The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress. The first part of this excerpt can be found here.
If Europe could not be heir to these civilizations by blood, it would be heir by divine will. Europe had conquered the globe, sent colonists hither and yon to seize and capture. The blessing of the firstborn is not automatic, but conferred through the declaration of the father.
The Father God of all creation had conferred on his beloved Son, Jesus the Christ, the entire earth. Behold, my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.
The Christian nations of Europe knew the earth belonged to Christ, to Jesus the Messiah, god’s anointed king. And in his name, they took possession of the earth.
They’d forgotten that Jesus the Palestinian Jew had often lived at odds with imperial Rome. He’d been executed by Rome as a political prisoner. The charge? “This man claimed to be the son of god.” In the language of Jesus’ day, this meant heir to the deity’s kingdom, the ruler of the land.
Ah, yes! A king! We knew it. Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of All, and give governance of the earth to all who pay homage to Christ the King. Those that do not: invade, capture, vanquish. Reduce to perpetual slavery.
But what would the French and British generals of the eighteenth century have made of Jesus if they’d been there in first century Palestine the day that Jesus went up on the mountain to set the record straight about divine blessings?
Up the mountainside the Jewish rabbi walked and then sat down to teach his students and the nearby crowds.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he began, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.”
They call this crazy motherfucker a king? This asinine anointed one spewing ancient poetry like a drunken fool?
The meek will inherit the land.
Fuck that. The land belongs to the strong, the warriors, the conquerors. Hail Caesar! Fuck the meek.
The meek will inherit the land.
Shut your mouth, fool!
The Rosetta Stone was just one (major) discovery in the development of archaeology as a discipline. In 1835, fewer than forty years after the Rosetta Stone, a British East India Company army officer named Henry Rawlinson visited the Behistun Inscriptions in Persia (modern-day Iran). An ancient Persian king known as Darius the Great had carved stories about his reign and predecessors into a the rock on a cliff at Mount Behistun, writing the same text in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Assyrian, and Elamite.
Rawlinson wasn’t the first European to puzzle over cuneiform script. Since the fifteenth century, a handful of European travelers had been intrigued by cuneiform inscriptions of Persepolis in Persia, and the cuneiform carved into the bricks of Ur and the ruins of Babylon in modern-day Iraq. But no one had been able to figure out how to read this script.
The Behistun Inscriptions, like the Rosetta Stone, made it possible to figure out the vocabulary and grammar of the previously unknown ancient languages.
While Rawlinson worked on deciphering Old Persian in the Behistun Inscriptions, a French scholar named Eugene Burnouf was also trying to crack Old Persian. Burnouf had found a clue in the copies of the Persepolis Inscriptions that had been brought to Europe, and he was able to identity and publish an alphabet of thirty letters of Old Persian.
These were not the only players--many more scholars had a hand in deciphering cuneiform script. But you get the gist: Europeans were figuring out how to read the long-lost literature of Egypt and the Middle East. And they’d started to dig and find more and more of these cuneiform texts.
Libraries of cuneiform texts were often well-preserved even in ruins. Unlike writing on papyrus reed, cuneiform texts were durable because they were made of baked clay. To create a tablet of cuneiform, scholars would take soft clay and use a wedge-shaped stylus to make marks in the clay. When the writing was done, the clay was dried in the sun or baked hard. If a city was sacked and burned the fire didn’t destroy the tablets, which had already been kiln-dried.
As I stared back at the skull in the basement of the Penn Museum, I thought about Gudea’s city, now an archaeological excavation in Iraq. The archaeological finds of the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq, had been spun by Europe and the U.S. as universal origin stories.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest stories known to humankind, it’s true. But why was it marketed as the world’s myth before acknowledging that it first belonged to the people of Iraq?
When it came to Britain’s own backyard, no one quibbled: Stonehenge was of worldwide significance, but it was first a cultural artifact of Britain. But when it came to the Middle East, archaeology and geopolitics were intertwined. Britain and France had been digging up and doling out parts of the Middle East when it came to land and political governance. Why not divvy up the ancient stories and material culture, too?