Cuneiform

NINEVEH: Vibes of Nineveh (Cityscapes Series)

Nineveh Cityscape

Shato brikhto (Happy New Year of 2019)! I am excited to share a new design piece of mine — a visual expression of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh. I also detail  some of my research, design process, and other musings in this post. Nineveh is part of a lettering & illustration series I am working on, which carries a heavy emphasis on architecture and archaeology of each city I explore and design on. I hope to discuss this cityscape series in a future post. But if you’re curious right now, please take a look at my Vibes of Sana’a  project, which was the first design of this series.  So without further ado . . .

LANGUAGES Represented by Lettering:

I composed Nineveh in four different forms, but in three different scripts: (1) Cuneiform, (2, 3) Syriac, and (4) Arabic. Scripts from top to bottom: Cuneiform, Syriac (Classical), Syriac (Eastern), and Arabic. I arranged these scripts in that order chronologically. The oldest language that would have been used in the Nineveh during ancient times lies at the top, which is Old Assyrian. The most recent language used by the inhabitants of this region lies at the bottom, which is Arabic (Iraqi dialect).

Cuneiform, Syriac, and Arabic = ASSYRIA!

Let’s start from the top — Cuneiform. There are many versions of Cuneiform syllabaries. Different dialects and writing systems of Cuneiform evolved from the different regions within Mesopotamia (Assyria versus Babylonia). There are also differences of Cuneiform due to the different time periods spanning its usage, such as Old Assyrian (OA), Neo-Assyrian (NA), Old Babylonian (OB), and Neo-Babylonian (NB). There are clay tablets containing a mix of languages and dialects of Cuneiform (Sumerian mixed with Akkadian), and there are tablets containing a mix of ideograms and syllabaries (writing systems shifted over time).

The variant of Cuneiform I decided to choose to represent the name “Nineveh” is the Old Assyrian version. It took me a long while to research all the various Cunei-forms (heh) that can spell out “Nineveh”. So I really hope the ideograms or syllables I used in this illustration is accurate. If you are a linguist or Assyriologist and believe I made a mistake, I would appreciate you letting me know. The more I learn, the more I realise how much I still have to learn.

Syriac:
Below the Cuneiform, we have “Nineveh” written in the Estrangela Syriac script — the oldest written form of Syriac. Underneath Estrangela, we have the Madnhaya Syriac script (Chaldean or Nestorian) used by the eastern Assyrians. As I created this, I debated on whether to include an additional Syriac script in this piece. Serta (Maronite or Jacobite), was spoken and written by western Assyrians, in dialects like Turoyo. I felt, though, that including this third Syriac script would be inaccurate to represent Nineveh, as that script is more associated with western regions of the historic Assyria, such as in Tur Abdin (in modern day Turkey). So I left Serta out; however, I will happily include it in customized versions of this piece.

Arabic: Finally, we have Arabic at the very bottom. Although Arabic is the dominant language of Iraq and Syria today, it is not the official language of the Assyrian nation.

THE ILLUSTRATION

With the illustration, I aimed for a rustic look, somewhere between abstract and realism. I sketched two Lamassu (Lamassi?) on the foreground of either side of the design. The Assyrian “tree of life” stands in the background. Protruding from the tree are branches that twist and turn, and finish off with flowering leaves, in depictions of it on the Old Assyrian tablets and reliefs. The branches become one with the four languages of lettering I included, as they share a similar form. I wanted to really make this tree intricate and to hide the scripts within the branches to evoke mystery . . . but later I decided that my work and its meaning would become lost. Versions of a “sacred tree” or “tree of life” are quite universal in cultures beyond Babylon, and can be seen in Old Norse literature all the way to Mayan and Aztec works of art.

THE PROCESS

I started this piece in January 2018, while I was at my old job in the firm. I liked staying a little late to take advantage of the silence, the bright lighting, and large desks in the office (all features of which I lacked at home), as escapees from the office plunged themselves into heavy traffic. As always, my art work begins with anger. I was angry at several events that happened in areas of Syria and Iraq that we sentient and sensitive citizens of Earth have no control over. I needed to find a release somewhere, so I converted my negative emotions into creative energy.  It started with a pencil lamassu sketch, based off a cell phone picture from Met. Museum in NY. Why couldn’t these colossal entities come to life and protect inhabitants of Assyria? Then I realized I could borrow the concept from my Sana’aa multi-lingual lettering design for a new piece featuring Nineveh, the lamassus, and . . . the Assyrian tree of life!  I made two separate pencil sketches before digitally erasing my sloppiness, connecting missing lines, and completely reworking other areas in the design. Then I researched an appropriate colour palette. Assyrian and Babylonian art is often depicted with lots of neutral browns with a pop from lapis lazuli blue and gold.

Sketching, sketching, sketching . . .

Typical Mesopotamian colour scheme seen on the “Gate of Ishtar” from Babylon (Photo Credit: Josep Renalias)

Message from the Artist:

Take a look at a map of the Middle East, and you will not see a country labeled “Assyria”, nor will her borders be distinguished. Assyria is a region of the Middle East that covers eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and bits of southern Turkey and westernmost parts of Iran. In these four modern-day nations, there are ancient Assyrian ruins throughout, as well as contemporary Assyrian villages and cities. There was a time where Assyria was not only a vague territory or region, or a country even — she was an Empire. Her capital stood at Nineveh, near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul. After the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE, Assyria ceased to be an Empire, though her many towns remained. Her languages survived. Her people survived and are still living today. And her culture survived. Nineveh has been through so much Arabisation since the spread of Islam across the Near East, as Arabic is the sacred language of the Holy Qur’an. Over the centuries, Assyrians have picked up on what quickly became the dominant language, but remained a people without an official autonomy. Assyria has been through far worse than just linguistic and cultural demise, though. Seyfo, which comes from the Arabic word sayf for ‘sabre’, was the genocide of the Christian populations that occurred during WWI by Ottoman troops between 1914-1920. 100 years later, today, we see even more atrocities being committed by ISIL/Da’esh whom are all anti- Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Pagan. It’s sickening. It makes me sick that there is far too little that I, or anyone else, can do about these human rights violations to have an effect. Only few governments have the power to run the world’s affairs.  At this point, can all we do is keep the memory alive? or sustain it? or can we make what is a declining culture rise again and become an influence in the Middle East?

We cannot let the dark forces allow societies in the Middle East to just tolerate one another’s existence and to “pray” for one another, but celebrate the diversity and richness within our homes and have open discussions for learning.

(from) Akkadian syllabary | (to) Hebrew symbolism — part II

As promised, our voyage into this subject is far from over! This post is a continuation of a previous post I wrote over the summer. Consider reading Part I before you proceed with my blatherings below.
BET-Sumerian|Semitic_01I recently found a credible resource that contains a cohesive list of Sumerian pictograms. It lists [figure 3a.] under E(scroll down to the letter ‘E’; “E2″ is the third entry). In this link, E2 is defined as ‘household’ (if you don’t feel like scrolling, searching, and clicking, you can find the definition directly [here]). Although both pages in the links I provided are found in The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL), I am still relieved to see consistency in both pages, and the database it easy for me to understand.  I was beginning to doubt the pages of text by Budge, but the ETCSL confirms (to me) his rendition to be valid and gives me a more thorough insight that the sign is indeed closer to late Sumerian rather than Akkadian — scroll to E2.

What boggles me is, how do we vocalise E2? How is it even pronounced?!
Is it: “Eh, subscript 2”?, or: “EEEE!”?!.  I need a scholar of Sumerian literature to clarify this for me — I’m surprised that “e” means ‘house’ in Sumerian.

Ok, enough with Sumerian for now. Let’s move on to Akkadian!

BET-Sumerian|Semitic_02
In this page, one can find a rich resource of Akkadian (including both Babylonian and Assyrian phases of the language) scriptures and linguistics. Scroll down to segment 5.3 on Phonetic Complements, and we are fortunate to see that [figure 4] is used in an example, and is defined as ‘house’. We are even given more detail of the Sumerian variant which is pronounced as “e”, and not “bitum”. Furthermore, it lightly explains the evolution to the logogram (then, the phonogram) features of the later Akkadian (Old Babylonian), from the former pictographic elements of the same reference (i.e., ‘house’) in the older Sumero-Akkadian.  It’s confusing and gets more confusing as you read into it, but in the end, everything begins making sense.

Let us now see a third source: the Assyrian dictionary (also claims to be late Akkadian). The same sign and the same pronunciation for the reference ‘house’ is given.

There are numerous resources for learning Neo-Babylonian syllabary. Here is one by the University of Helsinki’s “Introduction to the Babylonian Language” course. The chart organises chunks of syllables that exist in the language, either by consonant + vowel or vowel + consonant. Find “bi” and “tu” on the chart, and you’ve got two syllables that together denote ‘house’, as demonstrated on [figure 5]. I often find that once I have learned a Neo-Babylonian word and its definition, I break it up into syllables (C+V or V+C), and I match it up to the chart. I write it down, and I check as many sources as possible to verify whether the written form I have is the correct written form of the word.

Now we can be certain of the signs I have illustrated in the second image. When I find more time, I will try to see the connection between figures 3a, 4, and 5. How did [figure 4] result in [5]? The “bi” syllable in [figure 5] looks like it could have been borrowed from the front end of the logogram for “bitum” in [figure 4] (yes, Cuneiform is written left to right!), but I am sure if we found another Old-Assyrian word that begins with “bi”, the logogram wouldn’t necessarily have the same front end (those double arrows).

For example, if an Assyrian scribe from 1500 BCE were to have separated the double arrows of the logogram “bitum” from the four standing wedges, the double arrows would not be read as “bi” — when the two forms separated, the logogram is meaningless. The phonogram writing method of the Neo-Babylonians is closer to most modern Western alphabets, regardless of script. It relies on combinations of sounds, which makes learning it easier, and more practical for newer words into a phonetic language to be introduced and have a written phonetic form.

Once I learn more about the evolution between Old-Assyrian logograms to Neo-Babylonian phonograms, and if there is a connection we can see, I will dedicate a few posts to that. I’ll try to make it an interesting read! Since I am now familiar with enough online/printed resources and these specific Cuneiform signs, I will soon have to flee this nest (*cough*house*cough*) of safety I’ve constructed, and onto more  challenging Cuneiform signs. Wish me luck.

(from) Akkadian syllabary | (to) Hebrew symbolism

First, a brief history lesson:
The earliest Sumerians sailed from [wherever their origins were], and settled along the marshes of southern Mesopotamia. Their predecessors (much earlier Sumerians) scribed on papyrus and vellum (skin), but in their new settlement, they found an abundance of clay; a much more resourceful medium for the scribes! At that point, the Sumerian inscriptions still remained pictographic. What made such complex renderings of early Sumerian pictographs possible, was due to their standard usage of dry, flat, thin, and hard papyrus and vellum. (See chapter “Writing and Learning” in Babylonian Life and History by Sir Ernest Alfred Budge. I am hunting for additional supporting resources.)

Moving on to Clay:
In these marshlands, clay eventually replaced the use of papyrus and vellum; thus, the Sumerian scribes adopted the use of clay slabs as their medium of choice. As the Sumerian scribes picked up the use of clay in the region, in exchange, the non-Sumerian inhabitants of the region gradually adopted the Sumerian pictographic script, and incorporated it into their own (unrelated) language. I don’t call them “natives”, as these inhabitants—Semites—dwelled north of the marshlands in northern Mesopotamia. These inhabitants are known as Akkadians.

As these earliest Akkadians began using a non-Semitic pictographic script to express their Semitic language, they gradually reformed some existing pictographs with established references to refer to different subjects, objects, or ideas. Which is another topic for another time.BET-Evolution-01Both with their distinctive languages, the Sumerians and early Akkadians came into contact with one another…and it was Akkadian, in its spoken and written form, that began to replace Sumerian, to become lingua franca of the greater region, whilst Sumerian remained as the lishanu qudeshu (sacred tongue?). In time, Sumerian became defunct in both spoken and written forms that even Ashurbanipal’s scribes struggled to decipher some of the Sumerian tablets . Once again, another topic for another time.

Elimination of Curves:
We have maintained that both ethnic and linguistic groups adopted the use of clay for their inscriptions. The pictographs that were innovated for use on dry papyrus or vellum had to be modified for simpler application on the new medium: wet slabs of clay. Imagine yourself trying to carve complex imagery on wet clay; so very gloopy!

These modifications were slight: curves and circles on existing pictographs were straightened out into solid lines. Imagine carving solid lines onto wet clay; much more manageable!

BET-Evolution-02Wedges:
With clay, came a new stylus choice: the tapered reed. The wider edge of the reed lead to one end of these solid lines to be thicker and more wedge shaped. This is where these solid lines developed into the wedged lines known as Cuneiform. Grrrrrrrradually, these wedges assumed one of two directions: a wedge either pointed upwards or faced the left (I want to know why and how that process occurred). Even more gradually, these upward and leftward wedged symbols were simplified down to 89 syllables (Old Babylonian) and any association with pictographic references were no longer obvious.

|| Can we say they vanished? — confirmed: p. 153-155, the pictorial association of the pictographs became semi-pictorial, then with the advent of wedges, the “semi-pictorial” wedges developed independently of the pictograph…the wedges (dare I say) developed some character of their own (hehe). Here I go a third time: another topic for another time.

BET-Evolution-03
IN CONCLUSION:
Now, let us take a gander at the evolution of early Akkadian pictographs into later Akkadian cuneiform, and see if we can recognize it using our modern Semitic language skills. The Hebrew ‘B’, ב, carries the symbolic reference of “house”, or “dwelling”. I provided Syriac in the illustration below; one cannot deny the resemblance between the three! BET-Evolution-04Just as the Phoenician alphabet rotated in various degrees will evoke to mind the Greek and Old Italic alphabet (toda raba, Agent-101), and even the Runic all the way in Scandinavia — similarly, we begin to see some resemblance between proto-Semitic cuneiform all the way to our many modern-day Semitic scripts.

But I have given just one comparison that may be far-fetched from a potential theory. I must experiment a little more to justify whether the syllabic development of the earliest forms of Sumero-Akkadian may have influenced upon the symbolic development of early Phoenician and Aramaic (pssst: key words are italicised)!BET-Evolution-05Just to ensure this is not an isolated instance and I am not just hallucinating a trivial theory, I will take my pick on another character from the Phoenician or Aramaic alphabet and work my way backwards to see if I can pinpoint the Akkadian variant of the same symbol in its reference AND its appearance.

Albeit, a character’s appearance will have evolved through the centuries and millennia, we can track the way the character evolved by lining up each character by chronology and script (same script like Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, and Achaemenian Persian, OR different scripts, like Phoenician, Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, Nabatean, or Syriac). Then, we can examine the traits, new and/or discarded, side by side. Even the meaning can change over time, like gimel (Hebrew) / jamal (Arabic) means both ”camel” as well as “beautiful“ Arabic.

After tracing backwards with several characters, I will have enough instances to develop a theory and to analyse each of these instances even deeper, which yields to stronger evidence. I am not an expert linguist, Semanticist, or Semiticist, so my information in this post is not to be relied on.

I will return next week with my follow-up experiment.

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