Asphalt is not a very exciting subject. Between you and me, about the only fun I’ve ever had with asphalt before today was when I briefly thought The Clash were singing “Rock the Asphalt,” instead of “Rock the Casbah,” in their song of that title.
And yet here I am, writing about bitumen, better known to us modern people as asphalt, and let me tell you, the stuff is quite fascinating.
Though it’s a thick black substance that you could do anything with but see through, the bitumen and the role it played in Mesopotamia provides a window through which we can see how this gooey stuff helped the Mesopotamian civilization thrive.
Although Mesopotamians were not the first to use bitumen as an adhesive, it seems they had a monopoly on the substance as more than an adhesive for putting tools and weapons together. Sumerians called it esir, and Akkadians called it iddu.
Bitumen oozed out of the ground at various locations in the ancient Middle East, but it did not flow quite like it did in the land between the two rivers, and the needs of the Mesopotamian civilization were such that bitumen played a much bigger role in Mesopotamia than anywhere else in the ancient world.
The city of Hit in central Iraq was, and remains a hub of bitumen deposits, which have been utilized for thousands of years. The Akkadian name for bitumen, iddu, is synonymous with the ancient Mesopotamian name of the city, Id, and iddu translates into “the product from Id.” Though excavations have found that bitumen from Hit was only used in Babylon, Mesopotamians all across the land between the two rivers used bitumen from a number of different places. (Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: Archaeological Evidence By Peter Roger Stuart Moorey)
Mutterings of the underworld gods
The Mesopotamians not only valued bitumen for its practical uses, but also because they thought the muffled noise they heard coming from around its source, the sound of gas escaping from crevices, was the muttering underworld gods.
In the article titled “Bitumen – A History,” published in Saudi Aramco World Magazine, Zayn Bilkadi wrote:
So important were the bitumen deposits of Hit to the Babylonian and Assyrian kingdoms that the city itself acquired a sacred character. A passage in the annals of King Tukulti Ninurta II (890-884 B.C.) reads: “In front of Hit, by the bitumen springs, the place of the Usmeta stones, in which the gods speak, I spent the night.”
Bilkadi also writes that although bitumen was in use even in prehistoric times, the first people to use it on a large and dependent scale were the settlers of the marshy land in southern Mesopotamia, who occupied the region as early as 4500 BC.
Known as the Ubaids, the settlers of the marshy lands lived in houses made of marsh reeds, which they would bundle together with bulrush fiber. Before bitumen, the Ubaids only coated their walls with mud, leaving them vulnerable to frequent flooding and other elements. Once they discovered bitumen deposits and observed the substance’s behavior as an adhesive and sealant, however, they ditched mud and began coating their homes with bitumen.
A Sumerian reed house impression.
The Ubaids didn’t stop with their homes. They also used bitumen to seal their paddle boats, also made of marsh reeds. The Ubaids became the first seafarers to be documented in history, thanks to waterproofed boats allowing them to venture further out to sea.
Moving away from the marsh lands, Mesopotamians were building structures with bricks made out of clay up north, which were not much better than marsh reeds when faced with flooding. With the discovery of bitumen came the ability to build more durable bricks and structures, including the Ziggurat, and the Tower of Babel.
Bitumen in art
According to an entry on the website, PavementInteractive.org, an “online community for all things pavement,” asphalt was also used by the Sumerians to inlay shell, precious stone and pearls on statues and other decorative art, including the sound box of the Golden Lyre of Ur, which featured bitumen as back fill for shell art.
Bitumen acts as back fill and adhesive for shell art on the sound box of the Golden Lyre of Ur.
Finally, we get to a more familiar use for such a substance: the paving of roads.
The first recording of roads being paved with iddu was not until 625 BC, during the 20-year reign of King Naboppolassar (625 BC – 605 BC). The Babylonian king had the road that leads from his palace all the way to the north wall of the city of Babylon paved with asphalt (Source here). His son, Nebuchadnezzar (605 BC-562 BC) also followed suit, and had roads leading from his palace paved in honor of Babylonian gods, driving further the idea that the resource was highly valued. (Source here.)
Bitumen is Mesopotamia’s symbol of progress
Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II was especially fond of bitumen and is credited with the construction of many amenities throughout the ancient city of Babylon, including a bridge over the Euphrates River held up by piers featuring bitumen, a large sewer system lined with bitumen, and he also laid down the first paved streets with bitumen-mortar.
To Nebuchadnezzar, bitumen was a daily symbol of progress and prosperity, visible not only in the tower that he cherished, but in every paved street, wall, bath, bridge and drain pipe his workers touched.
I guess King Nebuchadnezzar knew what I might deduce thousands of years later, when I read about how bitumen helped the Mesopotamian civilization thrive.
I will never look at asphalt the same way ever again, and hope you won’t either.