Cuneiform was the system of writing used most extensively in the ancient Middle East. Cuneiform was employed for writing a number of languages from about the end of the 4th millennium BC until about the 1st century BC.


Spread and development of cuneiform

Although begun by the Sumerians, eventually,  the Sumerian writing system was adopted by the Akkadians, Semitic invaders who established themselves in Mesopotamia about the middle of the 3rd millennium. In adapting the script to their wholly different language, the Akkadians retained the Sumerian logograms and combinations of logograms for more complex notions but pronounced them as the corresponding Akkadian words. They also kept the phonetic values but extended them far beyond the original Sumerian inventory of simple types (open or closed syllables like ba or ab). Many more complex syllabic values of Sumerian logograms (of the type kan, mul, bat) were transferred to the phonetic level, and polyphony became an increasingly serious complication in Akkadian cuneiform (e.g., the original pictograph for "sun" may be read phonetically as ud, tam, t, par, lah, his). The Akkadian readings of the logograms added new complicated values. Thus the sign for "land" or "mountain range" (originally a picture of three mountain tops) has the phonetic value kur on the basis of Sumerian but also mat and sad from Akkadian matu ("land") and sad ("mountain"). No effort was made until very late to alleviate the resulting confusion, and equivalent "graphies" like ta-am and tam continued to exist side by side throughout the long history of Akkadian cuneiform.The earliest type of Semitic cuneiform in Mesopotamia is called the Old Akkadian, seen for example in the inscriptions of the ruler Sargon of Akkad (died c. 2279 BC). Sumer, the southernmost part of the country, continued to be a loose agglomeration of independent city-states until it was united by Gudea of Lagash (died c. 2124 BC) in a last brief manifestation of specifically Sumerian culture. The political hegemony then passed decisively to the Akkadians, and King Hammurabi of Babylon (died 1750 BC) unified all of southern Mesopotamia. Babylonia thus became the great and influential center of Mesopotamian culture. The Code of Hammurabi is written in Old Babylonian cuneiform, which developed throughout the shifting and less brilliant later eras of Babylonian history into Middle and New Babylonian types. Farther north in Mesopotamia the beginnings of Assur were humbler. Specifically Old Assyrian cuneiform is attested mostly in the records of Assyrian trading colonists in central Asia Minor (c. 1950 BC; the so-called Cappadocian tablets) and Middle Assyrian in an extensive Law Code and other documents. The Neo-Assyrian period was the great era of Assyrian power, and the writing culminated in the extensive records from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (c. 650 BC).The expansion of cuneiform writing outside Mesopotamia began in the 3rd millennium, when the country of Elam in southwestern Iran was in contact with Mesopotamian culture and adopted the system of writing. The Elamite sideline of cuneiform continued far into the 1st millennium BC, when it presumably provided the Indo-European Persians with the external model for creating a new simplified quasi-alphabetic cuneiform writing for the Old Persian language. The Hurrians in northern Mesopotamia and around the upper stretches of the Euphrates adopted Old Akkadian cuneiform around 2000 BC and passed it on to the Indo-European Hittites, who had invaded central Asia Minor at about that time.

In the 2nd millennium the Akkadian of Babylonia, frequently in somewhat distorted and barbarous varieties, became a lingua franca of international intercourse in the entire Middle East, and cuneiform writing thus became a universal medium of written communication. The political correspondence of the era was conducted almost exclusively in that language and writing. Cuneiform was sometimes adapted, as in the consonantal script of the Canaanite city of Ugarit on the Syrian coast (c. 1400 BC), or simply taken over, as in the inscriptions of the kingdom of Urartu or Haldi in the Armenian mountains from the 9th to 6th centuries BC; the language is remotely related to Hurrian, and the script is a borrowed variety of Neo-Assyrian cuneiform. Even after the fall of the Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when Aramaic had become the general popular language, rather decadent varieties of Late Babylonian and Assyrian survived as written languages in cuneiform almost down to the time of Christ.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center