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What did the ancient Mesopotamians ever do for us? From depression cures to egotistical Trumpian kings and angry customer complaints, we can still relate to the lives of people living four millennia ago

King Ashurnasirpal II during a royal lion hunt. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

King Ashurnasirpal II during a royal lion hunt. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

October 10, 2019   6 mins

In the early 1920s, archaeologists in the Iraqi city of Ur uncovered the remains of a palace built for the princess Ennigaldi-Nanna, daughter of the last Babylonian king. While excavating the palace, which dated from the sixth century BCE, the explorers came upon an unusual chamber with an eroded brick floor covered in rubbish. The room dated to Ennigaldi-Nanna’s era, but tucked safely within its layers of debris they found a collection of objects out of time: a boundary stone from 1400 BCE, cuneiform tablets from 1700 BCE, and a king’s statue from centuries even before that.

“What were we to think?” wrote the archaeologist Leonard Woolley in his record of the excavation. “Here were half a dozen diverse objects found lying on an unbroken brick pavement of the sixth century BC, yet the newest of them was seven hundred years older than the pavement and the earliest perhaps two thousand: the evidence was altogether against their having got there by accident…”

What was behind this mysterious collection? Among these objects lay what Woolley eventually came to call “the key”, a clay cylinder inscribed in the contemporary Babylonian dialect that described another object — a brick — and gave a record of its discovery by the city’s governor. It was, by all accounts, a museum label. This was a museum, itself older than most of the exhibits in the British Museum.

Iraq is a culture so old that even before Classical Greece had reached its zenith, Babylonia’s civilisation was ancient enough to have had its own museum reaching into the already distant past.

Few parts of the world have yielded as impressive an array of artefacts and as prolific a written record of its history as this region, home to a number of cultures collectively referred to as “Ancient Mesopotamia”. Hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets and fragments have been unearthed since antiquity, bringing to life civilisations that rose and fell millennia ago. But while the people who impressed those wedges are long gone, their stories are very much alive in the clay they left behind, and in lives recognisable to those we lead today.

I recently met my two-month-old nephew for the first time. He cried his way through every night that I stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, both of whom sported matching bags under their eyes and a shared look of merry shellshock. The baby’s cries roused the dead — of that I have no doubt — and no amount of cooing, changing, feeding or pleading could quiet him. Deprived of sleep and desperate, my sister-in-law opened Spotify one morning and within seconds of hearing the opening chords of Lewis Capaldi’s “Lost on You” the new-born closed his mouth, opened his eyes, and burped.

Her strategy sounds familiar to many and, indeed, has a very long history. A 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet preserves a poem whose syntax, style and simplicity suggest that it was a lullaby, probably sung by many a parent or wet nurse desperate to quiet a crying baby in the still of night. Although less lyrical in translation, it reads:

“Little one, who dwelt in the house of darkness —
well, you are outside now, you have seen the light of the sun.
Why are you crying, why are you yelling?
Why didn’t you cry in there?
You have roused the god of the house, the kusarikkum [A protective spirit in the shape of a bull with a human head] has woken up:
‘Who roused me? Who startled me?’
The little one has roused you, the little one has startled you!
‘As onto drinkers of wine, as onto tipplers,
may sleep fall on him!’”
(Translation by W. Farber, “Magic at the Cradle: Babylonian and Assyrian Lullabies”, Anthropos 85, 140.)

The lullaby begins with a reference to the silent darkness of the womb and ends with an invocation by the house god that the crying baby, like a drunkard, might finally fall sleep. And who sleeps more soundly than one who has had too much to drink?

Just as the sleepless nights of parenthood can be understood across different cultures thousands of years apart, so too can the spinning vortex after one too many pints — not to mention the merciless morning after, the onslaught of light and noise, the pulsating of one’s skull to the steady rhythm of a sledgehammer. Beer was common in ancient Mesopotamia, the first culture to record its use; so common that the hangover cure from ancient Ashur (capital of the Assyrian Empire and close to modern-day Mosul) called for medicinal ingredients to be mixed with none other than… beer.

Back then, beer would have had a thick consistency, like runny porridge. A layer of detritus left behind by the brewing process would collect at its surface, and imbibers could only drink the liquid below through a straw. This everyday beverage features in countless medical therapies as the liquid of choice to dilute herbs, plants and minerals.

“If a person drinks beer and as a result his head continually afflicts him, he continually forgets his words (and) slurs them when speaking,” the Assyrian guide advises. This treatment for intoxication and its aftermath lists 11 plants to be soaked in beer and oil overnight under the star of Gula, a goddess of healing. The patient is to drink it before sunrise and “before anyone kisses him” in order to recover.

A hangover is only one of thousands of conditions addressed in medical texts from ancient Assyria and Babylonia, which describe symptoms of and treatments for ailments as diverse as fevers, seizures, headaches, heavy periods, STDs and depression.

A tablet from the library of the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal at Nineveh prescribes a treatment for a condition known as “Heartbreak” that calls for various plants and herbs to be mixed with beer, wine, water and oil. Another text from the Library of Ashurbanipal describes symptoms that may sound familiar to anyone who has experienced depression; the tablet describes a patient whose face “grows darker and darker”, who “becomes gloomy, is depressed”, who feels sad and refuses to speak, and who walks with hunched shoulders and struggles to sleep.

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal contained countless texts on scholarly subjects such as medicine and astronomy, a repository of learning intended to help scholars do their jobs and help the king run his empire. King Ashurbanipal liked to boast, in the same proverbial breath, about his military might and intellectual prowess – the original very stable genius. Visually, he represented himself in palace reliefs as riding into battle or wrestling a lion with a stylus tucked into his belt.

Alongside the highly curated works of scholarship that lined the shelves of royal libraries like that of the learned Ashurbanipal are the more mundane texts that record the everyday lives of people. A receipt for “the finest beer” from a brewer named Alulu, a marriage contract with an added adultery clause, a court deposition over unpaid silver in a remote trade outpost of the Old Assyrian empire, letters from an Egyptian pharaoh who demands gifts and from a slave woman who laments a stillbirth, and more.

Roughly once a year, someone on Twitter discovers a charmingly relatable customer complaint from 1750 BCE found in Ur.

“You said to me as follows, ‘I will give Gimil-Sin fine quality copper ingots’ …but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots that were not good before my messenger.”

Thus begins a letter from a Babylonian named Nanni to another named Ea-Nasir. He goes on to accuse Ea-Nasir of mistreating him and his messenger, and of accepting payment but sending nothing in exchange — all because of one measly mina that Nanni still owed the copper merchant. The letter ends with Nanni’s demand for a refund and his promise never to accept copper from Ea-Nasir again, Ancient Babylonian for “Only giving this one star because zero stars was not an option” (Nanni and Ea-Nasir have even achieved the status of becoming a meme.)

Etched into clay tablets from Mesopotamia are experiences so familiar they often read as if written by our family, our friends, and perhaps even our enemies. Lullabies and beer, heartbreak and depression, very stable geniuses and sub-par customer service. Tablets unearthed from Iraq’s shifting landscape bring to light life in cuneiform; they revive a past long dead but very much alive in the things we do every day.

Iraq’s ancient past continues to form part of its modern story. Few will forget the images of smoke billowing up over the city of Nimrud, reduced to scarred reliefs and irregular rubble when Isis swept through Iraq in 2015. They deliberately targeted the country’s heritage so that when the dust of their destruction settled, they could fill the resulting empty space with their own narrative. “When I heard about Nimrud,” Mosul’s archaeology professor Hiba Hazim Hamad, said at the time, “my heart wept before my eyes did.” Cultural heritage matters to the people who rely on it, who connect to it, and who live and die alongside it.

Thankfully, objects are not the only relics of Iraq’s past, the stories of which connect people as disparate in time and space as a wet nurse in ancient Ur singing a lullaby to quiet a crying baby and my New Jersian sister-in-law playing Spotify in Switzerland. Cuneiform tablets remind us that we have more that unites than separates us, and that we are our stories.

Like Ennigaldi-Nanna did 2,500 years ago, we still look to the past to understand our place in this mad world. We are human beings who have babies and hangovers, who buy stuff and get sad, who lie and cheat and love and fear and live and die. We are the stories that came before us and the stories that we leave behind, and when the rubbish of this epoch buries the eroded brickwork of all that we have done, I wonder what museum labels will say about us.

Dr Moudhy Al-Rashid is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford where she also teaches the languages and history of ancient Mesopotamia. Her research looks at the history of science and medicine in cuneiform scholarly texts.


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