Ancient History & Civilisation



No matter how fascinating the ever-changing spectacle of political and economic situations, there are times which call for a pause; there are periods so richly documented that the historian feels compelled to leave aside monarchs and dynasties, kingdoms and empires, wars and diplomacy, and to study the society in a static condition as it were. How did people live? What did they do in everyday life? These are questions which come naturally to mind and deserve an answer.1

In Mesopotamia the days of Hammurabi – or, more exactly, the century which begins sixty years before his reign (1850 – 1750 B.C. in round figures) – is one of these periods. Here our sources, both archaeological and literary, are particularly copious. It is true that we know very little about the capital cities of southern Iraq: Isin and Larsa have just begun to yield their secrets, and eighteen years of excavations at Babylon have barely scratched the surface of the huge site, the height of the water-table having prevented the German archaeologists from digging much below the Neo-Babylonian level (609 – 539 B.C.). In the small area where deep soundings were possible only a few tablets and fragments of walls pertaining to the First Dynasty were found, some twelve metres below the surface. But on other sites other archaeologists have been more fortunate. The monuments they have unearthed – the royal palace of Mari, the palace of the rulers at Tell Asmar, the temples and private houses of Ur, to mention only the most important – are perhaps not very numerous, but they are of outstanding quality. As regards written documents we are even better provided, for not only do we have the Code of Hammurabi, but his correspondence, the royal archives of Mari, Tell Shimshara and Tell al-Rimah,2 and many legal, economic, administrative, religious and scientific texts from Mari, Larsa, Sippar, Nippur, Ur, Tell Harmal and various other sites; in all, perhaps thirty or forty thousand tablets. Indeed, it can be said without exaggeration that Mesopotamia 1, 800 years before Christ is much better known to us than any European country a thousand years ago, and it would be in theory possible for historians to draw a fairly complete and detailed picture of the Mesopotamian society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries B.C. As this would go far beyond the boundaries of the present work, we shall limit ourselves to the sketching of the three main aspects of this society: the god in his temple, the king in his palace, the citizen in his house.

The God in his Temple

The temples – the ‘houses’ (bitu) of the gods as they were called – varied in size and layout. Some were small wayside chapels which were part of a block of houses and consisted of hardly more than an open courtyard with an altar and a pedestal for the divine statue,3 others were larger detached or semi-detached buildings, comprising several courtyards and rooms,4 and finally, there were the enormous temple-complexes of the greater gods, which often included several shrines for the minor deities of their household and retinue.5 These temples no longer retained the admirable simplicity of the early Sumerian sanctuaries (see Chapter 4). Throughout the ages they had increased in complexity to incorporate the numerous services of a strongly organized religious community. Moreover, their plan reflects a high degree of specialization in the performance of the cult, and it appears that a distinction was made between the parts of the temple open to the public and those reserved for the priests, or perhaps for certain categories of priests only. Whether the concept that the great gods could only be approached by degrees was developed by the Sumerians or introduced by the Semites is a much debated problem which cannot be discussed here.

All the main Mesopotamian temples had in common certain features.6 They all comprised a large courtyard (kisalmahhu) surrounded by small rooms which served as lodgings, libraries and schools for the priests, offices, workshops, stores, cellars and stables. During the great feasts the statues of the gods brought from other temples were solemnly gathered in this courtyard, but on ordinary days it was open to all, and we must imagine it not as an empty and silent space, but as a compromise between a cloister and a market-place, full of noise and movement, crowded with people and animals, unceasingly crossed by the personnel of the temple, the merchants who did business with it and the men and women who brought offerings and asked for help and advice. Beyond thekisalmahhu was another courtyard, usually smaller, with an altar in its middle, and finally, the temple proper (ashirtu), the building to which none but the priests called erib bîti (‘those who enter the temple’) had access. The temple was divided by partitions into three rooms, one behind the other: vestibule, ante-cella and cella (holy of holies). The cella contained the statue of the god or goddess to whom the temple was dedicated. Usually made of wood covered with gold leaves, it stood on a pedestal in a niche cut in the back-wall of the cella. When all doors were open the statue could be seen shining faintly in the semi-darkness of the shrine from the small courtyard but not from the large one, as it was at a right angle with the temple doorway, or hidden behind a curtain, depending on the layout of the temple. Flower pots and incense burners were arranged at the god's feet, and low brick benches around the cella and ante-cella supported the statues of worshippers, together with royal steles and various ex-votos. A two-step altar, a table for the sacred meals, basins of lustral water, stands for insignia and dedicated weapons made up the rest of the temple furniture. Rare and expensive materials were used in the construction of the building: cedar beams supported its roof, and its doors were made of precious wood, often lined with copper or bronze sheets. Lions, bulls, griffins or genii made of stone, clay or wood guarded the entrances. At the corners of the


The temple of Ishtar-kititum at Ischâli (Diyala valley). First half of the second millennium B.C.
Reconstruction by H. D. Hill. From H. Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, 1954.

temple precinct and buried under the pavement were brick boxes containing bronze or clay ‘nails’, royal inscriptions and the statuettes of the kings who had founded or restored the sanctuary. These ‘foundation deposits’ (temenu) authenticated the sacred ground, marked its limits and kept the netherworld demons at bay.7

Every day throughout the year religious ceremonies were performed in the temple: the air vibrated with music,8 hymns and prayers; bread, cakes, honey, butter, fruit were laid on the god's table; libations of water, wine or beer were poured out into vases; blood flowed on the altar, and the smoke of roasting flesh mixed with the fumes of cedar-wood, cyprus-wood or incense filled the sanctuary. The main object of the cult was the service of the gods, the dullu. The gods were supposed to live a physical life and had daily to be washed, anointed, perfumed, dressed, attired and fed, the regular supply of food being ensured by ‘fixed offerings’ established once and for all by the king as supreme chief of the clergy, and by pious foundations. In addition, certain days of the month considered as sacred or propitious – the days when the moon appeared or disappeared, for instance – were devoted to special celebrations.9 There were also occasional ceremonies of purification and consecration, and of course the great New Year Festival celebrated in some cities in the spring and the autumn. But the priests also served as intermediaries between men and gods. Better than anyone else they knew the proper way of approaching the great gods; on behalf of the sick, the sorrowful, the repentant sinner they would offer sacrifices, recite prayers and lamentations, sing hymns of grace and psalms of contrition; and as they alone could read into the mysterious future, there was no king nor commoner who, on frequent occasions, would not consult them and ask for an omen. For each of these acts of cult a strict and complicated ritual was laid down. Originally prayers and incantations were in Sumerian, but under the First Dynasty of Babylon the Akkadian language was allowed into the Temple, and we possess, for instance, a ‘Ritual for the Covering of the Temple Kettle-drum’, where it is said that a certain prayer should be whispered ‘through a reed tube’ in Sumerian into the right ear of a bull and in Akkadian into its left ear.10

The chief administrator of the temple was the shanga, a high dignitary who, in the reign of Hammurabi, was appointed by the king himself. He was assisted by inspectors and scribes who registered all that entered or went out of the temple stores and commanded low-grade employees, such as guards, cleaners and even barbers. The wheat and barley fields of the temple were run by ishakku's (Akkadian for ensi, which shows how low this once prestigious title had fallen), and were worked by farm hands and sometimes corvées which involved the entire population of the town or district.

A large number of priests were attached to the main temples.11 Sons and grandsons of priests, they were brought up in the sanctuary and received a thorough education in the temple school, or bît mummi (literally ‘House of Knowledge’). At their head was the high-priest, or enum (Akkadian form of the Sumerian word en, ‘lord’) and the urigallum originally the guardian of the gates but now the main officiant. Among the specialized members of the clergy, the mashmashshum who recited incantations, the pashîshumwho anointed the gods and laid their table, the ramkum who washed the statues of the gods, the nishakum who poured out libations and the kâlum who chanted incantations but also fulfilled some mysterious functions, were the most important. These priests were assisted by the sacrificer (nash patri, ‘sword bearer’), as well as by singers and musicians. Although he took part in religious ceremonies, the ashipum (exorcist) cannot be considered a priest in the narrow sense of the term, since he served the public and notably the sick. The same remark applies to the sha'ilum, who interpreted dreams, and even more the barûm or diviner, a very busy and rich man in a society where divination was part of everyday life. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about the temples of female deities. There is no doubt, however, that the temples of Ishtar, the goddess of carnal love, were the sites of a licentious cult with songs, dances and pantomimes performed by women and transvestites, as well as sexual orgies. In these rites, which may be found shocking but were sacred for the Babylonians, men called assinu, kulu‘u or kurgarru – all passive homosexuals and some of them perhaps castrates – participated together with women who are too often referred to as ‘prostitutes’. In fact, the true prostitutes (harmâtu, kezrêtu, shamhâtu), such as the one who seduced Enkidu (page 118), were only haunting the temple surrounds and the taverns. Only those women who were called ‘votaress of Ishtar’ (ishtarêtu) or ‘devoted’ (qashshatu) were probably part of the female clergy.12

In sharp contrast with all this were the nadîtu, who usually came from the best families and could marry but were not allowed to bear children so long as they remained in the temple ‘cloister’ (gagû) where they lived in communities. Loosely attached to the temple, the nadîtu were, in fact, remarkable business women who made fortunes from buying and letting out houses and land. On their death their wealth was left to their parents or relatives, thereby preventing the estates from being fragmented through the marriage of daughters.13

All these people formed a closed society which had its own rules, traditions and rights, lived partly from the revenues of the temple land, partly from banking and commerce and partly ‘from the altar’,14 and played an important part in the affairs of the state and in the private life of every Mesopotamian. Yet the days when the temple controlled the entire social and economic life of the country were over, for the vital centre, the heart and brain of the state, was now the royal palace.

The King in his Palace

The importance given to the royal palace (Sum. é-gal, Akkad. ekallum, ‘great house’) is a striking feature of the Old Babylonian period. The concentration of authority in the hands of the monarch, the requirements of a centralized administration, the costly exigency of prestige had concurred to transform the king's residence – hitherto a relatively modest building – into a vast compound of apartments, reception rooms, offices, workshops and stores surrounded for safety reasons by strong defensive walls. Mansion, castle and serai, the palace had become a city within the city.

Of such royal abodes there is no finer example than the palace of Mari.15 Found in an excellent state of preservation, it is remarkable not only for its size – it measures some 200 by 150 metres and covers an area of about two and a half hectares – but for its intelligent and harmonious layout, the beauty of its decoration and the quality of its construction. Archaeologists have called it ‘the jewel of archaic Oriental architecture’,16 and such was its fame in antiquity that the King of Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, did not hesitate to send his son 600 kilometres inland for the sole purpose of visiting ‘the house of Zimri-Lim’.17

The enormous outer wall of the palace (fifteen metres thick in places), laid on stone foundations and reinforced by towers, was pierced with only one gate on its northern side. Passing through a guarded vestibule, a small courtyard and a dark corridor, one would enter the great courtyard of the palace, a truly majestic open space (1617 square metres) flooded with sunlight and paved with gypsum slabs. On the side opposite the entrance three elegantly curved steps led to a high, oblong room which is now taken as being the chapel of the goddess Ishtar of the Palace. Through a door in the western wall of the ‘courtyard of honour’ and an L-shaped passage, royalties, ambassadors, high officials of the kingdom and other visitors of importance were introduced into another courtyard, smaller but particularly neat and attractive with its floor of hard, white plaster and its walls covered with frescoes, some of them sheltered from rain and excessive heat by a light canopy resting on wooden poles. The brightly coloured paintings, which have in part survived and are now the pride of the Louvre and Aleppo museums, represent religious state ceremonies: a bull brought to sacrifice, the King of Mari ‘touching the hand’ of Ishtar (a ritual of investiture performed during the New Year Festival), offerings and libations to a goddess and other fragmentary scenes.18 Beyond this courtyard were two long rooms, one behind the other. The first room contained a plastered and painted podium which once supported a statue – perhaps the ‘goddess with the flowing vase’ found nearby, beheaded and thrown down on the ground. The other room was the throne-room. At one end, against the wall, was a low stone pedestal which must have supported a wooden throne, while at the other end a long, magnificent flight of steps led to a raised platform where probably stood the statues of the king's ancestors. From another room started a staircase leading to the king's apartment overlying a large group of stores.

Audience-room and throne-room with their annexes formed the heart of the palace. Around them were various quarters. On either side of the gate were lodgings for guests and for the palace garrison. Near the north-western corner of the building was a group of nicely decorated rooms and bathrooms – one with two terracotta baths still in place – which, together with a long room containing rows of clay benches and long mistaken for a school, formed part of what is now regarded as the apartment of the queen and her court. Further south were the royal administration quarters. From the courtyard of honour a long series of corridors gave access to a double chapel – presumably dedicated to the goddesses Anunit and Ishtar – for the king's private devotions. The remainder of the three hundred odd rooms and courtyards of the palace was occupied by kitchens, stores, servants' quarters, smithies and potters' kilns.

No less remarkable than its plan was the construction of the building. The walls, extremely thick as a rule and rising in places to a height of sixteen feet, were made of large mud bricks covered with several layers of clay and plaster. In many rooms – especially the bathrooms and lavatories – a coating of bitumen protected the floor and the lower part of the walls. No window was found, and it is likely that the rooms received light either through their wide and high doors opening on to courtyards or through round apertures in the ceiling, which could be blocked with mushroom-shaped clay ‘plugs’. The existence of a second floor, at least in certain parts of the palace, is suggested by the remains of staircases. As for the drainage, it was effected by means of brick gutters laid under the pavement and of bitumen-lined clay pipes going down ten metres underground. The whole system had been so skilfully planned and installed that the waters of a violent rainstorm which burst one day

1. Palace gate
2. Palace administration quarters
3. Great courtyard
4. Courtyard with frescoes

5. Throne room
6. Royal administration quarters
7. Women's quarters

  8. Stores overlain by the king's apartment.
  9. Chapels
10. General stores
11. Servants' quarters


Zimri-Lim's palace at Mari. Model of the ruins by Vuillet, after J. Margueron, Louvre Museum, Paris.

during the excavations were evacuated within a few hours, the drains having worked again, most efficiently, after forty centuries of disuse!19

The furniture of the palace was either burnt by the fire which destroyed Mari or just crumbled into dust, so we do not know anything about the thrones, chairs, tables or the king's bed. We do, however, know more or less what he ate, thanks to Professor Bottéro who has recently done some research, as little was known on this subject: Babylonian cooking.20 He made some astonishing discoveries. From the Hammurabi period onwards (four of the five documents known to us at present date from 1800 – 1700 B.C.), the art of preparing food, or ‘embellishing’ it, as was said at the time, had been perfected and the cook (nuhatimmum) was an accomplished artist. The great variety of foods and their preparation (boiled in water sometimes mixed with fat, steamed, baked, cooked under ashes or embers), the different utensils used, the way of adding a variety of ingredients to the same mixture, thus producing subtle flavours and presenting the finished dishes in appetizing ways.

Zimri-Lim's servants dished up various meats (beef, mutton, goat, deer and gazelles), fish, birds, poultry, mostly grilled or roasted, but also stewed in earthenware casseroles or simmered in bronze cauldrons, accompanied by rich and spicy sauces with a predominant garlic flavour, carefully prepared vegetables, soups, assorted cheeses, fresh, dried or crystallized fruits, delicately flavoured cakes of all shapes and sizes, and all washed down with beer which came in several qualities, and wine from Syria. As there were no exact indications of cooking times and temperatures, and because we do not understand the meanings of certain Akkadian names of foods, it is impossible to reproduce these dishes today; maybe it is just as well as some of the flavours might shock our modern palate. Nevertheless, this Haute Cuisine which is undoubtedly the ancestor of today's Turkish and Arab cooking, is another witness to the high level of civilization Mesopotamians had reached at the beginning of the second millennium.

As the palace of Mari illustrates the surroundings in which the Mesopotamian kings lived, so do the tablets discovered in various rooms of the palace – together with Hammurab's letters discovered in other Mesopotamian cities – give us a clear picture of their routine occupations. Perhaps the most striking fact emerging from these documents is the interest taken by the king himself in the affairs of the kingdom. Provincial governors, army chiefs, ambassadors to foreign courts, officials of all ranks and even simple individuals constantly wrote to their sovereign, keeping him informed of what was happening in their particular field of activities and asking for advice. In return the king gave orders, encouraged, blamed, punished or asked for more information. A steady flow of letters carried by escorted messengers came in and out of the palace. Military and diplomatic matters, justice and public works naturally formed the bulk of the state correspondence and we see, for instance, Hammurabi intervening in Larsa, now the capital-city of his southern provinces, to pronounce legal decisions, appoint officials, summon civil servants to his court and order the digging or clearing-out of canals. Similarly, Iasmah-Adad and Zimri-Lim give instructions for the census of nomads and the mobilization of troops and exchange presents and ideas with their royal ‘brothers’. But more trivial subjects were also touched upon, as will be shown from a few examples taken at random. The daughters of Iahdun-Lim, held captive in Mari by the Assyrian usurper Iasmah-Adad, are now grown up; Shamshi-Addu writes to his son suggesting that they be sent to his palace at Shubat-Enlil, where they will be taught music. The chariots made in Mari are of much better quality than those made in Ekall-tum; Ishme-Dagan asks his brother to send him a few, together with good carpenters.21 In Terqa22 locusts have appeared, and the governor of that city sends basket-loads of the insects to his master Zimri-Lim, who, like the modern Arabs, appreciates this delicacy.23 In Terqa again a man has had a strange, ominous dream which is the talk of the town; the king will be interested to hear it.24 A certain Iaqqim-Addu, governor of Sagaratim,25 has captured a lion; he has put it in a wooden cage and is shipping it to Zimri-Lim. Near Mari the mutilated body of a child has been found; Bahdi-Lim, the palace superintendent, assures the king that an inquest will be made at once. A female servant of the royal palace has escaped and fled from Assur to Mari; Shamshi-Addu requests his son to return her under escort. A woman exiled to Nahur, near Harran, is unhappy and begs Zimri-Lim: ‘Could my Lord write so that they take me back and that I see again the face of my Lord, whom I miss?’26 And so it goes, tablet after tablet, in a simple, matter-of-fact style contrasting sharply with the pompous tone of the official inscriptions: ‘To My Lord, say this: thus speaks X, your servant’.27 This is the rare occasion when we really live with these people, when we understand their problems and share their worries. At the same time we realize how widespread was already the art of writing, how numerous the scribes, how efficient the royal chancellery, how busy and conscientious the kings and their officials. Nothing conveys a stronger impression of travelling back into time than a visit to the royal palace of Mari and a glimpse at the contents of its archives.

The Citizen in his House

It now remains for us to examine how the ordinary citizens of Mesopotamian towns, the awêlum, lived almost four thousand years ago. For this we must travel some nine hundred kilometres down the Euphrates, from Mari to the great city of Ur. There again architectural remains combined with texts give us nearly all the information wanted. So well preserved were the 8,000 square metres of streets and private houses excavated in 1930 – 1 by Sir Leonard Woolley that even today, after years of exposure to wind and rain, they conjure up the past with a vividness such as can be found only in the ruins of Pompeii and Hercula-neum.28

Muddy in winter, dusty in summer, soiled by the rubbish thrown out of the houses and never collected, the streets are all but attractive. They wind without much planning between compact blocks of houses: blank, windowless façades pierced by occasional small doors. Here and there, however, little shops grouped in bazaars or set among the houses throw a note of gaiety in the austere scenery. Like the shops of a modern Oriental suq, they consist of a showroom opening widely on to the street, and of one or several back-rooms for the storage of goods. What was sold there we do not know: pottery, perhaps, tools, clothes, food? Or were they shops of barbers, shoe-makers, tailors and cleaners such as the one whose quarrel with a customer is narrated in a British Museum tablet found at Ur.29 At intervals the red glow of a furnace in the smithy's dark workshop, the brick counter of a ‘restaurant' where one can purchase and eat from clay bowls onions, cucumbers, fried fish or tasty slices of grilled meat, or a small chapel advertised by terracotta figurines hung on either side of the doorway. To enter the courtyard, drop a handful of dates or flour on the altar and address a short prayer to the god smiling in his niche takes only a few minutes and confers long-lasting blessings.

Very little traffic in the streets: they are too narrow for carts and even a donkey carrying a bulky load would obstruct most of them. Servants who go shopping, water-carriers, pedlars avoid the sun and hug the shadows of the walls, but in the early morning or late afternoon a public writer or a story-teller reciting ‘Gilgamesh’ would gather small crowds around him at the cross-roads, while two or three times a day flocks of noisy children invade the streets on their way to or from one of the schools.

If we push one of the doors and enter a house a pleasant surprise awaits us, for it is cool, comfortable and much larger than it appears from outside. Having washed our feet in a small lobby, we pass into the central courtyard and notice that it is paved and that a vertical drain opens in its centre, so that it can be rinsed clean and will not be flooded during the rainy season. All around us is the building. The walls are uniformly plastered and white-washed, but we know that their upper part


A private house at Ur in the first half of the second millennium B.C. Note the family's chapel above the family's grave on the left of the drawing.
Reconstruction by the author from the plan of Sir Leonard Woolley in Ur Excavations, VII, 1976.

is made of mud bricks and their lower part of burnt bricks carefully laid and jointed with clay mortar. A metre wide gallery supported by wooden poles runs around the courtyard, dividing the building into two storeys: on the first floor live the owner of the house and his family, while the ground floor is reserved for servants and visitors. We recognize the kitchen, the workshop and store-room, the ablution room and lavatories, and that constant feature of all Oriental residences: the long, oblong chamber where the guests are entertained and eventually spend the night, the ‘diwan’. The house furniture, now of course vanished, would consist of a few tables, chairs, chests and beds and of quantities of rugs and cushions.30

The above description, valid for most houses of the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods at Ur, will sound familiar to those who have visited the Near East. It would apply word for word to any Arab house of the old style, such as can still be seen today in some parts of Aleppo, Damascus or Baghdad. Kingdoms and empires have vanished, languages and religions have changed, many customs have fallen into disuse, yet this type of house has remained the same for thousands of years merely because it is best suited to the climate of that part of the world and to the living habits of its population. But our Babylonian houses had something which no longer exists: behind the building was a long narrow courtyard, partly open to the sky and partly covered with a penthouse roof. The roof protected a brick altar and a grooved pillar upon which stood the statuettes of the household gods, the ‘personal gods’ so dear to the Babylonians' hearts. In the open part of the courtyard, under the brick pavement, was a vaulted tomb where all the members of the family were buried in turn, except for the small children, who were buried in vases in or around the domestic chapel. Thus the cult of the tutelary gods and the cult of the ancestors were closely associated within the house precincts. The deceased were no longer interred in cemeteries distant from the town as in earlier days, but continued to take part in the life of the family.

The objects and tablets found in the houses throw precious light on the occupations of their owners. We know, for instance, that the headmaster of a private school was called Igmil-Sin and that he taught writing, religion, history and mathematics. Other texts found elsewhere provide a great deal of interesting and sometimes amusing information on the time-table, actual work, competitive spirit, achievements, truancy and corporal punishment of the future scribes, and some of them even disclose the fact that certain fathers eager to see their son with better marks do not hesitate to bribe the teacher.31 Although we can hardly believe that the Sumero-Akkadian grammar found in the factory of Gimil-Ningishzida, the bronzesmith, was for his own use, we perfectly understand how Ea-nâsir the copper merchant and unlucky speculator of ‘No. 1, Old Street’, came to sell part of his house to a neighbour.32 All these people were modest, middle-class citizens, and it would appear from the size, construction and comfort of their houses that their standard of living was fairly high. Yet if some of them were prosperous, others were half-ruined. The transfer of power and wealth from the southern to the central part of Iraq under Hammurabi, combined with the restriction of maritime trade on the Gulf, must have seriously affected the rich merchants of Ur.33 Their city, however, was no longer passing from hand to hand as it had done so often during the struggle between Isin and Larsa. Mesopotamia was now united under a powerful and respected monarch, and for many of Hammurabi's subjects the future may have appeared full of promise. But this period of peace and stability was short: ten, twenty years at most. The next generation would have to face new wars and witness the beginning of formidable changes affecting not only Mesopotamia but the entire Near East.

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