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6-08-2015, 00:11

Voices of the Fertile Crescent

Sumerian documents dating as far back as 3000 BCE have been found, but that is not where the story of the Sumerian language begins. The documents demonstrate the existence of a language that had already established a grammar and a vocabulary and entered widespread use. It is reasonable to presume other spoken languages
may have come and gone in ancient Mesopotamia in the millennia before a
system of writing was developed. If they did, they are all lost to history.
Sumerian is regarded as a linguistic isolate, meaning it cannot be traced
to an older language and cannot be classified into a family of languages. Its
written script is known as cuneiform, meaning “wedge-shaped.” The script
was impressed into soft clay using styluses made from firm reeds.
When Akkadian began replacing Sumerian as the language of the
people following Sargon the Great’s conquest of Sumer in 2334 BCE, it bore
some similarities to the old language. It, too, was a cuneiform script, and
it incorporated some Sumerian words into its vocabulary. But Akkadian,
unlike Sumerian, was a Semitic language. It had a clear family relationship
with other languages from the same region. The language did not suggest
geographic and cultural isolation as Sumerian did.
During the period of Assyrian conquest, from 911 to 605 BCE, Aramaic
began replacing Akkadian as the language of Mesopotamia. Unlike Akkadian
and Sumerian, Aramaic was a very widely spoken language of the region. It is
perhaps best remembered today as the language spoken by Jesus Christ and
his contemporaries. The transition from Akkadian to Aramaic came as the
native Mesopotamian empires dissolved.


By 1950 CE, French archaeologist Claude F. A. Schaeffer had been
meticulously excavating a royal palace on the west coast of Syria for more
than 20 years.1 He had discovered a wealth of information about the ancient
world, but there was one thing he did not expect to find: the world’s oldest
surviving piece of sheet music. Dubbed “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” it is written in
Akkadian and features ancient Mesopotamian instruments. Scholars are still
not completely sure how it might have sounded, but contemporary musicians
have made multiple attempts to record the hymn using reproductions of
ancient instruments.
Evidence of other Mesopotamian musical instruments suggests
individuals and choruses sang accompanied by flutes, lyres, and drums.
Although most of the Mesopotamian songs discovered by archaeologists are
religious in character, several love songs and at least one lullaby survive.

Archaeologists also have several actual instruments from the period.
Among the most well-known artifacts from the Royal Cemetery of Ur,
dating to 2450 BCE, are a silver double-flute, nine silver lyres, two harps,
and cymbals. Archaeologists also found a sistrum, or sacred rattle, a loud
percussion instrument consisting of three metal rods hooked into a bronze
loop. Although it is impossible to know exactly how ancient Sumerians
would have played these instruments, it is clear from their context and the
craftsmanship involved that mastering each involved considerable practice.


From ornate and sophisticated royal tombs to murals, pottery, and
minimalist carvings, the city-states of Sumer were bright and gloriously
visual. Even clay seals and tablets—although they were legible only to
scribes—look like works of art. This love of textured surfaces also carried
over to buildings; walls were often marked or engraved, sometimes ornately
so. Whatever else can be said of ancient Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylon,
all of these civilizations produced beautiful art.
The most impressive architectural achievements of ancient Mesopotamia
were the squared multilevel pyramids called ziggurats. The term ziggurat
comes from the Sumerian ziqquratu, “built on a high place.” The squared
multilevel structures feature massive, ornate steps and a temple sanctuary
at the pinnacle. The most impressive of these was Babylon’s Etemenanki,
“House of the Bond between Heaven and Earth.”


Although they were not generally regarded as monument builders on the
scale of the ancient Egyptians, the architects of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and
Babylonia were among the most accomplished of the ancient world.