidence of two large floods. Biblical scholars believe that the more recent flood, which appears to be the larger of the two floods, may be the source of the story of Noah and the Ark. Hard to say, and my guide would not give his opinion on the topic. He did show me some granite blocks, however, which he said were house-markers. In a region covered in mud, the rock is pretty rare, and apparently has been discovered used as a cornerstone of what appear to be family homes. Interesting.

There is still a lot of artifacts that remain buried in the city of Ur. The city of Ur has a number of tombs in it. Several large tombs were excavated, and new ones are found quite often. The United States military has a base quite close to the city of Ur, and has taken up the role of protector, not allowing anyone to loot or desecrate the site. As a result, I am not allowed to go out there and dig for gold statues. All I am allowed to do is to take pictures and look around on the surface. When the war is over, the site will once again be a site that archeologists will flock to learn more about early civilization in the Fertile Crescent.