Ancient Worlds - BBC Two 

Episode 1 “Come Together”

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, king of Akkad.

Naram-Sin was the grandson of king Sargon, founder of the Akkadian Dinasty and the first to unify the whole of Mesopotamia in the late 24th century BC. The Sumerian king list states that he reigned for 36 years, between 2254 and 2218 BC.

Naram-Sin was the “King of the Four Quarters”, a “living god”, the first Mesopotamian king known to have claimed divinity for himself.. This status was an innovation that is recorded in an inscription that says the deification was at the request of the citizens, possibly because of a series of military victories. Naram-Sin spent most of his years of reign fighting. He pushed back the frontiers of the empire farther than they had ever been, from Ebla in Syria to Susa in Elam, and led his army “where no other king had gone before him.” He also improved administration and increased the religious prominence of Akkad in Babylonian cities.

The large victory stele of Naram-Sin is carved in pink limestone. It celebrates the triumph of the king over a mountain people, the Lullubi. The Akkadian king led his troops over the steep slopes of the enemy territory, mercilessly crushing all resistance. The conqueror’s victory march is coupled with the personal ascension of a sovereign who could now claim equal footing with the gods. Alongside the existing inscription in primitive cuneiform, the king added another one dedicated to his own glory and in which he declares that the stele was carried off after the pillage of the city of Sippar.

The Akkadian sovereign wears a conical helmet with horns (a symbol traditionally the privilege of the gods) and is armed with a large bow and an axe.

Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Mesopotamian Clay Humbaba Demon Mask, Sippar, c. 1800-1600 BC

This type of mask was used for divination. The mask is formed of coiled intestines represented by one continuous line. Such an omen would mean ‘revolution’. A cuneiform inscription on the back of this clay mask suggests that the intestines might be found in the shape of Humbaba’s face in this mask. Humbaba (also called Huwawa in some texts) was a monster who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. He was guardian of the Cedar Forest (probably referring to the Lebanon in the late version of the tale) but was defeated by Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

One method for predicting the future in ancient Mesopotamia was the study of the shape and colour of the internal organs of a sacrificed animal. Experts compiled records of these signs or omens together with the events they were believed to predict. The divination expert who made the mask is named in the inscription as Warad-Marduk. It was found at Sippar, the cult center for the sun-god Shamash, who was responsible for omens.

Sippar was an ancient city on the east bank of the Euphrates river, located at the site of modern Tell Abu Habbah, Iraq.

Protective Cover for a Babylonian Sun-God Tablet  

This fired clay cover served as a protective cover for a cuneiform tablet about the sun-god, Šamaš. Found in the temple to Šamaš in Sippar, the cover originally belonged to the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina, who reigned in the 9th century BCE. When it was rediscovered by the Neo-Babylonian king Nabopolassar, who reigned 200 years later, it was broken, so the king had it replaced but kept alongside the old, damaged one in a box. Just as we value and preserve history today, so too did the Neo-Babylonian kings of the first millennium BCE possess a strong awareness of their past and the need to preserve its relics. (Source)

Neo-Babylonian, 860-850 BCE, Sippar.

British Museum.

Hymn to the Queen of Nippur iv.1-53 (Lambert 1982)

a. A hymn to the city of Nippur

Nippur, conduit between heaven and earth, intersection of the corners of the earth,
      growing upon the unscalable mountain —
      the City Nippur, swathed in finery, rising up from it —
Enlil, on his own, made it a habitation;
      he approached her and granted it to her, so she could assume its queenship.
            (He appointed Ebardurgarra as its shrine.)*
[…] a sanctuary equal to his own home.
      […] his own authority invested within it.
Its head rises up to rival Olympus;**
      its light shines dazzlingly, covering all the settlements;
      its brilliance dwells within the mountain.
It nurtures*** her and dotes on her,
      constantly overflowing with finery.
            (Ebardurgarra nurtures the Lady.)*
The corners of the earth join together to bear abundance to it.

b. The noble roles of Ishtar

With the sigil of Enlil, she determines destinies.
      ceaselessly guiding the designs of the Great Gods, even Anu.
Daily, gods assemble before her,
      the Annunaki for advising of advice.
The great Igigi run to and fro
      for her assignment of their roles, for receipt of her instructions.
All the goddesses of the peoples kneel before her:
      they join together in prayer to her, kneeling at her feet.
She supervises their tithes and oversees their shrines;
      she assigns roles to the gods of cultic centers.
She herself is the most supreme and most dignified of goddesses:
      mighty daughter of Nanni, delight of Enlil’s heart,
      adored goddess, equal princess to her honored brother.

c. Ishtar among the deities

Endowed with Dagan’s spirit, equal to Anu,
      loved by Ea, the Lord of Wisdom,
      adored by Mami, the masterful queen:
She is royalty, adored, goddess and Lady,
      wife, Lady, beloved of Amazilla,
Daughter-in-law of Pirigbanda, Lady of Eridu,
      Ishtar-goddess of Anu, She who dwells on the throne of Eanna.
She is elevated, excellent, exalted, and queen;
      her songs are enticing, and great are her adorers!
The Divine Queen of Nippur is exalted and queen;
      her songs are enticing, and great are her adorers!
Who is adored like the Divine Queen of Nippur, their god?
      The Igigi proclaim her seven names.

d. The heart of Ishtar

May this song please you, Ishtar;
      may none before you oppose it, may it take root at your command.
Where voices wail, let there be your lamentation;
      where thoughts are pleasant, let there be your adoration.
In the house of your rites, let them celebrate you;
      where they practice your cult, let them praise you.
In the house at the time of festivals, celebrations, and jubilees,
      listen, Lady, so your thoughts rejoice.
May your heart take pleasure; may it ask always for jubilees.
      May the day bring you joy, and the night repose.
May Inimmanizi bring you […]
      Sirash and Ninkasi […]

* Other than these two lines, this passage divides neatly into four stanzas of 13 lines. I consider them awkward later editorial additions.

** This line compares Nippur to Ekur, the mountaintop home of the gods (like Olympus). It’s also an unsubtle dig at Nippur’s rival city, Babylon, whose main temple was named Esagila — “the house of the raised head.”

*** Lambert translates this difficult verb as “fondled,” taking it from a root word with sexual connotations. While it’s not impossible, the themes of growth and abundance lead me to suspect an alternate possible meaning.

Note: This excerpt is one of the most intact parts of what was originally a 300-line hymn.  It’s most famous for a line elsewhere, in which Ishtar is described as “she who turns male into female and female into male” (iii.70).

Middle Babylonian Boundary Stone with Divine Iconography

This limestone boundary stone (Akkadian kudurru) has inscriptions and carved relief on all four sides, as well as the top.  

On the larger part of one side, several symbols are arranged into four rows that include several examples of divine iconography. In the first row from left to right: the crescent represents the moon god, Sîn; the eight-pointed star (contained within the disc) represents the goddess of love and war, Ištar, in her astral aspect; and the solar disc represents the sun god, Šamaš. Immediately below these are further symbols that sit upon shrines, including a turtle, which symbolized Ea, the god of wisdom, incantations, and magic. 

Written in Akkadian cuneiform, the inscription records the title-deed of an estate formerly belonging to an individual named Arad-Sibitti, but passed through marriage to the family of Buruša, a jewel-worker. (Source 12)

Sippar, Middle Babylonian, 954 BCE.

British Museum.

“Stone tablet of Nabu-apla-iddina, from Sippar, southern Iraq, Babylonian, around 870 BCE. On the top are 13 symbols of the gods designed to protect the legal document. Both the king, wearing the typical Babylonian royal hat and the priest whose hand is raised in salute, have labels on the obverse side to identify them. The stone tablet is a copy of a deed recording the restoration of cerntain lands by the king to a priest of the same name. ANE 90922

British Museum, London, Great Britain
A Marriage Contract for Gūzanu and Kashā (BMA 26/BM 65149)

This marriage contract dates to 535 BCE (about fifty years after the Jewish Babylonian Exile) and comes from Sippar, about twenty miles southwest of modern Baghdad.

The document is an excellent historical example of Judean assimilation into Babylonian culture.  Although the names of the bride’s father (Hosea) and many of the witnesses’ fathers are Judean/Hebrew, the current generation has solidly Babylonian names.  The groom was a Babylonian from a prominent family, and the contract terms cite Babylonian deities.

Perhaps because she came from an immigrant family, the bride enters the relationship from a lower status; she brings only a small dowry, and will face the death penalty for infidelity.  However, the contract does provide her with protection against divorce or demotion to second wife.

Mr. Gūzanu, son of Mr. Kiribtu, descendent of Ararru, said of his own free will to Mr. Bēl-uballiṭ, son of Amushê [Hosea], and to Ms. Gudadadītu, his mother:

“Ms. Kashā, your daughter [1], a young woman: give her to me for matrimony [2].  Let her be a wife.”

Mr. Bēl-uballiṭ and Ms. Gudadadītu, his mother, agreed to his request.  They gave Ms. Kashā, their daughter, a young woman, into matrimony.

Should Ms. Kashā be caught in the act with another male, she shall die by the iron dagger

Should Mr. Gūzanu release Ms. Kashā and acquire another wife, supplanting her [3], he shall give her six pounds of silver.  She may then go to her father’s house.

Of their own free will, Mr. Bēl-uballiṭ and Ms. Gudadadītu shall provide a dowry with Ms. Kashā, their daughter, to Mr. Gūzanu, son of Mr. Kiribtu, descendent of Ararru: three grams of jewelry, an eight-gram gold ring, one Akkadian-style bed, five chairs, one wooden table, a chalice, and a bronze pitcher.

If anyone abrogates this document, may Marduk and Zarpānītu dictate their destruction; may Nabû, Scribe of Esagil, shorten their long days.

At the sealing of the tablet, names:

[The names of a dozen witnesses follow, concluding with the name of the scribe and the date of the contract.]

[1] Kashā was technically the sister of Mr. B and the daughter of Ms. G, but since Mr. B was the head of the family, Kashā was also his “daughter” (an unmarried woman under his familial control).

[2] In a minor linguistic pun, I chose the word “matrimony” rather than “marriage” here.  Just as “matrimony” comes from the word for mother (mater), the Akkadian word for marriage (aššūtu) comes from the word for wife (aššatu).  We tend to think of marriage as a mutual contract of equals, but the legal roles in Mesopotamia were vastly different.  For the woman, matrimony meant a fundamental change in her legal status as she shifted from the category of daughter to the category of wife.  For the man, matrimony meant taking on an additional legal responsibility (fair treatment of his wife).

[3] Polygamy was legal, though apparently not as common as in previous eras.  The situation here is another woman acquiring the status of first wife from Kashā; Kashā could probably still remain with Gūzanu in this situation, but with considerably weakened powers and protections.


The Babylonian Zodiac

This Late Babylonian tablet from Sippar lists the months and their corresponding signs of the zodiac in Akkadian cuneiform. The twelve-part zodiac has its roots in ancient Mesopotamian astrological and astronomical concepts that developed over the course of the second and first millennia BCE. In this document, the months are equated with specific signs of the zodiac (e.g., month 2 is equated with Pleiades and Taurus; month 12, with Pegasus and Pisces). Many aspects of modern culture, including such basic conventions as the division of the day into 12 hours and the hour into 60 minutes, descend from ancient Babylonian knowledge and practices. (Source)

Late Babylonian, c. 500 BCE.

British Museum.