The dust of an old civilisation is a source of endless stories.
Some real, most imagined. It all depends on what they leave behind for you to find.
HG Wells opened up this Pandora’s Box in his classic Time Machine. He builds a beautiful late Victorian vehicle tailor-made for the fourth dimension, and like all the other wonders of that age, it works and changes his life utterly and irrevocably. He travels thousands of years into the future to discover that life has altered rather horrifyingly, with half of us being farmed as meat for the other half. The machine’s inventor flees the predators, stumbling by chance on a museum from the distant past – perhaps South Kensington itself.
Hollywood got hold of the book, and in 1960 made a film which elaborated on the Museum idea. What if the lost civilisations had left discs behind which were records of the voices of the lost civilisation? Might the Inventor be able to find out how the human race came to this terrifying state of affairs?
We want to hear their voices, the lost civilisations. We swoon over the Greek and the Roman and the Egyptian. We have made an icon of Biblical writings.
One sunny day in 1923, on the Ras Shamra headland in Syria, this peasant farmer was ploughing a field when he opened up a dark cavern, there in the earth. And when he investigated, it appeared to be some kind of tomb.
The oxen were led away and the archaeologists called in. And they discovered not one tomb, but a whole great necropolis, worthy of a great civilisation. And so naturally, the archaeologists began looking round for the city and there it sat on the coast, a lost Mediterranean port.
The magnificent city of Ugarit is, I believe, a great mound some 65 feet high, and inside the archaeologists who worked tirelessly, stopping only when forced to by World War II – found a splendid palace of 90 rooms,grouped around eight courtyards. There were many other sumptuous city houses besides. And crowning the hill were two temples: one to Baal, son if El the king of all deities; and one to Dagon, the god of fertility and wheat.
And its date is enough to make men swoon. The rooms of the palace hummed with life and industry and politics some 2,000 years before Christ.
It stands to reason that such a place would have had a library.
Not one, but four: a palace library, a temple library and two private libraries, all carefully inscribed on clay tablets in cuneiform. And suddenly this became not just a splendid city but learned place which chronicled its rise and fall. The tablets dated from around 1200BC. The body of tablets use between them seven scripts, four languages. The tablets dealt with diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious matters.
Later, in the seventies, more libraries were found at the great city. It is a lost civilisation which could be found once again by its words. Its people possibly laid their first foundations in 6000BC, and lived their greatest moments from 1800 to 1180BC.
They left words to show how they fell, of course.
The last King of Ugarit sent a letter to the King of the Hittites, asking for help.
“My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came here; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?…Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.”
Help never came. That great civilisation was entirely subsumed.
But they left their words. I shall leave you with these, from the Epic of Baal, written around 1350BC.
“I have a word to tell you,
A story to recount to you;The word of the tree and the charm of the stone,
The whisper of the heavens to the earth,
Of the seas to the stars.
I understand the lightning which the Heavens do not know,
And the earth’s masses cannot understand.
Come, and I will reveal it.”