Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
This episode we hear from an assyriologist who plays a major role in the Iraqi scholarly community. She is known for her early work on tablets from Tell Harmal, for example (as mentioned by Dr Laith in episode 1), but also for so much else besides. Yet outside of Iraq, she is less well-known.
I take the opportunity to ask her about her work, her interests, and her thoughts about the future. She explains her research on an ancient archive known from texts that were returned to Iraq, having been looted in recent years. And she talks about teaching the next generation of Iraqi scholars at the University of Baghdad.
The voice you hear in this English version is that of translator, Zainab Mizyidawi, who kindly facilitated the interview.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us please, who are you and what do you do?
I am Dr. Basima Jalil Abed. I am professor in archaeology, and I am head of the archaeology department at Baghdad University. I am teaching the Akkadian language now and some Babylonian texts generally.
Now, you chose to talk about a group of unpublished texts that you’ve been working on. Could you give us some background to those texts, please? What kind of texts are they? And when and where do they come from?
These texts were confiscated. That is, they did not come through archaeological excavations. And they date back to the Achaemenid era. That is, the new Babylonian era. And no one’s studied these texts. So I am interested in learning these texts. I first submitted a proposal to study these texts, which are about 60 cuneiform texts. And it appeared that these texts were only an archive of one person called Shamash-zer-ibni. Then I submitted to study the whole archive, which [is] around 200 texts. I will publish 60 of them in a book, and print them in Germany in a printing press, Zaphon. Then I will complete the rest of the texts. So that’s what the proposal was about.
This man Shamash-zer-ibni is engaged in economic activities, isn’t he? What kind of thing is he doing?
This person or this character, Shamash-zer-ibni, carries out economic activities, like family loan. These families flourished in the modern Babylonian era. And this person does not have any texts around him. Still, a text was found about his grandsons, published in specialised books about Napishtu, which is his grandson, and Shamash-zer-ibni. There is nothing available about him. So we have only this archive, which we will study. We don’t have any more information about him, but only about his grandson, Napishtu. So, as I mentioned. But we want to discover more about this person. Shamash-zer-ibni was a contemporary of Artahishta [= Artaxerxes] the First, in the eighth year of his rule. And continued with his family who continued their rule and business between 40 to 45 years until the time of Artahishta the Second. Or maybe before his rule, according to the texts that we are about to study. All of these texts are confiscated, and their location is unknown. We were able to determine the name of the city, which is the city of Shatir. We think these texts belong to the city. Shatir city has yet to be discovered precisely. Through all sources, it is not possible to know the location of Shatir. But it is believed that it is located between the city of Warka, which is ancient Uruk, and Nuffar, which is ancient Nippur. This is a brief introduction to this book project we are about to study. If you have any questions, I am happy to answer them.
This is ongoing work. But what new knowledge have you learned from this archive so far?
All the families from that period and their work affairs, life, and all other families who work in these businesses, have a private and public archive belonging to the temple or city. Still, it seems that this archive is private. And it’s only lending barley, and dates. This archive enables us to understand these families and their businesses. The archives helped us to have complete knowledge about families that inherited businesses from their ancestors. The evidence is that his work began, especially for this family. The father of this family, for example, began his work with simple pieces. So he started with specific resource, but his grandsons expanded into homes, buying homes, mortgages and enslaved people. So sizeable economic movement was activated during the Achaemenid era, which is lead to remarkable economic prosperity.
So these texts were not excavated, but were confiscated. Do you know when they were confiscated?
These texts were brought back from Jordan, in 2017, or 2019.
And how did you hear about them, and choose to work on them?
Usually, we go to the museum. And when we visit the museum, we usually submit a proposal, and ask for permission to study texts. We always ask about ancient Babylonian texts. And they tell me when I ask them,”. I have a postgraduate student, who took a study of a group of Achaemenid texts. And also I have a hobby too of studying all kinds of texts. I started a simple research project on Achaemenid texts. When I found this group, I started reading it and submitted a request to review the 60 texts offered. After knowing that these 60 texts, it actually was 200 texts, I submitted a proposal again, to study the entire group later.
Do you know of any tablets from the same archive in other collections or in Baghdad found at other times?
Yeah. The whole texts are around 700 texts, including Ur III period, with some Achaemenid period tablets within these texts.And some of the texts are Akkadian texts. And some of them various texts. And some actually literary texts. Around five to six texts belong to the new Babylonian era.
Ah-ha, ah-ha. You’re talking about the tablets from Jordan there, right?
Okay, thanks. That’s really interesting context. What I was originally trying to ask was something slightly different. I was wondering about the Shamash-zer-ibni archive specifically, and whether you knew any other tablets from that archive already in museum collections, whether the Iraq Museum or somewhere else. Did we know of any traces of this archive already or is this a completely new archive?
Oh, there is nothing. There is nothing actually in the Iraqi Museum. Only this one I mentioned earlier.
An important question is where this Shatir city referenced in the texts actually is. Are there any plans to visit the area between Uruk and Nippur to see if the place can be identified?
We have yet to determine the exact place for this city. The city is located between Warka and Nuffar. So we need a specific area to search. Regarding the visit to the city of Shatir, we have yet to learn much more about the sites of many archaeological sites between Nuffar and al-Warka. So there is an intention to determine its location through sources. Then, if we can find a simple guide to where it is located, we will visit it. But in this way, we identified only a few sites between the two areas. By studying the texts, we can locate the place, a specific location or a specific city location. However, even from resources, we are not sure. There is no proof to say that it’s in this place. Even from sources. The determination of its location is not accurate, as the sources believe it is located either in Warka or between Warka and Nuffar, which is Nippur. So we need to find out which area exactly is located from sources. But we are trying to find out about that through these texts.
Let’s turn to publication. You will publish the first 60 in Germany in the Zaphon series. What about the others from this archive? Will you publish them in further volumes in the same series? How long will the project last, do you think?
It took nine … about nine months and has yet to be released. I sent the manuscript last year. Also I was in contact with them and it has still not been published yet. And I hope it will be issued the next following month. About the other texts, they have a whole series that publishes the Achaemenid texts, and they are working on it in the form of parts. We will publish the rest within the next series, for example 60 or 100, etc. What I have yet to determine precisely when it will be published. As they told me, it will be by part by part.
You mentioned a postgraduate student. Are you working alone on this archive? Or will one of your students publish some of the texts with you?
No, the student. I am the supervisor of the student. He read the texts, and I reviewed and correct them for him. He has finished his project now, as a study now. And he was working on the archive of Zababa-shar-utsur. He was working on this archive actually.
What’s his name?
His name is Muhanned Khalaf.
Okay, we look forward to seeing his work. Is the Achaemenid period your favorite period to research?
No, it’s not just a period, no. Because I first studied texts from the ancient Babylonian, which is a book of Iluni, about text from Eshnunna. My second interest is the Akkadian series. I published the first and second parts of the ancient Akkadian or Sargon period. And I have published a book about Ur III from the city of Irisagrig.
Given your wide range of interest and experience, are you currently focusing all of your research time on Shamash-zer-ibni? Or are you also working on other things at the same time?
Yeah, I studied all the historical periods, except the Assyrian period. I still need to check them. But I am willing to learn them if there is a chance actually available for me. It’s not the last stop for me. My last stop is the Achaemenid texts at the moment. But the broadest interest is the texts of the ancient Babylonian era. Because both my master’s and doctoral thesis were on texts from the Old Babylonian period; one about Tel Harmal, and the other about Tel Abu Antiq.
I wonder if we could talk a bit about your teaching next. I’d like to ask you to reflect on your career and to give us your thoughts on the future.
During my teaching before I entered the field of research and text studies, it was only grammar. I used to teach that. I applied in my undergraduate and postgraduate classes. Through my many studies of texts, or encounters, I found that there is a difference in the grammar that we study and the grammar that we find written in cuneiform texts. So I am currently focusing on the nature of the texts itself, and how to deal with them and the grammar from the text itself, not just theoretical grammar. We were teaching grammar only in the sources and we found the writers of this grammar, or these grammars, did not adhere to this grammar. So I resorted to teaching the grammar found in the text and not in the sources of books. I teach the subject of Akkadian grammar, calligraphy and replication. So I take them sometimes … I take my students sometimes once a week to the Iraqi Museum to have a practical lesson. And apply there, and give them a text, so that they can use it and extract the grammar from the text. Sometimes you bring natural clay, mud, as we have a workshop once a month. We would copy a text on a paper. And the student copy it on the clay through a wooden pencil or glass pens, we offer them, or we provide them to work with it, or copy on the clay.
Uh huh. That’s really interesting. You mentioned showing students the tablets: at what point in the student’s education do you introduce them to tablets, and how big a role does tablet study play in education?
Generally, if the lecture was only a theoretical without these texts, firstly, the student will not learn anything from them. Secondly, the fun when they hold a text and deal with a tangible object, that is very different from what is on the paper. As he or she will not have a passion for learning. But when we take them to the Iraqi Museum, most of the students actually, tend to listen when it is a practical in the museum. They hold the text in their hands. It dramatically impacts learning … their learning speed … and brings more willingness among students than theoretical lesson. So we intend to increase this practical aspects more than in the classroom, because they learn more quickly. So you can see the massive effect of these valuable lessons on students. I can see that in their progress when I take them there.
So this work starts already at undergraduate level?
It’s their final year, the fourth year of undergraduate study. I’m teaching their fourth year of undergraduate, and postgraduate masters and PhD students. So that’s what I’m talking about: their fourth year of undergraduate study. That’s how they work when the practical work starts for students.
Perhaps I could ask a wider question: what are the main challenges and opportunities today for educating the next generation of Iraqi scholars?
In general, we have two subjects: Sumerian and Akkadian. Students tend to use the Sumerian language, because it is simple. While the Akkadian language is complex and challenging. We face many difficulties, so we work to facilitate them, help them, and encourage them to do their best, and resort to methods from other aspects, such as the practical lesson, and going to the museum as a tourist trip. And holding workshops. Generally, I have students who struggle to overcome the Akkadian language class during their study, and fail because of its difficulty.
Ah, that’s quite surprising, actually. You know, since Akkadian is related to Arabic, often we imagine in the West that Akkadian should be easier to learn for an Arabic speaker than Sumerian is, which is a completely unrelated language.
Yes, the Akkadian language is indeed close to the Arabic language. Still, the students here must specify. I mean, he has the Sumerian grammar and fixes grammar, and he applies them. But the Arabic language also we have is difficult, if we go into the depth of its details.
The last couple of years were difficult for everyone. In many universities COVID had a big impact on teaching. Typically, there was a switch to remote learning. What was it like in Iraq? How did COVID affect your teaching? Did you switch to remote teaching? Or did you stay in person all the time?
Yes, we used remote teaching. We used distance teaching except for the Sumerian and Akkadian languages classes, which were face-to-face teaching. We took an exception from the university, because it was impossible to understand them through distance teaching.
For the last part of our conversation, I’d like to ask about you yourself. So my first question is, when and how did you become interested in ancient Iraq?
Yeah, at the beginning, when I graduated from secondary school, my interest was in studying media. So for particular circumstances, I wasn’t accepted. So I turned to archaeology. And I loved it, which was in 1990. Then I specialised in the cuneiform field for the third and fourth years of my undergraduate studies. With the encouragement and influence of Dr. Khalid al-Adhami, who encouraged me and liked me and, and thus my interests began in this field. And I started reading texts in 1996.
That leads very nicely into what was going to be my next question. That was, who was positively influenced your work? You mentioned there Khalid al-Adhami.
Let me anyone who had a significant impact on me, was Dr. Khalid al-Adhami, who was the first and most encouraging.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to make a career in cuneiform studies?
Most of the perception about the nature of cuneiform text is that it is difficult and impossible for anyone to be able to or proficient in, especially new graduates. On the contrary, I tell my students, only that you face difficulty during the first two or three months, because you feel internally that you cannot continue. It becomes a common issue later. And you succeed after that and master the materials. So this challenge actually happened to me when I got the Babylonian texts. I began to feel that I was able to read any text. So I read Sumerian, and Babylonian and the Achaemenid. So I reflected my experience … I reflected my experience on my students.
Out of everything you’ve done so far, what would you say are the achievements you are most proud of?
The most important achievement I’m proud off is not only reading texts, but changing history. It is my book about the archives of King Iluni, the last king of Eshnunna, because I changed a specific date through the texts. I proved a historical fact.
Turning to the future, in the years that are left before you retire, what are your main goals? What more would you really like to achieve?
The real fun regardless of the reality is that it is part of my routine is reading cuneiform texts. Not to achieve a specific purpose or intention, because I have had professors degree since 2010. Still, I have challenges, such as the Assyrian texts. I did not study it yet. But if it were available to me now, which I hope will be available for me, I would start reading it immediately.
Are you optimistic about the future of cuneiform studies?
Do you mean in Iraq or generally in the world?
I’m especially interested in Iraq.
Okay, in Iraq, a movement began to read cuneiform texts. As it was previously limited in numbers only to some professors. Still currently the excellent and the good movement has been active in Iraq. A group of good researchers or intellectual experts appears. So I expect that the study of texts will develop a lot, even if there are some failures from students. Still I hope it will be excellent progress, and give an excellent impression and information in the future.
Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to talk to us about your work today.
Thank you very much. I’m happy talking with you today. And thanks so much for giving me this opportunity. Thank you.
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