Near the present-day city of Basra in Iraq, and about 12 kilometers southwest of the site of ancient Ur, is the site of Eridu (Eridug in Sumerian), the southernmost of all the great Mesopotamian cities and, according to the Sumerian King List, the oldest city in history.

The mound that housed ancient Eridu was identified in 1855 by British archaeologist John George Taylor, who conducted the initial excavations at the site now known as Tell Abu Shahrain.

Taylor found bricks with inscriptions that allowed him to identify the location as the ancient city of Eridu. British archaeologists conducted excavations between 1918 and 1919, but these were interrupted until after World War II.

Originally, Eridu was established near the mouth of the Euphrates, in a basin 24 kilometers long and 6 meters deep, bordered by rocky outcrops and on a natural hill formed by sand dunes where there were no previous settlements. Today, it is 145 kilometers inland.

During the third millennium BCE, a canal, the “Eridu Plain Canal”, connected the city to the Euphrates River, which later changed its course.

According to early historical records of Mesopotamia, such as the Sumerian King List, Eridu held the title of the “first city” for being founded before any other in the southern region of the country.

The Sumerian King List is a catalog of Mesopotamian kings found in various archaeological and documentary artifacts, with slight variations. It begins with mythical rulers before the flood, with incredibly long reigns, and extends to the Isin Dynasty around 1730 BCE. It states that kingship began in Eridu, making it the first city in the world:

After kingship descended from heaven, kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king and ruled for 28,800 years. Alaljar ruled for 36,000 years.

In the tablet of the flood myth, found in nearby Ur, it is detailed how Eridu was originally chosen by the gods as the seat of the first royal priesthood under the mythical king Alulim. It was also considered the original abode of the god Enki and the cradle of civilization, bestowed by him upon humanity.

The Sumerian oral tradition, preserved in texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh, highlighted Eridu’s ancient wisdom embodied in its cultural hero Adapa, credited with bringing the arts of writing and governance to the city.

Excavations at Tell Abu Shahrain have revealed continuous human occupation since 5400 BCE, effectively confirming Eridu as one of the earliest Neolithic settlements in southeastern Mesopotamia.

The oldest levels of the Ubaid period (5400-4000 BCE) correspond to a large necropolis with about 1000 tombs and the remains of 16-17 successive temples dedicated to the god Enki. During the Uruk period (4000-3100 BCE), public buildings and defensive walls emerged.

In the Early Dynastic period (3100-2350 BCE), monumental royal palaces were constructed. Bricks with inscriptions of rulers from 2100 BCE confirm the religious importance of Eridu.

The urban core revolved around the main temple of Enki, called E-Abzu or the “House of the Aquifer”, identifiable by its foundations of shells, corals, and gypsum. It was later reconstructed as a ziggurat by King Ur-Nammu around the 21st century BCE.

Mythological accounts tell how Inanna, the goddess of the city of Uruk, had to go to Eridu to receive the gifts of civilization, and thus, the center of power shifted to Uruk. The “Lament for Eridu” poetically narrates the loss of the city’s influence:

Its king stayed out of his city as if it were a foreign city. He wept bitter tears. Father Enki stayed out of his city as if it were a strange city. He wept bitter tears. For the sake of his damaged city, he wept bitter tears. His lady, like a flying bird, left her city. The mother of E-maḫ, the holy Damgalnuna (wife of Enki), left her city. The divine powers of the city of the most holy divine powers were overthrown. The divine powers of the rites of the greatest divine powers were altered. In Eridug, everything was reduced to ruin, plunged into chaos

The site remained an active sanctuary until 600 BCE when it was definitively abandoned, likely due to the increased salinity caused by continuous irrigation, according to Assyriologist Leo Oppenheim. It happened rapidly, and almost overnight, the city was buried under large sand dunes.

Eridu represents a foundational milestone in civilization, identified by mythological tradition as the primordial place where the gods granted humanity the foundations of sedentary and urban life.

In 2019, excavations at Eridu were resumed through a joint effort involving Italian, French, and Iraqi teams, with the participation of the University of Rome La Sapienza and the University of Strasbourg.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 22, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Eridu, la primera ciudad de la historia según las fuentes mesopotámicas


The Sumerian king list: translation (The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature) | The lament for Eridug (ETCSL) | Harriet E. W. Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians | Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: La Invención de la Ciudad | Wikipedia

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