Touring a ziggurat almost a century ago

Submitted by Sammy Smith (


Visit the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, and contemplate the ruins of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, including its temple or ziggurat. So what’s the connection between an art museum in Atlanta and an archaeological site in what is now Iraq?

The satellite image from Google Earth shows the reconstructed ziggurat and some of the surrounding ruins (and a parking lot just east of the rectangular ziggurat). They were less reconstructed nearly a century ago, when “American Scientific Mission” expedition members, including an Atlantan, visited there. Here’s an abbreviated version of the story….

In 1919, Egyptologist James Henry Breasted left New York, leading an archaeological expedition to the Middle East. Breasted had recently been appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago, and his trip was supported by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose father had owned Standard Oil and many other lucrative business ventures.

The expedition travelled via ships, which took some time. In addition, from Cairo, they traveled to an oversea route to Bombay before arriving via the Persian Gulf at the mouth of the Euphrates River system. Breasted’s letter dated March 18, 1920 to his family had the dateline “Ur Junction, Babylon, Mesopotamia.” He wrote of the complications of arranging transportation the day before, and of the ruins they explored:

Here I sit in a freight car, where I slept last night on a field bed, and behind me looming high against the setting sun, is the temple tower of Ur of the Chaldees, the traditional home of Abraham. It is something less than four miles away. And when we had arrived yesterday morning it required only a little manipulation of the official wires to produce two Ford vans, and we were presently rolling away across the desert at twenty miles an hour. Behind us was Ur Junction! Ur Junction! What do you think Abraham would say to that! It consists of a group of tents, a mess house, and a row of quarters for the officers of the army in charge, a post office, and three tents in a row serving as a railroad restaurant where we had breakfast immediately on leaving the train. It lies on the main line from Basrah to Baghdad—the main line along which the first train passed not long before our arrival, and which we are the first archaeological expedition to use. There is a little branch line running up to Nasiriyeh and hence the sounding name, Ur Junction.

As we left it we had just before us in the morning sun, the ruins of our first Babylonian city. It consists chiefly of the temple tower of the moon-god of ancient Ur, and the adjoining larger buildings, like the palace of the ruler and the administrative buildings. These form a nucleus at one end, beyond which low mounds mark the houses of the unpretentious town. There is none of the architectural grandeur of the Egyptian buildings with their vast stone superstructures and imposing colonnades. There was little or no stone in ancient Babylonia, and everything had to be built of brick, burned or unburned. Nevertheless, I found it very impressive to be standing in the first ancient Babylonian city I had ever visited, with the bricks of the temple tower lying all about, marked with the name of Nabonidus, the father of Daniel’s Belshazzar, and the older lower course of the tower displaying bricks bearing the titulary of urengur, who lived in the 24th or 25th century B.C., almost 2000 years before Nabonidus. …. The boys, Bull, Edgerton and Shelton, are of the greatest assistance in the practical jobs connected with the living arrangements, and in the making and keeping of records, from which they gain much profit and experience.

The temple tower of Ur that Breasted mentions has been reconstructed to have a height of over 30 meters, although the actual height when the building was occupied is unknown. As Breasted noted, the temple tower was one of many clustered ruins, some of which even then were partly reconstructed. The ziggurat was built about 4000 years ago during the reign of Ur-Nammu.


Satellite image, also from Google Earth, but zoomed out to see more of the surroundings of the ziggurat and its walled precincts. Modern roads and other construction encroach upon the ancient ruins.

At that time, Ur was not as far inland as it is now, as the shoreline of the Persian Gulf has moved southeastward as sediments deposited by the Euphrates/Tigris drainage system have filled in the northern end of the Gulf.

The Mr. Shelton mentioned near the end of the quote above was William Arthur Shelton of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Atlanta cotton merchant John A. Manget financed Shelton’s trip and the artifacts he obtained for the University, which are now in the collections of Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum. Shelton’s account of their trip to Ur is similar.

We were at Ur Junction in time for breakfast and found a small city of tents on the desert. We side-tracked our van and made our home in it while we surveyed the mounds in that vicinity.
Four miles out in the desert to the west stands the great buried city of Ur, lying in the midst of the desert sands fifteen miles west of the Euphrates, though that river once washed its walls. … The ancient city is in a state of great ruin; but its temple tower (call now a ziggurat) stands yet some seventy feet high and exhibits splendid walls built of square brick well burned and measuring about fourteen inches in two directions and from one and one-half to two inches thick and laid in bitumen obtained from Hit. This city, which is still doing business in the bitumen trade, is situated about five hundred miles farther up the river. …

Some distance from the temple tower are the palace remains, which have been very well excavated, revealing a high and luxurious state of civilization in that early day. There are many earthenware vessels, broken pottery is abundant, and large seccessive drains are found, while the mound itself is covered with shells and copper or or fragments of copper, together with indications of smelting. The shells are everywhere, and it has not been determined whether they are river bed shells or salt-water shells’ but the desert is strewn thickly with them, and their antiquity is evidenced by the fact that these ancient bricks contain them. There are literally streams of these little shells on the mound…. There was also a large and imposing city wall, with evidences of villages surrounding this great city.


Plate between pages 78 and 79 of Shelton’s book Dust and Ashes of Empires (1922). Breasted is the figure on the left.

Breasted and Shelton traveled together. Breasted’s letter was written to his family when events of this particular day were fresh in his mind—they had happened the day before. Shelton’s account is from a book published in 1922 that he called a “travel-record,” and probably composed the text from notes he made as he traveled.

Are both considered primary source materials by historical researchers? Do you find any discrepancies in their accounts of the ruins of Ur? Do you like one account better than the other?

Text sources

Breasted’s letters have been published by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and are downloadable here. The 2010 volume is titled Letters from James Henry Breasted to His Family, August 1919–July 1920, and has been edited by John A. Larson. It is the first publication in the Oriental Institute’s new Digital Archives series (OIDA 1). The paragraphs quoted here are from page 173.

The paragraphs by William Arthur Shelton are from pages 79-81 of Dust and Ashes of Empires (1922), which is downloadable from Google Books.

Where to find it