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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Urban Experience Art: Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat

» Unknown artist(s). Uruk, Mesopotamia

Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat

Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist(s). Uruk, Mesopotamia
Region: West Asia
Date: ca. 3200–3000 BCE
Period: 30,000 – 3000 BCE
Material: Brick
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: H: 40 ft. (12 m.)
Location: Warka (ancient Uruk), Iraq
Credit: © Nik Wheeler/CORBIS

In the fourth millennium BCE, the world’s first urban revolution took place in southern Mesopotamia.

There, in the fertile valley that lay between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, the earliest cities arose. Uruk was the first of these.

By 3200 BCE, Uruk was a large, thriving settlement with a population of some 40,000 people. Freed by agricultural bounty to expend energy on non-essential activities, the civilization at Uruk established specialized fields of labor and introduced major cultural innovations, including the pictographs from which cuneiform writing later developed. Monumental architecture decorated with mosaics of painted clay cones also began to appear at this time.

Like other early cities, Uruk was associated with a particular deity, in its case Anu, the chief deity of the Sumerians and god of the sky. Across Mesopotamia, temples dedicated to these divine guardians often formed the center of the urban landscape. Although access to the temples was generally restricted, mountainous, stepped platforms called ziggurats made them available for all to see. The greatest of such structures was no doubt the one at Babylon, which is said to have stood 270 feet high and provided inspiration for the story of the Tower of Babel.

The remains in the photograph here were once the base for Uruk’s White Temple. Rising some forty feet above ground level, the ziggurat would have lifted the temple above the city’s fortification wall, supposedly constructed on the orders of Gilgamesh, the eponymous protagonist of the epic tale and legendary king of ancient Uruk (reigned ca. 2700 BCE). The grandeur of monuments like this one, as well as their ubiquity and centrality, suggests the profound role that religion played in the earliest urban experiences.

Expert Perspective
Marc Van De Mieroop, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History, Columbia University

“The city of Uruk in the south of Babylonia, around 3400 BC, became truly the first city in the world. One aspect that allows us to say that Uruk turns into a true city is the fact that we see this quite sudden appearance of massive buildings, monumental buildings. So when you’re in this exceedingly flat countryside and you see in the distance these massive buildings, which are on top of these artificial mounds, they become this beacon to which people can look from a great distance. And then, actually, they know that this is a center; this is something where they can find things they cannot find in the countryside. This is a place where you have writing. This is a place where you have manufacture of, for example, metal objects; bronze is invented at the same time. So this is what I think defines a place like Uruk as a true city. A city is not just defined because it is big and large and lots of people live there—and probably in reality only some 40,000 people lived there, and today if we find a village with 40,000 people, you don’t call it the big city.

The whole of Babylonian culture and history was made possible by the rivers that flow through the region between the Tigris and Euphrates River. The entire region gets exceedingly little rainfall. So in order to grow a single plant, you have to bring water to that plant. And people learned how to take the water of the Euphrates. Over time, they are able to produce so much agricultural resources that it becomes possible to have a dense concentration of people in the same place, that it actually becomes possible to have, amongst these people, a number of them who no longer need to farm for a living, but who can specialize in such things as learning how to read and write.

If you train somebody to be able to read and write, there is certainly a massive investment in time. You are not going to ask this person, then, to farm a field, or herd some sheep, or something like that. So you have these groups within the population who become dependent on the farmers, on the herdsmen, on fishermen, because they are able to provide them with their food. And you get a specialization of labor, you get an organization of a society that is totally innovative, truly new in the history of the world, and you get it through urban society.”

Additional Resources

Aruz, Joan, ed. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.

Boehmer, Rainer M. “Uruk-Warka.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, 294–98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Uruk: The First City.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2003).

Kostof, Spiro, Gregory Castillo, and Richard Tobias. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Van de Mieroop, Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000–320 B.C., 2nd ed. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

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