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Say to Them

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“The usual formal injunction ‘Speak to...’ precedes the text of most of the letters, indicating that in all probability neither the sender nor the recipient was literate. A letter, in fact, was known as ‘a say to them’ and was written and read by professional scribes who thus themselves became men of influence and power, privy as they were to all the commercial and political secrets of the time.”
—Michael Rice, The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf


In the heat of the day, En-nam-Sin’s supply of prepared clay for writing, scooped fresh from the bank of the Copper River that morning, began to dry and even crack. He wetted it with a little water and then covered it again, ready to plow its fertile surface with words.

The marketplace was full of people buying and selling, but no one who heeded him when he said: “I am a scribe, fully trained in the art of tablet-crafting! Let anyone come to me with something to read or write and I will do it!” For many years he had studied, had mastered Sumerian as well as common Akkadian, had learned both counting and accounting, yet he was forced to offer his services in the marketplace because he had been unable to find regard in the eyes of the wealthy men who should have trusted him to manage their affairs. He earned his living in this way, but no more than that. It was not what he had dreamt of during his long years of study.

At last a woman came to him and said: “There is a message I must send to my brother, Ahushina. He is a sailor, one who ventures as far as Tilmun, traveling with a man called Ea-Nasir.”

“What will you give me for this?” En-nam-Sin asked. The woman placed a measure of barley in his hands, and he felt its weight and accepted it. “I will prepare the tablet,” he said. “Tell me what you would speak to your brother, Ahushina.”

His reed pen was as sharp as his wit and he worked as she spoke in a low voice. It was not difficult, for though her clothing was worn, she knew the proper words and he only had to write them, without any changes or corrections.

Speak to Ahushina: Thus says your sister Iltani.

May Ea and En-si-mah grant you a life of many days.

For the god who would make me see your face again, incense with lavish hands. I was never as glad as the day that you were born and our father exclaimed: Now finally the girls have a brother! It has been too long since the last time you came to visit me and I had the pleasure of seeing you.

The fields have been ravaged by fires set by robbers and there is not enough barley now to feed my household during the coming cold season. Send me again the customary amount of barley, so that I may live to see your face again.

En-nam-Sin pitied the woman as he wrote. He often pitied his clients, for they had complaints, or they would not come to a scribe, and often things had gone hard against them. Still, no matter what difficulties they faced, he took his fee from them, for he had to make his own living.

He presented the tablet to the woman Iltani so that she could give it to a messenger or find a merchant who was already traveling to Ur who could bring it to her brother the sailor. He hoped that Ahushina would send her the customary amount of barley.


All of the great city of Ur lay in the shadow of the temple of the moon god Sin that stretched up to the very sky. Beside it, smaller but no less beautiful, stood the brilliant Gipar-ku, beloved home of his consort Ningal, the Great Lady, daughter of Ea, Lord of the Earth, and Ningikurga, the Lady of the Pure Reed.

Belitija took up the offerings that had been placed before Ningal in her great sanctuary by Ea-Nasir, one of the alik Tilmun, who rewarded the Great Lady for bringing him safely back to the city by presenting her with her share of the things he had received on that island in exchange for the garments that he had brought there to trade. There was copper, of course, but also red gold, blue lumps of lapis lazuli, stone beads on strings, two ivory combs, and a handful of fish-eyes, milky and round. Before she added these new treasures to Ningal’s storerooms, they would be accounted for in clay.

She had already prepared the surface of the tablet for the impressions of her reed pen, and the initial words that she inscribed were a familiar formula:

Tithe of the goddess Ningal from an expedition to Tilmun by boat and from single persons having gone there on their own.

Then came the careful accounting: the weight of the gold and of the copper, the quantity of the fish-eyes and the stone beads and all the other items that came over the sea from Tilmun, all had to be listed in the inventory of Ningal’s treasures.

Belitija had never left the city of Ur or seen an island, but she imagined that it must be like the treasury of the Gi-par-ku, because it was filled with all the most beautiful things in the world. It would look even more beautiful after the long, dangerous journey across the waves. She was glad that she served the Great Lady here, in her beautiful temple, and never had to set foot on a boat.


Shar-rum-Sin heard the commotion at the front door of the house of Ea-Nasir and said to himself: “A messenger has brought a tablet addressed to my employer.”

Often the men who delivered messages addressed to Ea-Nasir were angry, but the slaves who answered the door did not permit them to enter the house where their master lived. Shar-rum-Sin stayed where he was, on the upper level of the house where it was cool, until a slave delivered the tablet to him to read, still in its unbroken clay envelope.

Shar-rum-Sin was the only man who knew all of Ea-Nasir’s affairs, and thus he was the only man that Ea-Nasir could not take advantage of. Ea-Nasir was always thinking of the next bargain that he would make, and while he was good with numbers, he could only read the simplest of markings, a word or two stamped on a label. Shar-rum-Sin was the one who handled all the accounting, who spoke to Ea-Nasir what was said on tablets that were delivered by angry messengers and then put down what Ea-Nasir wanted to be spoken in reply.

Ea-Nasir returned from the temple of Ningal, dressed in his finest clothing, with a many-colored belt tied around his ample waist and his hair well-oiled. Shar-rum-Sin spoke to him the words of Nanni, who complained that the ingots that had been offered to his messenger were not good.

“I remember that man, Gimil-Sin,” Ea-Nasir said. “What does he know about copper? I am a copper dealer! When I accept copper, that copper is good.”

“He seemed like a fool to me,” Shar-rum-Sin agreed. He remembered the day that he Ea-Nasir had placed before Gimil-Sin ingots to take and Gimil-Sin had gone away empty-handed, saying that he would not take them. Those ingots remained in the storeroom downstairs, still waiting for Nanni to accept them or not.

“I am the one who sails to Tilmun with my cargo and returns with the copper and the other things,” Ea-Nasir continued. “The alik Tilmun are the go-getters, the ones who take all of the risk of the journey on the open sea, while men like Nanni only put in a little silver and profit by it while they sit safely at home.”

“And he still owes you a part of the silver,” Shar-rum-Sin pointed out.

“Yes!” Ea-Nasir slammed his fist into his palm. “A trifling matter, he calls it. I was willing to let Gimil-Sin take the copper away before, but now let Nanni come for himself and take his ingots, but only after he gives me the silver that he owes me. Before I was willing to wait for it, because I thought that we were both gentlemen. But now he accuses me of treating him with contempt, so I will treat him now like any other man who owes me silver. He will learn what my contempt truly is.”

“Do you want to send a reply to Nanni?” Shar-rum-Sin asked.

“Of course I want to send a reply!” Ea-Nasir exclaimed. “Why are you not already taking down my words? Do you think that I am talking to you? I want to speak to Nanni.”

Shar-rum-Sin reached for his wax tablet, which he had written on and smoothed again a thousand times before transferring the words to a clay tablets, where they were fixed. As Ea-Nasir paced the room, Shar-rum-Sin wrote.

Speak to Nanni: Thus says Ea-Nasir.

Come then and take your copper, only bring me the silver that you owe me. Treat with me as a gentleman and an alik Tilmun, or you will have no source of copper! Do not send your messengers to harass me, but see for yourself the grade of my copper ingots before you say that they are not good.

Ea-Nasir continued in this vein for some time, but Shar-rum-Sin only held his stylus and his tablet as he listened to him. For his part, he could not tell good copper from bad copper, for all ingots looked very much the same to him, as all clay tablets look very much the same to one who cannot read what is written upon them, but it did not matter very much to him. Ea-Nasir did not pay him in copper.


The temple of the radiant Shamash was called the Shining House, but as he grew older, Bel-ma-lik found it harder and harder to read the tablets before his eyes, even in good light. His fingers were so experienced with the reed pen that he did not need to see clearly to write, however. All his life he had served Shamash, who lent silver or barley to those who came to his temple in need, charging only the interest rate of Shamash, which was favorable to the borrower, and even then the god could choose to eat the interest instead. Shamash invested in many successful partnerships, so he could afford to be generous.

One of the loans of Shamash had been repaid in full, and so Bel-ma-lik wrote without needing to look closely at the wedge-shaped marks that his pen left behind:

With 1 mina of silver, the money of the god Shamash, El-me-shum satisfies the heart of Shamash

He was pleased on the behalf of his god, who had made the loan that the woman had repaid. He was escorting Sin-atum out of the temple when the peace of the Shining House was interrupted by two men, both shouting at each other.

“Quiet!” Bel-ma-lik ordered them both. “Let there be peace and justice in the house of Shamash.”

“There will be no peace until my dealings with this man, Ea-Nasir, are concluded!” said the one. “We issued a sealed document to be kept in the Temple of Shamash. Now I, Nanni, demand that the document be brought out again to settle my dispute with Ea-Nasir.”

Bel-ma-lik sighed and said: “Very well, the tablet with its seals will be brought before you.”

For the sake of his eyes, he sent a younger man to find the tablet, which would be marked on its clay envelope with the names of Nanni and Ea-Nasir. The men continued to quarrel with each other, but whatever they had agreed upon before the god of justice would be revealed, here, in the Shining House. Bel-ma-lik, servant of Shamash, would see it done.


I-bi-Shamash stood in a room that belonged to two different houses.

According to the purchase tablet that I-bi-Shamash had prepared, it belonged to Nannar-tum, who was purchasing it and two other rooms from his neighbor, Ea-Nasir, for two and one-third minas of silver. Once the purchase was complete, I-bi-Shamash would fill in the doorway that led to Ea-Nasir’s courtyard with burnt brick below and mud brick above, and he would cut a new doorway in the wall that connected the room with the rest of his house. Nannar-tum’s house was very small, so I-bi-Shamash could understand why he wished to enlarge it now that he could afford to purchase several rooms from his neighbor.

Until he put his seal on the tablet before the witnesses, however, the room still belonged to Ea-Nasir, who paced it fretfully, unable to keep still.

“Speak it again,” Ea-Nasir said. “I want to hear the terms again, to be sure that they are correct. I will be paying attention, so I will know if you are trying to cheat me.”

Patiently, I-bi-Shamash took up the tablet. He ignored Ea-Nasir’s insinuation that someone might be trying to cheat him, although it was a serious insult. Nannar-tum would pay him his percentage of the sale once his neighbor’s seal was safely on the purchase tablet. Until then, if Ea-Nasir wanted to grumble and complain to him because he was not happy that he was selling part of his house, I-bi-Shamash would let him.

Nannar-tum, son of Warad-Ishtar, has bought the three rooms to be added to his house in the city of Ur, from Ea-Nasir, son of Ibi-Raman, and has paid its full price in silver. The business is completed, the contract is valid, his heart is content. In future, man with man, neither shall take exception.

Ea-Nasir nodded impatiently as he listened to the terms of the sale, which were clear and simple. The rest of the tablet was reserved for the names of the witnesses to the transaction. The transfer of real property required a clear statement before many witnesses, for when a purchase was challenged it was the purchaser who needed to prove his ownership.

“I was a great merchant and a sailor, you know,” Ea-Nasir said to him. “I was one of the alik Tilmun. But my business partners were not good, and my sailing days are past me now. I can no longer bring back copper from Tilmun.”

I-bi-Shamash nodded sympathetically. He had heard a different version of the story from Nannar-tum, who had lived next door to Ea-Nasir all these years, but that was not important.

“When I have a little silver again, it will be different,” Ea-Nasir said. “I can lend it out at interest, or buy up some clothing to resell. I will be back in business again.”

He was already beginning to persuade himself with his own words. All that I-bi-Shamash had to do was wait. I-bi-Shamash was good at waiting.

“Very well,” Ea-Nasir said at last. “Let us go and I will place my seal on the purchase tablet before the gods and men who witness it, and Nannar-tum will give me my silver. Soon I will be selling the rest of this house to him as well when I buy a new house, a larger house in a better location.”

Already Ea-Nasir seemed to have convinced himself that he, who was forced to sell off part of his own house, was the one who would come out ahead. In his own eyes, at least, the man was well-named: Ea grant me the victory!

And perhaps he would, after all.