Bible and Beyond

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For thousands of years, the Sumerians were a forgotten people. No book recorded their achievements; no spade unearthed their treasures. The Sumerians had passed out of history, until, in the mid-19th century, linguists studying Assyrian cuneiform writing discovered cuneiform tablets written in another language. Linguists and archaeologists alike soon began to realize that in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Sumerians had produced the world’s first great civilization.

Today, after the discovery of Sumerian buildings and their treasures, Sumerian pottery and household goods, and—most significant—tens of thousands of clay tablets containing Sumerian writings, the Sumerians receive credit for many “firsts”a in recorded history. Some of these “firsts” are listed below.

The First Effective System of Writing

Sometime between 3500 and 3000 B.C., Sumerian scribes began to write on clay tablets with reed styluses. At first they drew signs that were simple and pictographic, but gradually they developed a complex syllabic system of writing known as cuneiform (“wedge-shaped,” so called from the marks made on the clay by the stylus). The Sumerian system of cuneiform was later adapted by both the Babylonians and the Assyrians to their own languages.

The First Schools

By 2500 B.C., the Sumerians had begun to train their scribes in schools. Cuneiform tablets from Erech, Ur and other cities contain word lists, fragments of bilingual dictionaries, and students’ writing exercises.

The First Congress

About 2800 B.C. the “senate” and the “lower house” of Erech met to decide whether to submit to the neighboring city of Kish, and so have peace, or to go to war. The elders in the “senate” declared for peace. The king overruled them and sought the opinion of the “lower house.” The men of military age who composed the “lower house” voted for war, and the king approved. (Apparently the two cities eventually settled their dispute without fighting.)

The First Tax Cut

The rulers of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash had levied heavy and onerous taxes on the city’s citizens, probably to fund a series of wars. When peace came, however, the taxes remained in force. A new ruler, Urukagina, came to power and put an end to these taxes and to the oppressive, corrupt bureaucracy established by his predecessors. Unfortunately, the king’s tax and other reforms were short-lived. The ambitious king of a powerful nearby city, Umma, conquered Lagash before Urukagina had reigned ten years.

The First Law Code

The Code of Hammurabi (an 18th-century B.C. king of Babylon) is probably the most famous ancient non-Biblical law code. The earliest known law code is not Hammurabi’s, however, but the code of King Ur-Nammu, who founded what is now known as the Third Dynasty of Ur. On the tablet containing Ur-Nammu’s law code, five laws can be read. Two apparently deal with a trial by water and the return of a slave to his master. The other three concern payments that must be made as recompense for physical harm.

The First Pharmacopoeia

The preparation of salves and filtrates to heal external afflictions and of liquids to cure internal ailments was the concern of a third-millennium B.C. Sumerian doctor. Various remedies, preserved on a clay tablet, demonstrate a knowledge of various chemical processes. But it is impossible to judge whether or not the doctor’s remedies were effective—the tablet does not list the illnesses for which the treatments were prescribed.

The First “Farmer’s Almanac”

Written in the form of instructions from a father to his son, a text dating to 1700 B.C. describes how to run a successful farm, explaining irrigation methods, plowing, sowing, and other activities.

The First Animal Fables

More than a thousand years before Aesop, the Sumerians told and wrote animal fables. Among the 64 different kinds of animals appearing in the Sumerian fables, dogs, cattle and monkeys figure as favorites.