The Tower of Babel
The Rise and Fall of Cuneiform
Introduction to the PodcastHello, and welcome to the Literature and History. Episode 1: The Tower of Babel. This podcast explores the evolution of Anglophone literature, and some of the more influential texts that have shaped our canon. Because we wouldn’t have Anglophone literature as we know it without ancient sources in Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and so on, we’re going to spend quite a bit of time, early on, exploring ancient texts that have been translated from other languages. Likewise, even after the birth of English, it’s hard to imagine keeping ourselves exclusively restricted to just this language, since writers like Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Voltaire and company were so influential within the Anglophone canon.
My name’s Doug. Through a lifetime of studying literature, a Ph.D. in it, teaching it, and researching it, novels, plays, and poems are still magic to me. And although there are thousands of reasons to read literature, I think that all of these reasons can be broken down into two big ones.
Reading literature is a search for familiarity and for difference. On one hand, it’s a constant discovery that in the 250,000 years our species has existed, much of the bedrock of human experience is more or less identical regardless of the passage of the centuries. Parents and children, rain and sun, hope and loss, blood and water, love and laughter. Read the Iliad, the Book of Proverbs, or Beowulf, and somewhere in these ancient texts you’ll find echoes of thoughts and experiences that you’ve come to independently – even idiosyncratic, everyday ones. In this sense, literature makes us feel less alone in the cosmos, and more a part of a synchronous family of sisters and brothers, all in it together, thick and thin.
But that’s only half. Literature is also an adventure. A voyage into the vast diversity of the lives that have come before us. While literature teaches us that much of the core stuff of human experience is similar over the churn of generations, it also teaches us how the outlooks of bygone cultures were startlingly different from ours. Read a tragedy of Sophocles, a dream vision of Chaucer, an ancient Egyptian instructional narrative, and you will discover ways of looking at the world that are, in fact, quite unlike your own. Seeing the world through the perspectives of past cultures and nations makes us realize that our own outlook is neither neutral, nor the product of some inevitable forward evolution, but instead, just a small node in an unfolding story.
My approach with this show will generally be to focus each episode on one single idea. Because each episode will have one big, core idea to take away from it, even if you’re jogging, or driving, walking the dog, cooking, slacking off at work, or whatever, you’ll still get the main concept. People do stuff when they listen to podcasts. They don’t just sit there, listening. That’s one of the great things about podcasts – you can get stuff done, and learn. But it also means that you get distracted once and a while. That’s why this show will have a bit of music, a bit of improvisation, and again, why each episode is about one single thing.
The Tower of BabelThis first episode’s main idea is in its title: The Tower of Babel. We’re going to talk about the Tower of Babel story, and what it means.
The story of this famous tower is in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis, again, in the Old Testament. It’s really quite a strange story, if you haven’t heard it before. The chapter sets out by explaining that in the beginning, “the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1).1 God saw the prosperous civilization of Babylon, or Babel, a Mesopotamian city in the central part of modern day Iraq. He saw its political power and limitless potential, and its great unity, and considered what to do, in this seminal moment of the Book of Genesis. He said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Gen 11:7-8). The tower was broken, and linguistic history as we know it began – many languages, dialects, and forms of writing.
But what does the story mean? Why is it in the Bible? And why – I thought this was particularly odd – why does the Old Testament God seem apprehensive in Chapter 11 of Genesis? You’d think that – being omnipotent and all – he wouldn’t be overly concerned by a bit of ziggurat building on the banks of the Euphrates.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting of the famous tower (1563). Spectacular, but not much like Etemenanki, the real Ziggurat of Babylon.
When I first read this story, everything about it fascinated me. I looked at medieval manuscripts with illustrations in their margins – illustrations that showed a spindly tower stretching upward into the clouds, thick with crenellated parapets and flying buttresses. Often the tower spiraled, its arches careening and turning, and at the top tiny angels and devils banged swords against shields. I found modern pictures – extravagant pen and ink illustrations done by twentieth-century enthusiasts – modernist stuff, abstract expressionist stuff – I mean if you need a compelling thing to illustrate, a tower rising up to the stars is a pretty good theme to begin with.
This notion of reaching upward for the power of divinity is the same one we find in the stories of Adam and Eve, and Faust, and Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. A professor I had showed me a quote in Kierkegaard – that “every notable historical era will have its own Faust,”2 and explained that the Tower of Babel story was just another incarnation of the Faust narrative. A man, or woman, or people reach upward, and they reach too far. I thought maybe that was it. Maybe it was just a story about humans pursuing the power of gods, and getting a little beatdown for overstepping.
But there was just too much that was weird about the story that opened the eleventh chapter of Genesis – too much for it to be just another Faust story from just another generation. It took me a long time to find an answer that satisfied me. Years. And I didn’t find it in a footnote to the Book of Genesis, or medieval Biblical commentaries, or even academic Biblical scholarship. I found it in history – the history of Iraq.
We don’t really remember these days that most of the greatest inventions of humankind happened three to five thousand years ago, in Iraq. We don’t remember this, but the Israelites of the 500s BCE did. By the end of this show, I hope to give you a good understanding of what the story of the Tower of Babel might have meant to the people of the ancient world in which it was produced – both the Israelites from Canaan to the west who wrote it, and the Mesopotamians to the east, whose civilization obviously influenced it. I think that the Tower of Babel story is a parable, or a shorthand, for an immense, complicated historical event, an event that marks the halfway point in recorded human history. I think it’s a story about the rise and fall of what was unquestionably the most important invention in human history. This invention, ever since, has enabled us to live long after we die. It has enabled us to travel through time, and to exist in many places at once. It has allowed our species to meld minds, and experience the consciousness of one another. This invention was called cuneiform.
The Birth of CuneiformI want to talk about the time and place that produced the first cuneiform writing. We’ll start broadly. The time is 3,100 BCE. The place is Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia wasn’t a city, or a civilization. Mesopoatmian wasn’t a language, or a culture. Mesopotamia was a region. It got its name from being the easternmost province of Rome, whose name comes from a Greek description of “the land between the rivers.” Mesopotamia had about the geographical area of Iraq. Long before the time the Book of Genesis was written, Mesopotamia, or Iraq, had many cities. Long before the Israelites began thinking of themselves as a nation, and long before the first ever mention of Israel in an Egyptian stele carved in 1207 BCE – 1900 years before this, in fact, civilization, and writing existed in Iraq.
A map of Mesopotamia. Note the locations of Uruk and Ur (lower right), Babylon (upriver) Assur (the later Assyrian capital further up the Tigris) and Jerusalem.
During the beginnings of Mesopotamian civilization, the lands along the Tigris and Euphrates were marshy and swarmed with fish and birds. Gradual climate shifts have subsequently dried up these ecosystems. When we see documentaries that show sun scorched dig sites in Mesopotamian cities, it’s important to remember that millennia of climate change have made the ecology of the Iraq of today far different from the way it was five thousand years ago, when much of the area around modern day Basrah was underwater.
I’ve often thought about how it all got started. With a warm climate, basic knowledge of agriculture, and water year around, why did the Mesopotamians ever bother to build anything at all? Couldn’t they just eat, drink, flirt, swim, make dirty jokes, do cartwheels, and get by, as 245,000 years of their ancestors had done? Well. Imagine this. It’s 3100 BCE. You’re sitting by a river bend, eating some dates and wiggling your toes in the sand. Maybe you’re fishing. [fishing rod, plop, sigh of satisfaction]. Maybe you’re watching one of your sheep take a drink from the river. At any rate, everything’s going well. And then, some guy comes up to you and says:
Man 1: Hey, man.It’s a goofy scenario, but it serves to illustrate a point. If you think about it, civilization isn’t just the product of favorable climate and natural resources. Civilization requires some reliable incentive system to organize and collaborate. For the Mesopotamians, the incentive was water. While Mesopotamia in 5,000 BCE was wetter than it is today, it was still a hot, dry climate. On one hand, the Euphrates provided an abundance of water. On the other, in many places the river widened into bogs and marshlands, a buggy miasma that shifted with every season.
Man 2: Hey, uh – dude.
Man 1: Hey.
Man 2: Hello.
Man 1: Do you want to spend the rest of your life dragging giant stone blocks over my buddy’s ziggurat in the beating sun?
Man 2: What?
Man 1: I said my friend’s building a ziggurat to honor himself.
Man 2: What’s a ziggurat?
Man 1: Like a big – um – stone thing. Pointy.
Man 2: [pause, birds] No, bro. I’m good.
Man 1: Don’t be ridiculous. This is the biggest thing since cave paintings, Thomas.
Man 2: Yeah, whatever. I’m all set here. Get lost.
Man 1: You’re going to regret this!
Man 2: Yeah. Umm. [birds, water] [Fishing reel.] [Yawn] Ziggurat. . .[snickers]
Within these marshes Mesopotamian civilization arose around three things. The first is the most important. By 3,000, they had become proficient at irrigation. As their populations grew due to natural abundances of resources, they collaborated to broaden the crop lands around their rivers. In addition to irrigation, they also needed drinking water, and around fresh springs and rivulets in scenic riverbends, places of worship were established. In these temples, priests spread news of water gods and moon deities. That’s another thing – if you had four different sets of freeze dried humans, and sprinkled them into four different warm riversides, you’d have some similar features in their religions. You’d find a water gods, sun gods, moon gods, storm gods – that kind of thing. Mesopotamia’s earliest religions generally fit this pattern.
The third thing the Mesopotamians needed – other than irrigation and fresh water – and this one is a bit less obvious – was stable ground. In an area prone to flooding, where soil is silty and sandbars are moving around, it’s a good idea to keep your favorite sandals, stone tools, harpoon, and valuable bronze implements a couple of feet above the high water mark. So the Mesopotamians built things on top of other things. Your house is built on top of your mother’s house, who built hers on top of her mother’s, and so on. This has proved awesome for archaeologists, who are able to descend through layers of old structures, and odds and ends, and frequently understand their basic chronology. These neatly striated layers, which are found all over the archaeological sites of the ancient Mediterranean, are called “tells.” And within these tells, archaeologists over the past two centuries have found all sorts of wonderful things, including the first writings ever set down by humankind. When I thought about where to begin The History of Literature, I had a lot of options. But one of them stood out above the others as the obvious, and really the only choice. I chose the time, and place where writing began in the first place.
Cuneiform in SumerThe history of writing begins with rain, falling on the Pontic and southern Taurus mountains in present day Turkey. These mountains are home to the headwaters of the Euphrates, which runs 1,700 miles across Syria and Iraq, until it joins its brother Tigris in the extreme southeast of Iraq in a confluence called the Shatt Al Arab, before emptying into the Persian Gulf.
Five thousand years ago, the Euphrates flowed much further to the northeast. Its waters, and those of the Tigris, embraced the central cities of Sumer. Sumerian, a language with no known relatives, has been difficult to understand and translate. But it’s the language in which the oldest written documents in the world were authored.
The region of Sumer was in the southeastern part of present day Iraq. The ecosystem of its inhabited areas was a combination of riverside marshes and irrigated flatlands. Out of these fusions of wetlands and desert arose the world’s first cities. One of these cities – top contender for Earth’s oldest large city, was called Uruk. Uruk’s unique ecosystem was the reason it arose in the first place, and also, fascinatingly, the reason that we know so much about it. I’ll explain.
If the inhabitants of Uruk had kept written records on papyrus, parchment, wood, or any similar organic material, these records would have disintegrated eons ago, like many Egyptian ones of the same period probably did. Instead, the Uruks used special styluses to impress an ever evolving group of written languages, some pictorial, some alphabetic, and everything in between, onto clay tablets. Our umbrella term for these written languages is cuneiform. It was so widespread at the height of Mesopotamian civilization that historians call the region that used cuneiform the “cuneiform lands.” Archaeologists found 20,000 cuneiform tablets at ancient trading posts near Aleppo in Syria in 1964. A hundred years earlier, they discovered an even higher quantity in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nineveh – modern day Mosul, Iraq. Today, we have thousands and thousands of these cuneiform documents. Many of them have still never been translated. But many of them have.
Because of clay, we know far more about the ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent than we do of much, much more recent ones. Of the Goths and the Gauls of Roman times, we know almost nothing other than what others wrote about them. But Sumer stamped its autobiography in clay five thousand years ago. We know names of everyday people, their trading records, logs of temple offerings and sacrifices, and we have legal documents, like deeds of sale and rental agreements.
While clay is much more enduring than organic media like papyrus, leather, or wood, there’s something even more miraculous about it. When conquerors come to burn your town, and your city library gets scorched, you may lose your possessions. But fire bakes clay tablets. Arson was actually cuneiform’s best friend. And burn layers are one of the most reliable markers for archaeological dating. So in ancient metropolises like Hattusa, in modern day Turkey, and Ugarit, in modern day Syria – when these places were burned and razed to the ground, their conquerors unwittingly made stamped and sealed time capsules for future generations to uncover.
So. We have tens of thousands of clay tablets from a wide array of civilizations spanning two and a half millennia. Let’s ascend to cruising altitude and make some general statements about them. The earliest written documents we have – ones from the 2000s BCE, from the land of Sumer – aren’t filled with sonnets or love stories or flash fiction. They’re not novels, or works of philosophy, or history. They’re trading records, logs of sacrificial offerings, and lists of things, created in a script scholars call “proto-cuneiform.” The tablets written in this language, about 5,000 in number, were found predominantly in Uruk. 85% of them are economic, and 15% lexical lists (meaning groups of category words, like things that are blue, things that smell good, etc.). These lexical lists were often the products of scribal schools – archaeologists have uncovered a few places where scribes were trained by copying passages and lexical lists. So, the oldest records of human writing don’t contain any Hamlets or Jane Eyres. They’re just syntactically non-standard, generally pictographic logs of livestock, foodstuffs, crockery, and textiles being sold or donated to a temple or a private individual. That’s how it all got started.
A proto-cuneiform tablet from some time between 3100-3000 BCE, recording the distribution of some beer.
What the Uruk tablets lack in variety or literary verve, however, they make up for with another quality. In the Uruk tablets, you can see writing being born. You can see pictographs become standard. You can see ancient recordkeepers grafting pictographs together to make compound sounds that capture people’s names, and then pictographs becoming less visually specific and turning into logographs, abstract symbols that stand for words. In the oldest clay tablets there is an essential human rationality and creativity at work – an attempt to create a generalizable logical structure that the widest possible variety of readers could understand. The growth and diversification of cuneiform is like that of programming languages in our own age –the clay tablet, like the computer, is a vehicle that captures languages and innovations within these languages, all, ultimately with the aim of transmitting information.
So let’s look at one. The tablet is dated around 3,100 BCE, when Uruk had about 25,000 residents, making it a metropolis by ancient standards. As I said, it’s just four words long. I want to read it to you, these four words rushing forward from five thousand years ago, then talk about the effect it might have on us, and then give you the standard (and doubtless correct) scholarly interpretation of what it means. The 5,000 year old tablet – one of humankind’s earliest written records, says the following.
2. Sheep. God. Inanna. I’ll read that again. 2. Sheep. God. Inanna. So say four words on an Uruk clay tablet. 2. Sheep. God. Inanna.
Unless you’re a scholar of the period, I assume it sounds like gibberish. To clear things up right away, I’ll say that “2” is the number two – that’s hard to convey in a podcast, and “Inanna” is a name. Not that this clarification helps much. “2. Sheep. God. Inanna” still sounds like a pretty random selection of words.
Even then, though, the words, being as old as they are, still have a sort of grandeur about them. Like Latin lettering, cut into the lintel above an ancient door, or the beautiful calligraphy of a medieval manuscript in an unfamiliar language, strange words often have a provocative power, each one – “2. Sheep. God. Inanna.” – coming out of the past and almost smoking with mystery.
A very early proto-cuneiform tablet. Adapted from Kern, R. "Interactions of the material, the social, and the individual," in Language, Literacy, and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Enough philosophizing about language, though. Let’s talk about that Uruk tablet. “2. Sheep. God. Inanna.” Inanna was the Mesopotamian goddess of war and sex. Yes. War and sex. No Mars and Venus, those familiar Roman gods, to stand for these things separately. One goddess, ruling over war and sex. We are not in the familiarly gendered realm of Greco-Rome, yet. This is ancient history. The rules are different.
Inanna was the resident deity of the city of Uruk. She was believed to actually reside in the temple there, and to look kindly on offers of food and drink. Later, her name was changed to the more familiar Ishtar. The priestly caste who ruled the city of Uruk demanded periodic sacrifices to Inanna, and sacrifices to her were logged on a great many clay tablets.
So when we see a tablet bearing the words “2. Sheep. God. Inanna,” just a smidgeon of knowledge about Uruk society tells us what it meant to them. Two sheep were delivered to the temple on behalf of the Goddess Inanna. She, or – let’s be honest – her priests – had some mutton. What at first might have seemed like an arcane and enigmatic fragment, perhaps bearing some kind of cosmic secret, turns out to be a – uh – receipt, I guess – a perfectly banal record of Uruk life. The sheer mass of data the Uruks left behind – receipts, student exercise sets, business agreements, package labeling, contracts, and so on, have offered archaeology and history a deep, compelling portrait of a civilization that predates anything we ever knew about until scarcely a hundred and fifty years ago.
Cuneiform wasn’t even a field of study until the nineteenth century. It wasn’t deciphered until the late 1850s. When it was first translated, and we realized that the little wedged shaped symbols tracked the course of a civilization older than Israel, even, perhaps, older than Ancient Egypt , we found that beginnings of civilization were not the marble statues of Greece, but instead the buried tells of Iraq.
Speaking of Israel, what about that Tower of Babel story? Everything we’ve been talking about happened five thousand years ago, around 3,000 BCE. Biblical scholars generally concur that the earliest books of the Old Testament were commenced no earlier than 800 BCE, with the bulk of the volume being written between the reign of King Josiah in Judah, starting in 640 BCE, and the end of the Persian period in 323 BCE. To put it simply, writing had been around for well over two thousand years before the worshippers of Yahweh Elohim began to set their scriptures down. The vast majority of the Old Testament, produced just before, during, and after the Babylonian captivity of 586-539 BCE, was therefore set down at about the halfway point of recorded human history. The Hebrew Bible, and the story of the Tower of Babel, while they are old, aren’t quite so old as they once seemed.
So far, in terms of literary content, I’ve retold you the Tower of Babel story. And I’ve told you about a single four word clay cuneiform tablet – “2. Sheep. God. Inanna” – that was written thousands of years before this story. Now, I’m going to tell you why I think they’re related.
Cuneiform and Mesopotamian HistoryTo do this, we’re going to need some more history. Let’s talk about Mesopotamia. Most people don’t have any idea how populous, and urban, and sophisticated human civilization was in the city states of Iraq, four thousand years ago. Many of the cogs and wheels of our civilization – organized religion, state bureaucracies, schools, standing armies, mathematics, medicine, engineering, astronomy, literature, wheels – all of them were born, and nurtured, and in some cases, perfected, in Mesopotamia.
Paul Kriwaczek – a great historian on the subject, by the way – put out a modern classic called Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization a few years ago. I’m going to quote from the introduction to his book. He writes that during the 2,500 years of Mesopotamia’s history, “Throughout all that time – the same span as it takes us from the classical age of Greece, through the rise and fall of Rome, of Byzantium, of the Islamic Khalifate, of the Renaissance, of the European empires, to the present day – Mesopotamia preserved a single civilization, using one unique system of writing, cuneiform, from beginning to end; and with a single, continuously evolving literary, artistic, iconographic, mathematical, scientific, and religious tradition.”4 It’s hard to imagine! And the main character of these 2,500 years, which saw dynasties and languages rise and fall, and populations shift, was the sturdy, hardworking, fireproof clay tablet. The clay tablet helped stabilize economic systems, codify religious practices, pass down knowledge of science, engineering, medicine, and astronomy, mark boundaries, record history, issue proclamations – and fun stuff, too. Around the time of its 800th birthday, the clay tablet began to also be home to poems, and stories, and songs.
If aliens found remnants of mankind on earth, and were able to assign a chronology to us, I think they would look at the clay tablets, and nod their green heads, and wiggle their tentacles, and agree that these cuneiform tablets were the most foundational ingredient to everything that’s happened to us as a species, ever since. They would think that the first person to ever glob a dab of clay off the Euphrates and stick it on a piece of palm bark, trace a shape in it, then rub out that shape and trace another one – they’d think that that person, or people, were the instigators of modern consciousness.
Cuneiform on clay tablets was first produced in Sumer – in the southeast of Iraq, near the Persian Gulf. From 3,100 to 2,300 BCE, it was all happening in Sumer. Power was concentrated in Sumerian cities called Uruk and Ur. They became the largest cities that had ever existed. And what do ancient cities do when they start growing in power, and population, and resources? They start to expand.
Around 2,300, an Akkadian speaking warlord named Sargon became one of civilization’s first conquerors, bringing distant peoples of the northwest under the control of a united dynasty. According to stone inscriptions that he had commissioned, Sargon’s priestess mother cast him into the river in a reed basket. This earlier analog of Moses moved the center of gravity of Mesopotamia to the city of Akkad, and for more than 1,500 years, Akkadian, a Semitic language like ancient Hebrew, would be at the heart of Mesopotamian civilization, with Sumerian, the older language, slowly becoming a court language, and then, eventually, merely one known to scribes and scholars.
Throughout the multiple millennia of Mesopotamia’s history, power would slowly shift from the southeast to the central north – Sargon was the beginning of this. But Sumer, after giving posterity the clay tablet, and with it all of the ingredients of modern civilization, had one more trick up its sleeve.
In 2200, a resurgence of Sumerian arts, letters, and politics took place at the southern city of Ur. For two centuries, in what scholars call the Sumerian Renaissance, the city blossomed, and we should pause for a minute and look at the city of Ur in about 2,000, incidentally, the legendary origin point of the Biblical patriarch Abraham.
The reconstructed ziggurat of Ur. The original would have towered over irrigation canals, sheepfolds, crop fields and a great many rooftops.
Those of us who love history love what if moments, and for me, Ur and the twilight of Sumerian civilization is one of the top five biggest what if moments of all. If civilization had continued to develop in ancient Iraq as it had in the city of Ur between 2200 and 2000, we might have been driving cars three thousand years ago instead of just a hundred, and viewing road signs and billboards in cuneiform. There might be a statue of the goddess Inanna on the hills above Rio de Janeiro, and a vast temple to her in Istanbul.
But Ur did fall. And its decline around 2,000 signaled the end of Mesopotamian power being concentrated in Sumer, in the southeast. After a couple hundred years, a famous conqueror called Hammurabi and his descendents concentrated the power of Mesopotamia in a new location. This location is at the center of today’s show. About a hundred miles south of present day Baghdad, in about 1,800, a city was founded called Babylon. Or, in 1,800, a city archaeologists call “Old Babylon.” Babylon would thereafter, with a couple of hiccups, be an important hub of civilization in Mesopotamia. Old Babylon endured for four centuries before being sacked by foreign invaders. Though it remained important, Babylon’s power fell into dormancy for a long time. And as it slept, new powers rose and came to know one another.
At the center of it all was the protagonist of today’s story, cuneiform. You’d visit a king’s court, and on his walls were cuneiform and stone reliefs showing his conquests. You came to an unfamiliar land, and there were cuneiform boundary markers telling you where you were. You ventured to an unfamiliar temple, and on the walls were carvings of the gods they worshipped there, and cuneiform accounts of the lives and the deeds of those gods. Cuneiform was all over Mesopotamia. In fact, by the time of its 1500th birthday, cuneiform was all over the civilized world.
A letter from King Tushratta of the Mitanni (nothern Iraq) to the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III negotiating a marriage.
By the time of the letters I just mentioned –the Amarna Letters – they’re called, two out of three of Mesopotamia’s civilizations had seen the light of history. So far, you’ve met two of the main characters in Ancient Mesopotamian history. If Mesopotamia’s history were a play, Sumer, land of the Sumerian language, would be the dignified old matriarch. Babylon, the heir of Sumer’s intellectual and literary culture, would be the legitimate son. But there was another son – a younger son, a volatile, brilliant, violent son. This son was called Assyria.
Assyrian civilization, based in the northern cities of Ashur and Nineveh, learned from its neighbors how to smelt iron, ride horses, and employ wheeled chariots in battle. First in the 1120s, and then resurging again around 900, the Assyrians dominated the civilized world for hundreds of years. Assyria was the youngest son of old Sumer. Peoples of the ancient world knew them to be commercially inventive, militarily dominant, and exceptionally brutal with kingdoms who rebelled against them. At the height of its power, Assyria had conquered a territory that included even Egypt.
These two sons of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, rose and fell during different periods of later Mesopotamian civilization. Scholarship sometimes compares Babylon and Assyria to Greece and Rome, respectively – Babylon being the cultural wellspring and then Assyria being the military and imperial superpower. There were many other characters on the stage of ancient Mesopotamian history – Hittites, Hurrians, Kassites, Mittanites, Syrians, and, eventually, Israelites. But the leading roles went to Babylon, and Assyria. We’ll see a lot of Babylon and Assyria in future episodes. They had no small influence on the creation of the Old Testament, which brings us back to the Tower of Babel, and what it means.
Oh, those Assyrians. In this wall relief from the early 700s, the Assyrian king Sennacherib has just smashed the Canaanite city of Lachish, and is viewing prisoners from Judah. Sennacherib didn't particularly seem to remember being struck down by an angel, as 2 Kings 19 records.
Then it was the southern kingdom Judah’s turn to face the slow influx of the Assyrian military and cultural machine. Between the late 700s and most of the 600s, Judah first rebelled, and then complied with the Mesopotamian foreigners. It was either be a part of the world empire, or face annihilation. But then, in 612 BCE, something shocking happened. It was a fascinating year in literary history for many reasons, not the least of which being that by 612, the Old Testament was certainly being worked on, multiple prophets were alive, contributing to it. But the seminal historical event of 612 was that one of the sons of the old matriarch Sumer, after generations of warfare, finally killed the other one. The legitimate son, Babylon, fueled by an influx of dynamic new immigrant cultures, finally defeated the violent northern empire of Assyria.
Babylon had help. A whole coalition of Babylonian allies was needed to besiege and sack the later Assyrian capital of Nineveh. And the Assyrians had a lot of enemies. When you make a practice of impaling, and skinning, and mutilating subject peoples, which the Assyrians were famous for, you make a lot of enemies. With Assyria broken, and Nineveh destroyed, the city of Babylon, a hundred miles south of present day Baghdad, could then assert itself as the primary power center of the civilized world. Its only rival after the conquest of Assyria was Egypt, which it destroyed just seven years later. Thus, in 605, Babylon, oldest son of the Mesopotamian matriarch Sumer, was once again at the helm of civilization. To most of its neighbors, large and small, there was no reason to suspect that things would change any time soon.
Just as the southern Canaanite kingdom of Judah had been pounded and threatened by the Assyrians, they were soon thereafter pounded and threatened by the Babylonians. From the Judahite perspective, Babylon was a terrifying superpower, blasphemous and doomed to divine damnation. And from the Babylonian perspective, Judah was an odd little kingdom in the boondocks that knew nothing about the main line of civilization’s evolution. When this odd little kingdom knocked the yoke of Babylonian power one time too many, it was only natural to follow standard operating procedure, and sack its little capital of Jerusalem, and redistribute its population.
In 586 BCE, after numerous fallings out with the great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, a large population of Judahites were deported and forced to live in the city of Babylon. There, they continued work on the earliest books of the Old Testament, augmenting, editing, and revising ancestral stories, and codifying the religion that would later be called Judahism. One of the stories that they wrote – either in Babylon or after the captivity, was the story of the Tower of Babel. While medieval depictions of this tower show devils, and angels, and a gothic spike spiraling upward into the clouds, the real Tower of Babel was 90-meter, six stage ziggurat called Etemenanki, built to honor the main Babylonian god, Marduk. It didn’t reach the stars, but at 27 stories high, Etemenanki was within its time one of the tallest structures in the world.
A map onsite at Babylon today in Iraq showing the scope and outlying areas of the city under Nebuchadnezzar II, when the Judahites lived there.
It must have been culturally humbling to show up there and see the giant public buildings, water gardens, vast statues and carved reliefs, ancient inscriptions, palaces, canals, broad thoroughfares and marketplaces. And it must have been just as humbling to encounter a whole region that shared a linguistic heritage – a lingua franca, that was thousands of years old and had existed, in writing, on clay tablets, far longer than Hebrew had. Mesopotamian cities had libraries and scriptoriums. And when I think of the inspiration for the Tower of Babel story, and why it’s about God confusing Babylon’s language, I imagine one of the Biblical scribes, a prophet or long forgotten editor, walking into the vast confines of a Babylonian library, and seeing, for the first time, the strange, tiny rows of writing that was used all over Mesopotamia.
We’re getting closer to making sense of the Tower of Babel story. It was written by a generation of Hebrew speaking scribes who found themselves an ethnic and linguistic minority in the land of their exile. They had little love for the older culture of Babylon. They were intimidated by its ancient and storied literary and religious culture. They probably had to learn some of its language, and likely some of them were trained in the composition of cuneiform on clay tablets. And they lived on within sight of its giant tower to the god Marduk.
But we still haven’t unraveled the mystery of why they wrote a story about Babylon’s language being confused. The Babel story ends with the words, “So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (Gen 11:8). Why does the story have this bizarre ending?
The answer is, I think, that exiled Hebrew scribes who wrote the story, or their children or grandchildren, were recording a real historical event. We can call this event the end of Mesopotamia. This event was a long one. It may have begun as early as 1,200 BCE, when climatological shifts caused widespread droughts, population migrations, warfare, and a general tumult in the Ancient Mediterranean world called the Bronze Age Collapse. The Bronze Age Collapse leveled the dominant civilizations of Greece, and Crete, and Cyprus. It crushed the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt – this was Egypt at the summit of its power. The Bronze Age Collapse obliterated the dominant kingdoms of present day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and most of Iraq. This apocalypse caused a dark age to fall over most of the civilized world. It was like the fall of the Western Roman empire in 476 CE. Trade and transportation networks collapsed. Economies ceased to function. Enclaves of developing civilization were pulverized by marauders and opportunistic warlords.
The Bronze Age Collapse was the catalyst to the slow disintegration of Mesopotamian culture. Even during the later Iron Age, as Assyria and Babylon flexed their muscles during the height of their respective imperial periods, we have hints that the heads of these civilizations scented change in the air. It was a change that no massive land army, or iron armor, or cavalry troops, or deadly projectile slingers, or gory public executions could resist. It was a change in language.
The eastern immigrants, from the Bronze Age Collapse of 1200 onward, brought with them new languages, chief among them Aramaic. Aramaic is a Semitic language, like Hebrew – it’s one of the most important and enduring languages of the Ancient Near East. Mesopotamia had, for generations, absorbed new peoples, with new languages. Now, people had been migrating into Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Mesopotamia ate them for breakfast. Because whoever you were, and wherever you were from, when you moved to Babylon, or Nineveh, if you wanted to do business, you used cuneiform. The main character of our story – that dauntless little clay tablet – had an extraordinary run of it. It was the connective tissue of the civilized world for 2,500 years. But then something came along that outmoded cuneiform, and, in the process, commenced the extinction of Mesopotamian culture. This new technology was an alphabet.
Cuneiform on clay tablets is a great choice if you want to bury something in a hot climate for four thousand years and have it understood by future generations. But it’s also difficult to learn. You have to memorize a huge number of signs, learn the use of the styluses, and master the art of finding appropriate clay, storing it, getting the moisture content correct, finding light bright enough by which to read those little monochromatic impressions, and then baking it afterwards. A phonetic alphabet on cloth or leather, however, is easier to learn and quicker to produce. If you don’t know correct spelling for a word, you can still approximate it, whereas with cuneiform, if you don’t know the symbol, you’re out of luck. If college students today used cuneiform, they’d have to go back and forth between campus buildings pushing wheelbarrows full of stone tablets. And that is a silly image. Phonetic writing on organic materials, on the other hand, required no scribal schools or years of specialized training, no cumbersome implements for its construction, and no – uh – wheelbarrows. Phonetic writing spread like wildfire.
I got to thinking about cuneiform, and how awesome it is, and the end of cuneiform so much that I wrote a thirty second song about it.
I’ll do that once in a while in this show. Throw in a thirty or forty-five second song just to be goofy and break things up. Maybe highlight something I think is really cool or strange. Anyway, let’s get back to the fall of cuneiform. A minute ago, I said that the heads of the two sons of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon, scented change in the air.
For the Sake of Distant DaysI want to tell you about two of the last kings of Assyria and Babylon. Let’s start with Assyria. Ashurbanipal was one of the last rulers of the northern province of Assyria. Ashurbanipal knew that cuneiform was important. Ruling from 668 to 627 BCE, he was one of the great strongmen of ancient history. He sacked an upstart king in the southern realm of Babylon. He demolished enemies in the east. On one of his palace walls is a famous relief of him having dinner with his wife, sipping some wine. Birds are singing. A musician is playing the lyre. And nearby, the mutilated severed head of one of his enemies hangs from a tree. You know, a dinner scene just like we would have today. Wine. Dates. Music. Corpses.
You don’t expect a warrior emperor to double as a scholar and curator of antique objects. But, like Charlemagne, Ashurbanipal knew that knowledge was precious, and took steps to ensure that his kingdom preserved and cherished what written records it had. Many Mesopotamians had the same attitude, and we are their beneficiaries. Ashurbanipal could not have known that Assyria would fall fifteen years after his death, never to recover. And yet the desire to preserve cuneiform was the result of the cultural changes he saw happening around him.
The last king of Babylon had a similar disposition. His name was Nabonidus, and he reigned from 556-539 BCE, during the tail end of the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites. Nabonidus was detested in his own time. Nabonidus didn’t fit the stamp of an ideal Mesopotamian monarch. He wasn’t rolling into the city gates with chariots full of booty. He was a bit like what Marcus Aurelius would have been like if Marcus Aurelius had allowed himself to abandon the Parthian and Marcomannic Wars and snuggle up with his books with a pot of tea. Which is what Marcus Aurelius wanted to do, but didn’t. And what Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, actually did.
Nabonidus’ interests were scholarly, and archaeological. He left Babylon altogether for much of his reign, spending time in the desert oasis of Tayma, in present day Saudi Arabia. He had little interest in dominant Babylonian religion, or the Babylonian god Marduk. Instead, Nabonidus excavated buildings, sought out ancient artifacts, and tried to build a chronology of Mesopotamia’s history. In the midst of Babylon’s ascent to the summit of world power, as it absorbed new linguistic groups and coped with new technologies, and faced dynamic new challenges, its last king looked backward, far into the past. He worshipped an old Sumerian moon god – the same one Sargon’s daughter Enheduanna had written hymns to 1,700 years earlier, and built a museum full of antiquities. Nabonidus’ conservative, scholarly disposition could have been that of a professor, or museum director. But Mesopotamians liked their kings religiously orthodox and blood splattered. So as king, Nabonidus was detested.
These last kings of Assyria and Babylon, Ashurbanipal and Nabonidus, understood that the sun was setting on the era of cuneiform. The future was phonetic writing on organic materials; the past was cuneiform – and it was literally being buried beneath new construction projects built by foreign laborers who knew nothing about Akkadian, could not read Mesopotamia’s ancient writing, and didn’t care about it. These foreigners brought with them new languages, and new gods. One of these gods was called Yahweh.
The Israelites were there, in Babylon, to witness one of the most important events in world history. Now, the transition from cuneiform to phonetic writing took a long time – hundreds of years. Even though the move from cuneiform to phonetic writing was more important than any single Iron Age conquest or power transition, it wasn’t one of those momentous historical events that happen in a single day or week – events with fireworks and explosions and guitar solos and stuff. But the Israelites were there, at ground zero, on October 12th, 539 BCE, to witness a colossal world history moment – a fireworks and explosions and guitar solos moment.
On October 12th, 539, the city of Babylon underwent a peaceful power transition. It’s nominal king, the poor, bookish Nabonidus, was captured. News had spread that an immense new power was flooding into Mesopotamia from the east, a power called Persia. Persian forces, under the masterful leadership of the king of kings Cyrus, took over the leadership of Babylon. And soon thereafter, the exiled worshippers of Yahweh were allowed to return to their home city of Jerusalem, and rebuild their temple.
Somewhere along the line, whether in Babylon, or after they returned, the Israelites wrote the strange story of the Tower of Babel. It’s an even stranger story when you learn that the 90-meter ziggurat called Etemenanki didn’t actually come down when the Persians took over Babylon. Etemenanki still stood, and the old Babylonian god Marduk was still revered long into the Persian period. So the Tower of Babel story isn’t about the physical destruction of Etemenanki, or the eradication of Babylonian culture, or any specific, earth shattering moment in world history. The Tower of Babel story is, I think, about the end of cuneiform. Because when the Persians took Babylon, for the first time, Mesopotamia was ruled by a foreign power. In the 2,500 years of Mesopotamia’s history, dynasties had come and gone, and regions had come under foreign sway. Power had been subdivided and splintered. But what happened on October 12, 539, when the Persians successfully took Babylon and with it all of Mesopotamia, had never happened before. Suddenly, a people based in present day Iran ruled present day Iraq, and then Jordan, and Israel, and Lebanon, and soon began spilling down into Egypt.6
The Persian takeover was the moment when the critical mass of immigrating linguistic groups finally, and irreversibly made the written language of Mesopotamia obsolete. The Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet, the paramount emblem of a civilization that had been rising for thousands of years, which had once been the medium of communication for the bulwark of human civilization, was ended. It was buried. No longer would a linguistically diverse group of provinces share the same set of symbols in the Fertile Crescent. Thereafter, the west would live in the slippery and constantly evolving world of phonetic alphabets. That, I think, is what the Tower of Babel story means. It is about the decline of Babylon. But much more importantly, it is a story about the twilight of cuneiform, and end of a two thousand five hundred year period of relative linguistic unity. The destruction in Chapter 11 of Genesis didn’t happen to a tower in Babylon. It happened to a tablet in Babylon, the tablet that’s been the main subject of today’s show.
The banks of the Euphrates. The place where writing began. Note the clay and silt deposits in the foreground.
And while Mesopotamia’s religious stories are fascinating because they unmistakably influenced the Old Testament, they’re also captivating in their own right. Their unique conception of humankind, and our place in the world, their fondness for monsters and demons, their gorgeous language, and their superabundance of alcohol make them as entertaining today as they were four thousand years ago. Join me in Episode 2, for two stories that were told for thousands of years – stories filled with gods and devils, love and war, awesome weapons and giant palaces, unforgettable one liners, and lots and lots and lots of beer. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll see you next time.
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2.^Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/or, Volume 1. London : G. Cumberlege : Oxford university press, p. 45. Link.
3.^Glassner, Jean-Jacques. The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, pp. 4-5. Link.
4.^Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, p. 9. Link.
5.^Quoted in Wright, Alex. Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages. New York: Cornell University Press, 2008, p. 55. Link.
6.^For a strong, concise overview of the Babylonian period and the Persian conquest, see Chapter 10 in Podany, Amanda. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 112-123. Link.