Magic of an ancient melodyJun 28th, 2009 | By editor | Category: City Culture, Heritage
A 4,500-year-old Golden Lyre sings once again, transcending boundaries of space and time…
The great city of Ur was a glorious trading port some 4,500 years ago and it was situated on the mouth of the Euphrates at the Arabian Gulf in ancient Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq. Ur is known for its great temples and tombs. When, in 1929, Archaeologist Leonard Woolley and others excavated the Royal Graves in the great Sumerian City of Ur, they stumbled upon an ancient cemetery dating back to the mid third millennium BC. In a particular area in this cemetery, they came across a group of 16 special graves that had a shaft and tomb structure. While most of these graves had been damaged and robbed of their treasures, one complete tomb was left untouched. From a necklace seal it was identified to be that of Queen Pu-Abi. Some believe that she was a high priestess. When the excavators went into the tomb a deeply moving scene awaited them. Tens of bodies lay as if asleep still in their exquisite costumes and jewellery. It was a scene of a mass suicide. Aides, servants and musicians had chosen to accompany the high born to the next world. A small cup lying besides every skeleton indicated that they had perhaps drunk poison to start off on that journey. In a corner lay a pile of crumbling old musical instruments — three lyres and a harp. Sir Leonard Woolley described one poignant scene when he recalled that the bones of the hand of a woman were placed where the strings would have been, bent over the harp as if the last player had played on till her very end.
The instruments were restored from the shape in the ground and the remaining gold, silver and stone decoration and were then given to the Museums of the participating countries in the excavation. The best and finest went to Baghdad Museum. It was called the Golden Lyre of the Ur. In April 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad Museum was pillaged. Like many precious artefacts, the priceless Lyre was vandalised by looters. The broken and damaged Golden Lyre was found in a car park. The silver and gold on it had gone (was recovered later). The bull’s head from the lyre was fortunately later discovered in the National Bank of Iraq.
At around this time, an English engineer who was a harpist himself, quite inspired by the story of the Lyre, longed to make a playable version of this ancient instrument. His wish was to make an authentic instrument made from the very same materials the ancient Sumerians would have used. Andy Lowings was his name and he hoped by doing this he could bring the largely unknown times of Sumer to life for a new generation. He clearly felt music was a unique legacy that can bind all peoples together. Andy announced his project on the Internet and what followed was unbelievable. Seeing the announcement, a phone call from the heart of Baghdad announced that the 75kg of Cedar wood was obtained and was ready. That was a call from Muslim Aid. The RAF helped transport it to England and the work started in real earnest. The Golden Lyre of Ur was covered with some 5,000 pieces, individually cut from pink limestone, lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl shell. All to be obtained locally from Iraq and fixed on to the wooden body using bitumen from the Hitt region. A friend of Andy spoke to an Iraqi tailor in Germany who in turn requested a friend in Iraq to persuade a taxi driver to drive to the Northern desert to collect the “best red rock”. This anonymous help from Mosul delivered the perfect stone! Help from Abu Dhabi, contribution from a South African gold mining company, voluntary labour from English goldsmiths, donation from Italian jewellers — all rolled in to make the dream a reality. The lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan and some of the mother-of-pearl shells from Dubai. The natural cow gut strings came from the only remaining maker in England as a kind-hearted gift.
The reconstruction of the Golden Lyre of Ur was greatly helped by the Curatorial work done by the Pennsylvania Museum and a reference work for recreating the lyre was available there as this museum had participated in the 1929 expedition and had restored one of the instruments from Pu-Abis’s tomb. The 5,000 pieces of stone that eventually decorated the body of the lyre required some 30,000 cuts, Andy recalls. Six diamond cutting discs, donated by supporters, were worn out in the process and how could the ancient Sumerians have achieved this with just sand, copper and carborandum? That is difficult to fathom, Andy adds.
When the Lyre was nearing completion, the question of tuning and playing it was getting to be near and the prospect was exciting. It emerged from the lifetime works of Dr. Anne Kilmer and others that ancient cuneiform texts in tablets found in the region gave clues to tuning and making music from harps and lyres. This is a complex topic in itself, demanding much deliberation.
And then came a phone call from Ayub Ogada of Kenya to Andy for the big step to be taken. Ayub offered to play the reconstructed Golden Lyre! In a surprise phone call Ayub indicated that the Luo people of West Kenya, to whom he belonged, called it the “Entiti Lyre”. Ayub added that his people believed that the lyre spread from Egypt and before that came from Sumer. Andy adds that lyres are played in Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya to this day. Cretan Lyres are known in Greek texts. Iran, Russia and Turkey have a musical tradition of lyres. Could Sumer have been the centre of all this in the beginning, Andy wonders… With work on the decoration still on its way, Ayub played the Golden Lyre for the first time on World Music Day in 2005. So elaborate and painstaking has been the whole process that the final decorative work on the Lyre went on for another year. Bill Taylor, the famous Scottish Harpist, too plays the Golden Lyre. The Lyre has now been played in London, Jerusalem and Amman. This year in March, the Lyre was part of special performances in the US. Wherever it goes Andy feels people can connect to this beautiful and ancient instrument. The oldest we know he adds. Andy dreams that one day it would be played in Baghdad itself and perhaps it could connect to the very same melody that was played before that grave closed. After all, is not the appeal of music so universal today as it was then, a heritage of all mankind?