As linguistic scholar extraordinaire Nicholos Ostler tells us,
This is a region of so many world firsts for linguistic innovation. Unlike Egypt, China or India, its cities and states had always been consciously multilingual, whether for communication with neighbors who spoke different languages or because their histories had made them adopt a foreign language to dignify court, religion or commerce. This is the area where we find the first conscious use of a classical language; but also by contrast, the first generalized use of a totally foreign language for convenience in communication, as a lingua franca, an early apparent triumphant of diplomatic pragmatism over national sentiment
In addition to their cosmopolitanism, the Babylonians and their friends were the great list makers (ie memory tools) of the ancient world. Compiled on clay tablets, these lists in cuneiform are what remain so impressive to us today.
Composed of a combination of hieroglyphic characters as well as phonetic symbols their writing system had much in common with Japanese. Extremely difficult to master, writing things down was left to educated scribes. And, by "writing things down," I mean: use a blunt reed to scratch out what you wanted to say on slabs of clay, which were then fired in a kiln like earthenware pots.
In addition to temples, the great cities of ancient Mesopotamia are known for their museums and libraries-- yes, libraries (They had to have somewhere to store all the tablets). Palace libraries contained countless written in many languages. Composed in Hurrian, Sumerian, Babylonian and Ugaric, there were unending lists, measures and astronomical data. There were also texts on medicine and tales of a Great Flood. All of this, remember, predates the Ancient Greeks by 1000 years and the Bible by even longer.
Thousands and thousands of these clay tablets have been uncovered. The world's first private (ie royal) library was discovered in what was the ancient state of Ugarit, located on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Populated by the Canaanites of the Bible, the people of Ugarit had a reputation every bit as morally degenerate as that of the Babylonians.
And, it was in this degenerate city that the oldest --so far-- clay tablet was unearthed, dating back 3400 years.
Out of all those endless lists of merchant transactions and different fruits and diseases that the ancients Mesopotamians seemed to like jotting down, the oldest surviving piece of writing is not list, but rather is a musical score. This, of course, makes it the oldest musical score on earth! (Don't you love that?) →The Hurrian Songs.
Not only is the oldest surviving piece of writing a work of music, but this musical score has vocals and musical notation as well (written at the bottom of the tablet). It is like finding a rare insect in a piece of amber. You cannot help but wish you could bring it back to life.
The tablets had been broken in two and were discovered about two decades apart. And not unlike the story of my favorite Carpaccio painting, when at last the pieces were put together, everything turned into a puzzle. Because now that we had the complete work, the real trouble began; for how was one to reconstruct music written down in a language now dead with no instructions on the tuning of the instrument?
The song itself turns out to be a sad hymn about an infertile woman praying to the Moon Goddess to bless her with a baby. It is very sad and somehow very moving as well. The music was for a harpist (a lyrist) who played facing the vocalist much as shown in the picture at right.
Many scholars have worked at reproducing the ancient song. The most recent attempt by a Dutch professor and musician is here (music starts at :34)
It is truly beautiful. The Dutch scholar, Theo J.H. Krispijn, based his rendition on the content of another recently discovered tablet which had instrument tuning instructions. Basing his song on these tones, he reproduced the music at a concert in Chicago in the late 1990s.
And here is another, much earlier atempt. Made by Anne Kilmer, a professor from Berkeley after 15 years of study in the later 1970s, this version includes a very ancient form of harmony (which had been thought to be a technique totally absent from ancient musical traditions). This earlier one in particular is so like the chanting and music one hears in a Greek Orthodox Church today that it took me by surprise. The music is in the Western "do-re-mi" scale, which is perhaps why it seems so strangely familiar to us today-- considering that it is the world's oldest song.
Finally, it should be pointed out that while found in Ugarit, the tablet was actually written in the Hurric language, which at the time was a language going extinct. Scholars surmise that perhaps the tablet was placed in the library as much for its musical content as it was an effort at preserving a relic of a dying language.
I like to imagine the antiquaniarian impulse in people so ancient themselves. (My man Huizong would have liked that too, I bet).
Below is Echoes from Ugarit. Syrian composer & pianist Malek Jandali took the ancient melody and arranged an orchestral piece. Here it is performed by The Syrian Symphony Orchestra and recorded with The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra in Moscow
Reading Cloud Atlas and thinking of how things are passed down, I wanted to recommend William Dalrymple's piece on Syria (where ancient Ugarit was located)-- for it is heart-breakingly true that their future lies in ruins.
For more puzzles: Being embodied with Master Wang (知行合一)