The World’s First City

The ancient city of Uruk, as mentioned by the Sumerian King List, was established by King Enmerkar around 4,500 BCE. This city holds a notable place in history, primarily due to its iconic king, Gilgamesh, and his legendary quest for immortality, as well as for being a cradle of several civilizational advancements.

Uruk is recognized as the world’s first true city, marking the beginnings of writing and the construction of significant stone structures. It was here that the concept of the ziggurat originated, and the city was the first to introduce the cylinder seal, used by ancient Mesopotamians to claim personal property or authenticate documents.

An Uruk cylinder-seal and its impression, c. 3100 BCE, Louvre

An Uruk cylinder-seal and its impression, c. 3100 BCE, Louvre

By around 9000 BCE, populations residing in elevated regions of present-day Iraq started domesticating sheep and goats and cultivating wheat, barley, and peas. However, with a shifting climate leading to reduced rainfall, they sought more reliable water sources.

Migrating to the valleys nestled between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, known as the Fertile Crescent, they discovered that the recurrent flooding enriched the soil, boosting crop yields. This enabled them to cultivate more than just the bare necessities, producing surplus grain that could sustain others who pursued a diverse range of professions beyond farming. The rivers also offered a bounty of fish and fowl and functioned as a vital trade route.

Map of the Fertile Crescent

Map of the Fertile Crescent

Uruk’s population surged to an estimated 50,000–80,000, sustained by nearby territories and commerce with neighboring regions. The city emerged as the world’s largest epicenter of governance and trade, unprecedented in its size.

Famed King Gilgamesh is believed to have constructed Uruk’s walls, spanning roughly 2.32 square miles (6 square kilometers). He gained recognition as the protagonist of The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian narrative preceding Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by 1500 years, marking it as the earliest known epic literature.

The epic of Gilgamesh, the king who tried to conquer death

The epic of Gilgamesh, the king who tried to conquer death

The narrative delves into the profound theme of life’s meaning, a topic explored extensively by many across ages. Following his close friend Enkidu’s death, a grieving Gilgamesh leaves Uruk to seek the enigmatic Utnapishtim, a survivor of a mythological flood, and the secret of eternal life. Although his quest for immortality remains unfulfilled, the journey imparts a sense of purpose to Gilgamesh’s life.

The inception of writing traces back to Uruk, with Sumerian cuneiform emerging as a medium to document transactions of livestock and grains through the city’s central warehouses. Initially, pictorial representations inscribed on wet clay tablets evolved over 400 years into symbolic and numerical inscriptions.

Tablet from Uruk (c. 3200–3000 BCE) documenting beer distributions from an institution’s storerooms, British Museum

Tablet from Uruk (c. 3200–3000 BCE) documenting beer distributions from an institution’s storerooms, British Museum

Early clay tablets from Uruk catalog a “standard professions list,” enumerating over a hundred roles ranging from the king to various professionals and laborers. The societal hierarchy consisted of a ruling and priestly elite at the top, a broad middle segment of commoners, and a smaller slave class at the bottom, including war captives, convicted felons, or those entangled in hefty debts.

Uruk thrived until roughly 300 CE, after which it began to wane. Exhausted resources and diminished political and economic influence marked its decline. It remained unexplored until William Loftus unearthed it in 1853 on behalf of the British Museum.

Five thousand years ago, Uruk’s inhabitants forged a society intertwining elements like kingship, writing, grand architecture, specialized professions, and literature. This blend crafted a culture that, despite subsequent evolutions, resonates with what we recognize today.


The city of Uruk, established around 4,500 BCE, is hailed as the world’s first city. It pioneered the advent of writing and the creation of large stone buildings. With its fertile land, Uruk’s population grew to an impressive 50,000–80,000. This land allowed them to grow extra food, supporting people in various professions beyond farming. The city flourished until about 300 CE. After its decline, Uruk remained unexplored until William Loftus discovered it in 1853 for the British Museum.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.” —Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” —Benjamin Franklin

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” —Isaac Newton

“Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.” —Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune


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