Joshua J. Mark
published on 20 July 2010
Eridu (present day Abu Shahrein, Iraq) was considered the first city in the world by the ancient Sumerians and, certainly, is among the most ancient of ruins. Founded in circa 5400 BCE, Eridu was thought to have been created by the gods and was home to the great water god Enki (who, later, would develop from a local god to merge with deities such as Anu and Enlil as Lord of the Universe, and was associated with Ea, god of wisdom). The Sumerian King List cites Eridu as the “city of the first kings”, stating, “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu” and the city was looked back upon by the variouis tribes and city-states of Mesopotamia as a metropolis of a 'golden age’ in the same way the writers of the biblical narratives created a 'Garden of Eden’ (most probably on the model of Eridu) as their mythical paradise from which humanity fell.
The city of Eridu features prominently in Sumerian mythology, not only as the first city and home of the gods, but as the locale to which the great goddess Innana traveled in order to receive the gifts of civilization which she then bestowed upon humanity from her home city of Uruk (the first city in the world). The Eridu Genesis (composed c. 2300 BCE) is the earliest description of the Great Flood, pre-dating the biblical book of Genesis, and is the tale of the good man Utnapishtim (also known as Atrahasis or Ziusudra) who builds a great boat by the will of the gods and gathers inside 'the seed of life'. The Eridu Genesis may have been the first written record of a long oral tradition of a time around 2800 BCE when the Euphrates rose high above her banks and flooded the region. Excavations at Ur by Leonard Wooley in 1922 CE revealed an eight-foot layer of silt and clay, consistent with the sediment of the Euphrates, which seemed to support the claim of a catastrophic flood in the area around 2800 BCE. Notes of the excavation taken by Wooley's assistant, Max Mallowan, however, showed the event was clearly a local, not a global, event.
A proto-Genesis tale of the Garden has been found at Eridu in which Tagtug the Weaver (or gardener) is cursed by the great god Enki for eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree in the garden after being told not to. Eridu is further associated with the tale of the great sage Adapa, who was initiated into the meaning of life and all understanding by the god of wisdom, Ea, but was ultimately tricked by Ea and denied the one thing he most wanted: knowledge of life without death, to live forever. The desire for immortality features prominently in Mesopotamian literature, and Sumerian writings specifically, and is epitomized in the story of Gilgamesh of Uruk. Uruk's link to Eridu is significant in that Eridu's initial importance was later eclipsed by the rise of the first city of Uruk. This transferrence of power and prestige has been seen by some scholars (the historians Samuel Noah Kramer and Paul Kriwaczek among them) as the beginnings of urbanization in Mesopotamia and a significant shift from the rural model of agrarian life to an urban-centered model. The story of Inanna and the God of Wisdom, in which the goddess of Uruk takes away the sacred meh (gifts of civilization) from Enki, the god of Eridu, can be seen as an ancient story symbolizing this shift in the paradigm of Sumerian culture.
The city was an important center for trade as well as religion and, at its height, was a great 'melting pot’ of cultures and diversity, as evidenced in the various forms of artistry found among the ruins. Eridu was abandoned intermittently over the years for reasons which remain unclear and, finally, left behind completely sometime around the year 600 BCE. The great Ziggurat of Amar-Sin in the center of the city has been associated with the Biblical Tower of Babel from The Book of Genesis and the city itself with the Biblical city of Babel. This association springs from archaeological discoveries (the claim that the Ziggurat of Amar-Sin more closely resembles the description of the Biblical Tower) and a reading of the Babylonian historian Berossus (c. 200 BCE) who seems to be clearly referring to Eridu when he writes of 'Babylon’. Today the ruins of Eridu are largely wind-swept sand dunes, and little remains to remind a visitor of the once mighty city which was founded by the gods.
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