Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East

Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East

by Louis Lawrence Orlin

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Intended for readers seeking insight into the day-to-day life of some of the world's most ancient peoples, Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East presents brief, fascinating explorations of key aspects of the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Asia Minor, and Iran. With vignettes on agriculture, architecture, crafts and industries, literature

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Intended for readers seeking insight into the day-to-day life of some of the world's most ancient peoples, Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East presents brief, fascinating explorations of key aspects of the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Asia Minor, and Iran. With vignettes on agriculture, architecture, crafts and industries, literature, religion, topography, and history, Orlin has created something refreshingly unique: a modern guidebook to an ancient world. The book also reaches out to students of the Ancient Near Eastern World with essays on decipherments, comparative cultural developments between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and language and literature.

In addition to general readers, the book will be useful in the classroom as a text supplementing a more conventional introduction to Near Eastern Studies.

"Well-written and accessible, Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East deftly connects the past with present experience by drawing out the differences between, for instance, modern churches and ancient temples, and frequently employing biblical references. This simplicity together with connecting contemporary to ancient experience makes the text ideal for freshmen and general readers."
---Marc Cooper, Professor of History, Missouri State University

Now Professor Emeritus, Louis L. Orlin taught in the department of Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Michigan for more than thirty years. He is the author and editor of several books, including Assyrian Colonies in Cappadocia and Ancient Near Eastern Literature: A Bibliography of One Thousand Items on the Cuneiform Literatures of the Ancient World.

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University of Michigan Press
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Life and Thought in the ANCIENT NEAR EAST

By Louis L. Orlin


Copyright © 2007 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09992-4

Chapter One


In the Tablet Houses of Mesopotamia

The title of this vignette will doubtless suggest to readers an archaeological tour through abandoned buildings complete with elaborate columns, porticos, plazas, and terraced gardens, the sort of tour one imagines taking place in the cool of the evening in a pleasant classical setting. Unfortunately, we shall not be dealing with freestanding buildings but rather with remains of rooms in various types of structures that have been crushed under literally tons of earth accumulated over thousands of years on the sites of ancient towns and cities in the Tigris-Euphrates river plain of Iraq. These structures, having been constructed not of stone or marble but of mud brick, have crumbled into rubble and have formed earth mounds that encase the clay tablets they once protected.

The setting in which the first archives and libraries were produced was the ancient Mesopotamian city. The appearance of villages, towns, and cities, which historians label "the urban revolution," was the single most significant step taken by early peoples in their development out of the late Stone Age in Iraq. With permanent settlement camethe collateral appearance of formal political and religious institutions, as well as organizations that directed the economic, judicial, and social lives of the new urbanites. The growth of population, coupled with an ever-increasing need to keep track of economic transactions contracted by individuals who often bore the same names, was an important stimulus for the invention of writing. Contrary to popular belief, the desire to record and preserve the great thoughts of great thinkers was a later development. Early on, the need for accurate record keeping by traders, tax officials, and other administrators took precedence. Though writing is often overlooked for primacy in lists of humankind's greatest inventions, the ability that writing affords humans to capture speech in permanent form allows us to study our record as a species in all areas of thought and experience.

Once the principles of writing were understood, the medium for its use was, in Mesopotamia, instantly available. Clay, when moistened and shaped into a small, pillow-shaped mass in the palm of the hand, and the stylus, with which the clay was incised, rapidly served as the "pen and paper" of the scribe. Depending upon need, clay tablets of various shapes, from miniature to large blocks, could be developed. When these were baked in the sun they became hard as rock and could then be stored in containers-large vases, baskets, boxes of clay-or individually on shelves in public buildings, such as palaces and temples, or in workrooms of private houses.

Most writing in ancient Mesopotamia was directed toward specific and practical ends. Only a relatively small number of clay tablets were devoted to what we would think of as aesthetic productions-myths, epics, speculations about the meaning of life, and the like. By far the greatest number were administrative texts, letters, texts of commercial or legal import, and those dealing with priestly concerns or those of omen takers, stargazers, and a host of temple administrators. This led to a practice among Assyriologists of dividing clay tablets into two general types: the "Stream of Tradition" texts and the "day-to-day" texts.

A survey of a major collection of "Stream of Tradition" cuneiform texts originated from the library gathered together about 650 by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital at that time, suggests that the collection was a diviner's reference source-traditional texts to be consulted for advising and guiding the king in his many royal obligations and activities. The obsessions of the Mesopotamians in preserving such materials almost unaltered as they copied and recopied them throughout the centuries testify to the collection's "frozen tradition." The aim and need to look backward to beginnings amply testify to Mesopotamian religious conservatism. To learn to be a scribe meant long hours learning the originals and reduplicating them. Graduates of scribal schools might then be employed in positions requiring their specialized training.


The earliest archives seem to have developed in connection with storage rooms. These rooms also appear to have served as schools. Linguistic and archaeological evidence supports the notion of such an interrelated use. Two archive buildings were uncovered during excavations at Tello dating to about 2000 and situated in southern Mesopotamia. Seventy thousand tablets were found in these buildings, in connecting rooms, but no external doors led into the buildings. Entry seems to have been from above. Similar structures have been found at other sites. An archival site could be attached to a temple, though separated from it by a wall and a private entry. Along the walls of the Lagash complex stood benches, 1.5 feet high by 1.5 feet wide, on which tablets had been stacked.

Archive Technique

At Ur, also in southern Mesopotamia, collections of tablets were found in a container to which a small clay label hung by a reed strand for identification purposes. Usually such labels gave information about the contents of the tablets, for example, legal verdicts, financial accounts, expenses, and receipts. At the end was an indication of the period covered, which in most cases was a year. In some instances the beginning period and the ending period, in years or months, were noted, as well as the finishing year or month. On some labels, the years and months were summed up.

An interesting and significant shift in the development of archives came with the use of containers to store longer-term collection of tablets, those comprising multiple years' worth of business or administrative records. Palace records, especially letters and other types of communications between previously reigning kings and their functionaries or between those functionaries themselves, could then become the basis of historical inquiry.


The production of literary and didactic texts required different preparation. A tale or ceremonial tablet would routinely require far more space than that needed for the single debt or receipt tablet, so the need arose to store a series of large tablets in a useful way. What the scribes and archive keepers devised was a method of indicating how many large tablets were part of the composition, where in the series a particular tablet belonged, how many tablets made up the series, and sometimes the name of the scribe who had created or copied the text. Although archives and libraries each employed similar techniques, early libraries had to provide space and protection for the larger tablets; the solution, found as a result of excavation at Korsabad of a late eighth-century palace belonging to Sargon II of Assyria, showed rows of niches set into the walls, like modern bookcases, which could accommodate oversized tablets.

To store clay tablets and find ways to protect them was one thing; to retrieve them was another. No one was permanently seated at a desk to deal with requests from passersby. Since libraries were attached to temples and palaces, there were chains of communications and procedures that had to authorize the removal of tablets. These originated at the very top, with the king or chief priest or other designated officials. To gain entrance to the relevant storage area, a doorkeeper had to be summoned, who would then have to find the requested tablet(s) and hand them over to the requesters (sometimes a whole delegation) and record the removal.

The modern librarian will be pleased to know that ancient patrons of libraries in Mesopotamia could suffer severely if they damaged a borrowed tablet. If you broke a tablet or immersed it in water so as to make it illegible, you would be cursed with the curses of troops of deities, including the highest of the land; merciless curses for as long as you lived; and curses including your family. If you feared the gods, you were enjoined to return the tablet on the same or following day. Nor should the borrower refuse to let officials consult the tablet(s). Those who complain today about the rising cost of fines for overdue or damaged books might ponder how lucky they are.

Of all the occupations both in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, that of scribe was clearly the most desirable. Scribal training was long, involved, and arduous. The students first underwent elementary training in how to form clay tablets of various sizes; how to hold the styluses, which were usually made from reeds though sometimes of wood; how to moisten a tablet's surface so that it could be incised; and generally how to preserve it once it was finished. The real task was learning the lists of Sumerian signs, approximately six hundred in number, which represented both an idea and the sound that expressed it. When Semites adapted the Sumerian writing system to express their own language in southern Mesopotamia, they retained the Sumerian logograms but used them normally as individual syllables with which their own Semitic vocabulary could be written phonetically. Since Semitic religious, political, and literary documents were heavily indebted to Sumerian models, the scribe had to learn to use basic elements of two writing systems. Beyond this, the most proficient scribes had also to be translators of messages in foreign languages if such came from royal courts.

The methods of teaching began with the copying of simple exercises. On one side of a round tablet the teacher, known as "father," would inscribe an exercise. The student learned by reproducing the text on the other. As a student's proficiency increased, the exercises doubtless became more complicated, and if such were completed satisfactorily, the student proceeded to copying actual texts from the standard materials of archives and libraries-that is, economic, legal, and political texts and texts used by temples and priests in religious, magical, and omenistic functions. Because the curriculum allowed it, the teaching technique was to progress from one text type to another as soon as a class had mastered the opening tablets of a multitablet series. We often find the beginnings of such series as epics and myths, without middles and ends, in the course of excavations.

Since Mesopotamian cities and towns were widely engaged in economic activities, scribes had to be trained to reckon accounts for palaces and temples, as well as for private entrepreneurs. Mathematics was therefore an important course for the would-be scribe. Some scribes chose (or were chosen for) a career in temple or palace bookkeeping; others rode with trading caravans. For still others, there were specialties in lexical, magical, ecclesiastical, or diplomatic pursuits. The best students were recruited by the major centers of activity such as the palaces, just as the average graduate, so to speak, could find street work by writing letters for illiterate passersby or by explaining intricacies of legal procedure to the ignorant. This allowed a decent life compared to what a person had to do by working in fields or storehouses or in "factories" of potters, weavers, or metalsmiths, and the like. The "inside scribe" led a protected and well-rewarded life within a temple or a palace and could count himself among the social elite of his community. A military scribe carried waxed tablets to record events in the field as notes for eventual inclusion in tablets relating to the glorification of campaigns and individual battles honoring the reigning king.

New Year's Day in Babylon

In the Babylonian New Year's Festival, a twelve-day event that took place at the spring equinox (March-April of our calendar), we recognize two major themes of Mesopotamian religious and political life, which have been artfully blended together: from earliest times, on the one hand, the theme of renewal of life, the onset, once again, of agricultural growth and abundance; on the other, an assertion that political and social stability will continue during the new year-therefore, an affirmation, though infused with apprehension, that nature itself and the state and human society would continue to function in a benignly harmonious way.

We have come to Babylon to observe this most pivotal event in its ritual history. The sight of its great outer walls as we approach down the Euphrates River from the north reveals how great and powerful this ancient city had become. From a much smaller town in the time of Hammurabi, almost two thousand years earlier, Babylon had endured to become a fabled capital city known far and wide in the ancient Near East. Our boat docks at one of the city's quays, and now we will walk the city's streets to identify a few of the chief buildings and monuments. As we begin, we see a bridge across the river that connects the older civic and religious center on the east bank with a newer residential district on the west.

Eight gates are set in the walls, but we shall enter the city through the beautiful Ishtar Gate, named after the Babylonian goddess of love and war. Its entry arch is set in a massive structure whose piers and walls are covered with colored glazed bricks. Gracefully executed figures of bulls and dragons are set in the walls, a wonderfully impressive entrance to the city (a reduced-sized reconstruction of this gate exists in the Vorderasiatischen Museum of Berlin). Once through this ceremonial gate we encounter huge citadels with massive defensive walls and palace and temple precincts, which define the skyline of the city. As we walk southward along the broad processional thoroughfare we soon see two magnificent temple complexes. The first is called Etemenanki, which means, in the oldest, Sumerian, language of Mesopotamia, "The House [Temple] at the boundary of the heaven and earth." The second is called Esagila, or "The House [Temple] which raises up its head." This was the abode of Marduk/Bel, head of the Babylonian pantheon and patron deity of Babylon itself. Within the precinct of Etemenanki stands a ziggurat, which was an edifice in the shape of a stepped pyramid. Not far away, beautifying the city's landscape, we can see the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Unlike the kinds of houses of worship we are familiar with, where people join together in prayer and participate in the divine service, Mesopotamian temples were structures wherein the gods and their households were physically in residence. The statues and other images of these gods were not merely representations or symbols but rather were considered to be the deities themselves. The ancient Babylonian temple was not a public building. At best, people could congregate in its outermost courts. Since the statues were treated as though they were alive, they had to be awakened in the morning, dressed, fed, carried about, and tended to in innumerable ways by the temple staffs, which consisted of large numbers of priests of various grades and functions and many specialists in performance of rites and rituals. These could be exorcists, slaughterers of sacrificial animals, artisans who created sacerdotal objects in precious metals and woods, musicians, and singers. Women were included in the temple staffs, notably to function in fertility rites. Because a temple in a Mesopotamian city or town was a large landholder, dating from most ancient times, it had economic functions and had to maintain facilities such as accounting offices, stables or other enclosures for sacrificial animals, archives, and facilities for the training of acolytes and scribes. All in all, the temple was a complicated and very busy divine household that would rival the structure and functions of a modern, multifunctional corporation.


Excerpted from Life and Thought in the ANCIENT NEAR EAST by Louis L. Orlin Copyright © 2007 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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