Ancient History & Civilisation


The Flood: A Caesura in History

The Chaldean Account of the Deluge

Between the era of myth and the time of legend falls the deluge; between the oral tradition and the written record lies the Flood. And between the Mesopotamian setting of the origins of the world in Genesis 1–9, and the Canaanite tales of nomad desert patriarchs that follow Genesis 12, the Hebrew Bible tells of Noah, his Ark and his descendants.

The story of God’s extermination of all air-breathing creatures, sparing only one man, his family and what he could save aboard his giant lifeboat, is central to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic concept of the human story. The Primate of All Ireland in the early seventeenth century, Archbishop James Ussher, deduced, in a virtuoso display of devotional mathematics, that the ark grounded on Mount Ararat on Wednesday, 5 May 1491 BCE. Since his time, more than two hundred expeditions have set out for Armenia in search of the ark’s remains, the explorers somehow expecting vestiges of its perishable materials to have survived, by Ussher’s reckoning, over 3,500 years of exposure to the elements. None the less, some forty parties have returned with eye-witness accounts of wooden structures looking like sections of a seagoing vessel frozen under glacier ice or embedded in the rocks.

Even some of those who do not take the biblical report at face value, and can no longer accept the notion of a universal divine punishment for mankind’s irredeemable sin, still believe that the tale is at least based on a real disaster with a real historical setting. One proposal is that the story recalls the reflooding of the Persian Gulf, which had been a dry river valley until the rising Arabian Sea overtopped the rocky shelf across the Straits of Hormuz. This would have occurred around 10,000 BCE. Others have suggested that a more likely model was the breaching of the Bosporus by the Mediterranean Sea, which inundated the Black Sea basin – until some 7,500 years ago containing only a much smaller freshwater lake. ‘It is possible that this flood affected the Late Palaeolithic people so deeply as to form the legend of the Great Flood,’ according to a paper read to the Geological Society of America in 2003.

The conviction that the story of Noah’s flood reflected history was reinforced by the public announcement in 1872 that the ancient Assyrians had also told a tale that had astonishing similarities to the one in the Book of Genesis. All the themes of the biblical story were there: the warning to the one man to be saved, the construction of a huge vessel, the storm, the flood, the abatement of the waters, the grounding on a mountain, the sending out of birds: a raven, a dove. And afterwards the offering of a sacrifice, of which God ‘smelled the sweet savour’.

The discovery of this Assyrian precursor was even more piquant because the finder was one of those extraordinary self-taught amateurs almost unique to English scholarship. His name was George Smith. Born in 1840, he left school at fourteen to be apprenticed to a firm of bank-note engravers near the British Museum. Perhaps the painstaking and meticulous manual work did not satisfy his lively mind, for he spent most of his mealtimes and many evening hours exploring and studying the Museum’s Middle Eastern collections. Inspired by a chance meeting with the famous Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of the men to whom the decipherment of Mesopotamian script is credited, as well as by a museum attendant’s offhand remark, regretting that nobody was attempting to decipher ‘them bird tracks’ on the thousands of clay tablets in the storeroom, he somehow taught himself to read cuneiform and the Assyrian language. The Museum’s scholars were astonished that it apparently took this young workman with no higher education a mere few months. Smith, they noticed, seemed to base his translations not on familiarity with the vocabulary and syntax of the ancient language – which he did not have – but on a kind of intuitive and inspired second sight, lauded in his obituary, after his untimely death at the age of thirty-seven, as ‘The marvellous instinct by which Mr. Smith ascertained the substantial sense of a passage in the Assyrian inscriptions without being always able to give a philological analysis of the words it contained, which gave him a good right to the title of “the intellectual picklock”, by which he was sometimes called.’

Smith soon made several spectacular discoveries, and Rawlinson, greatly impressed, suggested to the trustees of the Museum that it was about time Smith was given an official job. They appointed the twenty-seven-year-old to a post of assistant in the Assyriology Department, and there he achieved international fame when he began to translate what turned out to be part of the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, unearthed at Nineveh in northern Iraq. ‘On looking down the third column,’ he later wrote, ‘my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge.’

Unfortunately the tablet from which Smith was working was broken, and several crucial lines had been lost. None-the-less, he presented his findings to the public in an 1872 lecture at the Society of Biblical Archaeology, with no less a person than Prime Minister Gladstone in the audience. Sensing good copy, the Daily Telegraph offered to fund an expedition to the site of Nineveh on what one might have thought a fool’s errand: to locate the missing portion. So Smith set out for the Middle East and after many adventures arrived at the mound of Kouyunjik, where the North Palace of Assyrian Emperor Ashurbanipal had once stood.

He found a scene of complete devastation. As he wrote in his book, Assyrian Discoveries:

Here was a large pit made by former excavators from which had come many tablets; this pit had been used since the close of the last excavations for a quarry, and stones for the building of the Mosul bridge had been regularly extracted from it. The bottom of the pit was now full of massive fragments of stone from the basement wall of the palace jammed in between heaps of small fragments of stone, cement, bricks, and clay, all in utter confusion.

He prised some of these stones up with a crowbar and generally did his best to collect every fragment of tablet that he could reach, though without much real hope of success. At the end of the day,

[I] sat down to examine the store of fragments of cuneiform inscriptions from the day’s digging, taking out and brushing off the earth from the fragments to read their contents. On cleaning one of them I found to my surprise and gratification that it contained the greater portion of seventeen lines of inscription belonging to the first column of the Chaldean account of the Deluge, and fitting into the only place where there was a serious blank in the story. When I had first published the account of this tablet I had conjectured that there were about fifteen lines wanting in this part of the story, and now with this portion I was enabled to make it nearly complete.

(That fragment of tablet is still to be found in the British Museum, duly labelled in black ink ‘DT’, for Daily Telegraph.)

Thus it was established that long before Genesis was committed to writing, the ancient Mesopotamians had themselves told the story of a universal flood sent by divine decree to destroy humanity. Soon other texts were discovered that gave similar accounts in several different languages – Sumerian, Old Akkadian, Babylonian – and in several different versions. In the oldest, found on a tablet from the city of Nippur, dated to around 1800 BCE and written in Sumerian, Noah’s role is taken by a King of Shuruppak, called Ziudsura or Ziusudra, meaning ‘He Saw Life’, because he was awarded immortality by the gods. In another, written in the 1600s BCE in the Akkadian language, the protagonist is called Atrahasis, meaning ‘Extremely Wise’.

The Mesopotamian accounts differed from the Hebrew Bible in one important respect, however: God’s motive for sending the Flood. The reason given in Genesis is humanity’s wickedness. The Atrahasis epic, on the other hand, explained that the supreme god Enlil decided to destroy mankind because of insomnia:

…the land extended and the peoples multiplied.

The land was bellowing like a bull,

The god was disturbed by their uproar.

Enlil heard their noise.

And addressed the great gods:

‘The noise of mankind has become too intense for me,

With their uproar I am deprived of sleep.’

Whereupon he unsuccessfully tried several different ways of getting rid of humanity before settling on a worldwide deluge. Some have tried to read an ethical meaning into this passage, conjecturing that ‘noise’ related to iniquity or sin. But could it not perhaps be the reverse: that there was far too much prayer and sacrifice going on for Enlil’s comfort? Recall the Lord’s reaction to God-botherers in Isaiah 1:11–14:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?

Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.

Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.

A single witness, the Bible, might be thought unreliable, but now that several supposedly independent narrators had been found to agree that there really had been a universal deluge, its historical truth seemed established. All that remained was to find physical confirmation, and this came on 16 March 1929, when the archaeologist Leonard Woolley announced in a letter to the Times that he had discovered evidence of Noah’s Flood.

He was sinking a pit, he later wrote in his bestseller Excavations at Ur, when about three feet down, ‘there were no more potsherds, no ashes, only clean water-laid mud, and the Arab workman at the bottom of the shaft told me that he had reached virgin soil.’ This made no sense to Woolley who persuaded the workman, against his better judgement, to keep on digging. After eight feet of nothing but mud, the digger broke through into a lower stratum that again showed clear signs of human habitation.

I got into the pit once more, examined the sides, and by the time I had written up my notes was quite convinced of what it all meant; but I wanted to see whether others would come to the same conclusion. So I brought up two of my staff and, after pointing out the facts, asked for their interpretation. They did not know what to say. My wife came along and looked and I asked the same question, and she turned away remarking casually, ‘Well, of course, it’s the Flood.’ That was the right answer.

It made a wonderful story and helped spread Woolley’s fame – for which he was competing with Egyptologist Howard Carter, whose discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 had made him a household name. But Woolley’s report wasn’t quite true. A terrifyingly brilliant essay by a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, Jacob Gifford Head, which won Oxford’s Wainwright Prize for Near Eastern Archaeology in 2004, points out that it was actually Woolley’s assistant, Max Mallowan (who later became ‘Mr Agatha Christie’), who supervised the excavation, and that his meticulous site notes give a quite different, and much more sober, account. The young essayist quotes a letter to the Iraqi High Commission in 1928 from a Foreign Office official, emphasizing their desire to ‘stimulate an interest in archaeology in Iraq, and assist in the raising of funds for further excavation’, and concludes that Woolley was a committed self-publicist, that his version of the flood story was produced with the aim of promoting ‘himself and his subject in the public’s eyes’.

Any academic faced with the need to attract funding for his or her speciality, and warned by superiors to ‘publish or die’, will surely understand Woolley’s embellishments. For who would have been remotely interested had he announced that he had found evidence not of the Flood, but of a flood, one of at least two which had overwhelmed Ur many centuries apart? Or that similar flood layers, of varying thickness, but dated to different times were to be found in many, though by no means all, southern cities? Some sites, like Eridu, only eleven kilometres from Ur, showed no signs of inundation at all.

Then why, ask believers, would all the ancients of the Middle East agree, even if precise details differ, that there was once a single overwhelming flood that destroyed their entire world, leaving only a handful of survivors? An event like that, with all its terror and horror, would never be forgotten whenever it happened; the tale would be passed along from generation to generation until finally written down in its various versions.

Whether based on a true disaster or not, there was another, more important reason for Mesopotamians to tell and retell the story of the Flood: it played a crucial structural role in the ancients’ view of their history. To the Sumerians the Deluge was the boundary marker that separated the preliterate from the literate period, the age of folklore from the era of history. More to the point, it was the gulf that lay between the time when all Mesopotamia followed Uruk’s cultural and ideological lead, and the following epoch when Sumer, the southernmost part of the Mesopotamian plain, was a land of separate city-states, each pursuing its own destiny.

Archaeology tells us of momentous changes around 3000 BCE. Suddenly, or so it seems, contact between the many centres of civilization distributed all over greater Mesopotamia ceased. Trade routes, like those to the Afghan lapis-lazuli mines, were cut. Uruk outposts disappeared from across the region: from Iran, Syria, Anatolia. In towns and villages outside the south the inhabitants went back to their former ways; older dietary preferences were re-established; accounting was abandoned; the art of writing forgotten. In the Uruk heartland, buried remains hint that less care was taken with agriculture: the grain was full of weeds, the soil contaminated by salt. Life expectancy was severely reduced. Rural settlements were abandoned, the people either fleeing to the city or taking up nomadism. In Uruk itself, the lands belonging to the temples were taken over by peasants. The monumental buildings of the Eanna quarter were demolished and replaced by terraces and light post-and-reed constructions.

All signs point to a collapse of the Uruk ideology: the quasi-egalitarian social system and the command temple economy that had successfully sustained the city’s cultural dominance for centuries. The usual suspects have been indicted for causing the disaster. Climate change brought colder and drier weather: sufficient rain no longer fell to water the foothills directly or to keep river levels high enough for successful irrigation. Envious and hostile foreigners launched raids and invasions: massive fortifications were thrown up around outlying settlements. Typical were the ramparts, ten feet thick, topped with watchtowers and pierced by gates, doubled by a solid brick wall fifteen feet behind it, that protected Habuba Kabira, a former Uruk colony on the banks of the Euphrates in northern Syria.

These are, as ever, merely the external factors linked to Uruk’s decline. Yet there are indications that all was not well within, either. We recognize from our own times some of the strains that can beset supposedly egalitarian societies running managed economies; how what begins as willing acceptance of a utopian ideology can all too often end in resistance and revolt. The tyranny that ensues is almost always unstable, and increasing poverty is usually the result.

The dominance of the Urukian way of life had, in any case, not been achieved entirely by peaceful persuasion. A recent expedition by the University of Chicago and the Syrian Department of Antiquities to the site of Hamoukar, in today’s Syria, found a devastated war zone. Clemens Reichel, the American co-director, called it ‘no minor skirmish’, but ‘“Shock and Awe” in the Fourth Millennium BCE’. The 3-metre-high city wall had been breached by a heavy bombardment of slingshot balls, the buildings set on fire and the inhabitants massacred. ‘It is likely that the southerners played a role in the destruction of this city. Dug into the destruction debris that covered the buildings excavated this season were numerous large pits that contained a vast amount of Uruk pottery from the south. The picture is compelling. If the Uruk people weren’t the ones firing the sling bullets they certainly benefited from it. They took over this place right after its destruction.’ Later on, towards the end of the era, muscular methods seem to have been needed even in the southern heartland of Uruk’s world, to enforce the authority of the system.

The clay tablet from Uruk that bears the earliest known personal autograph signature is a scribal-school exercise listing a series of official titles and professions. The first entry, presumably the most senior rank, reads NAM GIS SITA, meaning Lord of the Mace, the favoured close-quarter weapon of the period. It is a title that in later ages meant king. Images on cylinder-seals show severe discipline being administered. A typical example represents prisoners being beaten, their arms bound behind their backs, while one pleads with the official in charge who stands holding a spear and looking on. This is no battle scene; the prisoners do not seem to be fighters but workers. It is tempting to interpret the punishments as connected to the forced intensification of agriculture made necessary by a growing urban population. As in the twentieth century with the USSR’s collectivization programme, the result was, paradoxically, a reduction rather than an increase in the productivity of the soil.

Salination, bringing up mineral salts from the subsoil to the surface soil, which ruins the land for agriculture, is always a hazard of irrigation, as modern development scientists have found to their cost. Salinity was a particularly severe problem in ancient Sumer because the great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, are unusually heavily laden with minerals. Over many centuries Mesopotamian farmers had learned how to cope with the problem, as their tribal descendants do to this day. They managed by leaving the fields fallow every other year. Professor McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago explains how,

As a result of irrigation the water table in a field approaching harvest lies about half a metre below the surface…Wild plants draw moisture from the water table and gradually dry out the subsoil until winter…In the spring, since the field is not being irrigated, the plants continue to dry out the subsoil to a depth of two metres…Since they are legumes, the plants also replenish the land with nitrogen, and retard wind erosion of the topsoil. In the autumn, when the field is once again to be cultivated, the dryness of the subsoil allows the irrigation water to leach salt from the surface and carry it below, where it is normally trapped and harmless.

It is not hard to imagine the temple authorities, faced with a rising number of mouths to feed, insisting on a Great Leap Forward in grain production and forbidding what may have seemed to them – temple administrators after all know little of farming – a practice that wasted half the available land every year. Force may well have been their means of getting their way. And the Atrahasis epic described the inevitable consequences:

The black fields became white,

The broad plain was choked with salt.

For one year they ate grass;

For the second year they suffered the itch.

The third year came.

Their features [were twisted] by hunger,

[They were] on the verge of death.

Highly organized complex societies are delicate machines. It does not take much to bring them to ruin. ‘For want of a nail…the kingdom was lost’, as the old rhyme has it. Civilizations based on ideology are even more fragile than most. As we know from twentieth-century history, once people stop believing in the system, the end is near; no amount of coercion can keep it going indefinitely. The late Urukians, as they looked around them and saw their fields ruined, their fellow-workers coerced, their outposts unable to withstand attack, must have begun to question the convictions with which they had been indoctrinated so successfully and for so long. Their world probably collapsed as much because its citizens lost faith in the benefits of their beliefs, the ability of their ideology to assure them a happy and rewarding life, as from any external pressures.

The later Sumerians did not remember, or did not choose to remember, any of this. We find no explicit references in the myths, legends and epics that have come down to us. Perhaps it was because writing was still in its primitive stages, and used for bookkeeping rather than recording history. There seems to be just one shadowy hint of the great loss of faith, preserved from the ancient oral tradition. In the Atrahasis epic, the Flood is preceded by the god Enlil’s attempts to reduce humanity’s numbers with plague, followed by salination, drought and famine. The people rebel:

I have called the elders, the senior men.

Start an uprising in your own house,

Let the heralds proclaim…

Let them make a loud noise in the land:

Do not revere your gods,

Do not pray to your goddesses.

Official Sumerian history, as outlined in Utu-hegal’s King List, ignored the whole issue. It simply declared that the old order had been utterly erased at a single stroke: ‘and then the Flood swept over’. It was as if the recorders of the new dispensation wanted to draw a line under the past: that was then, this is now. The Flood symbolized the wholesale rejection of what had gone before. The era of Uruk’s regional dominance was dead and best forgotten. It was time for a new beginning.

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