A Short History of the Apocalypse
How does one survive an apocalypse, let alone remember it? Who writes the history of the end of the world?
At the time of its destruction four thousand years ago, Ur was the largest city in the world. Indeed, up to that point, it was the largest city to exist in the history of the world. Having emerged as an agricultural settlement in the late Neolithic, Ur’s citizens gained nourishment from barley, onions and emmer wheat coaxed from the fertile black soil of the Persian Gulf floodplains. As its power grew, conquered neighbors sent gold, silver, lapis lazuli, incense, sheep and slaves as tribute. The Kings of Ur enforced the earliest known code of laws, prescribing rules for everything from slave marriages to the proper punishment for false accusations of sorcery. Ur’s scribes created some of the earliest known written records. One could make a convincing argument that Ur invented Western civilization.
In 2004 BC, soldiers from the emerging empire of Elam in present-day Iran overran the city’s fortifications and killed or enslaved many of its citizens. For the inhabitants of Ur, it truly was the end of the world – or, at least, of their world. Remembering the disaster decades later, the survivors produced some of the earliest poetry in the historical record. These poems are dark lamentations, frightening, violent and nihilistic in tone. They speak of the night air filled with “burning pieces of clay” and of terrorized townsfolk “crouch[ing] down at the wall,” the Elamites “chewing them up/ like a pack of dogs.”
These poems are the earliest post-apocalyptic narratives. They document a world that would never exist again. The Sumerian language spoken in Ur was what linguists call an “isolate”: a tongue with no known relatives and no modern-day speakers. The culture that gave rise to farming, cities and writing became submerged beneath repeated invasions – Elamite, Akkadian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek – until eventually it was all but forgotten, even by those who inherited it.
And yet we can write about Ur today. This is apocalypse’s central paradox.