Imagine something that has never been thought of before. If one holds a book in one’s hands, one can imagine an e-book, a large-print book, a picture book, all kinds of books. But how does one imagine a book in a world where even the concept of a `book’ does not exist?
Imagine a day without time. People live in time and time directs the course of people’s days. We wake up at a certain hour, go to work or school at another, eat at regular times, and go to sleep based upon the revolutions of the clock. Once, however, there existed a time without time. How does one imagine something which does not exist?
Both time and over 5, 000 years ago. Before the Sumerians, a day began with the sunrise and ended with the sunset. People went to work from when the sun was positioned at a certain height in the morning sky and returned to their homes when it set. It was the Sumerians who divided the day from the night by time, by increments of sixty-second minutes and sixty-minute hours which made up twelve hours of night and the twelve hours of the day. In the biblical Book of Genesis, chapter 1, it states that God divided the night from the day and saw that it was good. If one accepts God’s role in creating day and night then the Sumerians finished the job and, if one does not, it was not God who divided night and day – it was the Sumerians.
Prior to the discovery and decipherment of cuneiform script, human beings understood the origins of certain aspects of life in quite a different way. Writing was thought to have originated in Phoenicia, time-telling in China, schools in Greece, and the first love song in the biblical book of The Song of Solomon. The Old Testament of the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world until this was disproven by the German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch (1850-1922 CE) who, building upon the work of men like George Smith, showed that the Sumerians had written stories concerning a fall of man and a great flood before the narratives of Genesis were ever set down. The historian Paul Kriwaczek writes,
Thus it was established that long before Genesis was committed to writing, the ancient Mesopotamians had themselves told the story of a universal flood sent by divine decree to destroy humanity. Soon other texts were discovered that gave similar accounts in several different languages – Sumerian, Old Akkadian, Babylonian – and in several different versions. In the oldest, found on a tablet from the city of Nippur, dated to around 1800 BCE and written in Sumerian, Noah’s role is taken by a King of Shuruppak called Ziudsura or Ziusudra, meaning `he Saw Life”, because he was awarded immortality by the gods. In another, written in the 1600s BCE in the Akkadian language, the protagonist is called Atrahasis, meaning `Extremely Wise’ (69).
The Sumerians, therefore, can also be credited with the earliest form of one of the most potent myths of western civilization: The Great Flood. In attempting to prove the historical truth of the Bible, the archaeologists and scholars of the 19th century CE revealed that the biblical narratives held as absolute divine truths were later interpretations of the literature of the Sumerians. As noted, however, it is not simply in the field of religious studies that the discovery of Sumer changed the way people understand the world in the present. In their many inventions and innovations, the Sumerians lay the groundwork for so many advancements in the daily lives of human beings that, today, it is impossible to imagine life without these things. Somehow, the people of Sumer were able to imagine things which had never existed on earth before and, in expressing their imaginations, invented the future.