Ur (Sumerian: Urim; Akkadian: Uru; Arabic: أور) was an important Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, located at the site of modern Tell el-Muqayyar in south Iraq’s Dhi Qar Governorate.
Although Ur was once a coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf, the coastline has shifted and the city is now well inland, south of the Euphrates on its right bank, 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Nasiriyah.
The city dates from the Ubaid period circa 3800 BC, and is recorded in written history as a City State from the 26th century BC, its first recorded king being Mesh-Ane-pada. The city’s patron deity was Nanna (in Akkadian, Sin), the Sumerian and Akkadian (Assyrian-Babylonian) moon god, and the name of the city is in origin derived from the god’s name, URIM being the classical Sumerian spelling of LAK-32.UNUG, literally “the abode (UNUG) of Nanna (LAK-32)”.
The site is marked by the partially restored ruins of the Ziggurat of Ur, which contained the shrine of Nanna, excavated in the 1930s. The temple was built in the 21st century BC (short chronology), during the reign of Ur-Nammu and was reconstructed in the 6th century BC by Nabonidus, the Assyrian born last king of Babylon. The ruins cover an area of 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) northwest to southeast by 800 metres (2,600 ft) northeast to southwest and rise up to about 20 metres (66 ft) above the present plain level.
Archaeologists have discovered the evidence of an early occupation at Ur during the Ubaid period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC). These early levels were sealed off with a sterile deposit of soil that was interpreted by excavators of the 1920s as evidence for the Great Flood of the book of Genesis and Epic of Gilgamesh. It is now understood that the South Mesopotamian plain was exposed to regular floods from the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, with heavy erosion from water and wind, which may have given rise to the Mesopotamian and derivative Biblical Great Flood stories. The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC (although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium). The third millennium BC is generally described as the Early Bronze Age of Mesopotamia, which ends approximately after the demise of the Third Dynasty of Ur in the 21st century BC.
Third millennium BC
There are two main sources which inform scholars about the importance of Ur during the Early Bronze Age. The first is a large body of cuneiform documents, mostly from the empire of the so-called Third Dynasty of Ur, at the very end of the third millennium. This was the most centralized bureaucratic state the world had yet known. Concerning the earlier centuries, the Sumerian King List provides a tentative political history of ancient Sumer.
The second source of information is archaeological work in modern Iraq. Although the early centuries (first half of the third millennium and earlier) are still poorly understood, the archaeological discoveries have shown unequivocally that Ur was a major urban center on the Mesopotamian plain. Especially the discovery of the Royal Tombs have confirmed its splendour. These tombs, which date to the Early Dynastic IIIa period (approximately in the 25th or 24th century BC), contained immense amounts of luxury items made out of precious metals, and semi-precious stones, all of which would have required import from long distances (Iran, Afghanistan, India, Asia Minor, the Persian Gulf). This wealth, unparalleled up to then, is a testimony of Ur’s economic importance during the Early Bronze Age.
Archaeological research of the region has also contributed greatly to our understanding of the landscape and long-distance interactions that took place during these ancient times. We know that Ur was the most important port on the Persian Gulf, which extended much further inland than it does today. All the wealth which came to Mesopotamia by sea had to pass through Ur.
So far evidence for the earliest periods of the Early Bronze Age in Mesopotamia is very limited. Mesh-Ane-pada is the first king mentioned in the Sumerian King List, and appears to have lived in the 26th century BC. That Ur was an important urban centre already then seems to be indicated by a type of cylinder seal called the City Seals. These seals contain a set of proto-cuneiform signs which appear to be writings or symbols of the name of city-states in ancient Sumer. Many of these seals have been found in Ur, and the name of Ur is prominent on them.
Ur came under the control of the Akkadian Empire founded by Sargon the Great between the 24th and 22nd centuries BC. This was a period when the Semitic Akkadians of Mesopotamia gained ascendancy over the Sumerians, and indeed much of the ancient Near East.
After the fall of the Akkadian Empire in the mid-22nd century BC, southern Mesopotamia came to be ruled for a few decades by the Gutians, a barbarian people originating in the Zagros Mountains to the north-east of Mesopotamia, while the Assyrian branch of the Akkadian Semites reasserted their independence in the north of Mesopotamia.
The third dynasty was established when the king Ur-Nammu came to power, ruling between ca. 2047 BC and 2030 BC. During his rule, temples, including the ziggurat, were built, and agriculture was improved through irrigation. His code of laws, the Code of Ur-Nammu (a fragment was identified in Istanbul in 1952) is one of the oldest such documents known, preceding the Code of Hammurabi by 300 years. He and his successor Shulgi were both deified during their reigns, and after his death he continued as a hero-figure: one of the surviving works of Sumerian literature describes the death of Ur-Nammu and his journey to the underworld. About that time, the houses in the city were two-storied villas with 13 or 14 rooms, with plastered interior walls.
Ur-Nammu was succeeded by Shulgi, the greatest king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who solidified the hegemony of Ur and reformed the empire into a highly centralized bureaucratic state. Shulgi ruled for a long time (at least 42 years) and deified himself halfway through his rule. The Ur empire continued through the reigns of three more kings with Semitic Akkadian names, Amar-Sin, Shu-Sin, and Ibbi-Sin. It fell around 1940 BC to the Elamites in the 24th regnal year of Ibbi-Sin, an event commemorated by the Lament for Ur.
From c. 2030 to 1980 BCE its population was approximately 65,000. Research indicates that the area was struck by drought conditions from 2200 to 2000 BC. The population dropped by 93%. Ur was sacked twice by nomads during this time. At the end of this drought, the use of the Sumerian language died out.
The city of Ur lost its political power after the demise of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The city came to be ruled by the first dynasty (Amorite) of Babylonia which rose to prominence in southern Mesopotamia in the 18th century BC. After the fall of Hammurabi’s short lived Babylonian Empire, it later became a part of the native Akkadian ruled Sealand Dynasty for over 270 years, and was reconquered into Babylonia by the successors of the Amorites, the Kassites in the 16th century BC. During the Kassite Dynastic period Ur, along with the rest of Babylonia, came under sporadic control of the Elamites and Middle Assyrian Empire.
The city, along with the rest of southern Mesopotamia and much of the Near East, Asia Minor, North Africa and southern Caucasus, fell to the north Mesopotamian Assyrian Empire from the 10th to late 7th centuries BC. From the end of the 7th century BC Ur was ruled by the so-called Chaldean Dynasty of Babylon. In the 6th century BC there was new construction in Ur under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. The last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (who was Assyrian born, and not Chaldean), improved the ziggurat. However the city started to decline from around 550 BC and was no longer inhabited after about 500 BC by which time Babylonia had fallen to the Persian Achaemenid Empire. The demise of Ur was perhaps owing to drought, changing river patterns, and the silting of the outlet to the Persian Gulf.
Ur is considered by many to be the city of Ur Kasdim mentioned in the Book of Genesis (Biblical Hebrew אוּר [Aur]) as the birthplace of the Hebrew patriarch Abram (Abraham), traditionally believed to be some time in the 2nd millennium BC.
Ur is mentioned four times in the Torah or Old Testament, with the distinction “of the Kasdim/Kasdin”—traditionally rendered in English as “Ur of the Chaldees”. The Chaldeans were already settled in the vicinity by around 850 BC, but were not the rulers of Ur until the late 7th century BC. The name is found in Genesis 11:28, Genesis 11:31, and Genesis 15:7. In Nehemiah 9:7, a single passage mentioning Ur is a paraphrase of Genesis.
The Book of Jubilees states that Ur was founded in 1688 Anno Mundi (year of the world) by ‘Ur son of Kesed, presumably the offspring of Arphaxad, adding that in this same year wars began on Earth.
- “And ‘Ur, the son of Kesed, built the city of ‘Ara of the Chaldees, and called its name after his own name and the name of his father.” (i.e., Ur Kasdim) (Jubilees 11:3).
Ur in Islamic tradition
According to Islamic texts, the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) was thrown into the fire here. In the story, the temperature of the king’s fire was reduced by God, saving the life of Ibrahim. While the Qur’an does not mention the king’s name, Muslim commentators have assigned Nimrod as the king based on Jewish sources, namely the Book of Jasher (11:1 and 12:6).
In 1625, the site was visited by Pietro della Valle, who recorded the presence of ancient bricks stamped with strange symbols, cemented together with bitumen, as well as inscribed pieces of black marble that appeared to be seals.
The site was first excavated in 1853 and 1854 by John George Taylor, British vice consul at Basra from 1851 to 1859, on behalf of the British Museum. Taylor found clay cylinders in the four corners of the top stage of the ziggurat which bore an inscription of Nabonidus (Nabuna`id), the last king of Babylon (539 BC), closing with a prayer for his son Belshar-uzur (Bel-ŝarra-Uzur), the Belshazzar of the Book of Daniel. Evidence was found of prior restorations of the ziggurat by Ishme-Dagan of Isin and Shu-Sin of Ur, and by Kurigalzu, a Kassite king of Babylon in the 14th century BC.
Taylor further excavated an interesting Babylonian building, not far from the temple, part of an ancient Babylonian necropolis. All about the city he found abundant remains of burials of later periods. Apparently, in later times, owing to its sanctity, Ur became a favorite place of sepulchres, so that even after it had ceased to be inhabited, it continued to be used as a necropolis.
Excavations from 1922 to 1934 were funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. A total of about 1,850 burials were uncovered, including 16 that were described as “royal tombs” containing many valuable artifacts, including the Standard of Ur. Most of the royal tombs were dated to about 2600 BC. The finds included the unlooted tomb of a queen thought to be Queen Puabi. Many other people had been buried with her, in a form of human sacrifice.
Near the ziggurat were uncovered the temple E-nun-mah and buildings E-dub-lal-mah (built for a king), E-gi-par (residence of the high priestess) and E-hur-sag (a temple building). Outside the temple area, many houses used in everyday life were found. Excavations were also made below the royal tombs layer: a 3.5-metre-thick (11 ft) layer of alluvial clay covered the remains of earlier habitation, including pottery from the Ubaid period, the first stage of settlement in southern Mesopotamia.
Woolley later wrote many articles and books about the discoveries. One of Woolley’s assistants on the site was the archaeologist Max Mallowan. The discoveries at the site reached the headlines in mainstream media in the world with the discoveries of the Royal Tombs. As a result the ruins of the ancient city attracted many visitors. One of these visitors was the already famous Agatha Christie, who as a result of this visit became the wife of Max Mallowan.
Most of the treasures excavated at Ur are in the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.