Fire and Clay
The Topkapi Palace, in Istanbul, has one special room, the Chamber of the Blessed Mantle, home to salient relics of Islamic culture: the Blessed or Holy Mantle, which was a gift from Muhammad himself, and the Sacred Standard, which is said to have belonged to the prophet. In that room a unique performance has been going on since 25 July 1518: the Qur’an has been read aloud without interruption up to the present day. Sultan Selim I gave the order after placing the relics gained in his conquest of Egypt and, since then, there has been an imam reading the sacred book out loud twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In over 405 years, the reading was interrupted only once, on 3 March 1924, coinciding with the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate and the advent of the modern, secular Republic of Turkey. Religious orders were closed down and the palace became a museum. However, in the late 1980s, the Turkish Islamic rehabilitation gained momentum and the permanent reading at the Chamber of the Blessed Mantle was re-established. The power of this tradition of recitation is so strong that there is a long list of imams waiting their turn to continue the performance – it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them.
In the city of Yazd, central Iran, there is a Zoroastrian temple with a bronze urn where a fire burns that never goes out. It’s an eternal flame that has been alight since 470 AD. Originally, the fire wasn’t at the Yazd temple location, it was started at Karyan, a more southern town until, in the 7th century, Karyan was conquered by the Muslims and its inhabitants massacred, so the fire was transferred to another town, Aqda, where it stayed hidden for 700 years. After that, it was moved to Ardakan for another 300 years and, eventually, to Yazd where a new temple was erected in 1934 to preserve the fire. Zoroastrian priests have been keeping it alive for almost 1,550 years in small constructions made to look like a poor man’s house from the outside, transporting it when needed, sometimes just as embers carried on foot – against all odds, for Zoroastrianism was suppressed following the Muslim conquest of Persia: sacred fires were extinguished; temples were desecrated, destroyed, or transformed into mosques; conversions were forced; and followers of the ancient religion persecuted. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, monotheistic religion in the world, founded by Zoroaster, or Zarathustra (considered by some the first philosopher, who lived around 4,000 years ago), and it became the official religion of the Persian Empire. They don’t worship fire, for them it’s a symbol of the mind illuminated by truth and it must never be extinguished. It is no wonder that Zoroastrianism, whose community has been dwindling over the centuries, is somewhat enjoying a revival, being adopted by many Iranians, who rediscover the roots of their long lost cultural identity as a means to express their disagreement with Iran’s theocratic regime.
In Syria, 55 kilometers away from Aleppo, there is an ancient town called Ebla. Founded around 3,500 BC, and situated halfway between Egypt and Mesopotamia, it became a very important trading, political, and cultural center in the Levant. Much like any other city in the Ancient Near East, Ebla was destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout its long history until its definitive destruction around 1,600 BC. Although smaller settlements occupied the area in subsequent centuries, the site remained devastated, obliterated from memory, ultimately abandoned in the 7th century with the coming of Islam, covered by sand for millennia, until it began to be excavated in 1964. A decade later, the archaeologists made an amazing discovery when they unearthed a vast deposit of clay tablets dating from 2,600–2,300 BC: it was Ebla’s library, the oldest one known to humankind. One thousand eight-hundred intact whole tablets and many more thousands of fragmented remains were found in an incredibly optimal state of preservation. The library was divided into two rooms: one, which served as an archive, contained administrative documents; the second one – ritual and literary works, and also school textbooks, which portray a peaceful society of merchants, bureaucrats, and literary scholars. Ancient clay tablets were rarely baked, instead, they were intended for daily use, similar to how our contemporary notebooks are employed to make annotations or homework. The clay would be moistened, so that the inscribed text could be erased, making room for new writing. Thus, Ebla’s clay tablets were not meant to be preserved for about 4,500 years, but to become dust and disappear with the passing of time. By no means were they a message intended to reach us, future readers – yet they did, how? During the first destruction of Ebla, the perpetrators (Akkadians? – there’s still no consensus about their identity) set the city ablaze, including the palace that housed the library. The clay tablets baked in the very fire that destroyed the city, hardening them in a way that became an endurable material. They were stored on three levels, neatly stacked on wooden shelves that collapsed at burning, so that, thousands of years later, the tablets were found in their original position, including clay tags made for the librarian’s archival and retrieval convenience. Fire was the paradoxical agent that both destroyed and preserved, albeit unintentionally, not only the Eblaite culture and language, but also Sumerian, for the library held a lot of tablets written in both, becoming in this way a key element to understanding the Sumerian language, literature, and cuneiform script – not a minor feat considering that Sumerians were the creators of our most precious device: writing (in addition to inventing the city, the measure of time, and beer).
Perpetual reading, eternal fire, everlasting clay – they outline a trajectory from the present time to the remote past, from today’s experience to the origins of history and civilization. The ability to read a text that was written thousands of years ago (a shopping list, a father’s letter to his son’s teacher), the vertigo inspired by the direct physical contact with a remainder of the past always rouses a sense of awe in me. I feel punctured, as in Roland Barthes’ punctum, by an acute awareness of existence, of the temporary limits of my existence, it makes me think of death, awakens my desire for posterity, for preserving the memory of my presence on Earth. It’s such an intimate feeling that I wonder if others have it too. It cannot be conveyed by words, either you get it, or you don’t. And it’s always been like this until recently, when I had a conversation with a fellow PhD student in Edinburgh, who previously studied archaeology and now works as a librarian. I told her about my obsession with finding an untranslated clay tablet and having it translated, so that I could read it, bring it to life after millennia of silence and oblivion. She understood me, but she didn’t share my fascination. She said that, if all those artefacts, languages, and civilizations were meant to disappear, why struggle to keep them alive? And then I started to doubt, perhaps she was right, perhaps I should just let go. People come and go, live and die and, like them, the memory of entire civilizations. Perhaps we should let the clay tablets return to the dust of the desert they originally come from; perhaps we should stop feeding the fire in Yazd; perhaps we should quit reading the Qur’an in Istanbul; perhaps the authentic peace of mind, “illuminated by truth” as Zoroastrians would have it, lies in accepting that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
David Maroto is a Spanish visual artist based in The Netherlands. He has an extensive international artistic practice: the 11th Havana Biennial; Artium, Museum of Contemporary Art (Vitoria, Spain); Extra City (Antwerp); S.M.A.K. (Ghent); EFA Project Space (New York), among many other venues. In 2011, he spent a residency in ISCP New York, where he met curator Joanna Zielinska and they began a collaboration on the research project The Book Lovers. They explore the different ways in which the artist’s novel is not a literary artefact but an artistic medium employed by visual artists, exactly as they employ installation, video, or performance. Over the last few years, they have organized pop-up bookstores and public programs (de Appel, Amsterdam; Whitechapel Gallery, London); a symposium (Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw); a number of exhibitions (EFA Project Space, New York; Fabra i Coats, Barcelona; Cricoteka, Krakow); as well as a series of public conversations, discussions, and reading rooms. He has published a gamebook called The Wheel of Fortune (2014), an artist’s novel where game and novel, two of his main interests, meet in one single form. Recently, he has co-edited Artist Novels, (Sternberg Press, Cricoteka), the first publication to deal with this subject. David is a PhD candidate at Edinburgh College of Art (supervisors Maria Fusco and Jane McKie), in partnership with the Dutch Art Institute, where he previously obtained his MFA degree. www.davidmaroto.info www.thebooklovers.info