Eridu (Cuneiform: NUN.KI; Sumerian: eriduki; Akkadian: irîtu modern Arabic: Tell Abu Shahrain) is an archaeological site in southern Mesopotamia (modern Dhi Qar Governorate, Iraq).
Eridu was long considered the earliest city in southern Mesopotamia, and is still today argued to be the oldest city in the world. Located 12 km southwest of Ur, Eridu was the southernmost of a conglomeration of Sumerian cities that grew about temples, almost in sight of one another. In Sumerian mythology, Eridu was originally the home of Enki, later known by the Akkadians as Ea, who was considered to have founded the city. His temple was called E-Abzu, as Enki was believed to live in Abzu, an aquifer from which all life was believed to stem.
Eridu, also transliterated as Eridug, could mean “mighty place” or “guidance place”. In the Sumerian king list, Eridu is named as the city of the first kings. The king list continues:
In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alalngar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years. Then Eridu fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira.
The king list gave particularly long rules to the kings who ruled before a great flood occurred, and shows how the center of power progressively moved from the south to the north of the country. Adapa, a man of Eridu, is depicted as an early culture hero. Identified with U-an, a half-human creature from the sea (Abgallu, from ab=water, gal=big, lu=man), he was considered to have brought civilization to the city during the time of King Alulim.
In Sumerian mythology, Eridu was the home of the Abzu temple of the god Enki, the Sumerian counterpart of the Akkadian water-god Ea. Like all the Sumerian and Babylonian gods, Enki/Ea began as a local god, who came to share, according to the later cosmology, with Anu and Enlil, the rule of the cosmos. His kingdom was the sweet waters that lay below earth (Sumerian ab=water; zu=far).
The stories of Inanna, goddess of Uruk, describe how she had to go to Eridu in order to receive the gifts of civilization. At first Enki, the god of Eridu attempted to retrieve these sources of his power, but later willingly accepted that Uruk now was the centre of the land. This seems to be a mythical reference to the transfer of power northward.
Babylonian texts talk of the creation of Eridu by the god Marduk as the first city, “the holy city, the dwelling of their [the other gods] delight”.
In the court of Assyria, special physicians trained in the ancient lore of Eridu, far to the south, foretold the course of sickness from signs and portents on the patient’s body, and offered the appropriate incantations and magical resources as cures.
According to the Sumerian kinglist Eridu was the first city in the World. The opening line reads,
- “[nam]-lugal an-ta èd-dè-a-ba
- [eri]duki nam-lugal-la”
- “When kingship from heaven was lowered,
- the kingship was in Eridu.”
In Sumerian mythology, it was said to be one of the five cities built before the Deluge occurred.
Eridu appears to be the earliest settlement in the region, founded ca. 5400 BC, close to the Persian Gulf near the mouth of the Euphrates River. Because of accumulation of silt at the shoreline over the millennia, the remains of Eridu are now some distance from the gulf at Abu Shahrain in Iraq. Excavation has shown that the city was originally founded on a virgin sand-dune site with no previous occupation.
According to Gwendolyn Leick, Eridu was formed at the confluence of three separate ecosystems, supporting three distinct lifestyles, that came to an agreement about access to fresh water in a desert environment. The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterised by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral were responsible for the extensive middens along the Arabian shoreline, and may have been the original Sumerians. They seem to have dwelt in reed huts. The third culture that contributed to the building of Eridu was the nomadic Semitic pastoralists of herds of sheep and goats living in tents in semi-desert areas. All three cultures seem implicated in the earliest levels of the city. The urban settlement was centered on an impressive temple complex built of mudbrick, within a small depression that allowed water to accumulate.
Kate Fielden reports “The earliest village settlement (c.5000 BC) had grown into a substantial city of mudbrick and reed houses by c.2900 BC, covering 8-10 ha (20-25 acres). Mallowan writes that by the Ubaid period, it was as an “unusually large city” of an area of approx. 20¬25 acres, with a population of “not less than 4000 souls”. Jacobsen describes that “Eridu was for all practical purposes abandoned after the Ubaid period”, although it had recovered by Early Dynastic II as there was a Massive Early Dynastic II palace (100 m in each direction) partially excavated there. Ruth Whitehouse called it “a Major Early Dynastic City”. By c.2050 BC the city had declined; there is little evidence of occupation after that date. Eighteen superimposed mudbrick temples at the site underlie the unfinished Ziggurat of Amar-Sin (c. 2047 – 2039 BC). The finding of extensive deposits of fishbones associated with the earliest levels also shows a continuity of the Abzu cult associated later with Enki and Ea. This apparent continuity of occupation and religious observance at Eridu provide convincing evidence for the indigenous origin of Sumerian civilization.
Eridu was abandoned for long periods, before it was finally deserted and allowed to fall into ruin in the 6th century BC. The encroachment of neighbouring sand dunes, and the rise of a saline water table, set early limits to its agricultural base so in its later Neo-Babylonian development, Eridu was rebuilt as a purely temple site, in honour of its earliest history.
Possible location of Tower of Babel
The Egyptologist David Rohl has conjectured that Eridu, to the south of Ur, was the original Babel and site of the Tower of Babel, rather than the later city of Babylon, for several reasons:
- The ziggurat ruins of Eridu are far larger and older than any others, and seem to best match the Biblical description of the unfinished Tower of Babel
- One name of Eridu in cuneiform logograms was pronounced “NUN.KI” (“the Mighty Place”) in Sumerian, but much later the same “NUN.KI” was understood to mean the city of Babylon.
- The much later Greek version of the King-list by Berossus (c. 200 BC) reads “Babylon” in place of “Eridu” in the earlier versions, as the name of the oldest city where “the kingship was lowered from Heaven”.
- Rohl further equate Biblical Nimrod, said to have built Erech (Uruk) and Babel, with the name Enmerkar (-KAR meaning “hunter”) of the king-list and other legends, who is said to have built temples both in his capital of Uruk and in Eridu.
Other scholars have discussed at length a number of additional correspondences between the names of “Babylon” and “Eridu”. Historical tablets state that Sargon of Akkad (ca. 2300 BC) dug up the original “Babylon” and rebuilt it near Akkad, though some scholars suspect this may in fact refer to the much later Assyrian king Sargon II.
The Hassuna culture is a Neolithic archaeological culture in northern Mesopotamia dating to the early sixth millennium BC. It is named after the type site of Tell Hassuna in Iraq. Other sites where Hassuna material has been found include Tell Shemshara.
By around 6000 BC people had moved into the foothills (piedmont) of northernmost Mesopotamia where there was enough rainfall to allow for “dry” agriculture in some places. These were the first farmers in northernmost Mesopotamia. They made Hassuna-style pottery (cream slip with reddish paint in linear designs). Hassuna people lived in small villages or hamlets ranging from 2 to 8 acres (3.2 ha).
At Tell Hassuna, adobe dwellings built around open central courts with fine painted pottery replace earlier levels with crude pottery. Hand axes, sickles, grinding stones, bins, baking ovens and numerous bones of domesticated animals reflect settled agricultural life. Female figurines have been related to worship and jar burials within which food was placed related to belief in afterlife. The relationship of Hassuna pottery to that of Jericho suggests that village culture was becoming widespread.
The Samarra culture is a Chalcolithic archaeological culture in northern Mesopotamia that is roughly dated to 5500–4800 BCE. It partially overlaps with Hassuna and early Ubaid. Samarran material culture was first recognized during excavations by German Archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld at the site of Samarra. Other sites where Samarran material has been found include Tell Shemshara, Tell es-Sawwan and Yarim Tepe.
At Tell es-Sawwan, evidence of irrigation—including flax—establishes the presence of a prosperous settled culture with a highly organized social structure. The culture is primarily known for its finely made pottery decorated with stylized animals, including birds, and geometric designs on dark backgrounds. This widely exported type of pottery, one of the first widespread, relatively uniform pottery styles in the Ancient Near East, was first recognized at Samarra. The Samarran Culture was the precursor to the Mesopotamian culture of the Ubaid period.
The Sumerian religion influenced Mesopotamian mythology as a whole, surviving in the mythologies and religions of the Hurrians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other culture groups.
Sumerian myths were passed down through the oral tradition until the invention of writing. Early Sumerian cuneiform was used primarily as a record-keeping tool; it was not until the late early dynastic period that religious writings first became prevalent as temple praise hymns and as a form of “incantation” called the nam-šub (prefix + “to cast”).
In the Sumerian city-states, temple complexes originally were small, elevated one-room structures. In the early dynastic period, temples developed raised terraces and multiple rooms. Toward the end of the Sumerian civilization, Ziggurats became the preferred temple structure for Mesopotamian religious centers. Temples served as cultural, religious, and political headquarters until approximately 2500 BCE, with the rise of military kings known as Lu-gals (“man” + “big”) after which time the political and military leadership was often housed in separate “palace” complexes.
Until the advent of the Lugals, Sumerian city states were under a virtually-complete theocratic government controlled by independent groups of En, or high priests. Priests were responsible for continuing the cultural and religious traditions of their city-state, and were viewed as mediators between humans and the cosmic and terrestrial forces. The priesthood resided full-time in temple complexes, and administered to matters of state including the large irrigation processes necessary for the civilization’s survival.
During the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian city-state of Lagash was said to have had 62 “lamentation priests” who were accompanied by 180 vocalists and instrumentalists.
The Sumerians envisioned the universe as a closed dome surrounded by a primordial saltwater sea. Underneath the terrestrial earth, which formed the base of the dome, existed an underworld and a freshwater ocean called the Apsû. The deity of the dome-shaped firmament was named An; the earth was named Ki. First the underground world was believed to be an extension of the goddess Ki, but later developed into the concept of Kigal. The primordial saltwater sea was named Nammu, who became known as Tiamat during and after the Sumerian Renaissance.
According to Sumerian mythology, the gods originally created humans as servants for themselves, but freed them when they became too much to handle.
The primordial union of An and Ki produced Enlil, who became leader of the Sumerian pantheon. After the other deities banished Enlil from Dilmun (the “home of the deities”) for raping the air goddess Ninlil; she had a child, Nanna, god of the moon. Nanna and Ningal gave birth to Inanna, the goddess of war and fertility, and to Utu, god of the sun.
The Sumerians originally practiced a polytheistic religion, with anthropomorphic deities representing cosmic and terrestrial forces in their world. During the middle of the third millennium BCE, Sumerian deities became more anthropocentric and were “…nature gods transformed into city gods.” Deities such as Enki and Inanna were viewed as having been assigned their rank, power, and knowledge from An, the heaven deity, or Enlil, head of the Sumerian pantheon.
This cosmological shift may have been caused by the growing influence of the neighboring Akkadian religion, or as a result of increased warfare between the Sumerian city-states; the assignment of certain powers to deities may have mirrored the appointment of the Lugals, who were given power and authority by the city-state and its priesthood.
The earliest historical records of Sumer do not go back much further than ca. 2900 BC, although it is generally agreed that Sumerian civilization started between ca. 4500 and 4000 BC. The earliest Sumerian literature of the 3rd millennium BC identifies four primary deities; Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. The highest order of these earliest gods were described occasionally behaving mischievously towards each other, but were generally involved in co-operative creative ordering.
Lists of large numbers of Sumerian deities have been found. Their order of importance and the relationships between the deities has been examined during the study of cuneiform tablets.
The majority of Sumerian deities belonged to a classification called the Anunna (“[offspring] of An”), whereas seven deities, including Enlil and Inanna, belonged to a group of “underworld judges” known as the Anunnaki (“[offspring] of An” + Ki; alternatively, “those from heaven (An) who came to earth (Ki)”]). During the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian pantheon was said to include sixty times sixty (3600) deities.
The main Sumerian deities are:
- Anu: god of heaven, the firmament
- Enlil: god of the air (from Lil = Air); patron deity of Nippur
- Enki: god of freshwater, male fertility, and knowledge; patron deity of Eridu
- Ereshkigal: goddess of the underworld, Kigal or Irkalla
- Inanna: goddess of warfare, female fertility, and sexual love; matron deity of Uruk
- Nammu was the primeval sea (Engur), who gave birth to An (heaven) and Ki (earth) and the first deities; eventually became known as the goddess Tiamat
- Ninhursag: goddess of the earth
- Nanna: god of the moon; one of the patron deities of Ur
- Ningal: wife of Nanna
- Ninlil: an air goddess and wife of Enlil; one of the matron deities of Nippur; she was believed to reside in the same temple as Enlil
- Ninurta: god of war, agriculture, one of the Sumerian wind gods; patron deity of Girsu, and one of the patron deities of Lagash
- Utu: god of the sun at the E-babbar temple of Sippar
The Sumerians loved an ongoing linguistic and cultural exchange with the Semitic Akkadian peoples in northern Mesopotamia for generations prior to the usurpation of their territories by Sargon of Akkad in 2340 BCE. Sumerian mythology and religious practices were rapidly integrated into Arabian culture, presumably blending with the original Akkadian belief systems that have been mostly lost to history. Sumerian deities developed Akkadian counterparts. Some remained virtually the same until later Babylonian and Assyrian rule. The Sumerian god An, for example, developed the Akkadian counterpart Anu; the Sumerian god Enki became Ea; and the Sumerian gods Ninurta and Enlil remained very much the same in the Akkadian pantheon.
The Amorite Babylonians gained dominance over southern Mesopotamia by the mid-seventeenth century BCE. During the Old Babylonian Period, the Sumerian and Akkadian languages were retained for religious purposes; the majority of Sumerian mythological literature known to historians today comes from the Old Babylonian Period, either in the form of transcribed Sumerian texts (most notably the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh) or in the form of Sumerian and Akkadian influences within Babylonian mythological literature (most notably the Enûma Eliš). The Sumerian-Akkadian pantheon was altered, most notably with the introduction of a new supreme deity, Marduk. The Sumerian goddess Inanna also developed the counterpart Ishtar during the Old Babylonian Period.
Hurrians and Hittites
The Hurrians adopted the Akkadian god Anu into their pantheon sometime no later than 1200 BCE. Other Arabian deities adapted into the Hurrian pantheon include Ayas, the Hurrian counterpart to Ea; Shaushka, the Hurrian counterpart to Ishtar; and the goddess Ninlil, whose mythos had been drastically expanded by the Babylonians.
Some stories in Sumerian religion appear similar to stories in other Middle-Eastern religions. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the biblical account of Noah and the flood myth resembles some aspects of the Sumerian deluge myth. The Judaic underworld Sheol is very similar in description with the Sumerian and Babylonian Kigal, ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal and in the Babylonian religion, with their introduced consort, the death god Nergal. Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer noted similarities between many Sumerian and Akkadian “proverbs” and the later Hebrew proverbs, many of which are featured in the Book of Proverbs.