This poem was written when I was in Bahrain in the 1980-90s. The Legend of Gilgamesh has fascinated me for quite a long time and continues to do so.
For those who don’t know it, here’s a quick run-down garnered from Wikipedia: The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem from Mesopotamia and among the earliest known works of literature. Scholars believe that it originated as a series of Sumerian legends and poems about Gilgamesh king of Uruk – which is in present day Iraq.
The story revolves around a relationship between Gilgamesh and his close friend Enkidu, with whom he undertakes many dangerous quests that incur the displeasure of the gods. In one of these quests the two friends kill the Bull of Heaven and so to punish them the gods have Enkidu killed. The latter part of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh’s distressed reaction to Enkidu’s death, which takes the form of a quest for immortality. In this quest Gilgamesh tries to learn the secret of eternal life by undertaking a long and perilous journey to meet the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim and his wife, who are among the few survivors of the Great Flood, and the only humans to have been granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh comes to the twin peaks of Mt Mashu at the ends of the earth through the mountains along the Road of the Sun. He follows it for twelve “double hours” in complete darkness. Managing to complete the trip before the sun catches up to him, Gilgamesh arrives in a garden paradise full of jewel-laden trees; in another legend this is the place referred to as ‘Dilmun’.
Gilgamesh notices that Utnapishtim seems no different from himself and asks him how he obtained immortality. Utnapishtim tells an ancient story of how the gods decided to send a great flood – very similar to the Flood in the Bible and Noah’s Ark. The main point seems to be that Utnapishtim was granted eternal life in unique, never to be repeated circumstances. After instructing his ferryman to wash Gilgamesh and clothe him in royal robes, Utnapishtim prepares to send him back to Uruk. As they are leaving, Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband to offer a parting gift. That’s when Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a boxthorn-like plant at the very bottom of the ocean that will make him young again. In some stories it is the pearls that are considered the “grapes of the sea” that will grant immortality. Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding stones to his feet (very similar to how the early pearl divers of Bahrain used to descend to the sea bed) so he can walk on the bottom of the sea. He recovers the plant and plans to test it on an old man when he returns to Uruk. Unfortunately, when Gilgamesh stops to bathe, the plant is stolen by a serpent, which sheds its skin as it departs. There is a lot more and it is a far more complex epic than I have placed here.
In the Epic, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, however, in my imagination, he never really leaves and the following poem draws on several myths around ancient Bahrain, using different names by which it was or supposedly was known – Dilmun, Tilmun, Nidukki, Kur-ni-tuk. Those interested may explore these further through that wonderful resource the Internet.
South, south he rushed
To the midst of the sea
To the place of the rising sun
To the place where some day
A king would live like a fish
Twelve double hours away.
The fifth king of Uruk was Gilgamesh
Descended five times from the time of the flood
And son of the goddess Ninsun
He sailed for a day
He sailed for a night
He sailed in search of Dilmun.
He wished to eat of the grapes of the sea
Those pearls from its bed would grant him
Eternal bliss and companionship
With the sage king Utnapishtim
In legendary Dilmun
In twice-blessed Dilmun.
Twice blessed by the god of sweet waters
Twice blessed by the god called Enki
So south he rushed south by southwest
And he met with a following wind
Until he came upon this jewelled isle
(A sad, far cry from Sumer).
Here the date palms stood tall sentinels
Their green arms stretched to the sky
Waving a warning from dusk until dawning
That this idyll would soon pass by.
But he heeded them not brave Gilgamesh
For he had reached the isle of his dreams
Then Gilgamesh dropped anchor
And entered the waters green
Where betwixt the salt through the seabed rose
The sweet waters of Bahr ein.
With stones on his feet down, down he dived
To the rocks where the pearl beds lay
He closed his eyes against the salt
He pinched his nose with a date palm peg
While he harvested those pearls of rose and grey
Harvested the grapes of eternal day
In the twice-blessed waters of a tiny bay
Off the island of Muharraq near Bahrain
Off the waters green that spread between
Muharraq and Bahrain.
How long he stayed beneath the waves
Neither he nor the sages could tell
But he took many shapes beneath the seas
Once a dugong shy then a dolphin spry
Then a shark then a dolphin again
And he sang a song a lament forlorn
Of what he saw had been done to Dilmun
And this was its burden long:
“Ah me Dilmun, Tilmun!
What became of your bearded palm trees green?
What became of your shingled shores?
What became of your soft undulating sands?
Of the burial mounds of your immortal clans?
Who has broken these temples and laid them bare
So that emptied and hollowed and ravaged they stare
At the sky and the taunting sun?
Ah me Nidukki!
Did the oil then come?
As Mesopotamia of old had foretold?
And is it true Kur-ni-tuk
That your pearls you forsook
For the sake of the black, black gold?”
And at night when a full moon is in the sky
And a Sambuk is sailing silently by
Old sailors at their fish traps say:
If you hear the shudder of an oil-tanker
Start up on a night such as this
Emanating from the sea comes a moan and a cry
And the lament of Gilgamesh.