Tablet from Gimil-Ninkarrak’s archive for the hire of a labourer, describing Gimil-Ninkarrak as the ‘chief barber’. Courtesy the Louvre Museum, Paris
Some 3,700 years ago, an enslaved girl, a barber, and a king crossed paths in a city by the Euphrates. This is their story
I was sitting in a quiet office in the Louvre Museum in Paris, a clay tablet in my hand, using a magnifying glass to make out words that had been inscribed on it in small, careful, wedge-shaped signs known as cuneiform. It looked diminutive in my palm, just 38.5 mm (1.5 inches) wide and 33 mm (1.3 inches) tall. On it, an ancient scribe had written a list of a dozen names. What lay behind this little document? Who were the men listed? When and how did they live? More than 3,700 years ago, when the scribe used his sharp stylus to press the names into the clay, listing goods distributed to each person, these men knew one another and worked together. Many of them must have had wives and families and professions. What more could I learn about their world?
At that point, I was just beginning my graduate research in ancient Middle Eastern history, but I knew I was not the first person to read this tablet. Decades before, in 1923, a French scholar named François Thureau-Dangin had travelled to eastern Syria, searching for the site of an ancient city called Terqa, and he had been given this tablet, along with a handful of others, and had brought them back to the Louvre. He had also attempted a short excavation of the site that proved to be Terqa, now a village on the Euphrates River called Tell Ashara, but he had no luck in his goal of finding more clay documents. Thureau-Dangin subsequently read, analysed and published the few tablets he had acquired, noting their distinctive features and likening them to others that were already known from the antiquities market. I had read and re-read his article many times before going to Paris to look at the tablets for myself.
Doing research in history often feels like having a conversation with people who lived long ago, and, alone in that office at the Louvre, I was deep in an imagined dialogue with Thureau-Dangin about his interpretations. It made no difference that he died long before I was born; we shared a fascination with the history of Terqa. There with us, too, was the anonymous scribe who wrote the tablet so many thousands of years before, along with the scribes who inscribed the other tablets that Thureau-Dangin had acquired. The documents seemed to have belonged to an ancient private archive; most of them referred to a man named Gimil-Ninkarrak. Oddly, though, this list I was reading did not.
Looking at the tablet more closely, however, I felt a sudden jolt of recognition. Beneath and around the cuneiform names I could make out the impressions of a seal that had been rolled across the clay, and it was one that I recognised. The seal had belonged to none other than Gimil-Ninkarrak. So this was why the tablet had been among the documents. Thureau-Dangin had, understandably, missed this. Two much clearer impressions of the seal were found long after Thureau-Dangin’s 1944 death, during more recent excavations at Terqa, and it was absolutely recognisable. Clearly Gimil-Ninkarrak had been present (and probably in a position of authority) for the creation of the list I held in my hand; he had rolled his seal on it as a sign of its official status.
What could the scribes have told us about Gimil-Ninkarrak and his world? What was I getting wrong in my interpretation? My ‘conversation’ eventually expanded to include the contributions of many other scholars and many other ancient scribes; in the years since that visit to the Louvre, other little pieces of the puzzle of life in Terqa in the late 18th century BCE have been falling into place.
I’ve even been able to reconstruct a microhistory of Gimil-Ninkarrak and his community. A microhistory is more focused than a biography; it examines a period during the life of a person (usually someone who was not particularly eminent), in order to understand some aspect of that person’s world. Often microhistories are based on documents that survived accidentally; documents that had meaning and importance at the time but are largely free of bluster and propaganda, not having been written with a future audience in mind. Through them we can almost be flies on the wall; eavesdropping on people in the past who would never have guessed that they would be remembered. Clay tablets written in cuneiform are perfectly suited to this approach to history, in part because they survive very well in the ground, so what survives wasn’t curated for us in ancient times. All kinds of documents are preserved. It also helps that hundreds of ancient individuals kept archives of personal documents in their homes. When archaeologists excavate ancient communities, the tablets are often found lying on the floors, right where they had been abandoned.
Thureau-Dangin searched for the rest of Gimil-Ninkarrak’s archive at Terqa in 1923, but he had no luck. Incredibly, though, the tablets he sought were eventually found. In the late 1970s, Giorgio Buccellati, an archaeologist and historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, began formal excavations at Terqa, heading an international team. In 1984 and 2011, Olivier Rouault, the epigrapher for the excavation, published the documents recovered during those seasons, and later became the director of the excavations there. As a result of their efforts, we now know of 14 tablets that mention Gimil-Ninkarrak, many of them found in what was apparently his house.
They show that Gimil-Ninkarrak was a fascinating character, a prominent man in his community, one who had a connection to the local king, Kashtiliashu, but whose documents also provide glimpses into the lives of people who were much less prosperous and who suffered great financial and personal hardship, including a girl (to whom we shall return) named Guatum.
The late 18th century BCE, when the Gimil-Ninkarrak tablets were produced, was more than 2,300 years before the birth of Muhammad, 1,200 years, even, before the beginning of the Roman Republic. But urban culture was already about 1,800 years old in the Middle East. And because people, rightly, always consider their own era modern, Gimil-Ninkarrak would not have thought of his culture as primitive or ancient.
The global population at the time was only a tiny fraction of its current size, but people already lived on every continent except Antarctica. They spoke innumerable languages, and sustained themselves in many ways, including through agriculture, foraging, herding, fishing and trading. Gimil-Ninkarrak lived in what was then one of the most urban and densely populated areas in the world: the region that came to be known as Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria), where cities and kingdoms lay in the valley of the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The major cities were grand; with populations in the tens of thousands, they boasted sprawling palaces, towering city walls, and temples on high platforms. The sizable city of Terqa was home to the great god of the region, a grain deity named Dagan.
During Gimil-Ninkarrak’s lifetime, the major power in Mesopotamia was a kingdom called Babylon. You may be familiar with Babylon from the Bible, when Nebuchadnezzar II was king, but that story would not unfold for more than 1,100 years. Gimil-Ninkarrak’s era was what we call the Old Babylonian period, when the city of Babylon was just beginning its almost 1,500-year domination of what is now Iraq. The Old Babylonian empire had been forged by a king named Hammurabi, and Gimil-Ninkarrak may have been born around the end of Hammurabi’s reign. Terqa had its own line of kings, but they seem to have been in some way beholden to Babylon, which had a strong influence there.
The Euphrates River, which flowed past the city, wide and murky, probably looked much the same in the 18th century BCE as it does now. The green fields of barley around the city would have been similar, too – divided into long narrow rectangles, flanked by canals, extending across the flat river valley. The sun-browned hills of the steppe where sheep and goats grazed were visible in the distance then, as now. […]
A cylinder seal from Terqa. Courtesy the Louvre Museum, Paris
Continue reading: In the 3,700-year footsteps of a king, a barber and a slave | Aeon Essays
Amanda H Podanyis professor emeritus of history at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Her latest book is Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East (2022).
Edited byPam Weintraub