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Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
Iraq honours the word

By the BBC's Ed Butler

Iraq is hosting an international conference to mark the 5,000th anniversary of the invention of the written word.

Organisers say the ancient city of Uruk, now in southern Iraq, was the birthplace of writing in the third millennium BC.

ancient writing tablet
The exact birth place of writing is still the subject of academic debate

Dating the precise dawn of literature to a specific year is of course spurious, but the weight of scholarly evidence does suggest that this location was at least one of the cradles of early writing.

"In praise of King Shulgi" is one of the best examples of Sumerian writing and dates from the third century BC.

It reads:

    "I swear by the sun God, Utu, on this very day that I... the first-born son, am a fashioner of words, a composer of songs, a composer of words, and that they will recite my songs as heavenly writings, and that they will bow down before my words."

Professor Robert Englund of the University of California believes that the culture that flowered in this region around the delta that flows from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers formed the basis for what is almost certainly the world's oldest literary culture.

"It is the case that at about 3200 BC the first cuneiform tablets were written that we really do recognise as being representations of language, that being the standard definition of writing," he said.

"There were many precursor forms of symbolic representation at periods that reach back many millennia and these small clay objects are conventionally called tags or tokens."

Historical challenge

The claims of ancient Iraq have been challenged in some circles, notably among Egyptologists who say that older hieroglyphs found in Egyptian tombs suggest it was the birthplace of literature.

But Professor Englund disagrees.

"There have been some recent discoveries of some very old tags in a place called Abaidos in Egypt that have been dated back a little earlier," he said.

"But there is quite a lot of evidence of cultural wares imported from Mesopotamia, that is from Iraq, at about the time of the emergence of writing in Egypt, and there is no such evidence on the Mesopotamian side of things."

He believes the idea of writing was imported from the increasingly-structured culture of Mesopotamia into Egypt at about this time.

International isolation

Western academics are among those expected to attend the conference, although exactly how many will make the trip is unclear.

The academic community is keen to improve links with one of the world's most archaeologically rich countries.

Iraq for its part would like to emphasise that its cultural life is continuing despite 10 years of UN sanctions.

The ruling Ba'ath Party still wants to portray Iraq as a historic centre of Arab cultural life, despite the destructive impact of the Gulf War and subsequent international sanctions.

Iraq has very few contacts even with its immediate neighbours in the Middle East.

The BBC's Middle East specialist Roger Hardy says an events like this, and the annual Babylon festival outside Baghdad, can help to end the isolation.

"But there is another political motive too, to ease the isolation, not only of the regime but also of the society itself," he said.

"All this is beamed onto Iraqi television to try to show the Iraqi people: 'Look, the rest of the world has not quite forgotten us', which is of course what most Iraqis feel."

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04 May 99 | Sci/Tech
'Earliest writing' found
05 Jan 01 | Middle East
Iraq looks to its rich history
15 Nov 99 | Middle East
Oldest alphabet found in Egypt
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