Home > Relevant links > Enormous, ‘Most Ancient’ Sumerian Port Discovered in Iraq

Archaeological excavations were conducted near the city of Nasiriyah, at a place called Abu-Tbeirah, which is located on the ancient shoreline of the Persian Gulf.

The ancient harbor uncovered near Ur, homeland of Abraham, is the oldest port found in Iraq and shows the Sumerians weren’t only good farmers, they were skilled sailors too

Archaeologists digging in southern Iraq have uncovered the remains of a large harbor built more than 4,000 years ago by the Sumerians. The discovery confirms that the Sumerians, best known for creating one of the world’s earliest civilizations based on farming, had advanced seafaring skills too and were trading with distant lands, including the Indian subcontinent.

The joint Iraqi-Italian team of archaeologists discovered an ancient Sumerian port dating to the third millennium BC in the south-east of Iraq, according to the website of the foundation for the support of education and research of the Italian University Sapienza. The excavations were led by two archaeologists, Lycia Romano and Franco D’Agostino. Since 2011, an Italian expedition has been investigating the ancient site of Abu Tbeirah, located in Dhi Qar, a southern Iraqi province.

“The port, located to the north-west of Abu-Tbeirah, is an artificial water area in the lowland, surrounded by a massive earthen rampart on a clay foundation. Two entrances connect it to the city, and they are clearly visible on Google satellite images,” the Italian newspaper Repubblica reported, quoting the excavation’s leaders.

The map shows the settlement to be in the middle of a desert plain, but back then, it would have been by the coast. Abu Tbeirah, archaeologists believe, was a “satellite” town of Ur – the ancient Sumerian capital and traditional birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham – which lies some 15 kilometers to the west.

It was while preparing the site for the 2016 digging season that archaeologists chanced upon a fox’s burrow on the northwestern corner of the ancient town. Peering into the animal’s lair, they made a discovery that highlights a so-far neglected side of the Sumerians, who are better known as farmers who created one of the earliest recorded human civilizations along the fertile banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, starting around the fifth millennium B.C.E. “We weren’t looking for a harbor,” says archaeologist Licia Romano. “But one day, during a survey of the site, we saw this fox hole, and looking inside it we caught a glimpse of some clay bricks, which told us there was an ancient structure there.”

Over the next two years, the researchers uncovered massive brick ramparts that surrounded docks and an artificial basin connected to a canal that bisected the town, Romano said Wednesday during a presentation of the discovery at La Sapienza University in Rome.

According to the archaeologists, this is the most ancient port ever to have been discovered on the territory of Iraq. 

This discovery “will help to write a new chapter in the history of Mesopotamia and its civilization, and also to dispel the notion that the ancient Mesopotamian cities were surrounded (only) by fields of grains and irrigation channels,” the publication added.

Sumerian ports are mentioned in cuneiform tablets, and some can be discerned in satellite images. But the third-millennium B.C.E. structure at Abu Tbeirah is the oldest harbor ever excavated in Iraq, Romano says.

Archaeologists have dug up smaller river ports in the nearby ruins of Ur itself, but they date to some 2,000 years later, she added.

The scientists do not exclude the notion that the ancient port, the size of which is equivalent to more than 12 Olympic swimming pools, was used not only for mooring ships and commercial operations with other cities, but also as a water reservoir and a huge basin in case of floods.

Trading with India

Finding a port town at Abu Tbeirah might seem incongruous, given that today the site sits in the midst of an arid plain, with the sea lying about 200 kilometers to the southeast. But that’s mainly because the rivers of Mesopotamia have been dumping tons of silt into the Persian Gulf for millennia, pushing back the coastline. In Sumer’s heyday, more than 4,000 years ago, Abu Tbeirah would have been almost on the coast, surrounded by marshland and a mix of natural and artificial canals, traces of which can still be seen in satellite images, Romano notes.