Amytis Yearns for Ecbatana: Field Recordings from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon

By Vaughan Pilikian

amytis-yearns-for-ecbatana.jpgAmytis Yearns for Ecbatan

In July 2003, an Iraqi man was arrested at London City Airport carrying a suitcase containing seventeen clay cylinders inscribed with what looked like cuneiform script. First thought to be relics looted from Baghdad's National Museum, these cylinders were later traced to an archaeological site in al-Hillah, the city in present-day Iraq built on the foundations of the ancient city of Babylon. Initially stacked up for use as dud-round tank shells, they were stolen by street children who passed them on to Amr al-Askalani, a black marketeer who smuggled the cylinders out of Iraq, in the false hope of making contact with the van Kuiper cartel in the Netherlands (which had in fact been infiltrated by Interpol years previously and by 2003 had essentially ceased to operate).

Al-Askalani was detained, and the cylinders were sent on to the British Museum for identification, but experts there were perplexed by their shape and text, unable to make sense of either. It was not until 2005 that Professor Kindi, an ethnomusicologist from the University of Aleppo who specialised in Sumerian music, recognised the cylinders as 'cheoptic spools'. Babylonian chronicles relate how Ahtchapseh, the Daedalus or Leonardo of King Sennacherib’s court, designed a device called a bilbilashhunetti: a needle-and-cone contraption made of feathers and papyrus that worked like a primitive phonographic lathe-cutter by etching a groove into a rounded clay surface. The cylinders were the only material evidence ever found for this ancient invention. They were sound cartridges, the markings on their surfaces not words but acoustic indentations.

In a fervour of excitement, Professor Kindi transferred the contents of the spools, pressing them into wax and passing the reliefs through an acid bath to be inked and printed, then taking the proofs to Russia, where he worked on them with an acoustician named Evgeniy Kirilov at a research facility near the Chechen border. The two men set about digitally renotating the sexidecimal matrices of the original patterns to generate an audible sinusoidal waveform. As they toiled towards the end of the first cylinder, something gave Professor Kindi pause: a single line of Babylonian text coiled around the cylinder’s tip that no-one had hitherto realised was there. Though fragmentary, the meaning of the sentence was clear:

{Th}ese daysongs and nights{ong}s [were made for] Queen {Um}ati [by her] nurse in the Pleasuregarden{s} of King Nebu[chadnezzar]. 9/29.

The names to which the sentence referred were unmistakable: Nebuchadnezzar II, seventh-century King of Babylon, and his wife Queen Umati, or Amytis in Greek. Queen Amytis was a Mede from Ecbatana, a city that once stood in northwest Iran. It is said that in the sunbaked plains of Mesopotamia she had become so stricken with nostalgia that her husband had built a garden complex to remind her of her lush and fertile homeland. These cheoptic spools were not simply the oldest field recordings known to man. They had been made in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

amytis-yearns-for-ecbatana-2.jpgAmytis Yearns for Ecbatan

Professor Kindi and Dr Kirilov worked on the spools with renewed vigour, and after fifteen months of exhausting labour they were done. Yet one fatal morning just two days after they had finished transcribing the final spool, something terrible happened. The facility was raided by a local militia in a mistaken targeting and strafed with sub-machine gun fire. Dr Kirilov died instantly. Professor Kindi was taken to hospital in a critical condition and did not survive the night.

It was at this point that I became personally involved in the story of the seventeen spools. By coincidence, I was in the region at the time of the attack, working on a film project about lightning conductors in the Steppe and, during my research had befriended Dr Kirilov's son who, after his father’s death, aware of my hobbyist interest in sonic experiments, passed the digital files on to me. Though nothing can atone for the loss of two such exceptional scholars, I can vouch that their names will live on in what they have achieved. Each cylinder lasts about 100 seconds: for close to half an hour, we stroll through the precincts of the Hanging Gardens where the citizens of ancient Babylon once promenaded more than two and a half millennia before us. Over a deep rumble that could be the stone machinery Ahtchapseh’s son designed to hoist water up to the higher balconies in the Gardens, we hear the eerie birdsong of species now long extinct, the croaks and calls of yet stranger beasts, and the voices of odalisques calling to each other from tier to tier.

Given the catastrophic circumstances in which the contents of the cheoptic spools have come down to us, it seems hubristic to hope for more. But as the markings on the spools tell us, the suitcase of Amr al-Askalani held little more than half of the twenty-nine cylinders the original collection comprised. Are the other spools hidden somewhere beneath the dusty and war-torn streets of central Iraq? What further wonders might they contain? What if an entire trove of bilbilashhunetti rolls are even now being looted to plug the sandbanks of a garrison outside al-Hillah? Will this unique and precious heritage, quietly bequeathed to us by the forgotten ingenuity of a once-mighty civilisation, be crushed to dust beneath the tanks and the humvees and the mortar shells? Only time will tell. If that is, it still dares speak to us.

Amytis Yearns for Ecbatan was heard on London’s Resonance FM in March this year. It is hoped it will be heard again soon.

Vaughan Pilikian is an artist and filmmaker (