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Volume 15, Number 1January/February 1964

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Banker Of Uruk

A career in banking held some familiar risks thirty-six centuries ago in the Middle East.

That week, in the early spring of the year 1700 B.C., more than his fair share of business headaches came to Shamash, the most prominent banker in the city of Uruk, some 50 miles directly north of Ur in the heartland of the ancient Middle East.

One of his clerks, Balu, a young and distant relative, came to Shamash and gave him bad news of a shipment of copper ingots newly arrived from Oman on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

"The quality is much below normal, sir," said Balu. "Here is the report of the analyst of Qurna." He handed his employer a clay tablet and pointed his finger halfway down its surface. "It says here that the ingots are porous and worth much less than they should be. The analysis states, however, that the black stone in the shipment is good."

Shamash sighed and bade the clerk press a copy of the report in wet clay. For a few years he had financed merchants so that they could buy goods of many kinds from the exchange port of Bahrdin in the Persian Gulf, taking for himself only the interest derived from such loans. But within the past couple of years he had speculated by buying portions of shipments for resale himself.

There was a variety of fine goods in which to speculate. On the southward run there were Mesopotamian textiles, including beautifully-dyed woolen materials, leather goods, wheat, olive oil, colored glass of many kinds, and other articles of much value; on the return run north there were gold from India and Africa, silver, copper, rare woods, great pearls and other precious stones, and lately there had been a great increase in the trade in preserved fish, in meats and in cheeses.

Oh, yes, there was opportunity to get rich—but there was also opportunity to lose everything he had built up in his banking business. The average merchant who dealt in the gulf trade accompanied the ships he chartered so that he, personally, could supervise the quality of what he bought. Shamash could not do this yet, for not one of his clerks was sufficiently learned in the complicated practices of banking to take over running the bank if Shamash took a trip to Bahrdin.

He could not blame them, for it took years to learn the business. Among the many duties were recording bills of exchange, advancing mortgages, making of wills on request, leasing lands and selling or buying farms for clients, the lending of precious metals and stocks of varied goods, the hiring out of slaves; there were matters like advancing values to farmers to repair the dykes and canals that watered and drained their lands, renting grazing areas, keeping clay copies of a hundred different contracts, supervising payments to sharp commission men, receiving and interpreting reports on weather forecasts for the gulf so that shipping might be undertaken in safety. There were many activities, not the least profitable of which was the receipt from depositors of gold, silver, precious stones and other valuables for storage and safekeeping in the temples.

And, of course, there was no substitute for years of personal experience which enabled one to accurately judge a man's character in the important matter of lending.

Shamash would have to set aside his ambition to enlarge his merchandising activities for a while. And, indeed, the following day, more upsetting news came to him concerning the trading on the great sealanes—the profession of piracy was on the increase.

With a rise in the quantity of gold and in the amounts of other goods traveling in sea-going vessels, including foodstuffs, the pirates who had infested the gulf for ages were not only growing greatly in numbers, but were becoming bolder. Already prices were rising and insurances rates were lifting steeply.

It was the general custom at that time, as it was to be in the twentieth century, for traders to use the capital of others rather than their own for ventures out of the usual. In the matter of ship chartering, a number of Mesopotamian gentlemen would get together, borrow from Shamash enough to charter a ship, provision it, and load her with trade goods. The owner of the vessel, insisting on insurance coverage for his ship, would be given the bank's guarantee that the charterers, if the ship were lost as a result of weather or pirate attack, would reimburse the owner to the full cost of the vessel out of their own personal resources. And with this news of greater pirate threat, the insurance guarantee was expanded to cover a margin of value in excess of the original cost of the ship.

The remainder of that day was spent by Shamash in supervising the drawing up of a number of wills. These were to be recorded on clay at the behest of certain prominent families of not only Uruk, but of families of importance who lived as far south as Qurna at the confluence of the two great rivers, and as far north as Borsippa, which was only a few miles from the fabulous Babylon itself.

Shamash was not a proud man, but he quietly derived much satisfaction in the knowledge that a large part of his banking business grew from his wide reputation as a fair man, a just man. Once Shamash agreed to look after a client's interests, be he shipowner, absentee landlord, trader on the far camel caravans, general merchant, or dealer in rubies and pearls, he could be relied upon to charge only the rate of interest or the fee or the agent-margin allowed by the Laws of Hammurabi.

Not a barley-grain of silver extra would he charge.

As a fellow-banker of the same town would say at social gatherings, "Shamash may not be too successful as a banker, but he is highly successful as a man. As a banker, he could be one of the richest men in all Mesopotamia, but his heart is too soft. For all I know, he might be amassing a kind of wealth that a man does not weigh on the balance."

There was plenty of evidence for this observation.

Just three months before, when the day was cool upon the skin, the father of the girl Tamystha, one Biktar, came to Shamash and said, "My daughter is now of more than marriageable age. As you know, Shamash, we are of good family but somewhat impoverished. Now, there is a rich businessman from Persia, a dealer in the fine rugs and he is now in our town to see about ways of expanding his trade—"

Shamash looked at his client. "I know your daughter will not be happy until she is married. And I know she requires a dowry. Would one maneh of gold do you?"

The man looked at his friend. "That is generous, indeed. As to paying it back should my strategy fail—"

Shamash laughed as he clapped his companion on the shoulder. "If it is worth one maneh of gold to a father to get his daughter married, it is worth that much to me, your friend, to see her happy."

After Biktar had enjoyed the joke, he pleaded in vain for the banker to draw up a note of indebtedness. Shamash told him, as he arranged for a clerk to carry the metal, "For a friend, a man inscribes on his heart, not upon a stone."

Early the following morning, with the air already warm and humid, the banker set off to the temple wherein he kept his records of business, taking a clerk with him. He set before himself, in the best light, the tablets of his accounts for the year so far and ran a trial balance to date. The year had been good up till now—not greatly successful, but good. He personally made a balance sheet on fresh clay and sent his clerk to have it baked and then to make a copy for the information of the priests of the temple. From this, the priests would compute the temple's charges for acting as the bank's vaults.

On the fifth day of that early week in the spring of the year of 1700 B.C., Shamash received news from a wise and experienced barge captain who spent his life upon the great rivers, and whom the banker paid a yearly retainer of silver to supply intelligence regarding weather forecasts, trading news and any item that might serve the banking business in judging future loans.

And the captain's news was, "The word of the boatmen from beyond Mari is that the snows in the highlands of the Euphrates will melt late this year, and there should be no floods to ruin the canals and bring salt to poison the fields."

This was no guarantee, the banker knew, for the rivers were almost always unpredictable, but these bargemen often had an uncanny way of forecasting. Last year, the captain had predicted big and sudden floods from an early melting on unusually heavy snows in the highlands, with the result that farmers had borrowed heavily to repair their dams and canal walls. With a fair river level this spring, these borrowers should be able to repay the bank, and Shamash would have no need to draw up fresh contracts extending their credit.

Financing farming of any kind had always been, in Mesopotamia as in any other land, a risk; but of what use, ran Shamash's philosophy, was an ingot of the finest gold when there was no wheat or barley to buy for the table and no reeds to purchase for building a snug home?

At the close of the day, when the clerks had gone to their homes and Shamash had put away the last of the clay records of the day's transactions, he stood at the doorway of his premises and looked off across the far fields. To the west was one great river; to the east was the other, the Tigris; and to the south, the Shatt-Al-Arab poured its multitude of waters into the Persian Gulf.

Yes, banking was a risky business where a fortune rose or fell with the unpredictability of the big rivers. But, as Shamash thought of his investments in the very fields of his country, in the goods that rested in the river barges, and in the foreign valuables that came, even now, across the blue waters from Bahrdin and other lands to enrich his own land, he felt a sudden gratification that he was a significant part of the development of his country's wealth and an important instrument in maintaining the health and well-being
of her people.

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the January/February 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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