New Developments in the Social History of Music and Musicians in Ancient Iraq, Syria, and Turkey

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Background

The ancient cultures of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are distinguished by the existence of extensive documentation in cuneiform script, amongst which are texts concerning music and musicians. Along with a common script, a common corpus of terms (with local variants) for instruments, musicians, theory, and performance, were transmitted in various languages and dialects in the third and second millennia BCE. Apart from later sources from ancient Greece, only ancient Egypt can compare in terms of the extent of textual information in the region.1 In contrast, the musical cultures of ancient Iran are known mostly through iconography and remains of musical instruments (Lawergren 2009). The same is true for Israel/Palestine, where the sources are essentially material, apart from the Old Testament and a handful of other texts (Braun 2002).

The first known written sources concerning music come from southern Iraq.2 These documents are spread over a time-span of approximately three thousand years before the present era. The texts are written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, primarily in Sumerian and Akkadian languages. Akkadian is a Semitic language, belonging to the same family as Hebrew and Arabic. Sumerian is an isolate (unrelated to any known language), and is probably the first attested (i.e., written) language. Akkadian was also used as a written language in various regional sites outside of Mesopotamia during the second millennium BCE, including the western city of Mari in present-day Syria. In the third millennium BCE the cuneiform script had also spread further west in Syria, to the city of Ebla. In Ebla, the script was mostly used to record a local Semitic language. In the second millennium BCE, the cuneiform script spread to Anatolia, and it was used to write the Indo-European language now known as Hittite. Most Hittite texts were found in the city of Bogazköy (now Bogazkale, ancient Hattusas). Also in the second millennium BCE, the cuneiform script was adapted to write an alphabetic language known as Ugaritic, in the Syrian coastal city of Ugarit. Texts from the above regions and sites3 tell us about the nature and structure of musical instruments, music theory, elements of musical practice, and the place of musicians in society. This ancient world of texts (and music) has been ingeniously reconstructed after approximately two millennia since cuneiform script died out (cuneiform texts were only deciphered in the nineteenth century CE).4

The textual evidence is complemented by archaeological remains from Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia. Remains of instruments from southern Mesopotamia provide us with the first known actual remains of lyres and harps. Remains of silver pipes, copper clappers, bronze and clay bells, clay and metal rattles, and bronze cymbals have survived, and an abundant quantity of iconographic sources from all periods has also survived in the form of miniature cylinder seals, figurines, plaques, wall reliefs, and stelae. The visual sources often represent music in the context of mythological and cultic scenes. Through an analysis of context, iconographic sources can be used to illuminate aspects of the social history of music. Visual representations usually illustrate music in the context of the temple, palace, festivals involving sports, funerals, military events, and sexual activity (Collon 1993-97:488-91). However, studies which go beyond the purely empirical discussion of musical instruments and general social contexts of music to discuss possible symbolic associations are scarce (e.g., Eichmann 1997).

The topic of music in ancient Mesopotamia has gained attention from the 1960s onwards due to the "discovery"5 of music theory texts, and one example of notation, dating to the second millennium BCE, well before anything comparable in ancient Greece or elsewhere. In contrast, the social history of music in ancient Mesopotamia, and the Near East in general, has received relatively little attention until recently. …