The oldest bridge in the world, in the Sumerian city of Ngirsu

Photo British Museum

In the present Tel Telloh of the Iraqi province of Dhi Qar is the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Ngirsu (sometimes transcribed as Girsu). It is about 25 kilometers northwest of Lagash, one of the two main Sumerian city-states, to which it was connected by one of the branches of the Euphrates.

Ngirsu, whose foundation dates back to the 5th millennium B.C., began its rise in the 25th century B.C. with the first Sumerian dynasty, to such an extent that it became the capital of the kingdom and was its main religious centre, a characteristic that it maintained even when political power later moved to Lagash.

Photo University of Chicago

It would be the first excavated Sumerian city, and therefore the one that would rediscover that ancient civilization for the world, of which little or nothing was known until then. It was Ernest de Sarzec, a French vice-consul in Basra and an amateur archaeologist who, in view of the excavations the British were carrying out in Ur, decided on his own to begin research in Ngirsu in 1877, after hearing the stories about the site told to him by some antiquities dealers. Sarzec worked on the site until his death in 1901, and is therefore considered the discoverer of Sumerian civilization.

He was succeeded at the head of the French archaeological mission by Colonel Gaston Cros, who brought to light numerous objects and structures, such as the famous walled perimeter of the city, which was almost 10 meters thick, and found evidence that the cuneiform tablets were stored in a kind of administrative archive (more than 50,000 tablets have been recovered at the site). Cros worked in Ngirsu until 1909.

Photo British Museum

The difficulty in finding a suitable successor, and the subsequent outbreak of the First World War, interrupted the excavations until 1929, when Henri de Genouillac, a priest and archaeologist specializing in Assyriology, took over. In 1931 his health issues made him delegate the direction of the works to André Parrot (who years later would become director of the Louvre) until 1933.

It would be in 1929, with Genouillac already directing the excavation, when a strange structure appeared which at the time could not be described in any other way than enigmatic. Neither Genouillac nor anyone else had seen anything like it before. At first it was thought that it could be the remains of an ancient temple or a dam. Some even suggested that it was an hydrological regulator. The solution was much simpler.

Photo British Museum

Recent studies using photographs from the 1930s and declassified satellite images from the 1960s, along with new research at the site, demonstrated that it is actually a bridge, built over an old riverbed. Not only that, it is the oldest bridge discovered so far in the world, built 4,000 years ago in the third millennium BC.

From the time the structure was brought to light in 1929 until April 2018, when restoration and conservation work began (in the light of new research), the bridge remained exposed to erosion and virtually forgotten.

Since then, a team of experts from the British Museum and Iraqi specialists from the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage have been working to ensure the survival of the bridge, thanks to its inclusion in the restoration programme of sites affected by the destruction caused by Daesh (self-proclaimed Islamic State).

The programme is part of the Iraqi Heritage Management Emergency Training Plan, which is already training new archaeologists at the site on location, including the country’s first eight female archaeologists.

According to British Museum experts who have participated in previous works, the bridge is an incredibly intelligent piece of large-scale ancient engineering.


Sources: British Museum / The historical context of the Sumerian discoveries (Annie Caubet) / Wikipedia.