Ancient Assyrian clay tablet throws light on surrogacy, says slaves can be hired to bear child

The first historical comment on the prevalence of infertility and surrogacy was found in a trove in Turkey's Kayseri Province.

Cuneiform tablets
Cuneiform tablets are displayed during an exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, February 3, 2015. Reuters

Surrogacy is not something new. It was well in vogue since the commencement of ancient civilizations. A recently deciphered cuneiform tablet from Turkey proves the fact that infertility and surrogacy were talked about issues in the primitive era. The tablet belonging to the Assyrian period is exhibited at Istanbul Archaeology Museums in Turkey.

The first historical comment on the prevalence of infertility and surrogacy was found in a trove in Turkey's Kayseri Province. The concept of this contractual surrogate mother is completely different from the surrogacy of Hagar in the Bible which led to the bitter rivalry. The contractual surrogate mother would have been freed from all bondage after the birth of a male child.

In 1925, among 1000 clay tablets a 4000-year-old Assyrian clay tablet was excavated from a site. The Assyrian clay tablet is considered to be an ancient prenuptial agreement. Scholars have termed these tablets as the Cappadocian tablets. Since 2014, the site of Kültepe-Kanesh has appeared on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Scholars claim that the recently discovered Assyrian prenup tablet can be considered as the first historical reference to infertility. According to the marriage contract, if within two years of marriage the couple is unable to conceive, a hierodule or a slave or prostitute who serves the temple can be taken as a surrogate.

This discovery was recently published in the journal Gynecological Endocrinology.

A group of researchers led by Harran University in Sanliurfa, Turkey considers 'demographic infertility' as the inability to produce a child after five years of marriage. It was previously unknown how ancient the practice of surrogacy was.

The English abstract of the article written by the group of researchers states that the first mention about infertility and surrogacy has been discovered on a 4000-year-old tablet of marriage contract belonging to the Assyrian period.

The tablet was discovered from Turkey's Kültepe district, which from 2,100 BCE to 1,800 BCE was a trade colony of the Old Assyrian Empire. The tablet is written in Old Assyrian and was signed by four witnesses. The prenup states that the wife could hire a sex slave as a surrogate mother but the husband was not allowed to take an additional wife.

In the Mesopotamian civilization, society was monogamous. Hence, if one partner demands separation or divorce then according to the prenup, he would have to pay five minas of silver, which is some $1,500 in the present day, to leave the marriage.

The Assyrian idea of a wife hiring a handmaiden to give birth to her husband's child is similar to the story of Hagar and Sarai or Sarah from the Bible.

"At her advanced age, Sarah was an infertile woman. She desperately wanted a child, so she gave Hagar to Abraham to be his wife. Since Hagar agreed to give birth to a baby on behalf of Sarah, we can define Hagar as a surrogate mother," says Emeritus Liubov Ben-Nun, Ben-Gurion University Medical School Professor.

Ben-Nun further mentions that enough care was not taken in the contract between Sarah and Hagar that led to hostility, jealousy and tension between the two women and in Abraham's family.

After studying the Assyrian clay tablet, scholars believe those female slaves were set free after they gave birth to the first male child thus ensuring that the family is not left without an heir.