Our cultural debt to ancient Iraq, Lloyd Geering

One of the few benefits to come out of the Gulf War is the reminder it gives of all we owe culturally to the ancient peoples who once inhabited Iraq and whose blood still flows, however thinly, in the veins of modem Iraqis. It is a cultural debt which is too little known, even by those whose passion it is to write and to tell stories.

In the Western world we trace our cultural roots to the civilization of European Christendom. It took the Renaissance to remind us of how much we depended also on classical Greece and Rome. As a result, we still tend to think of Ancient History as Graeco-Roman history. But from the middle of the 19th century, and continuing into the 20th century, our eyes have been opened to a literate culture which was as long before Greece and Rome as they are before us. Of the two great early cultures which evolved in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia it is that of the latter which left by far the greater deposit in our own cultural inheritance. We should have guessed this from the Biblical tradition, which traces its own story back to the migration of Abraham from Ur, in ancient southern Iraq. That sketchy tradition is in fact symbolic of what took place culturally on a much vaster scale.

The Abraham saga takes us back to about 1700 BC. Even then urban culture had already been evolving in lower Iraq for at least 1600 years. Indeed the Biblical view of when the world began (specifically calculated by Bishop Ussher to be 4004 BC) is not much different from the time civilization emerged in Iraq. So perhaps there is a vague symbolic truth in the Biblical chronology if we acknowledge that what humanity means for us is civilized human existence.

From about 150 years ago archaeologists began to uncover in Iraq the ruins of ancient cities, long covered over with sand. To their surprise, they found not only foundations of buildings, broken crockery and golden ornaments. They found something even more precious – whole libraries. These consist of literally hundreds of thousands of tablets. The ancients wrote on tablets of wet clay and then baked them hard. Whereas paper and even parchment eventually decay, these tablets last almost for ever. There could be many more still yet to be discovered. That is why archaeologists were so concerned about the bombing in the Gulf War. We could have been destroying priceless and irreplaceable treasures.

What is more (so it has been claimed), because of these literary deposits, we now have a clearer historical picture of the Iraq of nearly 4000 years ago than we have of any European country of as little as 1000 years ago. Our cultural and literary tradition can now be traced back in unbroken succession to a non-Semitic people known as the Sumerians, who settled in southern Iraq from no later than 3300 BC. There they established city states, such as Ur, Kish and Uruk (the Biblical Erech and modern Warka). The Sumerians, between 3300 and 2300 BC, developed such a high level of culture that the whole world benefits from it to this day. The arithmetic base of 60, which we still use for angles and the division of time (60 seconds make a minute), comes to us from them. They compiled tables of square roots and cube roots, and explored algebraic problems involving the solution of complicated quadratic equations.

A noted Sumerologist, S N Kramer, chose to call one of his books History Begins at Sumer. There he showed that it is in ancient Sumer that we find the earliest known examples, not only of the recording of business transactions, but of schools and the use of copy-books, of law-codes, of primitive historiography, and of expression in writing of myths, stories, poems, philosophical musings and collections of proverbs.

Until the modern rediscovery of Sumer the myths, legends and sagas in the Mosaic book of Genesis were assumed to be the oldest known written traditions of that kind. Now we know that some fifteen hundred years before Moses the Sumerians wrote down stories of a primaeval Eden (they called it Dilmun), and of a Great Flood with a Sumerian ‘Noah’. The Sumerian stories are not only parallel to the Biblical myths but may even have been the prototypes from which the latter evolved.

Dilmun was described as the ‘land of the living’, which was pure and bright and knew no sickness or death. What was lacking was fresh water. The Sumerian Water-god Enki ordered the Sun-god to fill it with fresh water and thus it became a divine garden with meadows and fruit‑trees. Ninhursag, the great Earth-mother caused eight precious plants to sprout but, when Enki foolishly ate them, she pronounced the curse of death upon him. Enki began to ail fast and was eventually made whole again only by the intervention of the wily fox in persuading the Earth-mother to create eight deities to heal the eight organs of Enki. (In the light of today’s environmental disaster in Kuwait one wonders whether this myth reflects some ancient oil calamity which, on a grand scale, polluted the precious supply of fresh water).

The parallels with the biblical story of Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden are very clear but what is of particular interest is the light it may throw on the puzzling element in the Biblical story where it tells how Eve, ‘the mother of all living’, was fashioned from the rib of Adam. Why a rib we may ask? The Sumerian myth may hold the answer. The goddess created to heal the rib of Enki was called Nin-ti, which means ‘the lady of the rib’. But ‘ti’, the Sumerian word for ‘rib’, also means ‘to make alive’. It is fascinating to contemplate, as now seems possible, that the mythical creation of Eve from a man’s rib may have originated in a Sumerian pun!

With the Great Flood story the parallels are much closer. It caused a tremendous stir in the 1860s when George Smith of the British Museum first discovered them when deciphering tablets from Nineveh. (The London Daily Telegraph sent him to Iraq to discover more, but he died there prematurely at the age of 36). The counterpart of the Biblical Noah is the Sumerian Ziusudra, a pious god-fearing king who received divine revelations in dreams. The Sumerian story has survived only in fragments, but they are sufficient to tell us of the Flood which swept the land for seven days and nights and of the huge boat built by Ziusudra in order to survive it. When the sun came out Ziusudra opened the window of his boat and, after landing, sacrificed an ox and a sheep to the gods.

In the later Babylonian version of this myth, which has survived more completely, we learn details of how he built the ark, took his family and animals (both wild and tame) into the ark, how after the Flood the ark rested on Mt Nisir, how he sent forth a dove, a swallow and a raven in turn, until none returned. And when he offered sacrifice, the gods, who had been so bereft of their sacrificial fare as a result of the Flood, ‘smelled the sweet savour and gathered round it like flies’!

Perhaps the most impressive of all their literary achievements is a cycle of stories now known as the Epic of Gilgamesh. It preceded the works of Homer by 1500 years and by the second millennium BC it was known as far as Hittite Asia Minor. It narrates the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, who after an initial conflict with Enkidu a wild man from the hills, befriended him and the pair went in search of immortality. This theme of the Epic illustrates how, when most other cultures assumed some sort of soul-survival after death, the Sumerians were acknowledging human mortality. On this issue the prevailing attitude in Mesopotamia became the opposite of that in Egypt, where immortality was fully attainable, at least for the aristocracy. This difference is sometimes attributed to their relationship to the rivers on which they depended for life. The Nile was predictable and its annual flood brought life; the Euphrates was unpredictable and its floods brought death and destruction. This realistic, if slightly pessimistic, view of human mortality left its stamp on the Old Testament, as in Psalm 90, and in the final exclusion from the Tree of Life as narrated in the Eden myth.

The Sumerian culture flourished for about a millennium. The Sumerians faded from the picture after the Fall of Ur at the close of the third millennium, when they were conquered by a succession of Semitic races (Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arameans), who occupied the Fertile Crescent from that time onwards. But the Sumerian language, culture and literary achievements survived, being taken over by their Semitic successors who made them their own. We even possess dictionaries which set out the equivalent words in Sumerian and Akkadian. Indeed much of the extant literature, on which our knowledge of the ancient Sumerians depends, comes to us by way of the Babylonians and Assyrians who were so influenced by them. The extant written records ensured the continuing influence of Sumer, just as the classics have long been a large component in European education.

Of all the Sumerian innovations the development of a phonetic form of writing was perhaps the most important. Their earliest mode of writing was pictographic, as were most forms of writing elsewhere of even later ages. Pictographic writing is very unwieldy because the signs are complex and far too many are required. The Sumerian scribes showed their brilliance by simplifying the signs and reducing them in number by making them symbolic of sounds instead of objects and ideas. Eventually there were about six hundred signs, each representing a syllable.

Writing was performed by pressing on wet clay a small instrument with a wedge-shaped end. It has been subsequently named ‘cuneiform’ from the Latin word for wedge, cuneus. Cuneiform was used for more than two thousand years throughout the whole of Mesopotamia. It was after it had spread to the Mediterranean coast that it led to the next great step forward in phonetic writing. In Ugarit, a 12th-century BC city of ancient Syria, long buried and forgotten until its discovery in 1927, we find the earliest example of a consonantal alphabet appearing alongside the cuneiform it eventually displaced. The great advantage of the alphabet is that though it represented only the consonants, it required much fewer signs. The 22-letter Phoenician alphabet, almost identical with the Hebrew alphabet, was borrowed by the Greeks and Romans, to become the mother of all the European and Slavonic alphabets. It spread to Mesopotamia for Aramaic and was later adapted for Arabic.

The succession of Mesopotamian cultures from Sumer onwards continued to influence the Biblical tradition, and hence Western culture. Some of the most important material of the Old Testament was probably compiled into its present form in Babylonia during the Jewish Exile. Much later, after the new faith of Islam burst so dramatically out of Arabia in the seventh century, Baghdad became the cultural centre of the world for some three hundred years. Literature, philosophy and science all flourished there.

Egypt, Israel, Greece, Rome have all left us in their debt. But in many respects our culture really began in ancient Sumer. The ‘good oil’ from there has really been the initial foundation for our highly literate culture.


Lloyd Geering, Emeritus Professor of World Religions at Victoria University of Wellington, is in constant demand as a speaker.

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