Kingship Descends from Heaven: The Urban Revolution Before 4000 BCE

Sumer, in southernmost Mesopotamia, was the first true city in the world, some time not very much before 2100 BCE.

By Dr. Paul Kriwaczek
British Historian


Leave the modern traffic, the bicycles, the cars and delivery lorries fuming along St Giles’ and Beaumont Street in Oxford, and pass through the Ashmolean Museum’s rather overblown neoclassical façade. In a glass case in one of the galleries you will find a baked clay object, square in cross-section, dull in colour, partly broken, and covered in what at first sight look like birds’ footprints. You may have to look hard to find it, because it is only about 20 cm high and 9 cm wide.

It doesn’t look like an object of any great importance, yet it is. Look at it closely, and it will draw you back through time to the origins of civilization. It is called the Weld-Blundell Prism, after the benefactor who bought it during a visit to Mesopotamia in the spring of 1921. Victorian architects like C. R. Cockerell, who in 1841 based the Ashmolean’s design on the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, thought that they were celebrating the ultimate roots of our culture. But the prism directs us much further back, long before the Greeks, long before King Solomon, long before Moses, long before Abraham the Patriarch, even before Noah and his flood, to the time when cities were first imagined.

The bird-scratchings are writing: two columns of closely written text on each of its four faces, encoding an early version of the Sumerian King List, a long and exhaustive enumeration of the dynasties of different Mesopotamian cities, and the regnal years of their rulers. Some are wildly improbable, like Alulim who reigned for 28,800 years and Alalgar for 36,000, but the list tracks the kingship from Eridu to Bad-tibira, to Larsa, to Sippar, to Shuruppak, ‘and then the flood swept over.’ The written marks were impressed on to the prism by an unnamed scribe in the city of Larsa in Babylonia in about 1800 BCE.

Cuneiform texts may look colourless and unexciting, but there is actually something wonderfully intimate about them. These marks, I cannot help thinking, were made by a person, probably with a family, a wife (scholars think that scribes were mostly male) and children, whose experience of life – stroppy teenagers, arguments with the boss – cannot have been so very different from our own, even in such a different society at such a different time. If we were familiar enough with cuneiform, as much at home with it as the ancient scribes were, we should surely be able to recognize individual styles of handwriting. Sadly, that degree of familiarity is far beyond most of us. Cuneiform is extremely hard to read. But at least scholars have been able to work out what this tablet says. It begins: ‘After kingship was lowered down from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu.’

The Larsa scribe did not invent this. The oldest known version of the King List was almost certainly compiled rather earlier, from oral traditions, by a senior official in the court of the self-styled ‘Lord of the Four Quarters of the Earth’, King Utu-hegal of Uruk, in Sumer, southernmost Mesopotamia, the first true city in the world, some time not very much before 2100 BCE. Its point was, presumably, political. King Utu-hegal of Uruk had led the campaign to expel the Gutians, barbarian occupiers from the Iranian mountains to the east with no understanding of, or appreciation for, civilization, who had plunged southern Mesopotamia into a century-long dark age. Utu-hegal was now anxious to establish that there had only ever been one legitimate ruling city in all Sumer, and that he and Uruk were the rightful inheritors of kingship over the entire region. It was a fiction, of course, but one that contained a grain of truth. For all ancient Mesopotamians knew that civilization had begun at Eridu in the deep south, on the shores of the Southern Sea (to us the Persian or Arabian Gulf) at a place today called Abu Shahrein, and now some 190 kilometres from the water.

Two thousand years after Utu-hegal’s time his civilization died. Eridu was forgotten, its location lost, until, in 1854, John Taylor, the Hon. East India Company’s agent and British vice-consul in Basra, began fossicking among what he called the Chaldean Marshes on behalf of the British Museum. There he found a collection of mounds and ‘a ruined fort, surrounded by high walls with a keep or tower at one end,’ topping a hillock near the centre of a dried-out lake. The place was half-hidden in a valley about 25 kilometres wide, which opened, at its northern end, on to the Euphrates River. Much of it, he wrote, was ‘covered with a nitrous incrustation, but with here and there a few patches of alluvium, scantily clothed with the shrubs and plants peculiar to the desert.’ Taylor also found nearby faint traces of an ancient canal, 5.5 metres wide, to the northwest. He knew that he had come across important remains because, as a later excavator described it, ‘a peculiar characteristic of Shahrein is the ‘fan’ of detritus that extends around the mounds, and has carried with it, out on to the desert, thousands of objects belonging to the lower strata of the mounds themselves…The loose sandy mounds are torn every winter by rain-floods…carrying with them remains of all ages.’

A career diplomat, untrained in archaeological technique, Taylor dug a few desultory pits, but was disappointed not to find the sort of spectacular artefacts he had hoped to send home to the Museum. And one find – a ‘handsome carved lion in black granite’ – was left behind for want of transport. But he did find several bricks inscribed with cuneiform writing. It had become possible to read some of these signs only a few years previously, but enough was already understood to know that Taylor had rediscovered the famous and ancient sacred city of Eridu, the place where Utu-hegal’s King-List Compiler, like all ancient Mesopotamians, knew that civilization had begun.

Abu Shahrein (it means Father of Twin Moons, perhaps from ancient bricks found there stamped with crescents, symbols of a moon god) looks a very unlikely location for humanity to have taken such a momentous step. Dry, dusty and deserted, the tan-coloured mounds look as rumpled as a slept-in bed. Around them, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away. There is nothing within sight that speaks of life, of humanity, of progress, of achievement. Even the river that once made Eridu habitable is now distant and out of sight.

Persian Gulf from space / NASA, Wikimedia Commons

To understand the history of this place you have to imagine a very different scene. You have to turn back the clock nearly 7,000 years, until you see the salt swell of the Gulf just to the south, bringing sea-going vessels from (today’s) Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, the ocean waters infiltrating the land to form extensive sea-marshes teeming with enough fish, flesh and fowl to support a thriving human population. Back until the desert sands of modern Iraq’s al-Muthanna province revert to a grassy and shrubby steppe supporting tribes of sheep- and goat-herders who travel a migratory path to and from the sparkling lakes of what is today the great an-Nafud sand sea of Saudi Arabia. Back until the well-beaten track that carried trade goods to southern Mesopotamia from the highlands of Iran in the east even at this early date, is once again patiently trodden by men bearing huge loads on their backs, clustered together in groups for protection against wild animals and human marauders. (The domestication of beasts of burden, even the donkey, let alone the camel and the horse, is still in the future.) Back until the hillock in the centre of the 6-metre depression below the surrounding river silt, alluvium, looking like the focal point of a meteorite-impact crater, rises again above the sweet waters of a great swampy lake, full of fish and freshwater mussels, attracting humans and animals from all around. This the Sumerians called the Apsu, and thought it an upwelling of the freshwater ocean on which the very earth itself floats. Back until the great river Euphrates, which constantly shifts its sinuous course across the plain, depositing its heavy load of silt over a terrain that slopes less than 6 cm in every kilometre, runs close by once again, bringing down with it, perhaps by boat, pioneers from the north, already experienced in building dykes and canals to control the waters.

Their skills were much needed. The Euphrates is no mild and friendly river like the Nile, with a late summer inundation, regular as clockwork, that prepares the ground for planting winter wheat. The Sumerians called the Euphrates the Buranun (a folk-etymology, attractive but unsupported, suggests the name derives from Sumerian words meaning ‘Great Rushing Flood’). It breaks its banks erratically and unpredictably in the spring, when the seed, already in the ground, must first be protected from drowning beneath the floodwaters, and then later from drying out under a blazing sun that evaporates more than half the river’s flow before it reaches the sea.

So the people who first set up home here, who built their reed huts by the water’s edge, who created fields to grow their wheat and barley, and gardens to plant their vegetables and date palms, taking their animals out to graze on the steppe, were not choosing the path of least resistance. If they had wanted an easy life, they would have established their settlements where sufficient annual rainfall makes farming simple, behind the invisible line which demarcates the area where more than 200 mm of rain falls each year – called by geographers the 200 mm isohyet. This line curves in a great semicircle from the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in the east, past the Taurus mountains in the north, and on to the Mediterranean coast in the west, a shape that prompted the American archaeologist James Henry Breasted to name it the Fertile Crescent. In southern Mesopotamia, well inside the curve, hardly any rain falls for most of the year. Here the newcomers had only the rivers to water their crops, and to do even that they had first to reshape the very land itself, with levees, dykes, ditches, reservoirs and canals.

Elsewhere in the world, for several thousand years men and women had happily led lives of subsistence agriculture, finely attuned to their needs and desires, a lifestyle that would hardly change in its essentials until nearly our own times. Indeed in many places it continues right up to the present day. That was not enough for the pioneers of the Mesopotamian plain. They had not run out of land suitable for traditional farming. Human populations were tiny and widely dispersed, leaving ample room for new agricultural settlements. But those who came here were apparently not interested in doing as their ancestors had done, adapting their manner of living to fit into the natural world as they found it. Instead they were determined to adapt their environment to suit their way of life.

This was a revolutionary moment in human history. The incomers were consciously aiming at nothing less than changing the world. They were the very first to adopt the principle that has driven progress and advancement throughout history, and still motivates most of us in modern times: the conviction that it is humanity’s right, its mission and its destiny to transform and improve on nature and become her master.

From before 4,000 BCE, over the next ten to fifteen centuries, the people of Eridu and their neighbours laid the foundations for almost everything that we know as civilization. It has been called the Urban Revolution, though the invention of cities was actually the least of it. With the city came the centralized state, the hierarchy of social classes, the division of labour, organized religion, monumental building, civil engineering, writing, literature, sculpture, art, music, education, mathematics and law, not to mention a vast array of new inventions and discoveries, from items as basic as wheeled vehicles and sailing boats to the potter’s kiln, metallurgy and the creation of synthetic materials. And on top of all that was the huge collection of notions and ideas so fundamental to our way of looking at the world, like the concept of numbers, or weight, quite independent of actual items counted or weighed – the number ten, or one kilo – that we have long forgotten that they had to be discovered or invented. Southern Mesopotamia was the place where all that was first achieved.

Ashmolean’s Prism / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The scribe who wrote the text on the Ashmolean’s prism, like the palace official in King Utu-hegal’s court, knew how this great leap forward had come about: kingship had been lowered to earth from heaven. That is not far from the proposals of wildly wayward modern commentators, like Erich von Däniken and Zechariah Sitchin, who put it all down to aliens from outer space. Others concluded, with the prejudices of their own times, that the upheaval was caused by the coming together of different races, each with its own character and abilities. The Marxist tradition has unsurprisingly emphasized social and economic factors. I. M. Diakonoff, one of the greatest Soviet Assyriologists, subtitled one of his books, ‘the birth of the most ancient class societies and the first centres of slave-owning civilization’. Currently the environmental idea is fashionable: that climate change, epochs of hotter and drier weather alternating with wetter and cooler periods, prompted humans to adapt their way of living. Still others see the emergence of civilization as an inevitable consequence of evolutionary changes in human mentality since the end of the last ice age.

However, on one thing both ancients and moderns agree. They all treat people as passive objects, recipients of outside influences, targets of the workings of external forces, compliant tools of outside agencies. But we humans aren’t really like that; we don’t react so unthinkingly.

The actual story would have to allow for the everlasting conflict between progressives and conservatives, between the forward and backward looking, between those who propose ‘let’s do something new’ and those who think ‘the old ways are best’, those who say ‘let’s improve this’ and those who think ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. No great shift in culture ever took place without such a contest.

This had already happened at least once before.

The Neolithic Revolution that took our ancestors from hunting and gathering in small kinship-based bands to a settled, communal village life of subsistence agriculture was the greatest ever mass-destroyer of skills, cultures and languages in human history. Tens of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and elaborate tradition were swept aside. Recent studies of this pivotal period of human history concur: no band of hunter-gatherers can have simply given up all they knew and settled down to sedentary farming without engaging in a giant battle of ideas.

Hunting and gathering had provided a relatively easy living. The new ways were, on the face of it, much harder and less rewarding than those that had served humanity so well for so long.

To the author of Genesis, the Neolithic Revolution signified the fall of man: ‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat of the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’ The same message was recently updated by science-writer Colin Tudge: ‘Farming in Neolithic times was obviously harsh: the first farming peoples were less robust than the hunter-gatherers who had preceded them, and suffered nutritional, traumatic and infectious disorders that their forebears had been spared.’ In this light it seems that the momentous change to agriculture as the basis of life can only have been driven by the spread of a powerful new ideology, necessarily in those days expressed in the form of a new religion, propagated with, as the distinguished prehistorian Jacques Cauvin put it in his book The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, ‘messianic self-confidence’.

The next great shift of values and ideals was the one that ultimately led from village farming to our own city civilization. The urban revolution was not quite as destructive of the old ways as the change from hunting and gathering to farming had been. But those who chose this path still had to give up a great deal, including their autonomy, their freedom and their very identity as self-reliant and independent actors. It must have been a very powerful belief that persuaded them to follow a dream whose full working-out was both unforeseeable and unforeseeably far ahead, a belief that could persuade men and women that the sacrifice was worth making: that city living offered the possibility of a better future, indeed that there was such a thing as the Future, which could be made different from what had gone before. This was, above all, an ideological choice.

The beginnings of that ideology are buried under the sands at Eridu. Here, if anywhere, we might be able to observe the processes that brought the ancient city into being.

The God of Progress

Part of a stone monument inscribed with the name of Utu-hegal, king of Uruk. Circa 2125 BCE. From Ur, Iraq. / British Museum, Wikimedia Commons

With the end of World War II, preparations were made for British control of Iraq to come to an end. This was to be a momentous event for the region. After being ruled by Achaemeneans, Greeks, Romans, the Muslim Khalifs, the Mongols, the Iranian Safavids, the Ottomans and the British, Mesopotamia was to become truly free and independent for the first time in some two and a half millennia – since the conquest of Babylon by the Persian Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE.

More than 4,000 years ago, after the expulsion of the Gutians, King Utu-hegal of Uruk had reasserted Sumerian independence and the legitimacy of his own rule by ordering the Sumerian King List to be compiled, starting with the heaven-decreed kingship of Eridu. In the twentieth century the Directorate General of Antiquities in Iraq chose to mark the country’s forthcoming independence by ordering a scientific excavation of Abu Shahrein, to demonstrate ‘the strong thread of continuity that runs throughout the past of Iraq.’

As the archaeologists dug into John Taylor’s gigantic ‘ruined fort’, which they were now able to date to the twenty-first century BCE, they uncovered a much earlier and smaller building under one corner, dating from nearly 2,000 years before that. Beneath this they found yet another sixteen levels of habitation, going right back to the beginning of the fifth millennium BCE, when they finally reached ‘a dune of clean sand’ on which had first been erected ‘a primitive chapel’, a little over ten feet square, constructed of sun-dried brick, with a votive pedestal facing the entrance and a recessed niche, perhaps for a sculptured image.

The layering fascinated the archaeologists who could now follow the history of the site in detail through the several thousand years of its history. But it also tells us something important about the people who built here. Sun-dried brick demands constant maintenance if it is not to recycle itself back into the ground – it was lack of repair, not destruction, that crumbled most of the ancient cities of Sumer into mounds of dust. Yet the architects of ancient Eridu were never satisfied with restoring or refurbishing. Every building they erected on top of the reverently preserved remains of the previous one was bigger and more elaborate. Starting with the simple ‘chapel’, 3.5 by 4.5 metres, they ended, a millennium later, with a temple of monumental proportions: its innermost chamber, the cella, was 15 metres long. These people were, unlike the others of their time, never slaves to tradition, never satisfied with what had gone before, but aiming for constant improvement. In the course of some ten centuries, they tore down and rebuilt these constructions eleven times, an average of once every ninety years or so, displaying an impatience with the old and a welcome of the new on an almost modern American scale.

The Eridu temple was the symbol of a community who believed in – perhaps one might even say invented – the ideology of progress: the belief that it was both possible and desirable continually to improve on what had gone before, that the future could and should be better – and bigger – than the past. The divine power celebrated and honoured here was the expression, embodiment and personification of that idea: no less than the God or Goddess of Civilization.

How did the deity of progress who helped lay the foundations of the modern world come to be first envisaged here, in this now desolate place? It happened before the invention of writing – necessarily so, for writing was itself one of the later products of the progressive ideology. All we have is the mute evidence dug up by archaeologists.

Archeologists from the British Museum visit the historic site of Eridu, Iraq. The visit was part of an assessment of various archeological sites for damage and looting.

They found all too little. There was pottery, naturally, both broken and whole: the elegant, thin-walled, beautifully decorated ware found over much of Mesopotamia in this era. This was not everyday crockery, but fragile and expensive, presumably crafted for an elite. A few inconsequential beads, trinkets, amulets and terracotta figurines were also found. But mostly they found fish-bones and ashes, ashes and fish-bones, in vast quantities: under the floors, behind the walls, on the altars, even collected in rooms of their own. Examination of the bones showed that the fish had been eaten. It would seem that sacred fish suppers played an important role in whatever religious rites were performed here.

The first worshippers would have come from many miles around to the edge of the Apsu, the lagoon of Eridu. There must have been something that attracted travellers, something recognized as a kind of spiritual force, a supernatural influence, what the Greeks called numen – a Nod from God. Egyptologist Anthony Donohue has shown that several, perhaps most, of the great religious centres of ancient Egypt were built at sites where the Egyptians recognized images of their gods in natural formations of the landscape. There are no rocks at Eridu, only sand, silt and salt. But perhaps an event of some kind occurred here, maybe a great storm with a giant bolt of lightning, visible across the entire Euphrates Valley, or perhaps even a meteorite struck the surface with a roar like thunder, breaking through the thick crust to release as if by a miracle salt-free groundwater from below. Such an impact has been conjectured by a research group in South Africa. Or could the miracle have been just that upwelling of cool, sweet, fresh water that gainsaid the pitiless burning sun of the salt marshes? We might imagine that the visits were at first occasional, timed to coincide with the brief season of high water, when the swamp became a sizeable lake, as it sometimes still does. The visitors would have been drawn from many different social groups, people who spent the rest of their year widely separated from each other, maintaining different cultures, maybe even speaking different languages and certainly leading very different lives. Even today, anybody familiar with a country where the old ways still hold sway, like Mali in West Africa, will know how quickly the distant sound of drumming from a village masked dance can attract hundreds from the surrounding areas to the banks of the Niger: farmers speaking Bambara, fishermen Bozo, herders Fulani, traders Songhay.

It is easy to guess that those who came to the sacred Apsu would have joined together in ritually feasting on the rich harvest of the marsh; great shoals of freshwater mussel shells have been found among the earliest layers of the site. To our forebears, food never lost its ritual significance (as it still hasn’t to the religious-minded of our own day). Here at Eridu, with its numinous associations, the sacred meal would have been a serious, although not necessarily solemn, occasion. And from this regular event, perhaps yearly, perhaps monthly, by the holy marsh at the edge of the sea, would slowly have grown an entirely new group identity: ‘those who come to the Apsu’. Drawn from the pioneer settlers in southernmost Mesopotamia, their very presence and survival demonstrated a commitment to changing the face of the land and to securing a different and better future. The religious rites they performed at the water’s edge would forever associate the divine spirit of the Apsu with that belief.

One day – after how long is impossible to say, centuries perhaps – it was decided that a permanent shrine to their watery spirit of progress should be built, in the form of a small chapel. Its permanence would be strikingly unusual for the location. While ‘those who came to the Apsu’, like everyone else in southern Mesopotamia and like the local Marsh Arabs today, lived in houses built of bundled and woven reeds, their monument was to be constructed of brick. That decision signalled the beginning of a new phase in history.

Culture, as the distinguished British archaeologist Colin Renfrew has pointed out, need not be seen as something that merely reflects social reality; instead it can be the process by which that reality comes into being. In his book Prehistory, the Making of the Human Mind, Renfrew considers what happens when a permanent monument is first conceived as a project.

In order to bring this about, the rather small group of occupants of the territory in question would need to invest a great deal of their time. They might also need to invoke the aid of neighbours in adjoining territories, who were encouraged no doubt by the prospect of feasting and local celebration. One can imagine that when the monument was completed it might itself have become the locus for further, annual celebrations and feast days. It served henceforth both as a burying place and as a social focus for the territory.

So the monument becomes the centre of what soon emerges, as a direct result of these activities, as a living community.

The Chaos Monster and the sun god Apsu / Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, in this corner of the world, where sand frequently blows in from the desert to obliterate all familiar features, where the courses of rivers constantly change, and where calamitous flooding often undoes every mark that humans try to make on the landscape, a permanent monument is particularly significant. Suddenly introduced into the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of everyday experience, it provides a sense of continuity and, by extension, a sense of history and of time. A person can look at the construction, reflect that ‘my ancestor helped build this’, and feel a sense of connection to roots, lineage and the otherwise vanished past. And the repeated enlargement and elaboration of the building, while always carefully preserving the relics of the old under or within its structure, acts as a symbol, visible from afar, of that belief in progress and development of which it is the physical consequence.

The message is not lost on Eridu’s neighbours. This first monument, in what will be the land of Sumer, will serve as an inspiration, an example, a model for other groups to emulate. Over the years new communities of worshippers will form nearby, and other temples to other gods will be planted like broadcast seed across the entire area where the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys ran down to the Southern Sea.

There are still vague memories of that era in the version of history disguised, romanticized and politicized in the very much later myths that the Sumerians and their successors spun about their origins and their deities. Forever after, as long as Mesopotamian civilization lasted, they would remember that every city had been inspired and founded by its own particular divinity as his or her earthly home. City names were written with a sign denoting ‘god’, a sign for the name of the god, and the sign for ‘place’: Nippur was written GOD.ENLIL.PLACE, and Uruk GOD.INANNA.PLACE. (Sumerian cuneiform word-signs, or logograms, are conventionally represented in upper case in the roman alphabet.)

And forever after, the divinity celebrated at Eridu would be remembered as the inspirer and instigator of the arts of civilization. In one unexpected way, he is remembered still.

Topographical names, toponyms, what we call the rivers, hills and valleys in the landscape, are among humanity’s most conservative and archaic relics. In England, the rivers Humber and Ouse have been so called, in an unknown language, since Neolithic times; in France the area named Paris memorializes the Iron Age Celtic tribe of the Parisii.

What is true on the ground is yet more so in the sky, which changes less over time. The names by which we know the constellations and the signs of the zodiac mostly go back to the Greeks; some, like Leo the lion and Taurus the bull, we have inherited from the Babylonians. And one is probably even more ancient: a distant, very faint, but still persistent echo of a story the ancients told about the god whose house was built at Eridu.

If you live in the northern hemisphere and go out with a star map between nine and ten o’clock of a cloudless September evening, looking towards the southern horizon you will see a group of faint stars arrayed around a triangle. They make up the constellation Capricorn. It is not easy to make out, but by applying some imagination to the pattern you should be able to see it as a sea-goat, upper half caprid and lower half fish. It is arguably the earliest constellation to have been noted, perhaps because in ancient times the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurred when the sun was in Capricorn. And maybe also because the image outlined by the stars was from the start identified with Eridu’s god of progress.

One of the magical things about ancient Mesopotamian history is that it sheds light on the origins of so much that characterizes our own world, in this case religious myth. That is, of course, not to say that religion first began here on the alluvial plain at the head of the Gulf. Religion is certainly as old as humanity itself, and almost as certainly even older, dating back to the time when our pre-human ancestors began to bury their dead with ceremony. But here, in this new land, with their new lives, the settlers had mostly to start again and repeat the process of religious creation. We can thus witness how at least some stories about the gods came to be. We can see how many of the Mesopotamians’ divinities first sprang from the human imagination as personifications, hypostases, of the forces of nature.

The Gudea cylinders, dating to c. 2125 BC, describe how King Gudea of Lagash rebuilt the temple of Ninĝirsu in Lagash as the result of a dream in which he was instructed to do so. / Photo by Ramessos, Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons

‘I do not know much about gods; but I think the river / Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable’, wrote T. S. Eliot. Thorkild Jacobsen, one of the geniuses of twentieth-century Sumerian studies, gave as an example the god Ningirsu, ‘Lord of Girsu’, the major township of the Lagash city-state, a deity associated with war and destruction. ‘One must realize,’ he said,

that Ningirsu was the yearly flood of the river Tigris personified. Each year when the winter snows begin to melt in the high mountains of Iran they pour down through the foothills in numerous mountain streams to swell the Tigris. This was experienced theologically as the deflowering of the virgin foothills, Nin-hursag, Lady Foothills, by the great mountains, Kur-gal, farther back; the waters of the flood being his semen. Kur-gal, whose other name was Enlil, is thusNingirsu’s father. Ningirsu’s mother isNinhursag, Lady Foothills, and the reddish-brown colour of the flood waters which comes from the clay picked up by the water in passing through the foothills is seen as due to blood from his deflowering.

The flood to which all this refers, the god Ningirsu himself, is awesome indeed. I have seen the Tigris at Baghdad filling the wide valley in which it flows, rising to a height of more than that of a four story house – a sight not easily forgotten.

Or consider the bird known as Zu, Anzu or Imdugud. The sun beats down remorselessly on the plain of Sumer for much of the year. But occasionally, a sudden storm arrives. An inky black cloud first appears over the southern horizon and spreads remarkably swiftly until it darkens the entire sky and assaults the land beneath with thunder, lightning and torrential rain. Then, just as quickly, it disappears in the opposite direction. It is not hard to understand why the Sumerians chose to imagine this storm cloud as a great and terrifying thunderbird, lion-headed and eagle-winged.

These images are more than mere personifications. Interpreting the phenomena of nature in such detail as the activities of gods demonstrates a powerful imagination and a poetic sensibility of the highest order, underscoring the perception that religions are the greatest of all humanity’s collectively created works of art. In time, of course, as with all metaphors, freshness fades; the lively form in which the gods were first visualized becomes degraded into mere emblem. The god celebrated at Eridu, the constructive, creative and imaginative potential inherent in the fertilizing waters, ‘the numinous inner will-to-form in the Deep,’ as Thorkild Jacobson wrote, ‘came to be seen as a gigantic ibex, the antlers of which showed above the water as reeds.’ Thus the Capricorn, a horned goat above the water-line, a fish below it (also reflecting, I like to think, his genesis among fishers and herders) the image through which his memory was passed down to posterity. Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which he emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple – and perhaps also, long after, still remembered in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.

In later days the god of Eridu was pictured in seal engravings as wearing a flounced woollen robe and the horned crown of divinity, with two streams of fish-filled water, perhaps representing the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, flowing from his shoulders. When eventually Sumerian scribes came to write down their myths some 2,000 years after the founding of the temple, his name is revealed. The texts register that Eridu was the home of the god Enki, ‘Lord Earth’, ‘King of Eridu’, ‘King of the Apsu’. Even later yet Genesis 4:17–18 makes him the son of Cain: ‘And unto Enoch [Enki] was born Irad [Eridu]’.

Detail of Enki from the Adda Seal, an ancient Akkadian cylinder seal dating to circa 2300 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Mesopotamians recognized Enki as the god who brings civilization to humankind. It is he who gives rulers their intelligence and knowledge; he ‘opens the doors of understanding’; he teaches humans how to construct canals and plan temples, ‘putting their foundation pegs in exactly the right places’; he ‘brings forth abundance in the shining waters’; he is not the ruler of the universe but the gods’ wise counsellor and elder brother; he is ‘Lord of the Assembly’; he is Nudimmud, ‘the shaper’, the fashioner of images, the patron of artisans and craftsmen. And, prefiguring the story of the Tower of Babel, it was he who divided the speech of mankind – an interpretation surely of the multiplicity of languages spoken by his first devotees.

Enki, the Lord of abundance, of trustworthy commands,

The Lord of wisdom, who understands the land,

The leader of the gods,

Endowed with wisdom, the Lord of Eridu

Changed the speech in their mouths, [brought] contention into it,

Into the speech of man that had previously been one.

Most importantly, Enki was the custodian of the ‘Me’, perhaps pronounced something like Meh, an untranslatable Sumerian expression which the great Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer explained as the ‘fundamental, unalterable, comprehensive assortment of powers and duties, norms and standards, rules and regulations, relating to…civilized life’. (One might more tersely define them as the basic principles of civilization: it shows how self-consciously aware the ancient Mesopotamians were of the difference between civilization and all other ways of living – and its superiority – that they expressed it with an entirely new cognitive concept, for which we have no equivalent in our way of thinking.) When listed long after by Babylonian mythographers, the ‘Me’ include matters of governance such as: high-priesthood, divinity, the noble and enduring crown, the throne of kingship, the exalted sceptre, the staff, the holy measuring rod and line, the high throne. There are matters relating to war like weapons, heroism, the destruction of cities, victory and peace. The ‘Me’ encompass human abilities and qualities like wisdom, judgement, decision-making, power and enmity. They delineate strong emotions like fear, strife, weariness and the troubled heart. And there are arts and crafts like those of the scribe, the musician, the metalworker, the smith, the leather worker, the builder and the basket weaver, as well as numerous different priestly offices, varieties of eunuch and musical instruments.

Mesopotamians never forgot the role the god of Eridu played in founding civilization, even though the details of his story evolved over time. Some 4,000 years after the building of the first chapel by the Apsu, when Greeks ruled in the Near East, a Babylonian priest called Berosos wrote a history of his country in which he described how a creature, an intermediary between god and his human devotees, came out of the water to teach civilization to humanity: ‘He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften manners and humanize their lives. From that time, nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions.’

The City and Sex

A general view of the Uruk archaeological site at Warka in Iraq in 2008 / Photo by SAC Andy Holmes (RAF), Wikimedia Commons

The pioneer settlers of southern Mesopotamia, discovering new gods in their new home, did not entirely abandon their earlier religious traditions. Sixty-five kilometres from Eridu, on the other, sunrise, side of the fickle Buranun River, another settlement grew around another temple. It first became known as Unug, later Uruk in the land of Sumer, which the Hebrews would one day call Erech in the land of Shinar (and some think gave Iraq its present name). Unug’s shrine was dedicated to an aspect of the Great Goddess, she whose ultimate origins lie back in the Old Stone Age, an expression of the threefold divinity of womanhood: virgin, mother, whore.

As mother, she was the nurturing cow, ‘the beautiful cow to whom the moon god in the form of a strong bull sent healing oils’, says one hymn. Her divine milk was the nourishment of royalty; an Assyrian text proclaims, ‘Little wast thou Ashurbanipal, when I delivered thee to the [the Great Goddess] Queen of Nineveh; weak wast thou when thou didst sit upon her knees; four teats were set in thy mouth.’ She was protector of the pastures where the sacred herd grazed, like the ones often illustrated on engraved seals and pictured in an early temple frieze now in the British Museum. Her presence was symbolized by the door of the holy cowshed and the gate of the sacred cattle pen: the sublime porte of ancient Mesopotamia. The paired reed-bundles that framed the entrance, with loops at the top to hold a pole from which once hung a reed-mat door, became the goddess’s symbol in images and later in Sumerian cuneiform. Long, long after, the sacred stall would be remembered as the Bucolium, the ox-shed, in which, according to Aristotle, the symbolic marriage between the Athenian ruler’s wife and the god Dionysus took place every year. The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.

At Unug, the Great Goddess was celebrated under the name Inanna. But here it was her harlotry, her aspect as whore, that was most strongly emphasized. Necessarily so, for cities were always, until modern times, greater consumers rather than producers of humanity. Densely packed together in unsanitary conditions, the people who thronged the narrow lanes between high walls, cheek by jowl with the poultry and livestock from which most human epidemics spread, did not live long. We have no records from ancient Sumer, but in Roman Oxyrhynchos in Egypt, a city of probably equivalent size to Uruk, ‘one-third of all babies perished before their first birthday; half of all children died before they turned five; roughly one-third of the population was under 15; fewer than 10 per cent were over 55…up to one-third of children lost their fathers before reaching puberty; over half before the age of 25; the average ten-year-old had only a one in two chance of having any grandparents alive.’ In southern Mesopotamia, the slow-moving or stagnant waters of the marshes, canals and ditches must have kept the prevalence of mosquito-borne disease, malaria and swamp-fever, at a constant high.

Historians have not much discussed infection as a determinant of ancient history. Archaeologists report that Sumerian cities were sometimes abandoned for years, or decades, occasionally for centuries, before eventually being reoccupied. Aside from warfare, the cause is usually ascribed to change in the local environment: a shift of a river’s course, a rise or fall of the water-table, an encroachment of the desert, even general climate change. But I wonder if we should not also consider it possible that disease and pestilence sometimes wiped out such a large proportion of the inhabitants that the intricate organization of city life, in which every citizen was a necessary cog in the urban machine, could no longer be sustained.

Whether that is true or not, the colossal death rate certainly put huge reproductive pressure on both women and men. Libido, the urge for sex, was of paramount importance in maintaining the population. The powers of Inanna, who controlled the compulsion to copulate, whom in these more decorous days we describe as the Goddess of Love, was all that stood between survival and extinction. Make babies, was the rule, or disappear. When Inanna absented herself from the living world, disaster ensued:

No bull mounted a cow, no donkey impregnated a jenny,

no young man impregnated a girl in the street;

the young man slept in his private room;

the girl slept in the company of her friends.

Fragment of a stone plaque from the temple of Inanna at Nippur showing a Sumerian goddess, possibly Inanna (c. 2500 BCE) / Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Museum of the Ancient Near East (Berlin), Wikimedia Commons

Inanna was herself personally irresistible. When she preened herself and ‘went out to the shepherd, to the sheepfold,…her genitals were remarkable. She praised herself, full of delight at her genitals.’ Nobody, not even another god, could withstand her charms. And to the myth-makers of Sumer who wrote down the story of Inanna’s relations with Enki, that sexual charm was as important to the foundation of their civilization as Enki’s ideology of progress.

Sumerian myths, at least as we find them related in the cuneiform texts, are very different from most other ancient stories, particularly the tales of the Bible. They have an appealingly mundane and down-to-earth quality; their complicated plotlines and use of direct speech are far more reminiscent of modern soap opera than the lofty pronouncements of the ancient Hebrew poets. The tale of Inanna and Enki is no exception.

Inanna decides to travel from her house in Unug: ‘I shall direct my steps to Enki,’ she says to herself, ‘to the Apsu, to Eridu, and I myself shall speak coaxingly to him, in the Apsu, in Eridu.’ The first few lines of the text are missing, so we do not know what her initial aim was, but it soon becomes clear that she wants something from him. ‘I shall utter a plea to Lord Enki,’ she says. Enki, in turn, ‘he of exceptional knowledge, who knows the divine powers in heaven and earth, who from his own dwelling already knows the intentions of the gods…even before holy Inanna had approached within six miles…knew all about her enterprise.’ He issues his servant with careful instructions: ‘Come here, my man, listen to my words…When the maiden Inanna has entered the Apsu and Eridu…offer her butter cake to eat. Let her be served cool refreshing water. Pour beer for her, in front of the Lion Gate, make her feel as if she is in her girlfriend’s house, make her welcome as a colleague. You are to welcome holy Inanna at the holy table.’ The servant does as he is told, and soon Enki and Inanna are drinking beer together in the Apsu, enjoying the taste of sweet date wine. ‘The bronze cups are filled to the brim,’ and the two of them start a drinking competition.

The next section of the story is missing but from what follows it is clear that, as they get drunker, Inanna, no doubt deploying her sexual charms, manages to wheedle out of Enki more than a hundred of his ‘Me’ – what Kramer, who first translated the epic, here described as the ‘divine decrees which are the basis of the culture pattern of Sumerian civilization.’ When Enki eventually wakes from his drunken stupor he looks around and sees that Inanna has gone. Enki turns to his minister Isimud.

‘Isimud, my minister, my Sweet Name of Heaven!’

‘Enki, my master, I am at your service! What is your wish?’

‘Since she said that she would not yet depart from here…can I still reach her?’

But holy Inanna had gathered up the divine powers and embarked on to the Boat of Heaven. The Boat of Heaven had already left the quay. As the effects of the beer cleared from him who had drunk beer…King Enki turned his attention to Eridu.

He looks around and notices to his consternation that his ‘Me’ are missing; they seem to be envisaged as physical objects, perhaps inscribed tablets of some kind.

‘Where are the office of en priest, the office of lagar priest, divinity, the great and good crown, the royal throne?’

‘My master has given them to his daughter.’

‘Where are the noble sceptre, the staff and crook, the noble dress, shepherdship, kingship?’

‘My master has given them to his daughter.’

Enki goes through the entire list of ‘Me’ and is appalled to find that he has given them all away. So he orders his minister, accompanied by several terrifying monsters, to pursue Inanna in her Boat of Heaven and persuade her to give the ‘Me’ back: ‘Go now! Theenkum monsters are to take the Boat of Heaven away from her!’

And so we cut to the chase.

The minister Isimud spoke to holy Inanna: ‘My lady! Your father has sent me to you…What Enki spoke was very serious. His important words cannot be countermanded.’

Holy Inanna replied to him: ‘What has my father said to you, what has he spoken? Why should his important words not be countermanded?’

‘My master has spoken to me, Enki has said to me: ‘Inanna may travel to Unug, but you are to get the Boat of Heaven back to Eridu for me’.’

Holy Inanna spoke to the minister Isimud:

‘How could my father have changed what he said to me? How could he have altered his promise as far as I am concerned? How could he have discredited his important words to me? Was it falsehood my father said to me, did he speak falsely to me? Has he sworn falsely by the name of his power and by the name of his Apsu? Has he duplicitously sent you to me as a messenger?’

Now as these words were still in her mouth, he got the enkum monsters to seize hold of the Boat of Heaven.

But Inanna manages to get away. Six more times Enki sends Isimud and the monsters, including ‘the Fifty Giants of Eridu’ and ‘all the great fish together’, to take the Boat of Heaven away from Inanna. And six more times ‘Inanna gets hold again of the divine powers which had been presented to her, and the Boat of Heaven.’

As the Boat of Heaven nears Uruk,

‘her minister Ninshubur spoke to holy Inanna:

‘My lady, today you have brought the Boat of Heaven to the Gate of Joy, to Unug. Now there will be rejoicing in our city.’

Holy Inanna replies:

‘Today I have brought the Boat of Heaven to the Gate of Joy, to Unug. It shall pass along the street magnificently. The people shall stand in the street full of awe…The king shall slaughter bulls, he shall sacrifice sheep. He shall pour beer from a bowl…The foreign lands shall declare my greatness. My people shall utter my praise.’

Sumerian tablet / Creative Commons

Sadly it is in the nature of clay tablets for the edges, particularly the top and bottom, to most readily crumble away. Just as we wonder how this dispute between two powerful gods is all going to end, the text becomes fragmentary and then peters out altogether. We can tell that Enki and another god have something conciliatory to say. A festival is proclaimed. A number of places in Unug are commemoratively named: ‘Where the boat came to dock at the quay, she named that place with the name White Quay’. But until another, more complete, copy of the text of the myth is found, or at least one that preserves the currently missing sections, we shall never know any more than we do now.

What are we to make of this story? At first glance it seems to be simply an account of how Uruk learned the arts of civilization from Eridu, to the eternal glory of the goddess Inanna. But the account it gives leaves many questions unanswered. For example, why was Enki so reluctant to let the ‘Me’ go?

We ought to remember that this myth, as we have it, is not a sacred text, revealed to us from heaven. It is a work of literature, of human craft. It has to be true that whoever put these words together had a purpose in mind. It was clearly intended as praise for the Great Goddess, a demonstration of her superior cunning, possibly to be sung to instrumental accompaniment in her temple, which would explain the long passages that are repeated word for word, like the choruses of a song.

But perhaps it was also meant to emphasize that one cannot have civilization without a necessary degree of libertinism, to explain or justify the sexual laxity of city life – something of which country-dwellers have complained throughout history. They surely did so in ancient times too, when the cities were renowned for their courtesans and prostitutes, their homosexuals and transvestites, their ‘party boys and festival people who change masculinity to femininity to make the people of Ishtar [another later name for the goddess] revere her.’ In the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the great literary compositions of the ancient world, it is a brazen harlot who seduces the archetypal primitive savage, the wild man Enkidu, ‘whose birthplace was the mountain; with the gazelles he was accustomed to eat herbs, with the cattle to drink water’. She does so to tear him from his background and to civilize him, to teach him the ways of progress. He learns the lesson well, though he comes to regret it. The ancient Mesopotamians believed – as perhaps we still do – that sex and city living go together: that the sexually repressive and conservative morality of country-folk cannot help but crush those creative, imaginative and progressive impulses which offer to improve the human condition.

Every Mesopotamian knew that civilization had been born at Eridu, but its god Enki had kept its principles, the ‘Me’, hidden away in his Apsu, reserved for divine use, and unavailable to humans. By thus liberating them, the goddess Inanna, queen of sex, had acquired for her people the ideology of progress and development, and had made it possible for her city Uruk, on the sunrise side of the Great Rushing Flood, to become the world’s first true city.

From Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek (St. Martin’s Griffin, 05.27.2012), published by Erenow, public open access.