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ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS
Iraq / Volume 77 / Issue 01 / December 2015, pp 75 - 106
DOI: 10.1017/irq.2015.9, Published online: 05 January 2016
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0021088915000091
How to cite this article:
A.R. George (2015). ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS. Iraq, 77, pp 75-106 doi:10.1017/
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ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS*
By A.R. GEORGE
This study begins by examining the archaeological and documentary evidence for lavatories (toilets) and foul-
water drains in ancient Mesopotamian dwelling houses. It goes on to investigate the use, etymology and
history of the Akkadian word asurrû: in the Old Babylonian period it served mainly as a term for a kind of
foul-water drain or “sewer”but later shed that meaning.
It might be said that the study ofancient Mesopotamia owes a greatdeal to the lavatory (a.k.a. toilet).
The many thousands of cuneiform tablets from the royal libraries of Ashurbanipal, excavated in
the 1850s on the mound Kuyunjik at Nineveh and now housed in the British Museum, form the
foundation stone of the field of Assyriology. Many of them were discovered in Room XLI of the
palace of Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, a chamber that was identified by its excavator,
Austen Henry Layard, as an archive room (he called it the Chamber of Records). Because
different fragments of the same tablets were found scattered on both sides of the wall that
separated Room XLI and the unconnected gallery Room XLIX, the pioneer Assyriologist and
archaeologist George Smith assumed that Room XLI was not the tablets’place of origin, but that
they had fallen into this space from the storey above when the ceiling and floor collapsed during
the burning of the citadel of Nineveh in 612 B.C. Because it is now thought unlikely that the
building actually had an upper storey, the mound of tablets lying on the floor of Room XLI must
have owed its presence there to some other reason; perhaps it was a dump where the Babylonian
intelligence agency discarded what it did not need.
The chamber’s function can then be
determined by its size, location and layout, rather than by its contents. Accordingly John Russell,
the modern expert on Sennacherib’s palace, considers that the “original use of Room XL, judging
from the wall niche, was as a bathroom”(Russell 1991:66–67).
Room XLI lay between this
bathroom and a large reception room (XXIX), so Layard’s Chamber of Records, the final resting
place of much of the Assyrian royal libraries, can now be identified as the anteroom of a royal
No one doubts that ancient Mesopotamian palaces were provided with bathrooms and lavatories.
But how was it for the common people? Were their dwelling houses also equipped with such
amenities? In his book on The Ancient Mesopotamian City, Marc Van De Mieroop called
attention to the threat that contaminated water supplies posed to life in ancient urban centres. He
wrote (1997: 159):
Then there was the problem of human waste. Archaeological evidence of latrines in private houses is lacking,
and public toilets do not seem to have existed either. People could defecate in fields and orchards …
When reading this for the first time a disturbing vision arose in which even the grandest of
Babylonian ladies, when feeling a little discomforted at night, had to leave her chamber, cross the
* It is most felicitous that the publication of this article takes
place in a volume of Iraq that honours Dominique Collon,
from whom I learned much when we co-edited the journal for
sixteen issues. I am pleased that she will find within a cylinder
seal (Fig. 12), but regret that it will be disappointingly familiar.
I am grateful to audiences at papers given between 1998 and
2003 in London, Cambridge and Heidelberg, and in 2014 in
Oxford and Cambridge, for their guidance, help and
article; and to Birger Helgestad for supplying Fig. 6.
Imagining a scenario much as in Mari 1100 years before:
the victors sorted the palace archives for political and military
intelligence (Charpin 1995). It has been observed that very
few state documents from the last three decades of the
Assyrian empire were recovered at Nineveh (Parpola 1986).
Maybe they were too valuable to the conquerors to leave
But see Reade 1986: 219–20, who does not rule out the
chambers’permanent use for storing tablets, i.e. as archive
IRAQ (2015) 77 75–106 Doi:10.1017/irq.2015.9 75
Iraq LXXVII (2015) © The British Institute for the Study of Iraq 2015
courtyard, unbolt the front door, hurry along the streets, wake the guard at the city gate, ignore his
curses, avoid the attentions of wild dogs and other animals, finally to find relief in a convenient
field or date-grove. Since then, in a chapter entitled “Urban form in the first millennium BC”,
Heather Baker has made general statements about lavatories in Babylonian houses that help to
dispel this troubling picture (Baker 2007: 73):
Bathrooms tend to be found inprivate houses which are of a larger than average size, and only very fewbuilt
toilets have been securely identified. Presumably other households made use of portable containers …The
built toilets consisted of baked brick fixtures over a deep vertical shaft …[and] tended to be located in the
least accessible part of the house.
At the time of reading Van De Mieroop’s book, the problem of sewage disposal in urban
Mesopotamia struck me as deserving examination, so I began to explore the archaeological and
Assyriological evidence for lavatories. The enquiry focused in particular on the Akkadian word
asurrû, which the modern dictionaries translate as “foundation structure, lower (damp) course of a
wall”(CAD A 350), “Grundmauer”(AHw 77), “‘lower course, footing’of wall”(CDA 26). A short
book review made a preliminary survey of the evidence, concluding that asurrû was “part of the
foundation structure that could drain off water from the lavatory and at the same time give shelter
to nesting snakes and mongooses”(George 1999: 551). This identification has had some
but has never been properly substantiated. The present paper began as a belated
attempt to make good that lack by collecting attestations of asurrû that associate it with drains. It
developed into an examination of the Assyriological evidence for lavatories and sewers, concluding
with a study of the keyword asurrû. Before tackling the philology, I shall briefly describe some of
the archaeological evidence (see further McMahon 2015, unavailable at the time of writing).
Lavatories and sewers in Mesopotamian archaeology
A thorough presentation of the archaeological evidence for ancient Mesopotamian drainage
installations has been published by Christiane Hemker as Altorientalische Kanalisation (1993). Her
study makes it clear that already by the middle of the third millennium the technology of urban
drainage was highly developed in southern Mesopotamia and her illustrations show a variety of
installations that could be used to carry away sewage. One such structure is the ring-drain or
seepage-pit (Sickerschacht), a vertical shaft lined with a column of perforated tubular pottery rings,
one on top of the other (Fig. 1). Such drains are found in many periods and at many sites, from
fourth-millennium Warka to first-millennium Babylon (Hemker 1993: 128–67). The technology
first appears in dwelling houses in the third millennium, at Fara and Khafaje. Typically a ring-
drain drained waterproofed floors and was sometimes surmounted by a slotted brick structure that
could hardly be anything other than a pedestal lavatory. Good examples of these structures
already occur in the mid-third millennium: at Tello, in a building of uncertain function dated by
Hemker to the Ur I period (p. 132 no. 260c, here Fig. 2), and later at Tell Asmar, in a building
contemporary with the Earlier Northern Palace (p. 131 no. 259b with Abb. 433; Lloyd 1967: 186
with pl. 41b; here Fig. 3). Neither building was certainly a private house.
The drainage installations studied by Hemker can be contextualised by Maria Krafeld-
Daugherty’s study of ancient Near Eastern dwelling houses and room usage, Wohnen im Alten
Orient (1994). Her chapter on “Toiletten und Waschplätze”(pp. 94–124) concludes that lavatories
are rare in the archaeological record. Isolated Old Babylonian examples have been excavated at
Tello, Kiš, Mari and Tell ed-Der (she ignores the first millennium). Only at Tell Asmar (Ešnunna)
in the Akkadian period and at Ur in the Isin-Larsa period were lavatories more plentiful. They fell
into two types: the hole in the floor (“Abtritt”) and the pedestal or sit-upon type (“Sitztoilette”).
Both types were drained, she maintains, less often by a cesspit (“Senkgrube”) than by a more
complex drainage system or sewer (“übergeordnetes Kanalsystem”). The latter technology
e.g. Baker 2004: 166 “drain”; Jursa 2005:31“drain(?)”;
Heeßel 2007: 26 sub Vs. II 15′etc. “Abflußrohr”; Geller 2004: 27 n. 126; id. 2005:78n.1;id.2007: 219 l. 175
“latrine”; Worthington 2006:37n.73“toilet”.
presupposed the use of rinse-water to carry solids through the system. Bathroom floors had to be
waterproofed in baked brick, an expense that was affordable by few.
As Krafeld-Daugherty demonstrates, Tell Asmar affords an excellent case-study in third-
millennium sewage disposal. It is well known that the Akkadian-period Northern Palace was
provided with installations that most interpret as lavatories. Some drained directly into seepage-
pits, while others discharged through underfloor drains into a covered sewer that ran under the
adjacent street (Lloyd 1967: 188, pls. 37, 40, 76D, 78A–B; Fig. 4). If these were lavatories, then, as
observed by Ernst Heinrich, they must have been flushed by water.
As we shall see, in the
documentary record water occurs in connection with lavatories as musâtu “rinse-water”.
Ruth Mayer-Opificius’s article on the roughly contemporaneous Arch House at Tell Asmar briefly
discusses the evidence for latrines in private dwelling houses at the site (1979:51–54; further Krafeld-
Daugherty 1994: 106–08). Slotted brick pedestals, surmounting drains, were found in some houses;
they can only be sit-upon lavatories. A fine example occurs in Stratum IVa, House XXXII Room 4
(Fig. 5). It was drained by a vertical seepage-pit, no doubt a ring-drain (Hill 1967: 151). An example
of a pedestal lavatory in the Ur III rebuilding of the Arch House demonstrates the continued use of
this rare technology at the end of the third millennium (Krafeld-Daugherty 1994: 108).
Fig. 1 Early Dynastic period ring-drain at Khafaje, Temple Oval M 44:8 (from Delougaz 1940: 124 fig. 113).
The cap is missing, affording a view down inside the drain
Quoted by Mayer-Opificius 1979:51–52: “In Tell Asmar
sieht es so aus, als ob der größeren Teil der Toiletten an der
Ostfront des ‘Northern Palace’tatsächlich WC’s mit
Wasserspülung gewesen seien, denn sie stehen evident mit
dem Hauptsiel in Verbindung, das unter der Straße läuft
und nach Norden entwässert.”
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 77
The situation two hundred years later is revealed by the early second-millennium private
dwellings excavated by Leonard Woolley at Ur. Ring-drains were a prominent feature in the
excavations (Fig. 6). Some of the grand Old Babylonian houses at Ur were equipped with more
than one such drain (Fig. 7). No. 1 Boundary Street is an apparently typical house belonging to
a well-off family. It had a bathroom with a ring-drain for waste water. There was also a
Fig. 2 Cross-section and plan of a pedestal lavatory above a ring-drain, Tello (from de Genouillac 1936: pl.
XXIII). The floor was waterproofed with brick and limestone slabs
ring-drain in the courtyard. Not only did this drain prevent the flooding of the courtyard in a
downpour, but also it could serve to receive waste water from the kitchen and night soil from
chamber pots. Under the stairs was a small chamber that was equipped with the building’sthird
ring-drain. This closet must have been a lavatory. No. 4 Paternoster Row was even better
provided: it had similar provision, but with the addition of a fourth ring-drain in the kitchen.
Similar facilities were found in the large houses of about the same date excavated in 1987–89 by
Jean-Louis Huot at Larsa. The bathroom of House B 59 was equipped with a ring-drain
surmounted by a pierced slab laid in a floor of baked brick (Fig. 8).
Woolley describes the ring-drain technology of Ur in detail and takes it as self-evident that ring-
drains were soak-aways for sewage, i.e. cesspits (Woolley and Mallowan 1976:22–23):
A circular shaft a metre or so in diameter was dug to a depth of perhaps 10 m . .. , and in this was built up a
vertical column of terracotta pipes . . . The rims are widened out as collars to give greater stability. . . and in
the sides are small round holes to allow of the escape of moisture . .. The drains are really seepage-pits; any
moisture poured down them would run off into the subsoil; the solid sewage would remain and in course of
time would fill the pit, when it would be dug out and remade. The same system prevails in innumerable
Eastern towns today and is far less injurious to health than might be anticipated.
Woolley’s analysis was substantiated by what he found at the bottom of some ring-drains at Ur. He
reports of the many examples he excavated in Area EH (which dated from the “Neo-Babylonian to
Fig. 3 Cross-section of pedestal lavatory above a ring-drain, Tell Asmar, Room D 17:21, drawn by Seton Lloyd
(from Lloyd 1967: pl. 41b “house contemporary with the Earlier Northern Palace”). The floor waswaterproofed
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 79
the Plano-convex period”): “occasionally the base of one would be filled with and surrounded by the
greenish clayey matter which results from the decay of sewage”(Woolley 1955: 41).
In a study of the social typology of the Ur housing, Paolo Brusasco writes of lavatories
These are normally small and narrow chambers, pavedwith bricks, andwith a regular latrine opening set up
towards the far end of the room. Here there is a sort of dais on which lays a drain surrounded by a raised
brick stance. The drain itself consists of a slit widening to a circle (Woolley and Mallowan 1976: 25). Such an
installation is thus very similar to those that can be seen in the latrines of any Arab town house of today. . .
One may note that only 6.2% of the buildings excavated in the neighbourhoods under excavation are
provided with such facilities.
Fig. 4 Plan and sections (top) and photographs (bottom) of sewer sytem, Tell Asmar, Akkadian-period
Northern Palace (from Lloyd 1967: pls. 40, 78A–B)
What he describes is a refined variety of the hole-in-the-floor lavatory. Simpler holes in the floor, like
that in House B 59 Room 21 at Larsa (Fig. 8), would have been more difficult to use cleanly as a lavatory.
They may have been fitted with a superstructure made of perishable materials such as reed and clay.
Pedestal lavatories of brick are notably absent in the Old Babylonian mansions of Ur and Larsa.
Brusasco uses the rareness of lavatories in the houses at Ur to speculate that “small unroofed
latrines at the city’s periphery [were] routinely shared by those households who lack[ed] sanitary
services. Others may well [have] use[d] nearby orchards or gardens”. As we shall see, in the
documentary record there is some suggestion of communal lavatories at city gates.
Krafeld-Daugherty’s studyof room usage in ancient Mesopotamian houses draws attention to the
typical location of lavatories in small closets, especially under the stairs, as at Ur and Tell ed-Der in
the early second millennium (Krafeld-Daugherty 1994: 111). In his review of her book, J. N. Postgate
notes that the same preference has been observed much earlier, at Abu Salabikh and perhaps Larsa
Fig. 5 Remains of pedestal lavatory and paved floor in an Akkadian-period dwelling house, Tell Asmar,
Stratum IVa, House XXXII Room J 18:4 (from Hill 1967: pl. 70C; Mayer-Opificius 1979:55Abb.4)
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 81
(Postgate 2000: 251). Postgate also stresses that different arrangements must have obtained in non-
The occurrence of latrines is one areawhere the difference between urban and rural settlements is likely to be
very marked; the urban examples were sometimes constructed directly above (or in Old Babylonian times
channeled into) vertical shafts made of superimposed ceramic cylinders (pierced at intervals and packed
round with sherds to assist drainage), and since the tops of these shafts are rarely preserved, I suspect
that they were much commoner as urban sewers than [Krafeld-Daugherty] allows.
Good examples of first-millennium waste-water disposal were found in Babylon, especially in the
ruin-mound Merkes excavated by Robert Koldewey’s assistant, Oskar Reuther, in 1907–12 (Reuther
1926). House XII had a bathroom with a sloping floor that drained into a ring-drain. House II had at
least three ring-drains: one, of uncertain function, in Room 19; another in Room 12, the bathroom;
and a third in Room 13, a tiny closet which could only be reached through the bathroom. In this closet
was a kind of pedestal made of baked brick, which was certainly a sit-upon lavatory (Hemker 1993:
147; here Fig. 9).
The ring-drain beneath it functioned as a cesspit.
The preceding paragraphs (which present only a selection of the evidence) have focused on
lavatories serviced by ring-drains constructed directly underneath, but Krafeld-Daugherty is right
Fig. 6 Leonard and Katharine Woolley at Ur, with ring-drains in situ (photograph BM-Ur-GN-1592
reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the British Museum). Clearly visible, between the wall of the left-
most drain shaft and the ring-drain itself, is the usual packing with potsherds to improve drainage
Krafeld-Daugherty seems unaware of this lavatory. She
asserts (1994: 117) that the pedestal lavatory was a foreign
idea imported from the Indus valley in the third millennium
(so already Delougaz: see Mayer-Opificius 1979: 53), and
only temporarily fashionable, claiming knowledge of only
two examples after the Ur III period, both in Old
Babylonian Tello. She may or may not be right about the
origin of the pedestal lavatory in the Indus valley (cf.
Hemker 1993: 179–80), but clearly the technology survived
the Old Babylonian period in Babylonia.
to observe that many lavatories drained into remote installations through underground sewers. The
under-street drain that removed waste from the Akkadian-period Northern Palace at Tell Asmar
has already been mentioned. The identity of an installation in the Arch House (House II Room
44, Stratum IVb) that discharged via a drain through the exterior wall is contested (Mayer-
Opificius 1979: 52). Some assert that the drain emptied on to a street, an unsatisfactory location
for the disposal of sewage, but the excavator identified the structure as the “remnants of a toilet”
(Hill 1967: 161) and reported that its drain led to an “unused open space”(ibid. pp. 150–51; pl.
67B). In any event, the lavatory and its drain did not survive the house’s remodelling in Stratum
IVa and were perhaps a failed experiment (Mayer-Opificius 1979: 53; Krafeld-Daugherty 1994:
107). Later lavatories in the same house were also associated with baked-brick drains that ran
under floors and walls (Hill 1967: 164, pl. 70A).
Ring-drains in first-millennium Babylon could also be used in combination with indirect drainage
systems. In House IV in Merkes a ring-drain collected waste water from two different rooms, using
short lengths of tapered clay piping fitted together to make long underfloor drains (Hemker 1993:
148; here Fig. 10). Such tubular drains were undoubtedly what are known in Akkadian as
abu, which were good for removing waste water but too narrow to have functioned well as
sewers. Underfloor drains of larger capacity could be constructed from baked brick. One was
found at Babylon to take waste water out of a house and into a ring-drain situated under the
adjacent street (Hemker 1993:69–70; here Fig. 11).
The archaeological evidence very clearly shows that ancient Mesopotamian dwellinghouses could
be equipped with lavatories. These varied from the hole-in-the-floor type to the pedestal type. They
sometimes drained directly into their own seepage-pits, but otherwise discharged via underfloor
channels into pits in adjacent spaces. The technology, however, was expensive and, even in the late
periods, only a minority could afford housing fitted with such a luxury. What, then, of the
Lavatories in cuneiform texts
Quite recently Ariel Bagg published an article with the promising title “Ancient Mesopotamian
sewage systems according to cuneiform sources”(2006). The article contains a useful survey of the
archaeological evidence collected by Hemker for drainage installations, both horizontal and
Fig. 7 Plans of early Old Babylonian houses at Ur, (left) No. 1 Boundary St and (right) No. 4 Paternoster Row,
showing locations of ring-drains (adapted from Miglus 1996: 212)
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 83
vertical, including the Sickerschacht, which Bagg identifies as a “cesspit”. The promise of the article’s
title is not fulfilled, however, for Bagg can onlycite passages from cuneiform texts mentioning “pipes,
gutters and water outlets related to drainage”, including the nanṣ
abu. He wonders, as have others,
whether ḫabannatu in the mythological narrative poem Ištar’s Descent (l. 105) is a sewer pipe, but
does not explore further the Sumerian and Akkadian terminology for lavatories and their drains.
The disturbing fantasy that I indulged in earlier, of Babylonian ladies taken short in the night, was
an error, of course, because, as Baker noted, those who could not afford houses with lavatories could
no doubt make use of what she delicately called “portable containers”. Only if such a thing was not to
hand would anyone face an inconvenient nocturnal trip to garden, date-grove or field. For the rest, at
the end of the bed there certainly lay a chamber pot.
We know the Babylonian chamber pot well: in Sumerian it was dug-kisi and in Akkadian karpat
šināti. Both expressions mean literally “piss-pot”. The terminology is set out in a lexical text that lists
different varieties of pot (1):
kisi(UŠ×A)“piss-pot”=kar-pat ši-na-a-ti “piss-pot”
dug.a-sur-ra “pot for pissing in”
Urra X 334–35, ed. Civil 1996: 150–51
Fig. 8 Floor-plan (top) and cross-section (bottom) of an Old Babylonian bathroom, Larsa, House B 59 Room
21, drawn by J. Suire (after Calvet 1996: 204)
For a ––sur “to urinate”see the section below on the
etymology of asurrû, and especially the lexical equations
quoted in passage (42).
Probably chamber pots are well attested in the archaeological record, but it is not necessarily easy
to distinguish between the sherds of a chamber pot and fragments of other vessels. Possibly the
museums of the world hold a selection of Babylonian chamber pots, but that is another research
topic. Here I would ask different questions: where did a Babylonian empty his (or her) chamber
pot? And where in a Babylonian house might one actually find the residents’waste products? The
Standard Babylonian terrestrial-omen series Šumma ālu gives a clue, in an omen where the
common denominator between observation and prediction is a mouth doing dirty work (2):
DIŠKIMIN MIN-ma (= šaḫû ana bītamēli īrubma)zê(šè) amēli(na) : ze-e il-mu-um bītu(é) šū(bi) iltêt(1)
šanat(mu) mu-lam-min p[î(ka) irašši]
Šumma ālu XLV 45, from CT 38 47: 45
¶ (If) a pig enters a man’s house and consumes faeces (var. the man’s faeces): that household [will be the
subject of] malicious gossip for one whole year.
Such a thing might well occur when someone had forgotten to empty his chamber pot and left
it uncovered in the courtyard. Not all human excrement was eaten by pigs, however. Two passages
of text show that the body’s waste products could sink into the earth or merge with river water.
A Standard Babylonian text intended to dispel evil forces reads thus (3):
mim-ma lem-nu mim-ma là ṭ
ābu(dùg-ga) šáinazu[mur(su) annanna(nenni)] mār(a) annanna(nenni) bašû(gál)
šá zu-um-ri-šú u mu-sa-a-ti šáqātī(šu)
-ma nāru(íd) a-na šap-lu-šá lit-bal
lipšur-litany, ed. Reiner 1956: 138 ll. 101–03
Fig. 9 Dissected drawing of a Neo-Babylonian pedestal lavatory and floor, waterproofed with bitumen,
Babylon-Merkes, House II Room 13, drawn by Oskar Reuther (from Hemker 1993: Abb. 501)
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 85
May anything eviland unwholesome that remains in the [body of So-and-So,] son of So-and-So, be sloughed
off with the waterof his body and the rinse-waterof his hands, and may the river take it away into its depths!
A similar idea is expressed in a line of the incantation series Šurpu, a Standard Babylonian text to
counter the negative consequences of violation of oaths (4):
šá zumri(su)-ka u mu-sa-a-ti šáqātī(šu)
Šurpu VIII 89–90, ed. Reiner 1958:44
May (the oath) be sloughed off with the water of your body and the rinse-water of your hands, and may the
earth take it away!
It is perhaps unnecessary to explain that the “water of your body”is the water with which the
exorcist’s client cleaned his backside. As in a modern Middle Eastern lavatory in traditional style,
lavatory paper was not available. The practice was to wash the backside with the left hand and
then to rinse the hand itself. In Akkadian the water used to rinse the hands was called musâtu.
This word otherwise occurs in the expression bīt musâti “house of rinse-water”, self-evidently a
room or building in which one could dispose of dirty water. The bīt musâti has long been
identified as the Babylonian word for “lavatory”, already by Bezold in his glossary of Akkadian
(1926: 178a) and lately by all the modern dictionaries, s.v. (AHw 677, CAD M/2 234, CDA 219).
But it will be useful to review the other evidence for this identification.
The bīt musâti and the demon Šulak
Several post-Old Babylonian texts report that the bīt musâti was the favourite haunt of a demon called
Šulak. Hemerologies prescribed correct behaviour on the sixth and seventh days of the seventh
month, Tašrītu, as follows (5):
Fig. 10 Underfloor tubular drains leading to a ring-drain within the house, Babylon-Merkes, House IV, drawn
by Oskar Reuther (from Hemker 1993: Abb. 502)
ana bīt(é) mu-sa-a-ti là irrub(ku
Livingstone 2013: 170 l. 76, 185–87 iii 10–11, 27
One should not visit a bīt musâti, lest Šulak strike one.
An Old Babylonian hemerology from Tell Haddad that lists behaviour to be avoided on an
unidentified day contains an ancestor of this proscription in syllabic Sumerian and an Akkadian
translation. The bīt musâti is replaced by a less euphemistic term compounded with šè=šittum
˹e˺-še-ka nam-mu-un-ku-re ša-ni-in-˹tu˺-mu i-gá-al
a-na bīt(é) ši-ti-im ú-ul i-ru-ub li-bu it-ta-na-an-pa-ḫu
Cavigneaux and Al-Rawi 1993: 102–03 ll. 16–17
Fig. 11 Baked-brick subterranean drain leading from a house to a ring-drain beneath the street, Babylon-
Merkes, House I, drawn by Oskar Reuther (from Hemker 1993: Abb. 265)
The spelling e-še-ka is syllabic for é-šè-ka. For Sumerian
šè“fart”see MSL XIV: 141 no. 19: 24–26 (Proto-Aa):
šè= zu-ú “faeces”,ši-it-tum “fart”,ṣ
a-ra-tum “to fart”;PSD B
168a, Alster 1972: 354, Cohen 1976: 102, Klein 2003: 146.
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 87
One will not enter a fart-house, lest one get wind (Sum.) // lest (one’s) insides keep getting pumped up with air
The connection between proscribed act and consequence is one of cause and effect, with wind as
the common denominator. The demon Šulak, who replaces wind in the later version of the
proscription, is well attested (Krebernik 2012). According to another hemerological passage he
also lurked in date-groves (Livingstone 2013: 185 iii 3–4), and the list of demons associates him
with deserted settlements:
šu-lak ina ḫur-bat (Livingstone 1986: 186). No doubt both these places
were used for defecation al fresco and so offered Šulak the same opportunities as a bīt musâti.
Šulak was a lion-demon but stood upright like a man: a Neo-Assyrian composition which reports a
dream of hellby an Assyrian prince, the so-called Underworld Vision of Kummâ, describes him thus (7):
šu-lak nēšu(ur-maḫ)ka-a-a-ma-ni-ú ina muḫḫi(ugu) šēpē(gìr)
-šú ár-ka-a-ti ú-šu-[uz]
SAA III 32 rev. 6, ed. Livingstone 1989:72
Šulak is a normal lion standing on its hind legs.
The Babylonians and Assyrians believed that Šulak was responsible for dangerous diseases, and
the expressions qātŠulak “hand of Š.”and Šulak iṣ
abassu “Š. has possessed him”occur in several
Standard Babylonian diagnostic-omen apodoses (references in Heeßel 2000: 304 n. 6). One such
instance occurs at the end of a section on stroke (mišittu), and sets out symptoms that a healer
might encounter when visiting a victim (8):
DIŠšumēl(gùb)-šú tab-kát qāt(šu)
(LÚ.BAD))-šú ka-lu-šú-ma tab-kát miḫra(gaba-ri) maḫiṣ
(maškim) mu-sa-a-ti āšipu(maš-maš)ana balāṭ
SakikkūXXVII 11–13 // AMT 77 no. 1: 8–10; cf. Stol 1993: 76, Heeßel 2000: 297
¶ (If) the (patient’s) left side hangs limp: (that means) the “Hand of Šulak”.
¶ (If) the whole left side of his body hangs limp: he is stricken at the front(?). “Hand of Šulak”, Lurker in the
(bīt)musâti. An exorcist cannot make a prognosis for his recovery (or diagnosis for his cure).
An older version is known from fragments found at Boğazköy (Stol 1993: 76). At first sight
the recommendation in the first-millennium text not to treat the patient is no surprise, for the
prognosis for a stroke victim in ancient Mesopotamia must have been very poor.
the immediately preceding lines (SakikkūXXVII 9–10 // AMT 77 no. 1: 6–7) set out the exact
same pair of symptoms as (8), but on the right: the diagnosis of both is mišitti rābiṣ
i“stroke by the
Lurker”, i.e. Šulak, but the prognosis of the first is positive.
The prognosis, for good or bad, was
thus determined by the right–left (positive–negative) dichotomy prevalent in divinatory theory as
much as by the symptoms themselves.
The connection of stroke with the lavatory demon Šulak in Babylonia probably resided in a
common human anxiety, that straining too hard “at stool”is injurious to health and can provoke
the onset of stroke and other neurological problems. The sudden death of King George II of
England on his commode chair on 25 October 1760 has been attributed to such a cause.
At least two published incantations are targeted at Šulak. In the first, known from two Late
Babylonian copies, Šulak occurs among a horde of miscellaneous malign forces and has the
particular epithet ša mu-un-ze-e-ti (CT 51 142: 14 // CBS 11304: 14, Ellis 1979: 218). This is
probably a variant of the expression ša musâti “the one from the (house of) rinse-water”,but
contaminated with the root √nzʾ(nezû “to urinate”). The second incantation is published by
Irving Finkel as No. 37 in a Late Babylonian archive of medical tablets. In it Šulak is addressed as
“the one who struck the young man and took away his life”(9. Finkel 2000: 194 l. 1: ma-ḫi-[ṣ
lu le-qu-ú]napišti(zi)-šu). It and two other spells against Šulak (ibid. p. 194 n. 44) were recited
On stroke and its treatment in ancient Mesopotamia see
further Kinnier Wilson and Reynolds 2007. Their study
includes a discussion of SakikkūXXVII.
Heeßel 2000: 297 l. 9 iballuṭ
(tin) with Labat 1951: pl. 48 l.
9; correct “sterben”in Heeßel’s translation, p. 301.
during exorcistic fumigation rituals for victims of stroke (mišittu). Šulak’s lethal touch arises from this
association with stroke, already encountered in passage (8).
Another disease that was linked with Šulak was šimmatu, as in a medical text from Late
Babylonian Uruk (10):
-šúkišād(gú)-su u šapat(nundum)-su šim-mat irtanaššâ(tuk)
ù ki-ma išāti(izi)
a-šúamēlu(na) šū(bi) rābiṣ
(maškim) mu-sa-a-ti iṣ
Uruk I46:6–8, ed. Hunger 1976:56
When a man’s eyes, neck and lips keep getting šimmatu and scorch him like fire, that manhas been possessed by
the Lurker in the (bīt)musâti.
The remedy is salving with a special preparation of oil three times daily. As an additional measure
the patient must wear around the neck a leather pouch, probably containing some of the same magic
salve. The next remedy is for paralysis (mišittu) of the face, reinforcing the connection between Šulak
and stroke. More important for our purpose is a second tablet from Uruk, which contains a
commentary on passage (10). The commentary explains the diagnosis (11):
(maškim) mu-sa-a-ti :
šu-lak / a-na bīt(é) mu-sa-a-tú là irrub(ku
:šu:qa-tum :la:la-a :kù:el-lu / ana bīt(é) mu-sa-a-tú ku
-šú úl ellā(kù) ana muḫḫi
Uruk I 47: 2–5, ed. Hunger 1976:57
The Lurker in the (bīt)musâti (means) Šulak. (Compare the passage) “One should not visit a bīt musâti, lest
Šulak strike one”. According to the oral instruction of the teacher (lit. as he said), Šulak (is to be understood
thus): šumeans “hand”,la means “not”,kù means “pure”. (The passage) ana bīt musâti irrub (or īrub)qātāšu
ul ellāwas cited in connection.
The first task of this passage of commentary is to identify the rābiṣmusâti as Šulak. We have
already encountered this epithet alongside his name in the diagnostic-omen passage (8); name and
epithet also occur together in an unpublished incantation prayer (K 6928+Sm 1896 obv. 19′–20′;
Lambert Folio 1189). The commentary continues by quoting the warning given in the hemerology
passages (5), that to visit a bīt musâti risks falling prey to Šulak. It then quotes from a source that
has not yet been identified; ana bīt musâti irrub/īrub qātāšu ul ellāmeans “he visits (or visited) the
bīt musâti, (so) his hands are impure”. Probably the context of this statement was cultic, for qātā
ellētu “a pair of pure hands”was a fundamental requirement of all who held temple offices, as
exemplified by the case of the mythical Adapa, who in his capacity as archetypal servant of the
gods (“priest”) bore the epithet ella-qātī“Pure-Hands”(Adapa A 1′–14′, ed. Izre’el 2001: 92).
Guidance must certainly have existed as to how to achieve clean hands and what activities (like
visiting the bīt musâti) might have the opposite effect.
Whatever its original context, the quotation is deployed here in order to demonstrate a logical
connection between Šulak, etymologized as “Dirty-Hands”in an oral tradition also quoted by the
commentary, and his customary haunt, the bīt musâti. In short, the commentator asserts that
Šulak’s dirty hands can be attributed to his propensity for lurking therein. With it comes certain
confirmation that the bīt musâti was not a bathroom in the sense of a place to wash in. In a
bathroom hands do not become dirty, they become clean. This place that you leave with dirty
hands is, as the dictionaries assert, but here more crudely put, the Babylonian shithouse. As in
many languages, the expression widely employed for this place is a polite euphemism: bīt musâti
“house of rinse-water”, deriving from mesû “to wash, rinse”, can be compared with, inter alia,
British “lavatory”, American “washroom”and “bathroom”, and Japanese otearai “hand washing”.
Once we are sure that bīt musâti was a lavatory, then it is no surprise that it was the haunt of a
demon whose hands were always dirty. Squatting in the dark in a Near Eastern lavatory is seldom
The signs dab-su can also be normalized as iṣ
(perf.) and ṣ
abissu (stat.), without affecting the translation
of the passage.
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 89
a pleasant experience, even for those who are not in fear of a lion-demon springing out of the depths of
a filthy pit to bite their barebehind and take their life.
The diagnostic texts hold that this unsavoury
character could attack the human body by striking it, but could also enter and possess its victim.
Presumably it did this by taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable, while squatting to
defecate ano aperto.
Later cultures of the Near East and Europe perpetuated this ancient anxiety of a demon in the
lavatory (Stol 1993: 76). Joann Scurlock even proposes to find a far-eastern “equivalent (with sex
change) for the Mesopotamian Šulak, rābiṣ
uof the lavatory, in the Korean ‘toilet maiden’” (2003:
106). The similarity lies only in place of residence, however, for in Korea the Toilet Maiden’s
function is protective, “guarding against the predations of evil spirits”(Grayson 2002: 224). Her
role finds a closer parallel in the benign demon enlisted to oppose Šulak, who now makes his entrance.
Unsurprisingly the Babylonians sought, by magic means, to drive Šulak and other demons out of
the lavatory, and prevent their return. Among the various apotropaic figurines that could be buried in
the foundations of a house, in order to keep wicked and evil powers outside, were lion centaurs. A
passage of a Standard Babylonian prescriptive text describes how this benign monster could be
enlisted to guard the lavatory (12):
īdi(im) ina idi(á)-šú-nu ta-par-ri-ik mukīl-rēš-lemutti(sag-ḫul-ḫa-za)
ina bāb(ká) mu-sa-a-te imna(15) ušumēla(150) te-te-mer
KAR 298 rev. ii 15–16, ed. Gurney 1935:72
Clay figurines of Lion Centaurs: you write on their sides: “You shall bar the way of the Upholder-of-Evil”.
You bury them at the doorway of the lavatory, left and right.
Here the expression Upholder-of-Evil probably covers any malignant magic power. But, as has
been noted before (e.g. Wiggermann 1992: 98), a pictorial record survives of the mythical battle
between the forces of good and evil that took place daily in the Babylonian lavatory. A Middle
Assyrian cylinder-seal now in Berlin depicts a Lion Centaur and a rampant lion fighting (Fig. 12).
Passage (8) has described Šulak as a rampant lion, so the scene on the seal is ur-maḫ-lú-u
Šulak in mid-struggle.
One last passage of Babylonian exorcistic literature that mentions a bīt musâti brings us finally to the
keyword asurrû. The passage comes from the Standard Babylonian incantation and ritual series
Maqlû, and thus from a context of sorcery and black magic. In order to undo the magic that binds
his client, the exorcist asserts his power to counter a witch’s spells by declaring how he will dispose
of them. Just one of the many such methods of disposal is (13):
mu-sa-a-ti a-sur-ra-a ú-ma-al-la-šú-nu-ti
Maqlû II 178, ed. Meier 1937:19
I shall fill the asurrû with them (her spells) like water from the lavatory.
According to this and parallel passages of the same series (II 167, VIII 80, ed. Meier 1966: 80), the
asurrû was a place where one could dispose of waste water from the lavatory. Thus one might propose
that an asurrû should be a type of sewer, or part of a sewer. The evidence for this word will be
I have limited experience of traditional Mesopotamian
lavatories, but certainly recall the latrine of the mud-brick
village house at Madhhur (Hamrin), rented by the British
Archaeological Expedition to Iraq, where I spent an
instructive week in 1978. Jane Moon, Robert Killick and
Michael Roaf were indulgent hosts—and it is a pleasure
formally to record my gratitude after these many years—
but even such old Iraq hands would probably agree that the
Madhhur latrine was not a place in which to linger.
Cuneiform tablets could also be used as apotropaic
amulets, by virtue of incantations and other texts written on
them. An Early Dynastic tablet bearing an incantation
against stomach-ache was found in a vertical drain,
probably a cesspit, at Abu Salabikh (Postgate 1990: 101 and
pl. XVd; Krebernik and Postgate 2009: 11 and 31 IAS 549).
It may have been placed there as an apotrapaion, but the
archaeological context is disturbed, so the location cannot
be taken as secure evidence of a deliberate deposit.
The word asurrû is well attested. The dictionaries’position (set out in the introduction), that asurrû
is part of a wall, was long ago taken by Baumgartner in his study of architectural terms in Akkadian
(1925: 253) and soon thereafter reiterated by Ungnad in his glossary of Neo-Babylonian legal
documents (1937: 32). Modern lexicographers usually defer to their ancient counterparts and base
their understanding on entries in Sumero-Akkadian lexical lists and glossaries. This is what has
happened in the case of the Akkadian word asurrû. Three bilingual lexical lists and a handbook of
Sumerian legalese make a connection between asurrû and Sumerian úr, which means “root”,
“base”or similar, while two versions of a monolingual synonym list equate it with išdu “base”,
which is the normal Akkadian counterpart of úr:
Fig. 12 Middle Assyrian cylinder-seal depicting a Lion Centaur and the demon Šulak in combat: (top)
photograph of modern impression (from Moortgat 1942: 67 Abb. 30); (bottom) drawing by Tessa Rickards (from
Black and Green 1992: 119). Vorderasiatisches Museum, VA 2667
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 91
(14)AVII/2 138: [
úr] “root, base”=a-sur-[ru-u]
(15)Nabnītu VII 245: úr é-a šu!?(KU.BAR)-ùr = sêru šá a-sur-ri
“to plaster the base of a house”“to plaster, of an asurrû”
(16)Antagal D 117–18: [ab]-lal “nook”=tak-ka-pu
“base of wall”=a-sur-ru-ú
(17)Ana ittīšuIV iv 11: úr-re ki-in ab-ak-e // a-sur-ra-a i-kaš-ši-ir
“he will do work on the base”“he will repair the asurrû”
(18)Malku I 276 // iš-di bīti(é) = a-sur-ru-ú
(19) Expl. Malku II 119 “the base of a house”
Entry (14), in an exhaustive glossary of Sumerian organised bycuneiform signs, asserts that asurrû
is only one of many Akkadian equivalences of a Sumerian word written with the sign úr and
pronounced ur. The entries in the group vocabularies Nabnītu and Antagal should not be
considered in isolation, for these texts were organised by groups of Akkadian words that were
associated in some way. Passage (15)ofNabnītu is the second entry in a section on the verb sêru
“to plaster”; the neighbouring lines cite ūru “roof”and igaru “wall”, from which we learn only that
asurrû must also have been part of a built structure. In entry (16)fromAntagal, asurrû is grouped
with takkapu “peephole”,išdībīti “base of house”and indu asurrê “support of a.”(below, 57). This
group reinforces the association of asurrû with išdu “base”but also raises the comparison with a
new idea, takkapu, to which I shall return later.
The bilingual passage (17) was translated by Benno Landsberger as “den Keller wird er
ausbessern”(1937: 65), although Babylonian houses did not have cellars. It is from an academic
manual of terms in legal documents, specifically from a passage on phrases that could
theoretically be used in house-rental contracts. There it occurs among other expressions
stipulating that a tenant should maintain a house’s roof, ceiling beams and walls for as long as
he occupies it. The Sumerian version of clause (17) seems to have had currency only in the
academic legal tradition. However, the Akkadian expression asurrâ kašāru also occurs in a set of
curses in a building inscription of Kudurmabug, excoriating the person “who does not repair its
a.”(20. RIM E4.2.13a.2: 29–30, ed. Frayne 1990: 268: ša…a-sú-ur-ra-šulai-ka-aš-ša-ru).
Yaḫdun-Līm’s building inscription from the temple of Šamašat Mari similarly curses any future
person “who does not keep its asurrû strong”(21. RIM E188.8.131.52: 122, ed. Frayne 1990: 607: ša
…a-su-ra-šu la ù-da-na-nu). These Old Babylonian curses draw on the academic language of
Synonymous phrases occur in real legal documents setting out terms for renting houses
(Oppenheim 1936:70–80). In the Old Babylonian period the key contractual phrases are (22)ūram
isêr asurrâm udannan “he (the tenant) shall plaster the roof and keep the a. strong”. Neo- and Late
Babylonian contracts have instead two synonymous phrases, (23)ūru išanni, batqu ša asurrê
abbat (often transposed) “he (the tenant) shall plaster the roof and keep the a. in good repair”.
These stipulations show that the maintenance of the asurrû was an important contractual
obligation of tenants. Old Babylonian house-rental contracts rarely include the phrases, and most
instances are post-Samsuiluna;
Neo- and Late Babylonian contracts usually include them.
Nothing so far suggests that the dictionaries’definitions of asurrû are inadequate. One might baulk
at CAD’s“damp course”(A 350, repeated in S 228, Š/1 237, 408, Š/3 324, T 466 etc.) on the grounds
that Babylonian houses did not ordinarily have damp courses.
When it was necessary to seal
brickwork against rising damp, such work was referred to in terms of laying baked bricks (agurru)
The thirty-two Old Babylonian house leases collected
by Kohler and Ungnad (1909–23) include only one instance
of the clause asurrâm udannan (CT 8 23b, reign of
Samsuditana). Among the thirty-eight such documents
from Sippar in Dekiere 1994–97 are a further ten instances,
eight of them dated after the reign of Samsuiluna and none
earlier than Hammurapi. On this sample the incidence of
the clause is thus only 1 in 7, or about 14%.
The thirty-one Neo-Babylonian legal documents about
house rentals collected by San Nicolò and Ungnad (1929–
35: 154–73) include twelve unbroken rental contracts (or
leases). Of these, ten have the clause batqu ša asurrê iṣ
the other two abbreviate it to batqu iṣ
The same objection can be raised against translating išdu
“base”as “damp course”(CAD I 236).
in bitumen mortar (kupru). But the evidence presented so far unequivocally suggests that an asurrû
was an important part of a building’s structure, as the dictionaries assert.
Other evidence will be less easy to reconcile with the dictionaries’definitions. It falls into three
parts. First of all, an asurrû could be wet. The passage of Maqlû in which an asurrû receives waste
water from the lavatory has already been quoted (13). The second key datum in this regard is the
lexical entry (24)AI/2 151:
pú = a-sur-rum. Sumerian pú means “well”,“cistern”,“pool”, and
asurrû is the fourth Akkadian equivalence in AI/2, following būrtu “well”,šitpu “excavation”and
issû “clay-pit”. The common ideas in these words are pit and water; they are inextricably linked
because holes in the ground in Babylonia quickly fill with groundwater. The equation pú = asurrû
(available since 1901) must have been what led Carl Bezold in his glossary of Akkadian to go
beyond Baumgartner’s position with his third (and tentative) definition of asurrû (Bezold 1926:
53): “Wände; (einschließendes) Mauerwerk; Zisterne (?)”.
Second, an asurrû could provide snakes, mongooses and vermin with a habitat. The following two
passages are entries in the great Standard Babylonian series of terrestrial omens. The first places the
asurrû in a private dwelling (25):
ēru(muš)ina a-sur-re-e bīt(é) amēli(na) ú-lid …
ēru(muš)ina a-sur-re-e bīt(é) amēli(na) irbiṣ
ēra(muš)sinništu(munus) ina a-sur-re-e ina la mu-de-e iṣ
Šumma ālu XXIII 102–4, cf. Freedman 2006a:46
¶ (If) a snake gives birth in the a. of a man’s house: …(negative apodosis)
¶ (If) a snake nests in the a. of a man’s house: …(negative apodosis)
¶ (If) a woman catches a snake unawares in the a. and lets it go:
The second locates it in the gate of a town wall (26):
nin-ki]lim ina a-su-re-e abulli([ká]-gal) ūlid(ù-tu) …
Šumma ālu XXXIV 1, ed. Freedman 2006a: 224
[¶ (If) a] mongoose gives birth in an a. at the city-gate: …(negative apodosis)
Another passage that associates snake and asurrû occurs in a Standard Babylonian incantation
against fever, in a line that commands the demonic force behind the fever to depart the sufferer’s
i-i ki-ma ṣ
ēri(muš)ina a-sur-re-ki ki-ma iṣ
Go out, like a snake from your a., like a hole-(nesting) bird from your nest!”
The asurrû of these passages was not solid, like a wall, but hollow, affording a refuge for creatures
whose normal habitat was a hole in the earth or a cavity in a building. Other creatures lived there too.
In an Old Babylonian letter from Mari, the writer abases himself before the king by referring to
himself deprecatingly as a “worm/maggot/leech from the a.”(28. Veenhof 1989:tu-il-ta-am ša li-ib-
Two related Old Babylonian spells say of the scorpion that “the a. gave birth to
it”(29. George 2010b:ú-ul-da-šu-ma a-sú-ru-um // ul-da-aš-šu a-su-ru-um).
A third body of evidence shows that an asurrû could stink. This is clear from several passages,
especially the following Old Babylonian spell, known in two versions (30–31):
]i-it a-sú-re-em na-pi-ša-am i-šu
i-a-ku-um tu-ú ša a-wi-lu-tim du-up-pi-ir
YOS XI 16: 1–3
Freedman 2006a translates the second verb of l. 104 as
“severs it”, ead. 2006b: 154 as “cuts it in two”(bar = zâzu
“to divide”?); better Heeßel 2007: 38 III 27′,49Rs.29:
“losläßt”. My normalization umaššir and translation agree
The passage was kindly brought to my attention by
Stephanie Dalley. For tūltum “leech”see Wasserman 2008.
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 93
[a]t-ta-di-ku ta-a ša a-wi-lú-ti
YOS XI 77: 10–15
That which comes out of the earth is pleasant, that which comes out of an a. has a stench. The spell of a
human being has gone forth against you (var. I have cast against you). Be gone! Tu-Ennuri spell.
The spell was probably to be uttered when encountering a snake or scorpion coming out from its
hiding place in the asurrû.
The presence in the asurrû of mongooses has already been noted (26). The bilingual version of an
old incantation likens other demons to mongooses, whom it supposes to be attracted by the asurrû’s
ki-ma šik-ke-e a-sur-ra-a uṣ
Udug-ḫul VI 175′, ed. Geller 2007: 134
Like mongooses they sniff at the a. (Akk.) // base of the wall (Sum.).
The demons were evidentlyintent on entering the house unobserved and to that end were trying to
locate the asurrû by its characteristic odour.
What then was an asurrû? The contexts assembled above demonstrate that it could be hollow, wet
and malodorous, and confirm the proposal briefly advanced in 1999, that it was some kind of foul-
water drain or sewer. Here it can be recalled that in the group vocabulary Antagal D 117–20 (16)
asurrû was associated with takkapu “peephole”.Ifasurrû is understood as “sewer”, the idea shared
by the two words emerges clearly. They were both apertures in a built structure: the takkapu was
an opening in a wall’s superstructure, the asurrû an opening in a building’s infrastructure. Probably
the association was strengthened by the tradition that both also afforded nesting places to small
animals: the asurrû as documented above, the takkapu to owls (e.g. Šumma ālu II 1).
Further instances of asurrû “sewer”
The identification of asurrû as a foul-water drain or sewer, rather than a solid structure, adds nuance
to several other attestations:
In the lists of omens that exemplified the academic theory of Babylonian divination, omen
(protasis) was often matched with outcome (apodosis) through analogy. An Old Babylonian omen
of this kind uses asurrû in juxtaposing by analogy a pierced feature on a lamb’s liver with pierced
[DIŠda-na]-nu i-na qá-ab-li-šu pa-li-iša-sú-ra-k[a na-ak-rum]ú-ša-ap-la-aš
Nougayrol 1941:81rev.5–6, ed. Winitzer 2011:92n.60
[¶ (If) the] “strength”has a hole bored in its centre: [the enemy] will tunnel through your sewer.
The prediction belongs in a context of siege warfare. Here asurrû was evidently an installation that
passed under the city wall. Monumental walls were obvious hindrances to good drainage of water
from a town to the surrounding land, and provision had to be made to allow the passage of storm
run-off and other waste water through the city wall. The excavations of the first-millennium
double city wall at Babylon uncovered several water channels, of varying size, that passed through
both parts of the wall and discharged into the moat; one is illustrated here (Fig. 13).
See further Wetzel 1930: 25, 28–29, 58, with pls. 6, 33–34,
37, 65, 70. Note that on pl. 33 the section drawing A–B with a
surface height of +3.51 m, identified as “Wasserabfluß in
Turm 10 der Hauptmauer”, must rather be at Tower 14.
There was no drain at Tower 10, and a section A–Bat
Tower 14, with the same surface height of +3.51 m, is
marked on Wetzel’s plan on pl. 34 top right. I have
assembled my Fig. 13 accordingly.
made a town vulnerable to siege by affording the enemy hidden opportunities for mining operations.
The omen capitalizes on this anxiety. It also reminds us that, according to the incipit of Šumma ālu
XXXIV (26), an asurrû was a typical feature of a citygate. Perhaps there were public latrines at some
city gates which discharged effluent outside the wall.
Post-Old Babylonian texts add to the picture. Among materia medica used in healing, Babylonian
medical texts cite two substances compounded with asurrû. One is (34)eper asurrê “dirt from the a.”
According to the Standard Babylonian pharmacological list Uruanna (II 257 and III 103), this
expression was a secret name for the plant kurkānu (Köcher 1995: 204b). It could also be used
instead of abukkatu-sap (Worthington 2006: 37 on iii 2). “Dirt from the a.”is not unquestionably
muck from a sewer (cf. Šumma ālu VI 35 at 45 below) but, as I am advised by Mark Geller, it
bears comparison with Aramaic ʿprʾmṭ
wlʾdbyt hksʾ“dirt from the shadow of the toilet”. This was
an ingredient in medical recipes in the time of the Babylonian Talmud (Geller 2000: 23). A rarer
ingredient of Babylonian medical recipes was (35)piqanni(a.gar.gar) asurrê “turdlet from the a.”
(BAM 115 rev. 11, ed. Geller 2005: 78 with n. 1), no doubt also a secret name. Such secret names
fall into the category of materia medica known as “Dreckapotheke”(Geller 2004: 27; 2005: 7). The
two pharmacological expressions compounded with asurrû reveal in passing that it contained
eperu “soil, earth, dust”and faeces; the latter, at least, certainly alludes to a sewer’s contents. The
asurrû’s evil smell was occasioned by what it contained.
An Akkadian spell, probably against stomach-ache, presents the sequence “ox in the pen, sheep in
the fold, pig in the sewer”(36.STT 252: 23–25, ed. Reiner 1967: 192, Veldhuis 1990: 39: libbi(šà) alpi
Fig. 13 Plan (top left), cross-section (bottom left), and photograph (right), looking west, of a water channel
passing under the double city wall of Babylon at Tower 14 on the wall’s east stretch (from Wetzel 1930, details of
pls. 33, 34 and 70)
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 95
u lìb-bi immeri(udu-níta) a-na su-pu-ru lìb-bi šaḫî(šaḫ)a-na asurrê(a-˹sur˺)
thereby identifies the asurrû as a place where one would typically encounter a pig. The proverbial
English vulgarism “happy as a pig in muck (var. shit)”comes to mind. If it could be occupied by a
pig, the asurrû was not a drain with a closed end, such as a ring-drain, but a sewer that discharged
into an open space accessible to animals. Indeed, one might imagine that Babylonian pigs were
encouraged to feed at sewage outlets, in order to minimize the risk to human health that raw
A Standard Babylonian terrestrial-omen text, associated at Uruk with Šumma ālu, contains a
section on places where a man might wash. After irrigation ditch, well and river comes ina a-˹su˺-
u[r-re-e]“in a sewer”(37.Uruk II 34 obv. 37).
This asurrû is evidently again a drain that
discharged in the open.
The Standard Babylonian incantation series known today as Marduk’s Address to the Demons
contains many lines on the behaviour of demons. This passage makes telling associations between
entry into houses, an asurrû and garbage (38):
lu-u šá as-kup-pa-a-ti teš-te-né-ʾ-i-ia!(tablet: ra)
lu-u šá a-sur-re-e ta-at-ta-na-al-la-ka
lu-u šá ina tub-kin-na-a-ti ta-at-ta-na-aš-šá-ba
Marduk’s Address II 17–21, cf. Lambert 1956: 314
(May Asalluḫe get rid of you,) whether you are (demons) who keep going into houses, or who keep visiting(!)
thresholds, or who come and go through sewers, or who lie in ambush in rubbish dumps …
Extrapolating from passages (36–38) in combination, one could further identify asurrû with the
sort of subterranean drain that has been discovered at Tell Asmar, already noted in connection
with the lavatories of the Akkadian-period Northern Palace. This very elaborate example of foul-
water drainage received effluent from many installations, passed through the walls of the palace,
under the street and away to a remote location (Fig. 4). Such a sewer, whether on the grand scale
of this example or of more modest dimensions, would easily have been the site of the various
activities, real and imaginary, associated in the texts with asurrû. Waste water from inside a
building could be disposed of through it (13). Hole-nesting creatures like mongooses, snakes and
scorpions might easily use it as means of entry into houses (25–27, 29). Suspicion would arise that
demons could use the same route (38). A similar anxiety might attend the city wall in time of
siege, lest the enemy use waste-water outlets to gain entry to the town (33). At the sewer’s outflow
(37), where no doubt a stinking pool might form (24, 30–32), pigs and other scavengers could feed
(36), and other unlovely sights fall into view (28, 35). The association of Sumerian úr-é-gar
of wall”and asurrû in the late Old Babylonian legal tradition (17), and later in Udug-ḫul VI (32)
and Antagal D 118 (16), would then be more understandable, for when such a drain was
constructed, it necessarily passed through the base of a wall in order to discharge somewhere outside.
A figurative sewer: asurrû in liver omens
Omen texts relating to divination by extispicy sometimes refer to part of the lamb’s gall-bladder as an
asurrû, written syllabically or a-sur (39).
R.D. Biggs’suggestion that this was “another possible
term”(1969: 166 n. 2) for the cystic duct, which drains bile from the gall-bladder, is strengthened
by the function of its architectural analogue as a sewer or drain. The more common term for this
duct was maṣ
raḫu, occasionally written in Sumerian, sur (ibid. p. 164). Abbreviation was a
common feature of divinatory terminology and this sur is surely an abbreviation for a-sur-(ra).
Another asurrû (40) was situated to the right of the base of the liver’s caudate lobe, ubānu,
according to a Middle Babylonian omen text from Susa (MDP 57 no. 4 rev. 19–21, ed. Labat
1974: 95) and first-millennium scholia (Šumma pān takālti IX 163, ed. Koch-Westenholz 2000:
372; Koch 2005: 504 l. 256). This must be the common hepatic duct, which forms a T-junction
Farber 1989: 89 reads instead ina As[u]-u[r-ri]“mit
Wasser aus dem Gr[aben]”; see passage (41b).
CADA/2: 351; Jeyes 1978: 222 n. 85; Kraus 1985: 174 Ib;
Koch-Westenholz 2000: 496.
with the cystic and bile ducts to the left (i.e. Babylonian right) of the caudate lobe (Leiderer 1990: 158
fig. 2 ductus hepaticus). Thus Babylonian hepatomancer-anatomists borrowed the word for sewer
when they wanted to refer to the ducts on the lamb’s liver that drained away noxious liquid.
Etymology of asurrû
Given the function of asurrû as a sewer, and its incontestable origin as a loanword from Sumerian, it is
evident that the word is based on a compound of the Sumerian noun a “water”. Another nominal
compound a-sur-ra is a literary term for the deep waters where fish dwell (Horowitz 1998:310–15).
The Akkadian loanword in that case is asurrakku, not asurrû, which thus discounts it as
unrelated. Two early versions of the lexical list Kagal present an a-sur-ra in the following passages
a-sur-ra [a-sur-ra] = [me]-˹e˺šu-ri “ditch water”
a-ḫar-ra [a-ḫar-ra] = [me]-e ḫa-ar-ri “ravine water”
a-nim-[ma] [a-nim-ma] = [me]-˹e˺la-wi-ra-a-ni “flowing water”
a-sig-[ga] [a-sig-ga] = me-e i-pi-ri “water (to settle) dust”
Proto-Kagal 372–77 Bilingual Proto-Kagal Ci5–8
The first entry was evidently understood in antiquity as a nominal compound of water and ditch
(usually sùr) and translated into Akkadian accordingly. It might belong to the technical terminology
of drainage, but if this is our sewer it has been badly mistranslated. The passage is not useful here.
The Sumerian compound verb a––sur “to urinate”has been encountered already, in one of the
terms for a chamber pot, dug.a-sur-ra (1). According to Miguel Civil, the verb sur “means simply
‘to perform an action from which a liquid product results’” (Civil 1964: 81). Among expressions
compounded with this verb he included “a—sur ‘to urinate’”. We can now add to his evidence two
other processes in which liquid is discharged from the body with force: šà––sur “to have diarrhoea
(Sjöberg 1960: 160), and zé––sur “to puke bile”, i.e. vomit (George 2010a: 112). It is clear from
this set of analogous physical processes that the literal meaning of the compound a—sur is “to
squirt out water”.
A Late Babylonian commentary from Uruk shows that the meaning sur “to discharge (fluid)”was
still known in the Persian period. The passage is an exegesis of a teratomantic omen about a deformed
lamb in Šumma izbu XVII (42):
:ši-tin-nu : sur : ta-ba-ku šáši-na-a-tú ina ṣ
Uruk II 38: 10–11, ed. von Weiher 1983: 164; De Zorzi 2014: 746–48
sur = “to keep urinating”(because) sur means “to discharge, of urine”, as recorded in a commentary.
Another commentary on Šumma izbu concurs and may even have been the cited reference (Leichty
1970: 227 l. 531; De Zorzi 2014: 857 B.1 9): sur = ta-ba-ku “to discharge”, again of urine.
Other first-millennium texts offer instances of sur as a verb describing the motion of liquids. The
lexical text Antagal is one (C 267): sur-sur = za-a-[bu]“to drip, melt”. Another is a late litany that
describes a god’s attack on a hostile land in terms of a cloudburst and pairs two clauses (Reisner
1896: 39 no. 19 rev. 7–8, ed. Cohen 1988: 444 l. 85): im-gin
ba-an-da-šèg “he poured down like
ba-an-da-sur, which must be almost synonymous, perhaps “he drenched it like
rain”. The clauses’synonymity and the meaning of sur in this context are substantiated by the
Akkadian translation: ki-ma ra-a-du iz!-nun ki-ma šá-mu-ti uš-tal-li (CAD Š/1 272 contra Cohen
uš-pe-le)“he rained like a downpour, he showered down like rain”. The verb šalû is elsewhere used
to describe spraying fluids from the mouth (spittle, blood, vomit), so makes a good match for
Sumerian sur “to squirt”fluid from the body.
Some contexts quoted in the Sumerian Dictionary
indicate that the compound a––sur sometimes has to do not
with the discharge of liquid but with its addition: e.g.
a-sur-ra “sparged malt”= beer-mash, and tu
ra “diluted soup”(refs. PSD A/1 167).
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 97
It is difficult to assert with conviction that the etymology of the word for sewer lies in the bodily
function a––sur “to urinate”, for a sewer carries away much that is not urine. However, the use of
the verb sur for the discharge of liquid generally is very suggestive. The conclusion here is that
Akkadian asurrû “sewer”derives from Sumerian a-sur-ra, a nominalized verbal compound
meaning “water-discharger”. The term seems fitting for a facility which carried off human waste
flushed with water, mê musâti, and foul water generally, and discharged it outside in a remote location.
There are instances of asurrû that are less obviously related to drainage. Further passages of the
terrestrial-omen series make it the habitat of other creeping things, apart from the snakes,
mongooses and leeches that were encountered earlier (43–44):
ina bīt(é) amēli(na) innamrū(igi)
Šumma ālu XXXVIII 39′, ed. Freedman 2006a: 276
[¶ (If)] grubs of the a., (the kind) that have wings, appear in a man’s house and …(apodosis lost)
DIŠina bīt(é) amēli(na) ḫal-lu-la-a-a ina ap-ti bīt(é) amēli(na) (var. ina apti(ab) bīti(é)) a-sur-re-e ú-šá-az-na-
DIŠina bīt(é) amēli(na) ḫal-lu-la-a-a ina mūši(gi
)a-sur-re-e ú-šá-az-na-an …
DIŠina bīt(é) amēli(na) ḫal-lu-la-a-a ina kal u
-mi a-sur-re-e ú-šá-az-na-an …
Šumma ālu XIX 30′–32′, ed. Freedman 1998: 278;
var. from Heeßel 2007:24no.5ii15′
¶ (If) in a man’s house a centipede
makes the a. drip at/from the window of a man’s house (var. window
of a house): …(negative apodosis)
¶ (If) in a man’s house a centipede makes the a. drip at night, resp. all day: …(negative apodoses)
Similar omens occur earlier in the series Šumma ālu, at I 163–64 (ed. Freedman 1998: 38). It is
uncertain how we are to understand šuznunu, literally “to make rain down”in the omens of
passage (44), but the verb occurs with built structures like walls and does not presume a naturally
wet environment like a sewer.
Other omens in Šumma ālu that mention asurrû work tolerably well if it was a sewer, but also lack
any certain reference to drainage. A passage of four lines reads (45):
DIŠbītu(é) a-sur-ru-šuša-lim …
DIŠbītu(é) a-sur-ru-šuše-eḫ-ḫa-tú i-šu…
DIŠbītu(é) a-sur-ru-šu epra(saḫar) ittaddâ(šub-šub)
DIŠbītu(é) a-sur-ru-šu imtaqqut(šub-šub)
Šumma ālu VI 33–36, ed. Freedman 1998: 112
¶ (If) a house’sa. is in good repair: …(positive apodosis)
¶ (If) a house’sa. is crumbling: …(negative apodosis)
¶ (If) a house’sa. keeps producing dirt: …(negative apodosis)
¶ (If) a house’sa. keeps collapsing: …(negative apodosis)
The symbolic value of the house’sasurrû in regard to the well-being of its residents is obvious, but
the location of the asurrû is not. The same is true in a later passage of the same text (46):
DIŠkamūnu(uzu-diri) ina išid(suḫuš)bīt(é) amēli(na) innamir(igi) …
DIŠkamūnu(uzu-diri) ina a-sur-re-e bīti(é) amēli(na) innamir(igi) …
DIŠkamūnu(uzu-diri) ina ušši(uš
)bīti(é) amēli(na) innamir(igi) …
Šumma ālu XIII 21–23, ed. Freedman 1998: 208
¶ (If) lichen appears at the base of a man’s house: …(negative apodosis)
¶ (If) lichen appears at the a. of a man’s house: …[(negative apodosis)]
¶ (If) lichen appears at the foundations of a man’s house: …(negative apodosis)
The translation follows Farber 1987: 103–4, contra AHw
This passage is immediately preceded by a set of omens organised on the pattern front–middle–
rear. It displays a similar spatial progression, but vertical instead of horizontal: from the bottom of
the walls, through the infrastructure, to the footings at the very bottom. This suggests that the
asurrû was part of the subterranean structure of a house, but not the very lowest part of the building.
The construction of a house, from the bottom up, is a notion that underlies a line of a Standard
Babylonian incantation-prayer to Ištar (47. Ebeling 1953: 60 and duplicates, l. 9): e-ma ba-áš-mu-
u-ma a-sur-ru-ú nadât(šub)
)“wherever a. is constructed and
brickwork laid”. This is a literary expression for “in the society of human beings”, but from it we
can infer that making an asurrû was an activity in house-construction that preceded the laying of
brick walls. It is not clear, however, that this asurrû is necessarily a drain. Similarly inconclusive is
a Standard Babylonian dream omen in which the dreamer sees himself carrying ṭ
re bīti(é)-šú“salt from the a. of his house”(48. Oppenheim 1956: 331 x+17).
Other attestations of asurrû certainly have nothing to do with drains. Prominent examples occur
in passages of mid-first-millennium building inscriptions, from Sargon II of Assyria to
Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Three Assyrian rulers deploy the identical expression asurrû šusḫuru
“to surround the asurrû (sing.)”. Sargon reports on his inscribed bull-colossi and parallel texts that
he decorated the monumental buildings of his new capital, Dūr-Šarrukīn, with bas-reliefs (49):
da-ád-me ki-šit-ti qa-ti-ia ṣ
e-ru-uš-ši-in ab-šim-ma a-sur-ru-ši-in ú-šá-as-ḫi-ra
a-na tab-ra-a-ti ú-šá-lik
Fuchs 1994: 70 ll. 77–79
I depicted the towns that I had conquered on large slabs of limestone and surrounded their a. with them, I
made them a wondrous sight.
In the cylinders that commemorate the completion of his palace at Nineveh, Sennacherib describes
doing likewise in that building. Three passages using asurrû šusḫuru occur repeatedly in the various
versions of the building reports. One is almost identical to Sargon’s(50):
pi-i-li rab-ba-a-ti da-ád-me na-ki-ri ki-šit-ti qātī(šu)
-ia qé-re-eb-ši-in es-si-ḫa(i.e. ēsiqa)a-sur-
ru-ši-in ú-šá-as-ḫi-ra a-na tab-ra-a-ti ú-šá-lik
e.g. Senn. 1: 86, ed. Grayson and Novotny 2012:39
I engraved the enemy towns that I had conquered in large slabs of limestone and surrounded their a. with
them, I made them a wondrous sight.
The second passage mentions a greater variety of raw materials but omits the detail about the
conquered towns (51):
-gal ù askuppāt(kun
šin ú-šá-as-ḫi-ra a-na tab-ra-a-te ú-šá-lik
e.g. Senn. 17 vii 41–44, ed. Grayson and Novotny 2012: 142
I surrounded their (= the palace chambers’)a. with slabs of breccia and alabaster and large slabs of
limestone, I made them a wondrous sight.
The third passage reveals a motivation for the practice (52):
i-na mīl(illu) kiš-šá-ti tem-me-en-šú la e-né-še as-kup-pat
pi-i-li rab-ba-a-ti a-sur-
ru-šuú-šá-as-ḫi-ra ú-dan-nin šu-pu-uk-šú
e.g. Senn. 3: 52, ed. Grayson and Novotny 2012:54
So that in time to come its (the palace terrace’s) foundation platform should not grow weak through (any)
abnormally high flood, I surrounded its a. with large slabs of limestone (and so) reinforced its fabric.
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 99
Almost the same passage occurs in other inscriptions of Sennacherib, but with ki-su-ú-šu“its
retaining wall”written instead of asurrūšu(e.g. Senn. 17 vi 7–10, ed. Grayson and Novotny 2012:
138). Esarhaddon carries on the tradition in his long prism inscription (53):
-gal a-sur-ru-šúú-šá-as-ḫir-ma gušūrī(giš-ùr)
Esarh. 1 vi 7–8, ed. Leichty 2011:24
I surrounded its a. with slabs of alabaster and stretched lofty (ceiling)-beams of cedar over it.
The inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar II, especially, make it certain that a kisû is a retaining wall
that abuts the lower part of a mud-brick wall to reinforce it (Baumgartner 1925: 132–38). If asurrû
in the passages quoted in the preceding paragraphs is a synonym of kisû, as variants of (52)
suggest, it is clear that these late kings employed the term to mean the lower part of a wall. This
was a visible structure suitable for decoration with limestone slabs whose scenes in bas-relief were
intended to awe those who passed by.
For Ashurbanipal, however, the asurrû was perhaps a structure too deep to be visible. He uses the
word in the context of clearing away the ruined superstructure of the citadel wall of Nineveh (54):
dūru(bàd) šu-a-tú ša la-ba-rišilliku(du)
)-šú mi-qit-ta-šú ad-ke ak-šu-da a-sur-ru-šu ina eš-qí
Prism D viii 69–71, ed. Millard 1968: 103, Borger 1996: 118
That wall, which had grown old and whose footings had grown weak, I cleared away its ruins and reached
its a. I strengthened its foundation platform with solid rock.
In this passage the asurrû seems to be part of the wall’s subterranean foundations. There is further
evidence for subterranean asurrû under a city wall. One of Nebuchadnezzar II’s cylinders reporting
his construction of the eastern city wall at Babylon reads (55):
i-ta-at dūri(bàd) a-na du-un-nu-nim ú-ša-al-li-iš-ma in-du a-sur-ra-a ra-bí-a-am iš-di dūr(bàd) a-gur-ri e-mi-id-
ma in i-ra-at ⟨…⟩ab-ni-ma ú-ša-ar-ši-id te-me-en-šu
VA S I40ii3–8, ed. Langdon 1912:82
In order to strengthen the area outside the (double inner) wall I made a third (wall): I built as a support a
large a. up against the base of a baked-brick wall. I built it on the breast of (the underworld) and made its
foundation platform solid.
The associated brick inscription omits indu (56):
i-ta-at dūri(bàd) a-na du-un-nu-nim ú-ša-al-li-iš-ma a-sur-ra-a ra-ba-a i-na kupri(esir-è-a) ù agurri(sig
ra) iš-di dūri(bàd) e-mi-id
VA S I 46: 6–7, ed. Langdon 1912: 196
In order to strengthen the area outside the (double inner) wall I made a third (wall): I built a large a.in
bitumen and baked brick up against the wall’s base.
Here the asurrû seems to be a subterranean structure that functions like a kisû, giving strength to
the wall’s superstructure, and waterproofed against groundwater and floods. The term indu asurrê is
not immediately clear, but it occurs again in the lexical text Antagal (57. D 120): [x]
ÚR =in-du a-sur
“support of a.”, and in the terrestrial-omen series Šumma ālu (58. V 112, ed. Freedman 1998: 96): DIŠ
bītu(é) in-di a-sur-re-e um-mu-ud …“¶ (If) a house is held up by the support (stanchion?) of an a.:…
(positive apodosis).”In both passages indu asurrê is part of the foundations of a building.
These passages of first-millennium building inscriptions all attest the use of the word asurrû with
reference not to a drain or sewer but to a solid structure at the foot of a wall orbelow it. In the light of
this usage it may well be that some, or all, of the instances of asurrû in Standard Babylonian texts
identified above as not certainly to do with sewers (34, 43–48), might also refer to the base of a wall.
Here it is necessary to revisit the terminology of house-rental contracts. As mentioned above, Old
Babylonian house-rental contracts from the mid-second millennium and Neo- and Late Babylonian
contracts from the mid-first millennium know asurrû as one of the two parts of a house—the other
was the roof—that a tenant could be explicitly obliged by contractual agreement to keep in good shape.
The pertinent clauses have already been introduced: (22)asurrâm udannan “he shall keep the a. strong”
in Old Babylonian and (23)batqu ša asurrê iṣ
abbat “he shall keep the a. in good repair”in the first
millennium. As observed above, the former is quite rare, the latter much more common. The later
expression, batqu ṣ
abātu, could denote the maintenance of various facilities, for example irrigation
ditches in a date plantation (VA S V 26: 7), and can reasonably suit the maintenance of walls as well
as sewers. Its Old Babylonian counterpart, dunnunum “to strengthen, keep strong”, is less obviously
applicable to the maintenance of sewers than it is to the upkeep of walls. The base of a mud-brick
wall is highly vulnerable to erosion by rain splash if a good coat of mud plaster is not applied and
kept in good repair. A wall whose lower part is not protected in this way will eventually weaken
and topple over.
Thus the regular reinforcement of the wall’s base by plastering was of particular
importance to the landlord. The Old Babylonian use of the verb dunnunum suggests that the
meaning of asurrû observed in first-millennium building inscriptions already obtained in the Old
Babylonian house-rental contracts: a tenant bound by the clause asurrâm udannan was obliged to
maintain the mud plaster that protected the base of the house’s exterior walls.
That being so, the expectation would be that the first-millennium rental contracts deployed asurrû
in the same meaning, with reference to the lower part of exposedwalls. Such a conclusion is supported
by a quantitative contrast between the documentary and archaeological evidence.
I do not know
exactly what proportion of extant Neo- and Late Babylonian house-rental contracts contains
references to the asurrû, but it seems that such clauses are more common than not (n. 14), while
the proportion of excavated dwelling houses equipped with foul-water drainage was, even in the
first millennium, very small. This discrepancy in itself makes it improbable that asurrû in first-
millennium house-rental contracts was a sewer.
The evidence presented above indicates that the word asurrû had two meanings: (a) sewer and (b)
wall footing or similar. The question arises, how did that come about?
The semantic evolution of asurrû
The etymology of the Akkadian word asurrû, from Sumerian a-sur-ra “water-discharger”, suits its
application to a sewer that discharges in the open, which is thus identified as its primary meaning.
Its semantic evolution, to mean also “wall footings”, is accordingly a secondary development
arising from their shared location in a building’s infrastructure. This analysis is supported by the
documentary evidence. The majority of Old Babylonian attestations of asurrû noted above fit a
meaning “sewer”and, importantly, they come from a variety of genres: a letter (28), magic spells
(29–31), and an omen text (33). The only exception is the house-lease clause (22) and the royal
inscriptions that adapt it (20–21). It would appear from the available evidence that the secondary
development was confined at first to the legal tradition.
The lexical equation of úr and asurrû is reported in the passages quoted above (14–17). The oldest of
them is the bilingual legal handbook Ana ittīšu, which is only extant in first-millennium copies but on
internal evidence certainly of Old Babylonian origin (Landsberger 1937:ii–iii, Cavigneaux 1983: 631).
The juxtaposition of úr and asurrû seen there was perhaps actually first asserted in the Old Babylonian
academic legal tradition from which Ana ittīšuarose. That asurrûm gained a new meaning, in addition
to its etymological meaning, was probably a consequence of that very juxtaposition. Lexical lists and
other pedagogical texts existed in a dynamic intellectual environment: they recorded meaning but also
created and perpetuated it. The later lexical evidence shows that in explaining the word asurrû, the
academic tradition privileged the usage of Old Babylonian house-rental contracts, in which asurrû
was adopted to refer to the lower parts of a building’s walls (14–19), over the etymological meaning
“sewer”(24). In this they could cite the authority of Ana ittīšu(17).
Academic texts, including pedagogical tools such as lexical lists, existed not in isolation but as an
intellectual community of texts. The lexical entries quoted here occur in post-Old Babylonian lexical
Omen passage (45) could be interpreted to describe
stages in a wall’s degeneration, from a state of good repair
to collapse, by reference to the condition of its asurrû.
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for remarking
ON BABYLONIAN LAVATORIES AND SEWERS 101
texts, especially in those that can be characterised as Akkado-Sumerian glossaries that were “designed as
word indexes to earlier Sumerian-oriented lexica”(Finkel 1982: 38). These highly eclectic texts
incorporate in their lists, among more routine material, synonyms, near synonyms, literary (non-
literal) translations and academic speculation. Some entries rest on traditional lexical equations;
others derive from the exegesis of literary texts (Michalowski 1998). What was of interest was not
only precise semantic correspondence, but also the near association of Sumerian and Akkadian
words in the traditional corpus of written texts. One such near association was úr // asurrû in Ana ittīšu.
Against this background the entry úr = asurrû in the lexical list A(14) can be explained as derivative
of the juxtaposition of úr-re ki-in ab-ak-e and asurrâ ikaššir in Ana ittīšu(17). The literary translation
of úr é-gar-ra as asurrâ in Udug-ḫul (32) probably arose from knowledge of (14) and itself gave rise
to the equivalence úr é-gar = asurrû in Antagal (16). Similarly, a lost bilingual text could be the
source of the entry úr é-a = asurrû in Nabnītu (15). The equation išdi bīti =asurrû in Malku (18–19)
is the same entry as (15) but with the Sumerian úr é-a more mechanically translated in the left-hand
column. Thus a dialectical network of creative interactions connects our sources.
The same dynamic intertextual relationships came into play in reading and transmission.
Pedagogical texts such as the lexical lists had considerable influence on how the traditional texts
were understood and passed down. The Standard Babylonian academic texts in which asurrû
occurs are known mainly from first-millennium copies but their date of composition (or
compilation from older sources) lies near the end of the second millennium. In these texts, mostly
technical literature such as omens, incantations and medical recipes, asurrû usually means “sewer”
(13, 25–27, 35–40), but there are attestations where it is not clear whether to take it as “sewer”or
“base of wall”(34, 43–44, 48), and then there are contexts that probably favour “base of a wall”
(45–47, 58). The secondary meaning that in the Old Babylonian period had been confined to the
legal tradition was beginning to enter other academic genres, no doubt because that was the
meaning which was more prominent in the lexical texts.
In the eighth century one may suppose that the highly educated Sargonid chancellery scribes
lighted upon asurrû in the lexical texts and used it in building inscriptions as an exotic literary
synonym of common kisû “retaining wall”(49–54). This they would hardly have done if they had
any knowledge of its unsavoury etymological meaning. When Nebuchadnezzar II’s scribes used
the word in similar contexts in his building inscriptions relating to the reinforcement of the city
walls of Babylon (55–56), at a time when asurrû was commonly so deployed in Babylonian legal
terminology (23), it is a sure indication that the original meaning of asurrû had disappeared even
among the learned scholars of Babylonia.
With the knowledge that asurrû once meant “sewer”forgotten even in the academy, Assyrian and
Babylonian scholars of the mid- and late first millennium must have found many passages of the old
traditional literature puzzling, and wondered, for example, why those texts associated snakes,
mongooses and pigs with the asurrû. Commentary texts demonstrate that the literary and
academic legacy of the preceding ages posed many other difficulties of comprehension to later
scholars, and that much intellectual energy was expended on explicating them. Opportunities must
have arisen in reading these passages both for confusion and for the hermeneutic reinterpretation
of which Babylonian scholarship was fond. In time, perhaps, there will come to light a piece of
learned commentary devoted to explaining the word asurrû.
Lavatories were not commonplace in ancient Mesopotamian houses, but occur in the south in better-
quality dwellings in most historical periods. The closet which housed a lavatory was called in
Akkadian by a euphemism: bīt musâti, literally “house of rinse-water”. The contents of the
lavatory were disposed of in an asurrû, a loanword into Akkadian from Sumerian a-sur-ra “water-
discharger”. The history of the word asurrû is characterized by a semantic shift from (a) its
etymological meaning, “sewer”, to (b) the associated but less specific idea of “wall footing”.Old
Babylonian texts mostly deploy the word in its meaning (a). Many omen texts and other academic
products in Standard Babylonian follow suit, but not all. First-millennium texts, at least from the
eighth century, favour meaning (b).
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SOAS, University of London
London WC1H 0XG
ﺑﻘﻠﻢ:ﺁﻧﺪﺭﻭﺁﺭ.ﺟﻮﺭﺝBy Andrew R. George