Egypt may have the Pyramids of Giza, but Iraq has the Pyramid of Ur – a well-preserved engineering achievement that towers over the ruins of an important ancient city
Some 4,000 years ago, this pale, hard Iraqi desert was the center of civilization. Today, the ruins of the great city of Ur, once the administrative capital of Mesopotamia, now sit in a barren wasteland near one of Iraq’s most notorious prisons. In the shadow of the towering prison fence, self-proclaimed archaeological site manager Abo Ashraf and a handful of visitors are the only signs of life for miles around. At the end of a long wooden walkway, an impressive pyramidal shrine is almost all that remains of the ancient Sumerian metropolis.
To get here, I squeezed into the back seat of a cab speeding through the desert for hours until I began to see the city’s famous monument looming in the distance: the pyramidal pagoda of Ur, a massive, tiered 4,100-year-old shrine lined with huge staircases. A high chain-link fence at the entrance and a paved parking lot are the only clues to the modern world.
The earliest pyramidal shrines predate the Egyptian pyramids, and some remnants can still be found in modern Iraq and Iran. They are just as imposing as their Egyptian counterparts and had religious uses, but they differ in a number of ways: unlike the flat walls of the pyramids, the pyramidal towers have several terraces, no interior rooms, and are topped with temples rather than tombs inside.
“The pyramidal pagoda is a sacred building, essentially a temple on a platform with a staircase,” says Madalena Rumor, an expert on the ancient Near East at Case Western Reserve University. “The earliest temples displayed a simple one-room temple structure on a slight platform. Over time, the temple and platform were repeatedly rebuilt and expanded with increasing complexity and scale, reaching their most perfect shape in the multi-level Ziggurat [Ur].”
The pyramid of Ur was built a little later (about 680 years after the first pyramid), but it is famous because it is one of the best preserved pyramids and because it is located in Ur and occupies an important place in the history books. According to legend, Mesopotamia was the birthplace of artificial irrigation: the Ur people dug canals and ditches to regulate the flow of water and irrigate the land far from the banks of the Euphrates. Ur is also believed to be the biblical birthplace of Abraham, and as Ashraf explains as he leads us through the ruins of the city, it was the site of the first legal code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, written in 2100 – 400 B.C. years before the famous Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.
“In Mesopotamia, each city was thought to have been founded and built as the residence of a god/goddess …… who acted as its protector and political authority,” says the rumor. In Ur, it was the moon goddess Nanna – for whom the pyramidal pagodas were built as homes and temples on Earth. “The cult of Nanna developed early around the lower Euphrates (at its center was Ur), which was associated with the grazing of cows and increasing the natural circulation of cattle,” she says.
The lower levels of the structure still exist today, although the temples on top and the upper terraces have been lost. To figure out what they looked like, experts have used a variety of techniques and ancient writings (from historians such as Herodotus as well as the Bible). In her 2016 paper A Ziggurat and the Moon, Amelia Sparavigna, an archaeological imaging specialist at the Politecnico di Torino, writes: “[Ziggurats] are pyramidal structures with a flat top and a core composed of sun-dried bricks covered with burnt brick. The finishes are usually painted with different colors of glaze …… “.
Based on the remains found at the site, it is widely believed that Ur’s pyramidal shrine had an azure temple perched on top of two massive layers of mud bricks. The base alone consists of more than 720,000 carefully stacked mud bricks, each weighing 15 kilograms. Reflecting Sumerian knowledge of the lunar and solar cycles, each of the four corners of the pyramidal shrine points like a compass in one basic direction, with the grand staircase to the upper level facing the sunrise at the summer solstice.
As Ashraf led me and several other visitors to the main staircase, I could see the remains of this great achievement. He knows the site like the back of his hand: he moved here 38 years ago with his father to assist with archaeological excavations, and his home is at the entrance. Once at the top, I could imagine that ancient kingdom spreading out in all directions thousands of years ago.
King Urnum laid the first bricks of the pyramid in 2100 BC, later completed by his son, King Shurgi, when the city was the prosperous capital of Mesopotamia. But by the 6th century B.C., the pyramidal pagoda was in ruins due to the heat and harsh sands of the desert. The Babylonian king Nabonidus began restoring it around 550 B.C., but instead of rebuilding the original three stories, he built seven, in keeping with other magnificent Babylonian buildings of the time, such as the Etemenanki ziggurat, which some consider to be the famous Tower of Babel.
Most of the pyramidal towers are still intact today, thanks largely to three ingenious innovations by the original Sumerian engineers.
The first is ventilation. Like the other pyramidal towers, this one was built with a mud-brick core, with a sun-dried brick outer layer. Because the core retained moisture that could have caused the structure to degrade as a whole, the Sumerians drilled hundreds of square holes in the outer walls to allow for rapid evaporation. Without this detail, the rumor explains, “the interior of the mud bricks could have softened during heavy rains and eventually swelled or collapsed.”
Second, the walls are slightly tilted. This allowed water to flow down the sides of the pyramidal pagoda, preventing water from pooling in the upper levels; the angle made the building appear larger from a distance, intimidating enemies of the empire.
Finally, the top temple was built with completely baked mud bricks joined together by tar. This naturally occurring tar prevented water from seeping into the unbaked core.
Despite these achievements, by the 6th century A.D., this once-thriving metropolis had dried up metaphorically and physically. The Euphrates River had altered its course, leaving the city without water and therefore uninhabitable. Ur and the pyramidal pagoda were abandoned and subsequently buried by wind and time under a mountain of sand.
It was not until 1850 that the remains of the pyramidal pagoda were discovered again. Later, in the 1920s, British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley led an intensive excavation of the monument, uncovering the remains of the structure and unearthing gold daggers, carved statues, elaborate seven-stringed lyres and intricate headdresses from the surrounding tombs. But as Ashraf points out, “only 30 percent of the site has been excavated, and much more remains to be discovered.”
Even so, the Pyramid was important enough to be used as a pawn in modern warfare, and during the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein parked two of his MiG fighter jets next to it, hoping that the historic site would prevent U.S. and other foreign attacks on his aircraft. Unfortunately, the pyramidal shrine remains slightly damaged.
In 2021, Iraq opened its doors to a range of Western countries, and tourism has been slow to develop (although many governments still advise against travel here.) Janet Newenham, an Irish travel journalist and owner of Janet’s Journeys, visited Iraq shortly after the visa-on-arrival program was launched. Since then, she has led several group tours to the region. “On our first trip in July 2021, we saw no other tourists,” she said. “When my April 2022 trip began, we often encountered a small group of adventurous tourists …… however, we never saw more than four or five tourists at a time.
Almost every day, however, Ashraf braved the heat to help visitors understand the importance of the Pyramid. He says he taught himself English through a “study dictionary,” and when most of his foreign visitors were Japanese, he began learning bits of Japanese as well.
As I carefully climbed the grand staircase leading to the flat upper level, I could still see some asphalt between the broken bricks. I also found a small brick with an inscription on it, inscribed with Saddam Hussein, as he partially rebuilt the monument in 1980. The terraces and colorful temples above have long since been destroyed and lost to the passage of time. But across the nearly flat desert, I could see small mounds scattered everywhere waiting to be excavated, no doubt hiding a world of undiscovered treasures.