Ancient History & Civilisation



In 1849 Sir Henry Layard, the pioneer of British archaeology in Iraq, was excavating Sennacherib's palace in Nineveh when he opened ‘two large chambers of which the whole area was piled a foot or more deep in tablets’.1 Three years later Layard's assistant, Hormuz Rassam, made a similar discovery on the same mound of Kuyunjik, in the palace of Sennacherib's grandson, Ashurbanipal. In all more than 25,000 tablets and fragments were gathered and sent to the British Museum, where they form the richest collection of their kind in the world.2 On examination, it was found that ‘Ashurbanipal's library'* could be divided into two parts: on the one hand, a relatively small number of ‘archive documents’, such as royal inscriptions, letters and administrative texts; on the other hand, ‘library documents’ consisting of literary texts proper (e.g. myths and legends) and a mass of ‘scientific’ texts among which those on divination, omina and exorcism were largely predominant. Many of these tablets were copies of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian texts made in Nineveh at the king's request, whereas others had been obtained from Babylon. Several letters preserved in the royal correspondence afford evidence that the kings of Assyria were craving for culture and had organized a widespread search for old inscriptions, particularly in the highly civilized countries of Sumer and Akkad.

When you receive this letter [writes. Ashurbanipal to a certain Sha-duna] take with you these three men [their names follow] and the learned men of the city of Barsippa, and seek out all the tablets, all those that are in their houses and all those that are deposited in the temple Ezida….

Hunt for the valuable tablets which are in your archives and which do not exist in Assyria and send them to me. I have written to the officials and overseers… and no one shall withhold a tablet from you; and when you see any tablet or ritual about which I have not written to you, but which you perceive may be profitable for my palace, seek it out, pick it up, and send it to me.3

Royal palaces4 were not the only places in which valuable tablets were kept. All the capital cities and the main provincial towns of Assyria had temple libraries and even perhaps private libraries. There were important libraries at Assur and Nimrud, and Anglo-Turkish excavations at Sultan Tepe, near Harran, have brought to light a rich collection of literary and religious texts belonging to a priest of the moon-god Sin called Qurdi-Nergal and including, besides such well-known pieces as the Gilgamesh Epic, the Legend of Narâm-Sin and the ‘Tale of the Righteous Sufferer’, masterpieces of literature – like the amusing ‘Tale of the Poor Man of Nippur’ – which were formerly unknown.5

Once the ancient tablets had been brought to Assyria, they were either kept as they were or copied in the small, neat cuneiform script characteristic of the period. Many texts were partly or entirely rewritten and adapted to the fashion of the day, but others were copied to the letter, and it often happened in such cases that the scribe left in blank words or sentences which had been destroyed on the original, added his own commentary or wrote in the margin ul idi, ‘I do not understand’, or hepu labiru, ‘old break’. Sometimes the scribe did not impress his style into clay but into wax spread over ivory or wooden boards, several boards being bound together by means of metal hinges like a miniature folding screen. In 1953 a number of such writing boards, some of them still bearing traces of an astronomical composition, were discovered at Nimrud in a well where they had been thrown during the sack of the city.6 While administrative and commercial documents were usually stored in jars or baskets, library tablets seem to have been stored on shelves, but since they were invariably found scattered on the floors of ruined buildings, it is extremely difficult to understand the method of classification followed. We know, however, that tablets belonging to the same series were numbered, or ended with a catch-line announcing the first sentence of the next tablet. For instance, tablet III of Enuma elish (the epic of Creation) ends with the sentence:

They founded for him a princely chamber

which opens the narrative in tablet IV. Tablet XI of the Assyrian version of ‘Gilgamesh’ has the following ‘colophon’:

Table XI of ‘He Who Saw Everything’ (of the series of) Gilgamesh. Written down according to the original and collated. Palace of Ashurbanipal, King of the Universe, King of Assyria.

The diligence with which these written relics of the past were collected and the care with which they were preserved do honour not only to the scribes but to the kings, their masters. Paradoxically, the Assyrians who caused so much destruction saved for posterity a great deal of the spiritual treasures of Sumer, Akkad and Babylon and of their own country.

Mesopotamian Science

It is unlikely that Ashurbanipal's library was much used by the king himself. He might, for his lordly pleasure, have deciphered ‘the stones from before the flood’, or read the great epic tales – Gilgamesh, Etana, Adapa – but he hardly had the time or the inclination to read the thousands of tablets assembled on his orders. The palace library must have been accessible to the palace and temple scribes who could find there the reference document they required. It might have been part of an ‘academy’ (bît mummi, ‘House of Knowledge’), such as flourished in various cities at various periods, perhaps founded to attract and fix in Nineveh the learned men of Mesopotamia. At their disposal were not only literary, historical and religious compositions in large numbers but also philological works, lists of plants, animals and minerals, geographical lists, medical prescriptions, mathematical tables, astronomical observations, in a word a corpus of scientific documents, an encyclopedia, as it were, of Assyro-Babylonian knowledge. These documents are as invaluable to us as they were to the ancient scholars, though for different reasons, but while they call for a general survey of Mesopotamian science, alone they are insufficient for this purpose. We have therefore in this chapter made use of sources more recent or more ancient than the seventh-century Kuyunjik tablets, in particular scientific texts from Nippur, Tell Harmal, Assur and Uruk ranging from the end of the third millennium to approximately the third century B.C.7

The Greeks who knew – and admired – the ‘Chaldaeans’ mostly as magicians and fortune-tellers have done considerable harm to their memory. It is true that magic in the broader sense of the term (i.e. words or actions purporting to influence supernatural forces) had always been closely associated with Sumero-Akkadian religion and that the diviner's art had been perfected and codified in Mesopotamia at a very early date, but the vulgarization of magical practices did not come into full play until the end of the pre-Christian era. Far from being the last word in Babylonian wisdom, witchcraft and popular astrology developed as a sign of decay in a dying civilization, and we now know for certain that Sumerians and Assyro-Babylonians alike were blessed with almost all the qualities required for a truly scientific attitude of mind. They had, first of all, an insatiable curiosity, the curiosity that prompted them to collect ancient tablets, establish museums of antiquities and bring home from distant countries rare species of plants and unknown animals. They had a patience, a devotion to detail apparent in all their activities, from the compilation of accounts to their works of art. They possessed an acute sense of observation, studied nature with enthusiasm, recorded and correlated a vast amount of data, not so much for practical purposes as for the sake of pure knowledge, and at least in some fields, went a long way on the road to discovery. Finally, their mathematics prove that they were capable of abstract thinking to a degree rarely found in pre-classical antiquity. The only talent they lacked seems to be a sense of synthesis.

As soon as he went to school8 the would-be Mesopotamian scribe had occasions to apply these inborn qualities. Teaching was essentially verbal – no textbook on any subject has ever been found – and therefore developed his auditive memory. Then, the intricacies of cuneiform writing, where each sign could be read either as a word or as a syllable with several phonetic values, and the fact that two widely different languages – Sumerian and Akkadian – had to be mastered obliged him to embark at once upon fairly complex philological studies. Instead of an alphabet, he had to memorize long lists of signs with their names, their pronunciation and their meaning in both languages. Several of these ‘syllabaries’ have survived, which is most fortunate, since without them we could never have understood the Sumerian language. In a second stage the student made use of conjugation tables, of vocabularies – lists of objects, technical terms or expressions belonging to the same category – and of bi- or tri-lingual dictionaries including Sumerian dialects, Kassite, Hittite and, later, Greek. Of special interest are tablets engraved with archaic pictographic signs side by side with their Neo-Assyrian counter-parts. Since pictograms had fallen into disuse about 2,600 years before these tablets were written and could hardly be of any practical value to the Assyrians, this is further proof of their love for pure research work. Science in general lay in the realm of the god Enki-Ea and was under the protection of the god Nabû, son of Marduk, while the goddess Nisaba, ‘who in her hand holds the stylus’, presided over the difficult and much honoured art of writing.

This system of education naturally inclined the Assyro-Babylonian scholar to record his observations and offer them to his colleagues and pupils in the form of lists.9 Mesopotamian zoology, botany and mineralogy, for instance, have come to us in vocabularies, sometimes disconcertingly arranged, nevertheless representing a serious effort towards the classification of a vast material.10 Geographical texts consist mostly of lists of countries, mountains, rivers or cities, and of itineraries which are extremely useful to the modern historian, especially when they indicate in bêru, or ‘double-hours’ (approximately ten kilometres), the distance between two towns. As far as we know, there were no true maps, but plans of fields and cities have been recovered, the most interesting being a plan of Nippur which remarkably matches the survey of the ruins made by modern archaeologists. We also possess a rudimentary ‘map of the world’ on clay, dating from the sixth century B.C.: the earth is a flat surface bound by a circular ‘Bitter River’; in the middle flows the Euphrates; unfamiliar countries at the four points of the compass are described in a few words, the northernmost being called ‘land where the sun is never seen’ – which might refer either to a (mythical) dark region, as found in some literary texts, or to the fact that seen from Mesopotamia the sun never passes through the northern portion of the sky.11 If we leave aside royal annals and building inscriptions, which were really not historical but propaganda and votive texts, we find that history was also presented in tabular form: king-lists, lists of eponyms and dynasties, synchronous lists, etc. Even Babylonian chronicles, which are nearer to continuous historical narratives, are in fact no more than developed lists of events. In addition, we have mathematical and astronomical tables and medical lists of symptoms and prognoses – to say nothing of the lists of gods, temples, feasts, omens and so forth. Indeed, Mesopotamian science has been called, somewhat derisively, ‘a science of lists’, but it must be emphasized that tuition being solely verbal, the documents that have survived are ‘manuals’ or ‘vade-mecums’ rather than textbooks. There is no doubt that the Assyro-Babylonians knew much more than it would appear from their literature: the transport and erection of huge blocks of stone, for instance, or the construction of long aqueducts, postulate an advanced knowledge of several laws of physics; similarly, certain principles of chemistry, carefully hidden under secret recipes, were successfully applied in the preparation of drugs and pigments


Babylonian ‘Map of the World‘, 6th century B.C. (see text).
From B. Meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien, 1925.

and the manufacture of coloured glass12 and enamelled bricks. Moreover, in at least two domains – mathematics and astronomy – we are able to understand the mental mechanism that presided over scientific development, and it is precisely in those fields that the Mesopotamians made their greatest strides.

In a country where almost the entire population was illiterate, the scribes, frequently issued of families of scribes, well-paid and universally respected, played a crucial role; indeed the most important role in all periods, since without them Mesopotamian society would have been non-existent, or would have collapsed.13

Mathematics and Astronomy

Our knowledge of Mesopotamian mathematics14 is derived from two categories of texts: lists of numbers arranged in various ways (increasing and decreasing series, multiplication and division tables, etc.) and problems. Surprisingly, the majority of these problems are exercises for advanced students (or even possibly intellectual recreations) and not, as one would expect in a so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ society, problems relating to architecture, land-surveying, irrigation and other matters of practical interest. The following examples are particularly demonstrative:

Problem No. 1

‘I found a stone but did not weigh it; then I added one seventh and I added one-eleventh. I weighed: one mana. What was the original weight of the stone? The weight of the stone was: 1 mana, 8 shekels and 22½ “lines”.’15

Problem No. 2

‘If somebody asks you thus: as much as the side of the square which I made I dug deep, and I extracted one musaru (603) and a half of volume of earth. My base (ground) I made a square. How deep did I go?

‘You, in your procedure operate with 12. Take the reciprocal of 12 and multiply by 1, 30,0,0 which is your volume. 7,30,0 you will see. What is the cube root of 7,30,0? 30 is the cube root. Multiply 30 by 1, and 30 you see. Multiply 30 by another 1, and 30 you see. Multiply 30 by 12, and 6,0 (360) you see. 30 is the side of your square, and 6,0 (360) is your depth.’16

The sentence introducing the first problem shows that it is purely hypothetical. The solution is given, but the way to reach it must have been verbally indicated by the teacher. In the second problem, on the cont~ary, the procedure is fully developed. It will be seen that Babylonian mathematicians were fully conversant with cube roots, and this as early as the seventeenth or eighteenth century B.C, which is the date of this tablet. They also knew, of course, of square roots and were able to calculate the square root of 2 with only a very minute error (1.414213 instead of 1.414214). The calculations involved also point to the two main characteristics of Mesopotamian mathematics: they were based on the sexagesimal system, and while all systems of numeration used in antiquity (including the Roman system) were ‘juxtapositional’, they alone used a place-value notation or ‘positional’ system, that is to say a system where the value of a given numeral varies according to its position in the written number. (This is what we do when we write, for instance, 3,333, the same numeral being worth 3,000, 300, 30 and 3 respectively.) Both the sexagesimal and the positional systems offered definite advantages for calculations, but unfortunately, the decimal system was also used within units of the sexagesimal one, and the figure ‘zero’ was unknown until the Seleucid period. The interpretation of Mesopotamian problems is therefore often fraught with difficulty, even for experts, and we must assume that in many cases the students were verbally supplied with the necessary indications.

Another point to be emphasized is that without using symbols Babylonian mathematicians operated by algebraical rather than by arithmetical methods. The terms of many of their problems show that they could only be solved by a process equivalent to the use of quadratic equations. For instance, a problem like17

‘I have added 7 times the side of my square and 11 times its surface: the result is 6,15 (in sexagesimal numeration). Write down 7 and 11’

postulates the equation 11x2 + 7x = 6,15.

It would also appear from some tablets that the Babylonians were familiar with functions and that their calculations occasionally involved serial, exponential and logarithmic relations. They thought in abstractions; they liked numbers for their own sake, almost forgetting their practical uses. For this reason, their geometry was much less advanced than their algebra.18 They were aware of some fundamental properties of the triangle, the rectangle and the circle, but failed in their attempts to demonstrate them and measured polygonal surfaces by rough approximation. When tablets are inscribed with geometrical figures these are usually meant to illustrate arithmetical problems. Contrary to the Greeks, the Babylonians were less interested in the properties of lines, surfaces and volumes than in the intricate calculations suggested by their mutual relations.

Mathematics found in astronomy a wide field of application and gave this science a degree of precision unrivalled in antiquity.19 The need for studying the movements of celestial bodies arose in Mesopotamia from a double preoccupation: metaphysical and chronological. The belief that what happened in heaven was reflected on earth, and the thought that if planets and constellations were identified with gods, kings and countries, and if their mutual relations could be foreseen, it would be possible to predict the future alleviated, to some extent, the dramatic uncertainty which was at the root of Mesopotamian philosophy. Astrology therefore was the foundation of astronomy, although the system adopted was never rigid and left room for divine and human initiative, predetermination in the form of horoscopes appearing only during the Achaemenian period. On the other hand, the Mesopotamians had to solve the problem of the lunar calendar. As far as we can go back in the past, the cycle of the moon had been taken as a convenient means of measuring time. The year began on the first New Moon following the spring equinox and was divided into twelve months of twenty-nine or thirty days. Each day began at sunset and was divided into twelve ‘double hours’ (bêru), themselves divided into sixty ‘double-minutes’ – a system which we still follow and owe to the Babylonians. Unfortunately, the lunar year is shorter than the solar year by approximately eleven days, so that after nine years the difference amounts to one full season. Moreover, the lunar month began in the evening when the New Moon was visible for the first time, but those who have lived in Iraq know that the Oriental sky is not always as clear as Europeans imagine and clouds, dust or sandstorms may render this observation impossible. How, then, were the official astronomers to decide that the month had begun, and how could they calculate in advance the exact date and time at which any month would begin? What were, in other words, the laws of the lunar cycle and – since the motions of the moon are linked with those of the sun – what were, the laws of the solar cycle?

The amazing results obtained by Mesopotamian astronomers in this field are obviously not due to the perfection of their instruments – they had only the gnomon (a rudimentary sundial), the clepsydra (a clock worked by flow of water) and the polos (an instrument registering the shadow projected by a minute ball suspended over a half-sphere). They are due to constant, accurate observation and to the use of mathematics for the extrapolation of the data obtained. At an early date the ‘roads’ of the sun and planets were determined and divided into twelve ‘stations’, themselves divided into thirty degrees (the origin of our Zodiac). We possess observations of Venus (Ishtar) written down under the First Dynasty of Babylon20 and detailed catalogues of stars from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Soon, eclipses of the moon and, later, eclipses of the sun could be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy. For centuries the difficulty created by the difference between the solar year and the lunar year was solved arbitrarily, the king deciding that one or two intercalary months should be added to the year, but in the eighth century B.C. astronomers remarked that 235 lunar months made up exactly nineteen solar years, and on their advice King Nabû-nasir, in 747 B.C., decreed the intercalation of seven extra months in nineteen lunar years. The ‘Nabonassar calendar’ became standardized between 388 and 367 B.C.21 Meanwhile, a considerable amount of work had been done on the preparation of lunar, solar and stellar ephemerides. The tables of new and full moons and of eclipses drawn by Nabû-rimâni (the ‘Naburianus’ of Strabo) at the beginning of the fourth century are incredibly accurate,22 and the greatest of all Babylonian astronomers, Kidinnu (Cidenas), who practised in about 375 B.C., gave the exact duration of the solar year with an error of only 4 minutes and 32.65 seconds. His error in the value of the motion of the sun from the node was actually smaller than that made by the modern astronomer Oppolzer in 1887.23

Admirable as it was, Mesopotamian astronomy lacked what we would call synthesis. Contrary to the Greek astronomers, who lived at the same time as the latest and best of them, the Babylonian astronomers never tried to assemble the numerous data they collected into coherent cosmic theories, such as the heliocentric system of Aristarchus of Samos or the geocentric system of Hipparchus. The reason for this probably was their total submission to the gods, which made them accept the world as it was and not as it could be imagined. Besides, their mind worked differently. To quote a specialist: ‘The Greeks were philosophers as well as geometers, the Chaldaeans were empiricists and sophisticated calculators.’24 As we shall see, the same defect – if it is one – can also be found in Mesopotamian medicine.


No such precision can, of course, be expected from what is still regarded as an art more than a science: medicine. Yet Mesopotamian medicine is worthy of a special study for three main reasons: it is copiously documented, highly interesting and often misunderstood.25

The Mesopotamians believed that disease was a punishment inflicted by the gods upon men for their sins. The word ‘sin’ should be taken here in a broad sense including not only crimes and moral offences but also small errors and omissions in the performance of religious duties, or the unintentional breaking of some taboo. The offended gods could strike directly. Thus in the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian boundary stones and the political treaties of the ancient Near East they are called upon individually to send all kinds of ‘grievous maladies’ upon whoever would destroy or alter the document, and physicians as well as priests recognized the ‘hand’ of various gods in the symptoms exhibited by the patients. The gods could also allow demons to take possession of the sick person, each demon attacking by preference one part of the body; or they could let a man or a woman fall the victim of a spell cast by a sorcerer or witch. Illness was therefore essentially an ethical defect, a black mark, a condemnation which rendered man morally unclean as well as physically unhealthy; and a moral ailment calling for a moral cure, treatment was in many cases magical and religious. The bâru-priest, or diviner, was asked to find out by all the methods at his disposal the hidden sin responsible for the divine wrath, the demons were exorcised by the âshipu-priest using magical rites and incantations, and the gods were appeased through prayers and sacrifices.

If Mesopotamian medicine had consisted of nothing but moral catharsis it would hardly deserve its name. But an extensive study of the texts in our possession has shown it under another, entirely different aspect. There were in ancient Iraq true physicians who believed in the supernatural origin of most diseases, but who also recognized the causative action of natural agents such as dust, dirt, food or drink and even contagion; who sometimes referred their patients to the bâru or the âshipu, but who always observed the symptoms with extreme attention, grouped them into syndromes or diseases and applied chemical or instrumental treatments. Side by side with the sacerdotal and magico-religious medicine (âshiputu), there had always been in Mesopotamia a rational and pragmatic medicine (asûtu).26

The physician (asû) was neither priest nor witch-doctor, but a professional man belonging to the upper middle-class of the Assyro-Babylonian society. He had spent years at school learning the basic sciences of his time and further years with a senior colleague, mastering his art. The Code of Hammurabi, where nine laws concerning medicine (or rather, surgery) fix the price of certain operations and pronounce mutilation and even death for professional faults (see above, p. 205), gives the impression that the medical profession was controlled by the state and throws discredit on the ability of its members. But these laws are examples of judgements in exceptional cases, and there is no known instance of their having ever been applied. In fact, physicians were held in high esteem at all times and probably established their own fees. Consultants of renown were in great demand, and we know that royal courts exchanged doctors. Thus Tushratta, King of Mitanni in the fourteenth century, sent physicians to the pharaoh Amenophis III, and medical experts from Babylon were dispatched to the Hittite monarch Hattusilis III (1275 – 1250 B.C.).

We possess a considerable number of lists of symptoms and medical prescriptions written by physicians and several letters addressed to or sent by doctors. From numerous tablets or fragments of tablets written between the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C. but belonging to the same series Professor Labat has been able to reconstruct a complete ‘treatise’ of medical diagnosis and prognosis.27 It comprised forty tablets and was divided into five ‘chapters’. The first chapter, intended in fact for exorcists, gave an interpretation of the ominous signs which could be observed when proceeding to the patient's house. Thus:

When the exorcist proceeds to the patient's house… if he sees a black pig, this patient will die; (or) he will be cured after extreme suffering… If he sees a white pig, this patient will be cured; (or) he will be in distress… If he sees a red pig, this patient will [die?] on the 3rd month (or) on the 3rd day…28

Then came the description of a variety of symptoms grouped together by organs, by syndromes or diseases, and by order of occurrence. A last group of six tablets was devoted to gynaecologi-cal and infantile diseases. Throughout the treatise emphasis was placed on prognosis rather than on diagnosis proper, and treatments were rarely indicated. Similar texts, or collections of texts, dealt only with the diseases of certain organs, others were more particularly concerned with therapeutics. Here are a few examples chosen among the diseases which can readily be identified:


If the (patient's) neck is constantly twisted to the left; if his hands and feet are outstretched; if his eyes facing the sky are wide open; if saliva drips from his mouth; if he snores; if he loses consciousness; if, at the end… it is an attack of grand mal: ‘hand’ of Sin.29

Urinary stone

If… for three days he has a stone of the bladder (aban mushtinni), this man will drink beer: (thus) the stone will dissolve; if this man, instead of drinking beer drinks much water, he will go to his destiny (i.e. die).30

Severe jaundice (Icterus gravis)

If the body of a man is yellow, his face yellow and black, and the surface of his tongue black, it is ahhazu… For such a disease the physician should do nothing: this man will die; he cannot be cured.31

Several texts were devoted to psychiatric diseases, including ‘depression’ which is not as modern as one may think.32 While the diagnosis and prognosis of Mesopotamian physicians were a mixture of superstition and accurate observation, their therapeutics owed nothing to magic.33 The oldest ‘pharmacopaeia’ known to date is a collection of recipes dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur, which describes the preparation of ointments, lotions and mixtures made from minerals and plants and might have been written two or three hundred years ago. Drugs were administered in every possible way short of injections: mixtures, potions, inhalations, fumigations, instillations, ointments, liniments, poultices, enemas, suppositories. It is often impossible for us to identify some of the simples and salts which entered into their composition, but in many cases ingredients that have only recently fallen into disuse or that are still used in pharmacy can be recognized. In the following recipe, for instance, opium by mouth and emollients in local application are prescribed for urinary retention:

Crush poppy seeds in beer and make the patient drink it. Grind some myrrh, mix it with oil and blow it into his urethra with a tube of bronze. Give the patient anemone crushed in alappanu-beer.34

And here is the complex, though rational formula of a poultice to be applied in case of ‘stricture of the lungs’:

Take… parts of the kidney of a sheep; ½ qa of dates, 15 kisal of firtree turpentine, 15 kisal of pinetree turpentine, 15 kisal of laurel, 13 kisal of opopanax, 10 kisal of resin of galbanum, 7 kisal of mustard, 2 kisal of cantharis… Grind these drugs in a mortar together with fat and dates. Pour the mixture on a gazelle's skin. Fold the skin. Put it on the painful area and leave it in place for three days. During that time the patient shall drink sweet beer. He shall take his food very hot and stay in a warm place. On the fourth day, remove the poultice, etc…35

In some cases the physician acted instrumentally. In a letter to Ashurbanipal the king's personal physician, Arad-Nanna, expresses his views on the treatment of epistaxis:

As regards the nose-bleeding… the dressings are not properly applied. They have been placed on the side of the nose, so that they interfere with respiration and the blood flow into the mouth. The nose should be plugged up to its end that the air entry be blocked, and the bleeding will cease.36

Modern physicians would not change a word of this procedure.

Finally, we must quote an amazing text which proves that, contrary to general belief, the Mesopotamians had some notions of hygiene and preventive medicine. Zimri-Lim, King of Mari, who lived c. 1780 B.C. once wrote to his wife Shibtu:

I have heard that the lady Nanname has been taken ill. She has many contacts with the people of the palace. She meets many ladies in her house. Now then, give severe orders that no one should drink in the cup where she drinks, no one should sit on the seat where she sits, no one should sleep in the bed where she sleeps. She should no longer meet many ladies in her house. This disease is contagious (mushtahhiz, from the verb ahâzu, to catch).37

Thus Mesopotamian medicine, although still shrouded in superstition, had already some features of a positive science. Transmitted in part to the Greeks, together with Egyptian medicine, it paved the way for the great Hippocratic reform of the fifth century B.C. Yet in its two thousand years of existence it made very little progress. The physicians of Mesopotamia, like her astronomers, founded their art upon metaphysical doctrines and thereby closed the door to a fruitful quest for rational explanations. They knew the answers to many of the ‘whens’ and ‘whats’, but they lacked the curiosity to ask themselves ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. They never attempted to build up theories, but modestly – and perhaps wisely – devoted their efforts to the collection of data. It is only fair to say that they often surpassed in their achievements the other learned men of the ancient East.

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