I was not particularly qualified to fulfill the ministry's request. I nevertheless flew without overdone scruples to the Babylon site where a considerable team of archeologists was already at work. The excavation area looked like an opencast, fully busy, ochre mine...
In the morning, before joining the precincts of the library, I cross a sector of the site which spreads on several hectares. I enjoy going through the Sumer gate, exchanging a few words with the workers who are clearing terraces, pushing wheelbarrows so loaded that the thin boards on which they pass bend dangerously.
Burnt by the sun and the night, smoothed out by the timeless winds, the city still seems to hear the esplanades that are filling up, the guards that are changing and the crowds that are resonating at the foot of the terraces. The first time, as I was discovering the library, I had the feeling that all that was left from the manuscripts was the architecture of their secrets. Hidden, put away, absent as they seem, the rooms follow each other as so many strongholds of the arts and of knowledge.
Apart from a photographer and a draughtsman who defines himself as the last ruin-sketcher, I am the only one who does not belong to the community of the archeologists. My only credit consists in having published a text on the history of ancient libraries (Babylon, Alexandria, Athens, Rome ...).
The study of numerous fictional or documentary texts which strove to narrate or describe them had driven me to make a few assumptions. These assumptions rested on nothing very serious and deliberately contradicted certain scientific particulars. Yet, possibly because of their provocative drift, they had been published and commented upon several times by different magazines.
I keenly contested the idea that the ancient libraries were run according to models of rational classification. Admittedly, several catalogues were discovered. They came in the form of clay tablets on which are written in cuneiform sixty odd titles referring to well-known works (epic poems, algebra treatises, mythological accounts...). Although the temptation was strong to interpret them as essential files to trace back the documents, I nevertheless asserted that the Babylon library can only have lived through an oral tradition passed on from generation to generation, that it was not run by librarians but celebrated by regular readers or rather devotees. These libraries were probably not thought of as cumulative memories where each document had to be recorded, at the risk of never being consulted, but as selective places where the magic of words is superseded by the greatness of the Gods. One did not come to read, in the classical meaning of the word, but to perform a ritual which consisted in looking for a document and honor it. The reader had to glorify the clay, the papyrus, the stones, the cloths..., to praise the palace which shelters the library, to praise the author of the ideas as well as the author of the signs (the scribe).
Naturally, all these assumptions were not made at random or out of sheer fantasizing. So much so that I was invited to take part in the new Babylon excavations as an expert in library science.
Actually, I did not take my status very seriously and, though nobody in the least made me feel on the fringe, I quickly assumed the role of the dreamer. With my hands in my back, I paced the rooms, pored aver the manuscripts that were being exhumed, drew up several rough plans of the library. I was expecting some sort of revelation. With my feet in the red dust raised by the picks, the knives, the paint brushes, the wire brushes and other excavation tools, I listened to the cries, the noises, the silences of the site. I often felt dizzy, hollow and sick. Being always mentally alert — my field of investigation fell within the province of the imagination —, striving to restore the place to life, and suffering from the heat, I was eventually wearing out...
Yet today, very slowly, step by step, from the clearing of a door to the baring of an ornamental tiling, I shared with the archeologists the incredible confirmation of all my assumptions.
The unearthed architectural unit is situated in the central part of the Palace. It is laid out like a monument organized for an initiatory route. The numerous rooms are interconnected by an incoherent network of stairways that would baffle anyone endeavoring to understand them or to endow them with a function of communication. The whole library is a big-scale altar designed, not to file the documents, but to take them along on a predetermined itinerary. Many a clue helped us to reconstitute the various stations and situations by which a reader of true faith had to go through — unlike today's faithful reader, the babylonian reader is a believer. The numerous tiny windows are disposed as so many loopholes and organize the light; thus, at any moment while he was reading, the devotee could watch the ground that was covered or yet to be covered and, as in a game of memory, think again about what the book had already made him experience.
I work a lot with a sumerologue who conducts all the research on the tablets that are being discovered. As soon as the sand uncovers a piece of clay that looks slightly darker than the accumulated rubble she is sent for. Then starts a scene of parturition. She kneels down, caresses softly with both hands the outline of the object and smoothly frees it with an infinite patience. I noticed that in these moments of inception her face relaxes totally in the kind of big serene smile that welcomes the newborn child and embraces the dead man. Often the tablet is broken and she withdraws the fragments from the sand like numerous splinters taken from the flesh of the earth. Often also the tablet remains intact and ends up circulating from hand to hand...
Late Thursday she made me share her astonishment: she itemized among the documents preserved in a basket and a jar an important number of writings that were not cuneiform and she noticed a thematic topography that revealed inconsistencies (the genre, the periods, the mediums are so to speak mixed up).
All the texts, be they religious, economic, or, as was also discovered, quasi-novelistic, had to be read according to the same ritual, from endless stairways to invocation rooms. A text was not read, it was prayed. Its reading convened everyone who had produced it, written it, read it, including the reader to come.
We are now convinced. The Babylon library was not a filed memory, a reflection of the powers: it was the source of it. From it depended prosperity, the wheat that grows, the barley that sways in the wind, the warriors that come back victoriously, the springs that do not dry up, the good and just kings...
One night, there was like a revelation. Not that a revelation is necessary to authenticate scientific discoveries and perpetuate the eureka myth, but an effect of nature happened to clarify everything. We had decided that evening to go back to the site. We had to shift a corrugated iron door which blocked the access to the excavations in order to reach the western terrace, and from there, walking along the Hammurabi sanctuary, join the scribal quarter. We then hit upon a marvelous scene, a miniature extravaganza: a firefly ballet. In their tens, these little insects flew up towards the top of the library, very lightly, intermittently shedding luminous flashes of an astonishing power and softness. Their slow and regular procession, punctuated by flashes, gave to the library its true meaning. Wasn't it built for the readers ceaselessly, by day and by night, to honor the texts and to set place alive by walking it up and down during long rituals? The music instruments that had been found in certain rooms, weren't they there to impose a rhythm?
When we got back, I cut my hand quite deeply as I closed the corrugated iron door. My blood in the sand drew a pattern, a letter. I should have copied it out. I then quoted to myself that strange sentence from the great poem of Eanna's stela, possibly the first literary and peotic text ever: "tears on her cheek and they furrowed the sands"...
Frédéric Lambert, Babylone. Pons gallery, Paris 1993.
Translated by Christian Gutleben.