What Did the Boat Man Do in Ancient Mesopotamia?

Water and waterborne trade were essential to Mesopotamian culture.
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The rivers Tigris and Euphrates brought fertility and prosperity to ancient Mesopotamia, in what is present-day Iraq. Mesopotamia was a group of states including Sumer, Akkad and Babylon, where civilization developed from around 7000 B.C. Because people depended on the rivers for water supply, transport and trade, boats and boatmen played a key role in Mesopotamian culture. .

1 Trading Vessels

Mesopotamian cities such as Uruk, Ninevah and Babylon grew wealthy through trade. Carvings on clay tablets show boat men transporting animals, foodstuffs, manufactured goods and timber along the rivers, and some of the world’s earliest documents, dating from around 3000 B.C., include bills of account between Sumerian traders. They used various types of vessels including sailboats, coracles made of reeds and animal skins, wooden rafts and sickle-shaped boats with oars. The importance of boats to trade is reflected in a proverb from Ki-en-git of Sumer in 2000 B.C.: "A boat bent on honest pursuits sailed downstream with the wind; Utu [the sun god] has sought out honest ports for it."

2 Boat Men in Law

The Code of Hammurabi, recorded around 1780 B.C., gives detailed instructions on building, equipping and hiring boats. It covers how much to pay a boat man in wages, and how much to pay for hiring a boat. It also sets out the responsibilities of the owner and boat man, and how much compensation must be paid in case of shipwreck or collision. For example, a sailor who wrecked a boat through carelessness had to give the owner another boat. If a trading ship collided with a ferryboat, the ship's master had to compensate the ferryboat owner for the vessel and any ruined cargo. To hire a sailor cost six "gur" of corn per year.

3 The Boat Man of the Flood

The story of the great flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh prefigures the Biblical story of Noah. The Epic of Gilgamesh was inscribed on stone tablets between 2150 and 2000 B.C., and is a primary literary source for knowledge of Sumerian culture. The flood story is part of a myth of creation, but may also reflect the status of boat men in Mesopotamian life since the hero is Utnapishtim, a boat man who saves humankind and animals by preserving them from the storm inside a great ship, and is rewarded with eternal life. In another version of the story, preserved on a broken tablet known as the Eridu Genesis, the boat man is the priest-king Ziusudra.

4 The Boat Man of Death

The Epic of Gilgamesh tells how the hero Gilgamesh took the ferryman Urshanabi as his companion on a quest for immortality. The ferryman was essential to the journey, since only he knew how to cross the "waters of death" to find the secret. Symbolically, his role was that of a medium, who made it possible for humans to question the gods about divine knowledge. To the Sumerians, water represented both the essence of life, in the sense of fertility, and the power of destruction, as in the flood. The boat man, being skilled in dealing with water, could therefore have been seen in religious terms as being able to intercede with the two forces.