Gilded Age

What relevance could the Gilgamesh Epic possible hold for contemporary people? Well, one of my colleagues has said that every book is now about Trump. While I resist such thinking, he has a point. Even in reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh it’s hard to avoid making comparisons. The famous epic is about a bully king who is eventually humbled by the gods. That should make the contemporary association clear enough. Damrosch’s book, however, is actually about how one of the world’s classics—if not the first classic—was lost to the human race and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. The cast of characters involved in finding the text is colorful and tragic, rather like the epic itself.

Hormuzd Rassam, associate of some of the largest names in Assyriology, was a native Iraqi whose role in the recovery of antiquity was overlooked in his lifetime. Although Rassam did much of the actual finding he was unfortunate enough not to have been born English. While Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Sir Austen Henry Layard, and even the irrepressible George Smith, gleaned fame over the rediscovery of the glories of ancient Iraq, the very model of a modern Middle Easterner simply didn’t receive his fair share. Rassam wrote books that were essentially ignored. The moving tale of his treatment makes this already gripping story poignant. The Epic, however, not only became world famous—it forced scholars to reevaluate how to interpret the Bible. Although not the earliest flood story, already in the mid-1800s it was recognized that the flood myth in Gilgamesh had more than just a passing influence on grand old Noah.

One of the stories behind the preservation of Gilgamesh is that of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian emperor. Ashurbanipal believed that to be a world leader one had to be well read. He was the most powerful man in the world in his time. The idea of government is useless without the corrective of history. That doesn’t mean people should only look backward, but those who refuse to look back at all are doomed to make mistakes that go all the way back to the Bronze Age and before. In fact, Stone Age mistakes can (as we are living to see) be repeated even in a nuclear age. That’s part of the charm of Gilgamesh. Reading the classics serves a higher purpose than might be obvious at first.

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It was an object of wonder. Handed to me as a child, the Bible inspired a kind of awe reserved for the big events of a young life. Here were the very words of God, in King James English, for me to read, mark, and inwardly digest. Well, at least read. And read I did, as only the fear of Hell is able to motivate an impressionable psyche. When a parish minister saw the trajectory of my life, he suggested exploring the ministry. More Bible reading ensued. With only Halley’s Bible Handbook as a guide, interpretation was largely a matter of what the minister said, and the kind of primitive reason that resides in a teenager’s head. I made it through college as a religion major without ever hearing about Mesopotamia’s influence on the Bible. Once I did hear, in seminary, it was clear to me that to get to the truth, you had to go back beyond the first page. Mesopotamia was only part of the story. The Bible was a book compiled in a region where other religions shared concepts, deities, and stories with the Israelites. While unique in some respects, it turns out the Bible wasn’t as unique as I’d been led to believe.

Mesopotamia, vying with Egypt, was the true cradle of the civilization that gave rise to who we are in the western world. Perhaps in the eastern hemisphere as well. The great cities of Sumer, and later Babylonia and Assyria, yielded cuneiform tablets and other artifacts that insisted we widen our view of antiquity. The heirs of this tradition developed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three monotheistic religions have bred sects that despise this ancient past with its uncomfortable truths, and thus we hear of IS destroying the evidence with abandon. The years of my life spent studying these cultures disappears so quickly under the bulldozer’s blade. For all this, it is IS that is the passing fancy. You can’t destroy the truth. You can damage it, however, to the detriment of everyone.

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Political regimes, and not just in the Middle East, operate with an unbecoming arrogance when they believe in their own self-righteousness. Were it not for those who wondered what these wedges on clay meant, we might still have to reckon (more seriously than we already have to do) with those who insist that it’s the Bible way or the highway. Unfortunately, it often takes disasters such as this wanton destruction of the past to wake the media from its lethargy concerning the cultures that gave our religions birth. There’s so much more to distract. The world can’t make up its mind about the color of a dress, and meanwhile those backed with a justification of true belief destroy that which can never be replaced. Given the rhetoric of political leaders even here, I suspect that our past is no longer safe, no matter where we house the artifacts bearing witness to the truth.

Alas, Babylon!

Religions tend to be backward looking. That’s not intended to be a universal, nor a condemnation. Few would want to admit that their religion is new, especially in this scientific era. We tend to believe the truth is old. But not too old. In the monotheistic traditions, real religion started with Abraham, or more properly, Abram. Beyond that we were all pagans. One of the sad stories brought to my attention this past week involves the IS (you know it’s bad when we have to use acronyms) decided to destroy Nimrud, one of the ancient Mesopotamian cities that has helped us understand whence we’ve come. In an era of political and social correctness, we’ve decided that the right to keep artifacts rests with those who’s heritage it reflects. The future, however, is just as unstable as the past. As someone who has spent many years trying to understand the material remains of our pre-Judeo-Christian heritage, it is a tragedy of the first degree to have unthinking guardians destroy what can’t be replaced because they represent “idols.”

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, I used to begin by asking students what the difference was between an idol and a god. At first it seems that idols are images, and, by definition, offensive to the religion that names them “idols.” Then, as we probed deeper, it would become clear that all religions use images of some description, and that likenesses of deities were considered to be gods in sophisticated ways. Those who built the pyramids and the great walls of Babylon were not simpletons. Their images, many of them powerful still today, were psychological expressions, often backed with theological finesse. Even Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, and they worship the same deity.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religion for such wanton destruction. All religions breed extremists. Extremists, like those who believe science can explain everything, are simply drawing their reasoning out to its ultimate conclusion. That’s not to condone their actions, but to try to comprehend them. All religious groups have those who slip past the bounds of conventionality into the realm where an all-consuming zeal requires excessive action to be noticed. Human beings are complex that way. A pagan philosophy of ancient Greece held that all things in moderation was the ideal. Religions with a concept of Hell, however, breed excessive ideologies. As a child I would have done anything to avoid Hell. In fact, with the little power that children are accorded, I conscientiously did what I could. When I wasn’t distracted by the other attractions life seemed to offer. If, perhaps, we considered that socio-economic justice would go a long way toward engendering a kind of contentment, we might find less extremists in the world. No matter what we do, however, we will not find ourselves in a world without religion.

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Sign of Jonas

A century ago today, the world erupted in war. Those who engaged in World War One are pretty much all gone now, but the war to end all wars has left its scars across the globe. We showed ourselves we could do it. We could drag, through our accumulated frustrations, just about every nation into open conflict. The costs were astronomical, but we didn’t learn a thing. Just a couple decades later we were back at it. Nations taking provocative stabs at other people. Keep on poking and people, being what they are, will eventually hit back. So on this anniversary of the start of the First World War (awaiting a sequel, perhaps from the start), I’m reading about the extremists in Iraq destroying Jonah’s tomb. Poke. Poke. Well, it is more a loss to fellow Muslims than it is to those who take the Bible seriously. Jonah is a nice story of a prophet (rather blithely retold in the Washington Post) who probably never existed. If there was a Jonah he wasn’t fish food, that we know for sure. The tomb of Jonah is like that of an unknown prophet. The symbol’s the thing.

In the story in the Washington Post, Justin Moyer laments that “anything in the Bible” might be destroyed in these circumstances. I wonder how you can destroy something that never happened. Doing so, in any case, is liable to start a war. It really doesn’t take that much. The last century has taught us little. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not in favor of destroying ancient landmarks or parts of a region’s history. But if we misattribute its importance to something sacred, or biblical, it will be far too simple to start a row. You see, Jonah converted Nineveh, according to the Bible. The Assyrians became good Yahwists, despite the historical record. Those who destroyed his tomb likely had conversion on their minds as well.

As these thoughts were taking form in my head, I happened upon the page of GETS Theological Seminary, which, as far as I can tell, is in China. On the banner across its homepage was a picture of its mission field. Is that the United States? Of course, if you read the description you’ll see that the world, in toto, is the mission field they intend. Still, it is a little bit of a shock to see yourself counted among the heathen. I’m sure, had Jonah really existed, that the Assyrians would have been just as shocked. They were as moral as any other militaristic society. And today my thoughts are on militaristic societies. The First World War definitively changed everything from that fatal moment it began, a century ago today. It was the first, but not the last, loss of humanity’s innocence. We would invent newer and crueler ways to kill each other in greater numbers. Blood would become the true currency of the last hundred years. Maybe we should keep a weather-eye out for a fish-swallowed prophet after all. The world could perhaps stand a bit of conversion.

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They Call it Civilization

An interesting article about the Assyrians appeared in last week’s Guardian, On Art blog. The piece by Jonathan Jones, describes a piece of ancient Assyrian art on auction that the British Museum is not interested in buying. Having toured the Assyrian galleries a time or two, more’s the pity, but Jones puckishly suggests that the museum may be afraid of the curse inscribed on the piece. We all know of the story of ancient artifacts that come with value-added supernatural attributes—it’s a standard staple of Hollywood horror. Jones knows, however, that the museum isn’t really afraid of a curse, but he does display an interesting attitude toward the Assyrians. You see, the Assyrians were conquerors. They knew how to intimidate potential enemies long before their armies ever set out on the move. The imagery displays powerful men, ripped and ready, killing lions in hand-to-claw combat. Jones rightly points out that some of this is disturbing. What strikes me as interesting is a probably unintended subtext.

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“Assyrian art is certainly awe-inspiring – but perhaps not civilised,” Jones writes. As if civilization necessitates politeness. Perhaps it should, but civilization began in the very region south of ancient Assyria, among the Sumerians who were a culture emulated by later Mesopotamians. There is no doubt that the Mesopotamians gave us many of our beloved Bible stories, in their original, unedited form. They gave us organized religion, writing, and the wheel. Comparing the Assyrians to the Egyptians and Greeks, Jones suggests they were uncivilized. I would beg to differ. The Egyptians and Greeks could also be quite violent. The Assyrian aesthetic was a bit different, to be sure, but there is a raw beauty to it. And I have to wonder why, from our western perspective, what comes out of Iraq seems to hint at something insidious or sinister.

I’ve always been a fan of the Mesopotamians. Since a Ph.D. program only lasts so long (for those of us perpetually struggling to make ends meet), I did not have time to indulge my Assyriological fantasies once I learned of them. I was deep into Ugarit, and although I loved the tales of Asherah and Baal, there was something more ancient, more powerful, lying to the east. I often thought that if I could’ve had more time, my interests would’ve definitely drifted toward the progenitors of civilization. Yes, some of the art-work is deeply troubling, but the Assyrians, indeed, the Babylonians and Sumerians, looked at the world from the viewpoint of cultural creators. Civilization involves violence, no matter how we try to hide it. When I stand in London, taking in those Assyrian reliefs I see an honesty that is carefully hidden by the Egyptians and Greeks. And I think I prefer to know the truth of the situation, curse or not.

Extinctions

Gaddafi is dead. Bin Laden is dead. Saddam Hussein is dead. The people of the Middle East have risen up to reclaim their world from the privileged. In Wall Street people are arrested and sequestered lest the discontent should spread. Do those of Libya, Iraq, Egypt, aspire to Wall Street? Are not the oil barons wealthy enough? How easy it is for us to forget that what we call civilization began here. In what we now call Iraq, people first banded together with complex governments, specialization of labor, and the arts. And, naturally, slavery. As civilization grew, priesthoods became strong. Governments could not stand without the support of the gods. Temples could not stay open without government funding. Gods and kings slept together. The Bible would later parody this as the tower of Babel. How we want to live in that penthouse chapel!

We often take from history that which sustains our interest. And when that interest is reinvested and compounds, we lay the foundations for yet another tower. We live in a world of towers, glad to accept their beauty and glory without realizing that no tower stands out without the deep valleys between the artificial peaks. To build high, some must be consigned to live in the subways and cluttered alleys and sleep out on the streets. The oil money in Dubai, not far from the fabled Eden, erects towers that are the wonders of the modern world. Just looking at pictures of the Burj Khalifa can make one shudder. Oil is decayed life.

Sometimes I imagine the world of the dinosaurs. Mammals must have seemed an endangered species then, small and insignificant as they were. Our distant, distant ancestors must have gazed up on the towering brachiosauruses and bruhathkayosauruses with awe and fear. When they finally evolved opposable thumbs, they decided to emulate their fears. Now the dinosaurs are all petroleum and birds. And still they rule the earth. Civilization began in the oil fields of the world with little use for petroleum. Instead, kings and priests worked together to construct towers that would ultimately fall. Oil makes some very wealthy, but it is only possible because of the extinction of the largest living animals that ever walked the earth.

Iraq’s Bell

Gertrude Bell requires no introduction for students of the ancient Near East. A strong-willed, self-determining woman, her influence was arguably as great as that of her friend T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), but being a woman in a man’s world, movies were not framed around her life and she was not mythologized into a larger-than-life character. I have just finished Desert Queen by Janet Wallach, the life story of Gertrude Bell. Although tending towards the overly romantic in parts, this biography does a fine job highlighting the influence Gertrude Bell had on the newly formed country of Iraq at the close of the First World War.

Although Gertrude early lost her mother she was a child of a well-to-do English family. She was considered an anomaly at a still patriarchal Oxford in her day, but soon discovered the draw of the Arabian and Syrian deserts. Traveling seemed to be an antidote for being a capable woman in a man’s England. In the desert the sheiks and tribal heads came to treat her as an equal, like a man. (T. E. Lawrence, on the other hand, was famed for occasionally pretending to be a woman.) Assigned a government post in post-war Iraq, she helped draw up the borders of the present nation of Iraq and achieved a status with the desert tribes to which few of her male colleagues even aspired. Failing in health and fortunes, lonely in the desert she loved, Gertrude Bell committed suicide in Baghdad and was buried in the land she loved.

The story of Gertrude Bell is inspiring despite its sad ending. Here was a woman who refused to accept the model society cut out for her gender. Part of her loneliness resulted from her staunch unwillingness to be like other passive, subservient women of her time. After the reigns of political power slipped from her hands, Gertrude Bell founded the Baghdad Museum, collecting the initial artifacts herself and donating a substantial portion of her remaining funds to the museum in her will. Until the “Second Gulf War” it was the finest collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in Iraq, where culture itself began. Gertrude Bell’s books are still read, but she is still known primarily as the associate of Sir Leonard Woolley and Lawrence of Arabia, although she was a woman on her own terms. She remains a symbol of what might be accomplished even when the standards of society declare a person unfit to lead based on gender or any other physical attribute.