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Sumeria, the "Civilized Land"

Sumerian Ziggurat at Ur

The Sumerian Ziggurat at Ur During Excavations

Much of Iraq and Syria is a vast flat plain of dried and cracked mud, brown and desolate save for where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers snake through it.

A visitor to this country, which the Greeks called "the Land Between the Rivers," or Mesopotamia, will search in vain for anything like the monumental wreckage of pharaonic Egypt or the elegant relics of the Greeks. This was the cradle of civilization, where farming and writing first developed, where villages first grew into cities, cities into kingdoms, and kingdoms into empires; yet most of what was built here has long since crumbled into ruin, leaving little but foundations for archaeologists to puzzle over. But there is one notable exception: the Sumerian Ziggurat at Ur.

The Sumerians called themselves Sag-gi-ga, which meant "the Black-headed Ones" and their country Ken-gi-r, "the Civilized Land." By 2000 BC Sumerians living in cities such as Ur and Uruk in southern Iraq had developed paved roads, the arch and vault, writing, schools, epic literature, law codes, banking, and even joint-stock corporations. All this occurred two thousand years before Cleopatra or Julius Caesar.

Construction of the Ziggurat

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You can have a lord, you can have a King, but the man to fear is the tax collector!"

—Sumerian proverb, 2000 BC

The Ziggurat at Ur, a massive stepped pyramid about 210 by 150 feet in size, is the most well-preserved monument from the remote age of the Sumerians. It consists of a series of successively smaller platforms which rose to a height of about 64 feet, and was constructed with a solid core of mud-brick covered by a thick skin of burnt-brick to protect it from the elements. Its corners are oriented to the compass points, and like the Parthenon, its walls slope slightly inwards, giving an impression of solidity.

The ziggurat was part of a temple complex that served as an administrative center for the city, and it was also thought to be the place on earth where the moon god Nanna, the patron deity of Ur, had chosen to dwell. Nanna was depicted as a wise and unfathomable old man with a flowing beard and four horns, and a single small shrine to the god was placed upon the ziggurat's summit. This was occupied each night by only one person, chosen by the priests from among everyone in the city. A kitchen, likely used to prepare food for the god, was located at the base of one of the ziggurat's side stairways.

Sumerian Clay Figurine

Sumerian Figurine

The King who Proclaimed Himself a God

Construction of the ziggurat was completed in the 21st century BC by King Shulgi, during whose 48-year reign the city of Ur grew to be the capital of an empire controlling much of Mesopotamia. To win the allegiance of the many formerly independent cities he controlled, Shulgi proclaimed himself a god and became a great patron of the arts. He had his poets and scribes publicize all sorts of stories about his prowess: he had complete mastery of every weapon of war, could capture gazelles on the run, slay lions unaided, and play every known musical instrument. The King himself claimed that he once ran 200 miles during fierce hailstorms—which he may have done.

Shulgi also boasted that he was one of the few kings who had gone to school to become a scribe. The Sumerian method of writing, known as cuneiform, consisted of complex wedge-shaped symbols impressed on clay tablets. At the schools that taught this difficult skill, students also learned how to debate in public and practiced the refined art of insulting opponents before refuting their arguments. "He is spawn of a dog, seed of a wolf, a helpless hyena's whelp, and an addlepated mountain monkey whose reasoning is nonsensical!" begins one such preamble. We can only guess whether Shulgi's fellow students dared ridicule their King in this way.

Fate of the Ziggurat

After Shulgi's time the fortunes of Ur declined. His sons could not hold on to the empire they inherited, and their city was soon sacked by the Elamites. Ur was then ruled by a succession of foreign kings until the 4th century BC, when the Euphrates river changed its course and the city, lacking irrigation, was abandoned. For the next two thousand years, until 19th-century archaeologists discovered its remains, all knowledge of "the Civilized Land" was completely erased from the memory of mankind...

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum

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Ancient legends associated with mazes—such as the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur—speak of danger and confusion, of heroes and transformation, death and rebirth.

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