By: Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari
Dept. of English,
College of Education,
The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary
(OALD 2007) defines shekel as an ancient silver coin used by the Jews.
Historical evidence, however, proves that
shekel is mentioned in cuneiform texts
in Mesopotamia three thousands years B.C. as a unit of measure first and later
as a coin.
There is an immense number (16,000) of
texts that describe the economic structure of the Sumerian empire as contracts,
vouchers, payrolls, accounts, and accurate conclusions, showing the growing
importance of the private property and private business and the ever-increasing
part played by the secular authority. A growing number of individuals owned
land, houses, chattels, slaves and animals that were sold by contract.
Prices varied according to quality, place
and time and were expressed in shekel. For example, date-palm groves at Nippur
were worth about one shekel of silver (about one – quarter of an ounce) per sar
(116 square feet); a healthy male slave cost about eleven shekels, an ass, five
gur of barley (Roux 1964). Moreover, private money lenders made fortunes from
Ancient Iraq texts abound in
mentioning the shekel as currency. The earliest mention of shekel goes back to
the Sumerian Age where it is mentioned in the ancient Code of Ur Namu, founder
of the Third Dynasty of Ur ( circa 2113-2006B.C.).
Goods were first used in ancient Iraq for
bartering. Cereals and minerals such as barley and silver were used for such
purposes, but were gradually replaced by the shekel which continued to be used
as money throughout all the ancient history of Iraq as is clear from the
following codes of law:
1. Code of Ur-Namu:
The word shekel is mentioned for the first
time in this ancient and famous Code of
Ur-Namu King of Ur (2111-2003BC), and founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur (
circa 2113-2006BC). It is the oldest collection of laws in the world found in
Nippur in 1952.
Great efforts were made to decipher the
cuneiform inscription on the badly damaged tablets bearing the code by Cramer
and others. Following long studies, scientists came to the conclusion that it
was one of the most ancient codes.
It contained 31 articles including some
economic ones in which silver and cereals were mentioned as a means of
bartering and pricing.
Article 19 of the Code of Ur Namu states
“ if a man breaks the tooth of
another man, he has to pay him in fee two shekels of silver”.
2. The Lipit - Ishtar Code of Law:
this is the second ancient Iraq code of law that belongs to the Sumerian king
Lipit-Ishtar the fifth king of the Isin Dynasty ( 2017-1794B.C.) and author of
the code of which some forty-three articles and parts of the prologue and
epilogue have survived.
These laws deal, among other things, with
real estates, hire contract and the condition of privately owned slaves, and
therefore give us a limited but interesting insight into the society which was
then taking shape.
The code contained economic texts found in
Neffer? by the American expedition of Pennsylvania beginning the twentieth
century. Scholars specialized in cuneiform writing found out that it contained
37 articles preceded by a prologue in praise of god Inlil and state that the
aim of passing the code was to bring abundance and prosperity to the country of
Sumer and Akkad and rid people of injustice.
Article nine of Lipit-Ishtar Code states
that ,” if a man entered a grove belonging to another man and was caught and
accused of theft, then he has to pay ten shekels of silver”. While article 33
states that “ if a man alleged that the unmarried daughter of a free man had
sex with a man, and it was later proved that she was innocent, then the accuser
had to pay 10 shekels in fee”.
3. The Ishnuna Code of Law
The Ishnuna law that was found in Baghdad
in the area of Tell Harmal in 1945, was studied by Taha Baqir and published in
Sumer Jnl Vol 4 , 1948.
The code has 61 articles in which the
phrase (for one shekel of silver) is mentioned in many articles. In article one
of the code are found the prices of a number of goods valued at the price of
(one shekel of silver= 180 grains or 5. 5gms) :
“The price of one gur of barley
is one shekel of silver’.
“The price of 3 qas of pure oil
is one shekel of silver”.
“The price one sut and 5 qas of
sesame oil is one shekel of silver”.
“The price of 6 suts of wool is
one shekel of silver”.
“The price of 2 gurs of salt is
one shekel of silver”.
“The price of one hal seed is one
shekel of silver”.
Article 11 of the law states that:
“ the wage of a labourer is one shekel of
silver and his food one ban of barley and he has to serve for this wage for one
Among these articles it can be noted that
the term shekel is mentioned more frequently than cereals. This is an
indication that ancient Iraqis preferred to deal in minerals than in cereals
for many reasons: cereals need big jars to preserve and transportation means to
be carried from one place to another. They also needed to be protected from
humidity and rain as well as big warehouse for storage compared to metals that
are easier to use for it is easy to melt them down and save them in small
containers and then safe and transport them.
4. The Code of Hammurabi:
Although the code can no longer be
considered the most ancient in the world, for similar documents have been
discovered from the reigns of Ur-Nammu, Lipit-Ishtar as mentioned above as well
as in Bilalam, it is still the most complete. It was issued by King Hammurabi
(1792-1750 BC) the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty (1894-1594 BC):
‘To cause justice to prevail in
To destroy the wicked and the
That the strong may not oppress
Among other things, the code
regulated the economy of the country and this is what is meant by the formula
of the second year of Hammurabi: ‘he established justice in the country’, and a
good example of a mesharum(justice)-act( has survived in the ‘ edict ‘ of King
Ammni-saduqa, one of Hammurabi’s successors. In the course of his reign many
social and economic changes occurred which required the laws to be adjusted,
and the king pronounced sentences on a number of isolated cases for which no
precedent could be found. These royal decisions (dinat sharrin), duly recorded
and eventually collected together to be used for reference by the judges of
future generations , formed the so-called ‘Codes of Law’.
Several such copies of the Code
of Hammurabi were preserved on clay tablets, ranging from the Old Babylonian
period to the time of the Chaldean dynasty.
Hammurabi had his royal decisions carved
on steles and placed in temples. One of theses steles, found in an excellent
state of preservation, is in itself a remarkable work of art. It was erected
originally in the temple of Shamash at Sippar, but was later looted by Elamite
king Shatruk Nakhony? during his invasion of Babylon in (1171BC) and taken to
Susa, where it was discovered in 1901 by the French expedition in season
(1901-1902). The Elamite king has apparently removed the inscription from a
number of lines to write his name.
On top of the eight-feet high and
(225x60cm) wide stele of polished basalt
that is covered with 44 vertical columns of text beautifully engraved
and written in the purest Babylonian language, is carved a scene representing Hammurabi
in the attitude of prayer facing Marduk or Shamash the sun-god and god of
justice, seated on his throne.
The relief shows also god Shamash
giving the king the measures of tools by which he could reconstruct the
country. On its epilogue are carved :
“ I, Hammurabi, king of justice, whom Shamash,
the god of justice, gave laws. My words are chosen and my deeds have no
example, they are for the fool empty, but for the wise merit marvel. He who
discerns my words that I wrote on my stele, and does not violate the laws, nor
annul my verdict, or change my laws, may god Shamash expand the rule of that
man like me, a king for justice and may he lead his people in justice”.
It contains at least 282 laws dealing,
among other things, with trade and commerce, wages and rates of hire and the
sale and purchase of slaves. Fees and punishments varied according to the
For instance, the cost of a life-saving
operation was fixed at 10 shekels of silver for an awelum (free man), 5 shekels
for a mushkenum (commoner) and 2 shekels for a slave (articles 215-217).
Dealing in Shekel:
Shekel as a unit of measurement is likewise
mentioned in Akkadian and Babylonian texts. During the Neo - Assyrian Age, King
Sennacherib (705-681)BC, ordered to make moulds to cast shekel and half a
shekel. It was then that the shekel became a monetary unit. Following is the
translation of the text of King Sennacherib:
“ I have ordered to make moulds
of clay and cast bronze to make a shekel and half a shekel”. From that time on
it is possible to say that coins came to be used for the first time and that it
was an ancient Iraqi invention dating back to the Old Assyrian Age.
Ancient Iraqis paid attention to commerce
and banking institutions as the most effective means of promoting their goods
and enlarge their internal and external trade channels. Banking became an
advanced façade compared with other sciences and arts.
The laws and legislature of ancient Iraq
regulated contract of selling, property, heritage, business transactions,
economy and banking. This helped expand and diversify these activities as wide
as the Assyrian state that extended to remote areas. Such business transactions
were very profitable and encouraged further initiatives.
relations between the various commercial centers and foreign tradesmen and
bankers took the form of letters, checks and travel checks. These all
represented credit means that remained in use for centuries.
In a document dating back to the
Babylonian king Hammurabi, in form of a bill of exchange issued by a worship
centre (temple) in Sippar, the Babylonian city that used to lie on the
Euphrates – its ruins are now near the sub-district of al-Yousifiya about 30 km
south of Baghdad- that authorizes its bearer to receive in the city of Eshama
on R. Tigris- after 15 days - 5. 8 manna of lead entrusted to the temple
priestess. The letter represents the nature of dealing in banking and check
system that resemble the present bills of exchange.
Assyrian records have been
discovered in Anatolia near the city of Caesarea, stating the number of
merchants who had commercial relations with Assyrian merchants. Among them was Pushkin?
whose business relations reached not only Cappadocia where he had his business
headquarter, but also all the areas under the Assyrian sway at that time. He
used to offer loans and dealt in silver, lead and other things.
The Assyrian relations with the cities of
Anatolia have been uncovered by archaeological ruins whether in Iraq or in that
country. They highlight the commercial and economic activities in volume and
means of transportation. Inscriptions have referred to various letters,
contracts and business transactions. It is said that the number of Assyrian
merchants working in Anatolia were estimated at a few thousands. Some of them
lived in the city of Canish? because it was a commercial centre. Besides, the Assyrians
also used kinds of animals to transport their commodities such as donkeys,
mules, and camels.
is worthwhile mentioning that there is a biblical reference explaining the
number of Assyrian merchants,” Make your couriers more numerous than the stars”
(Na 3: 16).
The Use of Shekel as Money
It is possible to say that money appeared
for the first time when cereals were replaced by (silver) coins for circulation
because the latter were metal coins of definite weight and form, with smaller
categories and bore an inscription. These specifications are typical of the
Assyrian shekel; as there was one shekel and half a shekel. It had also a
definite shape and weight with an inscription depicting god Shamash and Ishtar.
From that time on the shekel was regarded as a coin in ancient Iraq because it
functioned as such. It was a means of exchange and to make good the credits. It
also had an indefinite power of discharge.
business contracts, loans and payment as money were conducted using the shekel.
also became a means of saving, i.e. it was used for investment and circulation
as is the case in the above Code of Ishnuna where shekel was the fixed price of
many commodities of daily and commercial use.
The merchant was called Damqar? meaning
merchant, banker or broker in business. Trade soon flourished when shekel was
used for circulation.
Markets were held at the city gates in the
form of gatherings where buying and selling was conducted. The scale was also
known which was called (shaqlu) in ancient Iraq Codes and laws whence the term
In modern times, Iraqi scholars,
archaeologists and bankers have written a lot about the shekel as an ancient
Even campaigns were launched against
Israel accusing it of stealing the shekel from the ancient Iraq civilization.
Such a campaign was led by the
prominent Iraqi banker Hassan al- Najafi.
In the late seventies of the last century,
Al-Najafi (1926-1992), governor of the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) who wrote
many articles and books on the economy and monetary policies of Iraq and also
author of (Shekel: its Orgin and Uses 1981), led a campaign accusing Israel of
stealing the Iraqi currency.
Will a day come when this ancient Iraqi
currency will one again be in restored back to circulation as the official
currency of Iraq to replace the dinar - the once gold coin used in the
countries of southwest Asia and north Africa, and the Derham (Greek Drakhma)?
Roux, G (1964) Ancient Iraq.
George Allen & Unwin Lt., London.
Al-Najafi H. (1981) Shekel: its
Origin and Uses. Central Bank of Iraq.