Did Mesopotamians also invent gender equality?

29 Dec

A woman's hand mirror with a handle in the shape of a palm found in a tomb at Nimrud. (Source)

We’ve established the fact that Mesopotamians were really into extravagant burials of their important folk.

Let’s now talk about more than just material wealth and human sacrifice in the tombs of Ancient Mesopotamia.

Let’s talk about what these tombs tell us about the status of women and the issue of gender in Ancient Mesopotamia.

I mentioned in the last post (which has undergone a slight change since I posted it) that the most interesting aspect of the most lavish tombs found in Mesopotamia is that they were the tombs of women who ranked high in their societies.

Queen Pu’abi seems to have been a big deal with her headdress, her 26 attendants and all-around lavish burial fit for a queen, and although nobody knows for sure whether she was indeed a queen or just a high priestess, her extravagant burial serves not only as an indication of her own importance, but that elite women, at least, had the same privileges as men of the elite.

To prove this point further, one need only move about 500 miles north, away from Ur, to the city of Nimrud. Formerly known as Kalhu, the capital of the Assyrian Empire for over 150 years, is where the Royal Tombs of Nimrud were unearthed.

The tombs at Nimrud, along with Queen Pu’abi’s tomb at Ur, further illustrate the fact that social status mattered more than gender in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Although there is limited information about the tombs at Nimrud, the information I found differed from one source to another, making it difficult to put together a comprehensive introduction to this archaeological site. One source states there were three tombs found at Nimrud, while another says there were four. Other details were also murky or just plain scarce. I am going by the source that seems the most recent and detailed.

The tomb of Yaba, according to the source of this picture, which would make it also the tomb of Atalia. (Source)

According to a paper written by Amy R. Gansell, Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute, the Royal Tombs of Nimrud consisted of four tombs discovered in April 1989 by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage. The tombs were located in the Northwest Palace of Nimrud. They contained several bodies and a lot of material wealth, including jewelry, vessels, ornaments and seals, most of which date back to the 8th century BC.

Inscriptions were also found within the Queens’ Tombs, as the tombs were called, which listed the details of those buried inside; high-ranking males or eunuch courtiers, children, and elite palace women.

Of the four tombs, Tomb II was the only one left undisturbed by looters over the centuries, and so it became a window into the lives of women of a certain class in Mesopotamia, particularly in Assyrian society.

Inside Tomb II, which dates to c. 750-625 BC, the bodies of two women were found stacked on top of each other inside a sarcophagus. They were surrounded by jewelry, more than they could wear at once.

A necklace found in the tombs at Nimrud. (Source)

Gansell writes that the women must have died when they were between 30 and 40 years old, and that the women were identified in cuneiform texts as Atalia, the wife and queen of Assyrian King Sargon II, and Yaba, the wife and queen of Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III.

Other sources listed the names of three queens, each married to a different king, but according to Gansell’s paper, there were only two queens, one of who has two names.

Gansell explains that Yaba is also Banitu, Banitu being the Assyrian translation of Yaba.

Now, these women were the wives of kings, which alone made them important, but based on what was found buried with them in the tombs at Nimrud, it seems these women were important in their own right.

Tomb II contained what Gansell believes are offerings or gifts from mourners along with dowries and the women’s personal assets. Gansell also mentions that the locations of the tombs under the part of the palace where the women may have resided, were supplied with pipes through which sustenance could be sent down to the deceased, making them important enough to keep their memory alive by way of sending offerings of food and such into the afterlife.

A tablet that mentions curses against anyone disturbing a tomb at Nimrud. (Source)

Gansell also writes in her paper that “women managed lucrative estates, lent capital, and commissioned large architectural projects,” in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Tablets mentioning curses that told of doom for anyone who disturbs the tombs at Nimrud were also found.

There are many findings that prove the Mesopotamian obliviousness to gender, and reliance on social status in the distribution of privilege, but the tombs of the likes of Atalia and Yaba, and even Queen Pu’abi, just further provide tangible evidence that the women buried with such extravagance were important during their lives, and their importance would not and did not fade after their deaths.



Posted by on December 29, 2011 in Assyrian, Nimrud, Tombs, Women


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 responses to “Did Mesopotamians also invent gender equality?

  1. Apollodorosh

    December 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Hmmm… I don’t think these finds illustrate that gender didn’t matter *at all*, they’d o illustr

  2. Apollodorosh

    December 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Hmmm… I don’t think these finds illustrate that gender didn’t matter *at all*, though it does illustrate women could have high positions and that they could receive these honors you mentioned.

    But overall, Mesopotamian society did view women as subjected to male dominance, just like it still *is* today in modern Arabic cultures.

    • Chaldean kid

      April 21, 2012 at 6:11 am

      People from mesopotamia are different from Arabs , Persians or Jews. They have their own genetic make up which is not well known , today they are referred as the Assyrians or Chaldeans.


        April 22, 2012 at 3:44 am

        Regardless of whether Mesopotamians were like Arabs or Persians or Jews, women were not treated as though they were without intellectual ability, proof being that they could own property and hold positions that have immortalized them on clay tablets.

        It is clear that for ancient societies at least, Mesopotamian women were pretty well off. I don’t care to apply the same standards of today to societies that existed long before we needed organizations to ensure the well-being of women like we do today, and I think we undermine the impressive accomplishments of those who had to figure everything out on their own when we do so.

      • Apollodorosh

        April 22, 2012 at 9:38 am

        Respectfully, what does their genetic make-up have to do with all this? Culture/language and genetic populations are not as fixed a connection as some people think they are. Both Arabs and Mesopotamians (and Israelites) belong to Semitic cultures, speaking Semitic languages. All of which are comparable, though also possessing differences off course. The Persians ain’t got nothing to do with this all, they are Indo-European of the Indo-Iranian branch.


        April 22, 2012 at 9:32 pm

        Their genetic makeup has nothing to do with how they viewed gender, just as genetic makeup has nothing to do with how we view gender today. I know we like to think that certain groups are more prone to be sexist, but, really, it’s society and dictated morality, much of which is misunderstood and altered, that has done that.

        When looking at ancient societies, I think it’s logical to deduce that there was no other choice but to think women were the nurturers and men were the protectors, simply because of their biological makeup. But it is clear that Mesopotamian women enjoyed recognition of their status and abilities, whether as authors, like Enheduanna, or as palace workers whose records brand them as the world’s first known professionals in their field, like Tapputi, the world’s first chemist. I don’t know of any other ancient culture that dates that far back that has recognized even non-royal women in writing. Something has to be said for that, and that was my intent with this post.


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