I have always been fascinated by the Epic of Gilgamesh. The link between the biblical flood and the events in the epic became even more intriguing when the evidence of floods during the third millennium BCE was dug up by the archaeologists in the Mesopotamian cities of Ur and Shuruppak among others. My research into it intensified and led me to Shu-Ilishu, the Sumerian translator and the ruins of Lagash. It has long been considered that Lagash or one of the villages near Lagash was a Meluhhan colony. There is evidence of Meluhhan influence in the ruins of Lagash in the form of discovery of Indus seals and also images in the Mesopotamian seals suggestive of Indus valley influence.
The cuneiform texts speak of Meluhhan ships docking in several Sumerian ports, especially during the period of Sargon the great during 2200 BCE. Sargon boasts of ships from Meluhha, Magan and Dilmun docking in the port of Akkad (by the way, we still don’t know where this famed city of Akkad is!). Magan has been identified with Oman and Dilmun with Failaka island in Bahrain. There has been controversies regarding the identity of Meluhha, but it is generally believed to be Harappan civilisation.
Shuruppak: The city of Shuruppak lies on the banks of one of the tributaries of Euphrates 35 miles south of the city of Nippur at the site of Tell Fara. This was probably found by King Shuruppak around 3000 BCE. The city features in the Epic of Gilgamesh and comes to a watery end probably around 2000 BCE.
Cuneiform texts speak of warfare between cities and particularly the attacks by the Gutians. The number of tablets found in this site has given the city somewhat of a university atmosphere. These tablets feature anything from classroom texts to business deals and itemisation of object including plants and animals. The Sumerian King list puts Shuruppak as the son of Ubara Tutu, “last king before the big deluge”. King Shuruppak is known for the Instructions of Shuruppak, which is probably the oldest surviving Mesopotamian literature. Here, Shuruppak gives instructions to his son. “let me speak a word to you: you should pay attention! Do not neglect my instructions! Do not transgress the words I speak! The instructions of an old man are precious; you should comply with them!:
- You should not locate a field on a road.
- You should not place your house next to a public square: there is always a crowd.
- You should not loiter about where there is a quarrel;
- You should not steal anything.
- You should not play around with a married young woman: the slander could be serious.”
This is similar to the code of Hammurabi and Manu smriti and even the Ten Commandments in lot of respects. There are nearly 300 instructions found on cuneiform tablets at various levels of excavations. The earliest known tablet showing the instructions, dates back to 2500 BCE.
Cuneiform Texts: There are over a million cuneiform tablets discovered so far and with 130,000 tablets, British Museum leads the field. Not all of the tablets have been deciphered. Emperor Darius decides to immortalise his work on stone gets his exploits carved on the sides of the Mount Behistun in three languages. Behistun inscriptions in Persia written during the Emperor Darius’s reign had three languages – Elamite, Persian and Babylonian. This helped Henry Rawlinson, a British Officer to decipher the first Cuneiform texts in 1835. Tablets dating back to the third millennium BCE are mainly in the Sumerian language changing gradually to cuneiform texts of the classic Akkadian towards the end of the second millennium BCE.
Shuruppak is not known for massive fortifications or huge Ziggurats, but is known for one of the most charismatic characters of ancient times – Ziusudra or Utnapishtim. His name is immortalised in the flood tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh: There are over 50 flood stories across the globe in almost all the religions with a similar story’s content. Here, the Gods getting tired with looking after themselves, create a junior set of gods. But these junior set of gods rebel at having to do all the work and the create humanity to serve them. Humans unexpectedly go forth, multiply, and become noisy. God Enlil is enraged by the noise and decides to end humanity with plagues of drought, which talk about the massive flood sent down by the angry god Enlil to end the noisy humanity. A more amicable God Enki comes to hear of this and he concocts a plan. He speaks to Ziusudra and tells him about the flood. He gives instructions to build a boat. As the flood comes, Ziusudra takes his wife, some animals and seven sages on to the boat. When the flood recedes, they land in Shuruppak and thus inhabit the world. Enki is very impressed by this and grants him immortality and sends him to live in a place “at the end of the world” in the middle of “deep dark waters” – the Apsu – so that he may not be accessible to mortals. Ziusudra turns out to be the son of Shuruppak according to the Sumerian king list.
Gilgamesh is the king or Lugal of Uruk, probably the largest city after Kish during that period in pre-history. He is considered to be, two thirds God and one third human. This makes him invincible and becomes extremely arrogant.
Many despise his rule. He is portrayed as a sort of a womanizer and would take any bride on the first night. The Gods hear of this and they send beautiful Shamash and the jungle man, Enkidu. The powerful jungle man is brought up by the wild animals of the jungle and grows up without any human contact until he meets Shamash and falls in love with her. When he hears of the outrage being ravaged by the king Gilgamesh, he attacks the King. The ensuing battle is bitter and long. Gilgamesh is impressed by the jungle man and befriends him. They become very close friends. Gilgamesh hears of the demon in the cedar forest, Humbaba. The legend was that the demon was the most powerful in the world. Gilgamesh could not stand someone else being called more powerful than himself. He asks for Enkidu’s help to go to the cedar forest and destroy the demon against the advice of his courtiers. They enter the forest and challenge the demon. In the ensuing fight, Enkidu is mortally wounded. Gilgamesh brings him back to the city of Uruk along with the head of the demon, Humbaba. The royal physicians and all the Magi in the land try to save Enkidu in vain.
However, no one can save his friend and Enkidu breathes his last to the extreme lamentations of Gilgamesh. He is heartbroken and talks of killing himself. He asks why he could not save his friend if he was so powerful. Why is the human life so fragile? Why did his power not help his friend? How is it that the old sage Ziusudra can get immortality? He travels to deep waters of the Apsu in search of the sage to ask him these questions.
Trade Links with Mesopotamia: Our ancient scriptures tell us of the story of Sage Vasishta travelling to the thousand-pillared temple of Varuna in Susa, the capital of Elam by ships. He lives on the southern slopes of Mount Arbuda (present day Mount Abu) in Bharata. Vasishta’s ashram is destroyed in a massive earthquake, which flattens the top of the mountains.
Experts agree that the Harappan ships sailed up the gulf to Sumer during the height of the mature phase in 2600 to 2300 BCE with Dilmun (Bahrain) and Magan (Oman) as intermediary ports. Later, as the two civilisations started to decline, the intermediary ports of Magan and Dilmun became terminals. The Harappans ships brought grains, copper, Silver, Gold, semi-precious stones such as Carnelian, Lapis Lazuli, Agate and took mainly woollen material and probably silver from Sumeria. There are references to a Magillu boat (typical Harappan boat) in Sumerian cuneiform tablets including the epic tablets. Later, during the Akkadian period, there is record of meluhhan boats docking in Mesopotamian ports. Sargon claims in one of the tablets that meluhhan ships docked in his port under his power! The cuneiform texts talk of King Gudea buying shiploads of Meluhhan wood to build the temple at Lagash. Several Harappans seals have been found in Mesopotamian sites as well as in Bahrain and Oman. Very few typical cylindrical seals of Mesopotamia have been found at some Harappan sites.
The story of The Fall of Shuruppak has used all the available evidence both, archaeological and literary, to link the stories of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Harappan maritime trade to weave a story of action, romance, suspense and pathos.
In the words of the great sage Vasishta –
“….the most lasting achievements of a ruler are not buildings, walls or temples;
Since they can be swept away and turned into ruins and fields; and not power
Since the gods control all destiny, But knowledge and humility …”
Alchemy Experience: The story of the hero of the book has been dealt with expertise, experience and dignity by the publishing team at the Alchemy India. I have to thank several people in the editorial team who painstakingly went through the manuscript to ease out the mistakes and trim the manuscript to a manageable size and bring out an excellent result.
- A New approach to tracking connections between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia: initial results of strontium isotope analyses from Harappa and Ur. J. Mark Kenoyer a, T. Douglas Price b, James H. Burton. Journal of Archeaological Science, 2013 (2286-2297).
- Vedic Irina and the Rann of Kutch, R N Iyengar, B P Radhakrishna, S S Mishra. Puratattva38 (170-180)
- The Lothal Revisitation Project; A fine thread connecting ancient India to contemporary Ravenn (via Oman); Dennys Frenez, TOSI Vol. 2014, BAR International Series. (pp 263-273).
- Wheeled vehicles of Indus Valley Civilisation of India and Pakistan. J M Kenoyer, University of Wisconsin, 2004.
- Growing in a foreign world. For a history of “Meluhha villages” in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC. Massimo Vidale, The Melammu Project. 2004. (261-280).
- From Sumer to Meluhha. J M Kenoyer, Wisconsin Archeaological Reports, 1994.
- The First Civilisations in Contact: Mesopotamia and the Indus. Jane McKintosh. University of Cambridge, 2014.
- Shu Ilishu’s cylinder seal: Gregory L Possel, Museum of Penn, Expediton, Vol 1;42-43.