Here’s a virtual reconstruction of the city of Ur around 2500 BC or so, or upwards of five thousand years ago. This is based on the remarkably well preserved mud brick structures (due in part to the dry climate, and in part to the excellence of the construction), which gives a blue print of the city in exceptional detail. There is also an enormous quantity of documents—mud tablets baked hard by the sun and in ovens—written in cuneiform which give insight into almost every aspect of life, politics, war and commerce in the city’s 3,300 year history (which coincides neatly with the history of cuneiform, actually, the first cuneiform preceding the founding of the city by only a couple centuries.) Ur was perhaps the very first city, and certainly the very first great city in the modern sense. Take us back in time and put us atop the ziggurat that towers over it and we would take in the view and know we were looking at a city. The way the Chicago skyline seems to rise out of the fields a great distance away was how Ur’s towering ziggurat would have appeared to rise from the plains of Mesopotamia to a Sumerian farmhand. Ur was the model that most cities from Europe to Central and South Asia to the northern half of Africa followed, even though most never knew it. It became the ur meme, the fundamental urban design concept, like how an alphabet invented in the Sinai by a handful of literate turquoise miners became the conceptual model for nearly all the world’s alphabets thereafter. Thus was the urban design deliberately laid out by the planners of Ur over five thousand years ago imprinted upon civilization. Only cities in the Far East and the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa were founded and conceptualized independently. It was in Ur where humans first figured out how to create an urban civilization. Crime, epidemic disease, slums, crowding, pollution, repression and extremes of wealth and poverty followed the idea as it spread, sure, but so did the glamour, excitement, inspiration and thrill of life in the big city, which is why so many of us live in one five millennia later. Ur itself, though, was abandoned about twenty seven hundred years ago, forgotten, it’s bones covered with blowing sand and dust till all that remained was a few odd hillocks, as if it never were.

A virtual recreation of Ur about four thousand years ago. That’s the Euphrates River, Ur then was near where it spilled into the Persian Gulf, making Ur a coastal city. Sedimentation carried in the current of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has long since left the site of Ur far from the sea. The water table was eight or nine feet higher then, too, the land would’ve been well watered, even marshy, so much so that the city planners had canals like thoroughfares crossing the city, carrying goods and people. Alas, six thousand years of civilization and climate change have taken their toll on the landscape of Mesopotamia, and Ur now stands in the desert, silent and still, dust devils swirling over the long forgotten canals.
(Unfortunately I don’t know the source of the digital image.)