Here’s a virtual reconstruction of the city of Ur around 2500 BC or so, or upwards of five thousand years ago. This is based on the remarkably well preserved mud brick structures (due in part to the dry climate, and in part to the excellence of the construction), which gives a blue print of the city in exceptional detail. There is also an enormous quantity of documents—mud tablets baked hard by the sun and in ovens—written in cuneiform which give insight into almost every aspect of life, politics, war and commerce in the city’s 3,300 year history (which coincides neatly with the history of cuneiform, actually, the first cuneiform preceding the founding of the city by only a couple centuries.) Ur was perhaps the very first city, and certainly the very first great city in the modern sense. Take us back in time and put us atop the ziggurat that towers over it and we would take in the view and know we were looking at a city. The way the Chicago skyline seems to rise out of the fields a great distance away was how Ur’s towering ziggurat would have appeared to rise from the plains of Mesopotamia to a Sumerian farmhand. Ur was the model that most cities from Europe to Central and South Asia to the northern half of Africa followed, even though most never knew it. It became the ur meme, the fundamental urban design concept, like how an alphabet invented in the Sinai by a handful of literate turquoise miners became the conceptual model for nearly all the world’s alphabets thereafter. Thus was the urban design deliberately laid out by the planners of Ur over five thousand years ago imprinted upon civilization. Only cities in the Far East and the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa were founded and conceptualized independently. It was in Ur where humans first figured out how to create an urban civilization. Crime, epidemic disease, slums, crowding, pollution, repression and extremes of wealth and poverty followed the idea as it spread, sure, but so did the glamour, excitement, inspiration and thrill of life in the big city, which is why so many of us live in one five millennia later. Ur itself, though, was abandoned about twenty seven hundred years ago, forgotten, it’s bones covered with blowing sand and dust till all that remained was a few odd hillocks, as if it never were.

A virtual recreation of Ur about four thousand years ago. That’s the Euphrates River, Ur then was near where it spilled into the Persian Gulf, making Ur a coastal city. Sedimentation carried in the current of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has long since left the site of Ur far from the sea. The water table was eight or nine feet higher then, too, the land would’ve been well watered, even marshy, so much so that the city planners had canals like thoroughfares crossing the city, carrying goods and people. Alas, six thousand years of civilization and climate change have taken their toll on the landscape of Mesopotamia, and Ur now stands in the desert, silent and still, dust devils swirling over the long forgotten canals.
(Unfortunately I don’t know the source of the digital image.)


The Kesh Temple Hymn (or more precisely, Liturgy to Nintud on the Creation of Man and Woman) is in the long dead Sumerian language and written in cuneiform that was scratched with a stylus into fresh clay tablets and dried in the sun, as were all writings in Mesopotamia at the time. That was about 2600 B.C., or four thousand six hundred years ago. At some point a century or two afterward the tablets were baked hard as rock in a fire when the city was burned by some conqueror or another and the city archives were buried in the ruins. Over the years they were covered by sand and protected from all the history that happened on top of them. Mesopotamia is a vast scattered library of such tablets now, a half a million or more in museums already, and who knows how many more still in the ground. Archaeologists uncovered the Kesh Temple Hymn in the first decades of the 20th century, and one of the world’s few living readers of cuneiform–it is incredibly difficult to read for those of us raised on alphabets–translated the seventy three lines of text by 1920. Its significance was recognized immediately. This anonymous temple prayer, a Liturgy to Nintud on the Creation of Man and Woman, is humanity’s first known literature. A century later and we’ve still found nothing earlier. It’s not the first writing–that had been around a couple centuries already–but the first literature. We consider it literature because the words are so pretty. There’s a cadence, a lilt. There’s art. It is something very special written by an unknown scribe with a talent for written expression, and that was a brand new thing in the world:

The princely one, the princely one came forth from the house. Enlil, the princely one, came forth from the house. The princely one came forth royally from the house. Enlil lifted his glance over all the lands, and the lands raised themselves to Enlil. The four corners of heaven became green for Enlil like a garden. Kesh was positioned there for him with head uplifted, and as Kesh lifted its head among all the lands, Enlil spoke the praises of Kesh. Nisaba was its decision-maker; with its words she wove it intricately like a net. Written on tablets it was held in her hands: House, platform of the Land, important fierce bull!

You’d have to be a Sumerologist to know what all that is about exactly. You get the general idea, though. And dig that repetition, like chanting. The princely one, four times. In my head I see a line of priests, repeating it. The ways of writing still reflected the manners of speech then.

But something extra special in the text immediately stuck out for me. This:

 ….with its words she wove it intricately like a net. Written on tablets it was held in her hands….

Because that is actually a description of writing itself. Perhaps the very first description we know of, though I rather doubt it. The Sumerians had been writing documents–lists, letters and the like–for a couple centuries by 2600 BC. Indeed, schools for scribes opened not long after this was written. Doubtless writing is described earlier, but prosaically. A Sumerian skill set. But these two lines (verb phrases, actually, each only half a sentence) might have been the first time anyone ever described the act of writing so poetically, weaving the words intricately like a net. And it’s that metaphor which amazes me, the use of weaving to describe story telling in written words. Though perhaps the author was not talking about story telling per se, but of writing down the words in cuneiform itself…


…which, in seventy three closely spaced lines, might well look like a intricately woven net. I’m more inclined to think that is what was meant, now that I’ve visualized it. In the five thousand years since writing was invented by the Sumerians, written metaphors have become very rich and very subtle, very abstract and quite opaque. But when writing was new metaphors were typically visual, things you could see. And line after line of cuneiform etched into a clay tablet could look, with a little imagination, like a seine net stretched across a stream. Today it’s the sentences we weave into a story, and few writers now–John McPhee, maybe–would ever think of a seine net at all. Or even know what one is. Besides, our alphabet doesn’t look like netlike, not in the least. I’m not sure what it looks like, besides letters. Those letters used to look like something–they began, most of them, as Egyptian hieroglyphs, which began as pictographs, which began as things–but now they’re as neutral and metaphor free as a writing system can be.

But still, I’m struck by the thought that the weaving metaphor is still used 4500 years later. We still weave stories, like a net in fact. Certainly more like a net than a sweater or a pair of socks or a bird cage cover. A net makes sense that way. Lateral, linear, spaced. Maybe there’s a direct metaphorical connection between Sumerian scribes weaving prayers into nets of cuneiform and the weavers of tales today tapping things into the ether. Or maybe not. It’s just astonishing to think that writing, though five thousand years old, is such a new thing that Bronze Age metaphors still apply.