The ancient city of Ur lies now in a sandy, desert-like landscape on the edge of the River Euphrates. Looking at it now you wonder why anyone would have built a city here, but it has taken thousands of years to turn this region into a desert. Once it was fertile and green.
According to the Bible, Ur was the birthplace of Abraham. The city was built around 4500-4000 BC, 1,000 years before the Dutch hunebeds. It was originally a village where the inhabitants farmed and tended cattle. At the beginning of the 3rd millennium a number of city states flourished in Mesopotamia under the Sumerian civilisation. Protected by powerful gods, each had its own royal house and fought for mastery over the region. One of the cities was Ur. Archaeological finds have revealed the high level of industry reached in these cities. They traded with distant merchants – cedarwood from the Lebanon, silver from Mount Amana and lapis lazuli from today’s Afghanistan. Finds from royal graves in Ur prove that they had access to ample quantities of valuable materials and that craftsmanship in this period reached a higher level than anywhere else in the world.
Written texts have also been found which tell us about the crafts and how people worked. Commissions for making objects came from the temples and palaces.
Agriculture was improved by digging channels to irrigate the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris. These channels were also used to transport goods. Around 2300 BC the Akkadian King Sargon conquered the region around the Persian Gulf to Ebla.
When this empire collapsed two centuries later Ur, under kings of the Third Dynasty (2112-2004 BC) took over the hegemony between the two rivers. Ur was at that time an important centre for the worship of the Moon god Nanna, and many of the Babylonian princes played a part in restoring the temples at Ur in honour of this god.
Ur was probably abandoned in the 4th century BC after the river changed its course.
Until halfway through the 19th century only the remains of the ziggurat (temple tower) could be seen above the desert landscape. Then excavations began at the site. First the English consul in Basra found texts which appeared to refer to the ruins of Ur. In 1922 the first large-scale excavations were carried out by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. Then in 1927 came the sensational discovery of a king’s tomb.
During the excavations at the burial site 2000 trenches were discovered for ordinary mortals and 17 tombs for the wealthy made of stone and bricks. Many of the tombs had been plundered in antiquity but the excavations still uncovered many exceptional finds. Examples include the tombs of Arbaji and King Puabi, which contained the mortal remains of 74 people, and the grave of King Meskalamdug. These tombs contained among other things gold dishes, jewels, hundreds of objects made of lapis lazuli, decorated harps, the magnificent golden helmet of Meskalamdug and his dagger with a gold blade and a hilt of lapis lazuli.
Based on these grave goods and the large amount of human and animal remains found in the tombs, the archaeologists came to the conclusion that the dead princes had been accompanied in their afterlife by a large retinue, complete with their horses, which had first been drugged and then put to death. This is similar to rituals which were performed at that time in Egypt.
On an enclosed area on the northern side of the city stood the ziggurat or temple tower and the temple of the moon god Nanna.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey