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Cuneiform

Maps

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cuneiform sippar map tabletCuneiform tablets were long used for making maps and plans of towns, rural areas, and houses, but rarely for anything larger or without commercial interest. A unique tablet, thought to have come from Sippar in present-day Iraq and dating to around the sixth century B.C., shows much more and reflects something of how ancient Babylonians saw themselves in the world. This Mesopotamian mappa mundi consists of a circular map surrounded by triangles, with explanatory text above and on the opposite face. The central circle shows the Babylonian realm, bisected by the Euphrates, which is straddled by Babylon itself. Several other geographical areas are labeled by name, and the continent is surrounded by a ring called the “ocean” or “Bitter River.” Beyond the boundary waters are seven or eight outlying regions or islands represented by triangles, of which portions of four survive. The text is largely concerned with these far-flung, perhaps mythological, places. One is described as a “place where the sun is not seen,” another as a place where “a winged bird cannot safely complete its journey.” Further descriptions speak of “ruined” cities and gods, and animals both fantastic (great sea-serpent, scorpion-man) and exotic (lion, monkey, chameleon).

 

According to Wayne Horowitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the tablet “reflects a general interest with distant areas during the first half of the first millennium, when the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires reached their greatest extents.”

Laws

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cuneiform susa hammurabi stelaThe best known and most influential of the Mesopotamian law codes was that of King Hammurabi of Babylonia (r. 1792–1750 B.C.). Featuring nearly 300 provisions covering topics ranging from marriage and inheritance to theft and murder, it is the most comprehensive of these codes. While it famously includes retributive, eye-for-an-eye clauses, it also takes on more complex scenarios, imposing harsh punishments for accusation without proof and for errors made by judges.

 

The code appears written in intentionally archaic cuneiform on a towering seven-and-a-half-foot-tall diorite stela that was recovered from Susa, in present-day Iran, where it was taken after being stolen in the twelfth century B.C. Featuring a relief of Hammurabi receiving divine sanction from the sun-god Shamash in its upper portion, this stela and others like it would have been publicly displayed during Hammurabi’s reign and long after. “The code was certainly set up in in city squares, in temple courtyards, in public places—where it was seen by populations,” says Martha Roth, an Assyriologist at the University of Chicago. It was also used in the training of scribes for at least 1,000 years after its composition, and several manuscripts of it were found in King Ashurbanipal’s (r. 668–627 B.C.) seventh-century B.C. library at Nineveh, in present-day Iraq.

 

The precise legal function of Hammurabi’s code is unclear, as there are few references to it in legal records from his era. However, says Roth, these records do suggest that “the provisions as outlined in Hammurabi map onto the daily reality in a fairly close way.” The code was also clearly intended to establish Hammurabi as the guarantor of justice for his people. “In order that the mighty not wrong the weak, to provide just ways for the waif and the widow,” reads its epilogue, “I have inscribed my precious pronouncements upon my stela.”

 

This trope of the king as protector of the downtrodden appears regularly in Mesopotamian inscriptions, but the earliest known example is found on several cone tablets known as the reforms of Urukagina (r. ca. 2350 B.C.), a king of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash, in present-day Iraq. According to the inscriptions, the king addressed a number of social inequities, including reducing the power of greedy temple overseers and abusive foremen. “There’s a consciousness about reform in it that is unique until now,” says Roth, “and in history it comes about here for the first time.”

Letters

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cuneiform ur complaint tabletAmong the thousands of Mesopotamian tablets containing both official and personal letters, one example stands out as the first recorded customer complaint and evidence of a business relationship gone very sour. Nearly 4,000 years ago, a man named Nanni expressed his extreme displeasure to the merchant Ea-nasir about a recent copper shipment:

 

When you came, you said to me as follows: “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots that were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!” What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt....Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

Recipes

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cuneiform iraq recipe tabletThe earliest known recipes, by many centuries, are found on three tablets dating to the Old Babylonian period. Though seemingly simple, their minimal instructions could only have been followed by experienced chefs working for the highest echelons of society. This particular tablet features 25 recipes for stews and soups, both meat and vegetarian, including some directions—though no measurements or cooking times—for an amursanu-pigeon stew:

 

Split the pigeon in half—add other meat.

Prepare the water, add fat and salt to taste;

Breadcrumbs, onion, samidu, leeks, and garlic

(first soak the herbs in milk).

When it is cooked, it is ready to serve.

 

With the exception of amursanu, which is probably a type of pigeon, and samidu, an unknown spice, the ingredients are certainly recognizable. But the dish would, in fact, be impossible to replicate, says Benjamin Foster, curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection. “People often think that because they can cook Arab or Persian food that they can make this stuff, but they don’t know how much regional cooking was changed by the Muslim conquests. If you cook these up using modern Near Eastern ingredients, it is pure fantasy—but often delicious.”

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