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18 September 2014
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The Lost Palaces of Iraq

By Dan Cruickshank
World's first city

The ziggurat at Ur
The ziggurat at Ur has been reconstructed by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities ©
The oldest civilisation we know is the Sumerian - located in the far south of present-day Iraq. Around 6,000 years ago the Sumerians built the world's first city - Uruk - and, for good or ill, introduced urban civilisation. The oldest book we now know, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was also written in Sumeria, around 4,500 years ago. The book describes how Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, set out on a quest for knowledge and immortality, and how in the end he found them through architecture. Only by building could a king honour his gods and obtain immortality. To the Sumerian kings, who stamped their names in the bricks of their buildings so they would live in the memory of man forever, city building - architecture - was divine.

'Ziggurats were the focal and spiritual centre of the city...'

Persians and then Romans resurrected the city, but it was finally abandoned in the fourth century AD, and it was only rediscovered in the early 20th century, by German archaeologists. It now consists of a vast number of mounds - the remains of ancient buildings - covering acres of land, dominated by the huge bulk of a ziggurat. This is a stepped pyramid, formed with a series of terraces and ramps, a form of construction that seems to have been evolved by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, and was taken over and developed by succeeding Mesopotamian civilisations such as the Assyrians. Ziggurats were the focal and spiritual centre of the city, the earthly dwellings of the gods, and their ramps were the stairways to heaven up which priests would ascend to converse with their deities.

Much could be learned from Ashur, as archaeologists have not yet fully excavated the site, but it seems that its secrets are soon to die with the city. One of the more destructive policies of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has been to dam the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow south into the Persian Gulf, to an extent that is both ecologically and environmentally disastrous. Construction work has now started that will dam the Tigris at Ashur, so that a large portion of the ancient city centre will soon be submerged.

Published: 2003-02-16

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