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11 / The Urban Experience

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
Material Brick
Dimensions H: 40 ft. (12 m.)
Location Warka (ancient Uruk), Iraq
Credit © Nik Wheeler/CORBIS

expert perspective

Marc Van De MieroopProfessor of Ancient Near Eastern History, Columbia University

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. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/uruk/hd_uruk.htm (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.

Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat

» Unknown artist(s). Uruk, Mesopotamia

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.

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