Skip to content

More Inventions of the Ancient Near East

May 10, 2012

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

My post from last month highlighting a number of less well known inventions from the ancient Near East proved quite popular, so a sequel is of course forthcoming. Once again, this series avoids covering well known innovations like cities, writing, schools, agriculture and the wheel. Here are some more inventions that you may not know came from the ancient Near East.

1. Investment Banking

The Great Ziggurat of Ur. Sumerian temples played a major role in the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

Modern banking traces its origins to Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. Ancient Mesopotamian temples always had a redistributive economic function. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. They then redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor (sometimes the temples became corrupt and hoarded wealth, but that’s a topic for another article).

After a thousand years of this, the priests who ran the temples were literally sitting on giant piles of money. So around the time of Hammurabi (in the 18th century BC), they began to make loans. Old Babylonian temples made numerous loans to poor and needy entrepreneurs. The loans were made at reduced below-market interest rates lower than those offered on loans given by private individuals, and sometimes arrangements were made for the creditor to make food donations to the temple instead of repaying interest.[1]

Nevertheless, the temples still lacked many of the features of a full bank. They did not take deposits, issue checks, or engage in fractional reserve banking. They were religious institutions offering loans as a charity service, closer to modern microfinance initiatives than to Goldman Sachs.

Something closer to modern banking emerged in the neo-Babylonian period in the 7th century BC. Banking was conducted by certain families who passed the trade on from parents to children. The Ea-iluta-bani family of the city of Borsippa was active from 687 to 487 BC. Beginning as mid-level land owners possessing several tracts of agricultural land, the men of the family married well, received decent sized dowries, and invested their liquid assets (mostly silver and food products) in loans.

Cuneiform tablet detailing a loan of silver, c. 1800 BC. The text reads:
“3 1/3 silver sigloi, at interest of 1/6 sigloi and 6 grains per sigloi, has Amurritum, servant of Ikun-pi-Istar, received on loan from Ilum-nasir. In the third month she shall pay the silver.”
1 sigloi=8.3 grams.

Numerous contract documents have been recovered which list recipients of loans, the amount loaned, the term of the loan and the interest rate to be paid. When the loan was repaid, the tablet was usually broken. This gives us a possibly skewed picture of loans, because the only tablets we can read are from the loans that were not repaid.

What we can tell is that the Ea-iluta-bani family generally loaned at 20% annual interest. In other cases, possibly when the debtor was less reliable, items were taken as security in lieu of interest. If the loan was not repaid, the item would be kept and sold. Sometimes the security was an item that increased in value, such as a slave that could perform service for the creditors for the duration of the loan. This was in effect a disguised form of interest.

The Ea-iluta-bani family tended to make about half of their loans in silver and the other half in food products. There were no coins in use, so silver was measured by weight and purity. Silver had the advantage of having a fairly constant value. Food products on the other hand tended to decrease in value shortly after the harvest time and increase in value during times of the year when they were less plentiful. The family, therefore, tried structure contracts so as to lend out foodstuffs when they were cheapest and get repaid when they were more more expensive, making a greater profit.

Silver, on the other hand, could be loaned out at any time. 80% of our surviving contracts are for periods six months or less, but this may simply indicate that short term loans were less likely to be repaid. The Ea-iluta-bani family women would often loan out their dowry as a long term investment in order to make a steady stream of profit from interest payments.

By the time of the Persian Empire, finance was a major business in the cities Babylon, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa and Ur. Banking families such as the Egbi in Babylon, Iddin-Nabu of Babylon and Murashu of Nippur became very wealthy and even engaged in international commerce with countries outside of Mesopotamia. The Murashu broadened their investments under Persian rule, in addition to simple loans they branched out into real estate and managed and rented land. Due to their large land holdings, the Murashu family became extremely powerful in Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. They may have become too powerful. All record of their activity ceases after the 10th year of Darius II in 413 BC. Either the records are lost, or Darius moved to end their power.[2]

2. Poison Gas

In AD 256, the Sassanid Persians under Shah Shapur I laid siege to the Roman border fortress town of Dura-Europos in Syria on the Euphrates River. During the assault, the Persians built several siege ramps. They also dug a number of mines to try and cause the walls of the fortress to collapse.[3]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria. Tower 19 was situated in the middle of the wall to the left side of the picture.

One mine was dug at Tower 19 on the west wall of the city. The Persians started the tunnel in the back of a rock-cut tomb outside the city limits and tunneled through the soft gypsum until they reached the foundations of the walls. They pulled out some of the foundation stones and replaced them with timber, intending to set them on fire and collapse the wall.

Diagram showing the jumble of remains of Roman soldiers found in the tunnel under Tower 19 at Dura-Europos. The green discs are metal studs from the middle of shields.

But the Roman defenders had been watching all of this. They began building their own walls higher to thwart the siege ramp. They then dug their own tunnel under the ramp, causing it to collapse. To counter the tunnel under Tower 19, the Romans began digging their own tunnel out from the walls. The goal was to meet the Parthian tunnel underground, fight them under the city walls, and capture their tunnel before they could do any damage to the walls.[4]

But the Roman tunnel was at a higher level than the Parthian tunnel. When the Romans broke through the roof of the Parthian tunnel, the Parthians ignited a mixture of pitch and sulfur, producing a cloud of poisonous sulfur dioxide that would have asphyxiated the Roman soldiers within seconds.

The remains of the lone Persian soldier who died in the tunnel under Tower 19, overcome by the gas.

French, American and Syrian archaeologists who excavated the site in the 1930’s discovered twenty Roman soldiers jumbled in the tunnel. A single  soldier in Parthian armor was found with his body half burned. He was likely the last man out charged with lighting the mixture, and was overcome by the gas before he could escape. It was not until 2009 that chemical analysis showed the presence of sulfur dioxide inside the tunnel.[5]

Once the gas cleared, the Parthians returned to the tunnel and set the supports on fire. The tunnel collapsed, but the wall merely dropped a few meters without toppling.

Despite the Roman efforts, Dura-Europos eventually fell to the Persians. Shapur I ordered the city destroyed, and it was never rebuilt.[6]

3. Zoos

Painting showing a captive giraffe from the tomb of Rekhmire, a vizier under Pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep II.

Monarchs in the ancient Near East commonly maintained zoos as symbols of prestige. In this way, zoos served the same function as massive palace gardens or giant statues of winged bulls: They looked cool. A well supplied zoo stocked with exotic animals from all over the empire and beyond showcased the king’s influence and power to collect such animals and pay for their housing and upkeep.

The earliest evidence for this practice stretches as far back as 3500 BC, in Predynastic Egypt. Excavations at the Late Predynastic city of Hierakonpolis have shown that the local ruler there kept a large collection of animals. Excavations have uncovered the remains of 112 animals, including ten dogs, a cow and calf, two elephants, three hippos, eleven baboons and six wildcats. Some of the animals were buried on mats with grave goods. The bones of some of them had evidence of healed fractures and indications they were fed a captive diet, indicating they had been cared for.[7]

Assyrian relief on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (ruled 859-824 BC), showing conquered peoples bringing an elephant and two monkeys for the royal zoo.

Egyptian Pharaohs maintained zoos all the way down to the time of the Ptolemies, even keeping large, dangerous and hard to care for animals such as lions, bears, gazelles and giraffes. The practice spread to Mesopotamia as well. The Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (ruled from 1114-1076 BC) seems to have popularized the practice of collecting animals as tribute and keeping them in a palace zoo. Later, Assurnasirpal recorded that “I caught animals alive. I collected in my city Calah herds of wild oxen, elephants, lions, ostriches, male and female monkeys, wild asses, gazelles, deer, bears, panthers…all the beasts of plain and mountain, and displayed them to all the people of my land.”[8]

4. Metal Water Pipes

Plumbing and sewage is a necessary part of high-density urbanization and therefore plumbing is also as old as cities themselves. Sewers are first known from the Indus Valley civilization at Mohenjo-Daro at around 2700 BC. Terra-cotta pipes were used at the Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete to bring water from the mountains to the palace at about 2000 BC.

Scale model reconstruction of the pyramid and temple complex of Sahure.

But the first known use of metal water pipes comes from the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Sahure at Abusir, Egypt. Sahure was a member of the 5th Dynasty, and reigned from 2487 to 2475 BC. He built a small pyramid which was later largely dismantled by looters seeking to re-use the stone. Next to the pyramid he built a mortuary temple, which at first appearance was also unremarkable compared to other Old Kingdom mortuary temples. Closer investigation of some of the offering rooms used by the priests revealed that they had drains plumbed with copper pipes. The temple featured over 590 feet (180m) of pipe. The pipes were all made from sheets of copper folded over to make a tube. The drains connected to a central sewer paved over with limestone slabs that drained wastewater away from the complex.[9]

5. Greek Fire

The use of fire in warfare is very old. Assyrian siege reliefs show defenders using burning materials to try and set attacking siege engines on fire. However, the use of oil rags, burning arrows, and torches had its limitations, and enterprising military engineers set about finding new ways to make use of fire. At the siege of Delium during the Peloponnesian War in 424 BC, the Boetian attackers built a flamethrower which used a bellows to blow pitch and sulfur through an iron tube and quickly turned Delium’s wooden city walls into a blazing inferno. However, this weapon suffered from very short range, requiring the machine to nearly touch the walls.[10]

In the early 3rd century AD, the Roman army officer and diplomat from Ceasarea named Sextus Julius Africanus described a new mixture that could be used by defenders of cities to set siege engines on on fire. Unlike pitch-based confections, this new mixture was supposed to spontaneously combust upon contact with air:

Kindle fire spontaneously also by this composition: It is prepared, indeed, thus: of native sulfur, of rock salt, of ashes, of thunder stone, of pyrites, pounding equal amounts fine in a black mortar, the sun being at the zenith; also there is mixed together black mulberry sap and Zacynthian asphalt, liquid and free flowing, an equal amount of each, so as to become sooty colored; then there is added to the asphalt the least bit of quicklime.

This mixture contains several ingredients that are highly flammable. Sulfur’s flammable nature is well known. “Zacynthian asphalt” was pitch or bitumen (oil) from the Greek island of Zakynthos.

Quicklime heats rapidly upon contact with water, and this could ignite highly flammable substances. It may have been the ingredient that caused the whole mixture to ignite.

Most intriguing is the inclusion of an ingredient of uncertain identity called “thunder stone” (Greek brontesinos) It is interesting to note that the mixture already contains two of the three ingredients in gunpowder: sulfur and charcoal (the ashes that Africanus mentions). Was “thunder stone” the third ingredient, potassium nitrate? As far as we know, Gunpowder first appeared in China 700 years after Africanus lived and did not reach the Near East until the 13th century. It has been speculated that Byzantine Greek Fire contained potassium nitrate, but that has generally been discounted by recent scholars.

What is sure is that Africanus’ mixture was extremely volatile and dangerous:

But it is necessary to knead it carefully with the sun at the zenith, and to protect the face, for it ignites unexpectedly. But, being put together, it is necessary to seal it in some copper container, this having it at readiness in a box, and also no longer exposing it to the sun. But at night, if you should wish to inflame the armament of the enemy, smear it on them or some other things, but secretly; for when the sun appears, all will be burned.[11]

The lack of explosive force seems to indicate that the substance was not gunpowder. Rather, its incendiary properties seem to have made it useful as a tool of sabotage. It seems to have had a very low combustion point and therefore needed to be kept cool or used at night. All in all, it has been suggested that the mixture was a forerunner of Byzantine-era Greek Fire. Some have even suggested that the passage was a later insertion into the text based solely on its similarity to 7th century Greek Fire. Since the exact composition of Greek Fire has been lost, we cannot say for sure if the two are related, but it raises the interesting possibility that Greek Fire was in use in some form for several hundred years earlier than conventionally thought.[12]

6. Makeup

Shell-shaped cosmetics case from the Royal Graves of Ur, c. 2600 BC.

The earliest known cosmetics were discovered in the Royal Graves of Ur, a series of Sumerian burials from the Early Dynastic IIIa period of Ur (c. 2600 BC). The graves of prominent women contained gold scallop-shell dishes which when tested were shown to contain pigment residue. A smaller cosmetic box owned by Queen Pu-abi featured an ornate carving of a lion attacking a goat.

The boxes once contained Kohl, a lead sulfide based compound. The pigments came in white, red, yellow, blue, green and black and were applied to the skin around the eyes. Not surprisingly, modern Kohl usage has been linked to lead poisoning. However, studies of ancient Egyptian Kohl usage have suggested that the lead salts in the compound may have been beneficial and stimulated the immune system of those who wore it.[13]

Kohl was also used in Egypt, where both men and women regularly used it to paint their eyes. Numerous other cosmetics were used, such as fats and oils perfumed with frankincense, myrrh or cinnamon. Red ochre and yellow ochre were used to change the tone of skin. All of these things were extremely expensive and a mark of high status. In fact, the ability to afford perfumes and cosmetics was a metaphor for a status of wealth to be aspired to by ordinary Egyptians.[14]

7. Mirrors

Papyrus showing an Egyptian woman using a mirror to apply cosmetics.

Concurrent with the development of cosmetics was the development of the mirror. The world’s first mirrors were found in female graves at the site of Çatal Hüyük, a neolithic urban center in southeastern Anatolia dating to around 6000 BC. Made of polished obsidian, these mirrors only gave a dim reflection of the face of the user.

It has been suggested that dark basins filled with water or polished stone slabs were used as mirrors in early Egypt, but little hard evidence is available. Polished copper mirrors first appeared in about 3200 BC in the Sumerian cities of Uruk and Telloh. From this point on, the use of polished bronze and copper mirrors became very common throughout the Near East.

Gradually, mirrors became more elaborate. Handles began to appear in the Egyptian Old Kingdom. By the Middle Kingdom, handles had become elaborately decorated with cast bronze figurines attached. Mirrors made from silver, gold and electrum were experimented with. Convex mirrors were made, magnifying the reflected image and allowing mirrors be smaller and use less metal.

Mirrors were not just used for personal purposes. Bronze mirrors were also found at the copper mines at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula. Since miners were probably not applying eye liner, it has been speculated that the mirrors were used to reflect light down the mine shafts.[15]

8. Spear Phalanx

The Greeks made the phalanx famous, but the concept was nearly 2000 years old by the time they adopted it. The earliest depiction of a spear phalanx comes from a stele from the Sumerian city-state of Lagash. The stele was commissioned by King Eannatum of Lagash to commemorate victory in a border war with the rival city of Umma at about 2455-2425 BC.

The stele clearly shows some important differences with the Greek phalanx. For example, it does not appear that every soldier has a shield. Rather, some soldiers are carrying the very large shields while numerous spears protrude from the gaps between them. This would make the formation even more complex than a Greek phalanx, requiring coordinated movement between shield-bearers and spearmen.

There are no other depictions quite like this stele, so it is completely unclear to us how common this formation was and how often it was used. Spearmen certainly fought in a line in most cases, but a tightly packed phalanx of heavy shields that covered a spearman and his neighbor is not widely attested. It may have been the normal method of fighting in Sumer, or it may have been used only by certain elite soldiers of Lagash under Eannatum. We have no way of knowing.[16]

9. Aqueducts

As has already been covered in detail on this site, the first aqueduct was built in 690 BC on the orders of the Assyrian king Sennacherib as part of the system of canals that supplied water to the capital city of Nineveh. One of the eighteen canals that connected Nineveh with the Tebitu reservoir unavoidably crossed over another stream near the modern village of Jerwan in northern Iraq. The Assyrians built a 90-foot stone aqueduct of stone that bridged the stream. A fine slope kept water flowing.

Sennacherib was very proud of this structure, to the point where he had inscribed on the aqueduct that “I caused a canal to be dug to the meadows of Nineveh. Over deep-cut ravines I spanned a bridge of white stone blocks. Those waters I caused to pass over it.”

The water system of Nineveh eventually featured 150 km of canals, aqueducts and other water works. Although limited, the Assyrian aqueduct pre-dated the more famous Roman version by 500 years.[17]

10. The Suez Canal

The dream of linking the Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea did not begin with Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal company in 1854. The Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II began the first attempt to connect the two seas some time after acceding to the throne in 610 BC. He expanded the Egyptian navy, and according to Herodotus he sent a Phoenician expedition that circumnavigated Africa. He then put together a vast crew of workmen to attempt to dig a canal to link the Gulf of Suez with the easternmost branch of the Nile Delta. The planned canal would run east from the Nile Delta, and link up with Lake Timsah. Smaller canals would link Lake Timsah with the Great Bitter Lake and the Gulf of Suez.

He never finished the job. Herodotus claims 120,000 laborers lost their lives, but this is certainly exaggerated. Herodotus also reported that an oracle told Necho that his hard work would be for the benefit of a barbarian, so he stopped. Whatever the real reason, work on the canal halted for more than eighty years.

After the Persians conquered Egypt, Darius I decided to complete the canal as part of a program to expand the sea power of Persia. Herodotus’ narrative at this point is confirmed by four granite blocks on which Darius had inscribed that “I commanded to dig this canal from a river by name Pirawa which flows in Egypt (the Nile) to the sea which goes out from Persis. Afterwards this canal was dug out as I commanded and ships went from Egypt through this canal as was my desire.” The canal served as a vital sea link between Persia and Persian possessions in the Mediterranean.

Eventually, the canal silted up and fell into disuse. Ptolemy II, another king focused on expanding Egypt’s sea power, had the canal dredged and restored in 270 BC. The canal was open for several more centuries, until the Roman Emperor Trajan had to restore it again sometime in the early 2nd century AD. The Arab general Amr Ibn al-As had it repaired again after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640. It fell into disrepair again and no canal bridged the gap for over a thousand years, until the Suez Canal was completed in 1869.[18]

The first canal’s marks on the landscape are still visible, as can be seen by the strip of green fertile land that follows the path of the ancient canal.

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.


[1] John F. Robertson, “Social and Economic Organization in Mesopotamian Temples” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. I, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 444-453.

[2] Francis Joannès, “Private Commerce and Banking in Achaemenid Babylon,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 3, 1475-1485; Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 371.

[3] Carly Silver, “Dura-Europos: Crossroad of Cultures,” Archaeology, August 11, 2010 (online feature) (accessed May 2, 2012).

[4] “Death Underground: Gas Warfare at Dura-Europos,” Current Archaeology, November 26, 2009 (online feature) (accessed May 2, 2012); “The Final Siege of Dura: Ancient Chemical Warfare?” (accessed May 2, 2012).

[5] Samir S. Patel, “Early Chemical Warfare – Dura-Europos, Syria,” Archaeology, Vol. 63, No. 1, January/February 2010, (accessed May 2, 2012); Stephanie Pappas, “Buried Soldiers May Be Victims of Ancient Chemical Weapon,” LiveScience, March 8, 2011, (accessed May 2, 2012).

For the original analysis of the Dura-Europos chemical warfare evidence, see Simon James, “Stratagems, Combat, and “Chemical Warfare” in the Siege Mines of Dura-Europos,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 115, No. 1 (January 2011), 69-101.

[6] Carly Silver, “Dura-Europos: Crossroad of Cultures,” Archaeology, August 11, 2010 (online feature) (accessed May 2, 2012).

[7] Mark Rose, “World’s First Zoo – Hierakonpolis, Egypt,” Archaeology, Vol. 63, No. 1, January/February 2010, (accessed May 3, 2012).

[8] “Zoos and Parks,” (accessed May 3, 2012); H.W.F. Saggs, The Might that was Assyria (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984), 65, 267.

[9] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 361-362; Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1988), 76-77; Jimmy Dunn, “The Pyramid of Sahure and Abusirby,” TourEgypt, (accessed May 3, 2012).

[10] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1954), 4.100; Michael Lahanas, “Ancient Greek Inventions,” (accessed May 3, 2012).

[11] Sextus Julius Africanus, Military Extracts, fr. 11, in Francis C.R. Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1984), 154.

[12] John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 193-194; John Maxson Stillman, The Story of Alchemy and Early Chemistry (Dover Publications, 1960), 195-196.

[13] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 255; Dominique Collon, “Clothing and Grooming in Ancient Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 503.

[14] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 255-256; Geraldine Pinch, “Private Life in Ancient Egypt,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, 368.

[15] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 248-250; Jay M. Enoch, “History of Mirrors Dating Back 8000 Years,” Optometry and Vision Science, Vol. 83, No. 10 (October 2006): 775-781 (online access at

[16] William J. Hamblin, Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC (New York: Routledge, 2006), 55-57.

[17] Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1934), 10-20, 36, 41, 44; L. Sprague De Camp, The Ancient Engineers (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 63-64.

[18] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 89-92; De Camp, The Ancient Engineers, 44; Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, 360-361; J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1983), 65-66; Herodotus, The Histories, trans. by Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), 2.158-159.

Image Sources: (banner); Headdress of Queen Puabi from;  (body);;internal&action=_setlanguage.action?LANGUAGE=en;;; Yale University /;;;;;;; Colorized version of image from Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1934), 17; Google Earth /

Article © Christopher Jones 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: