Eridu (Iraq): The Earliest City in Mesopotamia and the World

The source of the Great Flood myths of the Bible and the Koran

Mesopotamian Capital of Eridu
Archaeologists visit the site of the Mesopotamian city of Eridu (now called Tell Abu Shahrain), located about 22 kilometers south of Nasiriya in Iraq.

 Tina Hager / arabianEye / Getty Images

Eridu (called Tell Abu Shahrain or Abu Shahrein in Arabic) is one of the earliest permanent settlements in Mesopotamia, and perhaps the world. Located about 14 miles (22 kilometers) south of the modern city of Nasiriyah in Iraq, and about 12.5 mi (20 km) south southwest of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, Eridu was occupied between the 5th and 2nd millennium BCE, with its heyday in the early 4th millennium.

Fast Facts: Eridu

  • Eridu is among the earliest permanent settlements in Mesopotamia, with a consistent occupation of some 4500 years.
  • It was occupied between 5th and 2nd millennium BCE (Early Ubaid to Late Uruk periods).
  • Eridu continued to maintain its importance during the early Neo-Babylonian period but faded into obscurity after the rise of Babylon. 
  • Ziggurat of Enki is one of the best known and preserved Mesopotamian temples. 

Eridu is located in the Ahmad (or Sealand) wetland of the ancient Euphrates river in southern Iraq. It is surrounded by a drainage canal, and a relict watercourse abuts the site on the west and south, its braids exhibiting many other channels. The ancient main channel of the Euphrates spreads to the west and northwest of the tell, and a crevasse splay—where the natural levee broke in ancient times—is visible in the old channel. A total of 18 occupation levels have been identified within the site, each containing mud brick architecture built between the Early Ubaid to Late Uruk periods, found during excavations in the 1940s.

Eridu's History

Eridu is a tell, an immense mound made up of the ruins of thousands of years of occupation. Eridu's tell is a large oval, measuring 1,900x1,700 feet (580x540 meters) in diameter and rising to an elevation of 23 ft (7 m). Most of its height is made up of the ruins of the Ubaid period town (6500–3800 BCE), including houses, temples, and cemeteries built over on top of one another for nearly 3,000 years.

At the top are the most recent levels, the remainders of the Sumerian sacred precinct, consisting of a ziggurat tower and temple and a complex of other structures on a 1,000 ft (300 m) square platform. Surrounding the precinct is a stone retaining wall. That complex of buildings, including the ziggurat tower and temple, was built during the Third Dynasty of Ur (~2112–2004 BCE).

Life in Eridu

Excavated Buildings at Eridu
Remnants of blue paint and glazes on the walls at Eridu.  Tina Hager / arabianEye / Getty Images

Archaeological evidence shows that in the 4th millennium BC, Eridu covered an area of 100 acres (~40 hectares), with a 50 ac (20 ha) residential section and a 30 ac (12 ha) acropolis. The primary economic foundation of the earliest settlement at Eridu was fishing. Fishing nets and weights and whole bales of dried fish have been found at the site: models of reed boats, the earliest physical evidence we have for constructed boats anywhere, are also known from Eridu.

Eridu is best known for its temples, called ziggurats. The earliest temple, dated to the Ubaid period about 5570 BCE, consisted of a small room with what scholars have termed a cult niche and an offering table. After a break, there were several ever-larger temples built and rebuilt on this temple site throughout its history. Each of these later temples was built following the classical, early Mesopotamian format of a tripartite plan, with a buttressed façade and a long central room with an altar. The Ziggurat of Enki—the one modern visitors can see at Eridu—was built 3,000 years after the city's founding.

Recent excavations have also found evidence of several Ubaid-period pottery works, with huge scatters of potsherds and kiln wasters.

Genesis Myth of Eridu

The Genesis Myth of Eridu is an ancient Sumerian text written around 1600 BCE, and it contains a version of the flood story used in Gilgamesh and later the Old Testament of the Bible. Sources for the Eridu myth include a Sumerian inscription on a clay tablet from Nippur (also dated about 1600 BCE), another Sumerian fragment from Ur (about the same date) and a bilingual fragment in Sumerian and Akkadian from Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh, about 600 BCE.

The first part of the Eridu origin myth describes how the mother goddess Nintur called to her nomadic children and recommended they stop wandering, build cities and temples, and live under the rule of kings. The second part lists Eridu as the very first city, where the kings Alulim and Alagar ruled for nearly 50,000 years (well, it is a myth, after all).

The most famous part of the Eridu myth describes a great flood, which was caused by the god Enlil. Enlil became annoyed at the clamor of human cities and decided to quiet down the planet by wiping the cities out. Nintur warned the king of Eridu, Ziusudra, and recommended he build a boat and save himself and a pair of each living being in order to save the planet. This myth has clear connections to other regional myths such as Noah and his ark in the Old Testament and the Nuh story in the Koran, and the origin myth of Eridu is the likely basis for both of these stories.

End of Eridu's Power

Eridu was politically significant even late in its occupancy, during the Neo-Babylonian period (625–539 BCE). Located in Sealand, the large marshland home to the Chaldean Bit Yakin tribe, Eridu was supposed to be the home of the Neobabylonian ruling family. Its strategic location on the Persian gulf and its power trade and commercial connections maintained Eridu's power until the consolidation of the Neo-Babylonian elite in Uruk, in the 6th century BCE.

Archaeology at Eridu

Tell Abu Shahrain was first excavated in 1854 by J.G Taylor, the British vice-consul at Basra. British archaeologist Reginald Campbell Thompson excavated there at the end of World War I in 1918 and H.R. Hall followed up Campbell Thompson's research in 1919. The most extensive excavations were completed in two seasons between 1946–1948 by Iraqi archaeologist Fouad Safar and his British colleague Seton Lloyd. Minor excavations and testing have occurred several times there since then. 

Tell Abu Sharain was visited by a group of heritage scholars in June of 2008. At that time, researchers found little evidence of modern looting. Ongoing research continues in the region, despite the tumult of war, currently led by an Italian team. The Ahwar of Southern Iraq, also known as the Iraqi Wetlands, which includes Eridu, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2016.

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