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Enki’s Gift: How Civilization Bubbled From the Waters of Mesopotamia

This spring, National Geographic Young Explorer Julia Harte is traveling along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before they are transformed by the Ilısu Dam, an 11 billion-cubic-meter hydroelectric dam that will generate 2 percent of Turkey’s power.  

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“To finish off all living things, that the four-legged creatures of Sakkan should lay no more dung on the ground, that the marshes should be so dry as to be full of cracks and have no new seed, that sickly-headed reeds should grow in the reed-beds, that they should be covered by a stinking morass…”

Those lines are from The Lament for Sumer and Ur, written in the 21st century BC as the Sumerian capital city of Ur was falling to an Elamite invasion from the east. Sumerians had inhabited lower Mesopotamia for more than two millennia at that point. Just a century before, a golden age in Sumerian history — the Third Dynasty of Ur — had begun.

During the Third Dynasty period, Sumerian rulers would develop the world’s oldest code of law, standardize agriculture and industrial-scale production, and build the Great Ziggurat of Ur, a center of religious and administrative life for many dynasties to come.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur looms over the ancient Sumerian capital, outside of modern-day Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo by Julia Harte.
The Great Ziggurat of Ur looms over the ancient Sumerian capital, outside of modern-day Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo by Julia Harte.

The landscape that surrounds the ancient city today is a barren one. An old Iraqi army base, a few factories, and some distant, scattered houses are the only signs of life visible. Aside from the Ziggurat, no ancient monuments remain intact. A maze of meter-high walls is all that’s left of the palace of King Shulgi, one of the most celebrated rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur.

When King Shulgi built his palace, however, the land looked radically different. “At that time, the city was green,” says Dhaif Muhsen, the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities curator of the area.

In those days, the delta between the Tigris and Euphrates River was northwest of its current location, and the system of Mesopotamian marshlands known as the Awhar was centered on Ur. The city had two main harbors, and enough water to grow orchards of date palms and use barley as a barter crop. So abundant was fresh water that wells were never built in Ur, as far as excavators can tell.

“That is the reason civilization started in Ur: because there were many quantities of water, and good land for planting,” says Muhsen.

Animals graze under a tree in a village near Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo by Julia Harte.
Animals graze under a tree in a village near Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo by Julia Harte.

The abundant and reliable freshwater supply enabled Sumerians to develop the world’s first known system of agriculture  in the al-Ubaid period, 8,000 years ago. Sumerian settlement patterns followed the shifting waters of the Awhar.

Irrigation agriculture, in turn, arose and adapted to best exploit the changing aquatic circumstances in Ur and its environs.

As the delta progressed southeastwards, Sumerian urban centers “could continue to exist by investing in ever more advanced hydrological control, including extending their agricultural irrigation networks along their expanding river levees,” according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Field Archeology by Carrie Hritz, assistant professor of Archeological Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.

Animal remains in the area indicate the specific aquatic conditions in the ancient marsh. From the fossil shells embedded in ancient mud bricks, Hritz’s team was able to identify the predominant species of mollusc as a freshwater snail that can adapt to water with a salinity content of up to 30 parts per million.

Shells embedded in the roots of dying reeds. Photo by Julia Harte.
Shells embedded in the roots of dying reeds in a dehydrated marsh. Photo by Julia Harte.

Daily life in the central Chibayish marsh today doesn’t look so different from how it probably did during the first settlements at Ur.

According to Sumerian sources, “they had the buffalo and depended on the marsh in the same style in which now the locals depend on it,” says Jassim Al-Asadi, director of Nature Iraq’s Chibayish branch.

Even many local names and words in the Chibayish dialect of Iraqi Arabic are borrowed from the language of ancient Sumer, according to Al-Asadi. The Marsh Arab word for mud, for instance, is “barye” – an Akkadian cognate.

The name “Chibayish” itself is derived from Akkadian. In Akkadian, Al-Asadi explains, “it is ‘Kapshato’. And Kapshato became, after many years, ‘Chapshato’. Chapshato, Chibayish. It means ‘island of reeds’.”

Marsh Arab women relax after gathering reeds. Photo by Julia Harte.
Marsh Arab women relax after gathering reeds. Photo by Julia Harte.

After the Elamite invasion in the 21st century BC, Ur would continue to flourish for the next 16 centures. But by around 300 BC, the site had been abandoned – most likely because the course of the Euphrates had changed too much for humans to continue living comfortably in Ur.

“The most important thing in the Sumerian civilization was the water,” explains Muhsen, “because when the water receded back, they abandoned the site.” In the pantheon of Sumerian gods, few were higher than Enki, god of water, wisdom, and creation.

From his watery loins – in Sumerian, the word for “semen” is the same as the word for “water” – sprang most of the deities that gave life to the world, and he oversaw the making of the first human. Immanent in the waters Enki controlled was the great life-giving force that animated the world.

No surprise, then, that The Lament for Sumer and Ur articulates the fall of the Sumerian civilization in terms of the pollution and desiccation of the marsh ecosystem.

Today, the dominant religion in lower Mesopotamia has changed, but the reverence for water remains the same. “In our holy books, we say, ‘We made anything alive from the water,’” says Muhsen. “So it means if not water, not life, not animals, not humans.”

Women and children worship inside Yuşa Shrine, in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo by Julia Harte.
Shi’a Muslims worship inside Yuşa Shrine, near Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo by Julia Harte.

The Mesopotamian Marshes are again looking cracked and dry these days, the reeds stunted and often covered by an unhealthy slime, but for a new reason: upstream dams on the Tigris and Euphrates.

Sheikh Sayid Abbas Sayid Sirwit is responsible for overseeing the welfare and settling the disputes of locals in Maysan Province. As water from the Tigris has diminished in quantity and quality, and a terrible drought has afflicted Iraq in the past few years, thousands of farmers have been forced to leave the province and find new work in cities.

As he sees it, the main reason for the shortage of water is “the activity of our neighbor Turkey, building huge dams on the Tigris River.”

The effects of the Ilısu Dam, according to Sayid Abbas, will have negative ramifications for half of the Iraqi population.

“About sixty percent of Iraq’s population depends on farming, and half of these people depend on the Tigris,” explains Sayid Abbas. “So there will be a great loss of jobs. The idea of earning a living will change here in Iraq.”

A house in the Islah region sits empty after its residents abandoned it to seek work in another area. Photo by Julia Harte.
A house in the al-Islah township of Southern Iraq sits empty after its residents left to seek work in a wetter area.         Photo by Julia Harte.

As one who regularly solves conflicts, Sayid Abbas has a few ideas for how to fix this problem.

The Iraqi government, he says, should first call on the international community to get involved in ensuring that Turkey agrees to an equitable water-sharing agreement with its downstream neighbors. Should international intervention fail, Sayid Abbas adds, Iraq can use its oil resources to put more pressure on Turkey, “especially given that we know Turkey has about $10 billion invested in Iraq.”

The ancient Sumerians would have been amazed to see a world in which water from the Tigris and Euphrates had to be bartered. Water has sustained this place and its inhabitants since before the beginning of recorded history, and modern humankind owes much to the waters of Mesopotamia.

As they dry up, so are the local agricultural and settlement traditions that have defined this place for millennia.

A plant grows in the cracks of King Shulgi's palace in Ur. Photo by Julia Harte.
Flowers sprout in the cracks of King Shulgi’s palace in Ur. Photo by Julia Harte.

This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

NEXT: More From Ancient Mesopotamia