Permanent Delegation of Iraq to UNESCO
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Located in the Middle Euphrates region of Iraq, in the province of Al-Qadisiyah, the site of Nippur (Nuffar) encompasses a group of archaeological mounds (tells), the largest one 25m high, and the remains of a canal bed (Shatt al-Nil). It extends over 168.4 ha in the Mesopotamian plain and, in Mesopotamian times, the city lay on the Euphrates. Nippur played an important role in the development of the world's earliest civilization. It was the seat of the worship of the Sumerian god Enlil, the 'Lord Wind,' ruler of the cosmos, and the religious centre of Sumer in the 3rd and 2nd millenium BCE. It was a substantial city for its time set on natural and artificial hills and was surrounded by massive walls for protection. The religious nature of Nippur spared it destruction, and although it underwent periodic declines in importance, it rose again because its function as a holy centre was still needed. The site preserves an unparalleled archaeological record spanning more than 6,000 years, from the prehistoric Ubaid period (c. 5,000 BCE) to about 800 CE in the Islamic era, and bears exceptional testimony to the Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonia cultural traditions.
Description of main monuments and structures
The site of Nippur measures about 1.5 km in length and 700 m in width. It is a great complex of ruined mounds bisected from north to south by a deeply cut watercourse or canal, known locally as Shatt al-Nil. The highest point of these ruins is a conical hill rising 25 m above the level of the surrounding plain, northeast of the canal bed.
Nippur contains several layers of superimposed urban settlement extending from c. 5000 BCE to about 800 CE. Excavations and surveys have revealed the remains of the following structures or buildings:
- A massive city wall with six gates, protected by a moat, and enclosing an area of about 135 hectares;
- The Midtown Canal, a substantial watercourse more than 50 meters across in places;
- The E-kur, or temple to Enlil, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, and its 25-meter-high ziggurat (which is the most important single structure of the site);
- Several other Sumerian temples (the Inanna temple, a North temple);
- A scribal quarter and a residential quarter;
- An Akkadian tomb and a large temple to Gula, the Mesopotamian goddess of healing;
- A large Parthian fortress;
- And an early Islamic mound.
History and significance
Nippur was one of the longest-lived Mesopotamian site. For thousands of years, Nippur was the religious centre of Mesopotamia, where Enlil, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, created mankind, and lived in the E-kur, the 'mountain house' or the assembly of the gods, parallel in Greek mythology to Mount Olympus. This was the most revered and sacred building of ancient Sumer. Control over Nippur was crucial, as it was considered capable of conferring the overall kingship on monarchs from other city-states. It was distinctively a sacred city, important from the possession of the famous shrine of Enlil, but also for a very large number of temples to other deities. The concentration of temples and the absence of a secular governing body characterized the social, political, economic and urbanistic structure of the city. Its holy character allowed Nippur to survive numerous wars and the fall of dynasties that brought destruction to other cities. In Mesopotamian times, the city lay on the Euphrates, linked by this waterway to other important urban centres upstream and downstream. Little is known about the prehistoric town, but by 2500 BCE the city probably reached the extent of the present ruins, was fortified, and had an important temple. Nippur's position in the geographical centre of Babylonia was a major factor in its development throughout the 4th and 3rd millennia. Nippur reached its greatest size during the Ur III period, expanding to approximately 135 hectares, and reaching a population of maybe forty thousand. This is when King Ur-Namrnu (2112-2095 BCE) gave the E-kur temple its final characteristic form. He erected a terrace of bricks, some 12-m high, covering an area of about 32,000 m2. Near the north-western edge, he built a ziggurat of three stages of dry brick, faced with kiln-fired bricks laid in bitumen. The base of the ziggurat was rectangular, measuring 39 by 58 meters, thus covering 2,262 m2.
A prominent feature of the layout of ancient Nippur was the Midtown Canal, which flowed through the middle of the city, and was maybe the original course of the Euphrates. The canal divided Nippur into clearly-defined eastern and western sectors. The largest of the public buildings were located on the eastern side of the canal in an area called 'the bond of heaven and earth.' These buildings were erected for the honour and worship of the major divine powers venerated at ancient Nippur. Another branch of the Euphrates River flowed around the western side of town. Just to the southwest of the Enlil complex was another large temple, this one devoted to the worship of the great goddess Inanna. Her temple was situated very close to the Midtown Canal. This significant building covered 6,000 m2. It was divided into numerous rooms and courtyards for both ritual and administrative activities involved in the worship of a great deity. This temple was built by King Shulgi (2094-2047 BCE), son and successor of Ur-Namrnu.
An Akkadian temple structure existed on the northern section of the city's west side. The goddess Gula received worship there.
Perhaps not far away was another major temple complex devoted to the god Ninurta, but modern archaeologists have not yet been able to define its exact location. Long after the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods, Parthians builders (1st and 2nd centuries BCE) reused for foundation fill a large collection of administrative documents recording cultic deliveries at the Ninurta temple.
To the southeast of the temple area was a large triangular area of land (just over 5 hectares) which has been designated as scribal or professional quarter on account of the large number of tablets found by excavators.
During the late 3rd millennium and early 2nd millennium BCE, multi-purpose buildings existed on the southernmost hill on the west side: a residential area and cooking establishment have been excavated. Some structures in the residential area housed enormous numbers of tablets.
About one fourth of the area within the city walls was devoted to impressive public buildings that attracted visitors from all over Sumer and Akkad. Outside the walls farmers cultivated the irrigated fields of grain and orchards, whereas pastoralists tended their flocks and herds.
A major catastrophe seems to have befallen the city in the 18th century, perhaps because of shifts of the Euphrates, which left the city cut off from its water supply. It was totally abandoned by 1720 BCE, and sand progressively covered the city. During the Kassite period (14th and 13th c.), the Euphrates returned and the city was rebuilt and flourished again. The fortunes changed again during the period known as the Dark Age of Babylonia (1115 to C. 800), and only a small settlement remained on the old temple mound. It was revived yet another time in the 8th c. and grew to become a large, cosmopolitan population centre home not only to Babylonians and Arameans but also large groups of exiled people deported from their homelands.
Even after Babylonian civilization was absorbed into larger empires, such as Alexander the Great's, Nippur flourished. It became important again during the Achaemenid period (550-330), throughout the Seleucid and Parthian periods (C. 331 BCE-224 CE) and under the Sassanians (224-651). Parthian construction later buried Enlil's sanctuary and its enclosure walls, and in the 3rd century CE the city fell into decay. In its final phase, prior to its abandonment around 800 CE, Nippur was a typical Muslim city, with minority communities of Jews and Christians. At the time of its abandonment, the city was the seat of a Christian bishop, so it was still a religious centre, long after Enlil had been forgotten.
The fate of Nippur depended closely on the behaviour of its main water source, the Euphrates, like other cities along the water course. However, throughout its long period of existence when its population expanded and shrunk to almost nothing, the city never lost its sanctity, nor its association with learning and literacy.
The city, with its many temples, government buildings, and important family businesses, was probably more literate than other towns, and the scribes have left nearly 30,000 Sumerian and Akkadian documents written on clay tablets. More than 80% of all known Sumerian literary compositions have been found in Nippur. Included are the earliest recognized versions of the Creation Story, the Flood Story and parts of the Gilgamesh Epic, and administrative, legal, medical and business records, together with grammatical and school texts. Furthermore, an invaluable group of lexical and bilingual texts (Sumerian/ Akkadian) documents allowed scholars to make real progress in deciphering and understanding Sumerian. In fact, the excavations at Nippur have been the primary source of the literary writing of Sumer. Another unique find is a plan of the city on a clay tablet from about 1250 BCE.
The site has yielded thousands of other artefacts, including bronzes, jewellery, cylinder seals, and much pottery. Elaborately designed items made of precious metals, stones, exotic woods, and shell were found, testifying to the development of ancient Mesopotamian art, as well as the far-flung trading connections that brought the materials to Babylonia. Egyptian, Persian, Indus Valley, and Greek artefacts also found their way to Nippur. Main collections of artefacts from the Nippur excavations are kept at the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the museum of the Chicago Orient Institute.
The first American archaeological expedition to Mesopotamia by the University of Pennsylvania excavated at Nippur from 1889 to 1900. The work was resumed in 1948 by the Chicago Oriental Institute and lasted until1990. Initially, this institution focused on the larger mound, two other temples, a Parthian fortress and several private houses. As of 1972, emphasis was shifted to the West Mound, a predominantly residential and administrative quarter of the city yielding bakers' houses, a palace, and a sequence of temples. The expedition eventually concentrated on the low, flat area at the southern comer of the site. Houses, large public buildings, and city walls dating to different periods were uncovered there. The team also carried out investigations in the city wall at the eastern side of the ziggurat and at a small Islamic mound outside the city defences.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Criterion (iii): the sacred city of Nippur was one of the longest-lived Mesopotamian cities. In the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE, it was the religious centre of Mesopotamia, where Enlil, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, created mankind and conferred kingship.
About one fourth of the area within the city walls was devoted to impressive cultic buildings that attracted visitors from all over Sumer and Akkad, and donations from successive Mesopotamian rulers. The concentration of temples and the absence of a secular governing body characterized the social, political, economic and urbanistic structure of the city. Its holy character allowed Nippur to survive numerous wars and the fall of dynasties that brought destruction to other cities. Never a political centre, Nippur underwent periodic declines in importance, but rose again because its function as a holy place was still needed.
The site preserves an unparalleled archaeological record spanning more than 6,000 years, from the prehistoric Ubaid period (c. 5,000 BCE) to about 800 CE in the Islamic era, and bears exceptional testimony to the Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonia cultural traditions.
Criterion (vi): Throughout its long period of existence, Nippur was associated with learning and literacy. The scribes of Nippur have left nearly 30,000 Sumerian and Akkadian documents written on clay tablets, including an invaluable group of lexical and bilingual texts (Sumerian / Akkadian) documents that allowed scholars to make real progress in deciphering and understanding Sumerian.
More than 80% of all known Sumerian literary compositions have been found in Nippur. The earliest record of the Creation Story and Flood Story was found on a single fragmentary cuneiform tablet excavated on the site. Written in Sumerian, it is dated around 1600 BCE during the first Babylonian dynasty. Another tablet includes the earliest known parts of the Gilgamesh Epic.
The Sumerian mythological and literary legacy influenced the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian religious and literary traditions that followed it. Through these channels, the Creation Story was incorporated into the Jewish and Christian traditions, whereas the Flood Story is present in the foundational texts of all Abrahamic religions, including Islam. To this day, the creation and the flood have remained central sources of spiritual, artistic and literary inspiration for humanity. The Gilgamesh Epic, rediscovered through archaeology in the 19th century is a remarkable instance of revival of the Sumerian literary tradition. Over the past century, it has directly inspired a vast number of manifestations of literature, art, music, and popular culture in all areas of the globe.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
All the urban and architectural remains of Nippur are included within the official boundaries of the site, which is protected against adverse development under Law No 55 of 2002 for the Antiquities and Heritage. A fence runs along 75% of the site's circumference. There is no urban or agricultural encroachment on the site, which has not suffered damage from recent conflicts, and has been spared looting. Large tracts remain unexcavated, and the site takes on added significance for future research. Discussions are on-going between the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and the Chicago Oriental Institute to re-activate the archaeological mission at the site. Artefacts found at the site, particularly the clay tablets, are today conserved in reputable museum collections, where they are protected, studied and published, and where a large number are publicly exhibited.
Over 130 years of archaeological research, together with historical sources confirm that the property encompasses the site of the ancient city of Nippur. The material of the architectural remains and the urban form are historically authentic. From its initial formation until its final decline, Nippur has always remained on its present site; its environmental setting has, however, changed, with shifts in the Euphrates' course. The mains threats to the site are desertification, with sand dunes periodically recovering part of the unstabilized excavated areas, the dumps created by early archaeological expeditions, and the fact that no major conservation work has been carried out.
Comparison with other similar properties
Nippur's outstanding universal value lays in its importance within the geographical and historical context of Mesopotamia where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures succeeded each other. Amongst all other urban centres within the same geo-cultural area, it played an exceptional role not as the seat of political power, but as a religious and intellectual centre. This allowed Nippur to experience a remarkable longevity and physical integrity, and to act as an exceptional conveyor of the Sumerian religious and literary tradition. Based on the above attributes giving the property its OUV, Nippur will be compared with the following properties:
On the World Heritage List:
- Ashur, Ur, Uruk, and Eridu (lraq)
- Susa, and Tchogha Zanbil (Iran)
On the Tentative List:
- Babylon, Nimrud, and Nineveh (Iraq)
- Marl, and Ebla (Syria)
- Sumerian cities in Iraq: Lagash, Umrna, Girsu, Shuruppak, Kish, Borsippa, etc.