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‘The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End’, by Hourly History – review

The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End (Mesopotamia History Book 1)The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always been interested in this mysterious ancient people who were the first inventor of the systematic written language in the history of human civilization. No eminent academics have ascertained where they were from. Subsequently, many a civilization claimed to be their descendants, ranging from the Caucasians to the Indians and even to the Far Easterners. But one thing is certain that the civilization of this enigmatic people merits itself as the cradle of civilization on the grounds of the following characteristics: (1) social structure based upon diverse economic sectors; (2) religious system concomitant with system of government; (3) advances in technology contributing to the cultural and scientific enterprises; and (4) written language, which is the bedrock of any known human civilization. They were the Sumerians. In fact, the Sumerian legacies are the sine qua non of a broad substratum of our modern cultural and social infrastructure. Notwithstanding such contributions, the Sumerians are still veiled in mysterious mist; no one knows for sure where these people came from and then vanished, leaving us with their brilliant legacies as their gifts to human history. Which makes the Sumerians all the more interesting and enigmatic as vividly and elegantly related in this book.

The Sumerian civilization burgeoned in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, also known as one of the River-Valley Civilizations, in modern day Iraq for almost 4,000 years. The staging of the Sumerians in history was akin to a dramatic entrance of a dark horse on stage. In around 3,300 B.C. a group of outsiders with “straight black heads” from nowhere, and they called themselves “Sumerians.” However shady and murky their backgrounds might be, the Sumerians were already smart and practical when they arrived at the land with their already fully developed written language and scientific knowledge, especially on irrigation systems. To elucidate, the priests oversaw the design and building of irrigation systems as something of civil engineers who also controlled the building of embankments to prevent flooding of agricultural land during rainy season in order to allow the rapid transport of produce from farms to cities. In fact, these two inventions are regarded as the most highly advanced and influential enterprises that betoken their cultural sophistication and engineering feats that are hardly inferior to those of ours in modern time. The irrigation resulted from a need of bringing water from the rivers to the fields, and the whole procedure was exclusively operated by the priests, who negotiated with farmers for water supply in exchange of a portion of the harvested crop.

With respect to the writing system, it is known as “the cuniform” engraved in the form of wedge-shaped markings made in wet clay using sharp reeds. And this the necessity of writing came from an accounting need of recording the amounts of agricultural produce. But the Sumerian writing was more than a language of commerce. It also blossomed into an art of literature modeled for other writings, such as famous biblical stories of the Garden of Eden, the Ark of Noah, and the Book of Job were all based upon Sumerian stories allegedly based upon true events that had occurred to them. Also, the words “saffron” and “cane” we use today are derived from the cuniform.

Since Sumerians also instituted farming of the land, instead of being a nomadic hunter-gather people, they established a village as a permanent settlement, which begot food surpluses, creating diverse social structures, including a compartmentalized class system and various types of work unrelated to farming. Sumerians also produced the first codes of law and the first written literature in the form of pieces of writing, such as the Sumerian proverbs as wittingly inserted in the beginning of every chapter of this book. For instance, on the subject of married life one Sumerian man uttered thus: “For his pleasure he got married. On his thinking it over, he got divorced.”Which also bespeaks a permission of divorce in Sumerian society. Sumerians treasured monogamous marriage in which a man gave gifts to the bride and her family upon agreement to a marriage contract. Besides, women were not confined in domestic restraints; they could work as scribes, weavers, and proprietress of businesses.

There were four strata of social class in Sumerian society as follows:

  • Nobles: Senior priests and warriors and their families who owned the most of the land. The nobles distinguished themselves by resplendent clothing made of fine fabrics and impressive jewelry with their shaved heads. They all lived in temples and palaces in the center of the cities where the irrigation systems and commercial centers were located.
  • Commoners: Traders, artisans, merchants, scribes, and craftsmen. In fact, scribes were held in high esteem because of their dual role as accountants. Commoners also owned a small portion of land.
  • Clients: Senior administrators and temple personnel working for nobles who lived in small houses in highly congested streets close to the city walls or outside cities on farms.
  • Slaves: Manual laborers who were prisoners of war or sold into slavery due to the inability to pay the debts. Also, fathers of free people could sell their children into slavery to raise the funds. (So Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in which a man sold his wife and daughter in a public market had its legal foundation in the Sumerian practice.) However, slaves could merry free people and purchase manumission themselves.

The emergence of the above-referenced class system indicates that the Sumerian economic infrastructure was constituted by a variety of business sectors developed in the cities with food surpluses, highly advanced irrigation systems to transport water from the rivers to the farms, and solid military prowess endowed by professional solders and inventions of steel chariots used at war for the first time in history.

In conclusion, the Sumerian contributions to our modern civilization as a collective enterprise are deeply entrenched in many aspects of our life, whether or not we know or even care, because well, let’s face it, history is written by a winner, a victor, a survivor who lives to tell beyond the boundaries of time and space. In this regard, the Sumerians might not be ostentatious de riguer per se victors because just like their mysterious origin, their demise as a sovereign entity with their direct descendants to whom their cultural artifacts and legacies stunned the proliferation of its heritage. Nonetheless, the Sumerian civilization bestrides one of the world’s most significant ancient civilizations that left indelible marks on our cumulative cultural progress as elliptically put by the following Sumerian proverb: “What comes out from the heart of the tree is known by the heart of the tree.” You see, the Sumerians were indeed brilliant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

French Dinner, Lords’ Supper

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Getting ready for the dinner

Nice Christmas office dinners are all alike. Any not-so-nice Christmas office dinner is boring in its own fashion. It all depends on a venue and invitees, and a host of the occasion that create an ambiance and conjure up a spirit of the minor revelry. That said, this Christmas office dinner Seraphina attended last night was a nice and delicious revelation of characters, personalities, and tastes served with a fashionably delicious Haute cuisine at a fashionably cultural restaurant in downtown nearby the office. It was an unusual raillery of lawyers – the lords of the firm as Seraphina would like to think – whose stiffness seemed to be temporally suppressed by the intoxication of prime red wine. All of this became a valuable empirical addition to Seraphina’s quest for a meaning of her life, a voyage into the heart of the world, the terra incognita, charting her emotional course according to the winds of her unknown destiny.

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The course menu designed for the lords’ banquet

The dinner began at La Boum, a new European fusion restaurant in town, at 6:30 PM. As Seraphina wended her direction toward the restaurant, she bethought herself of Somerset Maugham’s adage: “At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” It was one of the best sagacious and elliptical advice on how to conduct oneself at such occasion, thought she. Or was it just a universal principle to be a civilized guest at a social event? It’s just that when such common sensible etiquette is uttered by a notable person like Maugham, it carries a tone of authority, power of significance. Come to think of it, the Little Prince in the eponymous novel by French aristocrat, writer, poet, and aviator Antone de Saint-Exupery thought the same when a Turkish astronomer dressed in the traditional costume presented himself at an academic convention, no one paid attention to him but belittled his outstanding scientific achievements. It was not until he changed his costume to a well-tailored suit that his fellow astronomers took him seriously and attended to his remarkable scientific contributions. Well, that’s one of the human foibles and follies that we all stumble upon no matter how educated and good-hearted we are, contemplated Seraphina, Lady Philosopher, as she was approaching near La Boum.

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The marvelous chef and proprietor of La Boum Monsieur Randy Beaver

All the partners of the firm had already been expecting Seraphina’s elegant entrance into the restaurant. Always a principled, reliable, and capable assistant, Seraphina was their sine qua non, and they all could not exert their years of expertise on their areas of law, ranging from corporate to litigation, without her existence at the office. So they could not help but beam with smile at her beautiful presence into the dinner table that would have been rather drab and dreary without her graceful presence like Beatrice serving as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory in Virgil’s Divine Comedy. So the course of dinner commenced with a glass of red wine made in 1986. It was amazing to see how just one sip of wine making a person agreeable and sociable quite contrary to his usual stiff and standoffish self. That might be the reason why Dionysus, the god of wine and anything relating to intoxicating spirits, was indiscriminately revered by all regardless of status, sex, and age in the antiquity. And the cult is still going strong all over the world.

Amid the intoxicated euphoria under a glowing chandelier, Seraphina was observing the faces of the partners, the purveyors of her sustenance, her daily victuals, her existential livelihood. In the dusky glow, her minor and major bosses seemed full of amiable qualities. Seraphina liked their polished frankness, their intelligence, their sense of humor, their lack of snobbishness. Even the occasional moroseness and astuteness which sometimes were so like abrasiveness now seemed the natural sign of social ascendancy belonging to the station. They were lords of the world she now decided to care for, and they were ready to accept her only if she was willing to make it her primary world, not the secondhand, which had been that world she was now beginning to turn herself in. Or so it seemed at the moment. But one thing was certain that she felt within her a secret allegiance to their standards, an acceptance of the demands imposed upon her unavoidable obligations, a scornful pity for the people who would put their ideal ideas before existential needs and adhere to abstract abracadabra of metaphysical philosophy of life. Now she began to despise all such feckless rabbles, the starving intellectuals without the gumption, the proud egoists who put forward their own doctrines of life in which Seraphina would not want to find herself. Already she was beginning to feel like a new person at the denouement of the dinner. And her qualms about leaving for her imago bespoke a vestige of her abstract self that only lived in a textual world.

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The perfect Victorian wedding

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Marriage is an official commitment of love. A man and a woman tie the knot of conjugal relationship in which both of them promise to remain true blue till death do them apart. Call it anachronistic or incongruent or even antediluvian, but even in this era of the social media and reality entertainment, this traditional sense of marriage is still valid, complacently being moored to societal conventions and traditions. Well, anyway, it really doesn’t matter to Lady Seraphina, who remained maiden, still remains maiden, and will remain maiden, unless Aphrodite concocts the same kind of love-play on her as the one she did on Dido thousands years ago. But readers can rest assured because it is hardly ever so that Lady Seraphina will likely relinquish her maiden license which permits her to regale herself with romantic solitude as her sanctuary. She is above her class, she is above her sex, she is above her race. Seraphina belongs to her own class that resembles none other than itself. That’s probably why she stays unsullied by leering eyes of the undesirable.

Notwithstanding the aforesaid account of Seraphina’s maiden ladyship, she does not eschew the subject of wedding if it involves historical anecdotes and interesting vignettes, such as the following facts about the Victorian wedding she came upon from her reading. Always a student of history, especially about everyday life of ordinary folks and eccentricities of aristocrats (the persons of Sandwich and Portland conjured up suddenly), Seraphina read about it with a kind of cheeky relish conflated with a social superiority that reminded her of her uniqueness on par with Pythia, Artemis, and Vestal Virgins. Anyway, the facts about the Victorian wedding were quite interesting to compare the bygone customs and norms with those of modern day (come to think of it, the “modern day” will be a bygone day in any time soon.) The following were what Seraphina learned from the read:

  • Selection of the perfect partner (so to speak): The right status and temperament were the elemental basis of a desirable husband. Love? Enough of it was believed to follow upon marriage, as St. John Rivers proposed to Jane Eyre whom he regarded as a suitable wife of a missionary in India, a female apostle. In fact, the creator of Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte urged a friend to consider a proposal of marriage even if she felt disgusted for the man, so long as he had common sense, a good disposition, and a manageable temperament. However, crossing over the boundaries of classes was a rarity. It’s probably why a romance between Mr. Edward Rochester and Jane Eyre, a governess under his employment, was quite sensational to readers of the time. The average ages for marriage were 26 for men and 24 for women. However, girls at 12 and boys at 14 could also marry under the consents of their parents.
  • Where to tie the knot: All marriages were to be performed according to the rites of the Church of England with the exception of Jews and Quakers (Note that Catholics were still disfranchised in the realm of societal privileges due to England’s being staunchly anti-papist.) However, thanks to the Marriage Act 1836, couples were able to marry in a register office and according to their own religious rites, as long as they did so in a registered place of worship with a civil register in attendance. In fact, many an eloped couple and bigamist preferred a civil ceremony that gave them more privacy than a religious ceremony. Think of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester who married in front of a magistrate as the narrative hinted at the end of the story.
  • Selection of wedding dates: Spring and summer wedding days were in-vogue among the city bourgeoisie and country aristocrats, whereas among farmers October was the most popular following the harvest season. In the wake of Industrial Revolution, Sunday became the most favorable wedding day for city workers in urban areas. Until 1886, weddings had to take place between 8:00 AM and noon with an extra half-day off given to urban laborers. Thereafter, the hours were changed to 3:00 PM to reflect both the working hours of the lower classes and change of social habits of the upper class.
  • Post-Wedding activities: The bigger and more extravagant wedding banquet was, the wealthier the host thereof – usually at the home of the bride – was regarded as. It was usually breakfast served at the banquet. After the procession of the guests and ceremonial functions, the newly-married were hurriedly off to a love nest where they could be left alone to get to know each other in the most intimate and loving way. Which attests to what George Elliot, who was in fact never officially married, said of the nature of honeymoon as aiming “to isolate two people on the ground that they are all the world to each other.” This honeymoon ritual became an important part of the process of getting married and was called “a wedding holiday,” so to speak. But alas, for some couples it was a time when the flaws and faults of a partner were laid bare, revealing cardinal irreconcilability in naked truth.

IMG_3985So the Victorian wedding was more of a social function that displayed one’s status and wealth. And with respect to the honeymoon occasion, it was something to be reckoned with in this modern time when the idea of marriage has become nothing more than official proclamation of legal co-habitation that is subject to be a void under the convenient pretext of irreconcilable differences between the partners. Besides, marriage now is more of a serial monogamy due to a fashionable trend of divorce. Seraphina thinks that although time changes and people change, marriage should be a sacred rite of starting a new family, the basic unit of society, a cradle of civilization that should not be dealt with a whimsical or capricious spark of passion soon to be extinguished time after time. Hasty marriage seldom proves well. Seraphina may be an old-fashioned lady with traditional values and pristine ideas about love and romance, but she believes that marriage as a time-honored institution throughout our civilization that has been preserved for thousands of years should be respected and kept alive as William Shakespeare concurred: “Marriage is a matter of more worth than to be dealt in by attorneyship.” And mind you that the real act of marriage takes place in the heart, not in a grand hotel or church. It’s a capital choice you make that is reflected in the way you treat your partner. Which also links to what Oscar Wilde advised to would-be lovers: “Never fall in love with one who treats you like you are ordinary.” How rightly so!

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Celts Vs. Romans?

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Asterix (L) and Obelix (R)

In The Adventures of Asterix, a popular Franco-Belgian comic strip whose protagonists Asterix and his friend Obelix in a village of Gauls during the Roman occupation in 50 BC outwitted their Roman colonialists with Druidic magic potion and spontaneous ingenuity laced with Celtic sense of humor and and mysticism, the Gauls were constantly at war with the Romans in the reign of Julian Caesar, who was bent on subjugating the culture of the colonials, let alone the recalcitrant Celtic spirit, to that of the empire. But it wasn’t always like that, pace popular conception of the Roman ruling of the Gauls and the Britons as widely portrayed in popular culture. The relationship between the Romans and the Celts was quite peaceful and even surprisingly symbiotically beneficial – that is, at least prior to the emergence of Caesar and Claudius.

The Romans and the Celts were in Apollonian co-existence bound by flourishing trade and cultural exchange between the two peoples. There was a long period of peaceful trading between the Mediterranean Romans and the Celts of Gaul inhibiting modern-day France with exports and imports particular to each of the regions. To illustrate, the Gauls were known for their penchant for diluted Mediterranean wine that was transported by boat on the sea and wagon in land from the Peninsular. The Romans received in return Celtic slaves who never seemed to be short of a supply because there was a surplus of slaves in Gaul where frequent raiding among the tribes was the sine qua non of such abundance of exploited manpower to be used to tend the Roman vineyards and other aristocratic estates. Gaulish chieftains offloaded excessive number of newly acquired slaves by trading them off for proverbial Roman wine to distribute it to his followers as an ostentatious display of their wealth and prowess in their tribes. In fact, the Gauls’ love of the Roman wine was so undeniably famous that among the Romans the stereotypical image of the Gauls as drunkards slurping wine through their long, drooping mustaches was widely circulated in the empire.

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Asterix and Obelix in the Roman Army

Olive oil, tableware, jewelry, and other luxuriant goods were among the popular Roman exports, however expensively they were sold by canny Roman traders, who then bought metals, cured hams, beer, and hunting dogs from the Celts at low prices. Notwithstanding such discontentment in terms of fair trade, the prosperous bartering of the goods between the colonials and the colonialists brought the grist to the mill of effective management of the colonies in the context of regarding economic and political stability that could/would have been otherwise in turmoil as a result of despotic constraints on the preexisting native social and political structures characteristic of colonialism. This favorable symbiotic relationship between the Romans and the Celts (the Gauls in France and the Britons in Britain) greased the wheel of the cultural and political expansion of the empire by egging the Celts on to adopt Roman-style systems of government and the young ones on to enlist in the Roman army as auxiliaries.

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Julius Caesar

However, the pacific era of the Roman-Celtic relationship saw cataclysmic waves of change that would punctuate the stability of the status quo as destabilizing forces loomed large in Western Europe: Firstly, the prospect of Germans occupying the Alps was a cause of concern to the Roman Elite. Secondly, Julius Caesar, the ambitious Roman ruler who was seeking for a popular acclaim to fortify his rulership in the empire as well as booty enough to get himself out of debts, determined to impose his despotic rules on the peoples of the conquered lands as portrayed in The Adventures of Asterix. Then later, there came Claudius, the lame and slightly deaf emperor who was spared of his life by his nephew Caligula perhaps on account of such physical defects. Claudius launched a campaign of conquest in northern Europe to attain military prowess in the region and thus enforced totalitarian policy on the management of the colonial systems, discouraging autonomous trading and social and cultural exchanging between the colonial and the colonialist.

In light of the above, the relationship between the colonialist and the colonial sometimes begets unexpectedly mutual benefits in terms of cultural exchanges between the two peoples counter-intuitive byproducts, such as attested in the case of the Romans and the Celts, which could lead to diversification of native cultures, enriching the wealth of cultural legacies that would become another mode of new culture. If the Celts had been vehemently resisted against the cultural influences of the Romans as a result of the conquest of their lands, the cultures and history of Western Europe would and could have become very different from what we have known today, such as the English language, architectural and other historical artifacts, and political systems. In my opinion, sometimes, the colonial regime is not altogether downright evil in the sense that it somehow results in amalgamation of cultures favorable to both of the ruling and the ruled, not out of the benevolence of the former for sure but of the necessity of governing the conquered in the most effective way in order that the conqueror may quell the social and political dissonance arising out of the inept administration of the colonial affairs. In point of view as held by Ancient Athenian historian Thucydides, one must listen to the other less popular side of the story to transcend the subjectivity of times and to test the validity of truth. In this regard, I opine that however adamantly one may object to the benefits derived from the Roman-Celtic relationship, it attests to the fact that it enriched the cultures of both of the peoples and helped them reshape their ideas of epicurean ways of life that has passed on to the present progeny.

 

Author’s Note: The inspiration of this essay comes from my reading of “Traders to Invaders,” written by Barry Cunliffe, formerly professor of European archeology at the University of Oxford, from December 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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When I was little

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Anne Shirley and Matthew Cuthbert from “Anne of Green Gables”

Thus declared Oxford-graduated Dyer as if American writers had been his only sovereign muses, and no one else. Maybe his temperament and literary taste were congenial to economic wits and individualism of American writing.

In my case, the very first novel that I fell head over heels was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Then came The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which was a birthday present from my father. Thenceforth, Anne Of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery spread thru my mind and lingered in my heart.

I still love all of the aforesaid books, and I think it’s the standard of taste and reason that makes us drawn to our preferences. For this reason, I am always drawn to writers whose writing styles are evocative of sentiments as well as intelligent of reason, so riveting and impressive that a sense of emulation springs forth from the well of my mind.

 

 

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