[Late last year a treasure trove of ancient tablets was discovered in a hidden level of a ziggurat in Sippar during the British Museum’s excavation of the contemporary site of Tell Abu Habbah. What follows is a newly translated excerpt from the last pages of the Sumerian Book of Stones, written by the successive generations of a family belonging to the mushkinu. The methods with which the Sumerians constructed and deconstructed the Hippareni Dome (and if it ever existed at all) is still the subject of debate and dispute among scholars and historians.]
The memory resides beyond the grandfathers of our grandfathers. They too were able to commit it to text so that it may be preserved for those who followed and have yet to follow. Due to this reasoned foresight, we now know that the advent of this great nation state ushered in with it not just the usual promises of prosperity, liberty and appeasement of the Gods, but also that of safety. The only promise a ruler cannot keep – neither King nor Queen can ever guarantee their own safety.
The denizens of Tell Abu Habbah went about their daily lives, generation after generation, the same repeated processes of birth, education, marriage, children, middle-age, old-age, rebirth. With any promise of safety lurks the spectre of danger and chaos. Threads of doubt emerged within the fabric of each passing year. Stone poles erected for border security slowly transformed into sun-baked walls. These expanded along the coast until they converged with other border walls. Eventually a great wall separated our hill city from our immediate neighbours and the rest of the world. Centuries passed. Our gross domestic product fell exponentially. Times were not as prosperous as they once were but our people, disciples of asceticism, living their vocational callings, continued on tirelessly against the practices which did evil unto them.
Did the generations before us notice when their shadows began to follow them around, first for more than half the day, then twelve hours, then twenty-four hours? Did they consciously witness the building of the great wall? Did they survey the slaves condemned for life to place fired stone upon ochre and sand all their waking day in sweltering heat? How many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of lives were given to this great construction, this gargantuan tribute to a King whose name was long forgotten? Not to mention why the structure was ever commissioned to begin with? They, of course, believed they were doing God’s work, that God wanted to keep them safe from whatever was out there. (When provided with a task so demanding one must conjure up a valid reason as to why.)
Eventually plans changed, no longer horizontal but vertical. It was not a question of what could advance from the sea or neighbouring cities or states but what could careen from the sky. They began to build upwards, brick after brick, year after year, life after life, with no end in sight. Eventually the day came – they managed to fill in the last brick at the very top of the dome, the apex point. Up there, Heaven in plain sight, with their pulleys and canvasses, they celebrated. On ground level, in the Great Tower, a celebratory feast was announced. All royalty ate fine foods and drank red wine older than they themselves. Down below the moat and the bridge the people too cheered and cried in delight. Finally, the original promise of the King was vindicated – their safety was assured forevermore.
The fantastical architecture served a dual function: it acted as a gift to all of us and as a warning to whoever may approach us. Our Kings and Queens may be bestowed otherworldly powers by the Gods but they do not possess clairvoyance. They could not have known we would cheerfully live in this cage when construction commenced. The day the last brick was filled was the day the universe became insurmountably smaller, finite – acting as a guarantor for an eventual backlash against the powers that be. For that was the day the sun never rose, casting us into a perpetual night. There is something oddly unnatural about a lack of sunlight, even if only experienced for a short amount of time. It is another one of those states humankind cannot bear for very long. By the time the bricklayers reached the ground level, expecting a hero’s welcome, there was blood on the walls, thrones built from skulls and bones, hollowed carcasses and hungry wolves lying in wait. The operative orders of the new Executive were to tear down the dome, brick after brick, year after year, life after life.
It is impossible to know what will happen when our internal clocks recover – will we remember why the dome was decommissioned, why it existed at all or what existed before it? Will we be afraid of the outside – or will we simply live in wilful ignorance of such a concept? When will we hear again the crash of waves, the dawn chorus of birds, and the wholesome laughter of youth? Did we ever before?
There are whispers around the ziggurat forecourt. One can eavesdrop on those who gather at the central pond for purification. Light has started to trickle in from the very top of the dome, where the bricks are being removed one by one. We can hear the strange songs of lapwings and chants from faraway places. No visitors yet – to them we must be like the egg in the void, hidden, waiting for chaos to emerge. People are hushed, but the tone is persistent, the message pervasive – we must rebuild the wall, this time with stronger materials. From reading my family’s entries in the Book of Stones, I have lived centuries, perhaps millennia. I understand from reading the accounts of my grandfathers and their grandfathers before them that one must always pose the questions: who is spreading paranoia and trepidation around town at the most foundational of levels; who is giving such claims the buttressed support they need to infiltrate the minds of the impressionable; who profits from the building of the wall; are they building the wall to keep others out or to keep ourselves in?
Kevin Doalty Brophy