Sometime around 1900 the Philadelphia Free Library purchased a Mesopotamian antiquity. It was shaped like a square brick 8 inches high, and covered with dense cuneiform. One side was completely unreadable, and another side only partly readable. It contained legal material; it’s difficult to determine its true purpose. It does not appear to be a contract or a record of laws; the best guess is that it presents a compendium of standard legal forms for training scribes in writing legal documents. It is now known as the Sumerian Laws Handbook of Forms. It was written around 1700 BCE.

One of the fragmentary items in this document reads as follows:

"...slave woman, Ali-basti is her name..."

That’s everything we can read in this entry. We don’t know who Ali-basti was, other than the fact that she was a slave woman. We don’t know what legal matter concerned her. We don’t know when or where she lived, other than our assumption that she lived around 1700 BCE in southern Mesopotamia.

I was struck while reading this. Everybody else associated with Ali-basti is unknown to history. Her owner is faceless; the legal dispute concerning her is forgotten; the scribe who recorded her name will never be known. But the name of this humble woman, by complete chance, has come down to us through 3700 years of human tumult. In her name we have a tiny straw of humanity to grasp from that distant time.

Here’s to you, Ali-basti.