Bible Review 4:3, June 1988

Sumerian Literature

Background to the Bible

By William W. Hallo

The world’s oldest literature—poetry as well as prose—belongs to the Sumerians, that fascinating, enigmatic people who settled over 5,000 years ago on the shores of the Persian Gulf1 and in the lower (southern) part of the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in present-day Iraq. There the Sumerians founded the world’s oldest civilization. They invented, for the first time, a means of communicating language in a preserved, instead of transitory, form—in writing. The writing system they invented is called cuneiform, a wedge-shaped script formed by pressing a stylus into clay tablets that were then baked in the sun or in a kiln. Later, other peoples adapted cuneiform writing to their own languages. The best known and most widely used of these written languages is Akkadian.

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