Around 4,000 years ago, this pale, hard-packed spit of Iraqi desert was the center of civilisation. Today the ruins of the great city of Ur, once an administrative capital of Mesopotamia, now sit in a barren wasteland near Iraq’s most notorious prison. In the shadow of the towering prison fences, Abo Ashraf, the self-proclaimed caretaker of the archaeological site, and a handful of tourists are the only signs of life for miles. At the end of a long wooden walkway, an impressive ziggurat is nearly all that remains of the ancient Sumerian metropolis.

To get here, I’d been packed into the backseat of a taxi hurtling through the desert for hours, until I began to see the city’s famed monument looming in the distance: the Ziggurat of Ur, a 4,100-year-old massive, tiered shrine lined with giant staircases. A tall chain link fence barricading the entrance and a paved parking lot were the only hints of the modern world.

The very first ziggurats pre-date the Egyptian pyramids, and a few remains can still be found in modern-day Iraq and Iran. They are as imposing as their Egyptian counterparts and also served religious purposes, but they differed in a few ways: ziggurats had several terraced levels as opposed to the pyramids’ flat walls, they didn’t have interior chambers and they had temples at the top rather than tombs inside.

“A ziggurat is a sacred building, essentially a temple on a platform with a staircase,” said Maddalena Rumor, an Ancient Near-East specialist at Case Western Reserve University in the US. “The earliest temples show simple constructions of one-room shrines on a slight platform. Over time, temples and platforms were repeatedly reconstructed and expanded, growing in complexity and size, reaching their most perfect shape in the multi-level Ziggurat [of Ur].”

The Ziggurat of Ur was built a bit later (about 680 years after the first pyramids), but it is renowned because it is one of the best-preserved, and also because of its location in Ur, which holds a prominent place in history books . According to Rumor, Mesopotamia was the origin of artificial irrigation: the people of Ur cut canals and ditches to regulate the flow of water and irrigate land further from the Euphrates River banks. Ur is also believed to be the birthplace of biblical Abraham and, as Ashraf explained while he walked us through the destroyed walls of the city, the home of the first code of law, the Code of Ur-Nammu, written around 2100 BCE – 400 years before Babylonia’s better-known Code of Hammurabi.