A brief history of Ur in Lower Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is located in what is today modern day Iraq. It is often referred to as ‘the land between two rivers,’ referring specifically to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. While present day southern Iraq (ancient Lower Mesopotamia) is mainly an alluvial plain, during the sixth to third millennia BCE, it was a vast marshy delta. The rivers flowed from what is today eastern Turkey into Mesopotamia and created the marshes that provided the resources necessary for civilizations to flourish. Alluvial soils deposited by the rivers supported the growth of fertile fields, allowing for the spread of villages and towns along the marsh banks food sources, including fish, waterfowl and wild game. Boar and deer were easily sourced from the rivers, while reeds provided material for home living, including the making of baskets, mats and roofing.

Ubaid5500 BCE – 4000 BCE
Uruk4000 BCE – 3300 BCE
Jemdet Nasr3200 BCE – 2900 BCE
Early Dynastic I-III2900 BCE – 2334 BCE
Akkadian2334 BCE – 2154 BCE
Third Dynasty of Ur2112 BCE – 2000 BCE
Isin-Larsa/Old Babylonian2000 BCE – 1600 BCE
Kassite1600 BCE – 1155 BCE
Assyrian1300 BCE – 660 BCE
Neo-Babylonian625 BCE – 539 BCE
Achaemenid547 BCE – 331 BCE
Seleucid330 BCE – 140 BCE
Persian140 BCE – 220 CE
Historical periods for Ur (dates are approximate).

A) Ubaid Culture

Archaeological evidence traces its earliest habitation to the prehistoric Ubaid culture in about 5500 BCE. The Ubaid’s flourished at Ur for almost 2,000 years, with their occupation marked by the presence of delicate, hand-made painted pottery. Additionally, they constructed reed and mudbrick houses that were often intermixed with kiln-fired bricks and had established practices of domesticated agriculture production and animal husbandry methods.

B) The Uruk and Jemdat Nasr Periods

The area saw the growth of populations, trade networks, urbanization and the advent of an early pictographic writing system. While the remains are scanty, the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods were established at Ur through the presence of cylinder seals, as well as wheel-made pottery from the Uruk period and Jemdat Nasr polychrome pottery. They did not leave behind monumental structures at Ur. However, scattered remains of clay floors abutting walls made of mosaic cones were discovered. In addition, new burial practices were established during this time, specifically interring the dead in a flexed fetal-like position, the first time this was seen in Lower Mesopotamian history.

C) Early Dynastic Period

The formation of city-states emerged during the Early Dynastic Period of Mesopotamia, which also saw the evolution of writing from pictographic script into true cuneiform, as well as the political administration of populations. Religious worship of a pantheon of deities was fully practiced, with every city having one or more temples dedicated to their city’s gods and goddesses. At Ur, this was the moon god Nanna, whose ceremonial complex included a temple and other religious structures that were eventually buried under the colossal buildings of the Third Dynasty of Ur.
The most important Early Dynastic structures at Ur were the Royal Cemeteries. These were tombs constructed of brick and stone that held the remains of what were identified as kings, queens and their sacrificed royal subjects.

D) Akkadian Empire

In the twenty-fourth century BCE, the Akkadian king known as Sargon the Great conquered the city-states and formed the world’s first true empire. It was during this period that writing transitioned from Sumerian to Akkadian, cities were under centralized political control, international trade expanded, and organized militaries became more complex. Ur was one of these conquered cities. While buildings from this time period are scarce, cylinder seals and an inscribed mace head described how Sargon appointed his daughter to the post of high priestess of Ur.

E) Third Dynasty of UR

After the Akkadian Empire fell, a new political identity emerged, the Third Dynasty of Ur. A Sumerian cultural revival took place. Large-scale construction projects are one of the hallmarks of the dynasty, including irrigation systems, central planning, palaces, and the colossal-stepped temple towers known as ziggurats. Construction projects at Ur during this time included the digging of canals, the building of the ziggurat and ceremonial complex, and the erection of brick tombs to house the deceased kings. In about 2000 BCE, the Third Dynasty of Ur fell to an Elamite invasion, and was eventually replaced by independent small states, including the Isin and Larsa Dynasties.

F) Isin / Larsa / Old Babylonian Period

Domestic life at Ur continued unhindered under the new Isin-Larsa and Babylonian leadership, but the city lost its political importance. The rebuilding of vast housing complexes was carried-out during this time, which included residential quarters, community chapels and small shops or souqs. Large quantities of inscribed tablets were produced that included the names of kings from the Isin-Larsa Dynasties to the Old Babylonian king Hammurabi. Hammurabi was most famous for his ‘Codes of Law’ that set forth the rules of justice and punishment for anyone who committed a crime. While Hammurabi’s rule over Ur was uneventful, in approximately 1740 BCE, the local inhabitants rose in revolt against his son, Samus-iluna who harshly quelled the rebellion that left much of the city damaged by fire and sections completely destroyed.

G) Middle Babylonian Period

After the fall of the Old Babylon Empire to Hittite invaders, the region fell into a state of political turmoil until the Kassites, a culture originating from the Zagros Mountains in modern day Iran, took over control in about 1600 BCE. Ur slowly recovered, and while documentation of Kassite rule was minimal, the population seemed to be at relative peace during this time. Under the rule of the Kassite King Kuri-galzu in the fourteenth century BCE, the city underwent a vast rebuilding period. This included the shrines, temples and religious sanctuaries within the city center.

H) Assyrian Empire

After the end of the Kassite Dynasty, the region fell into a period of decline. However, in northern, or Upper Mesopotamian, the Assyrian Empire was building strength and expanding a stronghold that eventually reached the south. The Assyrians were known for their military prowess, especially siege warfare. As different lands fell under their control, they spread their cultural norms throughout Mesopotamia and beyond its borders, to Egypt, ancient Anatolia, ancient Levant and the Zagros Mountains. Ur was controlled by Assyrian governorships, and while temples and sanctuaries were refurbished the importance of the city began to decline as trade networks shifted north.

I) Neo Babylonian Empire

The Assyrian Empire eventually fell, and their vast territory was taken over by the Neo-Babylonians in the late seventh century BCE. Under the Neo-Babylonians the region experienced prosperity, mainly through agricultural cultivation and trade, and also held the distinction of being the last true native Mesopotamian dynasty. It was also during this time that kings Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus ordered vast reconstructions, including a rebuilding of the entire city center with a concentration on the religious structures, as well as the erection of a massive gated inner city wall.

J) The Achaemenid Period

The Neo-Babylonian Empire came to an end in 539 BCE when Cyrus the Great conquered the region and incorporated it into his enormous Achaemenid Empire that stretched from Egypt, across Anatolia, through Mesopotamia, to the Indus River. The Achaemenid occupied established cities and created new ones across their empire. They incorporated the artistic styles from the regions they conquered into their art and architecture that they in turn spread throughout their domain via their vast network of roads. At Ur, Cyrus ordered the rebuilding of temples and sanctuaries within the religious center. In addition, residential housing was erected throughout the city during the years of Achaemenid rule, as was a pottery-manufacturing factory.

The reign of Achaemenid kings ended with Darius III, who was defeated in The Battle of Gaugamela, near modern day Erbil, by Alexander the Great’s military forces in 331 BCE. It was during this period, sometime near the end of the fourth century BCE, that the Euphrates River changed course and migrated approximately 16 kilometers east of the city of Ur. Without a source of water for irrigation, farming and sustaining human habitation, the population was unable to thrive. While some individuals may have remained for a short period of time, the entire population eventually moved, leaving behind their houses, commercial centers, sanctuaries and temples. This marked the end of Ur, as the last inscribed clay tablet found in the city was dated to the end of Alexander the Great’s reign.