Episode 1: The Tower of Babel

For thousands of years, cuneiform was the means of transmitting information through space and time in the Ancient Near East. Then, something happened.

To download the episode, click the three dot icon on the right of the player, and then click Download.

Cuneiform in the Fertile Crescent, 3100-500 BCE

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 1: The Tower of Babel. In the Book of Genesis, after the Old Testament God floods the whole world, and Noah, and his ark, and his family survive, we hear the story of a certain mysterious tower. It’s a cryptic story. In all of the 50 chapters of Genesis, amidst the gigantic saga of humankind’s creation all the way to the scattering of the twelve tribes of Israel, the story of the Tower of Babel is easy to forget. The nine little verses about this tower are less memorable than the lurid tale of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Lot, the tragedy of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph and the dreams of the Pharaoh, and of course the initial narrative involving Adam, Eve, and their expulsion from Eden. Amidst all of these more colorful and more dramatic episodes, the brief history of the Tower of Babel and what happened to it is a minor narrative excursion – a digression amidst Genesis’ general focus on the forebears and descendants of the patriarch Abraham.

It’s a short story – short enough for us to retell the whole thing here. Let’s hear a translation of this story – this is the NRSV translation, published in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. Here’s the opening of Genesis, Chapter 11.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as [the descendants of Noah] migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD 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.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:1-9)1

Whether you’ve heard this narrative in the beginning of Genesis, Chapter 11 before, or you’re just hearing it here for the first time, the events of the story are on one level quite clear and easy to understand. Humanity is migrating eastward. We build an imposing city of bricks, and a vast tower. The Old Testament God sees the city, and particularly the tower, and experiences something – maybe jealousy, or wrath, or even fear. The Old Testament God then scatters the population, the city and its tower stop being constructed, and suddenly we can no longer understand one another’s speech. The city is thereafter called Babel, which is a pun in Hebrew – balal in biblical Hebrew means “to confuse.” With its once unified language confused, and its great construction projects forestalled by divine command, Babel – in the Book of Genesis, at least – falters, and the rest of Chapter 11 proceeds by getting back to the main narrative subject – the ancient forefathers of the Israelites.


Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting of the famous tower (1563). Spectacular, but not much like Etemenanki, the real Ziggurat of Babylon, where cuneiform was in wide circulation.

For at least 2,500 years, we have been reading this story. It’s printed near the front of perhaps a billion bibles as I record this, as terse and dark and inscrutable as it’s always been. But what does it mean? Why is the Tower of Babel the Old Testament? And why – I’ve always thought this is 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 in the least bit threatened by the descendants of Noah joining forces and building a city together. Why, in the midst of a productive and linguistically unified period of human history – a history far more harmonious than the decadent epoch that prompted the biblical flood back in Chapter 8 – why would the Old Testament God attack the descendants of Noah who were laying bricks and trying to make a home for themselves in Babel?

There are more questions. If you’ve read the first eight or nine books of the Old Testament, you know that the book’s deity has a lot of ways of taking down a city. He’s got fire and brimstone. He’s got plagues. He can turn rivers to blood and slay firstborn sons. He can shatter walls with trumpet blasts. So why, when he comes to Babel, does he confuse the language, dust off his hands, and have done with it? The other kingdoms that oppose the Israelites in the Old Testament – big ones like Egypt and Assyria, and little ones, like Jericho and Hazor – they all face murderous forms of divine retribution. Why does Babylon get spared? Why does the kingdom that kidnapped a generation of Israelite nobility get off so lightly, with an odd little slap on the wrists?2

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 in these illustrations, its arches careening and turning, and at the top tiny angels and devils banged swords against shields. I found modern pictures of the Tower of Babel – 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, Prometheus and Pandora, Tantalus and Pelops, and Faust, and Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. A professor I had showed me a sentence in the most famous work of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – that “every notable historical era will have its own Faust,” and he explained that the Tower of Babel story was just another incarnation of the Faust narrative.3 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 punished for overstepping.

But there was just too much that was weird about the story that opened the eleventh chapter of Genesis – too much, for me, for it to be just another Faust story from just another generation. It took me a long time to find an interpretation of this story 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. [music]

The Halfway Point of Recorded History

There was a time – before Biblical archaeology – before we deciphered Akkadian, and Sumerian, and Egyptian hieroglyphics in the nineteenth century, before we deciphered Ugaritic and Hittite at the beginning of the twentieth – there was a time when the Old Testament was humankind’s solitary linguistic record of the events of the Ancient Near East during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. At this time, the Old Testament stood, exalted and solitary, as our best hope of understanding a long period of central Eurasian history. We did not have, or could not read the thousands and thousands of documents we do today from the Bronze and Early Iron ages – tablets, monoliths, tomb carvings, fragments of broken pottery, monumental inscriptions, king lists, letters, receipts, and other texts. The disciplines of Assyriology and Egyptology are still young, and other languages and cultures that ringed the ancient Canaanites who wrote the Old Testament have been subjects of scholarly study for less than a century. In the past 200 years, however, we have learned a lot about what was happening in the Ancient Near East during the Bronze Age. And by cross referencing king lists, annals of historical conquests, hieroglyphic carvings in pharaonic tombs, and the occasional, invaluable mentions of ancient eclipses, we have been able to shine light on the ancient civilizations of Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere – civilizations that predate our own by more than 4,000 years.

Most of us recognize the opening words of Genesis – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void” (Gen 1:1). And when we hear these words – particularly if we are not ancient historians – we feel as though we’re hearing a story that is old beyond old – the opening of a monolithic text that predates everything, that comes from a moment at the very dawn of recorded history. But it doesn’t. The Old Testament, if we put it on a shelf alongside narrative and theological texts that predated it, doesn’t seem quite so old. First of all, the Old Testament was composed over the course of almost a thousand years. What many scholars consider its most ancient portion, the Song of Deborah, in the fifth chapter of the Book of Judges, dates back to the late 700s BCE.4 Its youngest books were composed far later – Daniel, during the late 160s, and the Maccabean revolt; Judith even later, probably during the Hasmonean dynasty; 2 Esdras, later still, after the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE; 4 Maccabees, probably even later still.5 Now that was a dense mass of book names and dates, I realize, so let’s back up for a second. If biblical scholars are accurate in assuming that the oldest portion of the Old Testament – a poem in the Book of Judges – was composed in the 700s BCE, then the very oldest fragment of the Old Testament is roughly contemporary with the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey. As ancient Canaanite scribes began to compose short Hebrew poetry about their martial conquests, Archaic Greece already had two full scale epics.

But these epics, also, are youngsters in the timeline of human literature – brawny, influential youngsters, but youngsters nonetheless. Because long before the main portions of the Old Testament were written and compiled, all around the Eastern Mediterranean, a number of civilizations were producing stories and theological texts. To the immediate northwest of the Israelites, in modern day Syria, a civilization called Ugarit had a literary and theological tradition with a number of distinct parallels to the Old Testament, and this tradition was recorded on stone tablets in the mid-1300s BCE. Across the Eastern Mediterranean, to the north, during roughly the same time, the ancient Hittites of modern day Turkey recorded stories of a rollicking pantheon of feuding deities. Southwest of the Israelites, across the Sinai Penninsula, stories and spellbooks survive from Ancient Egypt that date back to almost 2,000 BCE, some thirteen hundred years older than the oldest books of the Old Testament. We’ll talk about all of these texts in our podcast. But as old, or older than all of these narratives are the stories of ancient Mesopotamia – the Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Epic of Inanna and Dumuzi, and the poetry of Enheduanna of Ur.

Most of us have never heard of any of these texts. For some reason we’re content go back as far as the Bible and maybe the works of Homer and let the rest remain enshrouded in mist. Most of us don’t know that history’s first recorded author was a woman named Enheduanna, who lived in the early 2200s, or that the flood story in Genesis is probably co-opted from the Babylonian Atrahasis, or that one of the names of God in the Old Testament is taken from the pantheon of ancient Ugarit. We don’t – to speak at a more general level – we don’t often realize that the Old Testament was written at about the half way point of recorded civilization, and not the beginning – and that it is an anthology of diverse writings frequently influenced by prior works, and not, by any means, the earliest text to emerge from ancient history.

I wanted to start this podcast with the Tower of Babel story not because it is especially old. I wanted to start with this story because I think it’s a parable, or a shorthand, for an immense, complicated historical event, an event that marks the halfway point in recorded human history. I think the Tower of Babel story is 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. [music]

Early Civilization in Sumer

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 600s and 500s BCE, who wrote most of the Bible, 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. Babel was not a fictional location. It is the biblical name for Babylon, an ancient city about 50 miles due south of modern day Baghdad, and 500 miles east of modern day Jerusalem. A huge portion of the Old Testament was produced in, or concerns itself with the city of Babylon, where the Israelites were held captive between 586 and 539 BCE. By the 500s, as Biblical prophets wrote their tracts, as the history of Israel and Judah was recorded and embellished, as the power of the Achaemenid Persian Empire grew in modern day Iran, writing was already 2,500 years old. Its roots were not Hebrew, nor Greek; not Achaemenid, nor Arabic. Another culture created cuneiform – a culture that history forgot for thousands of years.

N-Mesopotamia and Syria english cuneiform

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.

I 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 the southeastern region of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia wasn’t a city, or a kingdom. Mesopotamian wasn’t a language, or a distinct 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 modern day 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.

Like the Egyptian civilization along the Nile to the west, and the Harrapan civilization on the Indus River to the east, Mesopotamian civilization arose along riverbanks. If you had some freeze dried human beings, and an unpopulated planet, and you wanted to make sure that we got on the fast track to civilization – a bizarre scenario, I know – but anyway, if you had to plant human beings in the place that historically engendered spontaneous, isolated outbreaks of civilization, you’d need to find some riverbanks. Not just any riverbanks, but hot ones, in a flattish area, that had some kind of perennial flooding. The Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus River – all of these were not only constant sources of water. They also flooded seasonally. Their floods deposited nutrient rich silt into the lands around them. These were areas that just begged you to plant something. You could be eating some dates, and then drop some in that nice, damp riverside soil, and then, a few months later – up come some date palms!

During the beginnings of Mesopotamian civilization, the lands along the Tigris and Euphrates were marshy and swarmed with fish and fowl. Gradual climate shifts have subsequently dried up these ecosystems. When we see modern 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 southeastern 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.

The ecology and natural resources of southeastern Iraq, in the 6,000s, 5,000s, and 4,000s, provided settlers there with compelling reasons to centralize and band together. Civilization requires some reliable incentive system to organize and collaborate. For the early Mesopotamians, the incentive was fresh, usable 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.

Within these marshes Mesopotamian civilization arose around three things. And the first, again, was fresh, flowing water. By 3,000, Mesopotamians up and down the Tigris and Euphrates had become proficient at irrigation. As their populations grew due to natural abundances of resources, they worked together to broaden the crop lands around their rivers. Arable farmland expanded, and squalid marshlands were cut through with flowing canals, and in 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 about early civilization – 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, fertility gods, storm gods – that kind of thing. The Bronze Age’s polytheistic systems, which were not strictly codified or institutionalized, meshed and evolved as civilizations encountered one another, and 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 with every season, 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 would be built on top of your mother’s house, who would build hers on top of her mother’s, and so on. This has proved very handy for archaeologists, who are able to descend through layers of old structures, and odds and ends, and very quickly 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. [music]

The Birth of Cuneiform

The 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 – a sprawling metropolis by Bronze Age standards, was called Uruk. Uruk’s unique ecosystem was the reason it arose in the first place, and also, fascinatingly, the reason that we now know so much about it today.

Cylinder seal king Louvre AO6620 cuneiform

A cylinder seal from around 3200 BCE (left) and impression made with it (right).

We know a lot about Uruk and its neighbors for a very simple reason. The inhabitants of Uruk didn’t have much usable wood, nor stone. They had mardi reeds, narrow-leafed cattails, date palms, and in drier regions, mesquite and a kind of tamarisk plant. What do you build with when you have little wood, and very little stone to quarry? You use clay. The soft, sluggish banks of the southernmost Euphrates, which drags and grinds sediments for almost 2,000 miles from the mountains of Syria, was the perfect place to find it. They made clay bricks, beveled rim clay pots, and cylindrical clay seals. These are amazing little things, if you’ve never seen them. Cylindrical seals were pieces of stone about the size and shape of a lipstick tube. Cylindrical seals had figures embossed all the way around, that Mesopotamians used to roll on a piece of clay to create a little picture. These embossed seals were signatures guaranteeing the authenticity of a document or product. But more importantly than their cookware, clay toys and figurines, and even their fascinating cylindrical seals, the Uruks made clay tablets, and they wrote on them. The rain, falling on the mountains of southeastern Turkey, and eroding them into usable sediment, was the key ingredient to the birth of writing.

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.

Early cuneiform writing tablet recording the allocation of beer

A proto-cuneiform tablet from some time between 3100-3000 BCE, recording the distribution of some beer.

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 came to burn a town in the Bronze Age fertile crescent, and the city library got scorched, inhabitants of these sacked towns might lose many possessions. But fire bakes clay tablets. And 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.

Once, the Old Testament was our only route into an understanding of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. But now, we have tens of thousands of clay tablets from a wide array of civilizations that span two and a half millennia. Let’s ascend to cruising altitude and make some general statements about those tons and tons of clay tablets. The earliest written documents we have – ones from the 2000s BCE, from the land of Sumer – are not filled with sonnets or love stories or flash fiction. The earliest cuneiform tablets are not novels, or works of philosophy, or history. The earliest texts of human history are trading records. They’re logs of sacrificial offerings, and lists of things, created in a script scholars call “proto-cuneiform.” The tablets written in proto-cuneifrom, about 5,000 in number, were found predominantly in Uruk. 85% of them are economic, and 15% of them lexical lists (meaning groups of category words, like things that are blue, things that smell good, etc.). These lexical lists were usually 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.

So the origins of writing, as far as we can tell, were practical, rather than artistic. If you needed to prove that you gave a guy ten sheep, and not five, and that he’d rolled his lipstick-tube-shaped personal clay seal on the agreement, and you’d rolled yours, now you had a way. Writing was a technology that became necessary when larger groups began congregating, and the circulation of goods became sufficiently complex to necessitate the creation of records. It’s not really a romantic origin story, but thankfully, it’s pretty easy to understand.

What the Uruk tablets – the first proto-cuneiform 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 can understand. The growth and diversification of cuneiform, during the 2000s BCE, was 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.

A Proto-Cuneiform Tablet

So let’s look at one. Let’s look at a tablet that’s dated around 3,100 BCE, when Uruk had about 25,000 residents, making it a metropolis by ancient standards. The proto-cuneiform tablet that we’ll look at is 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 clay 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 a 5,000-year old 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 very much. “2. Sheep. God. Inanna” still sounds like a pretty random selection of words.

early cuneiform tablet

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.

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.” – each one coming out of the past and almost smoking with mystery.

This Uruk tablet is a sort of first milestone in the long history of humanity’s learning about words as wonderfully imperfect invocations of things, rather than the things themselves. When the scribe who wrote the word “sheep” pressed the sign for it into clay, what was in his mind was probably quite a bit different than what’s in ours. The Uruks lived in close cohabitation with livestock along the marshy Euphrates, under date palms and amidst clay brick buildings, and they knew sheep well. A single word, sheep, can generate quite a diverse array of responses and images, based on one’s background and experiences. And a word like God, and the effects that it produces on listeners, are a tiny little tip, and a very, very large iceberg. That’s language – signs, and the oceans that sparkle beneath them. As they invented writing, the Uruk scribe and his contemporaries, who had no static written language they could impress on tablets, maybe thought about this far more than we do today. The French scholar of cuneiform and linguistics, Jean-Jacques Glassner, writes that even the earliest clay tablets “employed a subtle way of thinking that is based on analogy and a use of metonymy and metaphor. . .[I]t was a corpus that gave rise to an entire lexicon, a place of thought that gave increasingly rich significations to words. Its purpose was to assure the link between words and objects. [Cuneiform involved] a new modality of living and society, of novel kinds of experiences, of theological, philosophical, and scientific interrogation.”6

Well, enough philosophizing about language, though. Let’s talk about that Uruk tablet. “2. Sheep. God. Inanna.” First of all, Inanna was the Sumerian 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 the Bronze Age. The rules are often quite different.

The goddess 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 slightly 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 a cosmic secret, turns out to be a – uh – receipt, I guess – a perfectly banal record of Uruk life. The sheer mass of data that the Uruks left behind like this – 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 when 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, nor the wanderings of the ancient Israelites, but instead the buried tells of Iraq. [music]

From Sumer to Babylon

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 the Tower of Babel story. Now, I’m going to tell you why I think they’re related.

To do this, we’re going to need some more history; specifically, a short survey history of civilization in the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent. 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 building blocks of our civilization – priesthoods, 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.

Scholar Paul Kriwaczek 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.”7 It’s hard to imagine a civilization enduring for that long! 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 laws, 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.

I think if aliens found remnants of mankind on earth, and were able to assign a chronology to us, they would look at the clay tablets, and nod their heads, 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 – again 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? Of course, 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/Romulus and Remus 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.

Disk of Enheduanna cuneiform

The alabaster disc of Enheduanna, discovered at Ur in the 1920s.

By 2,200, then, Mesopotamia had seen two phases of civilization – Sumerian, to the south, and then the brief dynasty of Sargon and his heirs in Akkad, which scholars think was about 150 miles up the Tigris from Sumer. Amidst Sargon’s many achievements, he consolidated trade routes with Oman, and Bahrain. We know of his military and commercial successes from the cuneiform texts he left behind. But Sargon made another contribution to the history of writing. He set up his daughter, Enheduanna, as high priestess of the temple of the moon god Nanna in the city of Ur, which was ancient even in the 2,200s BCE. And Enheduanna is the world’s first known author, and many of her poems still survive today. For hundreds of years, Enheduanna of Ur’s poems were standard curriculum throughout modern day Iraq.

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.

More ziggurat cuneiform

The reconstructed ziggurat of Ur. The original would have towered over irrigation canals, sheepfolds, crop fields, and thousands upon thousands of cuneiform tablets.

The city of Ur in 2,000 BCE, if you had seen it, would make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about the ancient world. Ur was a factory of literature, science, mathematics, state sponsored education and public works projects. Its robust bureaucracy and economic organization encourage frequent comparisons to the Soviet Union in scholarship, and the features of advanced civilization archaeologists have discovered in Ur are stunning – consistent tax regulations and collection processes, boardinghouses that cared for women and children, state sponsored academies, weights and measures, an umbrella system for state employees that tracked, paid, and provided food for something like a million workers, and a really, really, really big ziggurat emblematizing the extraordinary achievements of the Sumerian people and their kings. If Ur had not fallen due to internal dissention and an ill-timed invasion from the east, it would be much more famous than Greece or Rome as the fountainhead of human civilization and technology.

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. 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 these rises and falls in Bronze Age Mesopotamian history 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.

AmarnaLetterOfMarriageNegotiation-BritishMuseum-August19-08 cuneiform

A letter from King Tushratta of the Mitanni (nothern Iraq) to the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III negotiating a marriage.

In a few decades around 1340s BCE, the power of Ancient Egypt was concentrated in a city called Amarna – about a hundred miles south of present day Cairo. Now, most people know that the written language of Ancient Egypt, during most of its existence, was hieroglyphics. And so in the 1890s CE, archaeologists were surprised at the discovery of almost 400 tablets, written in Akkadian cuneiform, stored in a palace chamber in the ruins of Amarna, Egypt. What was this mass of Mesopotamian writing doing so far from Mesopotamia? Why was it so far southwest of Iraq, all the way on the other side of present day Jordan, over the Sinai Peninsula, hundreds of miles down the Egyptian Nile? The cuneiform tablets discovered in the 1890s were letters. They were a correspondence between the scribes of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and the scribes of the kings and diplomats of faraway lands to the east and north – kingdoms in present day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The language of their composition was graceful and courteous, and what historians call the Amarna Letters provide modern scholars and enthusiasts with a window into the international relations of the Late Bronze Age. So by its 1500th birthday, cuneiform had not only been the key ingredient of civilization’s development. It had also been a tool that geographically dispersed civilizations used to make peace with one another, and exchange knowledge across borders. [music]

The Rise of Assyria

By the time of the letters I just mentioned –the Amarna Letters – they’re called, two out of three of Mesopotamia’s major 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 BCE, 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 the Assyrians 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.

The fall of Lachish, King Sennacherib reviews Judaean prisoners.

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.

If you know the Bible’s history books – especially Second Kings and Second Chronicles – and even more so if you happen to know Biblical archaeology, you know that the Old Testament and archaeology agree with one another most consistently in the years after 850 BCE. The Bible deals extensively with the interactions between Mesopotamians and their tiny western neighbors, Israel and Judah. The greatest villains in the Old Testament are probably the Assyrians. And archaeology and the Bible alike agree that waves and waves of Assyrians moved into the northern kingdom of Israel. Attempts at diplomatic relations were made, with Israel always being the disadvantaged underling, but when these relations repeatedly broke down, Israel was destroyed in 722 BCE, and alien populations flooded into the northern part of Canaan.

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, and they were contributing to it. But the seminal historical event of 612 was that one of the sons of the old matriarch Sumer, after centuries 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. [music]

The Judahite Nobility in Babylon, 586-539 BCE

In its decisive conquest 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 over the course of the 600s, they were soon thereafter beleaguered 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 bucked the yoke of Babylonian power one time too many, it was only natural, as far as the Babylonians were concerned 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 systemizing the religion that would later be called Judaism. One of the stories that they wrote – either in Babylon or after the captivity, was the story of the Tower of Babel. And 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. Etemenanki didn’t reach the stars, but at 27 stories high, Etemenanki was within its time one of the tallest structures in the world.

Babylon map onsite in Iraq

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.

I try and imagine what it would have been like for those resilient Judahites who were exiled from their small native land to the sprawling, magnificent, culturally robust city of Babylon, where a ziggurat literally towered over them. I try to imagine how hard it would have been for the exiles to dream of home. Certainly, as they lived in the shadow of that tower they must have felt resentment, and hatred, as they worked to preserve their cultural memories. But they might have also felt some envy. They weren’t in Canaan any more. They weren’t in the dry provinces of the southern part of modern day Israel, or the foothills of Judah. They were suddenly, indubitably, at the center of the civilized world – a place that had the direct cultural lineage of 2,500 years of civilization, a cultural synthesis of everything that had happened in Mesopotamia. No wonder those verses of Genesis show the Old Testament God saying, incredulously, “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” (Gen 11:6). If you had seen Babylon in the mid 500s BCE, maybe you would have said the same thing.

It must have been culturally humbling to show up therein Babylon 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 about 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. The exiled Israelites 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 the exiled Israelites lived on within sight of its giant tower to the god Marduk.

Confusion of Tongues

Gustave Doré’s illustration of the Tower of Babel story.

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 their grandchildren, were recording a real, and enormously consequential 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. Civilization was set back by perhaps a thousand years.

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 coming into Mesopotamia, from the Bronze Age Collapse of 1200 onward, brought with them new languages, chief among these languages 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. 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 today – 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 dissolution 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 cuneiform is 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 Mesopotamian 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. By the 600s, and 500s, as twilight began to fall over Assyria and Babylon, even the rulers Mesopotamia’s kingdoms began to understand that their culture’s ancient literary and theological history was under threat. [music]

Ashurbanipal, Nabonidus, Cyrus

I 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, Ashurbanipal 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 Ashurbanipal’s 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.

A history of all nations from the earliest times; being a universal historical library (1905) (14779048991)

Copy of the palace relief of Ashurbanipal. Note the head on the upper left.

Anyway, Ashurbanipal was a multidimensional monarch. He didn’t spend all his time chopping up foes and braiding his imposing Mesopotamian beard. Ashurbanipal was also a collector. He took pride in his ability to read and write. The huge library at his capital in Nineveh – the library discovered in modern day Mosul, Iraq, in 1853 was his. This late Assyrian King’s correspondence shows a dogged, meticulous effort to acquire, index, and store every single significant piece of Mesopotamian writing he could get his hands on. And frequently in the tablets Ashurbanipal collected, copied, and safeguarded at Nineveh is the haunting phrase, “For the sake of distant days.”

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 he 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 exactly rolling into the city gates with chariots full of booty. Nabonidus 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. Nabonidus 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 Nabonidus built a museum full of antiquities. Nabonidus’ conservative, scholarly disposition could have been that of a professor, or museum director. But Mesopotamians seem to have liked their kings religiously orthodox and blood splattered. And 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. And 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 all that. But the Israelites were there, at ground zero, on October 12th, 539 BCE, to witness a colossal world history moment – a fireworks and explosions moment.

On October 12th, 539, the city of Babylon underwent a peaceful power transition. Its 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 Achaemenid 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 they began spilling down into Egypt.

The Euphrates River-Iraq

The banks of the Euphrates. The place where writing began. Note the clay and silt deposits in the foreground.

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 Mediterranean and Ancient Near East 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. [music]

About Literature and History

In this first episode, we’ve barely touched literature at all. But the next couple of episodes are going to take us deep inside the consciousness of the once forgotten world of Mesopotamia, and we are going to explore some of their stories. The ziggurat called Etemenanki, with its 27 stories and six stages, was built to honor a god called Marduk, a storm god at the center of the Babylonian pantheon. In the next show, I’m going to tell you about this pantheon. The myths of Mesopotamia very likely influenced the Old Testament – most clearly in Genesis and the Book of Job. The Israelites got a lot more out of Babylon than a story about a tower. They got a creation story. They got a flood story. They got a tale of a storm god besting a leviathan.

And while Mesopotamia’s religious stories are fascinating because they likely 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 the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish and Atrahasis – two stories that were told for thousands of years – stories filled with gods and devils, love and war, terrifying weapons and giant palaces, unforgettable one liners, and a truly surprising quantity of beer.

Before we go, though, let me tell you a bit about this podcast, and how it works, since this is the inaugural episode. Literature and History 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 Sumerian, 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. I think it’ll take us a while to get to Middle English – perhaps a hundred episodes. But when we get there, we will have a giant bedrock of literary history to draw on, and this background will be useful as we move forward into the Renaissance and beyond.

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. I started this podcast because although there are a fair number of literature programs out there, most of them as I record this seem to be either interviews with authors or round table discussions of books. Both of these are great – I just thought that a chronological narrative history about literature would also be useful, a history that doesn’t assume you’ve read the books which are discussed in the episodes. So the general approach of this show will be to introduce a text, summarize the text, and then offer some historical background about the text afterward. I hope each program will be self-contained, unless we’re talking about a long work that spans multiple episodes. And I hope listeners will be able to jump in at any given point and learn about texts that interest them.

Literature and books have been at the center of my life for a long time. 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.

First, I think literature is an adventure. It’s a voyage into the vast diversity of the lives that have come before us. If you read a Homeric hymn, or a tragedy of Sophocles, or a dream vision of Chaucer, or an ancient Egyptian instructional narrative, or a love poem of the Latin writer Catullus, you’ll 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.

While literature can lift us out of our own time, and invite us to question even our most basic cultural assumptions, literature also teaches us that much of the core stuff of human experience is similar over the churn of generations. Parents and children, rain and sun, hope and loss, blood and water, love and laughter, ambition and failure and unrequitedness – these central parts of the human condition are subjects of the literature of the Middle Bronze Age as much as they are the books we’re still writing today. Read the Iliad, the poems of Sappho, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the letters of Cicero, or the saga of 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.

Ultimately, then, reading literature can be a search for difference, and a search for familiarity – a reminder that we should never take our cultural perspective for granted, and at the same time a reminder that we have all breathed the same air, drank the same water, and done variations of the same things, over the course of five thousand years of recorded history, and two hundred and fifty thousand years of our species’ existence prior to that.

This podcast has some built in bonus features, if you ever happen to need them. One of these is that every episode is fully transcribed on the podcast website – that’s literatureandhistory.com – no dots, dashes or underscores. Each episode transcription is complete with footnotes, maps, and illustrations. Most of us listen to podcasts while we’re doing other things like driving or exercising, and so it’s not practical for me to tell you to look at a map or a painting while you’re listening. But if you happen to hear something that interests you, every episode is, again, fully transcribed, and there’s a little search box on the website if you want to look through the text of the entire podcast, and see maps, artifacts, sources consulted, and that kind of thing.

Additionally, every episode has a quiz. These quizzes will work on a phone or computer or whatever, and I hope they help you retain the material you learn in each episode. Some of these ancient names I mentioned in this episode – Nabonidus, Ashurbanipal, Sargon, and all that – it’s good to see these names in print, and test your retention of what you’ve heard. The quizzes are easy to find on the podcast website.

And finally, almost every episode of the podcast ends with a comedy song. Now this, I realize, is rather unconventional in the realm of educational podcasts, but I thought it would be a fun thing to do to lighten things up at the close of each program. The comedy tunes start modest and short and simple and, as the podcast progresses, they grow increasingly longer and more extravagant, but I don’t ever want you to feel obligated to listen to any of them if you don’t want to. You’re here for the literary history, first and foremost and so if you want to skip the comedy songs, I will always put them at the very end of each show. So if you want to hear a short, silly song about cuneiform, I’ve got one for you, and if not, thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next time for Episode 2: Before the Flood – on some of the early religious texts of Mesopotamia.

Still here? Alright. This first comedy tune, which is a whopping thirty seconds long, is called “The Days of Cuneiform.” And it tries to imagine what it would have been like to live in Mesopotamia and to use cuneiform on a daily basis.

So that, again, was Literature and History’s first little song. As I said they get longer and more elaborate as the program continues, and if you find any of them particularly funny, they’re all up on YouTube – some of them have even been made into cartoons. On the podcast website just go to Episodes > Songs. Well, again, I hope you’ll join us for Episode 2, in which we’ll hear the story of the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, and Atrahasis – when and where these texts came from, and why they are surprisingly important to the Anglophone canon. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll see you next time.


1.^ Coogan, Michael, et. al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 26.

2.^ The obvious answer is that the Tower of Babel story is supposed to have taken place long before the Israelites were made captives of the Babylonians in the 500s BCE. However, considering that the Deuteronomist and Elohist, and Yahwist were all working just prior to and during the Babylonian Captivity, and subsequent editors reworked Genesis thereafter according to the standard Documentary Hypothesis, it’s hard not to see the events of the 500s BCE having an effect on Gen 11:1-9.

3.^ Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or. Anchor Books, 1959, p. 55.

4.^ The New Oxford Annotated Bible, commenting on Judges 5.1-31, observes that “Many scholars believe that this song is the oldest part of the Bible” (362n). The poem references the northern region of Canaan before the fall of Samaria under Assyria in 722 BCE, and thus it was likely composed before this date.

5.^ See ibid pp. 1233, 1389, 1675, 1717.

6.^ Glassner, Jean-Jacques. The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, pp. 4-5.

7.^ Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. St. Martin’s Press, 2012, p. 9.