The presence of individuals or groups of immigrants from Indian Subcontinent in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC was recognized since the discovery of Indus Civilization at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in early 1920s, because Indus-like seals were found in stratified contexts in some of the most important Sumerian cities. In 1932, C.J. Gadd opened a new line of archaeological research, collecting and publishing in a fortunate paper a series of seals from Mesopotamia (found during digs or acquired on the antiquarian market) sharing what he regarded as an Indian style. Gadd’s interpretation was fundamentally correct, although the series of seals he published also included specimens of what we presently identify as Dilmunite seals, coming from the Gulf islands of Faylaka and Bahrein.
The great seasons of extensive excavations at Mohenjo Daro (Sindh, presently in Pakistan) were over, and the final report by J. Marshall (1931) had been published. Both the inscriptions and the animal icons on the major group of western seals had obvious similarities with the steatite seals unearthed by thousands in major cities of the Indus civilization. It was on the basis of these finds, at least in a first stage, that the Indus valley civilization was dated to the middle Bronze age.
Since then, two generations of archaeologists and philologists have attempted to investigate the problem of Indian communities that had settled in Mesopotamia in the second half of 3rd millennium BC. As identification of Meluhha with coastal areas controlled by Indus-Sarasvati people is almost universally accepted, the textual evidence dealing with individuals qualified as men or sons of Meluhha, or called with the ethnonym Meluhha, living in Mesopotamia in a Meluhha village established at Lagash (and presumably at other major cities as well), clearly points to the existence of enclaves settled by Indian immigrants.
As remarked by M. Tosi … the lack of Mesopotamian imports into the Indus Valley reveals the lesser significance of these connections for the eastern pole. Very much like the Roman trade with India and Arabia, as described in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea in the 1st century AD, the
flow of goods towards the head of the Gulf in the later 3rd millennium BC was determined more by the Mesopotamian demand than by economic integration with the distant lands that supplied these goods from the shores of the Indian Ocean.
The Sumerians and Akkadians interacted more with Dilmun sailors and traders, Indian immigrants and largely acculturated social groups than with the remote “Black Country” of Meluhha. In Mesopotamia and in the Gulf, the immigrant Indus families maintained and trasmitted their language, their writing system, weights and measures (known in Mesopotamia as the Dilmunite standard) … as strategic tools of trade. Their official symbol of “gaur” might have stressed, in a foreign land, their connection with their motherland in Indus-Sarasvati valleys. Nonetheless, they gradually adopted the use of foreign languages and introduced minor changes in their writing system for dealing with new, rapidy evolving linguistic needs.
The Indus communities in Mesopotamia developed, thanks to an intimate understanding of Mesopotamian culture and markets, and opportunisties for profitable trade. They promptly adapted their products and merchandise, pricing and availability, to fast-changing local – political, social, cultural and ideological – environment of markets abroad. Their success in Mesopotamia is easily measured by their efficient adaptation to prevailing order in different lands : politics, wars and change of regimes among city-states; presumably centralized Akkadian bureaucracy; and, even more centralized empire established by Ur-nammu.
By 2000 BC, their integration with Mesopotamian social and economic reality seems to be total. The acculturation process involved collaboration with local religious institutions, worship of foreign divinities, production of ornaments with foreign religious symbols, adoption of impure foreign rituals in life and death and, it may be easily imagined, suffering possible discrimination by their compatriots at home for having eaten impure food. The price of their success might have been their apparent contamination with Mesopotamian habits, creeds and ritual practices : a circumstance that may assuredly have not escaped the attention of the conservative and tradition-minded leadership in their home-cities in Indus-Sarasvati valley.
If, as Parpola duo suggest, Meluhha is the origin of “Mleccha”, it would have been especially galling to be addressed as “barbarian or foreigner,” which is what the word means in Sanskrit !
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There is extensive presence of Harappan seals and cubical weight measures in Mesopotamian urban sites. Specific items of high volume trade are timber and specialty wood such as ebony, for which large ships were used. Luxury items also appear, such as lapis lazuli mined at a Harappan colony at Shortugai (Badakshan in northern Afghanistan), which was transported to Lothal, a port city in Gujarat, and shipped from there to Oman, Bahrain, and Sumer.
Indus Valley versus Africa
A number of scholars suggest that Meluhha was the Sumerian name for Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilization. Asko and Simo Parpola, both Finnish scholars, identify Meluhha (earlier variant Me-lah-ha) from Sumerian documents with Dravidian mel akam “high abode” or “high country”. Many items of trade such as wood, minerals, and gemstones were indeed extracted from the hilly regions near the Indus settlements.
Earlier texts (c. 2200 BC) seem to indicate that Meluhha is to the east, suggesting its location in the Indus-Sarasvati region. Sargon of Akkad is said to have “dismantled the cities, as far as the shore of the sea. At the wharf of Agade, he docked ships from Meluhha, ships from Magan.”
However, much later texts documenting the exploits of King Assur Banipal of Assyria (668–627 BC), long after the Indus Valley civilization had ceased to exist, seem to imply that Meluhha is to be found somewhere near Egypt, in Africa.
There is sufficient archaeological evidence for trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Impressions of clay seals from the Indus Valley city of Harappa were evidently used to seal bundles of merchandise, as clay seal impressions with cord or sack marks on the reverse side testify. A number of these Indus Valley seals have been found at Ur and other Mesopotamian sites. The Persian-Gulf style of circular stamped seals, rather than rolled seals, are identified with Dilmun; they have been found at Lothal in Gujarat, India, as well as at Failaka Island (Kuwait), and in Mesopotamia. These widely dispersed finds are convincing evidence corroborating long-distance sea trade among these regions.
We are less sure of what the commerce consisted of : timber and precious woods, ivory, lapis lazuli, gold and luxury goods such as carnelian and glazed stone beads, pearls from Persian Gulf, shell and bone inlays were among the goods sent to Mesopotamia in exchange for silver, tin, woolen textiles, perhaps oil and grains and other foods. Copper ingots, certainly, bitumen, which occurred naturally in Mesopotamia, may have been exchanged for cotton textiles and chickens, major products of the Indus region that are not native to Mesopotamia—all these have been instanced.
African hypothesis :
Later texts from the 1st millennium BC suggest that “Meluhha” and “Magan” were kingdoms adjacent to Egypt. Assur Banipal writes about his first march against Egypt, “In my first campaign I marched against Magan, Meluhha, Tarka, king of Egypt and Ethiopia, whom Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, the father who begot me, had defeated, and whose land he brought under his sway.”
Apart from Assur Banipal’s reference, there is no mention of Meluhha in any Mesopotamian text after about 1700 BC, which corresponds to the time of decline of the Indus-Sarasvati Valley civilisation. This is a single instance reference to Meluhha nearly 1500 years after the ‘high tide’ of contact between the Indus Valley and Sumeria in 2000 BCE. Direct contacts ceased even during Mature Harappan phase between these two centers. Oman and Bahrain, Magan and Dilmun had become intermediaries. Sumeria had ‘forgotten’ the Indus Valley after the sack of Ur by the Elamites and subsequent invasions in Sumeria. Its trade and contacts shifted west and Meluhha passed into mythological memory. The resurfacing of the name probably relates to cultural memory of similarity of items of trade.
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Shu-ilishu’s Cylinder Seal …
BY GREGORY L. POSSEHL
“Some years ago, while perusing the great Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia : Portrait of a Dead Civilization, I found a reference to the personal cylinder seal of a translator of the Meluhhan language. His name was Shu-ilishu and he lived in Mesopotamia during the Late Akkadian period (ca. 2020 BC, according to the new, low chronology).
“I was interested in this man because Meluhha is widely believed to have been the Indus Civilization of the Greater Indus Valley in India and Pakistan (ca. 2500–1900 BC)—the focus of my own research. Based on cuneiform documents from Mesopotamia we know that there was at least one Meluhhan village in Akkad at that time, with people called “Son of Meluhha” living there. Therefore, to find evidence of an official translator was no surprise, though it is nifty when archaeology can document this sort of thing.
“To learn more I tracked down a photograph of Shu-ilishu’s cylinder seal in a substantial volume found in the Museum Library—Collection de Clercq. Gathered together in the 19thCentury by a wealthy man, this collection is composed of objects purchased from dealers with little, if any, provenience data presented. Therefore, we do not know where Shu-ilishu’s cylinder came from. Despite this, I asked our Museum’s Photo Studio to make a black and white negative and several prints of the cylinder’s rollout impression. I have subsequently published this rollout in several places—renewing interest in Shuilishu. This cylinder seal has now become commonplace in discussions of Persian Gulf archaeology and the Indus Civilization’s contacts with Mesopotamia.
“My late colleague Edith Porada, the world’s leading expert on Mesopotamian seals in her day, confirmed the information presented in Oppenheim’s work. She also noted that the seal had been re-cut from its original appearance (not unusual) and that its style was Late Akkadian (ca. 2200–2113 BC), possibly even from the succeeding Ur III period (ca. 2113–2004 BC). During the spring of 2003, when the topic of Meluhha came up during a seminar I was addressing, I showed Porada’s letter to a small group of students.
“Thinking afresh about the re-cutting of the seal, I decided that the reading of the inscription should probably be checked. Did it really say that Shu-ilishu was a translator of Meluhhan ? I took the photograph I had copied from the Collection de Clercq to Steve Tinney, my colleague in the Museum’s Babylonian Section .”
The founder of Mesopotamia’s Akkadian dynasty, Sargon the Great, boasted that : The ships from Meluhha / the ships from Magan / the ships from Dilmun / he made tie-up alongside / the quay of Akkad (translated by Samuel Noah Kramer).
Magan and Dilmun are modern Oman and Bahrain, respectively. This inscription, other cuneiform documents, and recent archaeology in the Arabian Gulf tell us about the maritime activity between Akkad (modern Iraq) and Meluhha (modern Pakistan and India) during the 3rd millennium BC..
“He was kind enough to look at it and confirm everything, at least as far as the rather poor image allowed. It occurred to me that someone should probably track down the original seal and make a fresh impression, but where was the “Collection de Clercq” now—in Paris? I was sure I would get to it someday, but that is where I left things until a splendid piece of luck dropped it in my lap.
“In the spring of 2004, the “First Cities” show opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. On June 10, 2004, I visited the Met with a couple of students. The show was a truly magnificent display, with treasures from the Near East and India set out in a very attractive and informed way. The Penn Museum’s material from Puabi’s grave at Ur was there, as was the British Museum’s famous Royal Standard of Ur. The “Priest-King” from Mohenjo-daro had been lent by the Pakistan Government—he looked great !—and the Louvre had also been very generous with its loan of various objects.
“The students and I did our tour through the galleries and then lingered, reading labels again or with greater concentration than on the first pass through. I was in a gallery near the “Priest-King” when I spotted Shuilishu’s cylinder and a clear impression of its rollout. It was a part of the Louvre’s loan. The “Collection de Clercq” had found its way to the Louvre, and Joan Aruz, the Met curator of the show, had been good enough to put it in her loan request. I showed the students and retold the story of why it is important.
“I knew that Tinney should see the fresh impression, but maybe I could do even better. After consulting with Aruz and her staff, it was agreed that I could approach Annie Caubet, Conservateur Général, Départment des Antiquitiés Orientales at the Musée du Louvre, and seek permission to make a fresh impression while Shu-ilishu’s seal was at the Met. Caubet’s answer was virtually immediate and positive. We could make a fresh impression and it could be a part of the “loan” collections at the Penn Museum. This was all accomplished, and Tinney reconfirmed the original translation. The Penn Museum now has a very fine rollout of the seal in its collections, where it can be used as a research tool for many, many years.
“The writing of Meluhha (the Indus script) remains undeciphered, in spite of many claims to the contrary. The inscriptions are short, and this makes the job of decipherment very difficult. To break the code, what is probably needed is a body of bilingual texts, like Jean-Francois Champollion had when he deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. The presence in Akkad of a translator of the Meluhhan language suggests that he may have been literate and could read the undeciphered Indus script. This in turn suggests that there may be bilingual Akkadian/Meluhhan tablets somewhere in Mesopotamia. Although such documents may not exist, Shu-ilishu’s cylinder seal offers a glimmer of hope for the future in unraveling the mystery of the Indus script.”
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I might continue with a piece on the fascinating linguistic and etymological evolution of Indian language from Mleccha and Arya vaach of those hoary times in pre-history !