“Enable subtitles,” says the warning that appears before The Poor Man of Nippur — and you’ll need them, unless you happen to be from the cradle of civilization. The short film is adapted from “a folktale based on a 2,700-year-old poem about a poor man,” says a University of Cambridge alumni report, which was performed verbatim by “Assyriology students and other members of the Mesopotamian community at the university.” The result qualifies as the world’s first ever film in Babylonian, a language that “was silent for 2,000 years.”
“Found on a Clay Tablet at the Sultantepe Archaeological Site in Southeast Turkey,” story The Poor Man of Nippur it did not come to us in perfectly complete form. The film presents points of breakage in a tablet with VHS-style glitches, a neat parallel to forms of media degradation over the millennia.
This is not the only glaring anachronism—the assumption of the Cambridge buildings for Mesopotamia in the seventh century BC requires some suspension of disbelief—but we can be sure of the Babylonian dialogue’s historical accuracy, or at least that it is the most accurate Babylonian dialogue. dialogue that we are likely to see.
According to the Cambridge Assyriologist Martin Worthington, who oversaw it The Poor Man of Nippur project (after serving as a Babylonian consultant for Eternal), determining its pronunciation involves “a mixture of educated guesswork and careful reconstruction”, but one that benefits from existing “transcriptions into the Greek alphabet” as well as connections to more stable languages such as Arabic and Hebrew. The result is an unprecedented historical-linguistic attraction, a compelling advertisement for the study of Babylonian at Cambridge, and also – by depicting the impoverished protagonist’s revenge on the town’s abusive mayor – a demonstration that the underdog story transcends time, culture and language.
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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.