Eridu as envisioned by Balage Balogh

Although different people have advanced alternate claims (and new evidence continues to come from archaeological sites around the world), one of the first cities to rise up from the mud was the Mesopotamian city state Eridu.  Located in what was then a fertile estuary where the Euphrates emptied into the Persian Gulf, Eridu seems to have been founded circa 5400 BC by the confluence of three extremely different tribes each of which relied on a different ecosystem. According to Gwendolyn Leick, as paraphrased by the Museum of Knowledge:

The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterized by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral…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.

Somehow these three groups blended together and created the first city. Eridu was built along a pattern which became typical for Sumerian city states: a large central ziggurat of mudbrick was surrounded by a warren of mudbrick houses. The temple was sacred to Enki, the wise god of the abzu (the freshwater marsh).  Enki was the principal god for a reason:  it was the fresh water from the abzu which filled the irrigation ditches and made cultivation of newly domesticated grains possible.  In 4000 BC Eridu had about four thousand inhabitants.  If you wanted to buy goods at a marketplace, drink beer in a tavern, see a building larger than one story, or walk down an alley at night it was probably the only place on earth you could do so.  By 3700 B.C Eridu’s population had grown to approximately ten thousand inhabitants.

The Statue of Enki Sails from Eridu (also painted by the remarkable Balage Balogh)

Thereafter, Eridu was swiftly eclipsed by Uruk to the northwest which was founded by the same blend of people.  The citizens of Uruk looked to Eridu for their template (in fact Sumerian mythology features a story in which Inanna, the harlot goddess of Uruk was forced to visit Eridu’s god Enki in order to obtain the gifts of civilization). Uruk became the first city to boast more than 50,000 people.  It featured the first monumental architecture, the first writing, the first full-time bureaucrats, and the first professional soldiers.  It was the first civilization.

As the other city states of ancient Mesopotamia grew and prospered, Eridu, began to wither.  The once fertile soil lost its vigor and became salty after centuries of irrigation.  Farmers switched to salt-resistant barley but then even that failed. Wars and strife swept over the region as kings and their armies vied for supremacy. By 2050 the region was depopulated.  Neo-Babylonians built a purely ceremonial temple there to honor Eridu’s legacy as the first city and the birthplace of civilization, but by the 6th century BC, even that was abandoned forever.

Eridu Today