Greece and Rome can often feel like unbelievably ancient places. How much further from us, in time, could people possibly get? And what could such ancient people have in common with us, today?
Quite a lot, as it turns out! Invite an ancient Greek or Roman writer into your mind for an afternoon. He’ll crack rude jokes, and recommend recipes, and make wry comments about the opposite sex. Along the way, you may come to realize that —
Stop for just a second and really let your mind process that fact.
In the long road of time, ancient Greece and Rome are really not all that distant. They’re our neighbors down the street. We’re reaching across time to them, sure, but it feels like we’re not trying very hard.
Back before Greece and Rome, before the Hittites and the Canaanites, before the great empire of Babylon, long before the Bible was written down.
We fast-backward a thousand more years, further into the misty times; into the days of Pyramids and Pharaohs; of great cities raised in the desert. Into the old Akkadian empire, the first documented multi-cultural empire in the world; an empire of bronze swords and mud-brick temples. Can we find anyone to speak to us here?
Hey, here’s someone I know! I think you’ll like her a lot. Her name’s Enheduanna, and she’s the daughter of a famous warrior-king named Sharrukin. Here’s an excerpt from one of her elegant poems, written during her exile from the city she called home:
“Came the day, the sun scorched me.— Enheduanna
Came the night, the South Wind overwhelmed me,
My honey-sweet voice has become parched,
Whatever gave me pleasure has turned into dust.”
That image above is the only known contemporary portrait of Enheduanna. It’s not very detailed — but we can gaze at it, and listen to her words, and do our best to bring her back and let her stay with us a while.
Some of her happier poems will also tell you about the high expectations of the culture in which she served as high priestess — and about day-to-day tidbits like her hairdresser, her plans for her estate, and the long weeks she stood firm in exile while a political rival attempted a coup in her city.
It’s incredible, really, that we can connect with these people from so far back in time.
We can reach not just across thousands of miles, but also across centuries — millennia — and empathize with the spiritual struggles of this woman who pondered and wrote in Akkad, in a time so distant we can barely imagine it. We can reach all the way back there, and feel her.
Are you ready to really take it for a spin?
Can we reach back even further than Enheduanna? What’s the most distant voice we can bring to speak to us?
The Pharaoh Khufu, maybe, who decreed the Great Pyramid?
It’s dark down here. Almost silent.
We’ve reached history’s deep sea, the Mariana Trench of time. There aren’t many voices this far back. We only catch glimmers in the dark — a few names here; a short prayer there. They’re gone as quickly as they came.
If we search carefully, maybe we can get a clear view of someone. Maybe somebody’s shouting out of the dark, trying to be heard.
Here’s someone, speaking in — incredible! — in a very old dialect of Sumerian; a language that’s ancient even to our friend Enheduanna.
We’ve landed in a metropolis older than the Pyramids — in fact, this place is a full two thousand years older than Enheduanna’s kingdom!
It’s a Sumerian city. The “black-headed people,” as they like to call themselves, live here in their tens of thousands, rolling their carts down the paved roads, sailing sturdy boats along the Euphrates.
Here they raise cups of beer in the taverns, craft poetry in libraries, carry water from wells fed by aqueducts, throw their trash down the indoor plumbing, barter in the great markets for jewels and spices from distant lands, and dance in the temple courtyard to the sounds of drums and lyres and flutes.
On special days, the priests and priestesses climb the thousand steps of the city’s towering ziggurat, already centuries old; and at the appointed hour they ascend to its peak, and slit the throats of the finest sacrificial cattle, for the gods who sustain this great state of Sumer.
One says, “My name is Meskalamdug, Hero of the Good Land.” The other says, “I am Queen Puabi, the Word of my Father.”
They don’t have much to say, but they’re eager to show us pictures — their people, in wool kilts, in peace and in war; making music, talking with friends, herding sheep and cattle; then driving chariots, marching in ranks, crushing their enemies.
The queen is also kind enough to show us her beloved instruments: four lyres — one in a high-pitched scale decorated with a calf’s head, a silver one in a tenor scale with a cow’s, and two bass harps with great bearded bull’s heads mounted on the front. And our new friend Queen Puabi plays us a song:
Queen Puabi was much beloved by her people. She loved music and fine art; and she also loved her husband, King Meskalamdug, who loved her too, in his way, though he was often away waging war against Ur’s enemies. Like all queens, though, Queen Puabi began to grow old, and one day she grew very sick, and passed on to the next world.
She was buried with all due ceremony, draped in jewelry, surrounded by the things she loved most in life — her musical instruments; her art pieces and jewelry — and all her servants wailed and tore their hair and wondered what they’d do without their beloved queen.
King Meskalamdug was also lost without his queen, and he too soon grew sick and passed on to the next world. His last request was that his grave be dug next to the queen’s, so they could always be together. This was done. The servants wept and wailed and tore their hair, even more now, for they had lost both their beloved queen and their wise king.
In their despair, many of the servants went down into the grave with the king— maybe in the hope that they could rejoin him and the queen in the next life. They drank a drink of opium mixed with poison, and collapsed on the floor and died.
But some of the servants panicked as their friends fell in front of them, there in the pit. Those servants tried to run— but it was too late. The guards grabbed them and bashed their heads in with clubs, and laid them in the grave with the others.
It’s a haunting story, to be sure — but some of the details are a little muddy. Were King Meskalamdug and Queen Puabi really that beloved by their people? Did the servants really commit suicide voluntarily, in despair? Did they know what they were drinking, or did that surprise spark the panicked escape attempts?
We can’t be sure, because King Meskalamdug and Queen Puabi aren’t very talkative. They’ve just shown us a lot of pictures, a sort of graphic novel, and we’ve pieced together the outlines as best we can.
Still, it’s a good story —made all the more magical by how far it’s traveled to reach us.
We’ve made it this far.
Let’s plunge ahead into the dark.
Fast-backward beyond Ur, beyond the king and queen who told us their sad tale. Deeper and down through the first dynasties of Sumer— and further, deep into the abyssal zone.
Passing whispers, now; hints of stories:
…I am Shuruppak, an old man; listen well, my son, to my instructions…
…Will anyone else bring forth something as great as the city of Kesh?…
…This is the tribute of the people of Sethroë to Seth-Peribsen…
It’s hard to believe— but there are still voices here; people calling out of the dark, begging to be heard. But they’re getting sparser. One by one, they fade and vanish behind us as we keep descending. Now we catch just the quickest echoes — then they’re gone. A name here. A place there. Just glimpses.
Suddenly, bright light and color and life! Great masses of people pushing and shouting and calling out things for trade — “Cattle! Beer! Day labor for cheap!” What have we stumbled on down here, a thousand years before our tragic king and queen of Ur?
Uruk is a vast and powerful city. It boasts its own towering temple, distant ancestor of the one that will someday be raised at Ur. Today is a festival day in Uruk. A procession of priests, naked and shaved, in keeping with sacred tradition, are carrying delicately carved vases and dates and wine to the new king’s coronation.
Temple musicians sing happy tunes and dance and play their lyres —early versions of the instrument Queen Puabi will someday adore, a thousand years in the future —while children gather on the sidelines to watch.
Meanwhile, in the marketplace, a crowd of farmers are hurrying in through the great gates in the city walls, carting in big basketloads of barley and wheat. Caravans of donkeys are arriving from far countries, too, to trade copper and gold for cattle and spices and beer. We try to catch some snatches of their conversation, and —
There are no words here; just pictures. They’re speaking in ideas: “Ten head of cattle traded for two weights of copper, to be delivered tomorrow morning.” Here’s another: “Two men labored for three days; they’ll receive one barrel of grain each, and a ration of beer.”
This is all explained in simple images; the world’s first spreadsheets: “Ten cow. Two beer. Morning.” That’s enough to keep the account books balanced and the bills paid on time. Uruk trades, and the traders grow wealthy.
As the centuries pass, the symbols they use will grow more complex, as will the messages they want to convey. But that’s all far in the future. For now, Uruk trades and prospers, and the pictures are enough.
We’ve found such rich life, so much complexity, so far out here in the most distant reaches of history.
A little further —just a little bit further down. We’ve got to see. Got to find out. There must be something beyond this.
Yes. Here it is. We’ve found it!
The first and most distant of all voices.
The earliest city in the written history of humankind.
Its name is Eridu. Even to the Sumerians, it is a very old place. Its origins are mythic; in Sumer they say the gods themselves brought it forth, out of the mists and marshes of mankind’s childhood.
Thousands of years in the future — after the fall of Enheduanna’s kingdom — the great poets of the Sumerian Renaissance will cast their imaginations back to distant Eridu, and will write,
“Those days were indeed faraway days. Those nights were indeed faraway nights. Those years were indeed faraway years. Heaven talked with Earth, Earth talked with Heaven.”
Can we find anyone to speak to us here? Can we even understand what they say?
Their picture-writing is even simpler than that of Uruk. Here in Eridu we find only fragments — fractions of images — but the people from neighboring cities, like Kish, speak to us a little more clearly.
These people can’t tell us their names. They don’t have any way to express them, yet.
This is what it sounds like in the early morning of history. This is how it feels to walk in old Eridu, three thousand years before Babylon. It’s hard to hear, this far out — but if you listen just right, you can hear the people of Eridu speaking to you across all these eons.
We could reach back another few thousand years, to the proto-city we call Çatalhöyük, in the modern Turkish language, because neither the inhabitants nor their descendants left any record of the language they spoke.
We could go centuries before Çatalhöyük, to the place we call Göbekli Tepe, where, before people had learned to plant and harvest crops, some forgotten tribe raised stone pillars carved with sacred animals.
We could reach tens of thousands of years still deeper into pre-history, to the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, and the rock shelters of Bhimbetka and Gabarnmung, where hunters painted images of themselves, and the great beasts they fought, in sprawling murals across the stone walls.
Those people all led rich, meaningful lives, and pondered complex ideas, and painted pictures of the things they thought about — but they never wrote down the specifics of those thoughts in a way we can translate. We have nothing of their language, or the ways they spoke. They drew, but they didn’t write.
The people of Eridu stand right on the edge of that chasm. We can hear them, just barely, because the images they carved match up with later ones, which match up with even later ones, until finally we reach Sumerian inscriptions we can translate sound-for-sound. We work backward from there.
And the place we reach, when we work as far back as we can, is here.
Unfortunately, none of the Sumerians’ inscriptions tell us how they actually spoke to each other in daily life. The people of Eridu spoke the earliest Sumerian dialects easily, casually, with plenty of slang and cursing. But we don’t know how they said “Hi” or “How’s it going?” or “When’s dinner gonna be ready?” or “Holy gods above, I’m so wasted right now.”
The Sumerians said those things. Of course they did. Those are the kinds of things people say. But the people of Eridu don’t tell us about the casual comments they made to their friends and families. Their relatives in Uruk and Ur don’t tell us those things either.
What they tell us, mostly, are parables and poems, and economic details, and lists of kings, and fables, and epics about their heroes, a lot of which are filled with lines like saibbaza aba itenten — “Who can temper your raging heart?” and uruba kienedibe mir insi — “A tempest has filled the dancing of the city.”
The Sumerians also tell us the world’s oldest recorded joke, which goes like this: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Yep, that’s right. Across four thousand years, vast aeons of time,
They’ve got a few other jokes for us, too — including the world’s first “yo mama” joke. But we didn’t understand or know about any of this until very recently, in the real scale of time. The Sumerian language was first translated in the 1920s — an eyeblink of time compared to the distances between us and the people who spoke it.
By the time Enheduanna was composing her beautiful poetry, the first great age of Sumer — the age of Ur and Uruk and Eridu — was already long-gone.
The Sumerian people themselves were doing fine, but their culture was slowly merging with that of the Akkadian people, who spoke a language distantly related to modern Hebrew — and who ruled over most of Sumer in those days, led by Enheduanna’s father, Sharrukin.
A few hundred years after Enheduanna passed on to the next world, a Sumerian king named Shulgi led a fierce army that took back most of the sacred cities — especially Ur, which he restored to a glory even beyond its former one, and declared to be the seat of a mighty new Sumerian empire.
This Sumerian Renaissance lasted a few centuries. It blossomed into a great classical age that produced brilliant inventions and innovations in art, literature and architecture — inspired by the far more ancient Sumerian culture of legendary Uruk and Eridu.
But like all great ages, the Sumerian Renaissance came at a cost to the surrounding peoples— and one day the neo-Sumerians found an army of outsiders at their gates, swords and torches at the ready. All too soon, their great neoclassical age was at an end. Scribes wrote that the eternal city was burning.
It was two thousand years before the Roman Empire existed.
Thousands of years later, a Babylonian princess named Ennigaldi-Nannar built the world’s first archaeology museum to house the relics her explorers dug up from ancient Sumerian ruins.
She, and many scholars and scribes like her, preserved the Sumerian language in much the same way that the medieval church would preserve Latin — in a rigid form used for temple services and sacred poetry.
Sometime during the Roman Empire, Sumerian died a quiet death, and no one really noticed.
Nobody in Greece or Rome or Medieval Europe or the Renaissance or most of the Modern Era had even the slightest inkling that there had ever been a Sumerian civilization. No one spoke their name because no one knew it.
The Old Testament mentions Sumer, actually — it was right there in open view, in the bestselling book in the world, for thousands of years. Genesis 10:10, which called Sumer “Shinar,” and called Uruk “Erech.”
But those were just some of those weird one-off Bible names that nobody ever pays much attention to.
In the early 1900s, explorers started digging up clay tablets inscribed with words they couldn’t translate.
They’d figured out how to read Babylonian a few decades earlier, by working backward from Old Persian, which is easy to sound out — but this language wasn’t anything like Persian or Babylonian. It didn’t seem to resemble any known language, actually, from any time in history.
Finally they struck paydirt: some tablets with Babylonian words and phrases side-by-side with their equivalents in the unknown language. That language turned out to be Sumerian, and it wasn’t much like any other language in the world.
We still don’t know where the Sumerian language comes from. Its grammar is bizarre to an English speaker, backwards and upside-down, and too complex to even begin to describe here. What’s more, Sumerian seems to be a language isolate — not directly related to any other language we know of, modern or ancient.
And the Sumerians are, in a sense, an orphan people. None of their genetic material has survived, as far as we can tell, so we don’t really know where they came from, or how they ended up in southern Mesopotamia — they don’t seem to be indigenous, or related to any of the indigenous peoples. There are theories, of course — they came from Turkey, some say, or maybe from somewhere in the Caucasus.
Humanity finally rediscovered the Sumerians in the 1920s, when an archaeologist named Leonard Woolley dug up the ruins of Ur — with the help of the famous mystery novelist Agatha Christie, who was married to one of Woolley’s colleagues — and found the graves of King Meskalamdug and Queen Puabi, and all their servants.
Woolley brought out the queen’s four lyres, and had them reassembled, and got someone to play them, and for the first time in nearly five thousand years, the world heard Queen Puabi’s favorite music.
This year, a new team of archaeologists are going back to the ruins of Ur, digging up sculptures and clay tablets that haven’t seen the light of day since before the Pyramids were built.
They’ll probably find some surprises. But a lot of big surprises keep coming from a place you might not expect.
And when they do get translated — which sometimes takes decades — some of them turn out to reveal things we’ve never guessed before.
Most of these documents are economic transactions like the ones we heard at Uruk — “five bushels of barley for three cows,” and so on. Others are just scratch pads for writing practice, or inventory records from palaces and temples.
A lot of them contain the same king lists and poems and national epics we’ve found at dozens of different sites across the old Sumerian stomping grounds.
In fact, just this year, archaeologists working in Turkey dug up tablets containing a Mesopotamian language they’d never seen before. A lost language, waiting through all those centuries for someone to come along and read it.
And you know what the writing says? It lists names. Names of women who worked in the palace — but who’d been completely forgotten, names and language and all, for three thousand years, until John MacGinnis of the British Museum came along and brought them back.
This planet is filled with orphans, in slums and shacks and basements and other half-forgotten corners, and those people are alive and afraid. They deserve to be found and listened to and understood.
They’re real people too. They have favorite foods, and music they like, and dances they dance, and people they love, and things they’re afraid of. They have gods they worship and languages they speak.
They deserve to be sought out, and listened to, and understood. It’s too late to offer them our help, but it’s not too late to reach out and hear what they have to say.
This man’s name was Ebih-Il. He was a temple supervisor in the Sumerian city of Mari, a few hundred years before Enheduanna’s dad came to power. He was proud of his work at the temple, and he had this statue made because, like most of us, he was afraid to die.
Of course, Ebih-Il is far gone in time now, like so many people are. A lot of them are too far gone to reach.
But a few others have managed to give us something of who they were— not just of their cultures, but of themselves.
And they deserve not to be forgotten, because — far distant in time though they are —