How to read Iraq’s ancient Mesopotamian languages

Ali Bnayan has been working on translating Sumerian texts and engraving tablets

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Ali Bnayan has been carefully engraving a clay tablet with cuneiform symbols, a writing technique developed in ancient southern Mesopotamia millennia ago and used in languages once spoken in the region.

The Iraqi Assyriologist has not only learnt to read Sumerian, one of the oldest written languages, but has practised its writing using a carved piece of reed to engrave nail-shaped signs into clay tablets.

Its alphabet has 600 letters.

Mr Bnayan, 26, has been working on translating Sumerian texts but also engraves tablets that serve as models to manufacture souvenirs in the Iraq Museum.

He says the cuneiform script is his life’s passion.

“In the beginning we need to prepare the clay. It relies on leavening and shaping, and then we have to leave it for a while so it starts to dry, so that it is suitable for cuneiform writing,” he told Reuters.

Mr Bnayan, who has a degree in archaeology and Assyriology, hopes to pursue his studies in cuneiform script to contribute to archaeological research in Iraq, where he said troves of clay tablets remain to be discovered.

“As far as cuneiform script is concerned, it is a script that was invented to record the Sumerian language and it is built on the use of symbols. It is different from the alphabet system, but uses symbols. The number of its symbols reaches about 600 or, to be precise, 598 cuneiform signs,” he said.

Last month, an illegally imported 3,500-year-old clay tablet looted from Iraq 30 years ago was returned to Baghdad from the US.

The cuneiform tablet depicts the story of a superhuman king from the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient poem. It measures about 15 by 13 centimetres and is written in the Akkadian language.

It is known to be one of the world’s oldest works of literature and was looted from an Iraqi museum in 1991 during the first Gulf War.

“The Gilgamesh (‘dream’) tablet of course is famous because it is among the first historic tablets that is looking for the secrets of immortality, and what the Gilgamesh tablet concluded was that immortality is not by living forever, but through good deeds that allow people to remember a person by,” he said.

Iraqi historical artefacts have been looted for decades.

Updated: January 17, 2022, 5:06 PM
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