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Scholars agree that writing originated somewhere in the Middle East, probably Mesopotamia, around the fourth millennium B.C.E. It is from the great libraries and word-hoards of these ancient lands that the first texts emerged. They were written on damp clay tablets with a wedged (or V-shaped) stick; since the Latin word for wedge is cunea, the texts are called cuneiform. The clay tablets usually were not fired; sun drying was probably reckoned enough to preserve the text for as long as it was being used. Fortunately, however, many tablets survived because they were accidentally fired when the buildings they were stored in burned.
Cuneiform writing lasted for some 3,000 years, in a vast line of succession that ran through Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Nineveh, and Babylon, and preserved for us fifteen languages in an area represented by modern-day Iraq, Syria, and western Iran. The oldest cuneiform texts recorded the transactions of tax collectors and merchants, the receipts and bills of sale of an urban society. They had to do with things like grain, goats, and real estate. Later, Babylonian scribes recorded the laws and kept other kinds of records. Knowledge conferred power. As a result, the scribes were assigned their own goddess, Nisaba, later replaced by the god Nabu of Borsippa, whose symbol is neither weapon nor dragon but something far more fearsome, the cuneiform stick.
Cuneiform texts on science, astronomy, medicine, and mathematics abound, some offering astoundingly precise data. One tablet records the speed of the Moon over 248 days; another documents an early sighting of Halley's Comet, from September 22 to September 28, 164 B.C.E. More esoteric texts attempt to explain old Babylonian customs, such as the procedure for curing someone who is ill, which included rubbing tar and gypsum on the sick person's door and drawing a design at the foot of the person's bed. What is clear from the vast body of texts (some 20,000 tablets were found in King Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh) is that scribes took pride in their writing and knowledge.
The foremost cuneiform text, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, deals with humankind's attempts to conquer time. In it, Gilgamesh, king and warrior, is crushed by the death of his best friend and so sets out on adventures that prefigure mythical heroes of ancient Greek legends such as Hercules. His goal is not just to survive his ordeals but to make sense of this life. Remarkably, versions of Gilgamesh span 1,500 years, between 2100 B.C.E and 600 B.C.E.,making the story the epic of an entire civilization.
The ancient Egyptians invented a different way of writing and a new substance to write on-papyrus, a precursor of paper, made from a wetland plant. The Greeks had a special name for this writing: hiero glyphic, literally "sacred writing. " This, they thought, was language fit for the gods, which explains why it was carved on walls of pyramids and other religious structures. Perhaps hieroglyphics are Egypt's great contribution to the history of writing: hieroglyphic writing, in use from 3100 B.C.E. until 394 C.E., resulted in the creation of texts that were fine art as well as communication. Egypt gave us the tradition of the scribe not just as educated person but as artist and calligrapher.
Scholars have detected some 6,000 separate hieroglyphic characters in use over the history of Egyptian writing, but it appears that never more than a thousand were in use during any one period. It still seems a lot to recall, but what was lost in efficiency was more than made up for in the beauty and richness of the texts. Writing was meant to impress the eye with the vastness of creation itself. Each symbol or glyph-the flowering reed (pronounced like "i"), the owl ("m"), the quail chick ("w"), etcetera-was a tiny work of art. Manuscripts were compiled with an eye to the overall design. Egyptologists have noticed that the glyphs that constitute individual words were sometimes shuffled to make the text more pleasing to the eye with little regard for sound or sense.