It could give newscasters a bit of trouble, but a scholar of cuneiform has come up with a possible solution to the debate over what to call the body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia: A-AB-BA.
That's what the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia called the Persian Gulf 5,000 years ago in the world's first known form of writing, cuneiform, which was pressed into clay tablets. It means "great water."
Controversy over the gulf's name arose late last month when top Defense Department officials suddenly dropped the long-used Persian Gulf, a name that could imply that the water belongs to Iran, formerly called Persia. The Pentagon officials call it the Arabian Gulf, a name that favors nations friendly to the United States.
"Why don't we just go back to the first-ever written name for the gulf and avoid current political entanglements?" asked George Michanowsky, an independent scholar whose research on ancient Sumerian astronomical texts is recognized by astronomers.
Some years ago Michanowsky, a director of the Explorers Club in New York, established that a certain pulsar, the remnant of a star that had exploded into a supernova, was the object recorded in Sumerian legend as a great star that suddenly flared in the southern sky, just above the A-AB-BA horizon. The Sumerians lived between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and looked south over the great water.
Because the distance to the pulsar is known, astronomers have calculated that the Sumerian supernova was the closest to Earth yet known. The supernova seen this year -- the closest since Galileo's time -- was 125 times more distant than the one the Sumerians saw reflected in the A-AB-BA.
Of course, because the Sumerians lived in what is now Iraq, the ancient name could be taken as a tilt toward Iraq.