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Ku-Baba

 

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A little too much eye makeup! (Source)

A long while ago, I wanted to write about Ku-Baba, the only woman on the Sumerian King List. I went first to my go-to source on anything Sumerian, Sumerian Shakespeare, and found that Jerald Starr, the brain behind the site, had not mentioned Ku-Baba at all. It was as if I was just imagining this rather intriguing figure.

Nonetheless, I wrote to Starr with the hope he would have some information about Ku-Baba, or at least a good source he could point me toward. His response, which was basically doubt that she existed at all, left me feeling like I was at a dead end at the time, so I abandoned the idea of writing about her.

Fast forward to today, and Starr has changed his mind. “I had to revise my opinion,” he wrote to me in a surprise email. He also included a link to a new post on his website, in which he explains in detail how he arrived at the conclusion that Ku-Baba might have existed after all.

“For a long time I doubted that Ku-Baba even existed,” he writes in the post. “I believed the reference was a sly mean-spirited joke by the scribe who wrote the King List.”

What changed Starr’s mind was an alabaster statue at the Louvre from Girsu, with a little too much eye makeup to be just your run-of-the-mill Sumerian priestess, as he had initially believed. “When I first saw the statue, I believed it was a Sumerian priestess because she seems to be wearing a circular headband,” he writes, “. . .although for a priestess I thought she was a bit heavy-handed with the makeup.”

From the eyes, Starr traveled back up to the head, where it became clear to him that it was no headband this statue was wearing–that it was a hat he’d never seen on a Sumerian woman before. “The hat on the statue most closely resembles a shepherd hat, the crown of a Sumerian king,” he writes.

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That’s no headband! (Source)

And from there, Starr writes as only he can about the minutest details to put Ku-Baba, the first woman ruler in history, back into the realm of possibility, giving me a chance to write about Ku-Baba like I had originally wanted.

The First Woman Ruler

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Ku-Baba. (Source)

Ku-Baba, Kug-Bau in Sumerian, is the only female monarch on the Sumerian King List. She ruled between 2500 BC and 2330 BC. On the list itself, she is identified as:

… the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kish, became king; she ruled for 100 years.

Every source I came across in my research, including Starr, questioned how a woman who was a tavern-keeper became king. They then went on to explain that tavern keeping was one of many occupations Mesopotamian women could hold. Now, aside from Starr, said sources all described tavern keeping as a well-respected occupation, even while some mentioned that taverns in Sumer were pretty much brothels. This complicates further the rationale of a woman tavern-keeper becoming king, but in her About.com article titled, “Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings,” Carly Silver writes, “Regardless of what kind of show they were running, women often ran taverns, holding perhaps one of the only independent female positions of power in ancient Sumer.”

Silver drives home the rather high status of the tavern-keeper profession by mentioning Siduri, the female tavern-keeper Gilgamesh meets in the Underworld in his quest for immortality in the epic of his namesake. In it, the tavern-keeper gives Gilgamesh, a powerful god-king, sage advice about the nature of human life, how short it is, and how one ought to enjoy it.

“So, in what was probably a very important epic even in antiquity,” she writes, “a female tavern-keeper was seen as a guide along perilous paths and a figure worthy of veneration.”

Conversely, Starr’s description of the status of a tavern-keeper, or barmaid, is one that is very different from Silver’s. He writes, “Throughout history, a barmaid was typically considered to be a woman of loose morals, freely available to the patrons of the tavern, and little better than a common prostitute.”

So, how can this be? Several sources commend tavern keeping as a respectable occupation, almost making it sound like it was a foot in the door for Ku-Baba to become queen in her own right, while one all but ascribes it to prostitutes.

It helps that Starr does mention a distinction between a mere barmaid who slings drinks and provides patrons with her company, and someone who owns the establishment where this business takes place, a distinction other sources do not mention. Starr also classifies an owner of a tavern as “middle class,” while iterating that the employee slinging the drinks is “a commoner, and a lowly commoner at that.”

Furthermore, in order to see more clearly how tavern keeping relates to Ku-Baba’s rise to royalty, it helps to look at the picture in a different way.

According to Starr, even though there is no question Ku-Baba was a commoner, she might not have been a tavern-keeper. Starr states in his post that it was her parents who were tavern-keepers, a nugget he says her enemies distorted and used against her to tarnish her reputation and legacy. “I believe Ku-Baba was unfairly characterized as a bawd (the usual description of a female barkeeper) for propaganda reasons,” Starr writes. “I believe it was a deliberate attempt to sully her reputation. It is the kind of thing her enemies would say about her.”

Bottom line, we must let go of the idea that Ku-Baba was a tavern-keeper to get to the bottom of how she became a queen in her own right, because everything is questionable when you have an enemy, which she did, according to Starr.

And who was that enemy, you ask? Sargon of Akkad, our favorite baby in a basket here at AllMesopotamia.

Again, I point you toward Starr’s article for a more comprehensive telling of this story and presentation of the case involving Ku-Baba’s previous profession, but Sargon of Akkad usurped the throne of Kish from Ur-Zababa, Ku-Baba’s grandson, 31 years after her death, serving as background for Starr’s conclusion.

But how did Ku-Baba take the throne?

In her article titled “Ku-Bau, the First Woman Ruler,” Darci Clark writes, “In general, other women in Mesopotamian society would only be able to exert any political influence through their relationships to the king.”

Starr echoes Clark’s statement: “Sumerian queens were always the wives of kings. They never governed on their own.”

Okay, but would a king marry a commoner?

“Although it is highly unlikely that a king would marry a commoner,” Starr explains, “it is certainly within the realm of possibility.”

It’s possible Ku-Baba married a king, but there is no mention of such a thing happening in ancient texts. Nevertheless, a king was involved. According to Clark, Ku-Baba became lugal of Kish after performing an act of kindness. It seems that a king–Puzur-Nirah, king of Akshak, namely–awarded Ku-Baba her kingship for a “pious deed.”

Researching this further, I came across an article on the website History Hustle, titled “Kubaba, the Bartender Who Became the First Woman Ruler in History,” which pointed me toward the Weidner Chronicle, an interesting ancient Babylonian religious text, where the deed and its reward are described:

In the reign of Puzur-Nirah, king of Akšak . . . Kubaba gave bread to the fisherman and gave water, she made him offer the fish to Esagila. Marduk the king, the prince of Apsu, favored her and said: “Let it be so!” He entrusted to Kubaba the tavernkeeper, sovereignty over the whole world. (Lines 43-45, Weidner Chronicle)

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The city of Kish. (Source)

A Feminine Legacy

Very little is known about Ku-Baba’s reign. We do know that she made Kish strong, and that she reigned for 100 years. It is easy to conclude then that she was a successful monarch. Really, there’s no way she could have not been.

Starr writes, “Any female pretender to the throne who didn’t do an excellent job would quickly find herself in the middle of a coup d’état. She was capable enough, and respected enough, to stay in power and establish a dynasty.”

That dynasty, the 4th Dynasty of Kish, lasted for two generations, ending with the above-mentioned Ur-Zababa, son of Puzur-Suen, son of Ku-Baba. Not bad for a woman living in a man’s world, and a man’s world it was.

Carly Silver writes that Ku-Baba’s was remembered by later generations as an improper usurper. They would also refer to Ku-Baba when describing things that are not as they should be–women taking on men’s roles has never been popular. “By taking on the duties of a man – a king – Kubaba was seen to have crossed a boundary and transcended gender divisions in an improper fashion,” Silver writes.

Ku-Baba was also referenced when a lung didn’t look so good, or a child was born with both male and female genitalia. “Combining male and female genitalia in an individual would echo her reign as lugal, or king, which the ancients saw as violating the natural order of things,” Silver writes.

Nonetheless, Ku-Baba lived in people’s memories until Babylonian times, becoming a goddess. “But she was still a barmaid,” Starr explains. “She is portrayed as a kindly woman in all of the stories about her . . . Ku-Baba never lost the ‘common touch’. Queen Ku-Baba was always ‘the people’s queen’.”

Whether her legacy when she was an actual memory was a positive or negative one, today, in 2017, Ku-Baba’s legacy is that of (written) history’s first woman ruler, one who could only be slandered by a past that might have been falsified by her enemy, and one whose ascendancy to the throne was built upon kindness.

How feminine. How fitting.

P.S. Make sure you read Starr’s Ku-Baba post, as there are things and photos I did not include here that are sure to pique your interest further in this interesting lady. And while you’re at it, if you haven’t already, read our Q&A interview with Sumerian Shakespeare himself!

Sources and Further Reading:

Queen Ku-Baba – Sumerian Shakespeare  http://sumerianshakespeare.com/748301/769001.html

Sumerian King List – http://www.livius.org/sources/content/anet/266-the-sumerian-king-list/

Ku-Bau: The First Woman Ruler – Darci Clark http://semiramis-speaks.com/ku-bau-the-first-woman-ruler/

Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings – Carly Silver  http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/sumer/fl/Kubaba-A-Queen-Among-Men.htm

Kubaba, the Bartender Who Became the First woman Ruler in History http://historyhustle.com/kubaba-bartender-became-worlds-first-woman-ruler/

Weidner Chronicle http://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-19-weidner-chronicle/?

 

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Q&A: Andy Lowings, a reincarnated Ancient Mesopotamian (I’m pretty sure)

The bull head of the Lyre of Ur peeks out of a beautiful cover sent to Andy Lowings by an Iraqi woman from Baghdad, who painted it by hand. `Iraqi bull just refused to be kept in!` Mr. Lowings said. (LPhoto courtesy of Andy Lowings)

A year ago, I discovered and wrote about the Golden Lyre of Ur Project, a multinational effort to recreate the 4,750-year-old instrument from scratch, just as the Ancient Mesopotamians did.

The project was spearheaded by Andy Lowings, a man who put his mind to doing something amazing and set out to do it. What he ended up with was a worldwide sensation (at times met and welcomed with a rose-petal-strewn stage, no less!) that brings to life an ancient world unknown to many.

Although the post mentioning the Golden Lyre of Ur Project has been on the blog since November of 2011, I wasn’t lucky enough to hear from Mr. Lowings until just a few months ago. It is an honor to now be in contact with such an amazing individual, who I’m sure is a reincarnated Ancient Mesopotamian!

So, without further delay, here is a Q&A I did with Mr. Lowings, through which I’m sure you will find him an inspiring individual that reminds us that no matter what we set out to do, passion drives us further than we can possibly imagine. He also makes it look easy, but rest assured that only he can carry it out so beautifully!

***

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how and when you became interested in Mesopotamian history?

Of course! It`s a nice thing to be asked about yourself from across the world, thank you for taking an interest!

I`m a Civil Engineer and I spent 9 years in Dubai and enjoyed building up the city there in the 70`s. I liked the Arab world and enjoyed the big mix of different people there in the Emirates.

At that time everyone was thinking big and changing the world with new airports and hotels and roads. Everyone mixed-in well there and got on with making it happen…no-one ever said anything was impossible. I came back to Britain and then worked on the Channel Tunnel..the longest 24-mile railway under the sea to France. I think they all taught me that you could do anything.

But I also played the harp, and after a while, through the new `Internet`, I looked at the first musical instruments of all … some found in Iraq in 1929. It seemed like a well-kept secret. No-one seemed to know of these great artifacts found in Ur. All so very, very, old!

I thought that it would be a nice thing to make one of the Lyres again and see how it sounded! I thought the Baghdad Gold Lyre was the nicest and so, one day, April 10th, 2003, I said I`d make that one.

The very next day the Museum in Baghdad was looted and the original Lyre was vandalised! It was just fate. It was all over the world press and it was clear that it was a well-loved Iraqi icon. So I had to make a playable version of it.

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Transporting the Lyre into Washington DC to the Smithsonian Theatre! (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

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How is the Golden Lyre of Ur project doing now that it’s been around for a few years?

What started just as a hobby suddenly became of interest to lots of other people, and I managed to involve them into helping…though to be honest it was clear what existing sympathy there was, for ordinary Iraqis after the war. People were very kind and offered to help in what fields they could.

Since then, we have discovered lots about other aspects connected to the instruments of the Royal Graves at Ur. There are cuneiform texts and linguists busy interpreting them, there`s musicians and archaeologists, precious metal workers, artists and museums…all who have lots to give, in connection to these ancient times.

So we have tried to involve them too, in the story of these first musical instruments. We go to talk about different aspects to various groups. People are eager to find out what we have learned or just to hear the story of how we made the Gold Lyre again and how it connects us all today. We go to museums, universities, schools, conferences and festivals all over.

But we always try to make the connection to Iraq and its past, and so it`s always special when we meet Iraqi people who are interested. We met the Baghdad Museum staff one day in London and they were amazed at what everyone had made.

Even Kadim Al Sahir came and sat inside the van to see the Lyre with me after his concert at the Albert Hall in London…whilst hundreds of fans were outside shouting! He was a great guy.

We have just performed at the local college to drama students and later this month we will go to Cambridge University for archaeologists there. We will be providing the music! So there are lots of ideas for how to bring the Gold Lyre of Ur to people`s attention.

But of all the places, we would rather go to Iraq, and show people our Gold Lyre there and bring it to life right there in Baghdad and Basra.

After the "Githarra al someria"  show.  With Prof. Donny George, Dr Hadi Hind (Iraqi Cultural Attache), Jennifer Sturdy and Andy Lowings. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

After the “Githarra al someria” show. With Prof. Donny George, Dr Hadi Hind (Iraqi Cultural Attache), Jennifer Sturdy and Andy Lowings. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

You said that the unfortunate looting of the Baghdad museum in April 2003 inspired you to recreate the Golden Lyre of Ur, which lay in pieces afterwards. You’ve also said that you’ve recently recreated some Sumerian jewelry. How did this latest project come about, and what did it entail?

The Gold Lyre was found with 68 women, and it`s likely that the last player who had her hand over it in death was a woman, so in many ways this is a project about women. The jewellery was so spectacular (most of it by the way is still behind the back of the museums in storage there is so much of it) that as part of a performance we could perhaps show a little of the style of the period too.

We went to the British Museum and asked to see the jewellery, and they were kind enough to give us free access. It was such a strange feeling to really hold such tremendous objects from so long ago. We had a little gold offcuts and so thought to make the “Gold choker” which we inspected there in London.

There are actually around 60 of them and thousands of beads and silver objects in the museum. Many of the items are amazingly detailed and as good as anything made today. Tiny details and scrolls and carvings were quite impossible for me to learn how to do. But a jewellery maker near here was giving lessons so I spent the winter making the simpler Gold Choker: alternating gold and lapis lazuli triangles in a neck band.

The finished Gold Sumerian necklace in its box. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

The finished Gold Sumerian necklace in its box. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

Every lady we show it to wants to put it on herself! It immediately makes them look like Queen Pu’Abi herself, and so it`s an added side to our performances. I`m sure in Iraq it would be hugely interesting to the women there.

Are there any other projects related to Mesopotamia you’ve worked on or are working on?

The languages of Mesopotamia are largely unknown or too complicated for people to understand. But only this year the book “Teach Yourself Spoken Babylonian” has been published and so now gives anyone the possibility to actually pronounce the dialects of the old regions! A Cambridge University don has discovered this and so we are making some songs in the real dialects of the time. With the Lyre as an accompaniment of course, it will be a new CD of Mesopotamian hit numbers… from their Sumerian Top “Sixty” maybe?

Recording our new Gold Lyre of Ur song, in November. Its called “The Flood” and its sung in the original Akkadian language by Stef Conner. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

Recently, we played the Gold Lyre of Ur in Germany at Lake Constance to a conference of 450 world Lyre players. We were given a huge stage and lights and even a special welcome of rose petals strewn over the stage for the Lyre`s arrival. It was most moving.

So we thought that we might, in future, invite some dancers to make a collaboration with the Gold Lyre. And even to invite an artist to create some backdrop stage images; paintings, to set the scene for what the Gold Lyre of Ur is all about. Scenes of old Iraq, old civilisations and reconstruction and new civilisations..

Positive images for the future, I hope. Yet the last chapter of our book has not yet been written..and that must be the visit to Iraq.

How has doing the amazing work you do in educating the world about Mesopotamia in a most unique way changed your life?

It`s been an honour to direct the course of a project. One which started just as a hobby and which now connects so many different people. One which can do some good.

Without doubt it has changed me and everyone who has been involved with it, though it`s not always been simple and easy, I have to say. We have met such great, great people. Brave people, and clever people, kind people who have not asked for anything in return for helping.

Last week a lovely hand-painted Lyre cover was sent to us from a lady in Baghdad (pictured at top of post)…”I wanted to help you,” she said.

I hardly know her name. Who wouldn`t be moved by such generosity coming this way?

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Be sure to check out the Lyre of Ur website at http://www.lyre-of-ur.com, where you can learn more about the project, and see if you can witness it where you are!

 

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“The Mesopotamians”

Since I try to keep things fun around here, even though it doesn’t seem like it at first glance (I wrote about asphalt!), I thought I’d use a fun song to introduce a mini-series of posts that will elaborate on what this song, “The Mesopotamians” by They Might Be Giants, is about…

Actually, I should say I will be elaborating on who this song is about, because the day has come when someone gives a damn!

Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal and Gilgamesh had plenty scratched down onto the clay about them in the kingdoms where they not-so-secretly reigned, and I’ve taken it upon myself to relay all the highlights of what was written to you.

To get you started, you can find the song’s lyrics here, and a general (and very enthusiastic) analysis of those lyrics here.

Stay tuned! (And sorry about getting the song stuck in your head. That’s tough.)

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Music, Video

 

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One Lyre for humanity

When the Baghdad Museum was looted and vandalized in April 2003, most of us could only stand by and watch in horror as part of the world’s history and humanity was lost. And after the initial shock wore off, and for some it never did, some great people got to work right away to restore what was lost.

I’m unfortunately not one of those people, but I’m going to tell you about two such men, one, a pioneer of Mesopotamian archaeology, and the other a musician with passion, both of who do in the most legitimate way possible qualify as members of that elite of humanity.

Before I do that, I will tell you about this, the Golden Lyre of Ur:

The Golden Lyre of Ur on display at the Baghdad Museum before the looting.

This Golden Lyre of Ur was one of thousands of items that fell victim to the looters that awful day in 2003. It is believed to be as much as 4,750 years old. If I may take a moment to put into perspective just how old 4,750 years old is: the Golden Lyre of Ur predates Christianity, Judaism and the construction of the Great Pyramid in Egypt…

Originally excavated with more than a dozen other stringed instruments in 1929 by British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley from the Royal Graves of Ur, the Golden Lyre of Ur was found in the grave of Queen Pu’abi. Queen Pu’abi is believed to have died in 2600 BC.

Queen Pu’abi’s crowned and jewel-adorned body was found along with 74 other bodies, 68 of who were female. The males and females found were all wearing the same type of clothing and each holding a vessel believed to have contained the poison they all drank for their mass suicide. This was part of their duty to their queen as sacrificial victims.

One of those unfortunate females was the Golden Lyre player, whose hand bones were found placed over where the strings would have been.

Sir Leonard Woolley holding a Lyre like the one found in Queen Pu'abi's grave.

The wooden sections of the Golden Lyre had decayed over the centuries, so Woolley used careful methods to avoid damaging the ancient find any further, which aside from wood, was also made of gold, lapis lazuli, gulf shell, pink limestone and bitumen. Before removing the fragile ancient find from the ground, Woolley poured plaster of Paris to fill in the deteriorated parts of the wood and then covered the whole thing with strips of waxed cloth to hold it all together.

If it weren’t for Woolley’s care in excavating such a fragile and ancient piece of humanity’s history, I definitely would not be sitting here writing about the details of the Golden Lyre of Ur, and the wonderful project I’m about to tell you about might not have ever been completed, or even thought of.

Up until Andy Lowings, a harp enthusiast from England, felt a calling to recreate the Golden Lyre of Ur using all the materials used all those thousands of years ago, the instrument was unplayable. And now, after the looting of the Baghdad Museum in April 2003, the Golden Lyre of Ur is not even displayable, as it lies in broken pieces.

The Golden Lyre of Ur after the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003. Lowings said at a conference at the Library of Congress in March 2009: "It was vandalized and found broken in the car park."

Enter Lowings and an amazing network of people who care about the history of humanity formed a partnership of sorts that kept growing in size and contributions from universities across the globe, South African gold mines, the Royal goldsmith of Prince Charles, and even the British Royal Air Force, among other unlikely contributors– and a playable and as-close-to-authentic-as-possible Golden Lyre of Ur is now in existence.

You can read the details of how the Sumerian scenes were etched onto the Lyre with lasers and laser engineers at the University of Liverpool in this document.

The project began in 2003, shortly after the original Lyre was destroyed, and Lowings wanted every detail to be recreated, from the golden bullhead, to the Iraqi cedar wood used in the body of the Lyre. The project took three years to complete, and a labor of love–a love of music, of history, of humanity.

You can watch and hear Andy Lowings describe the three years of The Golden Lyre of Ur Project in his warm and compelling way of speaking in this video, recorded at a seminar at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, in March of 2009.

Listen to this piece of music from the strings of Lowings’s reconstructed Golden Lyre of Ur and you might want to ask Lowings to bring this instrument (valued at $50,000) to your next educational event:

Today, Lowings’s project has brought with it a CD of the Lyre’s music and a group that will go wherever they are needed to perform and educate the world about the cradle of civilization, and one of the many tools it gave us to explore our humanity.

Contact Andy Lowings through the Lyre of Ur website.

Sources:

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2011 in Music, Sumerian

 

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