I gaze through glass at the clay relics: kings with sinewy calves and braided blue beards, plump women suggestively cupping their breasts, a recipe for pigeon stew written in cuneiform during Hammurabi’s reign (a-mu-ur-sa-na tu-pa-ra-as: split the pigeon). The curator, a salty Danish woman named Ulla Kasten who is dressed in purple from scarf to sandals, commands me to “study de captions,” and I oblige. But I didn’t come to this third-floor corner of Sterling Memorial Library, Yale’s vaunted Babylonian Collection, to read paper placards. I came because in the two years since I visited with a class, I haven’t stopped thinking about its clay cuneiform texts. So when Ulla leaves for a moment to retrieve a file, I duck into the adjacent room, a vault-like space labeled “Staff Only” whose towering chest of 288 drawers holds 40,000 clay tablets so heavy the floor is reinforced with steel rebar. These are the palm-sized surfaces on which writing was born. Wedge-shaped symbols cover the clay like lovers’ engravings on a wooden signpost, sequences of words and sounds arranged without punctuation. A stray rectangular slab from J.P. Morgan’s library sits on a wooden ledge, waiting to be re-catalogued. I hesitate, listening for Ulla’s steps, and then run the pads of my fingers over its dry, dusty grooves.
Even today, we swear on bound bibles and kiss fallen siddurim, submitting to the superstition that books have spiritual worth. But these clay tablets hold an unusual grip on our imaginations. They record what happened before the West decided the world was born. Thousands of years before Yahweh spoke to Noah, the Mesopotamian Anunna-gods unleashed a purification bath on earth’s clamorous children. Before Moses came Sargon, a baby emperor rescued from a basket in the Euphrates, a river that, unlike the Nile, actually was flanked by reeds. And before Pythagoras claimed his theorem, an anonymous Mesopotamian student living around 1800 B.C.E. used the same principle to measure a hypotenuse, immortalizing her sloppy math homework in clay. These texts rebalance a slanted history, mocking, as Ulla sometimes does, the sacred lie on which thousands of literature courses are built: “In the beginning, there were the Greeks…”
The promise of a truer, older past has sent others on my pilgrimage. Before Yale installed a security guard downstairs and Ulla alarmed her door, so-called “crackpots” sometimes burst into her office, desperate for a stage for their otherworldly theories. One man asked Ulla if she could see his third eye. She insisted he did not have one. Now barred from the building, they send fan mail, still hoping for a hint of recognition from Ulla and her colleagues, gatekeepers to the secrets of the ancient Near East. A polygamous prophet imprisoned in Palestine, Texas, recently sent them a garbled warning from God, only the latest in his series of doomsday predictions (“Do not mingle with Babylon of fallen order”). Another inmate sent color-coded maps describing the lost tribes of Genesis; a numerologist insisted Moses was the Egyptian king Ramos; and two dog breeders, one from Colorado and the other from California, wrote separately to declare that their Great Pyrenees dogs were descended from ancient Sumer. Ulla put the ladies in touch; now they discuss Sumerian canines with each other.
“We’re close to God,” Ulla says when I ask her why the collection attracts such quixotic stalkers. Her eyes smile mockingly; real scholars, of course, don’t deal in that foolishness. But I’m intrigued by these objects’ interaction with the heavens. Like Herodotus, who once wrote a fanciful history of prostitutes in Babylon without having visited, I can spin rumor into pompous speculation, even if I’ve only just arrived. So after immersing myself in the “crackpot file” over Ulla’s loud objections (“READ DE LABELS,” she demands), I offer Ulla a hypothesis: people chase her, as I did, because she and her colleagues are divine fact checkers, the only experts equipped to correct the myths of people’s youth. “You give the stamp of approval,” I tell her. When writing was born, so was accountability, and Ulla is our translator, separating syllable from symbol in an effort to retrace our secret past with certainty.
Ulla laughs kindly. “Forget about certainty. I mean, seriously,” she sighs. If writing is the birth of truth, it’s also an invitation to deceive. Standing on a glass-encased shelf near the chest of tablets is a foot-tall clay cylinder. The Babylonians used to design dedication nails, monuments meant to glorify kings through ornate inscriptions that were embedded into the wall of a newly built building. Later, they grew too large to be wedged in a building, and assumed a decorative pose. Kings eventually gave up the pretense and wrote inscriptions on thick cylinders instead. This one is written from King Nebuchadnezzar to himself, and Ulla offers me a rough translation: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the four corners of the world, who beat the Persians—which he did not—and leveled this and conquered that, built this building.”
Across the room hangs a poster from 3,000 years later, celebrating Saddam Hussein’s rebuilding of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in 1988. “Babylon Invokes Past Glories on the Path of Jihad and Glorious Development,” it announces. Saddam’s military headdress is flatter and less ornate than Nebuchadnezzar’s, but the poster shows their profiles neatly aligned, two men not shy about revising their horrid stamp on history. Saddam included a dedication brick in the new building that is inscribed in Arabic and, like his ancient mentor’s, boasts of false conquests. Ulla reads out her rhythmic translation again: “I, Saddam Hussein, ruler of the four corners of the earth, who beat the Persians—which he also did not—and leveled this and conquered that, rebuilt this building.”
Ulla banishes me finally, still ruing the timeless temptation to make stuff up. “Nothing ever changes. People tell stories. That’s what they do,” she says. I gather my things and stop for a moment at a fractured tablet from The Epic of Gilgamesh, a story that describes the eponymous hero’s search for immortality. A few large cracks cleave the tablet near the bottom, creating a triangular hole in the text that won’t ever be translated. In fact, only a quarter of the tablets Yale owns have been translated. One graduate student is preparing her dissertation on Sumerian color terms, one among many parts of the language not yet decoded. Far from a corrective on old stories, these tablets sow new ones, with gaps so vast anyone from crackpots to scholars might be induced to try adding a few words.
As I wander away from Gilgamesh, a hunched French researcher and Dominican priest named Marcel Sigrist sidles up to me, his eyes searching for an audience from beneath a mess of white hair. “Writing starts here,” he tells me, measuring his words. He wears his glasses crooked, and two faded green shirts slip out from beneath his blue sweater. “And once you have writing, you have control — of history, of time.” He has more to say, but his friend, a professor at Yale and the renowned translator of Gilgamesh, has arrived for a meeting. “It’s the great professor,” Marcel gasps playfully, and as the man passes, Sigrist bows as if before an altar.