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Volume 31, Number 2March/April 1980

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The Sumerian Connection

Written by Jon Mandaville
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

For a long while scholars thought that Sumer and the emergence of man's first cities were a Mesopotamian affair. Survey and digging were limited to that region; and though there were references in the epic myths of early Sumer to places beyond Mesopotamia, one could only shrug. Possibly these were ghost-like memories of ancestors and their neighbors. But how do you prove the existence of a ghost?

Twenty-five years ago a Danish expedition under the supervision of Geoffrey Bibby set out to make one of those ghosts a little more substantial by digging on Bahrain. Extended from that island to the Saudi Arabian mainland by the Saudi Department of Antiquities, the digs gave us a very substantial ancestor indeed. It is called Dilmun.

Dilmun, to the Sumerian, was the land of immortality. Dilmun was the land of Enki, god of abzu, the vast spreading ocean of fresh, sweet water beneath the earth. Dilmun was the home of Utunapishtim, who alone with his family among all earthly living things survived the Flood.

Dilmun was also soapstone for figurines, alabaster for bowls, carnelian beads, cowries and pearls. Dilmun was copper and lapis lazuli. Dilmun was a trading agency in the Syrian city of Mari, another on the banks of the Indus River.

Dilmun was all of those things to Sumer; and Dilmun, it now appears, was the central east coast of Arabia and its islands. The Peninsular connection, forged by the roving hunter bands of the Old Stone Age, reinforced by trade between agricultural settlements in the neolithic, lived on more strongly than ever in Sumer.

The third millennium dawned brightly for man in southern Mesopotamia. It had been roughly 700 years since a great flood stormed down the riverine system, covering the great plain as far as the eye could see with deep sljuggish mud-filled water, destroying the 'Ubaid settlements there. Seven hundred years: a period of time not very different from that between the depths of the European Dark Ages and the rise of the Renaissance. What occurred in Mesopotamia, however, was not the "rebirth" of civilization, but rather the birth itself.

The Sumerians alone could not have done it. Civilization springs from a catalysis of cultures, the interaction - not always in a friendly fashion - of peoples of different ethos. Three main actors, we can now say with certainty, played essential roles in this particular creation: the 'Ubaid peoples, representatives of the older Semitic culture; the Sumerians, newcomers to the region; and the Elamites, Aryans, the earliest sophisticated Persian culture, located

In the foothills and mountains to the east of what would be Sumer.

The 'Ubaid peoples spoke a language distantly akin to modern Arabic, judging by names encountered in early Sumerian writings; they are Semites. They are at this time fishermen and farmers both; they are traders, hunters and sheep-herding bands. They represent an enormous spread of cultural experience within one language group, and it is shared; their settlements, whether south on the Peninsula coastline or north in the mid-Euphrates valley, are constantly replenished by immigrants from the desert lands to the west. Information is regularly exchanged as roving tribes move in to home settlements for seasonal supplies, a pattern of short-range pastoral nomadism which still occurs today.

The Sumerians arrived late in the fourth millennium on the southernmost dry lands of the Mesopotamian plain from parts unknown, speaking a language oddly unrelated to that of any other group known - as yet - in the Middle East. Their settlement culture came to dominate the remnants of the 'Ubaid people there, disheartened and dispersed as they were by the great flood. The source of the Sumerians' strength was irrigation and the written word: irrigation to harness the rivers as they had never been before with dikes and ditches and a complex administration to maintain them, and the development of man's first writing - cuneiform - in turn to maintain that administration and the increasingly complex religious and political system of which it was a part.

These Sumerian technological innovations weren't overnight strokes of genius. Through excavations and inscriptions we can see both emerge gradually over a period of several hundred years, while local 'Ubaid peoples are assimilated in neighboring lands through war and alliance.

Assimilated is the word for it. From the cuneiform lists of the rulers of Sumer, we know that the earliest kings had Semitic names; later rulers, though almost certainly Semitic, also chose (or had chosen for them by their parents) Sumerian names. Ifs a process familiar to Americans.

It wasn't just the aristocracy who were tempted by the greater wealth of Sumerian irrigation and administrative technique. The growth of the urban centers, Ur, Eridu, Uruk, Lagash, Kish, and others, made enormous demands on manpower; man's first cities like all thereafter were powerful all walks of life, from the desert settlements and wandering tribes of the west and up from the south, tempted by wealth or fleeing drought and famine. And so the two peoples as the centuries passed grew more thoroughly entangled by the fates of economic geography and cultural tradition. Each tested and challenged - and learned from - the other, creating out of this dialogue a civilization which rapidly filtered north and west to be adopted by Semitic peoples there as well (See Aramco World, March-April 1978). It is a civilization which historians, notorious sticklers for precision, now call Sumero-Semitic. Allowing for variations on its main theme (what civilization worth its salt doesn't?), it dominated the eastern Fertile Crescent for the next 2,500 years.

Is it any wonder, then, that 'Ubaid memories of the old land to the south of Dilmun would make their way into the early myths of Sumer? That the land of Enki, god of fresh waters, would be identified with the great spring pools of al-Hasa, in Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain - Bahrain, where fresh water gushes offshore from the depths of the sea? The land out of which many 'Ubaid peoples first moved, to which a straggling few perhaps returned as refugees after the floods? These are the threads from which every great national literature is woven: stories and tales of the old country.

Yet for all the intermingling throughout this period, a strong theme of separate identity and cultural style persisted. Different languages kept them apart, certainly. Perhaps more fundamentally, it was a matter of pastoral as opposed to urban traditions, or of desert and sown, of farmland and city.

Take politics. There were centuries which saw 'Ubaids holding high office as Sumerians - in all ways, save some slight hint of ethnic heritage - and cooperating in the administration of the affairs of state. But there were also long centuries when political control was wrenched back and forth through warfare between the two. It was Sargon of Biblical fame - himself a second-generation immigrant from the rural districts - who in 2340 B.C. first established a Semitic dominance over the old Sumerian lands. Under him and his successors the shift in political style beneath the surface of on-going administrative bureaucracy is unmistakable.

Even more distinctively Semitic is the new, unified composition of the Sumerian Gilgamesh tales which is undertaken at this time. The unconnected episodes of quarreling gods and goddesses give way to a single vibrant theme pulling the stories together, a theme foreshadowing man's search for peace in God: the epic tale of one man's journey to understand the tragedy of death and the source of immortality.

In a few short years archeology in the Peninsula has proven the Arabian connection to Sumer and its myths. But the connection has more than myth to it, recent excavations have also shown. As the Mesopotamian cities grew rich and markets for luxuries expanded, fabled Dilmun itself revived in the form of an ordinary porl town. It re-established the old trading tie by sea with the north - and for the first time reached out to India in the east to satisfy the burgeoning northern markets. Thus begins the historic "trade route to India" role cast for the Arabian Gulf.

It was a larger world in the third millennium B.C., larger for merchants an traders, with triple the markets - and triple the chances for profit. It was also a world of international politics, with states - even empires - vying for power. As it happened, regional rivalries worked for Dilmun.

Not much later than the appearance of the Sumerian urban civilization, another grew up on another river far to the southeast in India. It also had items to trade which Sumer would buy: spices and precious stones, later cotton and copper. To reach there by land, however, meant crossing through Persia.

Persia was from the beginning and almost continually thereafter hostile territory for Sumer, constantly threatening and sometimes carrying out the invasion and sacking of Mesopotamia. That left the sea routes down the Gulf to India - the route controlled by Dilmun. So Dilmun became a monopoly broker for the Indian trade.

Changing market demands also played into the Dilmun merchants' hands. In the earliest of times, we have seen, flint was the basic commodity. Later, fired and decorated pottery dominated. But now we are entering more modern times; man is learning to work metal for his uses, first copper, then bronze, then iron. Sumer came to need copper; but where was Sumer - a civilization of the mud plains - going to find it?

Dilmun had the answer. There were good copper deposits in Oman - Magan, it was called then - and already, excavations suggest, Dilmun had trade connections with that area. So to Dilmun's luxury trade with India was added smelted and sometimes worked copper. Indeed, this commodity came to be the staple item of Dilmun's international trade network and as a result Dilmun founded a maritime network unrivaled for its breadth by any other in the early days of man's world. Based on that trade, Dilmun also established what came to be a city state on the east coast of Arabia.

Like any other trading city, Dilmun's fortunes were tied to its biggest buyer. If Sumer had years of economic troubles, so too did Dilmun. At the same time the Dilmun trade had its effect on the Sumerian economy - especially as copper came to be a staple of everyday life - and on Sumer's ability to wage war. Thus control of the Dilmun link became a sine qua non in larger Sumerian politics. When Sargon the Great, for example, conquered the Mesopotamian cities for his empire, he didn't stop at the headwaters of the Gulf; as a matter of course, he went south to Dilmun, annexing it and its trade as well. Later empires followed his example. Clear down to Hammurabi, the Babylonian period and after, Dilmun trade is a matter of significant wealth and politics in the north.

Yet long before the time of Hammurabi, other states had arisen, other imperial ventures. The innovations which had given scfuthern Mesopotamia her strength had been adopted by the peoples around her. The Fertile Crescent had filled out into a complex web of intense politicking and trade. The focus of power moved northwards from Mesopotamia, now; north and west toward Palestine, and toward an Egypt unified and looking beyond its African boundaries for commerce, north toward the rising power of the Hittites of Anatolia. Sumer is no longer the center of the stage.

With this northern focus, there was little time to concentrate on the affairs of a distant trading town in the Arabian Gulf, however important it had once been, so beginning with the Hittite invasion of Mesopotamia in 1594 B.C., Dilmun, increasingly neglected, its markets to the north destroyed by war, begins to decline. The upper levels of excavations on Bahrain show signs of violent sacking and looting, painful rebuilding on a smaller scale, then burning again. Then, finally, it is abandoned.

But the Indian trade was too important to the north to be neglected for long. When the next great empire in the eastern Fertile Crescent arose - this time a world empire - the shores of eastern Arabia would once again flourish on trade. The Macedonian, Alexander, was coming.

This article appeared on pages 14-19 of the March/April 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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