Featured image: The Great Ziggurat of Ur, photo by David Stanley, Flickr
Visiting the Scene of Father Abraham’s Youth
Here is a tiny scene of two U.S. friends and an Iraqi archaeologist – plus Pope and President – visiting the ruins of Sumer in southern Iraq. Pope Francis visited there in March, 2021 because traditionally that is where Abraham, the “Father” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is from.
The following could be part of a small “introductory” chapter about Sumer which could provide a tiny peek at the antiquarian—and yet strangely, contemporary quality of this perhaps most ancient of all human civilizations in a casual “humanizing” kind of manner.
- A) Did you know that the Sumerians were in a kind of race—even though they didn’t know it— with the ancient Egyptians in inventing the very idea – and then the reality—of writing? The race started about 5000 years ago.
- B) Wow! That long ago? You’re talking about 3,000 B.C.E.!?
- A) Yes. . . . You’ve heard people joking about something “being written in stone!” Well, that’s exactly what the Sumerians did. I guess you could say that they invented “writing in stone.”
- B) What do you mean, “writing in stone”?
- A) They took a soft piece of clay of whatever size or shape, and used a sharp tool with a head sort of like the end of a screwdriver and made little indentations in the soft clay: up down, right, left, and, and . . . .which acted like sounds and/or letters to spell words. Then they let it dry.
- B) Aha! After they then set the soft clay aside…it dried into hardened stone…lasting thousands of years! Correct?
A) Right. Spoken words, and then: Voila! “Written in stone!”
Sumerians Were City “Folks”
- D) On the other end of the spectrum of “firsts” for humanity was the absolutely amazing water controls the Sumerians set up on the twin rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
- C) Incidentally, the first chapter of the Bible says that the vegetation that grew around those two named rivers was called the “Garden of Paradise” where Eve and Adam hung out – for a while, that is!
- A) Anyway, to sustain that biblical “Garden of Paradise,” the Sumerians invented incredible canals, locks, dredges, etc… to make the rivers in that huge rather flat land rolling from the mountains to the sea into watered fields and gardens so that less than 20% of the population of the area could grow more than enough extra food for the 80+% who were city folks.
- B) You mean that more than 80% of the Sumerians lived in cities?
- A) Right. That’s why we call what “city” folk use their energy and thought to produce – instead of food—things like the writing we mentioned, all kinds of architecture, science, arts, literature… all of it, “Civilization.”
C) What’s more, the Sumerians invented arithmetic, were the first astronomers, the first to set up legal and administrative systems complete with courts, jails, and government records, and…
- B) Aha! I got it! The word itself tells us the fundamental meaning: Civil-ization is City-ization!
- A) Right on the money! Further, I can, on a less serious side—but still true—add here that the Sumerians were the first beer-drinking society we have evidence of!
- B) Your mention of beer…. Whew! This heat is something! 110 degrees Fahrenheit every day! I for one could use a cold one now!
- A) Good idea! Let’s stop here by this refreshment stand for a little while.
Abraham of Ur, The First Monotheist?
- B) A, you have been studying Sumer for years. While we are relaxing in the shade, tell us about one of the most surprising facts or stories you’ve learned about Sumer.
- A) OK. Let me tell you about one of the earliest stories—actually recorded!—from about 2000 B.C.E.—again, “in stone!” It is probably the first-ever reported teacher-student-parent corruption!
- B) You mean that the story you are about to relate literally comes from 4,000-year-old stone tablets that were dug up just in recent decades?
- C) . . . Oh, look! Here comes Pope Frances and Iraqi President Barham, and some others. . . . I wonder why he picked the ruins of the city Ur to come to amidst all the ancient Sumerian city ruins that have been dug up in the last couple hundred years.
- A) Oh, that’s easy. It’s because it says in the Bible that the first monotheist, Abraham, came from the city of Ur.
- C) You mean that the idea that there were not many gods and goddesses (poly-theism), but only One God (mono-theism) started here in Ur?
- B) Right . . . There are arguments among modern scholars, but that is the traditional claim, which is reflected in the biblical text.
- C) It would be interesting to follow along and listen to the Pope’s and the President’s questions and the explanations they get from the archeologists and other scholars with them. . .
- B) Let’s get back to the super-interesting story you were going to tell us about that archeologists found in the ancient stones of Sumer . . . .
A Surprising Story From an Ancient Sumerian
A) OK. . . . Let me mostly use the report of Prof. Samuel Noah Kramer of the of the University of Pennsylvania Archeological Museum.
- C) You mean from U. Penn. in Philadelphia? Why is that?
- A) Because as a world-famous Archeological Museum and part of the University of Pennsylvania, it has been deeply involved in many archeological excavations in the Middle East and has been working for years on analyzing and publishing their findings.
- B) Oh yeah, I heard of Prof. Samuel Noah Kramer. He wrote a famous book called History Begins At Sumer
- A) Exactly. Well, Prof. Kramer helped translate for us from stone tablets the following story, written by a young boy student—who obviously had several unhappy encounters with his teachers.
- B) . . . I can relate to that. . . .
- A) . . . Result? Prof. Kramer reported: “In school, whenever he misbehaves, he is caned by the teacher and his assistants; of this we are quite sure.”
- B) Hmmm, sounds like what my granddad told me about when he was bad at school!
- A) Yeah, well, it quickly gets a lot more interesting. The boy actually then “wrote” on his soft clay tablet—saving it for us to read 2,000 years later! . . .
He wrote that:
After school was dismissed, I went home, entered the house, and found my father sitting there. I told my father of my written work, then recited my tablet to him, and my father was delighted. . . .
- B Sounds great to me so far.
- A) Yeah, well, the next morning things turned sour. He woke up late and consequently got to school late . . . .
- B) Oh-Oh, sounds not so great.
- A) Exactly! The student wrote further:
In school the monitor in charge said to me ‘Why are you late?’ Afraid and with pounding heart, I entered before my teacher and made a respectful curtsy.
- C) Sounds ominous.
- A) Only too right! The student had to take canings from the various members of the school staff for such indiscretions as talking, standing up, and walking out of the gate. Worst of all, the teacher said to him, “Your hand (copy) is not satisfactory,” and caned him.
- B) Yikes! Sounds like he was getting it from all sides!
- A) Only too right! The student then spoke to his father and suggested that it might be good to invite the teacher home and mollify him with some presents.
- C) Did the father then smack the kid for suggesting such a sleazy action?
- A) By no means! Prof. Kramer further cited the clay tablet, which recounted:
To that which the schoolboy said, his father gave heed. The teacher was brought from school, and after entering the house he was seated in the seat of honor. The schoolboy attended and served him, and whatever he had learned of the art of tablet-writing he unfolded to his father.
- C) Did that end the charade with the indignant teacher?
- A) Totally the opposite! Prof. Kramer reports that,
the father then wined and dined the teacher, ‘dressed him in a new garment, gave him a gift, put a ring on his hand. . . .’
- B) Shameless!”
- C) And all this happened right here practically where I am standing—over 2,000 years ago.
- B) When I get back home to Philly, I am going to go to U Penn’s Archeological museum again and ask to see this collection of 4,000-year old stone tablets.
- C) And thanks to Pope Francis and President Barham for getting me to fly 10,000 miles to where Monotheism is said to have started—as evidenced in 4,000-year old stones now sitting—as XXX, the Founder of my Philadelphia alma mater, Temple University, lectured around the world: “Acres of Diamonds In Your Own Back Yard!”
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy these books: The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion by Hans Küng, and Letters to Will Combined Edition Volume 1: Lessons to Live By (COMBINED EDITION Letters to Will) by Leonard Swidler.
Professor Leonard Swidler is a global theologian who has pioneered and contributed to the field of interfaith dialogue for more than 50 years. He has been a professor of religion at Temple University since 1966. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the ecumenical research journal and the founder and director of the Dialogue Institute. Read more about Professor Swidler here.