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Text by Shreya Acharya

The birth of writing from ancient Sumer has led to prominent and influential literary works, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in the 18th century BC during the Neo-Sumerian Empire – recognised as the earliest surviving great work of literature

Mesopotamia comes from ancient Greek words μέσος (mesos), “middle”, and ποταμός (potamos), “river”, and as such, translates to“(land)betweentwo/therivers”.Sure enough, Sumer, the site of one of the earliest known civilisations, located in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia, was between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This later became Babylonia, and is now southern Iraq.

Sumer was first settled by humans from 4500 to 4000 BC, and its official language, Sumerian, was a language isolate, meaning it had no common ancestral roots with any other language. By 3100 BC, Sumerian also became the earliest known written language – evidenced by archaeological records of marked clay tablets, having invented a writing system based on pictures, now known as pictograms.

One of the most notable literary feats from ancient Mesopotamia is The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is the oldest epic in the world, written a century before – and probably served as an influence on – Homer’s Illiad, written in Greece. Historians and biblical scholars also believe that one of the stories in the epic, Utnapishtim, was a forerunner to the Flood in the Old Testament, where both Noah and Gilgamesh recount the same event: a formidable surge in Mesopotamia.

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