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Ancient Mesopotamia

Tell al-'Ubaid and the Temple

by Peter Kessler, 6 January 2008

The site of Tell al-'Ubaid is famous partly for the discovery there of a kind of prehistoric pottery to which it has given its name.

Tell al-'Ubaid lies close to the site of Ur in what then was the southernmost part of Mesopotamia. In the intervening centuries the silting up of the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates has caused the coastline of the Persian Gulf to move quite a way further south.

The Ubaid culture had arisen from the earliest settlement of the alluvial flood plain in southern Mesopotamia in the late sixth millennium (starting from around 5300 BC). After spreading outwards in the fifth millennium to displace the earlier Halaf culture in the north, it lasted until around 3900 BC.

The temple of Ninhursag

It was in this area, at Ur, that the Sumerians built a temple to the great mother goddess Ninhursag, situating it on a high terrace within an oval enclosure. Foundation inscriptions date the creation of the temple to the reign of A-ane-pada, king of Ur around 2500 BC (otherwise known as Mesannepadda).

Ninhursag was the Sumerian earth and mother goddess, as well as being a goddess of fertility who created all vegetation. She was the consort of the supreme god Enki (and as such she is identified with Damgalnunna, the later Babylonian earth goddess).

One of the oldest members of the Sumerian pantheon, Ninhursag had prestigious titles such as 'mother of the gods' and 'mother of all children'.

She was also called Nintu, 'lady of birth', and was identified with the earth goddess, Ki. She was the tutelary deity of the Sumerian rulers, who styled themselves 'children of Ninhursag'.

Ninhursag ensured fertile fields but, when she cursed her husband for his incestuous affairs (with the plants to which she gave birth), and following his subsequent descent into the underworld, the earth became barren. Only when the hastily assembled gods had managed to mollify her did the earth became fertile again and the cycle of the seasons was instituted.

A second temple of Ninhursag was excavated near Tell Harriri. This was the site of the westernmost Sumerian city of Mari. This was discovered by archaeologists in 1933, and is located in what is now Syria, near the Iraqi border.

The temple of Ninhursag
A suggested recreation of the temple of Ninhursag, which once stood in the Sumerian city of Ur in what is now southern Iraq, as featured in the work of Sir Leonard Woolley (Ur Excavations I, 1927)


The city of Ur declined in the first millennium BC, eventually being abandoned around 500 BC to be claimed by the desert sands now that the Euphrates had shifted its course away from the city.

Ninhursag's temple at Ur was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s, at the same time as he uncovered the royal graves at Ur.

The ruins on top of the terrace were missing, but much of the temple decoration, perhaps the mobile elements of the facade, was heaped on either side of the central stairway. They seem to have been stored there awaiting removal or reinstatement.

The remains also include some of the earliest objects in copper and bronze from Mesopotamia, together with friezes inlaid with stone and shell, besides the mosaic column, and the great Imdugud panel (which is displayed in the British Museum).


Main Sources

University of Alabama - Images from History

Micha F Lindemans - Ninhursag

The British Museum

Woolley, C Leonard - The Sumerians



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler, including exhibits at the British Museum. An original feature for the History Files.