cuneiform Babylon archaeology
A piece of brick engraved with millennia cuneiform characters lays in the ground at ancient Babylon some 100kms south of Baghdad on November 27 2008 Getty

At around 4,000 years old, 'Istanbul #2461', as it's unceremoniously called, is the oldest surviving love poem in the world.

The poem is etched into an ancient clay tablet discovered by archaeologists in Nippur, southern Iraq, during the late 19th century. Its name is just the reference number allocated by archivists at the Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient where it ended up.

The full name is The Love Song for Shu-Sin, though it took seven decades for this to be discovered as it lay untranslated in a museum drawer.

It comes from Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, which we know today as Iraq. Ancient Sumerians were the first people to develop a written language which used symbols to represent spoken sounds. This system of written symbols pressed into wet clay by a stylus is called cuneiform.

The author of the poem is unknown, but according to Guinness World Records, it "is believed to have been recited by a bride of Sumerian King Shu-Sin, who ruled between 2037 and 2029 BC."

"When it was found, the cuneiform tablet of The Love Song for Shu-Sin was taken to the Istanbul Museum in Turkey where it was stored in a drawer, untranslated and unknown, until 1951 when the famous Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer came across it while translating ancient texts," says an article on the Ancient History Encyclopedia website.

"The poem was not just a love poem, however, but a part of the sacred rite, performed each year, known as the 'sacred marriage' in which the king would symbolically marry the goddess Inanna, mate with her, and ensure fertility and prosperity for the coming year."

Here's Samuel Noah Kramer's translation of the world's oldest known love poem.

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is you beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savoury than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savoury than honey.

Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil's heart,
Give my pray of your caresses.
Your place goodly as honey, pray lay (your) hand on it,
Bring (your) hand over like a gishban-garment,
Cup (your) hand over it like a gishban-sikin-garment.