Before him there were trees of precious stones,
And he went straight to look at them.
The tree bears carnelian as its fruit,
Laden with clusters (of jewels), dazzling to behold,
It bears lapis lazuli as foliage,
Bearing fruit, a delight to look upon.
[25 lines are missing here, describing the garden in detail.]
... of the sea ... lapis lazuli,
Like thorns and briars ... carnelian,
Rubies, hematite, ...
Like... emeralds (?)
... of the sea,
- The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet IX, trans. Maureen Gallery Kovacs
This is the earliest known literary depiction of a garden. Time wore away the clay tablet on which it was written so that we no longer have a view of the whole, just these imagistic fragments, a few imperishable precious stones separated by ellipses. The jewelled plants in the Epic of Gilgamesh remind me of the crystal flowers in J. G. Ballard's story 'The Garden of Time' which, while they last, are able to keep at bay the progress of time. There is an analogy with the nature of a garden too, as Donald Dunham pointed out in his essay, 'Architecture without Nature': 'just as evidence of an untended garden's existence slips gracefully back into the earth, so too elemental nature has eroded the ancient tablet's legibility.'
The Gilgamesh tablets were found in the buried Library of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king who I described here in an earlier post, dining in the garden at Nineveh whilst a tree nearby hung not with jewels, but with 'the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites.' When Nineveh was sacked and burned, the library's contents were fired and thus, ironically, made more durable. Over the years, as Egypt's papyrus libraries crumbled away or went up in flames, the clay tablets preserving the Gilgamesh Epic lay unknown under a mound near Mosul. Heat had transformed a story originally written on wet clay with with a blunt reed into a part of the landscape, awaiting rediscovery.
This process came to mind when I read last week about a 100-foot Gillian Clarke poem written in clay onto the landscape of North Wales. The BBC reported that
'a giant mural of a poem on a rock face in Snowdonia for an outdoor theatrical production has been likened to graffiti after attempts to remove it failed. Rain was supposed to wash the writing off the slab near Gladstone Rock but there are worries it has been baked on due to the warm September weather. National Theatre Wales has apologised and said it will rectify the problem. ... A spokesperson explained that Clarke's poem had been written on "bare rock with a non harmful clay-based product designed to wash away in the rain". The spokesperson added: "However, the unseasonably dry weather in September has meant that her powerful words have remained visible longer than expected. With autumn now upon us nature can take its course and continue to wash away the poem."'
The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI
I wonder whether any traces of this poem will remain after the autumn rains, or if all efforts will be made to eradicate its words completely. The Gilgamesh fragment shown above comes after the garden episode and describes a great deluge when the gods caused humankind to be almost entirely washed away. In the nineteenth century, at a time when Biblical history was under intense scrutiny, the 'powerful words' of this ancient text were capable of provoking extreme excitement. According to the British Museum site, 'this Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum. On reading the text he ... jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.''