The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress.
My Wandering Body
Under Oxford’s yellow moon, I am a transgressor. In daylight, I am buried alive in books, reading about ancient Near Eastern gods and how they visited the earth in physical form, embodied in cult statuary.
My god has no such face. The holy texts forbid us to make carved images of the deity in any form, whether human or animal. But into that empty space, I pour all my fears and horrors and stories about why my god has abandoned me to this world that must ever remain a pale and transient shadow in the wake of heaven’s realness.
Tell me, O lover, why you have wandered away and left me a wanderer. What have I done? And what must I do to bring you back again?
I am lovesick for my god’s body, for I am only a glass held up to his luminous skin. I have no substance of my own. When his face disappears to the meadow, my form vanishes with him, our union contingent on mutual absence.
Together, we disappear. As one, we fall apart. Hand in hand, we lose all bonds to the world of cells and atoms.
At night, I close my eyes and vacuity presses against my chest. I wear my nonexistence like a scarlet letter, waiting for divine breath to fill my lungs and make me real.
As fate and Dr. Stuttgart’s syllabus have ordained, I am reading what scholars have dubbed “disappearing god texts,” stories from a Bronze Age people in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) called the Hittites. In each of these myths, a god becomes displeased and quits the land they govern, which causes the land to languish. The lost deity is sought and found, and the people perform expiatory rites to reconcile with the god and entice them back to the region.
A new framing of the old Christian myths starts to weave in my head. Hasn’t my own god left this earth because of his displeasure with humans?
My god used to take walks in the garden of Eden in the cool parts of the day, the scriptures say. But when the two humans ate the forbidden fruit, he put a curse on them and on the ground and drove them out of the garden. At the garden gate, he posted the cherubim and a flaming sword to guard it so that the humans would not enter it again.
Since that day, humans have been barred access to the deity’s presence. My god visits in dreams and visions and speaks through priests and prophets. We cannot see his face, for his beauty would kill our sin-ridden bodies. He hides himself in tabernacles and temples and in the cleft of mountain rocks. Yet without him, we languish. The world dies. Who will search out our god and draw him back to the land so that all can flourish once more?
The sacred books say that long ago the deity spoke to our ancestors through the prophets in many ways, but in these last days, he has spoken to us through his son. Hasn’t his son, Jesus, searched for god and found him? Isn’t it Jesus’ sacrificial death that has cleansed us? Has he not expiated our sin and made a way for the Father to return to us once more?
I piece together an etiology of estrangement, filling out the mystery of my empty body. If I can take these dry bones and wire them into a crude frame, maybe I can start to feel my own flesh as real.
I treat ancient Near Eastern texts like castoffs from a thrift store, putting together the parts that resonate with my theology, decking myself out in an ensemble derived from many different cultures, eras, places, and peoples.
After about half a decade of approaching the ancient Near East in this piecemeal fashion, something starts to feel off to me. Maybe it’s the way I find it hard to remember the contemporary names of the geographic provenance of each myth. Why do I have to perpetually look up Ḫattuša, the capital of the Hittite empire (c. 1600-1178 BCE), to be reminded that its ruins lie near Boğazkale, Turkey, in the district of Çorum Province? Why do I find it so hard to connect these ancient texts to a specific region on a contemporary map?
It isn’t just Ḫattuša. There are many cities mentioned in biblical texts that I have to keep looking up. It’s taken a long time for the location of Babylon to settle in: The city’s remains are in present-day Hillah, Babil Governorate, Iraq, about 53 miles south of Baghdad.
But, I warn myself, knowing this geographic detail isn’t enough. When I hear or read the word ‘Babylon,’ I need to resist mental conflation that threatens to take place. Babylon isn’t a static name divorced from its usage in specific times and contexts.
I have to remember that this same piece of earth housed multiple communities, kingdoms, and empires over the years. And that even talking about ‘Babylon’ in terms of city limits and geographic borders can be reductive because its symbolic meanings have lives of their own. There’s Babylon the city. Babylon the empire. Babylon as an image of power. Babylon as a symbol of injustice. Babylon as shorthand for its rulers. Babylon as the embodiment of ideologies that vary depending on the speaker.
I repeat to myself the vital truth that a name or a story isn’t a fixed thing; its meaning depends on its usage in a specific context. I can’t pick and choose the myths and texts that I like and weave them into a modern theological system without doing violence to them and, by extension, the communities that produced them.
I come to this understanding slowly, gradually. The process of figuring out the riddle of my spotty memory is nearly as piecemeal as my study of ancient Near Eastern religions and mythologies. The distinction between adaptation and appropriation here is subtle, a matter of historical actors.
If the inception of archaeology as a discipline hadn’t been predicated on violence, then maybe this melding together of stories wouldn’t be so bad. If the stories had been given instead of stolen, their transformation for new ears might have held a different message. If the purpose of ancient Near Eastern archaeology had started as a quest to elevate old voices instead of reifying the doctrine of European supremacy, maybe I could wear these stories without turning my body into an agent of violence.
But the history of exploitation of the Middle East by my European ancestors changes my relationship to these stories. I can’t pretend to be a disembodied or neutral storyteller.
If my memory lapses were merely a matter of a few facts or dates tumbling out of my brain, the offense might be forgivable, but the truth is much deeper and far more nefarious. The problem isn’t that I personally have a bad memory, but that archaeology developed as a nationalistic enterprise of European powers.
Through the lenses of British and French archaeology, these texts and artifacts have only had significance as intellectual ‘ancestors’ of the West. I find it hard to connect the ancient landscape with the contemporary because colonialism framed these as two separate spheres and assigned them different symbolic values in the story of human history as told by the West.
Although the ‘ancient Near East’ and the ‘Middle East’ are Eurocentric names that denote roughly the same geographic area, they are separated not only by time, but by their place in the colonizing imagination.
The image of the ancient world of Mesopotamia is a dead but glorious past resurrected by the West. Christened the ‘cradle of civilization’ by European powers, the East becomes the West’s own origin story, the birthplace of the globe’s oldest civilizations, which are precursors to the great British and French empires. By contrast, the contemporary Middle East is a portrait of the conquered, of lesser kingdoms that failed to achieve the greatness of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Both of these worlds are inferiors of the West. The civilizations of the ancient Near East are the immature child and Western civilization is the man, the apex of glories past. The Middle East is comprised of lands subdued by Britain and France, not simply by military might, but by the superiority of culture.
I don’t have all the details ironed out, but as I learn more about the shape of global colonization, I start to see the outline of its form in other places. The Church is the deity’s wayward bride, beloved but inferior, waiting for the day he will return to claim her and purify her for his glory. My body is an empty land, wild and waste, waiting to be discovered by a husband who will unlock all my mysteries. The East is the exotic other longing for the West to dig up its hidden treasures and open up its untapped resources.
Without the specific historical details, these shapes feel analogous but disparate. But as I move closer, I see how the threads intersect. Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Papal Bull instituting the Doctrine of Discovery, the Rosetta Stone, the Behistun Inscriptions, my wandering body–all these are strands woven through a global tapestry that’s as sinister as it is vast.