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Part I: Sargon!

You saw him in the video wearing a helmet, playing bass guitar and grinning at the end with bugs crawling all over his teeth…he is Sargon!

And there were actually two Mesopotamian kings named Sargon, and I will tell you about them both, starting with…

The Akkadian One

Bronze head believed to be that of Sargon of Akkad, aka Sargon the Great. (Source: http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/109/)

The first Sargon is known as Sargon of Akkad, Sargon the Great or Šarru-Kīn (Sharru-Kin).

The dates of his reign seem to be unclear, and most sources I found show it being from 2334 BC to 2279 BC, while others show it as being from 2270 BC to 2215 BC, and that is because different ancient texts can’t agree on the dates of his reign either. Let’s just say this Sargon existed somewhere between 2334 BC and 2215 BC.

Sargon’s beginnings are quite fascinating, and I’m not even going to talk about his daughter, the world’s first known author (I’ll tell you about her in another post soon).

Sarru-Kin is Akkadian for “True King,” and what a king Sargon became after rather humble beginnings, and nothing short of what seems like a series of miracles.

One source that tells us a little bit about the first Sargon is what’s been dubbed as The Sargon Legend, a Sumerian text purported to be his biography. It is incomplete, due to the wear and tear of time, but what it does tell us is, like I said, quite fascinating (as all legends are).

The Sargon Legend tells us that Sargon was an illegitimate baby boy, set adrift down the Euphrates River by his mother, a temple priestess, who apparently had a reed basket (lined with bitumen) and a baby and a river. Sargon’s mom did what any woman in ancient times with that combination of baby, basket and river at her disposal would do when she’s trying to keep that one night with that handsome stranger a secret; she set him adrift like Moses’s mom did, almost like she knew he’d amount to something great without her nurturing.

And whether it’s a legend or not, Sargon did amount to plenty; he became known as the greatest man who ever lived for centuries!

The Sargon Legend relays that while Baby Sargon was on his way down the river, a gardener believed to be from the kingdom of Kish named Akki picked him up and made him his own. Akki raised Sargon to become a gardener, and from gardener, Sargon went on to become cup bearer to Ur-Zababa, the somewhat neurotic king of Kish.

The Sargon Legend goes on to detail exactly how Sargon the drifting baby turned gardener turned cup bearer began his journey toward the throne. It seems that Ur-Zababa’s neurosis manifested itself in his vivid dreams, which involved his cup bearer, Sargon, overthrowing him and becoming king. This dream led Ur-Zababa to devise a plan to murder his cup bearer, but divine intervention by Inanna, the goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare, which also happened to be the goddess of the temple Sargon’s mom worked at. Finding he wasn’t good at murder and that the gods favored Sargon, Ur-Zababa decided to make Sargon his messenger and sent him to Uruk with a letter addressed to Uruk’s king, Lugalzagesi. The letter contained instructions to murder its carrier, that is all. Deceitful guy, that Ur-Zababa.

Well, Lugalzagesi wasn’t any better at murder than Ur-Zababa, and Sargon was not only not murdered, but he eventually overthrew Lugalzagesi, became king of Uruk, and also gave Ur-Zababa’s paranoia some weight by overthrowing him too. It was a messy affair that included Lugalzagesi being defeated and brought to the city-state of Nippur wearing a dog collar as is described by an inscription at the city:

“Sargon, the king of Agade, the King of the Land, laid waste the city Uruk, destroyed its wall; fought with the men of Uruk, conquered them; fought with Lugalzaggesi, the king of Uruk, took him prisoner and brought him in a neck stock to [Nippur].” (Source: http://cornellia.fws1.com/Ancientworlds/sargon.htm)

Yeah, that grin in the video says a lot. Sargon the Great went from being a drifting baby, to a gardener, to the king’s cup bearer, to the king’s messenger, to a full-on king- obviously there’s no room for being nice in there.

He also founded and ruled over the Akkadian Empire, the greatest Semitic empire the world had ever known, which included all of southern Mesopotamia and parts of Syria, Anatolia and the kingdom of Elam. He made Akkadian the official language of the empire, and had it standardized and adapted for use with the Cuneiform script. He also built the first city of Babylon and is believed to have also built the capital of his empire, Agade, which has yet to be found.

The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great, which maintained trade and diplomatic contacts with kingdoms around the Arabian Sea and elsewhere in the Near East. (Source: http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/109/)

Now, as impressive as it was, Sargon the Great’s ascension to the throne was not met kindly. The city-states he’d taken over from Lugalzagesi, who had united a large chunk of them into one kingdom, rebelled against Sargon, forcing him to constantly showcase his military might, which he had oodles of. So great was Sargon the Great’s military might that his technique of arming a group of his infantry with bows became the Mesopotamian military tradition, and helped him quash many a rebellion, including those that rose in the latter years of his reign, some of which left him besieged in Agade. Still, his military strength helped him defeat his enemies and keep a tight first over the empire he built and maintained until his death.

When he died, possibly in 2215 BC, revolts broke out throughout Mesopotamia against the Akkadian Empire, but were quashed by his son who reigned for nine years, and then by his other son for fifteen years, followed by his grandson. After the Akkad dynasty, Mesopotamia entered a period known as the dark ages of Mesopotamia that lasted a century and a half.

Despite the resistance he faced during his reign throughout his empire, Sargon the Great still left a legacy of greatness that made him a model for Mesopotamian kings for centuries after his death.

The Assyrian One

The second Sargon is appropriately known as Sargon II and was an Assyrian king—no relation to the previous Sargon. He reigned from 721 BC to 705 BC, and also spent the whole time on the throne fighting.

During the time that Sargon II decided to add Assyrian King to his resume, he was at least 40 years old, and there was total chaos and rebellion in the land. It is unclear whether the chaos in the land was the driving force behind the violent coup he carried out against his brother for the throne, or if it was his own fault for having a violent coup in the first place, but that is the way it is when there is more than one child in the family, isn’t it? You never know who broke that broken thing.

Sargon II chose Sharru-Kenu as his throne name, which translates to “Legitimate King,” or “the king is true,” because, as he explained it, “…the great gods assigned (Sharru-Kenu) to me in order to uphold law and justice, to help the powerless prevail and to protect the weak.”

He portrayed himself as the restorer of order, despite being met with opposition and rebellion from within Assyria and from outside of it. Just a year after taking the throne, Sargon II had to deal with a revolt that included the kingdoms of Hamat, Arpad, Damascus and Israel, leaving him busy while another revolt was brewing in Babylonia to the south. The Babylonian revolt was a success and control of Babylonia was lost for a time, but he was able to get it back in 710 BC and spent three years there just collecting homage and gifts from pretty much everyone, and probably gloating like crazy.

But going back to the revolt that had its hub in Hamat, it was a demonstration of just what kind of guy Sargon II was. In 720 BC he destroyed Hamat and spared the lives of some 6,300 people from the region, dubbed them “guilty Assyrians,” and made them rebuild the city.

That grin, folks. It says a lot.

Now, where Sargon the Great had mad military skills, Sargon II had mad manipulation skills (on top of a mighty military). He also had mounting bills and no cash, so he put his manipulation skills to work.

In 717 BC Sargon II attacked the small but wealthy via-location-on-trade-route kingdom of Carchemish and accused its king of treachery. The king of Carchemish probably knew that Sargon II was not very nice, so even though he knew he was being jerked around, he also knew he was helpless against the Assyrian army, so he had no choice but to just do as Sargon II told him to do, which was to just show him the 60 tons of silver and everything else that made Carchemish especially useful to Assyria.

Now, this huge acquisition of silver was enough to help the Assyrian economy go from being bronze-based to silver-based, so you can add that to Sargon II’s list of accomplishments.

Three years later Sargon II must have run out of cash, because he went on to capture the holy city of Musasir and accused its king of treachery, too. The loot from that manipulation venture garnered more than a ton of gold, with about 10 tons of silver among other riches, mostly collected by the city’s main temple over many centuries. This allowed Sargon II to not only pay the bills, but to also build Dur-Sarruken, a vast palace that eclipsed all those that preceded it in size and quality. It was vast in size and filled with reliefs that included scenes from the conquest of Musasir, as well as the well-known winged bulls that still amaze all who stand before them.

Winged bulls at Sargon II’s palace in Khorsabad, as they were found. You can now see them at the Louvre in Paris. (Source)

Sargon II’s Palace was built in an otherwise sleepy village in 713 BC that eventually became Khorsabad, the largest city in Assyria, complete with a massive irrigation system that sustained the population presiding over an area that measured almost three square kilometers.

Plan of the city of Khorsabad and Sargon II’s Palace. (Source: http://www.arthistory.upenn.edu/spr03/422/April28/422April28.html)

Sargon II’s struggle to keep the Assyrian Empire stretching far and rebellion-free continued until his final military attempt to secure the Tabal region in 705 BC. That rebellion, like that of Babylon’s, was successful, but Sargon II was never able to reclaim it like he did Babylon, as he was killed in battle and his body was lost to the enemy.

It was a catastrophic end to the reign of a king who spent a lot of time and effort keeping something together that just did not want to be together. Sargon’s II’s legacy was one of a powerful empire plagued by unrest and bad fortune for those who ruled it, including Sargon II’s son, Sennacherib, who is believed to have been murdered by one of his own sons.

And that concludes the first part of a four-part series, and next, I will tell you about Hammurabi, the lead singer of The Mesopotamians, and a bit nicer than the two Sargons.

Sources and further reading:

http://history-world.org/sargon_the_great.htm

http://www.ancient.eu.com/Sargon_of_Akkad/

http://cornellia.fws1.com/Ancientworlds/sargon.htm

http://www.hyperhistory.net/apwh/bios/b1sargon.htm

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/s/sargon_ii,_king_of_assyria.aspx

http://cornellia.fws1.com/Ancientworlds/sargon.htm

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Akkadian, Assyrian, Kings

 

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The Mesopotamian Shakespeare

World’s first author, Enheduanna.

There are very few women in ancient history who made their mark on the world with the full moral support of their fathers. Sargon the Great (of Akkad) was considered great for many reasons, but an unofficial reason I’m going to talk about in this blog post (which echoes Fathers Day, albeit belatedly) is that he might have even been a great dad to his daughter, Enheduanna.

Dubbed by scholars “Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature,” (just in time for Shakespeare outdoor events!) Enheduanna began her journey as an Akkadian princess and wound up being the world’s first named author. Some even consider her the world’s first feminist.

In her essay “Enheduanna, Daughter of King Sargon. Princess, Poet, Priestess,” Janet Roberts summarizes what Enheduanna represents perfectly:

“Enheduanna represented a strong and creative personality, an educated woman, and one who fulfilled diverse roles in a complex society, not unlike women’s aspirations today.”

An ornament

Although the 100+ clay tablets that were found bearing Enheduanna’s writings date back to the Old Babylonian period, she lived about 500 years prior to that, around 2285-2250 BC. Though some scholars question whether Enheduanna is really Sargon the Great’s biological daughter, she must’ve possessed something extra special, charisma, because Sargon ordained her as high priestess of the most important temple in Sumer at Ur. It was a political strategy to help him stabilize the empire he’d just acquired by way of a high priestess of royal blood meld Sumerian gods with those of Akkad.

It is through her ordainment that Enheduanna got her name. It translates into “High Priestess of An,” An being the sky god, or “En-Priestess,” wife of the moon god, Nannar. She was the first known holder of the title of En-Priestess, a role of great political importance held by royal daughters, a tradition which began with Enheduanna. Other translations of her name I came across all boil down to “High Priestess of the Ornament of the Sky/Heaven,” but her birth name is not known.

The Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature

The title that would strike us the most today when we talk about Enheduanna is the one given to her by William Wolfgang Hallo, a Yale scholar and professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature. After reading her works, Hallo dubbed Enheduanna “Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature.”

But unlike the elusive identity of the man we call Shakespeare, we know how and why Enheduanna was  literate, and enough so to write all she wrote. You see, it was not rare for high priestesses and royal women in Ancient Mesopotamia to be literate. (Wikipedia) What separates Enheduanna from other women of her status, however, is that she was more than just a scribe. She was an author whose status and father’s support allowed her to write in first person and include herself in her hymns and poems.

One source I found describes her writings: “Her hymns function as multi-layered incantations, interweaving political, personal, ritual, theological, historical and legal dimensions.” (Enheduanna Research Pages)

Copies of her work were made and kept in Nippur, Ur and possibly Lagash. Having been kept alongside royal inscriptions drives home the idea that Enheduanna’s writings were highly valued, even centuries after her death.

A tablet with a poem of Enheduanna’s. (Source)

Being that religious appointments in the ancient Near East were pretty much political appointments, Enheduanna’s political influence was so strong, that after her father’s death, and during her brother Rimush’s reign, a coup was attempted against her by a Sumerian rebel, Lugal-ane. This forced her into exile, and her most famous work, Nin-me-sara or “The Exaltation of Inanna,” was a hymn in which she detailed her expulsion and eventual reinstatement as High Priestess during that time. It is especially through this hymn that we have a record of some details of her life.

Perhaps Hallo dubbed Enheduanna the Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature for her writings on things that continue to be timeless subjects continually discussed in even the most modern literature-like the horrors of war she describes in “Lament to the Spirit of War.

Ahead of Her Time

Enheduanna also had a hand in systematizing theology with the Sumerian Temple Hymns, which comprised of 42 hymns addressed to temples across Sumer and Akkad. This collection is considered by scholars to be the first attempt at a systematic theology. In them, Enheduanna herself states that they are the first of their kind:

Tablets of the Sumerian Temple Hymns. (Source)

“My King, something has been created that no one has created before.” (Wikipedia)

Enheduanna remained active in her influential role as En-Priestess for over 40 years, stopping only at her death, during her nephew Narim-Sin’s reign. She continued to be an important figure posthumously, and might have even attained semi-divine status. (Wikipedia)

The Enheduanna Disk, found either in 1927 by Sir Leonard Wooley during an excavation at Ur of the temple where Enheduanna lived. It was the first artifact found that introduced Enheduanna to the modern world. The Penn Museum’s description of the disk states that it is a “Disk of white calcite; on one side is a panel wherein is carved in relief a scene of sacrifice, on the other an inscription of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad ” (Source)

Enheduanna’s tomb may never be found, and scholars might continue to debate whether she really is the one who wrote all those hymns and poems like they do Shakespeare, but her legacy is sealed by her writings.  They echo her personal feelings about the world she lived in.

“Me who once sat triumphant, he has driven out of the sanctuary.
Like a swallow he made me fly from the window,
My life is consumed.
He stripped me of the crown appropriate for the high priesthood.
He gave me dagger and sword—‘it becomes you,’ he said to me.

It was in your service that I first entered the holy temple,
I, Enheduanna, the highest priestess. I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Now I have been cast out to the place of lepers.
Day comes and the brightness is hidden around me.
Shadows cover the light, drape it in sandstorms.
My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.
Even my sex is dust.” (Source)

At the next Shakespeare festival, silently call the Bard “Enheduanna of English Literature.”

Sources and further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enheduanna

http://www.ancient.eu.com/Enheduanna/

http://www.angelfire.com/mi/enheduanna/index.html

http://www.penn.museum/collections/object.php?irn=293415

http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4801.htm

http://www.transoxiana.org/0108/roberts-enheduanna.html (Janet Roberts Essay)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckP95dKpkhE (Video of excerpt from Exaltation of Inanna)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlBkzD1h6Js&feature=related (Voices in wartime video)

http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/enheduan.html (Sumerian Temple Hymns)

http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/gods/ladies/ladyenheduanna.html

http://historicity-was-already-taken.tumblr.com/post/18640619740/fierce-historical-ladies-post-enheduanna

http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/lesson2.html

http://networkedblogs.com/nHLH1

http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/enheduanna.html

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Akkadian, Women, Writing

 

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The Lives of Scribes in Ancient Mesopotamia

Scribes. Scribing with their reed styli. (Source)

Before writing

Around 3500 B.C., just before the birth of writing, Sumerians had already been maintaining a civilization for thousands of years, complete with farming, temples, and all kinds of commerce, all of which required record keeping.

But how do you keep records without writing? Well, not very practically. Before writing, Sumerians had a system to record their business transactions; it involved tokens made out of clay and a clay bubble to hold the tokens, which they baked into the bubble, rendering the tokens, well, completely pointless. The owner of the token-stuffed bulla (Latin for “bubble”) would’ve made impressions of the tokens on the outside before baking them in, of course, but, you know, that made the tokens even more pointless. (Source)

Not practical. A clay bulla and the tokens inside it. (Source)

Luckily, someone in 3500 B.C. decided there was a better way to keep records, one that was quicker, more convenient, and undoubtedly one that was easier to file than a bunch of clay balls!

Pictographs. Cuneiform went through a series of innovations that turned it into cool-looking, abstract symbols. (Source)

And so writing was born, bringing with it the demand for those who could do it.

Who could?

In 2000 B.C., scribes were some of the most educated people in the world. Along with reading and writing cuneiform, scribes eventually evolved to have chops in math or science or business or literature.

If you could read and write in ancient Mesopotamia, you had a good life, and chances were pretty high you were born into that good life. In fact, some 70% of the scribes we know by name were the sons of society’s elite, including royalty. (Source)

This isn’t to say status was the requirement to become a scribe, but rather the usual source of the requirement: money.

The son of a merchant had as much a chance at becoming a scribe as the son of a king. Even more socially progressive, it eventually became that the daughter of a king, had as much chance of becoming a scribe as her male counterpart. (It is only appropriate, since Sumerians credited the goddess Nisaba with the invention of writing!)

How could they?

A day at school. An illustration of boys studying to be scribes, the future elite of society. (Source)

Along with money, becoming a scribe took time and hard work.

It’s important to keep in mind that cuneiform was very difficult, even for those who used it practically.

“The scribe did not so much read a line of text as translate it,” wrote Jerald Starr on his website. A scribe had to learn business, math, science, and literature in order for his/her basic literacy skills to even matter. In other words, scribes had to know the context of what they were reading in order to read it, pretty much on a jargon level. The reason for this is because cuneiform, a script used to record more than one language, was a phonetic one—one syllable could make up any number of words, with any number of definitions, depending on whether you were writing in Sumerian or some other Mesopotamian language. (Source)

Boys were sent to an e-dubba, a tablet house where they would spend years learning to read and write the cuneiform script and the subjects they would write about. When they graduated, they became dubsars, tablet writers.

That schooling was no cakewalk for the student, nor was it for his parents. Aside from what I am going to take the liberty of calling tuition, a future scribe’s father also had to factor in the expense of keeping his son’s schoolmaster happy, who expected to be wined and dined in order to go a little easy on a pupil. The son, in the meantime, had to climb up a hierarchy within an e-dubba. You can read more about what these tablet houses were like here and here.

Of course, writing didn’t include women as soon as it was invented. It took a few years for women to show up in records as scribes. According to Radner and Robson, the earliest record of a woman scribe dates to the Akkad period (ca. 2350 – 2150 B.C.). (Source)

Although Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson wrote in their book, The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, “The profession of scribe is much better attested for men than for women,” there are things we do know about how women scribes came to be. In her book Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat wrote that women scribes were the daughters of the elite, some the daughters of scribes. Nemet-Nejat also points out that there were women scribes who were slaves: “Slaves with scribal skills were sometimes given to princesses as part of their dowries.” (Source)

As far as how those women scribes got their chops, priestesses were taught at the temples they served, while those not taking the religious path were taught at home.

What did scribes write?

Sumerian King List. A scribe was first and foremost a recorder of history. (Source)

For the first thousand years or so after writing was invented, everything written down was of an administrative nature. “Most people will therefore be disappointed to learn that writing was invented for the simple purpose of conducting business transactions, to record the exchange of merchandise,” wrote Starr.

Even after Sumerians branched out to recording more subjective subjects, 97% of what they recorded were things like receipts, ledgers, inventories, contracts, nothing inherently interesting or telling about the human condition. They were practical people, those Sumerians.

This brings us to what scribes could do with their skills, subjectively or not.

“…It’s unlikely that any scribe ever went hungry for lack of paying work,” wrote Starr.

And it’s easy to see why the sky was the limit for a man who graduated from a tablet house. If he came from a family of merchants, he kept records for the business; if he worked in a temple, he recorded offerings for the gods. Heck, e-dubbas needed teachers, and given that e-dubbas were focused on producing bureaucratic officials, the king, whether literate or not, needed a scribe. The king’s court was like Google, where the best minds wanted to end up.

Code of Hammurabi stele. This was some commission for one special scribe. (Source)

A scribe didn’t even have to be a full-time scribe to reap the benefits of his skills. He could set up shop in the middle of the town square and write letters for his illiterate neighbors and never go hungry like most people did in the ancient world.

In the Old Babylonian City of Sippar women recorded the transactions of members of the cloister, the city’s financial institution. What we might consider HR records from Sippar (and Mari too) show that a good number of those women were slaves. Women scribes are also known to have written songs and lullabies for the royalty, along with laments. According to Nemet-Nejat, royal women of the Ur III Dynasty (2114-2004 B.C.) wrote songs to praise their kings.

Their Bylines

A tablet bearing the world’s oldest love poem that depicts the sacred marriage between Inana and Dumuzi. Could a woman’s hand have written this tablet? (Source)

As I mentioned in the last section, only some scribes got to let themselves be known directly through their work to anyone other than their employer. I also mentioned there were female slave scribes whose social status gave them less pay than their colleagues.

Obviously, there was a hierarchy within the elite. The son of a merchant has as much chance to become a dubsar as the son of a king, sure, but once those two are out in the real world, their social differences surely resurface. Moreover, without a signature, it gets hard to know anything about the scribe, even their gender.

Nemet-Nejat wrote that we see signatures on some tablets as early as 2600 B.C. Now, perhaps due to the verbal storytelling tradition, literary works, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, were set to stone anonymously, but that did not mean the one who set it to stone couldn’t be held accountable for mistakes–a list of scribes who wrote and edited well-known works was found at Nineveh.

For scribes who got to sign their names, as their heads inflated with importance, they took to including their lineage, traveling back as far as their earliest ancestors (helping us determine their social status thousands of years later!). Some took their title up a notch, adding “astrologer” to scribe, for example, or were probably asked to make it clear they were a “junior scribe.” Some just showed up in their own narrative, but they were very special (I will talk more about this in the next section). (Source)

The most profound examples, I feel, which demonstrate just how big a gap there is between a royal/noble scribe versus anyone else, lies in one of the products of scribes: the seal. Loftier scribes made seals, autograph stamps, if you will. Seals were cylinders made of stone, carved with impressions pertaining to their owner, often bearing divine scenes that tell a lot about his/her social status. It is through these scenes we get an idea of just how revered a literate royal or noble was.

The seal of Arad-Nanna, a scribe of very high status. (Source)

On the cylinder seal of Arad-Nanna, a high official and possibly of royal blood, we see him having audience with the king, with a goddess in tow. According to Starr, the difference in body language of Arad-Nanna and the goddess accompanying him is one of great significance. “Arad-Nanna doesn’t hold his hands in the ‘reverence’ position,” Starr points out. “The scene is almost relaxed and familiar, as between two near-equals. This suggests he is a member of the royal family. The goddess who accompanies Arad-Nanna is not a minor goddess … The multiple horns on her helmet indicates that she is a major goddess. Significantly, she has her hands held up in reverence to the king, whereas Arad-Nanna does not.” (Source)

Even goddesses took the backseat to scribes of noble or royal birth, and it is clear that it was those individuals whom the king employed in his courts to be his officials and recorders of his feats.

As for knowing the gender of the writer, often the only thing we have to go on to tell us a woman is the author of something is the presence of a feminine touch in the writing. Starr sensed that in a tablet he translated recently. Radner and Robson also wrote about how the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods were seasoned with Sumerian writings about the goddess Inana and the god Dumuzi being in love, leading scholar Jerrold Cooper to believe that the authors of some of those compositions were women, simply because of “feminine sensibility and a female approach to sexuality.” (Source)

And this brings us to an important distinction, a case of semantics.

When a scribe is an author

Tablet #36. A mystery, far from administrative. (Source)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “Author” as “a person who starts or creates something (such as a plan or idea).” Nemet-Nejat wrote that when a work is by a single author, it shows “uniqueness in language, subject matter, and artistic development.” Ultimately, the two sources agree that an author is more than just a recorder. (Source)

On his blog, Starr has written about Tablet #36. It is a tablet that embodies all of what Nemet-Nejat (indirectly) says makes it the work of a unique author. Tablet #36 was a mystery until Starr translated it and found it was an encoded political satire, a work written by one, no ordinary scribe: “…the language of [Tablet #36] is too sophisticated to have been written by someone who was only casually acquainted with the complexities of narrative cuneiform writing,” Starr wrote. “There can be little doubt that the story of [Tablet #36] was written by a full-time ‘wordsmith.'” You can read about this tablet, the content of which Starr titled “The Great Fatted Bull,” along with Starr’s musings about its enigmatic author here.

Starr points out that the author of Tablet #36 was most probably not a full-time scribe, just someone who could write and had the luxury of thinking for himself, along with the time to create a code for his dangerous thoughts. This guy was a completely different animal from, say, Arad-Nanna, who was too drunk on rubbing elbows with the king to criticize him.

Enheduanna. An author. (Source)

Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad and the Shakespeare of Sumerian literature, was also a different animal. She wrote poems and laments that included a personal dimension, something I mentioned earlier was reserved for a special few allowed to include themselves in the human experience, and a rare occurrence in much of the ancient world’s writings. Enheduanna was no run-of-the-mill scribe who only wrote generic praise-filled songs to the king, no. She wrote about her expulsion during her brother’s reign, a criticism that wouldn’t have let her writing career span some forty years, as she wouldn’t have been left to live it.

Radner and Robson wrote that being an author in a world of scribes was a feat for a king, and certainly one for a woman of high birth:

“The essential point is that in antiquity unusual men, such as rulers, or a woman such as Enheduana, exceptional because of her high birth and religious duties, could equally be regarded as authors.” (Source)

Contemporaries of their own legacy

It is safe to say that the first scribes were contemporaries of their own lasting legacy, and the status they enjoyed was appropriate, whether they recorded sheep sales or wrote in code…

“Without scribes, letters would not have been written or read, royal monuments would not have been carved with cuneiform, and stories would have been told and then forgotten.” (Source)

Imagine what a world this would’ve been without scribes.

Sources and further reading:

The Sumerian invention of writing http://sumerianshakespeare.com/30301.html

Nisaba http://www.goddessschool.com/projects/artesia/fpl1nisaba.html

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Women scribes) https://books.google.com/books?id=lbmXsaTGNKUC&pg=PA150&lpg=PA150&dq=women+mesopotamia+scribes&source=bl&ots=dt2I9mGPqk&sig=qJ_MkVscUVs9hUvb_D28fKDB87I&hl=en&sa=X&ei=WGBJVes0hKOwBfDYgdAB&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=women%20mesopotamia%20scribes&f=false

Priests and priestesses in Ancient Mesopotamia http://www.fofweb.com/History/HistRefMain.asp?iPin=MESP0664&SID=2&DatabaseName=Ancient+and+Medieval+History+Online&InputText=%22priests+and+priestesses+in+ancient+Mesopotamia%22&SearchStyle=&dTitle=priests+and+priestesses+in+ancient+Mesopotamia&TabRecordType=All+Records&BioCountPass=0&SubCountPass=1&DocCountPass=0&ImgCountPass=0&MapCountPass=0&FedCountPass=&MedCountPass=0&NewsCountPass=0&RecPosition=1&AmericanData=&WomenData=&AFHCData=&IndianData=&WorldData=&AncientData=Set&GovernmentData=

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Scribe signatures) https://books.google.com/books?id=lbmXsaTGNKUC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq=how+scribes+signed+their+names+on+mesopotamian+tablets&source=bl&ots=dt2L3mNWpq&sig=6LCEsL7O0Y56BNxD8KiYP0D-CPk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Zx1uVcPFIIanyQS68YP4Cg&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=how%20scribes%20signed%20their%20names%20on%20mesopotamian%20tablets&f=false

Scribal social ranking in Sumerian Society http://sumerianshakespeare.com/34101/68901.html

Family life in Ancient Sumeria http://stravaganzastravaganza.blogspot.com/2011/12/sumerian-family-life.html

Women As Scribes Throughout History http://exploringfeminisms.com/2011/06/27/women-as-scribes-throughout-history-originally-written-fall-of-2010/

An introduction to the princess wife http://sumerianshakespeare.com/533701/index.html

The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture https://books.google.com/books?id=i4jBn3cThwgC&pg=PA99&lpg=PA99&dq=sippar+records+of+women+scribes&source=bl&ots=jpjBY4p0pZ&sig=Hbeu85_RO6zV86PKQYti3cy90bY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=neeJVc2MFsHasQXR7YL4Cg&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=sippar%20records%20of%20women%20scribes&f=false

Tablet #36 https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/tablet-36-by-sumerian-shakespeare/

Tablet #36 (Sumerian Shakespeare) http://sumerianshakespeare.com/6801.html

The Scribe http://sumerianshakespeare.com/34101/index.html

Writing Page http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/writing/home_set.html

 
3 Comments

Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Shaduppum, A City Full of Surprises.

Shaduppum. Ain’t it a beauty?

In 1945, on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad, the ancient city of Shaduppum was discovered at Tell Harmal.

Excavations soon got underway, led by Iraqi archaeologist Taha Baqir, and Muhammed Ali Mustafa of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities. (Source) The excavations unearthed an Old Babylonian city with a collection of close to 3,000 tablets.

Now, with so many tablets in its hold, it’s no wonder Shaduppum’s patron god is that of writing and record-keeping, and that it was an administrative hub for Babylonia.

First Things First

Although it was established as early as the late third millenium BC, during the days of Sargon of Akkad, Shaduppum didn’t rise to prominence until the second millennium BC, when it served as a Babylonian accounting hub.The city’s name reflects this, by translating into “the treasury,” or “accountant’s office.”

Within Shaduppum’s walls, private homes, one administration building, and seven temples were unearthed, some reconstructed. Of the seven temples, a large one dedicated to Nisaba, the Sumerian goddess of writing and record-keeping, and her consort, sits just inside the city’s gates. That temple’s entrance was guarded by two roaring terra-cotta lions.

One of the terra-cotta lions at Shaduppum, on display at the Iraqi National Museum.

That Terra-cotta lion with his buddy guarding the temple of Nisaba in the city of Shaduppum. (Source)

 

Accountants aren’t all about numbers!

So, almost 3,000 tablets were unearthed at Shaduppum, but only a few weren’t of an administrative nature, and you’ll find that the nature of these non-administrative tablets is a little surprising.

I find it surprising, anyway, that a city with such a cut and dry purpose had a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest written work of literature, in its vaults. It was some nine decades after the standard Akkadian version of the ancient poem was discovered in Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh, that two tablets of it were unearthed at Shaduppum.

The next surprise is actually two surprises in one.

You see, Iraqi archaeologist Taha Baqir also discovered a set of laws some two centuries older than the Code of Hammurabi at Shaduppum. The Laws of Eshnunna were written in Akkadian on two tablets, marked A and B, dating back to 1930 BC. That’s the first surprise regarding this find. The second one might make you do a double take…

The Laws of Eshnunna, Eshnunna being the city north of Ur where they originated, were promoted by that city’s ruler, Bilalama. In 1948, a year after Baqir’s discovery, Albrecht Goetze translated and published the laws, revealing that though Bilalama had some two-hundred years on Hammurabi, he was a little more progressive than the man whose laws inspired the Ten Commandments. That’s right. Unlike Hammurabi, whose punishments usually featured maiming, if not death, Bilalama implemented a monetary, fine-based penal system. But don’t get too comfortable with Bilalama’s laws, because the more serious offenses, including sexual ones, were punishable by death. That’s pretty progressive!

Shamash: These aren’t the first laws. Hammurabi: What?! Wait–. Shamash: Shhh. Now smile for the chiseler! 

Poor Hammurabi.

Stealing some Greek thunder

Hammurabi was not the only one whose thunder is stolen by tablets at Tell Harmal. The one-upping found in Shaduppum’s collection of tablets didn’t even stop at Mesopotamia’s borders, for it extended all the way to the Greek realm, delivering the two bombshells I’m going to talk about now.

Now, even if you used math class (or history) as nap time, the names Euclid and Pythagoras should sound familiar to you. And if not (it’s okay), I’ll refresh your memory: Euclid of Alexandria is the father of geometry, and Pythagoras of Samos proved that a^2+b^2=c^2 in a right-angled triangle, aka, the Pythagorean Theorem.

The tablets that steal a bit of Greek mathematician thunder. Sorry, Bros.

Though the fact still remains that Euclid and Pythagoras gave us the official real deal, complete with proof and universal mathematical truths, two tablets dating to the early second millennium BC deliver the same newsflash Hammurabi got about his laws: Kinda’ been there, kinda’ done that.

The algebraic-geometry on one tablet (the one on the left in the picture above) features work similar to Euclid’s, dealing with the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle. The other tablet features a problem with a rectangle whose length and width are calculated using what is essentially the Pythagorean Theorem.

Pythagoras: *A long, deep, deep, deep SIGH*

Sorry, Bros.

Another look at Shaduppum

So, the first round of excavations at Tell Harmal was fruitful, but a second round in 1997 turned out to be all about details. The Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage allowed more excavations at Tell Harmal that year, this time by a joint effort between Baghdad University and the German Archaeological Institute.

Because of Shaduppum’s relatively late rise to prominence, in the spring of 1997 and autumn of 1998, the collaborative project took a closer look at the rock layers of the city, confirming different ages in the multiple building layers.

Most interestingly, stratigraphy of the city’s walls showed it was not fortified until the rise of Babylonia in the second millennium BC, suggesting that its rise to prominence was quite significant–it went from being a city so inconsequential it lacked fortification, perhaps, to a city with pronounced walls. Evidence also suggested then that the city had been destroyed by fire and destruction around the time of Hammurabi, then rebuilt.

It’s a very interesting project that you can read more about here.

A city of consequence

There remains much we don’t know about Shaduppum, that we may never know, but one thing is clear: Shaduppum was a city that had a little bit of everything that made it a Mesopotamian city worth a look.

 

Sources and Further Reading

http://www.miglus.de/Themen/Harmal/harmal.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eshnunna

http://books.google.com/books?id=1C4NKp4zgIQC&pg=PA29&lpg=PA29&dq=tell+harmal+city+of+agade&source=bl&ots=Ss36wkEcA9&sig=sN53Fql2w0iVsHKZpsJrwvwwPpc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=XS15U7bNK4iRqAb76YCQAQ&ved=0CGMQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=tell%20harmal%20city%20of%20agade&f=false

https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/?s=sargon+the+great

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/akka/hd_akka.htm

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/o/old_babylonian_period.aspx

http://proteus.brown.edu/mesopotamianarchaeology/994

http://www.ezida.com/cats/lion%20t1.jpg

http://www.goddessaday.com/mesopotamian/nisaba

http://www.fofweb.com/History/HistRefMain.asp?iPin=MESP0046&SID=2&DatabaseName=Ancient+and+Medieval+History+Online&InputText=%22Nisaba%22&SearchStyle=&dTitle=Shaduppum&TabRecordType=All+Records&BioCountPass=0&SubCountPass=4&DocCountPass=0&ImgCountPass=0&MapCountPass=0&FedCountPass=&MedCountPass=0&NewsCountPass=0&RecPosition=3&AmericanData=&WomenData=&AFHCData=&IndianData=&WorldData=&AncientData=Set&GovernmentData=

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_of_Hammurabi

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_Goetze

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euclid

http://cojs.org/cojswiki/index.php/Tell_Harmal_Mathematical_Tablets

http://www.miglus.de/Themen/Harmal/1997/1997.html

 
2 Comments

Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Babylon, Uncategorized

 

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Why we share questionable artifacts

Recently, we posted a picture and a corresponding link on Tumblr for a beautiful necklace featuring an Akkadian lapis lazuli cylinder seal that dates back to at least 2154 BC.

Necklace set around a lapis lazuli Akkadian cylinder seal, ca. 2334-2154 BC. (Source)

We currently have 97,151 followers on Tumblr. The post featuring the necklace got 92 notes, mostly liking it and sharing it. There were a few notes that were less than positive and questioned our reasoning behind posting such filth, and maybe even our integrity as a source of Mesopotamian history.

You see, the necklace containing the ancient cylinder seal also happened to have a price. This means that it is not sitting in a museum, but in a private collection, ready to be sold to the highest bidder, making questionable not only the cylinder seal’s point of origin, but also its authenticity.

I can understand where these irate people are coming from. What the world witnessed in 2003 during the looting of the Iraqi National Museum left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, including mine.

But before you completely dismiss the cylinder seal as an illegitimate artifact just because of where it happens to be sitting (in a necklace design), I think it’s important for me to explain why we at All Mesopotamia post links to items such as this. I assure you it is not because we want you to buy ancient artifacts and wear them to a cocktail party.

The fact of the matter is, the cylinder seal used in this necklace and countless other priceless historical artifacts from all over the world are sitting in the same kind of archaeological limbo, with price tags attached, illegitimately acquired and passed around, their significance overlooked and forgotten, becoming mere trinkets. Sometimes there’s a happy ending for such artifacts, however, but only when enough of the right people know about them.

Of course, it’s nice to think that all ancient artifacts we see in museums were excavated by the hands of legit professionals representing legit organizations that take utmost care in preserving humanity’s history, but that is simply not the case. From time immemorial, people have unknowingly been stumbling upon priceless things that hold great significance. Not everything clicks from day one. Not all artifacts are excavated with the same grandeur and fanfare as the Royal Tombs of Ur or the winged bulls flanking the entrance to Sargon’s palace. Everyday people stumble upon the most important artifacts all the time, because there is just no telling where you’ll find what…

Take, for example, the story of the Burney Relief.

“A major acquisition for the British Museum’s 250th anniversary.” The Burney Relief, aka Queen of the Night Relief, Old Babylonian period, ca. 1800-1750 BC. (Source)

All that’s known about the origins of the Burney Relief is that its journey began in the inventory of a Syrian dealer who may or may not have acquired it himself in Southern Iraq in 1924. It then passed through many amateur hands before it was finally purchased by the British Museum in 2003, 68 years after they passed on it the first time.

Note that Sidney Burney, whose name is attached to the relief, was only a London antique dealer, not some archaeologist who could decipher what he was looking at. Moreover, Burney wasn’t the first nor even the last dealer to get his hands on it before it became part of the British Museum’s collection. Even after renaming the relief Queen of the Night, there are still questions about what secrets the relief holds, but there is no longer any question about its authenticity and importance.

My point is, just because an archaeologist didn’t dig it out of the ground, doesn’t mean it should be dismissed or forgotten. That is why we posted the Akkadian cylinder seal, even in its new setting in a necklace. That is why we post other artifacts that unfortunately have impossibly cheap price tags…

We do it in the hopes that someone out there will know better what to do with it. We do it in the hopes that the questions we’re told have no answers might have an answer in that one artifact waiting to be noticed on an unsuspecting antique dealer’s shelf. We do it in the hopes that these pieces of humanity’s history get out of the wrong hands and into the right ones so that we, the human race, can understand ourselves better.

One follower on Tumblr stated that he/she will be unfollowing us, that they’re disappointed we posted this necklace and questioned our integrity. Well, to each his own. I’m sorry to see that follower go, but I will not stop doing what I’m doing, because I believe there are more answers out there than we can imagine, and we have to look everywhere for them. Here is my response to that individual. And while you’re at it, you should take a look at the comments left on Facebook regarding this matter (from June 24th), one of which is in Spanish (with translation) and talks about the same issues facing South American artifacts.

Let’s do our part to get every artifact noticed so that if it is in the wrong hands, someone who can get it out of those hands knows about it!

 
3 Comments

Posted by on July 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Q&A: Shining a Light on Starr

The Standard of Ur.

One of the things we try to do here at All Mesopotamia is shine a light on the not-sung-enough heroes doing great things for Mesopotamian history.

This time we’re shining a light on someone you might remember being mentioned in a few of our posts or tweets, or you might have his awesome website bookmarked. He is Mr. Jerald J. Starr, aka sumerianshakespeare.com.

Simply put, Starr is your (and our) go-to guy for anything Sumerian, like the Standard of Ur (pictured above). His passion for the rockers of the cradle of civilization is what drives him to not only gravitate toward what’s already known about them, but also to make his own fascinating discoveries of a people long gone, but whose all-encompassing legacy of civilization still reverberates thousands of years later.

Now, I asked Starr a few questions to find out what he is all about.  I was pleasantly surprised by all his answers, and think you will be too!

1. You’re kind of an enigma. I communicate with you regularly about the history I cover on the blog, but I hardly know anything about you. Who is this enigmatic expert I’m talking to and what is his background—what makes him the expert he is on everything Sumerian?

Your readers may be surprised to learn that I am not a “properly accredited” Sumerologist. I am just an amateur. I have no formal training in the field, neither do I have a college degree in the subject; although with the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching Sumerian history I could have easily earned a PhD, perhaps several.

“…my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.”

If I am to be considered any kind of “expert” (your word, but thanks) it’s only because Sumerology is my obsession, my sole preoccupation. Often when my friends are talking to me, I barely hear what they are saying because my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.

It also helps that there are very few other experts in the field. At last count, there were only about 400 Assyriologists in the entire world, of which only a few are dedicated to the Sumerians exclusively. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I am probably “the world’s foremost expert on the Standard of Ur.” Then I realized that I am probably the world’s only expert on the Standard of Ur!

2. Ever since I came across sumerianshakespeare.com, it has been my go-to website for reliable information and great pictures. In fact, my only complaint about your website is that you only cover the Sumerian material. Having said that: what drew you to the Sumerian civilization in particular out of all the others that thrived in Mesopotamia, and do you ever delve into any other group of Mesopotamian peoples?

When I was in college, I read The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It wasn’t part of a reading assignment for a class I was taking; I was reading it for my own pleasure. I remember how impressed I was that the Sumerians seemed to invent civilization entirely on their own, when the rest of the world was still living in the Stone Age. I didn’t pay much attention to the Sumerians after that; I had other interests to pursue.

Fast-forward several decades later to about five years ago. I was with a girlfriend, Loring. We were looking at a display of cuneiform tablets at the Frist Museum here in Nashville, Tennessee. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to own one of these tablets? I’d love to own something so ancient, when writing and civilization were first invented.” Those were the exact words I used, “when writing and civilization were first invented.” I didn’t give the remark a second thought until two months later when Loring gave me a cuneiform “tablet” for my birthday. At first I didn’t know what it was. It was an odd cylindrical shape with writing down the sides. I later found out that it was actually a Gudean “foundation cone” from the temple of the god Ningirsu. I decided to write a thank-you note to Loring, in Sumerian, to show my appreciation for her sweet and thoughtful gift. Nothing fancy, just a few signs written on notebook paper. Little did I know what I was getting into.

The Gudea Foundation Cone was Starr’s inspiration.

It’s not for nothing that Sumerian is known as the world’s most difficult language. Even the Sumerian scribes had difficulty writing it! I was immediately frustrated by the fact that it was difficult to learn even a few Sumerian words, much less learn enough grammar to write a complete sentence. I could have just strung some words together like beads, they didn’t have to be grammatically correct; but noooo, that wasn’t good enough. So then it became an intellectual challenge. As described in “Adventures in Cuneiform Writing,” it became an all-consuming passion, to the exclusion of everything else – like eating, sleeping, and bathing. Even at the time I would sometimes wonder, “Why am I so obsessed? Who cares about this stupid dead language?” Sometimes I seemed more “possessed” than merely obsessed. It was a lot like that scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss feels compelled to create a huge clay mountain on his kitchen table, without knowing why. As it turns out, there was a predestined purpose for all of this. If I had not been so completely obsessed with writing Sumerian correctly, I never would have learned enough of the language to translate (“decode”) Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. This tablet would not give up its secrets to just anyone, to some sort of “dilettante.” It was Tablet #36, along with my reawakened interest in Sumerian history inspired by the Gudea cone, that led to all my other discoveries in Sumerology.

Starr cracked the code of the mysterious Tablet #36.

This leads me (finally!) to the second part of your question. I consider myself to be a Sumerologist, in particular, rather than an Assyriologist (someone who studies Mesopotamian history in general). As a matter of fact, I make a deliberate effort to sort out the Sumerians from the Akkadians and the Babylonians, who are routinely jumbled together in the history books. I usually write about the Akkadians and Babylonians only in reference to the Sumerians. I feel called upon to be an advocate for the Sumerians, to be their voice. So for the time being I will continue to dedicate my efforts solely on their behalf.

As for the rest of Mesopotamian history, we have All Mesopotamia for that.

Starr concluded that this otherwise anonymous statue bears the actual true face of Gudea. Read about Starr’s research here.

3. What does your research on the subjects you discuss on your website entail? Do you work alone, or are you a part of a team or organization?

I quickly exhausted the limited selection of books on Sumerian history at the local library. I mostly use the Internet for my research. I use the CDLI, ePSD, ETCSL, and Sumerian.org for the language studies. Museum websites are also a good source of information. I enjoy seeing Sumerian artifacts in museums all around the world without leaving the comfort of my living room. One of my favorite research methods is image searches on the Internet, since I’m always trolling for good pictures to use on my website. This is how I found Tablet #36 in the Library of Congress, Ur-Namma in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gudea in the Barakat Gallery, and other original discoveries.

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

I work entirely alone. This is partly my preference. I am in contact with a few professional Sumerologists, but I am being boycotted by the other Sumerologists. I am the pariah of Sumerology. I have to admit, it’s my own fault. On December 6, 2008, I proudly posted my translation of Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. It was my first major discovery. The very next day, Bendt Alster, a world renowned Sumerologist, posted on his website that Tablet #36 wasn’t really about The Great Fatted Bull. He thought it was “A Dialogue between Two Women.” Mr. Alster was a pioneer in the field of Sumerology. If he said Tablet #36 wasn’t about The Great Fatted Bull, then who was going to listen to an amateur like me? So I might have over-reacted just a tad. I posted a new page on my website challenging him to a “Sumerian Showdown,” my translation against his. I am usually not so confrontational, but I was deliberately being provocative. I was hoping that someone would try to refute my translation, and failing that, would be forced to confirm it. I also thought I was being very clever and funny; satirical, like the scribe who wrote Tablet #36 (I was defending his work as well as my own). But I soon realized that I was just being a smart-aleck, to use the polite term. After all, Mr. Alster was merely expressing his academic opinion, which he stated in a polite and civilized manner (unlike me). Eventually I deleted the page from my website and sent a letter of apology to Mr. Alster. He made a gracious reply, so all was well between us. He was a really nice guy about it, which doubly made me feel like a heel. He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a few years later, so I am grateful that I was able to make amends with him. But the damage had already been done. I had thoroughly alienated other Sumerologists. They still hold it against me and I can’t say that I blame them. In the meantime, the story of The Great Fatted Bull remains the only proven translation of Tablet #36.

4. The Sumerian civilization is where our modern world began to take shape. Writing, literature, the wheel, agriculture, and according to a very enthusiastic Discovery Channel documentary, earth-shattering beer…all these things and more. And yet it’s not nearly as popular as the Egyptian or Greek civilizations, which as great as they were with their own innovations and inventions, in my mind, they were mostly reinforcing and building upon foundations laid by Mesopotamians. Drawing from my frustrating experience, I must ask: why do you think my Western Civilization class in college detailed the Egyptian mummification process, but only briefly mentioned that writing was invented in Mesopotamia and very little else about the land between two rivers?

I know what you mean. When I try to talk to someone about the Sumerians, they get a blank look on their face and say, “Who?” I always want to reply, “The Sumerians; you know, the ones who invented civilization.” I don’t actually say this, of course; that would be rude. If people don’t know much about the Sumerians it’s probably because so little Sumerian history has survived to the present day. You can read all that remains of Sumerian history in a single afternoon. On the other hand, the Egyptian civilization continued for 2,000 years after the Sumerians had disappeared, so there is a lot more Egyptian history to cover. I think that’s why a class in Western Civilization gives a brief introduction to the Sumerians and then quickly skips over to the Egyptians. Surprisingly, very few Egyptian artifacts date back to the time of the Sumerians. If we only had Egyptian artifacts dated before 2000 B.C., we would know as little about the Egyptians as we do about the Sumerians. Only the Pyramids are as old as the Sumerians.

I agree that the Sumerians don’t get proper credit for their inventions. How many people today know that the Sumerians are the reason why we still divide a circle into 360 degrees? (The Sumerians used the sexagesimal number system, based on the number 60.) How many businessmen know that the Sumerians created formal bookkeeping methods? I think the problem is that people have been using these inventions for so long they’ve forgotten who invented them. For instance, I doubt that anyone using a handsaw would think, “This works great. I’m glad the Sumerians invented it.” I doubt that anyone sipping on a beer would say, “Thank you, Sumerians, for this wonderful gift.”

You are right in pointing out that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians built upon the foundations of the Sumerian civilization. So even if we don’t always realize it, the Sumerians are still with us today, 4,000 years after they passed into history.

5. What are, or are there, challenges that you or any other Sumerologist face in this discipline, as opposed to an Egyptologist, for example?

The main challenge for a Sumerologist is that he/she doesn’t have a lot of material to work with. Very few Sumerian artifacts have survived the millennia — a few ruined temples, some pottery shards, a few statues, some jewelry. This is the opposite problem faced by Egyptologists. They cannot sink a spade in Egypt without hitting an artifact. A modern Egyptologist has tons of artifacts to work with (literally); more than can process in several lifetimes. Of course, a Sumerologist has access to countless cuneiform tablets, hundreds of thousands of them. The problem is that 97% of these tablets are “Administrative” (receipts, ledgers, inventories, etc.). Only 3% of the tablets are “Literature” (history, hymns, poems, proverbs, etc.) where the Sumerians actually tell us something about themselves. Imagine an archaeologist 4,000 years in the future trying to reconstruct 21st century America by using business accounting records.

Egyptology is a very old science; many ancient Greeks and Romans were “Egyptologists.” By comparison, Sumerology is relatively new. The modern world didn’t know about the Sumerians until the late 19th century. The world is still in the process of discovering the Sumerians. As a result, much of the information about the Sumerians is either contradictory or just plain wrong. Even the experts don’t always agree on it. You and I both know from personal experience the difficulty in finding reliable information on the subject. It’s hard to know who to trust when every major museum in the world includes some erroneous information about the Sumerians, even the Iraq Museum!

6. What do you think most distinguishes sumerianshakespeare.com from the other Sumerian websites?

First of all, it is the number of pictures I have on my website. The other websites have only a few, with the exception of All Mesopotamia. I realized that most people have no idea what the Sumerians looked like. We can easily imagine the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians because we’ve seen so many pictures of them, but most people have no “visual concept” of the Sumerians. By including a lot of pictures of the Sumerians, I hope to make them more familiar to the modern reader.

The face of Ur-Namma, one of Starr’s original discoveries.

Second, and more important, are my original discoveries. Many people think that I am merely parroting information I got from other sources, but most of my website is devoted to my own discoveries. Some of my major discoveries include Tablet #36, the portraits of Gudea and Ur-Namma, both Sargon victory steles, and everything about the Standard of Ur, among several others. I have also made a lot of minor discoveries, more than I can keep track of. I have to admit, I am very proud of these discoveries. They are the most noteworthy things I have ever done in a life that is otherwise devoid of accomplishments.

A detail from one of Sargon’s victory steles that Starr wrote about on his site, here.

7. What’s next?

More of the same, I guess. I’m hoping I can make some more discoveries. In any case, I will continue to write about the extraordinary civilization of the Sumerian people. It’s my new-found calling in life. This is what I was meant to do.

***

And we all agree that this is what you were meant to do, Mr. Starr.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Q & A, Sumerian

 

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Dissecting Mesopotamian Jewelry

A female attendant found in the Great Death Pit at the Royal Tombs at Ur. Often mistaken for Queen Pu-abi, this attendant is one of 26 others found wearing such adornments. (Source)

There is something about ancient Mesopotamian jewelry that sets it apart from any other in antiquity. That something is more than just a distinct style or taste. Mesopotamian jewelry was a large artery in the anatomy of each civilization that rose in the land between the two rivers, and its story is one worth reading.

Jewelry wasn’t a new concept when Sumerians got their innovating hands on it around 2750 BC, but their innovations made their jewelry, produced from that point to the Assyrian period, around 1200 BC, seem like it was an entirely new invention.

In fact, scholars and jewelry makers today look to Sumerian work as the progenitor of modern jewelry.

“Sumerian jewellery fulfilled practically all the functions which were to occur during the course of history. In fact, there were more different types of jewellery than there are today.” – Guido Gregorietti, jewelry historian (Source)

Of course, jewelry served as a status symbol in Mesopotamia as it always has everywhere else, but it also played a significant role in how the Mesopotamian civilization functioned. Let’s begin the journey to understand ancient Mesopotamian jewelry.

What it was for

It goes without saying that jewelry served as a status symbol for noblemen and noblewomen, and royals, in Mesopotamia. Royals were buried with theirs, like Queen Pu-abi at the royal cemetery at Ur.

The lavish royal tombs of Ur, along with those at Nimrud, are considered the most significant finds in the study of ancient Mesopotamian jewelry, because they held a lot of it and have helped explain the types and their uses. The three tombs at Nimrud alone held some 1500 pieces of jewelry, weighing a total of 100 lbs. At Ur, some 17 tombs were excavated, and they were simply loaded with jewelry.

Now, royals weren’t the only ones acquiring jewelry in ancient Mesopotamia. For example, we know of a jewelry-loving high priestess through her own letter of complaint to a jeweler, who she had paid in advance for a necklace she never received.(Source)

Jewelry was also a fail-safe wedding gift, as well as a commodity used in dowries and inheritances of the upper classes.

It was used as a tool in diplomacy, but was also the subject of war under the heading of wealth. Some of the jewelry unearthed in Mesopotamia is loot from military campaigns, mostly during the Assyrian period.

A relief depicting the destruction of Susa. Assyrian soldiers can be seen carrying away the loot, which included silver and gold jewelry. (Source)

The most significant incident of jewelry looting was documented by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who wrote of the state in which he left the Elamite city of Susa, including what booty he took home:

Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed… I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt. (Source)

Jewelry was also offered to the gods at temples, and the practice of being buried with jewelry was a person’s attempt to go to the afterlife bearing gifts to the gods.

Mesopotamians adorned their statues and idols with jewelry to further clarify it as a spiritual and/or magical tool.

Bloodstone was worn by Babylonians for protection against their enemies and was also used in divination.

Mesopotamians pioneered astrology and astronomy, and they worshiped the planets, which they believed controlled their fates as individuals, as well as groups. They paired each planet with its own unique gemstone, therefore inspiring the idea of birthstone jewelry.(Source)

Wedding bands, as we know them today, in precious metal form, also got their start in Mesopotamia. They were only worn by women, and they communicated what is considered to be, well, a little less romantic message than ours, that tells of a woman’s status as someone’s property.

The specifics of who wore what

A close-up of a relief detailing Ashurbanipal, wearing hoop earrings and a royal headdress. Notice that he is wearing earrings, but the man next to him, who is wearing simple headbands, is not. Jewelry was definitely a recognizable and notable status symbol. (Source)

Mesopotamian men wore earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, pectoral ornaments and headbands, while women wore the same and more, including headdresses with foliage and flowers made from sheet gold, large crescent shaped earrings, chokers, large necklaces, belts, dress pins and rings on their fingers.(Source)

Two of Queen Pu-abi’s gold rings. She was wearing ten rings when found. Her attendants also wore similar rings. (Source)

The jewelry of an attendant from the Royal Tombs of Ur. Notice the three rosettes at the top of her headdress with gold leaves at the bottom, large hoop earrings and various bead necklaces, all signature Sumerian designs. Carnelian, lapis lazuli and gold are dominant. (Source)

An illustration that clearly shows Sargon II wearing earrings, arm bands and bracelets. The woman behind him is  wearing the same. (Source)

Beaded headbands found at the Royal Tombs at Ur, the lower one was found in a male’s grave. (Source)

From Akkadian times of the early third millennium BC, men wore bead necklaces and bracelets. In the first millennium BC, Assyrian men and women wore earrings, bracelets, and amulets. Earrings, for example, were mostly designed into hoops, crescents, grape clusters, cones, and animal and human heads.(Source)

“Sumerian work is flavoured with amazing sophistication … delicacy of touch, fluency of line, a general elegance of conception,” wrote jewelry expert Graham Hughes. “All suggest that the goldsmiths’ craft emerged almost fully fledged in early Mesopotamia.” (Source)

What it was

The materials used in Mesopotamian jewelry were the basic copper, gold, silver, and electrum, along with the not-so-basic gemstones like agate, carnelian, chalcedony, crystal, jasper, lapis lazuli (which was valued higher than any other material, even gold), onyx and sardonyx. Also used were shells and pearls.

“Queen Pu-abi’s beaded cape, belt, and jewelry. The circle on the lower left is her garter; on the lower right is her wrist cuff (bracelet).” (Source)

These materials were used to make jewelry designs featuring stars, rosettes, leaves, grapes, cones, spirals and ribbons. Cylinder seals were also used, but were made by seal makers, separate from jewelers.

How it was made

Modern jewelry experts have dubbed Sumeria the cradle of the goldsmith’s art.

A headband with detailed gold foil leaves. Sumerian goldsmiths used the lost-wax technique to draw the veins on each gold foil leaf. (Source)

These craftsmen made most gold and silver items by cutting the precious metals into thin sheets, which they shaped with hammers and other tools.(Source) They also made gold chains with the basic loop-in-loop method, which is a testament to the firm grip Sumerian goldsmiths had on working with gold wire. They also engraved, and used techniques like cloisonne, filigree, and granulation.(Source)

A Sumerian gold bead with a filigree design. (Source)

Hair ornaments with granulation and cloisonne techniques.(Source)

Also, to make solid and hollow ornaments they used the cast cold technique. To trace details like veins on gold foil leaves, and grooves on beads, the lost-wax technique was employed.(Source)

An amulet like this one, found at the Royal Tombs at Ur, is an example of what was made using the cast cold technique. (Source)

No actual jewelry shops have been unearthed in Mesopotamia, but the tools of jeweler Ilsu-Ibnisu, one of two Sumerian jewelers whose names we know from the city of Larsa, put into perspective what Sumerian jewelry makers used. His tools were found inside a jar, and included a small anvil, and bronze tweezers.(Source)

The economics

It is important to understand that although the Mesopotamian civilization was beyond rich in food production, thanks to its location on the Fertile Crescent, it was still a land of few resources. Metals and stones to make precious jewelry were especially scarce, necessitating what eventually shaped up to be an entire economy, based on the import of raw precious materials and the export of finished jewelry pieces. This would help Mesopotamians keep up with the growing exotic tastes of the upper crust of society.

A typical Mesopotamian combination was of lapis lazuli, gold and carnelian.(Source)

Early Sumerian sources tell us that gold and silver were imported from Anatolia and northern Iran, while the highly-prized lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan (Source). Carnelian came all the way from India.(Source)

Now, because most jewelry craftsmen were of the lower classes in ancient Mesopotamia, and made very little money, they did not have the means to obtain the materials they needed from as far as 1,500 miles away. Such craftsmen belonged to government-controlled guilds that acted as liaisons between them and their local royal palace.

It is clear that after the rapid growth and development of cities like Ur of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and the Assyrian Assur and Nineveh, the wealth of aristocrats there and their demand for luxury goods increased, turning the business of jewelry into an entire trade network, a commercial enterprise that required the teaming up of the lower classes with the greatest powers in the land-the government.

Mark Schwartz, an expert featured on an Ancient Warfare Magazine podcast, “The Assyrians at War,” gives an example of how trade worked. He points to the old Assyrians living under the merchant system obtaining gold from Anatolia through the export of textiles (scrub to the 11:25 point in the podcast to hear this).

The Sumerians’ Legacy

Although when we talk about ancient Mesopotamian jewelry we are referring to jewelry produced by Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians alike, it was really the achievements of the Sumerians in jewelry making that we marvel at the most. It was they who who wrote the opening chapter for jewelry making, not only for other Mesopotamian civilizations, but also the ancient and modern worlds.

Sources and Further Reading:

http://sumerianshakespeare.com

http://www.sculpt.com/technotes/COLDCAST.htm

http://www.allaboutgemstones.com/jewelry_history_mesopotamia.html

http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Sumerian_Jewelry

http://www.birthstones.org.uk/jewelry/ancient-mesopotamian-jewelry.htm

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewellery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Susa-destruction.jpg

http://www.enchanted.co.uk/materials.html

http://www.lsg.sch.ae/departments/history/Hili/Hilli_Website_2008/5.%20Wealth%20&%20Trade/Meso_v2_final.htm

http://www.lifescript.com/life/relationships/marriage/the_evolution_of_the_wedding_ring.aspx

http://voices.yahoo.com/the-history-jewelry-part-iv-mesopotamia-4073775.html?cat=69

http://books.google.com/books?id=lbmXsaTGNKUC&q=earrings#v=snippet&q=earrings&f=false

http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Beginnings-Of-Jewelry&id=509212

http://www.alhakaya.net/product.php?id_product=100

http://www.transoxiana.org/0110/neva-jewelry.html

http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2010/08/christies-nimrud-earrings-back-in-iraq.html

http://art.thewalters.org/detail/77427/pair-of-basket-shaped-hair-ornaments

http://info.goldavenue.com/info_site/in_arts/in_civ/in_civ_sumer.html

http://www.ehow.com/about_5044654_bloodstone-used-magic.html

http://www.penn.museum/blog/125th-anniversary-object-of-the-day/sumerian-copper-goat-head-object-of-the-day-18/

 
8 Comments

Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Artifacts, Assyrian, Jewelry, Nimrud, Sumerian

 

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Part IV: Gilgamesh!

A statue of Gilgamesh overpowering a lion. It was found in Khorsabad, Iraq, at the palace of Sargon II. Now housed at the Louvre. (Source)

He’s the other guitarist with The Mesopotamians band, wearing a pointy helmet. He can’t seem to be able to keep himself together- he plays his guitar and his arm falls off, he joins Hammurabi at the microphone and his teeth start flying out of his mouth, his jaw falls off, and at one point he ends up a heap on the floor.

He is Gilgamesh! (And our last king in The Mesopotamians series of kings!)

Gilgamesh is a name steeped in myth, but there are some things sprinkled here and there that support the idea that Gilgamesh, or Izdubar as his name was erroneously translated in 1872, was an actual historical figure we can discuss, albeit briefly when not talking about the oldest story the world has ever known…

An Epic King

Most people know Gilgamesh through the Epic of Gilgamesh, which holds great importance to humanity today as the world’s oldest piece of literature. It appears to have been just as important to humanity in ancient times, too. For one thing it was written down centuries after the death of the enigma that is its hero, and was circulated in the ancient world so much, that aside from various sites across Mesopotamia (most notably in the Library of Ashurbanipal), fragments of it were also found written in non-Mesopotamian languages, in non-Mesopotamian regions.

This means that Gilgamesh was a figure known across the Ancient Near East for centuries, which leads us to asking: why was Gilgamesh so important?

Before we delve into the Epic, it’s important to know that Gilgamesh’s name appears in material other than the Epic, like the Sumerian King List, which identifies him as the fifth king of Uruk. According to the List, his reign took place between 2500 and 2800 BC (a date I have been unable to pinpoint exactly because of differing dates from different sources), and lasted for 126 years. Bilgames, as he is known in the earliest Sumerian texts, also appears on tablets that list deities, like this one. Gilgamesh also appears in Mesopotamian mythology as a demigod, and a judge of the dead. Although Gilgamesh’s parents had cult followings and temples built for their worship, nothing other than a god’s epitaph in texts has been found to prove that Gilgamesh himself was an actively worshiped deity.

Going back to the The Epic, which paints the clearest picture of this mysterious man, we are presented with Gilgamesh as the king of Uruk, the builder of its great walls and its all-powerful ruler. The Epic begins with a prologue that introduces us to Gilgamesh, part of which is:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,

from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision

into the great mystery, the secret places,

the primeval days before the Flood. (Mitchell, 69)


“Gilgamesh between two Bull-Men with Sun-Disc (Wikimedia Commons)” (Source)

The Epic’s Gilgamesh possesses incredible physical strength, thanks to his parentage and demigod status, with two-thirds god and one-third human DNA. He needs no sleep and can complete a six weeks’ journey in three days. He need only eat after covering 400 miles, and pitch a camp after 1,000.

But he is also described as an arrogant ruler, and does what he wants to those he rules, including bedding all brides on their wedding night, even before their husbands do.

The people of Uruk cry out to the heavens from such tyranny, and the gods respond by sending down Enkidu, a wild man who lives with the animals in the wilderness. He is Gilgamesh’s equal in strength and ability, he is sent down to balance Gilagamesh. After a series of fantastical and sexually explicit events involving one of the most enigmatic women represented in literature, Enkidu is tamed and brought to Uruk, where he and Gilgamesh face off and become the best of friends. Together, they take on challenges that defy vengeful gods and end with a tragic loss that sends Gilgamesh on a journey in search of immortality. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Great Deep in search of immortality brings him face to face with Utnapishtim, a figure whose description of the biblical Flood marks him as a non-biblical representation of Noah.

“This, the eleventh tablet of the Epic, describes the meeting of The Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood.” Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx

In his article titled “The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh,” for the Institute for Creation Research website, the archaeologist Frank Lorey, M.A. writes of Gilgamesh’s deeds, which are also listed in the Epic: “He was one who had great knowledge and wisdom, and preserved information of the days before the flood. Gilgamesh wrote on tablets of stone all that he had done, including building the city walls of Uruk and its temple for Eanna,” Lorey writes.

The Eternal Significance of Gilgamesh to Humanity

It is safe to say that Gilgamesh represents a most human hero, despite his supernatural credentials. What could be more human than arrogance, or love, or fear of death?

In his essay, “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Arthur A. Brown writes, “We read stories — and reading is a kind of re-telling — not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.”

To this day, Gilgamesh’s story resonates with us, not with its fantastical and ancient details, but with its profound reflection on the human condition that seems to have changed little over the centuries.

Gilgamesh’s surviving legacy, beyond the Epic or the walls he built around the city he ruled is his humanity.

Sources and further reading:

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2006. (Version used for the Prologue except.)

http://homeschoolcourses.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/gilgamesh_louvre.jpg (First picture)

http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/hero-overpowering-lion (Louvre description of Gilgamesh statue)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh (Wikipedia)

http://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/eng251/gilgameshstudy.htm (Study guide that talks about Epic)

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx (The Flood Tablet at the British Museum website)

http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/ (Translated text of the Epic of Gilgamesh tablets)

http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/brown.htm (Storytelling, the Meaning of Life,
and The Epic of Gilgamesh
essay by Arthur A. Brown)

http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/gilgamesh.html (Brief biography on Encyclopedia Mythica)

http://www.icr.org/article/noah-flood-gilgamesh/ (The Noah Flood and the Epic of Gilgamesh, by Frank Lorey, M.A., who is believes the Genesis was preserved as an oral tradition before it was handed down to Moses, who finally wrote it down, making the Genesis the influence for the Epic of Gilgamesh, and not the other way around.)

http://www.jasoncolavito.com/epic-of-gilgamesh.html (Translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh with an introduction that includes a bit of the history behind the historical aspects of the story and the tablets and translations.)

http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/geography/story/sto_set.html (Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest interactive story.)

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/233644/Gilgamesh (Encyclopaedia Britannica entry that talks about the Epic of Gilgamesh and its hero. Gives titles of each poem in the Epic.)

http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/csgeg/background-gilgamesh-epic (Background of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has footnotes and sources.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_King_List (Wikipedia entry about Sumerian King List.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uruk (Wikipedia entry about Uruk.)

http://www.magyarsag.org/uruk13.jpg (Picture of Walls of Uruk.)

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Kings, Mythology, Tablets

 

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Part III: Ashurbanipal!

Ashurbanipal, portrayed as a priest. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Assurbanipal_als_hogepriester.jpg)

He looks the most harmless of the four Mesopotamian kings being channeled in the video and is even introduced with a kitten in his hand. He’s the drummer, with hair like Ringo Starr. He looks like a nerd and he’s downright huggable!

He’s Ashurbanipal!

And here’s another image of him with another type of kitten in his hand…

Ashurbanipal liked to, um, hunt lions, as this relief from his North Palace shows. (Source: http://s214.photobucket.com/albums/cc41/jessakalani/?action=view&current=ashurbanipalhuntinglions630.jpg&newest=1)

Ashurbanipal’s royal pedigree is one that consists of Assyria’s greatest kings- he happens to be the great grandson of Sargon II (If the Sargon portrayed in the “The Mesopotamians” video is indeed Sargon II, then Ashurbanipal is in a band with his great-grandfather!), grandson of Sennacherib, and the son of Esarhaddon, making him the last of the great kings of Assyria. He reigned from 668 BC to 627 BC.

His name means “the god Ashur is creator of an heir,” and he is mentioned in the Old Testament as Asenappar or Osnapper, and is also known to the Greeks as Sardanapolos and the Romans as Sardanapulus. We know what we know about him through his own autobiographical writings and royal correspondence. Legend has it that Ashurbanipal was the only Assyrian king who learned to read and write.

Although the decision to make Ashurbanipal look a nerd (who has a thing for cats, depending on how you look at that) corresponds with his longest-lasting achievement and legacy, it leaves much for me to fill in the blanks.

Ashurbanipal the Nerd

Despite his royal pedigree, Ashurbanipal was not even expected to become heir to the throne at all, thanks to having more eligible brothers in front of him. As a result, he was able to tackle scholarly pursuits away from his father’s court, which gave him the opportunity later to tell us in his own words that aside from learning how to read and write, he also had stuff like mathematics and oil divination under his belt.

In the online Encyclopaedia Britannica article about Ashurbanipal, Donald John Wiseman, Emeritus Professor of Assyriology at University of London, writes: “Like few Mesopotamian kings before, he mastered all scribal and priestly knowledge and was able to read Sumerian and obscure Akkadian scripts and languages.”

Wiseman also mentions that Ashurbanipal had two tutors who influenced him, one of who interested him in history and literature. This brings us to the heart of Ashurbanipal’s legacy.

Ashurbanipal built and maintained the first known systematically organized library in the ancient Middle East. (I’d like to say it’s the world’s first modern library, but the sources I’ve found hesitate to do so, and always just say “in the ancient Middle East,” while at the same time pointing out the cataloging practices exercised in Ashurbanipal’s library would not reach Europe until centuries later. Oh well.)

The Library of Ashurbanipal

In 1894, a British archaeologist named Sir Austen Henry Layard stumbled upon the ruins of Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh. What survived of it after 2,000 years painted a picture of a very sophisticated library system, where subjects were separated into individual rooms, with each of those rooms holding a tablet explaining what a visitor would find in that room.

The subjects etched in the approximately 30,000 clay tablets were as extensive as history and government, religion and magic, geography, science, poetry and even what we would consider today to be classified government materials.

The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet excavated from the Library of Ashurbanipal, housed at the British Museum. (Source)

One would find some 1,200 texts written on those tablets, including the standard Akkadian version of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian myth of creation Enuma Elish, and a nearly complete list of ancient Near-Eastern rulers. The tablets even came with accompanying citations that acted as a table of contents.

Ashurbanipal was able to build this great library of his through not only the employment of numerous scribes, but also through various military conquests that reined in lots of booty.

The Rise of Ashurbanipal

One of Ashurbanipal’s two tutors was a general, and it is through him that our young future king honed his athletic skills. He was trained in archery, hunting and horsemanship, along with soldierliness and royal decorum.

Ashurbanipal depicted riding and hunting in a relief carving from the North Palace of Nineveh, ca. 640 BC, housed at the British Museum. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Assurbanipal_op_jacht.jpg)

Ashurbanipal himself tells us that such a combination of skills, along with bravery and intelligence, helped him gain his father’s favor. He must not be lying, because despite there being another heir to the throne, Ashurbanipal was left in charge while his father was away.

Wiseman writes that Ashurbanipal was left to command the court and nobles. “No governor or prefect was appointed without consulting him,” Wiseman writes. Ashurbanipal even had authority over state building projects and his reports to his father were so stellar that he gained further favor and was left in charge of all affairs after a certain point.

Then, one day in December 669 BC, while on his way to re-invade Egypt, Ashurbanipal’s father died.

King of the Universe

King Ashurbanipal in a royal chariot, inspecting booty from a victory over Elam. (Source)

Three things helped Ashurbanipal move up the line to become king of Assyria in 668 BC:

1.) His older brother and heir to the throne had died in 672 BC, leaving his place in line up for grabs.

2.) To ensure that the throne would go to his favored son, Esarhaddon drafted a treaty with nearby chieftains who swore that should he die while his sons were minors, they would guarantee the succession of Ashurbanipal as king of Assyria, and Ashurbanipal’s half-brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, as king of Babylonia.

3.) After his father’s death, Ashurbanipal’s very influential grandmother, Zakutu, required everyone to support him, and to report all acts of treason to her and her grandson.

Ashurbanipal was crowned king of Assyria in 668 BC. He then installed his half-brother like his father wanted as king of Babylonia, but with limited powers. Ashurbanipal became known, like his fathers, as King of the Universe.

The universe that Ashurbanipal ruled consisted of what he inherited from his fathers and what he eventually acquired through conquest. It included Babylonia, Persia, Syria and Egypt.

How Ashurbanipal Dealt

Ashurbanipal expected utmost loyalty from his subjects and went after them with all his might if that loyalty ever wavered, sometimes with some disturbingly cruel methods. But as will be demonstrated in this part of his story, Ashurbanipal expected loyalty because he gave it in return.

Ashurbanipal began his reign by immediately turning his attention to Egypt and Nubia, a region that had given his father trouble, and would continue to do so for him for years to come. After multiple clashes with revolting Egyptian kings, he managed to seize control of Memphis and sack Thebes. He went home with lots of booty and kept the region under his grip by appointing local princes supported by Assyrian garrisons. Meanwhile, the Phoenician city of Tyre committed treason by supporting the independence of Egypt and Lydia, so Ashurbanipal laid siege to the city in response. He succeeded.

After quieting things down in two regions of his empire, Ashurbanipal then turned his attention to Babylonia.

For 16 years, he and his brother had ruled in their respective cities without clashing, despite the limited powers of Shamash-shum-ukin at Babylonia. Their relationship was so peaceful that texts described them as if they were twins. But in 652 BC, one thing led to another and Shamash-shum-ukin rose up against Ashurbanipal, allying himself with others under Assyrian rule, from Phoenicia to Judah to Elam to Egypt to Lydia, and even the Arab and Chaldean tribes. And this is where Ashurbanipal’s character becomes something worth discussing, because here is his brother rising against him with the help of a number of others under his rule, and despite the magnitude of such devastating treason, Ashurbanipal did not fly off the handle. Not right away.

Ashurbanipal decided to give his brother and the Babylonians a chance to make amends by asking them to pay a special tax for their treason. Shamash-shum-ukin must have really had enough of being under his younger brother’s control, so he refused to pay the tax. This sparked a war between Babylonia and the Assyrian Empire, pitting brother against brother.

Ashurbanipal was really not okay with disloyalty, but he was also very principled. “[Ashurbanipal] seemed to move in ways that avoided direct danger to his brother, and he worked more through siege warfare than through direct action,” Wiseman writes.

For three years, the war drew on, bringing with it desertion and unfulfilled promises by Shamash-shum-ukin’s allies. The Arabs deserted after facing intense famine and Elam was unable to offer help as it dealt with its own inner struggles. Psychologically speaking, all of this was too much for Shamash-shum-ukin. In 648 BC, just before Babylonia surrendered to the Assyrians, Ashurbanipal’s brother committed suicide in his burning palace.

Ashurbanipal’s campaign against Susa is depicted in this relief showing the sack of Susa in 647 BC. Flames rise from the city as Assyrian soldiers topple it with pickaxes and crowbars and carry off the spoils. (Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/susa.html)

Ashurbanipal did not destroy Babylon. Instead, he restored it and appointed a Chaldean noble as his viceroy. The capitol city of Elam was the target of Ashurbanipal’s revenge. After a war with Elam that dragged until 639 BC, its capitol city of Susa was destroyed by the Assyrians. Ashurbanipal left behind a tablet that spoke of what he did to the Elamite capitol:

“Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed… I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.”

He then celebrated his triumph by having four kings from Elam draw his chariot in a procession.

Ashurbanipal’s Cruelty

Ashurbanipal was a nice and patient guy with his brother, but he definitely wasn’t a nice guy to his enemies (or to lions). You could argue that no one is particularly nice to their enemies, but Ashurbanipal was really really really mean to his enemies.

We’re talking excessively cruel.

We’re talking excessive cruelty. Read about this relief here.

His gloating knew no bounds. A relief found at his palace at Nineveh depicts Ashurbanipal leisurely dining al fresco with his wife and servants fanning them, while the severed head of an Elamite king hangs from a nearby tree. The worst part is that Teumann, to whom the head belonged, didn’t just die in battle, but committed suicide at the battle scene, after which Ashurbanipal had his head cut off and taken back with him to Nineveh, where Elamite ambassadors freaked out. So freaked out were these guys by Ashurbanipal, that one of them actually killed himself. That makes three suicides that Ashurbanipal was responsible for, including his brother’s suicide. The guy had some major mind power.

Ashurbanipal celebrates in his garden with his queen the victory over Elam, while his enemy’s head hangs from the last tree to the left (your left) by way of a ring piercing the deceased’s jaw. (Source)

The parading of Teumann’s head was depicted in several reliefs, each showing the head on display in various different public places, always serving as a reminder to all who dare to cross the Assyrian king and his empire.

The Last of the Great Kings of Assyria

Although Ashurbanipal did as his father did with his own sons, appointing them as co-regents before his death in 627 BC, the wars he fought during his reign weakened his empire a great deal. There is very little known about the latter part of Ashurbanipal’s reign, but although he left his sons behind to rule over a rather peaceful empire, they were no match for their father, hence Ashurbanipal being the last of the great kings of Assyria.

The Assyrian Empire fell in 609 BC, and Ashurbanipal’s library was buried by invaders, lost for some 2,000 years before it was discovered.

Ashurbanipal may have been a nerd, he may have been a ruthless and cruel man, but he always came through for those he cared about, albeit in an unconventional way. Let’s just accept his gift to humanity, his library and its contents that are a treasure trove of information for scholars of library history, as well as humanity as a whole.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashurbanipal

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/38437/Ashurbanipal

http://www.britannica.com/bps/user-profile/3240/Donald-John-Wiseman

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/a/ashurbanipal,_assyrian_king.aspx

http://web.utk.edu/~giles/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Ashurbanipal

http://archaeotype.dalton.org/library/oldsite/seventh.html

http://www.bible-history.com/assyria_archaeology/archaeology_of_ancient_assyria_archaeological_discoveries.html

http://classics.unc.edu/courses/clar241/AssPics.html

http://i-cias.com/e.o/ashurbanipal.htm

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/s/stela_of_ashurbanipal-1.aspx

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/stone_panel,_dying_lion.aspx

http://s214.photobucket.com/albums/cc41/jessakalani/?action=view&current=ashurbanipalhuntinglions630.jpg&newest=1

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_image.aspx?objectId=309929&partId=1&orig=%2Fresearch%2Fsearch_the_collection_database.aspx&numPages=10&currentPage=1&asset_id=396940

http://www.ancientreplicas.com/ashurbanipal-feasting.html

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Assyrian, Kings

 

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One man’s green thumb and thirst for power

A relief showing King Sennacherib on a throne in camp during a conquest. (Source)

King Sennacherib (pronounced Sin-ahhe-criba) is one of the greatest Assyrian rulers, whose reign from 704 BC to 681 BC ended rather abruptly.

King Sennacherib was the son of Sargon II. Upon his father’s death, Sennacherib got right down to business without so much as a learning curve, thanks to his experience dealing with issues at home while his father was away on campaigns.

Much of Sennacherib’s rule consisted of him protecting what his father had acquired of land and power, but in the midst of all that maintenance, Sennacherib did manage a few substantial accomplishments of his own and established himself and his empire as a force to be reckoned with.

His greatest achievement is an achievement within an achievement.

Upon his father’s death, Sennacherib moved the Assyrian capital from Dur-Sharrukin (modern-day Khorsabad) to the city of Nineveh. Before its epic revamp, Nineveh had been the empire’s religious hub, waning in importance, despite its perfect location on the trade route between the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Enter the visionary ruler, and it became the capital of a most powerful empire, a pulsating metropolis twice the size of Sargon’s capital, and suddenly the envy of the ancient world. Nineveh is believed to have been the first planned city.

And it was in Nineveh that Sennacherib’s greatest achievement and crowning glory took place. The building of the Southwest Palace, which he also called “the Palace with no Rival.”

Before King Sennacherib went about building his palace, he gave thought to what no one ever had before; the yearly floods of the river. But Sennacherib did not let anything stand in his way, not even a force of nature like the Tigris River, so he just changed its course. And so a palace of over 80 rooms, a forecourt and two throne suites lined with bas-reliefs that mesmerized those who found them thousands of years later, was built.

But the palace on its own was not the only thing that made it one with no rival.

Sennacherib surrounded his colossus with foreign plants and animals. He also built irrigated gardens and parks around the palace.

Another achievement that made him a contributor to the modernization of cities was the first aqueduct system for the people. Sennacherib also introduced irrigation for crops. You can read more about Sennacherib’s farming and irrigation techniques here.

Sennacherib’s Prism. Found in the mid-19th century in the ruins of Nineveh. It is now housed at the British Museum. (Source)

Now, Sennacherib may have had a green thumb, but he also had a taste for conquest and the destruction of his rivals.

Most of what is known about Sennacherib’s conquests comes from a six-sided clay tablet called Sennacherib’s Prism. The Prism describes the Assyrian king’s wars with the Babylonians, and the kingdoms of Judah and Elam, among others. You can read the details of Sennacherib’s Prism, including a translation of its writing, here.

King Sennacherib is probably mostly known for the destruction of Babylon in 689 BC, and his siege on Jerusalem, which was under the rule of the Hebrew king, Hezekiah, in 701 BC.

King Sennacherib was both loved and hated throughout Mesopotamia in equal measure.

Only his abrupt death could end his rule, and depending on who you might’ve been speaking to at the time of its occurrence, you might’ve been met with celebration or great grief.

Either way, King Sennacherib’s death is one of murder, and a great basis for perhaps an Agatha Christie style of murder mystery.

Part of what makes history so exciting to me is the drama within its pages. Stories of love, betrayal, murder…all that stuff we find so entertaining today and splattered in big capital letters on the cover of a bestselling novel at an airport bookstore–all of it can be found in history if we dig far enough.

Well, Mesopotamian history is not short on that kind of drama, and lucky for us, someone has dug deep enough to find it, especially in the case of King Sennacherib.

Stay tuned for the more juicy parts of King Sennacherib’s story.

Sources:

http://www.lessing-photo.com/dispimg.asp?i=08020359+&cr=9&cl=1

http://www.sennacherib.net/

http://www.sennacherib.net/tech.html

http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/meso/sennprism1.html

http://heritage-key.com/world/ninevehs-palace-without-rival

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2011 in Assyrian

 

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