Uruk: The First City

See works of art
  • Head of a ram
  • Fragment of a bowl with a frieze of bulls in relief
  • Seal amulet in the form of a seated female and modern impression
  • Cuneiform tablet: administrative account of barley distribution with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars

Works of Art (5)


For thousands of years, southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) was home to hunters, fishers, and farmers, exploiting fertile soil, rivers, and abundant animals. By around 3200 B.C., the largest settlement in southern Mesopotamia, if not the world, was Uruk: a true city dominated by monumental mud-brick buildings decorated with mosaics of painted clay cones embedded in the walls, and extraordinary works of art. Large-scale sculpture in the round and relief carving appeared for the first time, together with metal casting using the lost-wax process. Simple pictographs were drawn on clay tablets to record the management of goods and the allocation of workers’ rations. These pictographs are the precursors of later cuneiform writing. Until around 3000 B.C., objects inspired by Mesopotamia were found from central Iran to the Egyptian Nile Delta. However, this widespread culture collapsed and Mesopotamia looked inward for the next few centuries. Yet cities such as Uruk continued to expand. During the following Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 B.C.), when city-states dominated Mesopotamia, the city rulers gradually grew in importance and increasingly sought luxury materials to express their power. These goods, often from abroad, were acquired either by trade or conquest. At this time Uruk was surrounded by a massive wall, which according to tradition was built on the orders of King Gilgamesh. Although he may have been an actual king of Uruk around 2700 B.C., Gilgamesh became the hero of many later stories and epics.

Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003


Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Uruk: The First City.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/uruk/hd_uruk.htm (October 2003)

Further Reading

Boehmer, Rainer M. "Uruk-Warka." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, pp. 294–98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Nissen, Hans J. "Uruk and the Formation of the City." In Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels, pp. 11–16. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.