In myth and literature Uruk was famous as the capital city of Gilgamesh, hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is also believed Uruk is the Biblical (Genesis 10:10) Erech, the second city founded by Nimrod in Shinar.
In addition to being one of the first cities, Uruk was the main force of urbanization during the Uruk Period (4000-3200 BCE). This period of 800 years saw a shift from small, agricultural villages to a larger urban center with a full-time bureaucracy, military, and stratified society. Although other settlements coexisted with Uruk they were generally about 10 hectares while Uruk was significantly larger and more complex. The Uruk period civilization, exported by Sumerian traders and colonists (like that found at Tell Brak), had an effect on all surrounding peoples, who gradually evolved their own comparable, competing economies and cultures. The cities of Sumer could not maintain remote, long-distance colonies by military force.
Geographic factors underpin Uruk's unprecedented growth. The city was located in the alluvial plain area of southern Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates rivers. Through the domestication of native grains from the nearby Zagros foothills and extensive irrigation techniques, the area supported a vast variety of edible vegetation. This domestication of grain and its proximity to rivers enabled Uruk's growth into the largest Sumerian settlement, in both population and area, with relative ease.
Uruk's agricultural surplus and large population base facilitated processes such as trade, specialization of crafts and the evolution of writing. Evidence from excavations such as extensive pottery and the earliest known tablets of writing support these events. The excavation of Uruk is highly complicated and shows different layers of Uruk from different periods of history. The topmost layer most likely originated in the Jemdet Nasr period (3200-2900 BCE) and is built on structures from Earlier Periods.
In myth Uruk was founded by Enmerkar, who brought the official kingship with him, according to the Sumerian king list. He also, in the epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, constructs the E-anna('house of the heavens') temple for the goddess Inanna in the Eanna District of Uruk.
Uruk went through several phases of growth, from the Early Uruk Period (4000-3500 BCE) to the Late Uruk Period (3500-3100 BCE). The city was formed when two smaller Ubaid settlements merged. The temple complexes at their cores became the Eanna District and the Anu District dedicated to Inanna and Anu, respectively. The Anu District was originally called 'Kullaba' (Kulab or Unug-Kulaba) prior to merging with the Eanna District. Kullaba dates to the Eridu Period when it was one of the oldest and most important cities of Sumer. There are different interpretations about the purposes of the temples. However, it is generally believed they were a unifying feature of the city. It also seems clear that temples served both an important religious function and state function.
The Eanna District was composed of several buildings with spaces for workshops, and it was walled off from the city. By contrast, the Anu District was built on a terrace with a temple at the top. Its voluminous surviving temple archive of the Neo-Babylonian period documents the social function of the temple as a redistribution center. In times of famine, a family might dedicate children to the temple as oblates. The rest of the city was composed of much more modest homes arranged around the two temple districts.
Between these two centers a complex of buildings courts and walls are built during Eanna IVb. The main buildings are Temples A, B, C. These buildings are demolished in Uruk IVa and three new buildings are built as a complex over their foundations. The Limestone Temple is also demolished at this time and the Red Temple is built over it. The buildings were all destroyed sometime in Uruk III. The earliest examples of cuneiform, and therefore of writing, were found in buildings of Uruk IVa.
In Uruk, in southern Mesopotamia, Sumerian civilization seems to have reached its creative peak. This is pointed out repeatedly in the references to this city in religious and, especially, in literary texts, including those of mythological content; the historical tradition as preserved in the Sumerian king-list confirms it. From Uruk the center of political gravity seems to have moved to Ur.—Oppenheim
Uruk played a very important part in the political history of Sumer. Starting from the Early Uruk period, exercising hegemony over nearby settlements. At this time (c 3800 BCE) there were two centers of 20 hectares, Uruk in the south and Nippur in the north surrounded by much smaller 10 hectare settlements. Later, in the Late Uruk Period its sphere of influence extended over all Sumer and beyond to external colonies in upper Mesopotamia and Syria. Uruk was prominent in the national struggles of the Sumerians against the Elamites up to 2004 BCE, in which it suffered severely; recollections of some of these conflicts are embodied in the Gilgamesh epic, in the literary and courtly form that has come down to us.
The recorded chronology of rulers over Uruk includes both mythological and historic figures in five dynasties. As in the rest of Sumer power moved progressively from the temple to the palace. Rulers from the Early Dynastic Period exercised control over Uruk and at times over all Sumer. In myth kingship was lowered from heaven to Eridu then passed successively through five cites until the deluge which ended the Uruk Period. Afterwards, kingship passed to Kish at the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period.
Early Dynastic, Akkadian, and Neo-Sumerian Rulers of Uruk: 1st Dynasty of Uruk:
Uruk continued as principality of Ur, Bablyon, and later Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires. The city was finally destroyed by the Islamic Jihadand and abandoned c 700 CE.
The location of Uruk was discovered by William Loftus in 1849. By Loftus’ own account, he admits that the first excavations were superficial at best, as his financiers forced him to deliver large museum artifacts at a minimal cost.
From 1912–1913, Julius Jordan and his team from the German Oriental Society discovered the temple of Ishtar, one of four known temples located at the site. The temples at Uruk were quite remarkable as they were constructed with brick and adorned with colorful mosaics. Jordan also discovered part of the city wall. It was later discovered that this 40 to high brick wall, probably utilized as a defense mechanism, totally encompassed the city at a length of 9 km (5.5 miles). Utilizing sedimentary strata dating techniques, this wall is estimated to have been erected around 3000 BC. Jordan returned 15 years later and worked for nearly 10 years, reconstructing the city’s layout.
In 1954 Heinrich Lenzen began work at the site and discovered clay tablets with Sumerian and pictorial inscriptions that are thought to be some of the earliest recorded writing, dating to approximately 3300 BC. These tablets were deciphered and include the famous Sumerian King List, a record of kings of the Sumerian civilization. There was an even larger cache of legal and scholarly tablets of the Seleucid period, that have been published by Adam Falkenstein and other German epigraphists.
Together with the impressive temples, ziggurats were discovered. These were large temple towers with a pyramidal shaped building at the top. Large courtyards were uncovered which verify that these temples with ziggurats were the city’s main hubs of activity. Many religious writings were uncovered within the temples and a nearby cemetery yielded numerous sarcophagi.
The artifacts found at the site indicate that during the Uruk period (4000 – 3100 BCE) this civilization thrived and was the model for many other Mesopotamian cities. The artifacts also confirm that religion was an important aspect of culture of the city. Its proximity to the two great waterways of the land, and an array of non-indigenous artifacts indicate that Uruk was heavily involved in cultural trading.
In the existing research on Uruk there is little to nothing about the royal palace of Gilgamesh or any other king. So far the excavations have shown little to indicate there is even a palace on the site. Much is still unknown about Uruk with some tablets only being recently deciphered. No conclusive decision has been made regarding the purpose of many of the buildings excavated.