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

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

The Ziggurat of Enki at Eridu, Built by Sumerian King Ur-Nammu [2123-2106 BC]
Remains of the Sumerian-period Ziggurat at Eridu. David Stanley

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 22 kilometers (14 miles) south of the modern city of Nasiriyah in Iraq, and about 20 km (12.5 mi) south southwest of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, Eridu was occupied between the 5th and 2nd millennium BC, with its heyday in the early 4th millennium.

Eridu is located in the Ahmad 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 580x540 meters (1,900x1,700 feet) in diameter and rising to an elevation of 7 m (23 ft). Most of its height is made up of the ruins of the Ubaid period town (6500-3800 BC), 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 300 m (~1,000 ft) 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 BC).

Life in Eridu

Archaeological evidence shows that in the 4th millennium BC, Eridu covered an area of ~40 hectares (100 acres), with a 20 ha (50 ac) residential section and a 12 ha (30 ac) 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 BC, 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 BC, 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 (dated about 1600 BC), 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 BC.

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 was annoyed by the noise of human cities and decided to quiet down the planet by wiping the cities out. Nintur leaked the news to the king of Eridu, Ziusudra, and recommended he build a boat and save himself and a couple of each living being in order to save the planet. This myth is very similar to other regional myths such as Noah and his ark and the Nuh story in the Koran, and the origin myth of Eridu is the likely basis for both of these stories.

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 include Eridu, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2016.