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On the world’s first written piece of creative literature

‘[The Land] Between Two Rivers’, and this is indeed the literal meaning of the Greek proper noun ‘Mesopotamia’, is intriguing in the history of world civilisations. Not only intriguing, this region of West Asia is also eventful, globally decisive, and characteristically dramatic. So, for example, it is here in this very valley of two rivers that the world’s most ancient civilisations are known to have emerged, older than the Egyptian, Indus, and Chinese civilisations. We are talking about the valley of the redoubtable Dijla (not Dajla) and Furāt — the Tigris and the Euphrates, appellations carved in the inner recesses of our civilisational consciousness, alive in our collective memory, unruptured over some 7,000 years. Now it is the burden of the historian to explain this phenomenon: why has the valley taken this civilisational lead?

First Sumerians ruling in the fifth millennium BCE, then the Akkadians in the third, followed by the early Babylonian kingdom of Amorites from around 1950 BCE, making way circuitously to the As-syrians now creating our globe’s largest empire at that point in history. Then, entering into its finale some 1,300 years later, we see the massive empire succumbing to the power of Neo-Babylonians with the rise of the famous Chaldean prince Nebuchadnezzar II, a historical personage believed to have been referred to in the Quran in its 17th chapter, and favourably so.

In the time that intervened, much happened in the Dijla-Furāt valley that played a crucial role in shaping the subsequent history of the world. The monumental progress in large-scale building tech-niques and architecture, an achievement embodied in the mysterious construction of the ziggurat; the promulgation of the world’s first legal code; the elevation of the priestly class to a lofty stature; the forging of iron weapons; the building of military siege structures and equipment — mines, towers, rams. Indeed, the list of these pioneering leads is way longer. And, then, there is this decisive event in the entire human civilisation that was gifted to us by the valley: the invention of a writing system, recognised as the earliest in recorded history — that wedge-shaped boat-like cuneiform script marked with a split reed on clay tablets, these tablets then baked in the sun.

And it is on these very sun-baked cuneiform tablets that we have discovered the Epic of Gilgamesh, legitimately considered to be the human culture’s first epic — in fact, more than that: it is admitted as the world’s first written piece of creative literature. Who was Gilgamesh? Again, here we have a historical ruler of Mesopotamia, not just a mythological figment. The Sumerian ruler Gilgamesh had based himself around 2600 BCE in the ancient city of Uruk that lay to the north-west of Basra. But then, we do see this real person wrapped in legend. Quickly deified and soon beginning to appear in the list of gods, Gilgamesh was worshipped in temples, and, as the Epic has it, he was deemed two-thirds god and one-third man, being begotten through the goddess Ninsun.

The roots of the Epic lie in five Sumerian poems dating from around 2100 BCE during what is known as the Third Dynasty of Ur, the dynasty having been named after a flourishing cultural metropolis in the ancient West Asian world. With this source material, our epic was cobbled together, coming down to us in two versions, the Old Babylonian Version and the Standard Version. Written in Akkadian, an extinct Semitic language, the first version dates from around the 18th century BCE and survives only in a few tablets. The second, belonging to some five to six centuries later, is extant in 12 tablets which are considered by archeologists to constitute roughly two-thirds of the entire text. The account of the discovery of the Epic tablets in our own era opens up a window to another fascinating and instructive story. The best tablets were found in Nineveh at the library of the 7th-century BCE Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, and it was Hormuzd Rassam whose monumental archeological work yielded this fruit in 1853. Rassam, who died just over a century ago, was himself an Assyrian, later serving as a British diplomat.

But back to the Epic. The first half of the story, covering Tablet One through to Tablet Seven in the Standard Version, is packed with heroic deeds, intrigues, betrayals and the direct involvement of gods in human activities — deities who take sides, exact vengeance, and even conspire. The main characters are Gilgamesh himself, made largely of divine substance; and Enkidu, a wild man sent by gods to punish Gilgamesh for violating innocent brides, but who through the seductive tricks of a woman becomes fully humanised and ends up befriending his erstwhile demigod prey; they form a friendly bond. Then begins the tale of their adventures — the adventures of these two companions, Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

We read about their resolve to journey to Cedar Mountains and defeat its monster guardian, Humbaba. They are advised by the sober elders not to venture into Humbaba’s dark and perilous territory, but they do not yield. Then, the fourth tablet speaks of a dramatic premonition: Gilgamesh has five terrifying dreams in which he sees crumbling mountains, devastating thunderstorms, raging bulls, and gigantic fire-breathing birds. But when he narrates these dreams to Enkidu, the co-adventurer interprets them as good omens!

The following two tablets give a graphic account of pitched battles in the Cedar Forest and then back in the Dijla-Furāt valley. What is striking, here we also see human beings both confronting gods in their frenzied spirit of adventure and valour, and also colluding with gods to defeat enemies. In the Forest, the mountains quake and the sky turns black with the tumult when the two friends enter into a merciless fight with the dreaded monster Humbaba. The god Shamash sends 13 winds to bind the monster, and with this divine participation Gilgamesh is able to slay him, carrying his head back to Uruk in a raft built from a cedar tree felled by the adventurers. They sail back along the Furāt.

Back in the valley they pick a fight with the goddess Ishtar who, with the aid of her father, sends the Bull of Heaven, Gugalanna, to avenge her. Gugalanna ushers in much devastation in the valley, lowering the waters of the Furāt, drying up marshes, and opening up huge pits that swallow hundreds of people. In their defiance to the goddess, Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack the Bull and bravely kill it, offering up its heart to Shamash in gratitude. Now Enkidu has an ominous dream.

In the dream, Enkidu finds himself marked out for death, a ‘conspiracy’ by the gods for avenging the killing of Humbaba and Gugalanna. Then, in another dream, he sees himself being taken to the Netherworld by a terrifying Angel of Death. Now follows the bleak description of the underworld, the afterlife — it is a chamber of dust, darkness, and despair; its inhabitants eat dust; they are covered in bird feathers; they are guarded by an eerie supervisor. Enkidu does die in fact, for in a cosmic irony the struggle to avoid death hastens death!

Here we enter the second half of the Epic. This half is less eventful but more philosophical. Enkidu is dead, leaving Gilgamesh in deep anguish, anguish attended by grief and anxiety. And then, another irony: Gilgamesh’s distress leads him to contemplate the meaning of life and death; he now begins to acquire wisdom. Mourning for his friend and seeking the secret of eternal life, he undertakes long and dangerous journeys, now on this bank of the Euphrates, now on that bank of the Tigris. In his wanderings he meets the survivors of the Great Flood, Utnapishtim and his wife, the only humans granted eternity by the gods.

Gilgamesh eventually learns the terrifying paradox of life — life is bestowed on the condition of its own end, “for when the gods created man, they let death be his share!” He is told that the only creature who could cross the Waters of Death has been long destroyed, and that it is futile to defy the common fate of the humans, for seeking eternal endurance of life diminishes its joys and, paradoxically, precipitates death, its contrary. The only way to survive death was to leave a mark in history and, indeed, Gilgamesh lives on in the cuneiform marks on the epic tablets.

How interesting! It was here in this very land between two rivers where arose all three monotheistic systems — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — and they arose from the bosom of a polytheistic plethora of major and minor deities. With the Epic as the backdrop, we see a multiplicity of paradoxes in world history, for while there are glowing parallels of the Gilgamesh story in the Abrahamic scriptures, such as the accounts of the Great Flood and human figures having been granted eternal life, there are also some drastic conceptual and thematic reversals, in some cases viciously executed reversals.

The region’s many gods, all possessing human characteristics, now crumble into The One, declared to be The Wholly Other, utterly transcendental, the created world sharing no attributes with Him. This rejection of human-like attributes of the deity was uncompromising — for example, in Judaism the personal name of God, YHVH could not even be uttered, let alone understood in human terms; it was totally ineffable. Note too that in the Hebrew Bible we read God saying, “I am that I am!” In Islam, there is nothing more dreaded than admitting any multiplicity of gods, no sin more heinous than assigning partners to Godhead. And then, Sufis too say, “Huwa Huwa” (He is He); for there was no language to describe Him, “there was none like unto Him.”

Enkidu’s fate had thrown into sharp relief the gloom of afterlife; the Sumerian Netherworld was a world of dust, of unending misery, dejection, and desolation. Now in the Abrahamic doctrine the afterlife becomes the life, a life for which the temporal world was but a preparation, a life with eternal bliss and joy for those who prepare well; not dust, it had lush gardens and rivers with glittering waters. There are profound ethical implications of this reversal — and what a drastic reversal this is!

And more, the later history of the valley is the locus of yet another dramatic contingency that proved so very fertile for literary imagination: it is here on the Western bank of Furāt, at Karbala, where Husain along with the members of his family and supporters was massacred by the forces of Yazid. This fateful event has forever changed the Muslim consciousness, engendering brimful of cultural yields like so many stars that rise along the edge of a burning piece of paper as it is consumed by the flame. Indeed, the literary power of Karbala ought not to go unrecognised — what of poetic genres such as marsiya, nauha, and salam; what of performative innovations such as the musically unique soz-khvani, and the art of declamation and eloquent oratory embodied in zikr; what of dramatic renditions found in the Iranian ta‘ziye tradition, a tradition that takes architectural forms in South Asia — all of this, and more, sprout forth from the Karbala event. So powerful it is that it rises from the domain of history to the domain of metaphysics to become a living metaphor. Looking for a Husain in the caravan of the Hijaz in Zauq-o-Shauq, Iqbal speaks of the shiny hair of Dijla and Furāt.

More than 4,000 years have elapsed since the earliest tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And now once again, a poet of our times Jaun Elia comes out with his own Tablets (Alwah, plural of Lauh) — a slender collection of poems, both blank and rhyming, as well as some prose, that has been given the title Rāmūz. It seems to me that the image of the valley of Dijla and Furāt sits in Jaun Elia’s heart like William Blake’s worm that lands inside the rose and its “dark secret love” eats up the rose thievishly from the inside. With his Amroha milieu and his family creed, it is small wonder that the two rivers kept calling him back, and with a single sigh through the Karbala reminiscences he traversed thousands of years on the waves of Dijla and Furāt; so he recovers Gilgamesh … The word “Rāmūz” is generated by the Arabic verbal root “RaMaZa” which means to symbolise, to allude to, to speak metaphorically. But Jaun Elia’s work, composed intermittently till his death in 2002, is complex; it is not simply a blind emulation of the Epic. There are clear reflections in it of the mysterious works of the Sufi Hallaj too who was put on the gallows in 922 CE, reflections particularly of his Kitāb al-Tawāsīn, and there are creative parallels also with the mythological symbolism of the Iliad attributed to the legendary Greek poet Homer. Jaun Elia could integrate into his imaginative world so many streams, so many modes of thought, so many eons. But let us wait for the forthcoming edition of the Rāmūz.

SYED NOMANUL HAQ is Professor and Advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.