Tome Raiders

The largest collection of cuneiform clay tablets in the Western Hemisphere is crannied away in a corner of the third floor of Sterling Memorial Library, and even though Yale is among the best places in the world to study Assyriology, there simply are not that many Assyriologists, and it shows. When, in early September, I first tried to find my way to the Babylonian Collection, neither the attendants at Sterling’s front desk nor the guard outside the Stacks knew where it was, nor is its location listed on all of the reference maps in Sterling’s nave, and, despite the library’s otherwise resplendent aesthetics, the empty hallway that led me to The Epic of Gilgamesh flaunted only burnt-out light bulbs and a puddle of pungent water courtesy of a corroded bathroom pipe whose appearance suggested that it, too, was a Mesopotamian relic. Of course I startled the curator, Ulla Kasten, when I opened the door to the exhibition room (“I’m sorry,” she said, jumping from her desk, “I just wasn’t expecting anyone”), and of course I surprised her by being an English major (“Students of literature never remember that literature begins with the Sumerians”), and of course I elated her when I began to examine a Babylonian figurine (“Feel free to read all my labels; nobody ever does anyhow”). Of course a forgotten civilization would have a forgotten collection.

The oldest writing in the world is, as far as I can tell, exactly like the newest writing except that it looks sloppier. That’s partly due to the medium; writing on wet clay was an inherently journalistic enterprise because, under the Fertile Crescent’s scorching sun, it wasn’t too long before that clay began to dry—just try chiseling a story on a slab of hardened earth with a water reed and you’ll forgive the Sumerians for not crossing every t. (That said, if a scribe made a mistake, he could moisten the clay and revise, but this resulted in a curious side effect. The most rewritten parts of the tablet are also the thinnest—their clay whittled down from repeated washing and writing—and so we can suss out just how persistently an author strove to find his mot juste.) In any case, the writers of old engaged in the confrontation of challenging ideas, using rhetoric, irony, humor, and metaphor in the same way we do. Their inventions became our conventions.

Most of the displayable collection sits behind glass cases in a rather uninspiring room. If not for a pair of elegant windowpanes, one depicting a Babylonian sphinx, the other a royal retinue, you might forget that the objects on show are very valuable and very old. The newest date from circa 1 CE, the oldest from 3,000 years earlier. Some 40,000 other tablets are hidden offstage, in an archive so weighty that its floor has been reinforced in concrete.

One of the larger tablets clamored for my attention; it had a yellower tint than its compatriots, lustrous and inviting and exuding self-confidence. It was an unmistakable commodity: the world’s first recipe. “In some sense, writing developed for that recipe,” Kasten told me. As villages grew into towns, and there were too many people to know everyone’s business, the Sumerians developed a basic method of recording food production: the original bookkeeping. Soon, writing expanded beyond a mere instrument of tabulation for Abednago’s sheep and Balthazar’s onions. No longer content with discussing how much food was produced and who had it, some savvy scribe decided to explain what to do with it. The recipe tablet is flanked by other ancient objects: a water basin, a rattle, a gameboard, an adoption contract, the story of a jealous marriage, each and every artifact or panel the result of handiwork, each and every handiworker sustained by food, the very food whose dissemination was aided by the creation of writing and whose preparation was abetted by these instructions for making pigeon stew. Pigeon stew! “The haute cuisine of Mesopotamia,” according to the curatorial description. Can you imagine Sumerian epicureans eking out their livelihoods in pursuit of this ambrosial nectar? We can make it, too. Thanks to Kasten’s unread labels, the age of enlightenment is upon us all (but forgive the terseness, perhaps another byproduct of rapidly drying clay tablets):

“Take a pigeon. Split it in half. Also prepare some red meat. Boil water, throw in fat, and add herbs and spices…”

So our recipes have improved. But the idea of a recipe has not changed.

Other wonders abound. I was particularly moved by a tablet describing extispicy, the science of interpreting the future through the entrails of sacrificed animals (a practice which has since become illegal, unless you use road kill). Another tablet calculates the ratio of the sides of an isosceles right triangle, a mathematical discovery falsely attributed to the Greeks. The formidable stele of the code of King Hammurabi, slightly removed from the rest of the collection and situated next to a stack of tomes that describe the economic and social history of the Orient, has a bas-relief of Hammurabi’s encounter with the sun god. (Unlike the rest of the collection, this stele is just a copy; blame the French.) King Hammurabi claimed that his law code was divine, which is a magnificent self-defense, because even if the laws are intensely disagreeable, one cannot shoot God’s messenger. I see Hammurabi, lying atop a bed of virgins and saying something like, “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them,” before reaching for another bowl of pigeon stew.

That God’s law is untouchable is not the only thing the Babylonians figured out first. One tablet is has a selection from The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest poems to feature a god using a flood to make a tabula rasa. In this room we have divine law, a deluge, a legal precursor to the Torah and the Ten Commandments, a water laver for ablutions like those described in the Hebrew Bible, and, for that matter, a description of Mesopotamian temples conspicuously similar to the alleged form of the one in Ancient Israel. I see the religion of my grandparents, the creeds and rituals that buoyed them through pogroms and wars and depressions and genocides, the all-sustaining beliefs shared by their grandparents and by their grandparents’ grandparents in an apparently unbroken chain for thousands of years. I see that the convictions for which my faithful ancestors of generations past would have sacrificed their lives (in deference to the magnificent innovation of those wayward Israelites and the infinite wisdom of their fetterless God) were actually convictions that my ancient relatives probably borrowed from the Babylonians. The timeworn foundations of Western jurisprudence were wrested from unknown and unknowable stone slabs that sit idly in a nondescript room separated from every synagogue and church and courthouse proudly displaying the Ten Commandments, separated indeed from the world at large, by a pool of toilet water.

Not everyone has forgotten. I have gravitated to the collection a few times in the two months since I discovered it. The water has long since been mopped up and most of the light bulbs replaced, but I still find myself the only one there, so I wonder: How many of Yale’s world-class resources go unnoticed? This can’t be the only one. When I go, I always stand before a small and fractured stone slab. It is a sort of prayer, the label explains, that would have been set before the statue of a god:

“I am a scholar, but whatever I have been taught has turned into drivel for me. My hand for writing is gone, my mouth is not up to discourse. I am not old, but my hearing is thick, my look cross-eyed…”

It may come as no encouragement that educational discontent is as old as education. But, I assure you, I have never felt so perfectly connected to the course of human history as when I commiserated with that ancient Babylonian.