This month I had the pleasure of reading Shirley Graetz’s first novel, She Wrote on Clay. The story follows the life and career of Iltani, a young woman living in the Mesopotamian city of Sippar during the reign of Hammurabi. As a child, Iltani marvels at her father’s scribal talents and dreams of becoming a scribe herself. Since girls do not have the option of studying at a scribal school (É-DUBBA), Iltani chooses to enter the gagû and become a nadītu. This elite group of monastic women command great respect in society, and many nadītu are highly skilled. Iltani sees this as the best opportunity to pursue her dream and willingly accepts a future without the possibility of marriage or children. However, life in the gagû proves more difficult than she imagined. The young novice must learn to navigate through a closed society where the intrigues of a powerful woman threaten her chances of becoming a scribe. As the years progress, Iltani encounters many unexpected challenges and choices, especially as a friendship with a male scribe develops into something more.
In fewer than 200 pages, Graetz has created a powerful, sensitive work about the life of an extraordinary ancient woman. Through Iltani’s journey, the reader experiences the sights and sounds of the bustling Sippar marketplace as well as the calm luxury of apartments in the gagû. Iltani’s clay-stained hands serve to distinguish her from the other nadītu and give her a sense of pride and accomplishment. We laugh with her as a stylish friend tries to dress her up for a special occasion, and we share in her sensory delight as she visits the ornate home of a nadītu princess. Through her friendships, we learn of the many difficulties women would have faced and the forms of legal recourse available to them. It is a fascinating world that is both alien in its customs and familiar in its humanity.
In many ways, this book is a wonderful introduction to the Old Babylonian period and current Near Eastern scholarship. Graetz, who received her PhD in Ancient Near Eastern Studies from Ben Gurion University, draws on a variety of primary sources for authenticity. At key points in the story, she inserts her own translations of actual letters, hymns and documents. Akkadian words are rendered in italics, while Sumarian, which would have been known only to scribes, is transliterated in capital letters. The careful use of these ancient languages adds richness to the narrative without detracting from the flow. For those inspired to learn more, the author provides a list of scholarly resources at the end of the book. Needless to say, I highly recommend it!
She Wrote on Clay is a Hadley Rille Books publication available for purchase on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.