The city of Ur, located in modern-day Iraq, was excavated in the early 20th century largely by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley. One specific house contained a number of inscribed cuneiform tablets, business letters addressed to one Ea-Nasir. He was a member of the Alik Tilmun, a guild of merchants based in Dilmun, another archaeological site in the Persian Gulf, in contemporary Bahrain. Dilmun’s location in the Gulf waters made it an excellent place for businessmen like Ea-Nasir to engage in import-export activities.
Based on more than a dozen surviving tablets squirreled away in his own house, archaeologists have discovered that Ea-Nasir was a big-shot copper trader, dealing mostly in wholesale ingots, but also in the finished metal products and, on occasion, textiles and foodstuffs.
At the beginning of his career, Ea-Nasir was buying and selling for the palace at Ur and was considered a good credit risk. But at one point, he began spending more time in Dilmun, causing his creditors to write him nasty letters asking where their stuff was. This is where we pick up his story, through the eyes of his ripped-off customers.
A man named Arbituram sends a note to Ea-Nasir, saying: “… you have given the copper… and give the silver and its profit to Nigga-Nanna. I have made you issue a tablet. Why have you not given me the copper? If you do not give it, I will recall your pledges. Good copper, give again and again. Send me a man.”
Presumably a little while later, Arbituram gets restless and writes to Ea-Nasir, “Why have you not given the copper to Nigga-Nanna? Ili-idinnam says ‘The copper that Nigga-Nanna has received is mine!’ Be kind enough to give the copper, as much as he has a claim on you, to Nigga-Nanna.”
A couple other people get in on the action. Appa tells Ea-Nasir: “The copper of mine, give it to Nigga-Nanna – good copper, in order that my heart shall not be troubled.” And Imgur-Sin exasperatedly writes to Ea-Nasir: “May Samas [the sun god] bless your life. Give good copper under seal to Nigga-Nanna. Now you have had me issue 10 shekels of silver. In order that your heart shall not be troubled, give good copper to him. Do you not know how tired I am [of this]?”
Nigga-Nanna was not the only man annoyed by Ea-Nasir’s business negligence. Ilsu-ellatsu, who may have been one of Ea-Nasir’s business partners, wrote him that “with regard to the copper of Idin-Sin, Izija will come to you. Show him 15 ingots so that he may select 6 good ingots, and give him these. Act in such a way that Idin-Sin will not become angry.” And another customer named Ili-idinnam sarcastically told Ea-Nasir that “the work that you have done is soooooooo good. One year ago, I paid silver in a foreign country; you shall hold back only bad copper. Please bring your copper.”
But the most irate of all of Ea-Nasir’s customers is a man called Nanni who was so livid that he covered a tablet front and back in cuneiform complaints. The entirety of it reads:
Now, when you had come, you spoke saying thus: ‘I will give good ingots to Gimil-Sin’; this you said to me when you had come, but you have not done it. You have offered bad ingots to my messenger, saying ‘If you will take it, take it; if you will not take it, go away.’ Who am I that you are treating me in this manner — treating me with such contempt? and that between gentlemen such as we are. I have written to you to receive my money, but you have neglected [to return] it. Repeatedly you have made them [messengers] return to me empty-handed through foreign country. Who is there amongst the Dilmun traders who has acted against me in this way? You have treated my messenger with contempt. And further with regard to the silver that you have taken with you from my house you make this discussion. And on your behalf I gave 18 talents of copper to the palace, and Sumi-abum also gave 18 talents of copper, apart from the fact that we issued the sealed document to the temple of Samas. With regard to that copper, as you have treated me, you have held back my money in a foreign territory, although you are obligated to hand it over to me intact. You will learn that here in Ur I will not accept from you copper that is not good. In my house, I will choose and take the ingots one by one. Because you have treated me with contempt, I shall exercise against you my right of selecting the copper.
Who among us can say we haven’t written (or wanted to write) something like this to an airline that lost our luggage or an eBay seller whose item description wasn’t exactly truthful?
There’s no indication that Ea-Nasir replied to this complaint. But archaeological evidence from Ea-Nasir’s house at Ur, to which he seemed to have retired, suggests that his terrible business dealings caught up with him and his wealth declined. Part of his house was incorporated into the one next door, cramping his space. Ea-Nasir was also forced to branch out from copper dealings into less lucrative markets: land speculation, real estate, and even second-hand clothing. If Ea-Nasir were alive today, he would be desperately trying to affix his brand to any number of products.
Thus, during the reign of Rim-Sin, who ruled Ur between 1822 and 1763 BC, we can trace through historical records the rise and fall of Ea-Nasir. Thanks to his miserably failed business dealings, Ea-Nasir will go down as one of the worst but also best-known business magnates in history.