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Etched in Stone: The Word Travels Fast

(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Area Specialist, Near East Section of the Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division. This is the 2nd installment of the three-part series centering on the Library of Congress Cuneiform Tablet Collection. Read the first part.)

Spanning the course of several millennia, cuneiform underwent a long and storied journey from a limited system of accounting to an evolved writing system that would dominate a fair part of the Ancient Near East and beyond. A journey, one should add, that mirrored the ever-changing travails and tribulations of the history of the region. Beginning with the Sumerians and ending with the Persians, cuneiform underwent numerous developments and evolutions throughout history to become the world’s first writing system.

An old map of Assyria, with borders outlined in different colors.

Assyria vetvs diuifa in Syriam, Messopotamiam, Babyloniam, et Assyriam. Paris : Sumptibus Petri Mariette Lutetiæ, 1651. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The original inventors of the script—the Sumerians—were a people of obscure and seemingly unique ethnic and linguistic origins, living in a conglomeration of city-states and warring amongst themselves. This state of affairs naturally rendered them vulnerable, thus paving the way for their invasion by a Semitic people known as the Akkadians around the middle of the third millennium BCE. As a result, before any transformation in their writing system could occur, it was adopted by the Akkadians and adapted to convey their own wholly different language. While the Akkadians retained the Sumerian logograms and phonetic values, they pronounced the words and letters in ways that corresponded to their own language. Further, they extended these phonetic values well beyond the simple Sumerian inventory. The same logogram or combination of logograms could now be pronounced in a variety of ways; hence, a “word” could have different sounds and meanings from one language to another. Early Semitic cuneiform became known as “Old Akkadian” as can be seen, for example, in the inscriptions of Sargon of Akkad (the first ruler of the Akkadian empire, died ca. 2279 BCE).

A cuneiform tablet.

Inscribed brick, Cuneiform tablet no. 21a. [between 858 B.C. and 824 B.C.] Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

In the southernmost part of the country, Sumer continued to exist as disparate independent city-states, until finally united by Gudea of Lagash (died ca. 2124 BCE). This was the last, albeit brief, manifestation of a uniquely Sumerian civilization, until the Akkadians finally managed to establish their complete and decisive hegemony. Around 1900 BCE, the Amorites, nomadic tribal federations probably originating in Arabia, occupied the entire region. By forging coalitions between the city-states, King Hammurabi (ca.1792-1750 BCE) managed to unite them and established Babylon as a major commercial and political center of a large Babylonian empire. In addition to promulgating his famous eponymous code of law, Hammurabi promoted science and scholarship throughout Babylonia. From around 1400 BCE, cuneiform became the lingua franca of diplomacy and trade from Asia Minor to Egypt.

a color photo of the portrait of Hammurabi, Babylonia.

Law-code (in cuneiform writing): portrait of Hammurabi, Babylonia, 2250 B.C. [between 1860 and 1930]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Photo of a cuneiform tablet.

School exercise tablet, Cuneiform tablet no. 06. [between 2200 B.C. and 1900 B.C.] Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Initially a Babylonian dependency, Assyria broke off and rose to power dominating the region from around the 7th to the 9th century BCE. Famed for their military prowess, not to mention cruelty, the Assyrians were also known as great builders as evidenced by the archeological sites of Nineveh, Ashur, and Nimrud.

black and white photo of a cuneiform tablet.

SDA seminary Assyrian king list, reverse. 1954. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Perhaps one of the Assyrians’ greatest contributions to ancient civilization was the library built by their last great king, Ashurbanipal (reigning from 668-627 BCE).

According to Robson:

“Ashurbanipal was one of the few Assyrian kings to have been trained in the scribal arts—by one Balasî, a senior royal scholar ” (Robson, “The Clay Tablet Book,” Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007].

Ruthlessly ruling with an iron fist, from 669 to 631 BCE Ashurbanipal managed to expand his empire from its roots in Northern Iraq to Babylonia reaching Lower Egypt without having once fought in battle.  As such, many historians have labeled him as a “sociopathic bookworm”.  In an attempt to gather all manner of knowledge, Ashurbanipal dispatched his scholars to collect sources on all topics in a variety of languages.  His library, considered the first surviving royal library in the world, is estimated to have contained between 20,000 to 30,000 clay tablets.  According to John Lewis Clark:

“The tablets have been sorted under the following heads: History; Law; Science; Magic; Dogma; Legends: and it has been shewn (1) that there was a special functionary to take charge of them; (2) that they were arranged in series, with special precautions for keeping the tablets forming a particular series in their proper sequence; (3) that there was a general catalogue and probably a class-catalogue as well” (Clark, 1909)

Among the multitude of texts collected by his scholars were lexicographical texts listing words from Sumerian, Akkadian, and others in dictionary form, which would prove a great asset to future scholars of the language.

color photo of a cuneiform tablet.

Clay bulla, Cuneiform tablet no. 15. [2031 B.C.]. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

The last people to adopt cuneiform were the Persians when their empire began its expansion into neighboring regions like Elam and Babylonia in the 6th century BCE. Elamite, a non-Semitic language first seen around 2300 BC which had also adopted the cuneiform script, became the official language of the Achaemenid Empire. Lacking a writing system of their own, yet not content Babylonian or Elamite cuneiform, King Darius (ca. 550-486 BCE) decided to invent his own cuneiform system for Old Persian. Hence, for the first time in antiquity, an entire writing system had been completely invented whole cloth rather than evolving of its own accord.

color photo of a cylinder shape cuneiform tablet.

نسخۀ باز تولید شده منشور کوروش (Modern replica of the “Cyrus Cylinder”) Decree by Achaemenid King, Cyrus the Great (ca. 580-529), following the incorporation of Babylon into the Persian Empire in 539 BCE. Text on cylinder is written in Akkadian cuneiform pronouncing Cyrus as new King of Babylon. The item is a modern replica of the “Cyrus cylinder” created using resin by Hamid Zadeh in 2010. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

It is perhaps not without irony, that the first time cuneiform was used to write Old Persian would prove to be the key to unlocking the secrets of the script.  The inscriptions at the Bisitun pass (in western Iran) in 521 BCE recorded Darius’ and his successor Xerxes’ accomplishments in three languages: Babylonian, Elamite and the newly invented Persian. The trilingual Bisitun inscriptions would thus prove to be the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone aiding future scholars abilities in deciphering the script.

Learn More:

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