Eridu and the First Cities

A Union of Cultures

It was around 7,500 years ago when the village of Eridu formed in what is now southern Iraq. Eridu was located at an important crossroads of both culture and geography. Today the ruins of Eridu are surrounded by desert. However the and terrain was different in those times and the village was located close to the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf, as well as near the marshlands that lined the littoral of the northern Arabian coast.i Here, three distinct peoples merged and formed a new culture of Sumerian speaking city-states linked by both religious and trade connections; assuming there was any difference between the two in remote antiquity.ii

Sumer and Akkad showing ancient courses of the rivers

Sumer and Akkad showing ancient courses of the rivers

The inhabitants of the marshlands who lived in reed huts and survived by hunting and fishing may be as close to the original Sumerians as anthropology will let us glimpse. These marsh dwellers joined with proto-Semitic speaking herdsman who had spread south along the Euphrates over thousands of years of migrations and with the canal builders of the central Tigris and Euphrates region. Together these three cultures linked technology and created a stable food supply that allowed for the development of a large sedentary community.

From Town to City

Around 6,000 years ago Eridu was a walled town, but it was not the walls that eventually made it a city.3 3,500 years earlier the town of Jericho in Palestine boasted impressive walls and 2,000 years after that Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia had a dense population living in an equally well fortified community. However, these earlier settlements had never shown the kind of specialization which later occurred in Eridu. The original Sumerian city developed a broad profile of professionals and a crucial social barrier was crossed when families no longer provided for their own food but could rather rely on an organized system of food gathering, storage and distribution.

At this time southern Mesopotamia was united by a shared culture known as Ubaid, after the ancient site near Eridu where a distinctive type of pottery was first discovered. Other cultures such as the northern Halafian and central Iraq’s Hassuna-Sammara culture began to adopt characteristics of the southern Ubaid pottery styles. A pattern was set that would last for thousands of years which saw new cultures develop in Southern Mesopotamia and spread northward.4

Six thousand years ago Eridu had grown into a city as the climate was stabilizing and entering into its modern patterns. Dense forests had taken shape in the Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges and the Persian Gulf had receded some; close to its current level. Silt had yet to fill in its port, but Eridu had become more isolated from its watery trade routes. Still the city thrived as the nearby towns of Uruk and Ur became cities in their own right.

After the kingship descended from heaven

Archeological excavations at Eridu revealed 17 different layers of construction at the temple of Enki, the E-abzu. Enki or his minions are regarded as having brought civilization to Eridu and onwards to all of Sumeria. It appears that Enki was first honored as a local deity but as the city’s importance grew he was incorporated into the pantheons of other developing towns and cities making him one of Sumeria’s major deities. As the god of the abzu, the underground wellspring of all water, Enki was also seen as a creator god. Although the first layer of his temple is only a small room, as the centuries passed this became the foundation for what was possibly the largest of the ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats.

Depiction of the layers of construction beneath the Ziggurat at Eridu.

Depiction of the layers of construction beneath the Ziggurat at Eridu.

The focus of ancient Eridu had likely always been the temple of Enki, Yet, to put it mildly Enki is a rough fit into the otherwise nearly synchronous Sumerian mythology. He is usually lumped in with Anu, Enlil and Inanna as one of the great Sumerian gods but he is anything but a homogenous member of the pantheon. Enki is often being depicted as sexually assaulting goddess’s, including his own daughters. It is possible that these primal myths reflect some original conflict before the various pantheons of the cities merged. 

The foundation of the city was built upon sand dunes that had not been previously occupied but how the site came to be chosen is lost in myth. Dilmun, in the Persian Gulf, was said to be the origin of the secrets of civilization, and Enki’s original home. It may have been that some of the original inhabitants of Eridu frequented the area by boat, presumably for trade between the peoples of the rivers with the Persian Gulf and beyond.

With this mythological and archeological record it is no surprise that Eridu is the first city mentioned in the Sumerian Kinglist.5

“After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu. In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years.” –Sumerian Kinglist (ca. 2,000 BCE)

As one of the five cities listed before the Great Flood there is no way to tell how long the kings of Eridu held sway. It is generally believed that the city was most influential between 3,500 and 3,000 BCE, just before the dawn of history. With its roots so far in the past and the environment changing around it, Eridu eventually saw the more northern cities surpass it in prominence.

There is a myth that tells a story of how the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, who resided in Uruk with her father Anu, went to Eridu to receive the secret lore of civilization from Enki. Enki then tried to retrieve the power of knowledge back from Uruk but was unable to. This may well be a mythological allegory for a real transfer of political and cultural power north from Eridu to Uruk.6

Decline of Eridu

Following the Ubaid period, which likely saw Eridu dominate southern Iraq culturally, the city of Uruk is credited with the next evolution of ceramic style. During the Uruk period the Sumerian civilization depicted in most history books came into being along with the gradual development of the cuneiform script. Some of the earliest symbols ever decoded indicate that a group of cities, Ur, Larsa, Zabalam, Urum, Kesh, and Jemdet Nasr were sending goods to the temple of Anu, in Uruk.

The use of simple tokens as tools of communication dates back at least 10,000 years. Around 5,200 years ago, this process became much more detailed and therefore advanced record keeping and all the administrative benefits that it provides, became part of everyday society. By the time the first true written records appear Eridu was already 2,500 years old, nearly as old as Rome is today, and was poised for decline.

Already the early records of a trade compact centered on nearby Uruk seem to exclude Eridu, but the city continued to be revered as a site of special significance. Even as the cities or Uruk and Ur grew in population to rival and surpass Eridu its legend as the first city endured. Future kings from the northern cities would still continue to honor the temple of E-abzu as central to the region’s religion.

Still the nature of Eridu’s early supremacy remains a mystery. Even Uruks seeming importance, with its god Anu receiving tribute from neighboring cities, remains obscured by its largely prehistoric setting. By the time of the emergence of a decipherable written record, around 2,600 BCE, it is the city of Nippur and the temple of Anu’s son Enlil which had become the focus of the region’s political/religious affinity. It may not be unreasonable to assume that Eridu played a central role like Uruk and Nippur but in an even more remote epoch for which no clear evidence remains.

Eridu today -From the British Museum

Eridu today -From the British Museum

Around 2050 BCE there was a precipitous decline of the Eridu’s wealth. This was likely caused by further recession of the gulf coast and an increasingly unreliable water table. This ecological change led to the temple ziggurat of Amar-sin being left uncompleted. However the remains of the ziggurat and the 17 stages of development layered beneath it provide a valuable insight into the significance of this location.

The original building was a small square room with a pedestal outside of which was a kiln or oven. Upon this site increasingly complex temples were built, many showing signs of burned offerings and the remains of fish which were thought to be sacred to Enki. For 3,500 years this site would be the focus of Eridu and then the city would crumble to ruin leaving only the temple. Enki’s temple was honored and restored well after the city was otherwise uninhabited in a tradition the lasted until the 6th century BCE.


Authors Notes, Cultural Anthropology, UCLA, 2007

Author’s Notes, Early Mesopotamia, UCLA, 2007

Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, University of Chicago Press, London, 1998

Oates, John. Babylon, Thames and Hudson, London, 1986

Oppenheim, A. Leo (1998). Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a dead civilization (Rev., 11th impr. ed.). Chicago: University of   Chicago Press.

Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London, 1992


Roaf, Michael, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, Andromeda, Oxford (2004) pg 53,

2 Postgate, J.N. Early Mesopotamia; Society and Economy at the Dawn of History,  Routledge, London, (2004) pgs 3-11

3 Mallowan, Max “The Development of Cities from Al-U’baid to the end of Uruk 5” (Cambridge Ancient History)

4 Roux, 122-130

5The Sumeriam Kinglist was likely recorded for the first time near the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, at a time when Eridu was already in steep decline.

6 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911) “Erech” Encyclopedia Britannica 9 (11th ed) Cambridge University Press. pg. 734-735