‘Nothing New, Under the Sun’ in The Writers’ Café Magazine

The Writers’ Café had a callout for archaeology-themed stories and poems for their Issue 19 ‘Can You Dig It?’ . As I’d spent ten years on the island of Bahrain, which is hugely rich in artefacts and remains, I took up the challenge.

‘Nothing New, Under the Sun’ is the fourth to last piece in the issue. You can read the story here if you prefer.

Nothing New, Under the Sun (flash fiction)

The ancient site of Qalat-al-Bahrain incorporates at least seven cities or fortresses, each one built atop, or sometimes inside, the one before.

Not many people over fifty look that good in shorts, I thought, with the lofty mindset of someone not yet thirty. We were waiting at the start of the History Walk on a bright morning in April, by the ruins of the seven cities. It was my first time.

One of the other walkers told me you were the Assistant Director of Antiquities, and knew everything about the sites we were about to visit; even the leaflet I’d been given, Walking through History: a Rambler’s Guide to Bahrain was your work“He’s a polymath,” she added. Another woman said, “Not to mention a poly-seducer!” They both laughed unpleasantly, sliding glances at me.

The layers of occupation at this site give their names to eras in the history of the island – Early Dilmun, late Dilmun, Tylos, Kassite – and to the artefacts associated with them, like pottery, jewellery, stone coffins and stamp-seals.

You led the group down a sandy slope, the ruins behind us, palm plantations ahead. The air was humid, with a warm dash of salt, the Arabian Gulf a turquoise shimmer between the date-palm trees. We followed you, chattering and laughing. Your bum was what my sister, a connoisseur, would have called ‘pert’, but you looked good from the front too, with silvered temples and stern, thoughtful features, like a Victorian soldier-poet. And you knew your archaeological stuff; I could see all the ramblers vying to walk with you, dip into your knowledge. I was fascinated before we even spoke. I was just out of a sensible, longterm relationship. And I adored ancient history.

The name ‘Bahrain’ in Arabic means ‘two seas’ . Historians note that the ancients believed a vast subterranean reservoir of fresh water lay beneath the salt Arabian Gulf, feeding the island’s myriad springs.

By mid-morning, we were walking together, and I was throwing questions at you, conscious of sounding like a schoolkid with a crush on the teacher. We passed limestone blocks, scattered on the sand; you said they were the remnants of a Bronze Age temple. We looked down stone steps into a pool of brackish water; you said it had been a sacred spring, perhaps dedicated to the goddess Nin-sikilla. “Her name means pure virgin,” you said, “and she was associated with the moon, like Isis or Diana”. Your eyes rested on me a little too long. I couldn’t have said which goddess I felt like.

By my second History Walk, I could quote your leaflet almost word for word.

Hundreds of stamp seals have been found at sites across the island. Most are steatite discs with a raised boss on the back and a unique design – bulls, gazelles and palm trees were all popular – on the front. Each merchant would have had his own device, using it to stamp official documents.

I said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to find one of those seals? Just stumble across it, out in the desert?”

You smiled.

Clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal at Ur tell of the semi-mythical land of Dilmun, sometimes identified with modern Bahrain: a place where there is no death and no disease, where animals do not devour each other and no-one grows old.

One of the tablets was a cargo-list, four thousand years old, for a voyage to Dilmun. Of course you knew it by heart. You recited it, slowly. Carnelian, lapiz-lazuli, copper, silver, pearls. I’ve heard some people’s voices can make a telephone directory sound sexy.

At the end of my third walk you brought out from the pocket of your shorts a stone disc, and put it into my hand. The device was a palm tree, a horned gazelle, and a bearded figure that might have been a king.

The seal lay warm in my palm. I said, “But … shouldn’t this be handed to the authorities?”

You said, “I am the authorities.”

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A writer, beachcomber and part-time campervan nomad, based in Brittany

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