This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.
But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.
In the midst of all these fun articles, I’ve been working on a bigger project: a novel set in ancient Mesopotamia.
Well, maybe “novel” isn’t exactly right — it’s a collection of short stories set in the same area, all linked to each other by themes, characters, legends, and so on. Together, the stories form a narrative that reaches far back into the ancient past.
As I was saying… a Sumerian walks into a bar. Doesn’t really have to be a Sumerian, actually. A guy. Any guy.
Guy walks into a bar, orders a drink, tries to join in on the conversation. But none of the regulars seem to be telling stories or jokes. One of them just says a number — “243!” — and everyone laughs. Then somebody else answers, “17!” and everybody laughs at that.
Guy asks the bartender, “What the hell’s goin’ on in here?”
When Aristagoras, Greek sea-trader of Piraeus, first laid eyes upon the treasures amassed by his distant cousins in the Asian provinces of Lydia and Ionia, more than just his avarice was awakened. When he studied the layers of gold inlay on an earring crafted on the shores of the Oxus, and ran his hand over a luxuriant, thick robe woven high in the Zagros, he did something a Hellene rarely did:
My fascination with this started when, as a child growing up in Zimbabwe, I used to run and play amongst the ancient stone walls of the magnificent Zimbabwe Ruins. There is nothing more hauntingly beautiful or fascinating than a mysterious, long-gone civilization.
I drove by the Assyrian carvings on the towers of Hollywood & Highland today, Louisiana rap music blasting from my speakers, and I felt a feeling that I’ve felt many times before, but one whose manifold nuances and raw emotional impact I’ve never been able to convey clearly to anyone — not other rap aficionados; not best friends; not even girlfriends or family members — because the progression from ancient Mesopotamia to modern gang culture isn’t exactly an obvious, linear one.
But to me, the emotional and instinctual substrates of the ancient Near East and modern ghetto culture are so tightly bound up with one another as to be mutually inextricable. Let me try to explain why.