The Sumerians were within the territory later known as Armenia

“The Sumerians were within the borders of the country later known as Armenia.” – Academician N.Ya. Marr, Japhetidology, Moscow, 2002, p. 64

According to Urartian, Sumerian-Akkadian, Assyrian, ancient Armenian, and other sources, “the land of sacred rites” Aratta*, the country of Armani, mentioned in the cuneiform inscriptions of Sargon I of Akkad (24th-22nd centuries BCE) and his grandson Naram-Sin (23rd-22nd centuries BCE), the Hittite “Hayasa” (14th-12th centuries BCE), Nairi-Biaina (Urartu) – the older Uruatri (Biainili-Van) in Assyrian and other inscriptions, the Persian “Armina,” and the Greek “Armenia,” as well as the toponyms “Haik,” “Hayk,” “Hayastan” (Ayastan), are absolutely identical: they all represent reflections of the ancient biblical name “the land of Ararat.”…

A cuneiform text found in Ebla in the 27th century BCE also mentions the people “hai.” From the book “Origins of Armenian Legal Thought” (1, p. 643). To understand the present, humanity has always turned and will continue to turn to the past, to historically validated cultural values. This is not a tribute to tradition, but a natural need for each generation.

Therefore, we can confidently note that the customs and traditions of our people, whose ethnogenesis took place before the 5th-4th millennia BCE, when the Urartian, i.e., Indo-European language system broke apart, and only the Armenian ethnicity remained as a native on the Armenian Highlands.

In the Neolithic era (7th-6th millennia BCE), the inhabitants of the Armenian Highlands settled the river valleys first in Northern and then in Southern Mesopotamia. In the process, proto-Armenians—the Sumerians—gradually occupied the territory in the areas where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come closest to each other.

Academician N.Ya. Marr wrote in support of the above: “Prehistoric Sumerians were within the borders of the country later known as Armenia.” Indeed, the socio-legal history of our distant ancestors, with their customs and traditions, has convinced us: our roots are truly deep and “death is not the fate of the Armenian nation…

Meanwhile, the history of the development of any ethnic group is inextricably linked with its customary law. The Armenian people are no exception: our distant ancestors were guided by their customary law, which later became the basis not only for Urartian-Sumerian-Hittite-Araratian law but also for the canonical norms and legal codes of Armenia up to the 19th century.

The history of customary law and legal customs of the Armenian people has its roots in deep antiquity. This is evidenced not only by numerous myths and legends but also by written sources. For instance, Movses Khorenatsi (5th century) notes that the Armenian king Vagharshak appointed judges at the court and in cities.

Other 5th-century Armenian historians like Agathangelos and Yeghishe also speak about the existence of ancient Armenian customary law. Moreover, the existence of ancient Armenian customary law and legal customs is mentioned in the edicts of the Roman Emperor Justinian (6th century).

He considered it unacceptable for Armenian customary law and legal customs to coexist alongside Roman law. Specifically, in his edicts N 3 (“On the Order of Inheritance among Armenians”) and N 21 (“On the Adherence of Armenians to Roman Laws”), it was stated: ‘We desire that Armenians fully adopt our laws…

We recently learned that only men are allowed to inherit from their parents, and in no case, women… Therefore, we decree that inheritance should be the same as established in Roman laws concerning both men and women, and the same should apply in Armenia.’ Further in edict N 21, it is said: ‘Wishing that Armenia be fully developed and be no different from our state, we will train them to use Roman laws… We decree that what is accepted with us concerning the inheritance of women should also apply among Armenians… Since Armenians are part of our state, women there should not be excluded from the equality existing with us.’

In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that these edicts were unsuccessful because they did not originate from Armenian customary law and legal custom. Today we have such sources of ancient Armenian law as: a) canons: of Thaddeus the apostle of Christ (1st century), Gregory the Illuminator (4th century), the councils of Ashtishat (4th century) and Shaapivan (5th century), the 4th Dvin Council (7th century), ‘the book of canons’ by John Imastaser Odznetsi (8th century), David the son of Alavik (12th century), and many other canonical laws [2]; b) legal codes: by Mkhitar Gosh (12th century), Smbat the Constable (13th century), Armenians of Astrakhan (18th century), etc.; c) the Armenian Constitution of 1773 (draft) by Shaamir Shaamiryan, national constitutional laws of Armenians in the Russian (Eastern Armenia) and Ottoman (Western Armenia) empires (19th century), and others.

For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that in the historical legal monuments of the Armenian Highlands and Ancient Mesopotamia, which, in our opinion, are the origins of Armenian legal thought, significant place is occupied by norms that subsequently entered into the legal norms of Armenian kings, Armenian canonical laws, and the customary laws of our people.

Specifically, these include: the philosophical-legal teachings of the ancient Sumerian sage Shuruppak (25th century BCE); the earliest monuments of Sumerian-Akkadian law such as the Code of Shulgi-Ur-Nammu (22nd-21st centuries BCE); the Code of Bilalama, King of Eshnunna (mid 20th century BCE); the Code of Lipit-Ishtar, King of Isin (end of the 20th century BCE); the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king (18th century BCE).

The Laws of Moses-Moshe (Torah) (14th-12th centuries BCE); legal monuments of the united Armenian-related and other tribes and peoples of the Hittite State, the will of King Hattusilis I (Labarna) (17th century BCE). The Law on the Order of Succession of King Telepinu (16th century BCE), the Hittite code of laws (15th-early 14th centuries BCE); edicts and decrees of the Ararat Kings (9th-6th centuries BCE).

Comparing the above-mentioned monuments of Armenian law from the Ararat kingdom to the Middle Ages with the legal customs of ancient Northern and Southern Mesopotamia, we found many points of contact. They show that the legal heritage, including customary law and legal custom of the ancient Sumerians, had a beneficial influence on Armenian customary law at its very origins.

This heritage, rooted deep into millennia, not only incorporated this legal wisdom but also passed it on to neighboring peoples. That is why the legal customs of the Armenian people in both form and content are largely related to the legal heritage of the most ancient civilizations of the Armenian Highlands and Ancient Mesopotamia.

Specifically, one would like to highlight the oldest record of customary law known to science as “The Instructions of the Sage Shuruppak to his Son, Ziusudra,” dated to the 25th century BCE. They were known in Sumer and contained not only worldly advice and philosophical-legal teachings but also certain norms of virtuous law-abiding behavior, requiring restraint from murder, lies, intolerance, envy, quarrels, and theft, honoring the older brother and sister like the father and mother, etc.

Another oldest record of Sumerian customary law from the 24th century BCE can be attributed to clay cones and an oval plate about the legislative reforms of the ruler of Lagash, Urukagina. In particular, Urukagina’s legal reforms established bans on gifts to the ruler that contradicted the customs and traditions of the country of Sumer; introduced regulations that protected the private property of the patriarchal family; established legal norms for the abolition of certain traces of matriarchy in the family life of the nobility, in particular, polyandry (multiple husbands), and so on.

The Law of Shulgi-Ur-Nammu is also a part of the history of Sumerian legal thought, which was lost after millennia and serves as an intermediate link between the statutes of the earliest legislators and the codes of laws and legal digests of later rulers of Larsa, Bilalama – king of Eshnunna, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and others. Overall, the articles of Shulgi’s Law were humane and based on popular customs and traditions. In particular, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle – one of the main provisions in the Old Testament – gave way to more lenient punishments; mainly fines were imposed instead of corporal punishments. For example, Article 19 states: “If he has knocked out his teeth, he shall pay two shekels of silver for each tooth…”.

Many articles of Bilalama’s legal digest, the king of Eshnunna, coincide with Hammurabi’s Laws. However, they do not include the principle of retaliation “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”: only monetary fines are foreseen for causing harm. A significant part of Bilalama’s legal digest is devoted to marital and inheritance relationships.

Although women still occupied the most honorable place, the patriarchal nature of the family, based on customary law, significantly limited her rights. For example, the legal digest categorically forbade only women to have extramarital affairs. In case of a long absence of the husband (Article 29), the wife could remarry, but if the first husband returned, she was obliged to return to him.

Note that the legal custom regulating the wife’s return to the first husband was present not only in Armenian canonical norms (canons of the Dvin and other councils) but also in the legal digests of Mkhitar Gosh (Article 13), Smbat Sparapet.

The next surviving texts in Late Sumerian language are three dozen articles of the First Dynasty of the Kingdom of Isin by Lipit-Ishtar (20th century BC). This code of legal customs paid more attention to marital and family law, which later laid the foundation for legal provisions not only for the Babylonian king Hammurabi, Moses, the Hittite Empire, the Kingdom of Ararat but also for individual canonical norms and legal digests of the Armenian Highlands.

Overall, from the Armenian Highlands and Ancient Mesopotamia, not only ancient customs and traditions have come down to us through laws and legal codes, but also numerous legal documents. Typically, they focus on marital and divorce issues. For example, following legal customs, our distant ancestors—the Sumerians—could send an infertile wife back to her father’s home along with her dowry and court-ordered financial compensation.

For fairness, it should be noted that the legal customs of Ancient Mesopotamia and the Armenian Highlands also accounted for other situations where a husband, upon terminating a marriage or marital contract, was obligated to provide for his first wife if she became seriously ill. Consider Article 148 of the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king: “If a man takes a wife and she is stricken with leprosy and he intends to take another, he may do so; he must not abandon the wife stricken with leprosy; she may live in the house that he built, and he must support her as long as she lives.”

Armenian customary law, which later became the basis of royal decrees, canonical norms, and medieval Armenian legal codes, prescribed the consideration of the aforementioned issue after seven years from the onset of the illness. If a marital contract existed, according to Smbat Sparapet, this agreement was “legally acceptable” (Article 80).

It is well known that Ancient Mesopotamia was considered a flourishing garden, and the Armenian Highlands a paradise garden. The legal norms of the Code of Hammurabi, in particular, protected the interests of garden owners. For example, according to Article 59, anyone who illegally cuts down a tree in someone else’s garden must be subjected to fines.

For comparison, Article 173 of the Code of Mkhitar Gosh not only “requires the cutter to plant a new tree and during all the years of its infertility pay the sufferer with the fruits of his trees in the amount of the fertility of the felled tree,” but also prohibits “cutting down trees even of foreign enemies”. We find this norm, in an appropriate edition, in another medieval Armenian code—Smbat Sparapet (Article 189).

At the turn of the 20th-19th centuries BCE, we find in the historical region of Armenia, within the territory of the future union of united Armenian-related and other tribes and peoples of the Hittite Empire, tribes that, on one hand, fight among themselves for supremacy, and on the other, stand against the strongest local Armenian-related tribe—the Hatti.

Modern scholars believe that from the middle of the second millennium BCE, a Hurro-Luvian dynasty of Armenian-related tribes ruled the Hittite Empire. Even though the Hittite language remained the official language, most of the united Armenian-related and other tribes and peoples of the Hittite Empire spoke Luvian, that is, in ancient Armenian (the native language).

Scholars believe that the first record of the Hittite legal code dates back to the 16th century BCE. The code was based on the most ancient law codes and borrowed inscriptions from the “land of sacred rites” of Aratta, Sumerian, Babylonian, and other sources.

The legal code of the united Armenian-related and other tribes and peoples of the Hittite Empire consists of two main parts. The first part was compiled at the emergence of the Hittite kingdom and has been revised multiple times since. This is evidenced by Hittite archives, which contain a series of closely related laws. There also exists a later version of the legal code— the third tablet from the 13th century BCE.

Next, let’s note that justice in ancient and medieval Armenia, as in the Hittite Empire, was usually carried out publicly. It can be described as quite developed and, most importantly, as in the Aratto-Sumerian civilization, humane. It should be noted that customary law as a source of legal tradition and Armenian legal thought in general traces its deep roots back to the Aratto-Sumerian legal civilization. Specifically, this applies to family-marriage, inheritance, and other branches of law, with subsequent reception of legal norms from the Code of Laws of King Hammurabi, through the Laws of Moses, from the legal code of united Armenian-related tribes and peoples of the Hittite Empire, as well as legal norms of the Ararat state.

by Avakyan Ruben, Arutyunyan Asmik

Translated bby Vigen Avetisyan

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