Literacy and location no doubt gave Uruk its power over its rival Sumerian cities. “Climb upon the wall of Uruk,” exclaims the narrator of the Gilgamesh epic. “Walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry; is it not burnt brick and good?” It was good—good enough to last until German excavators uncovered that very wall a century ago.
Uruk is not an easy place for archaeologists. The Euphrates long ago abandoned this site, moving its sinuous bed to the west. All around is flat plain broken only by the occasional dusty village or crumbling homestead. Midday summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, then plunge at night to near freezing. Uruk’s ancient ruins, left to crumble for 1,700 years, now comprise nearly two square miles of mounds, the result of 200 generations building new streets, houses, temples and palaces on top of the old.
In this arid place, it is hard to imagine canals and gardens, especially in a city built of easily dissolved mud brick. “Archaeologists didn’t think such structures were possible; too much water would destroy them,” says Margarete van Ess of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. But she and her team, who have been digging at Uruk for the past three years, are now convinced that the city’s scribes weren’t just civic boosters. Using magnetometers to trace disturbances in the magnetic field underground, van Ess and colleagues have mapped what they believe are the city’s ancient canals. Roads, canals and buildings have separate, distinct magnetic signatures, allowing van Ess to build a picture of Uruk. “You can visualize it as a garden city,” she says. (The war suspended van Ess’ work; she hopes Uruk’s remote location has protected it.)
Uruk’s power waned in the latter part of the third millennium B.C.; the city fell prey to invaders from the north—Akkadians, Gudeans and Elamites. “They seized your wharf and your borders,” laments one ancient writer. “Shouts rang out, screams reverberated. . . . Battering rams and shields were set up, they rent its walls.” Asuccession of rulers rebuilt the city, but by A.D. 300 it was gone.