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Trade with Sumer
Sumerian texts repeatedly refer to three important centers with which they traded: Magan, Dilmun, and Meluhha. Magan is usually identified with Egypt in later Assyrian texts; but the Sumerian localization of Magan was probably Oman. Dilmun was a Persian Gulf civilization which traded with Mesopotamian civilizations, the current scholarly consensus is that Dilmun encompassed Bahrain, Failaka Island and the adjacent coast of Eastern Arabia in the Persian Gulf.
The location of Meluhha, however, is hotly debated. There are scholars today who confidently identify Meluhha with the Indus Valley Civilization (modern South Asia) on the basis of the extensive evidence of trading contacts between Sumer and this region. Sesame oil was probably imported from the Indus River region into Sumer: the Sumerian word for this oil is illu (Akkadian: ellu). In Dravidian languages of South India, el or ellu stands for sesame.
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 (modern Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan), which was transported to Lothal, a port city in Gujarat in western India, and shipped from there to Oman, Bahrain and Sumer.
Indus Valley versus Africa
Almost all scholars suggest that Meluhha was the Sumerian name for the Indus Valley Civilization. Finnish scholars Asko and Simo Parpola identify Meluhha (earlier variant Me-lah-ha) from earlier 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. They further claim that Meluhha is the origin of the Sanskrit mleccha, meaning "barbarian, foreigner".
Early texts (c. 2200 BC) seem to indicate that Meluhha is to the east, suggesting either the Indus valley or India. Sargon of Akkad was 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."
Writings in the Ur-III period describe Meluhha as the 'land of the black mountains'. It may also be referred to by this name in a poem praising King Shulgi, reigning in about 2000 BC, in which he claims (among other accomplishments) to understand the language of men 'from the black mountains' well enough to talk to them without interpreter, and when sitting as a judge to provide them with verdicts in their own language. Of five foreign languages he can speak well (one apparently the increasingly ossified Sumerian language of his homeland), this is the third to be listed.
However, much later texts documenting the exploits of King Assurbanipal 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 the 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 rather than rolled seals, also known from Dilmun, that appear at Lothal in Gujarat, India, and Failaka Island (Kuwait), as well as in Mesopotamia, are convincing corroboration of the long-distance sea trade network, which G.L. Possehl has called a "Middle Asian Interaction Sphere". What the commerce consisted of is less sure: timber and precious woods, ivory, lapis lazuli, gold, and luxury goods such as carnelian and glazed stone beads, pearls from the Persian Gulf, and 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.
In the Assyrian and Hellenistic eras, cuneiform texts continued to use (or revive) old place names - giving a perhaps artificial sense of continuity between contemporary events and events of the distant past. For example, Media is referred to as "the land of the Gutians", a people who had been prominent around 2000 BC.
Meluhha also appears in these texts, in contexts suggesting that "Meluhha" and "Magan" were kingdoms adjacent to Egypt. Assurbanipal 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." In the Hellenistic period, the term is sometimes used to refer to Ptolemaic Egypt, as in its account of a festival celebrating the conclusion of the Sixth Syrian War.
These references do not necessarily mean that early references to Meluhha also referred to Egypt. Direct contacts between Sumer and the Indus Valley had ceased even during the Mature Harappan phase when Oman and Bahrain (Magan and Dilmun) became intermediaries. After the sack of Ur by the Elamites and subsequent invasions in Sumer, its trade and contacts shifted west and Meluhha passed almost into mythological memory. The resurfacing of the name could simply reflect cultural memory of a rich and distant land, its use in records of Achaemenid and Seleucid military expeditions serving to aggrandize those kings.
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