Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Guest blogger: Mesopotamia redeemed, part 9 

As this blog slowly makes its way towards the end, it's also time to conclude our long-running series "Mesopotamia Redeemed", by Dan Foty. And so, we come the full circle.

Mesopotamia Redeemed – Part IX

As described in Part VIII, after centuries of light the rule of law waned in Mesopotamia, and finally disappeared completely. This may seem to be a sad end; however, had all of these things really been “forgotten” completely? The connections between many of today’s ideas and concepts in society and law seem too strong to be merely coincidental. And that is the final question to be considered. Was there direct cultural transmission? Was there indirect cultural transmission? Or are all of these similarities indeed merely coincidental?

Any attempt to sort out these questions in a concrete fashion is rather frustrating; the pieces and parts are incomplete and tantalizing, making it tempting to draw direct conclusions which may not be justified. As Samuel Kramer put it so nicely,

“Admittedly, the Sumerian origin of the modern offshoot can no longer be traced with directness or certainty: The ways of cultural diffusion are manifold, intricate, and complex, and its magic touch is subtle and evanescent.”

This is a problem which thus must be approached with considerable caution. However, it seems likely that to some degree all three possibilities have been involved. There was likely direct cultural transmission simply due to the importance, success, and long duration of Sumerian civilization. For the same reasons, there was also likely a great deal of indirect cultural transmission, which would have spread widely due to extensive contacts and trade networks. And there is also likely a great deal of “coincidental transmission” – for the simple reason that the great and fundamental problems of a civilized society are basically constant with time.

Each of these will now be considered in turn.

Direct cultural transmission – where the Sumerians actually expanded to other places, assumed political control, and imposed their laws and legal system – seems to have been of limited importance. For the most part, the Sumerians were neither empire-builders nor conquerors; like the Greek city-states of the classical period, the Sumerian city-states were for the most part very competitive with each other, but that competition was confined locally, within Sumer. There were no far-flung Sumerian conquests in which Sumerian law could be imposed.

The only “exception” during the Sumerian era actually isn’t one. The only real empire built during this period was not due to a Sumerian city or ruler, but belonged to Sargon the Great of Akkad. Sargon’s empire encompassed all of Mesopotamia, and there are even tantalizing hints that it may have extended as far afield as India, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Despite its power, Sargon’s empire didn’t long survive him; also, Sargon was not Sumerian, and the records provide no indications that Sargon either adopted Sumerian law or “exported” it widely in his conquests.

However, there is considerable evidence of very important indirect cultural transmission from Sumerian society throughout the ancient Near East – and even more widely. Sumer was obviously a very advanced and very successful society, and this was well-known in other societies. When an outsider such as Sargon become ruler over Sumer, he was very proud to call himself “King of Sumer and Akkad” – for an outsider to proclaim his kingship over Sumer was clearly an honorific of great pride. Knowledge of the high cultural achievements of the Sumerians doubtless spread far and wide, and visitors to Sumer doubtless carefully studied what they saw and heard - and no doubt realized on their own (and were told by the Sumerians) that the success, prosperity, and civilization of Sumer were in large measure due to its laws and legal system. Visitors returning to less civilized, less orderly places would certainly have brought back knowledge of this startling aspect of Sumerian society to their homelands.

Furthermore, the basic economic nature of Sumer and the Near East was very conducive to indirect cultural transmission. The main productive economic activity of Sumer – indeed, the activity which provided the impetus for the Sumerians to invent civilization itself – was agriculture. With fertile soil, their intricate systems of irrigation, and accumulated detailed knowledge of agricultural methods, the Sumerians were able to produce tremendous quantities of grain and other produce – in amounts considerably in excess of their own needs. At the same time, Mesopotamia was (and is) nearly devoid of metals, stone, and wood. The simplest and most direct method of obtaining these non-local commodities would have been to conquer the regions which produced them. However, as noted above, the Sumerians were not empire-builders - and as any conqueror usually finds out, there are always lands further beyond the last conquest, with trade networks extending even further away.

There was thus tremendous impetus for the Sumerians to develop commercial activities, and to trade their surplus agricultural products for the materials which they could not obtain locally. This was obviously the case; the Mesopotamia law codes dealt extensively with the regulation of commercial activities - showing not only that this activity existed, but that it was recognized as being essential to the health of Mesopotamian society. The existence of trade networks pre-dates recorded history; commercial activities are a fundamental aspect of human existence. In addition to the exchange of goods, commerce is one of the best methods for the communication and distribution of ideas over a wide range – far wider than the region of their origins. The commercial networks sent Sumerian merchants far beyond Mesopotamia, where, like all business travelers, they met and mingled with local people and with other merchants from other places. A simple question posed to a Sumerian merchant, “How is it that Sumer is so rich in grain?” would likely have produced an interesting discourse that went far beyond simply the details of Sumerian agricultural practices. And, as described above, these same trade networks would have brought other merchants and traders to Sumer, where they would have come into direct contact with the fundamental aspects of Sumerian society.

Commerce and the concomitant commercial networks served as the primary reasons for contacts between various societies – and provided the network for the transmission of Sumerian culture and society to other peoples and places. However, these “networks” could also carry other information as well. While agriculture and commerce were clearly the fundamental activities of Sumerian society, that society was not concerned solely with the practical and the mundane. The high state of Sumerian society allowed for the development of literature – the level of which was very advanced even by “modern” standards.

The entire body of Sumerian literature was basically adopted “as-is” by the Babylonians and the Assyrians; in fact, much of Sumerian literature had originally been attributed to these societies, before Sumerian society had been “re-discovered.” Much of that literature has also been found in translation in other contemporary societies of the Near East, such as the literature of the Hittites and the Canaanites. Sumerian literature would have served to transmit both tangible aspects of Sumerian society (such as laws and practices) and the more subtle and intangible aspects (such as values and beliefs). It is these less tangible aspects of a society which are often best transmitted through literary (rather than practical) vehicles. Sumerian literature also clearly influenced Hebrew literature, and may even have had direct effects on Greek literature.

Indeed, it is the connection between ancient Hebrew culture and Sumerian culture which provides some of the most interesting possibilities for the direct propagation and continuance of “Sumerian” values to this day. As noted above, the Canaanites, who preceded the ancient Israelites in the Levant, were familiar with Sumerian literature and had translated much of it into their own language – thus, this material was already in existence “on the ground” at the time.

However, there are more tangible aspects to consider. When Hammurabi’s code was first recovered, it was immediately recognized that there were numerous parallels between that code and the laws of the Old Testament – as Samuel Kramer puts it, “in context, terminology, and even arrangement.” At the time, this presented a problem; as best as could be ascertained, the patriarch Abraham had lived several centuries before Hammurabi’s code. Abraham had left Mesopotamia, eventually reaching the Levant – which would have provided a perfect way for Mesopotamian concepts of law and society to have been taken to the Levant. However, as Hammurabi’s code antedated Abraham by some 300 or 400 years, this wasn’t possible.

Of course, it is now known that Hammurabi’s code was based directly on older Sumerian laws and law codes; these preceded Hammurabi’s code by several centuries. It is almost certain that it was these Sumerian codes which are the true taproot of all the law codes which appeared through the ancient Near East.

And indeed, there are many striking parallels between Sumerian literature and the Old Testament. Sumerian literature tells of a “Garden of Eden,” known to the Sumerians as “Dilmun” – a green, fruitful, divine garden, and a perfect world in which pain, disease, and death were unknown. As Samuel Kramer has noted, there is even an interesting possible connection to the story of the creation of Eve; “Eve” in Hebrew means “to make live,” while in Sumerian the word “ti” can mean either “to make live,” or “rib.” Most spectacularly, Sumerian literature contains a story of the catastrophic flood, complete with a “Noah” (“Ziusudra” to the Sumerians and “Utnapishtim” to the Babylonians) and the construction of the ark; this flood story was first recovered during the discovery and translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh during the late 19th century - and caused quite a popular stir, while providing the most famous popular recognition of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Sumerian literature. Finally, in the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel berates the women of Jerusalem for still conducting rites lamenting the sad fate of the shepherd-king Dumuzi. The sad story of Dumuzi is a myth of Sumerian origin and pre-dates the time of Ezekiel by more than a millennium. It is remarkable that this story and its rites persisted for that long in another place. It is also noteworthy that Ezekiel is clearly upset that this “pagan” and foreign religious festival is being celebrated as an infringement upon the native Hebrew beliefs; this clearly marks the Dumuzi story as an “imported” rather than “indigenous” one. Dumuzi was known to the ancient Hebrews as “Tammuz,” and despite Ezekiel’s admonition, this name survives to this very day in the name of the Hebrew month of “Tamuz.”

Most importantly, the “re-discovery” of the Sumerians solves the “Abraham problem.” Abraham originally lived in Ur, sometime around 2300 B.C. – more than 300 years before the creation of Hammurabi’s code. However, the older Sumerian laws and legal system were already in existence and functioning at this time; when Abraham left Ur, he doubtless took this knowledge with him. The roots of the three great monotheistic religious – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – can be traced to Sumer and Sumerian culture.

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that there were many vehicles for the indirect transmission of Sumerian (and Mesopotamian) concepts of the rule of law and of civil society, and that many of these concepts exist today as direct descendants of their Sumerian predecessors.

Finally, a few words must be devoted to “coincidental” transmission. To some degree, it should not be a surprise to see the Sumerian concepts and ideas in later times – and even today. The Sumerians were obviously a practical people, and developed their ideas and their society for very practical reasons. That society was extremely successful, persisting as a distinct entity for some three millennia. That success alone indicates that the Sumerians were able to successfully meet the challenges which they faced. Thus, it is not unexpected that later peoples, faced with similar challenges yet unaware of the culture of the Sumerians, would have reached similar conclusions. The concept of “the rule of law” as a central organizing principle is so obvious that its continual “re-discovery” is to be expected.

Taken as a whole, the pieces all fit together. Even though specific knowledge of Sumerian society had been lost, its cultural essence survived and was passed down through a number of paths and cultures. It is not at all surprising, then, that in more recent situations – such as Thomas Jefferson penning the Declaration of Independence, or the Philadelphia Convention drafting the Constitution of the United States, or others – those who were heirs to those cultures (known and unknown) and faced the same problems would have reached similar conclusions and penned similar words – words which would be instantly recognizable to any educated Sumerian.

And that is the ultimately legacy of Sumer. The underpinnings of modern civilization can be traced back to the Sumerians and the sandy soil of Mesopotamia. And today, the intellectual descendants of the Sumerians are endeavoring to return to Mesopotamia, after an absence of nearly 4,000 years, the legacy which was the gift of the Sumerians to the entire world.


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