The Cradle of Civilization. Mesopotamia. The Middle East. I love its history. I’ve read about it since I was a teenager. My first trip to Europe in the summer of 1971, I was 18 years old and just graduated from high school. Part of a Boise State University music tour, we visited the British Museum in London. I headed right to the exhibition of the Royal Tomb of Ur. I could have stayed there all day.
One face of the Standard of Ur. British Museum, London
(I have a neck tie with this motif woven into it I bought from the British Museum in 1995. Beats the heck out of Paisley for my taste.)
Part of my fascination is grounded in my interest in biblical history in general. My bachelor’s degree is in Biblical Studies, as well as having earned a Master of Divinity degree. There are, however, many regions around the Holy Land and the Mediterranean in which I might have been attracted to. For me it was Mesopotamia. I’ve studied their ancient history, their pantheon of gods and goddesses. Gilgamesh is my favorite hero-myth (who, by the way, was a historical figure, an actual king, ca. 2700 B.C.E.). I’ve read it numerous times and have two of the most recently published translations on my bookshelf.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Image from cylinder scroll.
Today, what was ancient Babylon and Sumer sits in Iraq and Iran. I have no illusion that I will live to visit either place in a time of peace.
The Cradle of Civilization has become a grave.
5000 years of nurturing the very essence of what it means to be human is being crushed by a simmering slag of hatred and revenge, a cycle of violence like magma pushing to the surface that may erupt erupt with the force of an atomic mushroom cloud. Literally.
Roger Cohen, New York Times columnist, captured this virulent culture of revenge:
History is relentless. Sometimes its destructive gyre gets overcome: France and Germany freed themselves after 1945 from war’s cycle. So did Poland and Germany. China and Japan scarcely love each other but do business. Only in the Middle East do the dead rule.
Their demand for blood is, it seems, inexhaustible. Their graves will not be quieted. Since 1948 and Israel’s creation, retribution has reigned between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements. (NYT, 7 Jan ’09)
Cohen’s insight is so deeply troubling in its truth. The violence, this time between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Palestinians, defies all reason for common, everyday living; it defies everything the three Great Religions, which were born in this Cradle, teach about peace and how to treat one’s neighbors; and it defies the very essence of what it means to be human. And that essence is that the living rule, not the dead.
Gilgamesh grieves over the death of Enkidu (whose demise was decreed by the gods) like today’s Middle East hard-liners and jihadists who wail and beat themselves over those killed by the godless. Gilgamesh is so distraught he weeps by the corpse until maggots begin to crawl out of Enkidu’s rotting body, then vowing vengeance against the gods who robbed him of his most beloved companion, he sets out to bring them down from heaven itself. . .
Except that is not how the epic reads. Gilgamesh is not bound forever in his grief over Enkidu’s death. He does not engage in unending vengeance against his enemies. Given strength by the gods, he begins a quest for eternal life, and journeys to the home of Uta-napishti, the “Noah” of this Sumerian flood story, who with his wife, were the only two humans to survive. And though Gilgamesh does not achieve physical eternal life, by the end of the quest he arguably is Homo sapiens modernum, Modern Man. The dead do not rule his life.
(Homo sapiens modernum is my literary creation, not a paleontological species name.)
How then, do we understand the Rule of the Dead in the lands that gave us Gilgamesh? How can that cycle be ended? What will it take for the sword of atrocities to be broken, the blade shattered and unsalvageable, replaced by the Rule of the Living? Gilgamesh lives in his myths, but his story, his true legacy to his living descendants has been lost.
Do not blame Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad. Do not cite their words, writings or teachings as justification for these atrocities. Unnamed millions have already been butchered over the course of 4000 years, in the name of and by the hand of followers of all three. The LORD God Almighty/Allah weeps that even today, millions who call on his name, do so as they kill, destroy, and ravage the innocent.
As long as the Death rules the living in the cultures of the Middle East, be it national, religious, political, or an aggregation of all three, Homo sapiens modernum, that great rock of civilization, is being blasted away by relentless, unforgiving sand storms of dogma and loathing. One day all that will be left of Gilgamesh’s legacy will be featureless desert, devoid of all life, of all humanity, the howling winds oblivious to the countless millions who once tried to live just one day up to the potential of humanness he achieved. It will be all in vain. On the fields of massacre the blood they shed will be blown into nothingness.
Homo sapiens modernum will be extinct. The Middle East will be perfect. Sinless. An unspoiled holy land. No desecration of sacred laws. No infidels to attack. No punishment for the reprobates. No honor to be defended. No vengeance to be paid. No revenge to be meted out. No need for forgiveness. No God to be avenged. Empty and dead.
No amount of oil will change the outcome.
The perfect war will be over.
And the fate of those who followed the rule of Death? Perhaps it shall be this chilling image, recounted when Gilgamesh goes to the Netherworld in search of Enkidu.
Gilgamesh: Did you see the one who cheated a god and swore an oath?
Enkidu: I saw him.
G: How does he fare?
E: He cannot get near the places in the Netherworld where the libations of water are made, he drinks in thirst.
G: Did you see the citizen of Girsu at the place of sighs of his father and mother? (Girsu was a city-state in what is now Iraq.(1))
E: I saw him.
G: How does he fare?
E: Facing each man there are a thousand Amorites, his shade cannot push them off with his hands, he cannot charge them down with his chest. At the places in the Netherworlds where the libations of water are made, the Amorite take precedence. (2)
G: Did you see the sons of Sumer and Akkad? (3)
E: I saw them.
G: How do they fare?
E: They drink water from the place of a massacre, dirty water. (1)
This fate for the desert people of the Middle East who endlessly kill to proclaim the rule of the dead, to be denied water, the very stuff of life–first, for one’s blasphemy, second, to have to wait subserviently while foreigners drink first, and third, to be forced to drink filthy water in a place that is ritually soiled and impure for all eternity–is indeed the deepest level of Hell.
Gilgamesh is speaking. Are we, all Homo sapiens modernum, capable of listening?
(1) Text: “Bilgames and the Netherworld,” in: Andrew, George (1999) The epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. 190. [Note: “Bilgames” is one variant of Gilgamesh.]
(2) This is a bit spooky–The Amorites are associated with the West, and their kingdom, ca. 2000-1600 B.C.E. encompassed modern Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestine Authorities, Lebanon and NE Egypt. Source: Wikipedia.
(3) Sumer, one of humanity’s most ancient regions dates from at least the 6th Century, B.C.E., and was clustered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, that flow through modern Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Its most famous city is Ur (in Iraq). Akkad was a Sumerian city but later established Babylon (in Iraq) when its empire rose to power. Source: Wikipedia.