27834461911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 19 — NippurLeonard William King

NIPPUR, one of the most ancient of all the Babylonian cities of which we have any knowledge, the special seat of the worship of the Sumerian god, En-lil, lord of the storm demons. It was situated on both sides of the Shatt-en-Nil canal, one of the earliest courses of the Euphrates, between the present bed of that river and the Tigris, almost 100 m. S.E. of Bagdad, in 32° 7′ N. 45° 10′ E. It is represented by the great complex of ruin mounds known to the Arabs as Nuffar, written by the earlier explorers Niffer, divided into two main parts by the dry bed of the old Shatt-en-Nil (Arakhat). The highest point of these ruins, a conical hill rising about 100 ft. above the level of the surrounding plain, N.E. of the canal bed, is called by the Arabs Bint el-Amir or “prince’s daughter.” Here very brief and unsatisfactory excavations were conducted by Sir A. H. Layard in 1851, which served, however, by means of the inscribed bricks discovered, to identify the site. The university of Pennsylvania began systematic excavations in 1889 under the directorship of Dr John P. Peters. With some intermissions these excavations were continued until 1900 under the original director and his successors, Dr John Henry Haynes and Dr H. V. Hilprecht. The result of their work is a fairly continuous history of Nippur, and especially of its great temple, E-kur, from the earliest period.

Originally a village of reed huts in the marshes, similar to many of those which can be seen in that region to-day, Nippur underwent the usual vicissitudes of such villages—floods and conflagrations. For some reason habitation persisted at the same spot, and gradually the site rose above the marshes, partly as a result of the mere accumulation of debris, consequent on continuous habitation, partly through the efforts of the inhabitants. As these began to develop in civilization, they substituted, at least so far as their shrine was concerned, buildings of mud-brick for reed huts. The earliest age of civilization, which we may designate as the clay age, is marked by rude, hand-made pottery and thumb-marked bricks, flat on one side, concave on the other, gradually developing through several fairly marked stages. The exact form of the sanctuary at that period cannot be determined, but it seems to have been in some way connected with the burning of the dead, and extensive remains of such cremation are found in all the earlier, pre-Sargonic strata. There is evidence of the succession on this site of different peoples, varying somewhat in their degrees of civilization. One stratum is marked by painted pottery of good make, similar to that found in a corresponding stratum in Susa, and resembling the early pottery of the Aegean region more closely than any later pottery found in Babylonia. This people gave way in time to another, markedly inferior in the manufacture of pottery, but superior, apparently, as builders. In one of these earlier strata, of very great antiquity, there was discovered, in connexion with the shrine, a conduit built of bricks, in the form of an arch. Somewhere, apparently, in the 4th millennium B.C., we begin to find inscriptions written on clay, in an almost linear script, in the Sumerian tongue. The shrine at this time stood on a raised platform and apparently contained, as a characteristic feature, an artificial mountain or, peak, a so-called ziggurat, the precise shape and size of which we are, however, unable to determine. So far as we can judge from the inscriptions, Nippur did not enjoy at this time, or at any later period for that matter, political hegemony, but was distinctively a sacred city, important from the possession of the famous shrine of En-lil. Inscriptions of Lugal-zaggisi and Lugal-kigub-nidudu, kings of Erech and Ur respectively, and of other early pre-Semitic rulers, on door-sockets and stone vases, show the veneration in which the ancient shrine was then held and the importance attached to its possession, as giving a certain stamp of legitimacy. So on their votive offerings some of these rulers designate themselves as patesis, or over-priests, of En-lil. Early in the 3rd millennium B.C. the city was conquered and occupied by the Semitic rulers of Akkad, or Agade, and numerous votive objects of Alu-usharsid (Urumush or Rimush), Sargon and Naram-Sin testify to the veneration in which they also held this sanctuary. En-lil was in fact adopted as the Bel or great lord of the Semitic pantheon. The last monarch of this dynasty, Naram-Sin, rebuilt both the temple and the city walls, and in the accumulation of débris now marking the ancient site his remains are found about half way from the top to the bottom. To this Akkadian occupation succeeded an occupation by the first Semitic dynasty of Ur, and the constructions of Ur-Gur or Ur-Engur, the great builder of Babylonian temples, are superimposed immediately upon the constructions of Naram-Sin. Ur-Gur gave to the temple its final characteristic form. Partly razing the constructions of his predecessors, he erected a terrace of unbaked bricks, some 40 ft. high, covering a space of about 8 acres, near the north-western edge of which, towards the western corner, he built a ziggurat, or stage-tower, of three stages of unburned brick, faced with kiln-burned bricks laid in bitumen. On the summit of this artificial mountain stood, apparently, as at Ur and Eridu, a small chamber, the special shrine or abode of the god. Access to the stages of the ziggurat, from the court beneath, was had by an inclined plane on the south-east side. To the north-east of the ziggurat stood, apparently, the House of Bel, and in the courts below the ziggurat stood various other buildings, shrines, treasure chambers and the like. The whole structure was roughly orientated, with the corners towards the cardinal points of the compass. Ur-Gur also rebuilt the walls of the city in general on the line of Naram-Sin’s walls.

The restoration of the general features of the temple of this and the immediately succeeding periods has been greatly facilitated by the discovery of a sketch map on a fragment of a clay tablet. This sketch map represents a quarter of the city to the eastward of the Shatt-en-Nil canal, which was enclosed within its own walls, a city within a city, forming an irregular square, with sides roughly 2700 ft. long, separated from the other quarters of the city, as from the surrounding country to the north and east, by canals on all sides, with broad quays along the walls. A smaller canal divided this quarter of the city itself into two parts, in the south-eastern part of which, in the middle of its S.E. side, stood the temple, while in the N.W. part, along the Shatt-en-Nil, two great storehouses are indicated. The temple proper, according to this plan, consisted of an outer and inner court (each covering approximately 8 acres), surrounded by double walls, with ziggurat on the north-western edge of the latter.

The temple continued to be built upon or rebuilt by kings of various succeeding dynasties, as shown by bricks and votive objects bearing the inscriptions of the kings of various dynasties of Ur and Isin. It seems to have suffered severely in some manner at or about the time of the Elamite invasions, as shown by broken fragments of statuary, votive vases and the like, from that period, but at the same time to have won recognition from the Elamite conquerors, so that Eriaku (Sem. Rim-Sin, biblical Arioch), the Elamite king of Larsa, styles himself “shepherd of the land of Nippur.” With the establishment of the Babylonian empire, under Khammurabi, early in the 2nd pre-Christian millennium, the religious as well as the political centre of influence was transferred to Babylon, Marduk became the Bel or lord of the pantheon, many of En-lil’s attributes and myths were transferred to him, and E-kur was to some extent neglected. Under the succeeding Cossaean dynasty, however, shortly after the middle of the 2nd millennium, E-kur was restored once more to its former splendour, several monarchs of that dynasty built upon and adorned it, and thousands of inscriptions, dating from the time of those rulers, have been discovered in its archives. After the middle of the 12th century follows another long period of comparative neglect, but with the conquest of Babylonia by the Assyrian Sargon, at the close of the 8th century B.C., we meet again with building inscriptions, and under Assur-bani-pal, about the middle of the 7th century, we find E-kur restored with a splendour greater than ever before, the ziggurat of that period being 190 ft. by 128 ft. After that E-kur appears to have gradually fallen into decay, until finally, in the Seleucid period, the ancient temple was turned into a fortress. Huge walls were erected at the edges of the ancient terrace, the courts of the temple were filled with houses and streets, and the ziggurat itself was curiously built over in a cruciform shape, and converted into an acropolis for the fortress. This fortress was occupied and further built upon until the close of the Parthian period, about A.D. 250; but under the succeeding rule of the Sassanids it in its turn fell into decay, and the ancient sanctuary became, to a considerable extent, a mere place of sepulture, only a little village of mud huts huddled about the ancient ziggurat continuing to be inhabited. The store-house quarter of the temple town had not been explored as late as 1909.

As at Tello, so at Nippur, the clay archives of the temple were found not in the temple proper, but on an outlying mound. South-eastward of the temple quarter, without the walls above described, and separated from it by a large basin connected with the Shatt-en-Nil, lay a triangular mound, about 25 ft. in average height and 13 acres in extent. In this were found large numbers of inscribed clay tablets (it is estimated that upward of 40,000 tablets and fragments have been excavated in this mound alone), dating from the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. onward into the Persian period, partly temple archives, partly school exercises and text-books, partly mathematical tables, with a considerable number of documents of a more distinctly literary character. For an account of one of the most interesting fragments of a literary or religious character, found at Nippur, see below.

The great complex of ruin mounds lying S.W. of the Shatt-en-Nil canal, larger in extent and mass than the N.E. complex, had not up to 1909 been so fully explored as the mounds to the N.E. Almost directly opposite the temple, however, a large palace was excavated, apparently of the Cossaean period, and in this neighbourhood and further southward on these mounds large numbers of inscribed tablets of various periods, including temple archives of the Cossaean and commercial archives of the Persian period, were excavated. The latter, the “books and papers” of the house of Murashu, commercial agents of the government, throw light on the condition of the city and the administration of the country in the Persian period, the 5th century B.C. The former give us a very good idea of the administration of an ancient temple. The whole city of Nippur appears to have been at that time merely an appanage of the temple. The temple itself was a great landowner, possessed of both farms and pasture land. Its tenants were obliged to render careful accounts of their administration of the property entrusted to their care, which were preserved in the archives of the temple. We have also from these archives lists of goods contained in the temple treasuries and salary lists of temple officials, on tablet forms specially prepared and marked off for periods of a year or less.

On the upper surface of these mounds was found a considerable Jewish town, dating from about the beginning of the Arabic period onward to the 10th century A.D., in the houses of which were large numbers of incantation bowls. Jewish names, appearing in the Persian documents discovered at Nippur, show, however, that Jewish settlement at that city dates in fact from a much earlier period, and the discovery on some of the tablets found there of the name of the canal Kabari suggests that the Jewish settlement of the exile, on the canal Chebar, to which Ezekiel belonged, may have been somewhere in this neighbourhood, if not at Nippur itself. Hilprecht indeed believes that the Kabari was the Shatt-en-Nil. Of the history and conditions of Nippur in the Arabic period we learn little from the excavations, but from outside sources it appears that the city was the seat of a Christian bishopric as late as the 12th century A.D.

The excavations at Nippur were the first to reveal to us the extreme antiquity of Babylonian civilization, and, as already stated, they give us the best consecutive record of the development of that civilization, with a continuous occupancy from a period of unknown antiquity, long ante-dating 5000 B.C., onward to the middle ages. But while Nippur has been more fully explored than any other old Babylonian city, except Babylon and Lagash, still only a small part of the great ruins of the ancient site had been examined in 1909. These ruins have been particularly fruitful in inscribed material, especially clay tablets, many of them from the very earliest periods; but little of artistic or architectural importance has been discovered. Excavation at Nippur is particularly difficult and costly by reason of the inaccessibility of the site, and the dangerous and unsettled condition of the surrounding country, and still more by reason of the immense mass of later débris under which the earlier and more important Babylonian remains are buried.

See A. H. Layard, Nineveh and Babylon (1853); John P. Peters, Nippur (1897); H. V. Hilprecht, Excavations in Assyria and Babylonia (1904); Clarence S. Fisher, Excavations at Nippur (1st part 1905, 2nd part 1906); Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania, a monumental edition of the cuneiform texts found at Nippur, with brief introductions and notes of a more general character (1893 foll.). For a plan of the Parthian palace see Architecture, vol. ii. p. 381.  (J. P. Pe.) 

The Nippur Deluge Fragment.—From among the many tablets and fragments of tablets discovered at Nippur one of more than ordinary interest was published in 1910. Though mutilated portions of only a few of its lines have been preserved, and the text contains no proper name, it is clear that the tablet represents part of a Babylonian version of the Deluge Legend.[1] The portion of the story covered by the text relates to the warning given by Ea to Ut-napishtim, the Babylonian equivalent of the Hebrew Noah. The god here states that he is about to send a deluge, which will cause destruction to all mankind, and he gives directions for the building of a great ship in which “the beasts of the field and the birds of heaven” may be saved, along with Ut-napishtim and his family; he fixes the size of the ship and directs that it should be covered with a strong roof or deck. The text bears a general resemblance to the two well-known Assyrian versions on tablets in the British Museum, but it has been claimed that its phraseology presents a closer parallel to the biblical version of the Deluge story in the “Priestly Code.” For several years the existence of Babylonian versions of the legend had been detected among collections of tablets dating from the earlier historical periods. A fragment of one such version belongs to the period of the First Dynasty of Babylon,[2] and part of a still earlier Semitic version of another portion of the Gilgamesh Epic has also been recovered.[3] The new fragment from Nippur has given rise to considerable discussion, in view of the light it is said to throw upon a disputed problem of biblical criticism. According to its discoverer it represents the oldest account of the Babylonian Deluge story extant; and he considers it of fundamental importance for determining the age of Israel’s earliest traditions, since he would regard it as having been written “before Abraham had left his Babylonian home in Ur of the Chaldees.”

Beyond the fact that it was found at Nippur during the fourth of the American expeditions, there does not appear to be any exact record of its provenance; and, in order to determine its date, it is necessary to rely on the external and internal evidence furnished by the tablet itself. A number of hymns and prayers addressed to the chief Babylonian gods, and written throughout in the Sumerian language, have been found at Nippur, and these may be dated in the era of the kings of Ur and Isin, since some of them are mentioned by name in the petitions. To the latter part of this period Professor Hilprecht would assign the new Deluge fragment. It is natural that under the Sumerian revival, which characterized the united kingdom of Sumer and Akkad, the ancient ritual should have been revived and the Sumerian service-books adapted for the use of the reigning monarch. Sumerian, in fact, predominated, not only on the historical monuments, but also throughout the religious literature, a fact which militates against assigning the newly discovered Semitic legend to the period of these early Sumerian texts. It has already been noted that the earliest deluge-fragment previously recovered dates from the latter half of the First Dynasty of Babylon, when the Western Semites had succeeded in establishing their authority throughout the greater part of the country. But, to judge from the photographic reproduction of the Nippur tablet, the characters upon it do not appear to resemble those in use at the time of the First Dynasty, nor those of the period of the Dynasties of Ur and Isin. On purely epigraphic grounds the suggestion has indeed been made that it should be assigned to the Kassite period (not earlier than 1700 B.C.), during which a very large number of the tablets found at Nippur were inscribed.[4]

But, even so, the fragment is one of the most interesting that has been recovered on the site of Nippur. For it strikingly illustrates the fact that the temple of En-lil, like that of the Sun-god at Sippar and the other great temples in Babylonia, possessed a body of mythological and religious texts, which formed subjects for study and comment among the priestly scribes. It was by the collection and reproduction of such documents, preserved in the ancient religious centres, that Assurbani-pal was enabled to form his unique library of tablets at Nineveh. The temple of E-kur thus formed no exception to the rule that the great temples of Babylonia were centres of literary, as well as of religious, activity.

The text of this Deluge fragment also furnishes one more proof of the existence of parallel versions of the same legend. In some instances, as in the great Creation Series of Babylon, the later scribes subjected the different versions to processes of editing, with the result that the earlier forms gave place to the redactions of a militant priesthood. But where no theological nor local prejudices were involved, the tendency to a faithful reproduction of the earlier texts prevailed. Thus the resemblances which have been claimed between the Nippur Deluge fragment and the version of the “Priestly Code” in Genesis, in themselves furnish no significant evidence as to the latter’s date. The possibility that Hebrew traditions were subject to Babylonian influence from the period of the Canaanite conquest has long been recognized, and to the Exilic and post-Exilic Jew the mythology of Babylon may well have presented many familiar features.  (L. W. K.) 

  1. See Hilprecht, The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania, ser. D, vol. v. fasc. 1.
  2. It is dated in the reign of Ammizaduga; cf. Scheil, Recueil da travaux, xx. 55 ff. For another fragment of the Atar-khasis legend of the same period, see Cuneiform Texts in the British Museum, pt. vi., and cf. Zimmern, Zeits. für Assyr. xiv. 278 f.
  3. See Meissner, Mitteil. der Vorderas. Gesellschaft (1902), i. For other Semitic legends of this early period, see Cuneiform Texts in the British Museum, pt. xv. (1902), Pls. I.-VI., and cf. King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, p. lxxvii. f.
  4. It has also been pointed out that the employment of the sign PI for wa and the use of z for s, cited in support of the earlier date, survived in the Kassite period.