Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cuneiform and Oil Lamps

Today, we visited the Sadberk Hanim Museum. It is housed in the former residence of one of Turkey's richest families. I have no pictures because we were forbidden to take them inside, but the house itself was lovely.

Inside, the home was divided into two parts. One held three full floors of items the family had collected over the years. There were rooms of Chinese celadon and Ottoman tiles. There were cases of jeweled tiaras and cases full of Islamic calligraphy. A whole floor was dedicated to textile arts, and the richness of detail and beauty of even the hand towels on display was incredible.

My favorite part was to be found across the lobby, though. The other side of the house held artifacts dating all the way back to the 5th century BC. There were items from ancient cultures I've heard about all my life - the Assyrians, the Hittites. Each floor circled around through a timeline. There were tiny statues made from lead or silver, large marble fragments, curving clay pots.

One floor had a wall-sized display of Hellenic oil lamps. They were arranged in swirls and spirals underneath their protective glass. While all had basically the same shape, many had completely unique stamped or carved decoration. There were gods and goddesses, animals and abstract patterns. Some were simple, others ornate, some few obscene. What touched me was that each of them had been used regularly, been necessary, to someone. As I stared at their subtle color and pattern variations, I couldn't help but wonder how many hands had grasped them, how many fingers slipped through the tiny loop on the back to carry them so they could dispel the darkness. They were by no means the most valuable or flashy thing on display, but that humble elegant utility rendered them charming.

One floor down and several centuries back in time was a case of tiny clay tablets. I stepped up, certain of what I was seeing but unable to process it properly. Inside the softly lit enclosure were some fifteen or twenty pieces of cuneiform records. It's absurd, but I teared up looking at them. What story did they have to tell? Who had taken the time to press that stylus into the wet clay over and over again to create it? From all those thousands of years ago, the words on those fragments of hardened earth were still reaching out, still trying to connect to their readers, totally unaware that those readers are dust now, themselves.

Spenser wrote a sonnet to his love telling her that he would make her immortal by writing of her and their love in a poem. Today, I saw the ultimate expression of that in action. Whatever those people loved or cared about enough to record was alive there. That is the power of writing. We channel our ephemeral lives into blocks of stone or clay, into sheets of paper or the skins of animals, into the electronic mysteries of our computer's hard drive or cyberspace, and some part of us lives on. Some part of us connects to all those other writers crying out from every age. And even when our format has become as inaccessible as those clay tablets now are to most of us, then that slice of immortality will still remain. Our loves and our dreams will still exist. What an encouraging thought.

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