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April 7th is national beer day. While this blog would certainly never popularize an intoxicating beverage (even if that beverage were delicious, omnipresent, and held in universal esteem), it is our scholarly duty to note the importance which beer held in the ancient Mesopotamian world. Around seven thousand years ago the first known human civilizations sprang up between the Tigris and the Euphrates river valleys.  These civilizations  were beholden to beer as an economic and cultural staple. Indeed, many archaeologists and anthropologists speculate that beer is the fundamental reason that agriculture and cities were invented to begin with: the hunter gatherer lifestyle offered greater freedom and greater leisure, but civilization offered beer (albeit at the terrible price of always having grotty kingpriests and bureaucrats yelling at you—a trend which continues to this day).

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Of course agriculture brought other benefits as well—famine became less of a problem, populations could grow larger, and humans were able to settle in one place. Yet the fundamental importance which the inhabitants of Eridu, Ur, and Sumer placed on beer can be seen by looking at the pantheon of ancient Mesopotamian deities. The most important child or Eridu, the lord of the watery abzu and grand old man of the gods was Ninkasi, the goddess of beer also known as “the lady who fills the mouth” (which seems to support the archaeologists who believe that the invention of beer and agriculture were related).

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

The worship of Ninkasi will seem familiar to anyone who has ever read a beer can. She was born in “pure sparkling water” and her sigil was the barley spade. Worshippers and supplicants would beg her to “satisfy the desire” and “sate the heart”. During a divine ordeal her father Enki the ancient received eight terrible wounds, and it was Ninkasi who cured the most painful one. In Eridu and Sumer, beer was stored in great earthenware vessels and sipped with long ornamental drinking straws. Many ancient artworks depict this activity, and I always wonder if Ninkasi is the woman behind the drinker concerned about how her brew came out.  Sadly there are no known images of Ninkasi from ancient sources (although I am half tempted to get out my brushes and paint her as an act of devotion, um I mean educational interest).

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the "Great Death Pit" in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the “Great Death Pit” in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Among the earliest human writings is a beautiful hymn to Ninkasi which was written in Sumerian in the nineteenth century BC. It is a lovely panegyric to agriculture, civilization, and the benign blessings of loving gods, but it is also a recipe. Warning: attempting to mimic the actions described in this ancient religious tablet may result in an alcoholic beverage! Beer makers of the modern world were inspired by the ancient recipe and set out to create an ancient Sumerian beer. The beer, made with date honey and thick loaves of an ancient multi-grain bread was less alcoholic than most modern beers (having an alcohol content of 3.5 percent—as opposed to Bud Light which has an alcohol content of 4.2) but it was apparently quite potable.

Time to celebrate spring!

Time to celebrate spring!

Eridu as envisioned by Balage Balogh

Although different people have advanced alternate claims (and new evidence continues to come from archaeological sites around the world), one of the first cities to rise up from the mud was the Mesopotamian city state Eridu.  Located in what was then a fertile estuary where the Euphrates emptied into the Persian Gulf, Eridu seems to have been founded circa 5400 BC by the confluence of three extremely different tribes each of which relied on a different ecosystem. According to Gwendolyn Leick, as paraphrased by the Museum of Knowledge:

The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterized by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral…may have been the original Sumerians. They seem to have dwelt in reed huts. The third culture that contributed to the building of Eridu was the nomadic Semitic pastoralists of herds of sheep and goats living in tents in semi-desert areas.

Somehow these three groups blended together and created the first city. Eridu was built along a pattern which became typical for Sumerian city states: a large central ziggurat of mudbrick was surrounded by a warren of mudbrick houses. The temple was sacred to Enki, the wise god of the abzu (the freshwater marsh).  Enki was the principal god for a reason:  it was the fresh water from the abzu which filled the irrigation ditches and made cultivation of newly domesticated grains possible.  In 4000 BC Eridu had about four thousand inhabitants.  If you wanted to buy goods at a marketplace, drink beer in a tavern, see a building larger than one story, or walk down an alley at night it was probably the only place on earth you could do so.  By 3700 B.C Eridu’s population had grown to approximately ten thousand inhabitants.

The Statue of Enki Sails from Eridu (also painted by the remarkable Balage Balogh)

Thereafter, Eridu was swiftly eclipsed by Uruk to the northwest which was founded by the same blend of people.  The citizens of Uruk looked to Eridu for their template (in fact Sumerian mythology features a story in which Inanna, the harlot goddess of Uruk was forced to visit Eridu’s god Enki in order to obtain the gifts of civilization). Uruk became the first city to boast more than 50,000 people.  It featured the first monumental architecture, the first writing, the first full-time bureaucrats, and the first professional soldiers.  It was the first civilization.

As the other city states of ancient Mesopotamia grew and prospered, Eridu, began to wither.  The once fertile soil lost its vigor and became salty after centuries of irrigation.  Farmers switched to salt-resistant barley but then even that failed. Wars and strife swept over the region as kings and their armies vied for supremacy. By 2050 the region was depopulated.  Neo-Babylonians built a purely ceremonial temple there to honor Eridu’s legacy as the first city and the birthplace of civilization, but by the 6th century BC, even that was abandoned forever.

Eridu Today

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