Tag Archives: mesopotamia

Base Sixty

Today we count using Base Ten (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, then 11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19-20, 21 to 30, 31 to 40, 41 to 50 and so on). Here’s something really interesting about the Sumerians. They counted numbers using Base Sixty! Fractions hadn’t been invented yet, so 60 was actually a handy base for counting. Sixty can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. Try it!

Base Sixty is natural, it occurs in the world around us. By watching the sky, the Sumerians saw the Moon make a complete cycle 12 times a year. Each cycle (month) takes about 30 days (one day = the time it takes Earth to completely revolve around her axis). That’s about 360 days per year (one year = the time it takes Earth to travel around the Sun). These numbers fit neatly into the Base Sixty way of counting.

Do we still use Base Sixty? You betcha! A ruler is 12 inches long—12 x 5 = 60. We buy eggs and doughnuts by the dozen. Can you think of any other examples?

How about a clock? There are 12 hours on the face of an analogue clock—12 x 5 = 60. Sixty minutes in an hour; sixty seconds in a minute. What about 24 hours in the day—does that work? Nope, sixty doesn’t evenly divide by 24. But a protractor uses Base Sixty—a circle is divided into 360 degrees. If you were to mark 24 hours around a protractor, each hour would use 15 degrees (hang onto that thought—it will become important later on in the show).

I bought this one at Protractor Supply.

I can hear you saying, “Hold on, Manders. Years aren’t 360 days long. They’re 365 days and six hours!” Okay, I have to admit, that’s a good point. Sumerian astronomers were fantastic at math and did mostly everything right—but they got one really important piece of information wrong. They thought the Earth was the center of the universe with the Sun, Moon and planets revolving around her. It’s impossible to make the lunar year (12 cycles of the Moon) agree exactly with the solar year (Earth’s trip around the Sun), so we had to add 5 extra days, plus one day every fourth year, to make it work on a calendar. That’s not really the best solution, as we will see.


Gilgamesh subduing a lion who was probably minding its own business.

I decided Gilgamesh deserves his own post. It helps to get a handle on a culture by looking at its heroes and stories. Gilgamesh the king was an actual historical figure. Gilgamesh the hero of the epic was two-thirds divine and one-third mortal.

The story begins in Uruk, a city in Ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia) where Gilgamesh rules as king. Though Gilgamesh is known to be stronger than any other man, the people of Uruk complain that he abuses his power. The gods hear these complaints, and the god Aruru creates Enkidu, a man as strong as Gilgamesh. Aruru forms Enkidu out of water and clay, out in the wilderness. Enkidu lives in nature, in harmony with the wild animals.”

So Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet, wrestle, become best buds. They defeat the awful giant Humbaba. The goddess Ishtar proposes marriage to Gilgamesh—when he turns her down she sics the Bull of Heaven on him and Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat him, too. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh works out his grief by searching for the meaning of life and the source of immortality.

I taught a unit on Gilgamesh to high-schoolers in Sunday school, just because there are so many echoes of Bible stories in Gilgamesh, particularly in Genesis. There’s a Great Flood; a guy who survives the flood by loading his family and animals into a big boat; a plant that holds the essence of Life (with a treacherous serpent hanging around nearby); Enkidu is a hairy strongman who is tamed by a seductress and loses his hair. My point in teaching Gilgamesh wasn’t to diminish the Bible stories, but to show how the Bible stories grew from a tradition of ancient MidEast literature into a narrative that tells the story of all us mortals, not just divine, semi-divine and immortal characters. The Bible is a radical departure from that tradition.

We get Gilgamesh from pieces of clay tablets that have survived through the ages. A library fire, which would mean a disastrous loss of literature today, actually preserved many ancient books by firing the clay they were written on. Gilgamesh is a fun read, although there are adults themes in there, so be warned.


Okay, now we know what Western Civ is, so let’s get started. We’re going all the way back to 4,000-2,000 bc. That’s 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Sumer is considered to be the world’s first civilization. The Sumerians lived between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—today it’s the southern part of Iraq.


‘The land between the rivers’ (Mesopotamia) was fertile—the Sumerians could grow crops there because they figured out how to divert water from the rivers into the dry desert—so there was food for everybody. Sumeria had a government, a religion, and a writing system called cuneiform.


Cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped.’ You use a wedge-shaped tool to press wedge-shapes into soft clay. I don’t know what it says; I made it up.

There was a big city called Ur; today we still describe city things as ‘urban.’ Sunday school students will remember that Ur was the city Abram moved away from so he could become Abraham.


I’m not positive luggage had been invented at this time.

The epic hero, Gilgamesh, lived in Ur. The Epic of Gilgamesh has been translated from pieced-together fragments of clay tablets, so you can still read it today. I have a paperback copy. The story has themes that can be found in the Biblical book of Genesis—a Tree of Life, a Tree of Knowledge, a great flood. Gilgamesh and his pal, Enkidu, gad about the ancient MidEast searching for the meaning of life and a way to become immortal.


Where In The World Is Western Civilization?

mapWhen I talk about the part of the globe that is Western Civilization, I mean from the Tigris/Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean to Europe to the Americas. Western Civ was born in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the southern part of Iraq. Civilization spread westward from there to lands around the Mediterranean Sea: Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia to the city-states of Europe and northward to the British Isles. From there it extended to the New World—the Americas and Australia.

So, Western Civ is made up of many people and cultures. It grew from the first civilization—the Sumerians in Mesopotamia—to the Egyptians; the Jews; the Greeks; the Romans, whose empire split into east and west; the western half of the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire which reorganized itself into separate European countries. Some of those countries in turn created empires mainly by colonizing the New World. The British Empire includes Canada and Australia. The United States of America declared its independence from Britain in ad 1776.

Of course there are other non-western civilizations around the world today and throughout history. This history is simply about Western Civilization. Most important to me are the ideas. How did ancient people develop an alphabet? Whose idea was it to smelt copper and tin together to make bronze? How did they come up with literature that we still read today? How did they figure out how to measure time, or the circumference of the Earth?