Watch the World’s First Film Made in Babylonian, the Language of Ancient Mesopotamia

“Enable sub­ti­tles,” says the noti­fi­ca­tion that appears before The Poor Man of Nip­pur — and you will need them, unless, of course, you hap­pen to hail from the cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion. The short film is adapt­ed from “a folk­tale based on a 2,700-year-old poem about a pau­per,” says the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge’s alum­ni news, act­ed out word-for-word by “Assyri­ol­o­gy stu­dents and oth­er mem­bers of the Mesopotami­an com­mu­ni­ty at the Uni­ver­si­ty.” The result qual­i­fies as the world’s very first film in Baby­lon­ian, a lan­guage that has “been silent for 2,000 years.”

“Found on a clay tablet at the archae­o­log­i­cal site of Sul­tan­te­pe, in south-east Turkey,” the sto­ry of The Poor Man of Nip­pur has­n’t come down to us in per­fect­ly com­plete form. The film rep­re­sents the points of break­age in the tablet with VHS-style glitch­es, a neat par­al­lel of forms of media degra­da­tion across the mil­len­nia.

That isn’t the only notice­able anachro­nism — tak­ing the build­ings of Cam­bridge for Mesopotamia in the sev­enth cen­tu­ry BC demands a cer­tain sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief — but we can rest assured of the Baby­lon­ian dia­logue’s his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy, or at least that this is the most accu­rate Baby­lon­ian dia­logue we’re like­ly to get.

Accord­ing to Cam­bridge Assyri­ol­o­gist Mar­tin Wor­thing­ton, who over­saw the Poor Man of Nip­pur project (after serv­ing as Baby­lon­ian con­sul­tant for The Eter­nals), deter­min­ing its pro­nun­ci­a­tion involves “a mix of edu­cat­ed guess­work and care­ful recon­struc­tion,” but one that ben­e­fits from exist­ing “tran­scrip­tions into the Greek alpha­bet” as well as con­nec­tions with sta­bler lan­guages like Ara­bic and Hebrew. The result is an unprece­dent­ed his­tor­i­cal-lin­guis­tic attrac­tion, a com­pelling adver­tise­ment for the study of Baby­lon­ian at Cam­bridge, and also — in depict­ing the impov­er­ished pro­tag­o­nist’s revenge on a thug­gish town may­or — a demon­stra­tion that the under­dog sto­ry tran­scends time, cul­ture, and lan­guage.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Lis­ten to The Epic of Gil­gamesh Being Read in its Orig­i­nal Ancient Lan­guage, Akka­di­an

Watch a 4000-Year Old Baby­lon­ian Recipe for Stew, Found on a Cuneiform Tablet, Get Cooked by Researchers from Yale & Har­vard

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Trigonom­e­try Dis­cov­ered on a 3700-Year-Old Ancient Baby­lon­ian Tablet

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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