Cuneiform is considered the single most significant legacy of the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. It was developed c. 3500-3000 BCE, is considered the first written language created, and was used for well over 1000 years. The oldest-dated cuneiform tablets mostly contain records of business transactions. However, over the centuries, cuneiform tables covered various different topics such as affairs of state, religion, magic, history, contracts, and were used for personal and professional communication (letters).
An example of an interesting cuneiform collection is the Amarna Letters. These letters were found in Upper Egypt at Amarna and there are 382 known tablets in total. The letters are mostly diplomatic correspondence between the Ancient Near East and Egypt and contain a structure for the first known diplomatic system. However, the letters have additional significance for two different types of research: Egyptology and biblical studies. Egyptologists are interested in the letters because they are mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform which was used in ancient Mesopotamia rather than ancient Egypt. Biblical studies make use of these letters to understand the culture and language of the Canaanite peoples in pre-biblical times.
Cuneiform tablet inscribed with a letter from Tushratta, king of Mitanni, to Amenhotep III of Egypt. It was found in Tell el-Amarna and dates from c. 1350 BC, when the city was known as Akhetaten. In this letter, the kings were negotiating a diplomatic marriage between Amenhotep III and a Mitanian princess. Tushratta asks for much gold as a bride-price. (The British Museum, London). Photo © Priscila Scoville.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
I was attending a neurology symposium in Erbil (Hawler), the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. ِAfterwards, I headed to one of my relatives’ to pay him a visit; my family was with me. My relatives insisted we should stay in their home and spend a couple of days with them. And I thought, why not! At night, I surfed the net about rock reliefs in Iraqi Kurdistan and found one result that told of a relief in the village of Hareer called Rock Relief of Harir (Arabic: منحوتة حرير; Kurdish: نه خشي هه رير). I wondered what it was. I tried desperately to find any additional useful information about this relief, but I was unsuccessful!
Friday, September 26, 2014
My relative, Dana Hiwa and I drove my car to the village of Hareer (or Harir; Arabic حرير; Kurdish هه رير). It was north to the city of Hawler about an hour and a half by car (36°33’48.47″N; 44°20’53.52″E). As there were no clues, I was not able to find the precise location of the relief. I asked many local villagers about it; they were somewhat suspicious and I received no answer. Finally, around 1:00 PM I called my dear friend, Mr. Hashim Hama Abdullah (director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum). He replied positively and told me that an archaeologist who lived nearby could help me out; Mr. Hashim phoned him. After five minutes the archaeologist, Mr. Hemin Rashid called me and asked where I was. He arrived in 15 minutes.
The village of Hareer, Erbil Governorate, Iraqi Kurdistan. Shooting from Mountain Harir. Photo © Osama S. M. Amin
An archaeologist friend of mine once told me: “Less than 5% of the Mesopotamian history has been found, and wherever you dig, anywhere in the land of Mesopotamia, you will discover something.”
This story comes from Erbil (Hawler) Governorate. About 100-200 m away from the Citadel of Erbil (Arabic: قلعة أربيل; Kurdish: قهڵای ههولێر), an old house with a large garden was sold to an investment company. The company demolished the house and started to dig the foundation of a large building in late April 2015.
In response to my questions, Architectural Engineer Sarbast Mahmood Ahmed replied:
We were working 24/7. It was around 10 PM when we were digging the foundation of the building. The caterpillar excavator had reached 6 m in depth. Suddenly, one of the workers noticed that the machine had removed earth in addition to bricks. We stopped digging. After sunrise, we saw that we had unearthed what appeared to be a grave. Part of the grave was damaged while we were digging. Immediately, we informed the General Directorate of Antiquities. A specialized team arrived after a few hours and they prohibited us from further work. They did a short-lived excavation work within a few days together with a French archaeological team. The grave contained the skeleton of a human body. It seems that the corpse was laid on its left side. Nothing else was in the grave, no pottery or gold. The French team took the skeleton allowing for construction work to continue. I have been told that the skeleton was transferred to France using a private airplane. One of the team members told me that the unearthed grave dates back to the neo-Assyrian period. But I do not know whether the skeleton was a male or a female, an adult or a teen.
I was taking photos in the main hall of the Sulaymaniyah Museum and came across a display case containing a small clay tablet. The description beside it said the tablet was part of the Epic of Gilgamesh and a fragment of tablet V. Immediately I thought it was a ‘replica’ as the description was superficial. It did not say the tablet was genuine, that it was newly discovered or even told about the many new pieces of information it had revealed.
A newly discovered tablet V of the epic of Gilgamesh. The left half of the whole tablet has survived and is composed of 3 fragments. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq and the dramatic looting of Iraqi and other museums, the Sulaymaniyah Museum (directed by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan) started an initiative. They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries. No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from. The Sulaymaniyah Museum believed this condition kept smugglers from selling their merchandise to other buyers, as they would have otherwise done so ‘with ease and without any legal consequences.’ Read more…
“Fire of Troy” by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (1560-1632 AD). Oil on panel, last third of the 16th century CE (?). H. 58.3 cm (23 in), W. 84.8 cm (33 in). Public domain.
The decline of the Late Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean and Near East has puzzled historians and archaeologists for centuries. While many have ascribed the collapse of several civilizations to the enigmatic Sea Peoples, Professor Eric H. Cline, former Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University, presents a more complicated and nuanced scenario in his new book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed.
Professor Eric H. Cline speaks to Ancient History Encyclopedia’s James Blake Wiener about his new title and the circumstances that lead to the collapse of the cosmopolitan world of the Late Bronze Age in this interview.
Cuneiform tablet made by a sixth grader in my class.
Sixth graders typically have some background knowledge of Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Maya when we begin studying those civilizations. Right now, we are near the end of the Mesopotamia unit, about which they typically know little coming in. It has been nice to spend three weeks with every day being a brand new topic for my students. I introduced the concept of a civilization and talked about the seven characteristics according to our textbook–social structure, government, stable food supply, religion, the arts, technology, and writing – before we delved into a project that combined these characteristics: making cuneiform tablets.
The most challenging concept for sixth graders to wrap their minds around is the importance of farming, many aspects of which were kept track of on cuneiform tablets. Coming from an urban environment, where most food comes from a store, the stages of food production prior to store arrival are lost and rarely contemplated. We ran a couple scenarios showing the extreme difficulty of hunter/gatherer tribes, and they truly appreciated the hardships and daily struggle for survival of prehistoric peoples. The archaeological discoveries at Jarmo indicating the early stages of a farming culture? No big deal. If there was one takeaway I hope they grasp from this unit, it would be the importance of farming; but even on year five of teaching, I can’t quite connect the dots for them. Read more…
Cover for “Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine.” (Photo, courtesy of Nawal Nasrallah.)
Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning “between two rivers”) was an ancient region in the Near East, which corresponds roughly to present-day Iraq. Widely regarded as the “cradle of civilization,” Mesopotamia should be more properly understood as a region that produced multiple empires and civilizations rather than any single civilization. Iraqi cuisine, like its art and culture, is the sum of its varied and rich past. Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine, by independent scholar Nawal Nasrallah, offers more than 400 recipes from the distant past in addition to fascinating perspectives on the origins of Iraqi cuisine.
In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) speaks to Nawal Nasrallah about the research behind her unique, encyclopedic cookbook, the origins of Iraqi cuisine, and her passion for cooking ancient recipes.
Three successive civilizations — Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian — flourished along the “Fertile Crescent” in ancient Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Renown for their creativity, dynamism, and complexity, these cultures also provide the earliest models of civilization in the West. This fall, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada is celebrating the remarkable achievements and artistic sophistication of ancient Mesopotamia in a landmark exhibition: Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World.
In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Clemens Reichel, Associate Curator at the ROM, about the importance of these civilizations, and of how we can better assess and understand their legacy in modern times.