Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Gilgamesh and the Sumerians

Many history programs for young people begin their ancient studies with the Egyptians, which is a shame because in doing so they miss one of the most pivotal early societies, the Sumerians. Modern historians have dated the genesis of this Mesopotamian society at as early as 5500 B.C., making it easily, by anyone's reckoning, at least 1000 years older than the dynastic period of ancient Egypt.

From the Sumerians, we have the earliest written language (cuneiform) and the first wheeled vehicle, potter's wheel, sailboat, and sundial. A Sumerian tablet gives us the world's oldest-known medical handbook, from which we learn of a poultice of "rotted grain," which when placed on a wound would prevent infection--perhaps the first known use of what we know today as antibiotics. The first known written code of law originated in the Sumerian city of Ur, under the reign of Ur-Nammu, in about 2100 B.C., which supersedes by 300 years Babylonian Hammurabi's Code, the one most often given credit as being the first legal code. The Sumerian's also developed the sexagesimal system based on the number 60, from which our system of minutes and seconds and the geometric concept of the division of a circle derive.

Of all the things that we have gained from the Sumerian society, my favorite is, of course, a literary form. The epic, that great poem of heroism and history, was first written about a Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, who ruled from Uruk around 2700 B.C. Luckily for all the children out there, there is a fabulous trilogy of picture books, written and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman, that share his story:

Gilgamesh the King, the first book, introduces Gilgamesh the tyrant king, Shamhat the beautiful temptress, and Enkidu, the wild man. While introducing these characters and sharing their interactions, Zeman, through her breathtaking illustrations, brings the lavish world of ancient Mesopotamia to life. Depictions of the architecture, dress, and instruments, to name but a few things, are accurately depicted, with the border of one page even replicating the famous art work, The Standard of Ur.

In The Revenge of Ishtar, tragedy strikes after much shared adventure. Again, the illustrations expand upon the tale itself. Favorites of mine include the stunning mosaics in the palace and a depiction of a game, known as the Game of Twenty Squares, that was originally found in a royal tomb in the city of Ur and believed to be the oldest known board game.

The final book of the trilogy of picture books, The Last Quest of Gilgamesh, tells the tale of Gilgamesh's search for immortality. In this book, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, once a great king of a fallen people, who tells of the great flood which he survived thanks to forewarning which caused him to build an arc and gather his family along with animals and plants. Gilgamesh is one of many ancient epics that tell of a great flood. If you are a religious family who accepts the Old Testament as part of your scripture, your children will see the parallel with the story of Noah.

My favorite nonfiction book for teaching elementary age kids about the Sumerians comes from a series by Heinemann called Understanding People in the Past. The book, authored by Naida Kirkpatrick, is simply titled The Sumerians. This book is written in fairly simple terms with just the right amount of detail for this age. The print is a bit larger than is often found in kids' nonfiction and there are a good many color photos and maps. Just about every aspect of their culture is covered, making it a great buy if you just want to purchase a single book for your study.

For fun, engaging learning, nothing beats Scholastic's series, You Wouldn't Want to... This series has books on just about every historical subject imaginable. The one that pertains to the Sumerians is called You Wouldn't Want to Be a Sumerian Slave! Accurate historical and cultural facts are shared via very funny and eye-catching cartoon illustrations. We own about thirty of these books, and they are always favorites of my kids, from Kindergarten through high school.

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