The City of Gilgamesh: Temple Rule in Ancient Babylon


Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple / Photo by Jastrow, Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons


Gilgamesh, legendary ruler of Uruk, famous drinker, womanizer and battler against monsters, was a King Arthur of Mesopotamian antiquity.


By Dr. Paul Kriwaczek
British Historian


Uruk

The outer wall shines in the sun like brightest copper;

the inner wall is beyond the imagining of kings.

Study the brickwork, study the fortification;

climb the great ancient staircase to the terrace;

study how it is made;

from the terrace see the planted and fallow fields,

the ponds and orchards.

One league is the inner city,

another league is orchards;

still another the fields beyond;

over there is the precinct of the temple.

Three leagues and the temple precinct of Ishtar

measure Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh.

A general view of the Uruk archaeological site at Warka in Iraq / Photo by SAC Andy Holmes (RAF), Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh, legendary ruler of Uruk, famous drinker, womanizer and battler against monsters, was a King Arthur of Mesopotamian antiquity who set out on a quest for the holy grail of immortality. He may well have been based on a historic figure: excavators have found inscriptions proving that other kings previously thought purely mythical, like Enmebaragesi of the city of Kish, did once tread the earth. According to the epic, when Gilgamesh died the citizens diverted the course of the Euphrates and buried him in the river-bed before letting the waters flow over the spot again – the same tall tale that has been told about many others since, from the Prophet Daniel to Attila the Hun, Alaric the Goth and Genghis Khan. In 2003 a team of German archaeologists, who had conducted a magnetic survey of the location, reported that ‘in the middle of the former Euphrates River we detected the remains of a building which may be interpreted as a burial’.

I begin with Gilgamesh because his is probably the only Sumerian name at all familiar today, a remarkable consequence of the rediscovery of his story in clay tablets excavated in 1853 from the ruins of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh. These were late copies of a text first compiled by a scribal scholar called Sin-Leqi-Unninni in around 1200 BCE, working with materials dating back another 800 years or so. Yet if Gilgamesh really did live and rule Uruk, his reign would have been some time around 2600 BCE; and even this date followed centuries after his city had risen, flourished and then declined as the cultural power-house of the Sumerian world, and the originator of what might be called temple rule.

Towards the end of the fourth millennium BCE, at about the time that writing was being invented but before it is able to tell us much, Uruk had already spread over some 400 hectares, greater in size and population than Periclean Athens or republican Rome three millennia later. Surveys of the settlement pattern in southern Mesopotamia show that the number of village-dwellers in the area declined precipitously, while the urban population increased. Environmental historians guess that the great movement of people from the countryside into the cities was caused by a change of climate, which became drier at this time, making subsistence agriculture harder to sustain. But perhaps they exaggerate the stick and underrate the carrot. There was something about Uruk that was hugely attractive. We know cities in our own world which act as powerful magnets, irresistibly attracting incomers from near and far, where every new arrival has his or her unique individual reason for migrating, but all are summed up by the simple proposition: to improve the way I live. Maybe people came to Uruk too, just because that is where they most wanted to be.

To judge both by later accounts and the archaeological remains, Uruk was a place of intense activity, a city of vibrant public life, where coracles and punts laden with produce bumped along canals that did service for main streets, as if in an antediluvian Venice; where porters bearing giant loads on their backs elbowed their way through alleyways thronged with priests and bureaucrats, students, workers and slaves; where processions and celebrations vied for space with prostitutes and street gangs. From the remains of conduits and tanks built of waterproof kiln-baked bricks, some scholars believe there were also green and shady public gardens. Temples, public buildings, shrines and gathering-places clustered around the precinct called Eanna, the House of Heaven, known in later times as the earthly residence of the goddess Inanna – as also around a nearby secondary religious focus, where Anu, the sky god, was honoured. These were not closed and secretive places, like many temples would be in other parts of the ancient world, accessible only to priests and to the initiated. In her book Mesopotamia, the Invention of the City, Gwendolyn Leick notes that ‘the overall impression of the Uruk monuments is of well-planned public spaces…designed for maximum accessibility, with great care being taken to ensure easy circulation.’

At times Uruk must have seemed like one gigantic building site, echoing with the banging and shouting of carpenters and scaffolders, of brick-makers and brick-layers, of plasterers and mosaic-artists, and of masons skilled in working the stone imported from 80 kilometres to the west. Large quantities of stone were used to erect some of the monuments of Uruk, and the technological solutions developed by her architects and builders remained unrivalled for centuries. The work must have been almost unceasing, for the Urukians too were driven by that passion for novelty, the compulsion to put the old behind them, to renew and innovate, that was the special signature of so much ancient Mesopotamian city life.

Illustrated reconstruction of Eanna quarter / Archaeology Illustrated, Creative Commons

In the middle of the fourth millennium BCE a huge building, larger than the Parthenon in Athens, partly or wholly constructed of imported limestone, stood on a central platform in the Eanna quarter. The shrine was even more remarkable for the fact that its ground plan almost exactly anticipated, by 3,000 years, the layout of early Christian churches. There was a central nave, a crossways transept, a narthex or lobby, and an apse at one end flanked by the two rooms that in a Christian sanctuary would be called thediaconicon and the prothesis. A magnificent walkway leading to a wide public terrace ran alongside. The huge embedded pillars of the colonnade, 2 metres in diameter and built of sun-dried bricks internally reinforced with tightly bound bundles of reeds were protected from surface damage by a unique Mesopotamian invention: baked-clay cones, shaped like oversized golf tees and coloured red, white and black, hammered into the surface in tightly packed arrangements that mimicked the patterns on woven reed matting. Nearby another building, the ‘stone cone temple’, its walls decorated with coloured stones set into plaster, was constructed partly of limestone but also, notably, of a new synthetic material invented in a typical flash of Mesopotamian brilliance: cast concrete, prepared by mixing powdered baked brick with gypsum plaster.

The labour that went into the repeated reconstruction of these buildings was immense: many millions of work hours. Only a very powerful idea could have driven the Urukians to invest so much of themselves in their city. Yet though there are many texts from later times that describe Uruk and its famous king, the stories give no indication of what might have been the driving force underlying the spectacular innovations that made the city of Gilgamesh the first workshop of its world.

Uruk’s city-wide and centuries-long building boom was not comparable to ancient Egypt’s a little later, when monuments were dedicated to the glorification and immortality of dynasties of ruthless rulers. Unlike Uruk, Egyptian tombs and temples were built to last to the end of time. Here, by contrast, they were subject to that passion for repeated reconstruction that characterized all early Mesopotamian societies. And though powerful kings would reign in Mesopotamia in due course, all the signs for this era point to a society with no overly great distinctions of wealth or power.

We may yet learn more. Excavations have so far concentrated on the temple surroundings, and most of Uruk, today called Warka, still lies buried under the sands. To date two extraordinary images have been unearthed, created in the days when Uruk was the only true city on earth. One suggests a community of relative equals, united in worship of their supreme goddess and of the great idea which she represented. It is sculpted in low relief around a 1-metre-high alabaster vessel known as the Warka Vase: five tiers of carvings representing a procession on its way to bring offerings to the doorway of the goddess’s temple. The other is, arguably, a portrait head of the goddess herself: the Warka Mask, also known as the Lady of Uruk.

Life-size head of the ‘Lady of Uruk’, c.3100 BCE / Baghdad Museum, Creative Commons

The 5,000-year-old life-sized head of the Lady of Uruk was already damaged in antiquity: there are dark, blank holes where eyes looked out; the deep birds-wing groove across her forehead that once held inlaid eyebrows is empty; the wig that once covered the smoothed planes on her head is long gone; the tip of her nose is smashed. And yet, despite all that, and the fifty centuries that separate her time from ours, the expression on her face is as striking and engaging as ever. André Parrot, a leading French archaeologist, put it most poetically: ‘We seem to catch a gleam of living eyes within the empty sockets and behind the forehead, patterned with smooth curves of hair, we sense an alert, lucid mind. The lips have no need to part for us to hear what she has to say; their undulation, complemented by the ripple of the cheeks, speaks for itself.’ Even in her damaged state, the Lady of Uruk must count as one of the great masterpieces of world art.

The tiers of carvings in the Warka vase complement this image of the Great Goddess. This is a religious object, offering a symbolic moment in the yearly round of her temple, the place they called Eanna, in fourth millennium Uruk. Hence the sense of spirituality, of serious purpose, calm dignity and self-confident poise that is radiated by the exquisitely carved figures. In the distance, around the base, flows the wavy course of a waterway: presumably the wide Euphrates that gives life to the city. Above it are fields and orchards, stalks of barley alternating with date palms, the ultimate source of Uruk’s wealth and well-being. Over these roams the sacred flock, fleecy sheep among bearded and wide-horned rams, creatures dedicated to the goddess of the sheepfold. Now comes a human procession: ten men shuffle forward, naked and shaven, each holding a basket, jug or pottery container heaped with the fruits of earth, tree and vine; priests, perhaps, or temple servants. On the top tier the parade arrives at the sacred site, signalled by the looped reed-bundles of its ceremonial doorway. A welcoming female figure, the high priestess who represents the goddess, stands outside wearing an ankle-length robe, holding out her right hand in a thumbs-up gesture of greeting or blessing. She receives a container of offerings from the hands of the leader of the naked men, behind whom once stood a figure whose image was broken away in antiquity. All that remains is a bare foot, the fringed hem of a garment and an elaborate tasselled belt held up by a formally clothed female retainer. We guess that he may have been a high priest or other senior dignitary, possibly the ‘priest–king’ imagined by some historians. Positioned around these figures are a pair of containers heaped with offerings and two platters of food. More mysteriously, there are also twin vases, a bull’s head, a ram, a lion cub and two women holding unidentifiable objects – Gwendolyn Leick suggests that one of these is reminiscent of the later written sign for En, priest. All this would of course have been instantly recognisable to the people who worshipped here, just as in a Christian context we understand a lion to mean St Mark, an eagle St John and a calf St Luke. To us, however, without a key to unlock the symbolism of the Warka Vase, its meaning remains opaque.

Some maintain that the scene depicts the ruler of the city offering sacrifice to its founding goddess. Some that it represents a seasonal harvest festival. Others have speculated that it shows a stage in the mystic marriage, the hieros gamos, in which two humans, high-priest and high-priestess, couple with each other publicly, in emulation of the Great Goddess and her spouse. Yet even if we have no way of knowing what event is pictured here, the scene does tell us something about the people of Uruk and how they thought.

Homo Ludens

Copy of the Warka Vase / Photo by Einsamer Schütze, Near East Museum, Berlin, Wikimedia Commons

The Warka Vase shows a formal ceremony, different from the spontaneity and improvisation of the masked dances and shamanic rites that would have been inherited from earlier times, though they too would have continued throughout this period and into the next. The naked men in the procession, uncircumcised but depilated, are stripped of all marks of individuality, status or position. Their faces are deadly serious. Their beardlessness, like that of many of the men who figure in statuettes and figurines of the period, suggests no shame in a return towards childhood innocence. Each character performs a set role in the proceedings, reminding us that a religious rite, like all ceremonies, is a kind of play, with actors carefully following a predetermined script, yet at the same time throwing themselves into the action with all the unselfconscious enthusiasm, the willing suspension of disbelief, of children. The British anthropologist Robert Marett has suggested that an element of ‘acting out’, of ‘make-believe’, was a feature of all early religions.

The Greek philosopher Plato went even further in The Laws, which he wrote in 360 BCE, where he proposed religious ritual as a model for the whole of life: ‘Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies.’

In 1938, the Dutch historian and philosopher Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens, a Study of the Play Element in Culture. (In Latin Homo ludens translates roughly as Man the Player.) Huizinga defined play as ‘an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility’, and he showed that play in the widest sense of the word is an essential element of most aspects of civilization. Law, he argued, is play, as are religion, the arts and the pursuit of knowledge. Even warfare has elements of play. Huizinga quotes II Samuel 2:14, when two military leaders, Abner and Joab, confront each other across the Pool of Gibeon:

And Abner said to Joab, Let the young men now arise, and play before us. And Joab said, Let them arise. And they caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow’s side; so they fell down together.

(The Hebrew word ‘play’ is from the basic root sachaq: to play, to sport, to laugh, to rejoice, to make merry.) Even in World War I the officer class on both sides of the Western Front treated each other with respect and ‘played by the rules’, as did Indian and Pakistani officers during the series of wars that led to the independence of Bangladesh.

A picture of the Dutch historian and philosopher Johan Huizinga / Wikimedia Commons

When Huizinga’s book was republished in the 1960s it was taken up as a required text by the hippie thinkers of that most playful of decades. In 1970 the Australian writer Richard Neville, then a doyen of London’s so-called underground press, published Play Power. The spirit of play newly reintroduced into western society, he argued, could change the face, and organization, of society out of all conservative recognition. If he was right, then thinking of play may cast some light on the rise of the City of Gilgamesh, by prompting us to look in an unexpected place for a similar time of headlong progress and change.

Huizinga was a humanist academic, born in 1872, who had seen the world he knew, and in which he felt comfortable, destroyed in World War I. He believed that western civilization was being progressively ruined by the absence of play. ‘The nineteenth century,’ he wrote, ‘seems to leave little room for play. Tendencies running directly counter to all that we mean by play have become increasingly dominant…These tendencies were exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution and its conquests in the field of technology.’ But Huizinga was, I believe, quite wrong. Anyone who has ever watched children amuse themselves will recognize that the scientific and technological face of civilization is precisely the result of play in its purest form. Just as children are constantly exploring, experimenting, testing and trying things out, for no conscious purpose except the sheer enjoyment of the game itself, so pure science and applied technology play with ideas and toy with the principles and substance of the world; all the time wondering ‘just suppose…’ and asking ‘what happens if…?’

Indeed far from being malign in its blinkered materialism as Huizinga believed, science is often criticized for its apparent irrelevance, for its lack of practical application. The British mathematician G. H. Hardy was rather proud of that fact. He famously wrote that much of science was quite useless: ‘For my own part, I have never once found myself in a position where such scientific knowledge as I possess, outside pure mathematics, has brought me the slightest advantage.’

Those societies in which seriousness, tradition, conformity and adherence to long-established – often god-prescribed – ways of doing things are the strictly enforced rule, have always been the majority across time and throughout the world. Such people are not known for their sense of humour and lightness of touch; they rarely break a smile. To them, change is always suspect and usually damnable, and they hardly ever contribute to human development. By contrast, social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people’s understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.

So although it may seem an unexpected, even bizarre, comparison, the nearest equivalent to the burst of creativity and development that took place in prehistoric Uruk during the fourth millennium BCE may well be the upheaval that changed the face of the globe near the end of the eighteenth century CE. In both cases a long-established and respected way of life was overturned; people streamed into the cities from the countryside; new inventions and materials followed hard on each others’ heels; and the structure of society itself was reshaped in ways unseen before. As Andrew Sherratt, an important scholar of prehistory, once wrote: ‘the insights to be gained from comparing episodes far separated in time are reciprocal ones: knowledge of the Urban Revolution informs interpretation of the Neolithic Revolution, and vice versa…Might not historians of the Industrial Revolution, in their turn, profit from learning of these earlier transformations?’

Fragment of a stone plaque from the temple of Inanna at Nippur showing a Sumerian goddess, possibly Inanna / Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Museum of the Ancient Near East, Wikimedia Commons

The reverse might be even more helpful, for the ideas behind the making of the modern world have been much studied while we know next to nothing about the details of the worship of the Great Goddess of Uruk. We are ignorant of the ideology that she represented in the minds of the Mesopotamians of the fourth millennium BCE. But we do know that their beliefs made possible the greatest explosion of social, material and technological progress known until the Industrial Revolution of our own era. The change seems to have happened as rapidly as ours. In the words of Professor Piotr Michalowski, one of today’s most respected anthropologists: ‘The complex social and political changes that took place in Mesopotamia in the late Uruk period toward the end of the fourth millennium represent a quantum leap of unprecedented dimensions and not a gradual evolutionary historical development.’

Could not such an extraordinary eruption of creativity and imagination be the result of recognizing play, in the word’s widest sense, as a legitimate way of interacting with the world? There was probably much laughter in fourth millennium Uruk.

Go along to the Museum at Chicago University’s Oriental Institute, or to its website, to confirm the importance of play in the ancient Mesopotamian world. Look at the charming pull-along toys dug from the sands of Tell al-Asmar, ancient Eshnunna. One is about 13 cm long, made of fired clay, with a tiny ram’s head attached to a large cylindrical body. It is mounted on four thin wheels and in front is the hole through which a string was once threaded. This was never intended to look anything like a real animal; the ram’s head is no more than a gesture. (Those who, like me, always thought that pull-along toys were shaped to imitate railway locomotives, will note that its hollow body is oddly reminiscent of Thomas the Tank Engine.) This is a toy pure and simple, made for the pleasure of a three- to five-year-old.

Though it was found in a temple’s ruins and may have had a religious meaning, its form almost forces you to imagine it being dragged along behind a little boy through the dust of a shady courtyard or busy city street 5,000 years ago. As he plays, the adults around him are playing too: dreaming up the long, long list of new creations and inventions that now appear in the archaeological record for the first time in Uruk and its neighbours.

For most of the basic technology that supported human life until industrial production began to take over our world a bare two centuries ago, was first devised at this time and in this part of the world: at home the beer-brewer’s vat, the potter’s kiln and the textile loom; in the fields the plough, the seed-drill and the farm cart; on the rivers and canals the wind-vane and the sailing boat; in music the harp, lyre and lute; in building technology fired bricks, the vault and the true arch.

This Babylonian cylinder seal from Ur (c. 2600 B.C.E.) shows two people drinking beer out of a jar using straws. A Cleveland-based brewing company, with the help of University of Chicago archaeologists, has recently crafted their own version of Sumerian beer. / Wikimedia Commons

And everywhere – as on the Chicago Museum toy – in the streets, fields and canal-banks, the wheel: both emblem and enabler of human mobility.

Some inventions seem to demand a sudden flash of inspiration, a true jeu d’ésprit, for their conception. The wheel is one of them. Scholars have debated its origins with great energy and ingenuity. Some have concluded with certainty that wheels developed from the wooden rollers that had long been used to move heavy items on sledges over short distances. Others suggest that full rotary motion itself was the important new idea. Yet other historians persuasively point out that the principle of the roller and the wheel are conceptually different: rollers are really mobile extensions of the surface over which the weight is moved; wheels are part of the moving object itself. These writers suggest a different source for the idea: the turntable, pivoted at its centre and used to make perfectly round pots, which actually appears in the archaeological record before the wheel. If these scholars are right, then somebody, some day, must have picked up a turntable to move it and, naturally enough, rolled it along its edge. The great leap forward was to recognize that when turning, the central pivot of the disc always stayed the same height above the ground. Hence the inspired notion of attaching a set of turntables to the structure of a sledge, transferring the device from the domain of the potter to that of the haulier.

On the other hand, there are many developments that may well have come about by gradual evolution. To the careful makers of the handsomely decorated pottery of the time, uneven firing, and the smudges, smuts and smeeches left on their pots by burning wood during the process of baking in an open hearth, must have been disheartening. The obvious solution was to separate the vessels from the flames. Progressive trial and error would have led to the typical Mesopotamian beehive-shaped kiln, with a vent at the top and a perforated floor separating the fuel from the firing chamber.

Yet even gradual evolution had its surprises. It turned out, and surely not intentionally, that apart from protecting the carefully prepared ware from damage, kilns also allowed for a much higher firing temperature. And that made the humble potter’s kiln into the principal laboratory instrument of the ancient Mesopotamian world. And just as the modern chemical industry was the result of accidentally discovering synthetic dyestuffs, pretty rather than practical, so, true to the spirit of play, the first achievement of Uruk’s experimenters was not utilitarian.

The blue-green rock called lapis lazuli was a prized gemstone in ancient times. It was made into seals and jewellery, beads and bangles, inlays and decorations on sculpture. In Sumerian literature, city walls are adorned with it: ‘Now Aratta’s battlements are of green lapis lazuli, its walls and its towering brickwork are bright red.’ So were temples: ‘He built the temple from precious metal, decorated it with lapis lazuli, and covered it abundantly with gold.’ A goddess instructs King Gudea of Lagash: ‘open up your storehouse and take out wood from it; build a chariot for your master and harness a donkey stallion to it; decorate this chariot with refined silver and lapis lazuli.’

Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in its natural state / Photo by Hannes Grobe, Wikimedia Commons

But lapis lazuli is rare, obtainable only from a few places in Central Asia, notably the mountains of Badakhshan in the north of today’s Afghanistan, 2,500 kilometres from southern Mesopotamia. It seems utterly astonishing that there could be a thriving trade across so vast a distance, in the days when the prized rock had to be carried on foot across a wilderness of wild mountain ranges and deadly deserts, to satisfy the vanity of Mesopotamian gods and kings. And yet the trade did flourish, to judge by the huge quantity of lapis lazuli objects found in excavations all over the Middle East.

Given the cost of the material, and the difficulty in procuring it, inventive minds were soon striving for a way to reproduce the lustrous blue colour artificially. They succeeded; and in doing so created the very first totally man-made material – not as the result of chance, or an accidental observation, but by thinking and by experimenting.

I myself have seen the 5,000 year old process devised by these pioneers of synthetic chemistry still in operation in the 1960s: artificial lapis lazuli (now miscalled Egyptian faience) being made in a workshop at the back of a mosque in Herat, Afghanistan. A filthy cavernous shack, filled with smoke and choking chemical fumes, thin shafts of sunlight bursting through breaks in the roof competing with the blinding glare of the white-hot furnace in the corner. A young boy in a large turban dreamily pumping air into the fire with a giant bellows. And the proprietor proudly showing me the result: beads and trinkets covered in a somewhat lumpy, deep blue-green glaze.

We can guess how the invention may have come about. Soft copper carbonate minerals, green malachite and blue azurite, had been used, probably since Old Stone Age times, to make pigments for decorating craft-ware. And faces too: ground to a powder and mixed with fat they make very serviceable eye-shadow. Hold a piece of either mineral in a fire and it will flare vividly blue or green. The ancients, unfamiliar with spectronomy or pyrochemistry probably thought that the heat was driving the colour out of the mineral into the flame. It would have seemed feasible to capture this colour and deposit it on to another object. But how to stop the colour dissipating into the air together with the smoke? The solution was to put the object to be coloured together with the ground-up mineral into a closed container and heat them in a kiln. The experimenters soon found that the process took a long time, a whole day, and a high temperature, not much less than 1,000° C was needed. But it worked – as in Herat it still does. The object emerged from the furnace with a hard, shiny, deep blue-green covering; not as fine as true lapis lazuli perhaps, but almost as good.

The realization that mixing minerals together and subjecting them to high temperatures could change their properties completely and create an entirely novel material would have far-reaching consequences. Homo Ludens must have tried the procedure on a great variety of rocks, stones and other materials. And it would happen – not often perhaps, but enough to encourage further experiment – that the result would lead to something completely new, like the method of salt-glazing bricks for which a much later Assyrian recipe instructs: ‘Sand, alkali from the ‘horned’ plant, whiteweed. Pulverize and mix together. Lay in the cold kiln with four draught holes and then drive it between the draught holes. Burn a light smokeless fire. Bring it out, let it cool, pulverize it again, add to it pure salt. Place in the kiln. Burn a light smokeless fire. As soon as it appears yellow let it run upon the brick and the name is frit.’

Other discoveries were glass and cement, and the smelting of copper. Then it was found that adding tinstone to copper ore changed the properties of the resulting metal for the better. The alloy was harder, stronger, kept a sharp edge for longer and, most importantly, melted at a lower temperature, making it easier to cast. It would ultimately take the southern Mesopotamians out of the Stone Age and into the Bronze Age, with all the attendant profound cultural, social and political change.

The Smithy of the Gods

The Chaos Monster and the Sun God / Wikimedia Commons

One episode in the Epic of Gilgamesh tells how Uruk received a message from King Aga of Kish threatening an attack:

Gilgamesh laid the matter before the city elders, seeking a solution:…‘let us not submit to the house of Kish, let us wage war!’

The convened assembly of his city’s elders answered Gilgamesh: ‘…let us submit to the house of Kish, let us not wage war!’

Gilgamesh,…placing his trust in the goddess Inanna, took no notice of what his city’s elders said. He again laid the matter before the city’s young men, seeking a solution: ‘…let us not submit to the house of Kish, let us wage war!’

The convened assembly of his city’s young men answered Gilgamesh: ‘To stand on duty, to sit in attendance, to escort the king’s son – to hold a donkey by the hindquarters as they say – who is there that has breath for such? Let us not submit to the house of Kish, let us wage war!

‘Uruk, the smithy of the gods, Eanna, house come down from heaven – the great gods it was who gave them shape…You are their king and their warrior! O crusher of heads, prince beloved of the god An, when he arrives why be afraid? Their army is small with a rabble at the rear, its men will not withstand us!’

Gilgamesh leads his young men out to fight, captures King Aga of Kish and then, in an unexpected display of generosity, sets him free to return to his home city.

This is literary epic, not history, though it might possibly reflect a real conflict between Uruk and Kish, a city about 150 kilometres to the northwest. It was written as long after the events it purports to describe as has passed between the days of King Arthur and his Round Table and our own. And, like the Arthurian romances, it says rather more about the time when it was written than about the era it describes.

None the less, it does give a distant glimpse of a moment in Uruk’s story, as it moved gradually from the Stone Age towards the Metal Age (‘the smithy of the gods’); from what Thorkild Jacobsen called primitive democracy, when a ruler still had to consult the people (’the convened assembly of his city’s elders’), to kingship and autocracy, when the ruler did as he pleased without reference to anyone else’s opinion; and from peaceful coexistence to a constant state of aggressive bellicosity (‘let us wage war’). All of these changes, good and bad, were part of the move from village living to fully fledged civilization.

Village societies evolve and adapt naturally to their environmental and political circumstances. Civilizations, on the other hand, are designed. In Uruk the same experimental approach that was applied to the material world was also directed towards engineering the way people in the city lived together. The city was like a machine, and its citizens like the moving parts that made it work.

In the villages most families were relatively equal; in the city, there was a hierarchy of status. In the villages ‘what do you do?’ was never a necessary question; in the city it was important to know the answer. In the villages survival depended on being a member of a household, even if only as a slave; in the city, new ways of making a living suddenly became available. Instead of contributing to the subsistence of your own extended family, as had been the only option throughout all of the past, you might now work instead for the temple or the palace, and in return receive, not a place by the hearth, but a wage. Surviving relics suggest that many did so in the city of Gilgamesh.

Uruk period beveled rim bowl from Habuba KabiraSouth (Syria), ca. 3400-3200 v.Chr. / Photo by Schauschgamuwa, University of Mainz, Wikimedia Commons

The most characteristic objects found both whole and broken in the ruins of Uruk – up to half of all pottery finds – are crude and rather ugly earthenware containers known as bevelled-rim bowls, very different from the elegant and delicate painted pottery of the previous era. These vessels were made neither by coiling nor by turning the clay on a wheel, but instead show signs of having been made in simple moulds. (Similar vessels have recently been produced experimentally to test this analysis.) This may have been the very first application of the principle of mass-production to a consumer product. In agrarian villages pots had been made in the household to a high aesthetic standard and in styles and with designs that were traditional and that meant something to their users. They were often very beautiful. Mass-produced bevelled-rim bowls, by contrast, were turned-out in commercial workshops and invested with no more significance than their utility.

This change has been called the Evolution of Simplicity. As the city developed, manufacturing began to be restricted to a cadre of professional workers resulting in, as one historian describes it, ‘the aesthetic deprivation of the non-elite.’ Pottery was now judged only by its efficiency and economy: standardized containers may have been ugly but they were good enough and cheap enough to serve the new society’s needs. The change was recognisably not unlike the switch from craft to industrial production in Victorian times, lamented and fruitlessly opposed first by the Romantic and then the Arts and Crafts movements. Perhaps some ancient Mesopotamians protested too.

How bevelled-rim bowls were made proved to be much easier to answer than what for and why. In shape, they resemble the containers piled high with produce carried in procession to the goddess’s temple by the naked marchers on the Warka vase. But the vessels on the vase look rather elegant; the real things are so rough and ready that it is hard to imagine anyone eating from them, let alone presenting them to a goddess. They are porous, so of no use for water or beer. And they were, apparently, disposable, since as many have been found whole as have been recovered in fragments. (They have been likened to the polystyrene burger containers that today litter our streets and beaches.) While some scholars still believe that offerings were brought to the temple in bevelled-rim bowls, most think that they were probably used to distribute measured quantities of bread or grain as wages or rations. When writing first appeared, the symbol representing food, rations or bread looks very much like a bevelled-rim bowl.

Wages and rations imply a dependent workforce no longer looking after its own subsistence, as happened in the conversion of rural peasantry into urban proletariat in modern Europe. If that is what took place in Uruk, what was this new working class labouring on, and for whom? There was certainly building work to be done. The temples, similar to households, but on a grander scale, had their own fields, gardens and orchards which required seasonal labour as well as hydraulics workers, specialists in regulating and maintaining the flood-protection and irrigation systems. Then there were the herdsmen and women looking after the sheep, goats and oxen; there were those producing craftware, the textiles, baskets and pottery, including the bevelled-rim bowls themselves; not to mention the sculptors and jewellers, the experimenters, copper-smelters, metallurgists and metal-workers, of the Smithy of the Gods.

Unlike during the modern urban revolution, there were no independent entrepreneurs competing amongst each other. The world’s first city developed around its temples, and only later did palaces play a role. Its view of the world was conditioned, as in all ancient societies, by totalitarian religious belief. So the picture that comes into focus is that of a theocratic command economy, hierarchically organized, centrally directed, and regulated according to an ideology propagated by a priesthood, playing the role that, 5,000 years later, Soviet Marxists would call ‘the engineers of human souls’. Such was temple rule.

Ancient Babylon / Photo by Hamody al-iraqi, Wikimedia Commons

As a way of life, the economic and social system the priesthood supported was, for a long time, strikingly successful. During the latter part of the fourth millennium BCE, Uruk and other southern Mesopotamian cities flourished greatly and grew ever larger. Moreover, across the Mesopotamian world and well beyond it, settlements sprang up along the major trade routes, displaying the typical cultural signatures of the motherland. They too had Uruk-style temples, built with bricks of exactly the same dimensions and laid in precisely the same patterns, the walls often decorated with similar baked-clay cones; they showed similar food preferences; they used the same administrative technology; and they produced the same bevelled-rim bowls, with all that these implied about their social systems and working practices. The wide distribution of these typical Uruk inventions suggest that the Urukian political dispensation was actively exported from the southern plains to the entire region, even to far distant areas in today’s Turkey, Syria and Iran, with no doubt the same ‘messianic self-confidence’, as Jacques Cauvin saw as having driven the Neolithic revolution.

Some of the outposts were entirely new settlements, built on virgin land as miniature replicas of their home cities. Others were long established large villages or small towns, where previously a Stone Age style of life had held sway, but where the Uruk culture now took over. Yet others were more like enclaves, town quarters where Urukians lived in their way while all around them the older traditions persisted.

To some scholars, the ‘Uruk Expansion’ indicated only one thing: a colonial empire aimed at exploiting natural resources not available in the south, an empire maintained by military domination. Yet it must be remembered that this situation arosebefore the introduction of those technologies which now appear to be prerequisite to holding together by force a far-flung empire: effective and rapid communications (writing was invented only towards the end of Uruk’s era of dominance) and efficient transport using domesticated beasts of burden (the first, the donkey, arrived from north Africa nearer the period of Uruk’s decline than its rise; the local equid, the Asiatic wild ass or onager, is famously untameable).

Other archaeologists have interpreted the evidence to imply peaceful trading-posts, or even waves of fleeing refugees, all these analyses based on the belief that the new Urukian settlements were populated by expatriates from the home city. However one should not underestimate the power of ideas to attract new converts to a modish way of life, without coercion. Our recent history clearly shows how a fashionable ideology like Marxism–Leninism can be widely and enthusiastically taken up and implemented in many self-styled and short-lived democratic socialist republics, without any coercion. Moreover, a belief in ‘modernity’ – western technology, western architecture, western clothing, western food – has spread rapidly across the world even to places that were never, or only briefly, part of any European empire. Today there is hardly anywhere on earth where western brands cannot be found, and it looks as if something similar happened back in the fourth millennium BCE too. It was to have consequences more profound than almost any other in history. For it ultimately gave rise to the invention of writing.

In February 2008 Dr. David Wengrow, of University College London, made a splash in both the academic and business communities, when he published an article arguing that the Uruk civilization was the original inventor of the brand. With the advent of mass production – of textiles, ceramics, beverages and processed foodstuffs – consumers wanted to be assured of the origin and quality of the products they used. These commodities were given a mark that uniquely identified their origin and source. While our word brand derives from the practice of burning a symbol on to something to show its provenance, the Mesopotamians used lumps of clay instead, marked with easily identifiable signs, to seal baskets, boxes, jugs and other containers.

Amulet with a Lamashtu demon / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

This might have begun with the amulets many wore, picturing religious or mythological themes. As a handmade product, each amulet was different, and was associated with the person who wore it, or for whom it was made. Stamped on to clay, the pattern made by the amulet immediately identified its owner.

The obvious next step was to make a die intended solely to be pressed into clay, with the design therefore engraved in reverse. These ‘stamp seals’ were the first ever form of printing. However, to create an image of reasonable size needed a large seal, perhaps inconvenient to wear, and it was soon realized that if the design was wrapped around a cylinder and then rolled over the clay, the resulting impression would be more than three times the cylinder’s diameter. So was born the cylinder-seal, one of the most characteristic, and beautiful, of Uruk’s inventions, which would continue in everyday use until the very end of Mesopotamian civilization.

Not much more than an inch or so tall, these seals were made from every conceivable material: from limestone, marble and haematite; from semi-precious materials like lapis lazuli, carnelian, garnet and agate; and even from fired clay and faience. Being practically indestructible, they are unearthed in quantity wherever archaeologists dig in the region.

In time, the engraving became so fine that historians guess the seal-cutters must have had optical aids, perhaps based on the pinhole-camera principle – under Mesopotamia’s burning sun even the tiniest hole would have let enough light through. It has even been suggested that after the invention of transparent glass, some form of primitive lens was used, though an oval of rock crystal unearthed from the Assyrian city of Nimrud in 1850 is no longer accepted as a lens by scholars of ancient technology.

To the historian, cylinder-seals are of inestimable value, since the images they produce give us for the very first time a picture of life in ancient southern Mesopotamia and beyond. Many, to be sure, show religious scenes: often unidentifiable gods and goddesses disporting themselves in a landscape of rivers and mountains, palaces and temples, the sacred herd clustered around the Great Goddess’s reed byre – astonishingly similar to the reed houses still built by the Marsh Arabs today – or worshippers travelling to a temple by boat. There are great moments from mythology showing presumably famous heroes battling with each other or grappling with animals. Other seals seem to present snapshots of everyday life: animals in the fields, workers in the dairy, weavers, potters and metal-smiths, and, as time went on, increasing numbers of battle-scenes and pictures of military mayhem.

Old Babylonian cylinder seal, c.1800 BCE, hematite. The robed king makes an animal offering to Shamash. This seal was probably made in a workshop at Sippar. The king with a mace, who stands on a rectangular chequer-board dais, follows the suppliant goddess (with necklace counterweight), and the robed king with an animal offering. They stand before the ascending Sun god who holds a saw-toothed blade and rests his foot on a couchant human-headed bull (full face). / Hjaltland Collection, Wikimedia Commons

While these seals may have first been used as brand logos, they quickly became personal identifiers, equivalent to signatures in a society where, even after the invention of written script, literacy remained a skill exercised only by the few. Cylinder-seal impressions were used on documents of every variety, and to identify all kinds of personal property. In fact, so ubiquitously did the ancients deploy them that one is reminded of children who have just learned to write and insist on inscribing their names on everything, including the walls and the furniture. Such use suggests that citizens of Uruk and their neighbours valued the cultivation of individual identity, perhaps as much as we do. Unlike in so many other cultures, ancient and later, anonymity had no attractions for them; each person strove to leave his or her personal mark on the world.

This was particularly so after writing spread into general use. We know more individuals by name from Mesopotamia than from anywhere else in the ancient world. Names were written on texts of all kinds: on receipts, delivery notes and bills of lading, on commercial contracts and legal judgements, on marriage agreements and divorce settlements. The very first personal autograph so far found is on a scribal exercise from Uruk, dated around 3100 BCE, and signed on the back: GAR.AMA.

Perhaps it was this eagerness to record their individual existence in permanent form that first prompted some of the residents of Uruk to elaborate a simple accounting device into a sophisticated system of marking clay tablets, to set down first agreements and contracts, then ideas and beliefs, songs and stories, poetry and prose. If so, ancient Mesopotamia’s cult of identity changed the course of human development. The idea of writing was surely the city of Gilgamesh’s greatest gift to the world.

The Mystery of Cuneiform

Cuneiform inscriptions, Stela of Iddi-Sin, king of Simurrum / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Wikimedia Commons

According to legend the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, came about when Demetrius of Phalerium, head librarian at Alexandria in Egypt, urged the emperor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus to acquire a copy of the Jewish Torah. Responding to the emperor’s command, the high priest of Jerusalem sent seventy-two scholars, six from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, to Alexandria, where they lived on the island of Pharos, ritually bathed in the sea every morning and, each working alone, miraculously created identical translations. (Actually, Septuagint means seventy, not seventy-two, but, as the old Jewish joke has it, who’s counting?)

It was presumably in reference to this story that in 1857 the Royal Asiatic Society of London gave a newly discovered Mesopotamian document to four of the leading scholars of the day: Edward Hincks, Jules Oppert, Henry (later Sir Henry) Creswicke Rawlinson and William Henry Fox Talbot (of photographic fame). They were asked to attempt a translation without conferring. Their work was submitted under seal and, miraculously or not, the translations were sufficiently alike for the Society to pronounce the mystery of cuneiform solved: ‘the Examiners certify that the coincidences between the translations, both as to the general sense and verbal rendering, were very remarkable. In most parts, there was a strong correspondence in the meaning assigned, and occasionally a curious identity of expression as to particular words.’

If written documents define the beginning of history, the four decipherers’ achievement was to set back the date of that beginning, previously believed to have occurred at the time of the ancient Hebrews, to a date thousands of years earlier than had ever been imagined.

The story of the deciphering of Mesopotamian script had begun half a century previously, when Georg Grotefend, a German Latin teacher in his early twenties, made a bet with friends in a pub that he could explain the meaning of some texts cuneatis quas dicunt, ‘said to be in cuneiform’, gathered from the ancient Persian royal city of Persepolis. His report to the Royal Society of Göttingen established that, of the three different, though obviously related, kinds of script, one was in a known form of Old Persian, was alphabetic in nature, with each sign representing a spoken sound, and was read from left to right. Using a combination of undoubted genius, sheer good luck and dogged application, he managed to read some names – Darius, Xerxes, Hystaspes – and some of the royal titles.

Behistun Inscription, describing conquests of Darius the Great in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian languages. These reliefs and texts are engraved in a cliff on Mount Behistun (present Kermanshah Province, Iran). / Photo by Hara1603, Wikimedia Commons

The second step came when an intrepid British army officer named Henry Rawlinson, equally youthful, risked life and limb by clambering up a cliff-face at Behistun in north-western Persia to copy out a lengthy inscription left by the Persian Emperor Darius in around 500 BCE. This also proved to be trilingual.

Based on Grotefend’s work, the Old Persian version of Darius’s message yielded fairly quickly to translation, making it possible to attack the other languages carved into the rock. The second to be decrypted turned out to be a syllabic script, each character signifying a combination of sounds – like ‘a’, ‘ba’, ‘ab’, or ‘bab’ and so forth. Translation with the aid of the Persian text showed it to be in an unknown language which, when other documents using this writing were found in that part of Persia anciently called Elam, came to be known as Elamite.

The third variety of cuneiform found at Behistun, however, proved much harder to crack. It had a very large number of signs, an order of magnitude more than in the other two scripts. It was neither alphabetic nor fully syllabic. The same signs, combinations of wedge-shaped marks, were sometimes used as logographs – that is to say they were to be read as complete words, as for instance in modern Chinese – and at other times as phonetic symbols, indicating the sounds of speech. Some signs designated several different things, and were also to be read as several different sounds. Some sounds were represented by several different signs. There were symbols that seemed to have no meaning themselves but were just there to specify the general sense of the symbol that came after or before – what philologists now call determinatives or classifiers. Thus a vertical wedge always accompanied the names of people, a star shape the names of gods, and yet another cipher accompanied the names of places – but not always. Good reason led the great French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro to describe cuneiform as a ‘devilish’ script.

None the less researchers eventually established that this writing represented a Semitic language, thus related to ancient Phoenician, biblical Hebrew and modern Arabic. It was this understanding that enabled the three experts to deliver equivalent translations in response to the Royal Asiatic Society’s 1857 challenge. (They called the writing Assyrian, after the bloodthirsty biblical empire. Today it is known as Akkadian, of which Babylonian and Assyrian are southern and northern dialects.)

That was not, however, the end of the story. As more of the texts were read, scholars slowly realized that underlying the Akkadian writing system there had to be another, older, language layer that nobody had previously suspected. This awareness dawned because of the many signs that were used equally as ideograms or as pronounced syllables. Sometimes the sign that usually meant ‘ox’ expressed the sound gud. Another, which designated ‘to separate’ had the value tar. ‘Mouth’ sometimes represented the syllable ka. But none of these sounds were to be found in Semitic, where ox was alp, ‘separation’ paras and mouth pu. The original creators of this writing system therefore had to be people in whose language ‘ox’ was gud, ‘to separate’ tar, and ‘mouth’ ka.

Joseph Halévy / Wikimedia Commons

There was at first great resistance to the attempted supplanting of Semitic from its place as first language of the Middle East. Leading the opposition was a French Jewish Orientalist from Adrianople, Joseph Halévy, who had made his name exploring southern Arabia by posing as a rabbi from Jerusalem collecting alms for the poor.

European Jews had only recently gained respect by being associated with the Semitic originators of civilization. Halévy was appalled by the demotion of the ancestral Semites from that position and the elevation of some newly discovered upstart Sumerian nation. He refused to believe that there had ever been any such people, maintaining that Sumerian writing was no more than a secret cipher devised by Semitic priests to keep the common folk in ignorance. Publication of his book Le Sumérisme et l’Histoire Babylonienne in 1900 led to a famous fracas when two distinguished academicians attacked each other with umbrellas in the hallway of the École des Hautes Études in Paris.

The issue was settled in 1905, with the publication of a coherent and convincing translation of a group of Sumerian inscriptions which managed to reconstruct much of the grammar. Sumerian turned out to be a very strange language indeed, not part of any known linguistic group, with an unusual syntax and a lexicon consisting largely of words of one syllable. As a result it had a great number of homophones, words that sound the same – in some cases up to ten different words, all pronounced alike. So ‘A’ meant water, canal, flood, tears, semen, offspring or father; ‘E’ was house, temple or plot of land; ‘U’ translated as plant, vegetable, grass, food, bread, pasture, load, sleep, strong, powerful, to nourish or to support. These could then be joined together to make further words: ‘e’ (house), plus ‘an’ (sky or heaven), gave Eanna, House of Heaven, the Great Goddess’s temple in Uruk; ‘lu’ (man), plus ‘gal’ (big), made ‘lugal’, big man, lord or king.

Scholars have continued to worry away at this issue. Some think that these apparently identical syllables were differentiated, as in Chinese, by variations in pitch or tones. In the late 1980s Jean Bottéro suggested that the monosyllabic vocabulary might be an illusion caused by the fact that the inventors of writing notated only each word’s first syllable: he called this ‘acrophony’. More recently a Danish scholar has proposed that Sumerian may have been a Creole, the result of children learning as their mother tongue a pidgin, a language cobbled together to enable speakers of different tongues, in this case the multi-ethnic founders of Eridu, Uruk and their neighbours, to communicate at a basic level. Hence it was afterwards revered as the language of the founders of civilization.

There is not even agreement over the origins of Sumerian writing. Currently the battle-lines are drawn between those who see its emergence as the culmination of a gradual process thousands of years in the making, an ancient system of keeping count of animals and commodities originally using pebbles, and then clay tokens, which came to be protectively sealed into clay containers. First the tokens were impressed on to the outside of the envelope to show what was contained. Later their images were drawn on the clay with a pointed stick. Eventually the tokens themselves were abandoned, leaving only the ‘envelope’, in the form of a clay tablet, as the permanent record.

26th century BC Sumerian document / Wikimedia Commons

Others believe that writing was one of those quantum leaps so characteristic of the innovative southern Mesopotamians, appearing suddenly towards the latter end of the fourth millennium BCE and evolving in a mere few centuries from a rudimentary shorthand to a sophisticated system capable of recording poetry and literary prose as well as contracts and business accounts.

There is general agreement, however, that in principle, ironically enough, Joseph Halévy’s claim contained a tiny grain of truth. The earliest texts were not really writing at all but were indeed a kind of code. The first signs represent not language but things. They are records of transactions, notated by simplified drawings of items delivered or received: animals, people, commodities. A drawing of an ox’s face meant an ox while an image of a bevelled-rim bowl referred to food. The image did not have to be of the object itself: a god was represented by a star, a temple by what might have been intended to represent a ground-plan.

In its first stages this system provided no more than a simplified personal memorandum, a rather ambiguous aide-memoire, such as ‘Two | Sheep | Temple | God | Inanna’. Moreover officials or administrators who jotted down notes in this way doubtless had their own favourite choices of signs and preferred ways of drawing them. To make the symbols truly useful they had to be made recognisable to anyone who saw them, to be standardized by collective agreement. Hence the ‘lexical lists’, the long registers of titles, jobs, animals and commodities, the equivalent of dictionaries, that were to be the foundation of scribal education, ensuring that everyone employed exactly the same image for an ox, a bowl of food, a sheep, a temple or a goddess.

From this very simple foundation, over the centuries a large repertoire of symbols was eventually accumulated: several thousands. But there had to be a limit. The number of items that needed symbolizing was in principle infinite; no one could possibly have remembered all the signs if every single object in the world had its own. There was, however, a simple solution to this difficulty, one familiar to us from our own world and our own use of images.

Take the icon of an aircraft as an example. In an air terminal this can be used to indicate the arrivals and departures area; on a road sign it can mean ‘to the airport’, or warn of low-flying planes; in an advertisement it can refer to a package holiday or foreign travel in general. In other words, the meaning of the icon can easily be extended from ‘airplane’ to ‘flying’ to ‘holiday’ to ‘travel’ and, no doubt, to many other related ideas. In the same way, in the early Uruk system of signs, the drawing of a lower leg came to mean not only the limb itself, but also ‘foot’, ‘walking’, ‘going’, ‘standing’, ‘kicking’, and more. The context dictated which applied. And where extending the meaning was not enough, signs were combined to make little composite pictures. A food-bowl next to a head meant ‘eating’, and ‘woman’ plus ‘mountain’ (three little hills), at first signified ‘foreign woman’, and later ‘female foreign slave’.

Cuneiform tablet: administrative account with entries concerning malt and barley groats / Metropolitan Museum of Art

Some combinations were designed to distinguish between the various meanings of a sign. Thus the drawing of a plough was combined with the sign for a man to mean ‘ploughman’ or with the sign for ‘wood’ to refer to the implement itself (which was made of wood); names of gods were prefixed with the symbol for god, a star. These are the signs known as determinatives, and much use would be made of them in the later development of the script. Typically, Homo ludens was at work here, for there is something playful about the way many of the signs were devised. For example several combinations that include the sign for head, with the symbol for ‘fury’ being particularly entertaining: a head with a great shock of hair standing on end. The concept ‘woman’ could have been illustrated in many different ways, but someone chose to represent her by her pubic triangle, while the sign for ‘man’ seems to be an ejaculating penis.

However, drawing freehand with a pointed tool requires some graphic ability and not every scribe could be expected to be a competent draftsman. In time the signs became less and less like images, and more and more like stylized symbols, and eventually they would lose all recognisable connection with the objects they originally depicted. Rather than drawing with a point, a stylus of triangular or square cross-section was impressed into the clay, creating the wedge-shaped marks that give us the name cuneiform. And in the process, the signs lost whatever light-hearted quality they may originally have possessed.

The next step, however, which was the truly revolutionary one, more than made up for the loss. And it must surely have first come about in jest.

However useful it may have been, all that had been devised thus far was a technique for noting down things, items and objects, not a writing system. A record of ‘Two | Sheep | Temple | God | Inanna’ tells us nothing about whether the sheep are being delivered to, or received from, the temple, whether they are carcases, beasts on the hoof, or anything else about them. Yet for administrative purposes this was apparently sufficient. Early Mesopotamia supported an oral society, in which memory was highly prized. All that was needed was a simple reminder, something as neutral as a sign of a left-pointing finger, which can be read as ‘go left’, ‘à gauche’, ‘links gehen’, ‘a sinistra’, ‘?????’, orimage. To be more precise would demand the use of real language, but for a long time the idea of representing actual speech in the form of marks on clay simply did not occur to anyone.

It seems to me most likely that the real leap that advanced writing from the recording of things to the recording of speech sounds, or at least the idea that inspired it, initially came about as a playful bit of fun. The Sumerian language, being full of homophones, different words pronounced either exactly, or only more-or-less, the same, must have made it a highly rewarding playground for punsters. The fact that, among hundreds of other examples, the word for ‘arrow’ and the word for ‘life’ sounded alike – ti– or that the word for ‘reed’ and ‘restoring’ were pronounced gi, must have given much opportunity for verbal buffoonery. It is easy to imagine some wit among the Sumerian temple bureaucrats applying the same sense of humour to the signs written on a clay tablet and extracting from the note a punning and comic meaning – an ancient equivalent, perhaps, to the 1970s TV comedy-sketch in which a hardware-store customer reads out ‘fork handles’ from his shopping-list, but the shopkeeper hears ‘four candles’.

In jest or not, what had been stumbled on was a way of recording matters which either could not be drawn at all – how does one draw a picture of ‘life’? – or for which no sign had been devised. There was in Sumer a kind of drum called tigi; it was rendered as an arrow, ti, plus a reed, gi. (A shame, really. As a result we have no idea of what a tigi drum looked like.)

Once the idea had been conceived, one might have thought that, the usefulness of writing signs not for things but for words, and so for representing sounds, would have quickly been recognized. But it seems to have taken several centuries for the new method to be put into regular use. None the less, over the course of time, the sounds-not-things principle did become firmly established, although phonograms (signs for sounds) never fully displaced logograms (signs for things) in the written texts for as long as cuneiform continued in use.

Where phonograms proved their true utility was not just to express words which couldn’t be pictured, like ‘life’ or the tigi drum, but more importantly those parts of language which are essential but have no meaning in themselves: ‘to’, ‘with’, ‘by’, for example, and also what philologists call bound morphemes: the prefixes, suffixes and particles that every real language uses to shape its sentences, to distinguish singular from plural, present from past, active from passive, and also to extend meaning, as in adding ‘ness’ to ‘happy’ to get ‘happiness’. Since Sumerian seems to have been a language largely of monosyllables, it was always possible to find a word for which a sign did exist and that sounded close enough to the particle to represent it in writing.

Tablet with numeric signs and script. From Teppe Sialk, Susa, Uruk period (3200 BC to 2700 BC). / Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Thus, over time, an effective and elegant script was developed, able to express the Sumerian language in its entirety, though it was never to be a simple, easy to learn, system. It took many years of study and training for scribes to be able to master all its resources effectively – and even more to deploy them creatively. It is as if the difficulties were fondly cherished. When others – Elamites, Persians and the citizens of Ugarit – simplified the signs and reduced their number, eventually creating a short alphabet in which each character just represented a single sound, Mesopotamians insisted on retaining the full panoply of cuneiform’s baroque complications during the entire three millennia of their civilization’s existence. Alphabets must have seemed to them a very bare and impoverished form of script. The richness of the cuneiform signs, their ambiguity and multiple meanings, contributed as much to the overall effect of the text they encoded as does fine calligraphy to the literature of the Far East.

Cuneiform writing was not just used for high literary purposes, of course. It also set down the very first contemporary records of people and events. From now on whatever happened in the world need never be forgotten. And though much appreciated by archaeologists 5,000 years later, the real impact of this development was on its own world, which was radically transformed.

Here too is an eerie foreshadowing of our own times. Just as the technological and political revolution in Uruk seems most closely comparable to our recent industrial revolution, so did the development of a simple accounting technique into an effective medium of communication prefigure the post-modern era. An unassuming administrative device, the electro-mechanical punched card tabulator designed by mining engineer Herman Hollerith for the 1890 US census, began a process that has led, step by step, to the brave new world of today’s Information Age. At the end of the fourth millennium BCE a simple accounting technique using clay tokens was elaborated in the City of Gilgamesh into a sophisticated, versatile and flexible writing system, the achievement that marks the moment when true history begins.

But for every new beginning there must be an ending of what came before. A division line is drawn. That was then; this is now.


From Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization (Chapter 3), by Paul Kriwaczek (St. Martin’s Griffin, 05.27.2012), published by Erenow, public open access.

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