When American archaeologists discovered a collection of cuneiform tablets in Iraq in the late 19th century, they were confronted with a language and a people who were at the time only scarcely known to even the most knowledgeable scholars of ancient Mesopotamia: the Sumerians. The exploits and achievements of other Mesopotamian peoples, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians, were already known to a large segment of the population through the Old Testament. The nascent field of Near Eastern studies had unraveled the enigma of the Akkadian language that was widely used throughout the region in ancient times, but the discovery of the Sumerian tablets brought to light the existence of the Sumerian culture, which was the oldest of all the Mesopotamian cultures.
Long before Alexandria was a city and even before Memphis and Babylon had attained greatness, the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur stood foremost among ancient Near Eastern cities. Today, the greatness and cultural influence of Ur has been largely forgotten by most people, partially because its monuments have not stood the test of time the way other ancient cultures' monuments have. For instance, the monuments of Egypt were made of stone while those of Ur and most other Mesopotamian cities were made of mud brick and as will be discussed in this report, mud brick may be an easier material to work with than stone but it also decays much quicker. The same is true to a certain extent for the written documents that were produced at Ur. The people of Mesopotamia, which Ur was part of, employed the cuneiform system of writing; since cuneiform was almost always written on clay tablets, modern scholars have been faced with the unfortunate problem that many of those tablets have been broken and made unreadable by the passage of time. Despite the ephemeral nature of its monuments and to some extent its written texts, Ur proved to be an inspiration to the Sumerians who built the city and also to later cultures and dynasties that inhabited Mesopotamia.
An examination of primary sources relating to Ur, as well as archaeological excavations done in the ancient city reveal that it was a cultural beacon for thousands of years. Ur began as a Sumerian city of secondary importance but quickly grew to importance in the region. At its height Ur was the center of a great dynasty that controlled most of Mesopotamia directly through a well maintained army and bureaucracy, and the areas that were not under its direct control were influenced by Ur's diplomats and religious ideas. This study will also reveal that Ur was a truly resilient city because it survived the downfall of the Sumerians, outright destruction at the hands of the Elamites, and later occupations by numerous other peoples, which included Saddam Hussein most recently. Ur inspired the imaginations of ancient peoples, but it has also enraptured the minds of modern people, who have worked for over 150 years to unlock the city's mysteries. Truly, when it comes to important ancient cities, Ur should be counted among the greatest.
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