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The streets of Ascalon

The wooden-wheel carts of David’s time have mostly vanished in Sergudi, but not the town crier tribe whose work it was to spread headline news such as King Saul’s death in Ascalon.

Raja Murthy | New Delhi |

Life has changed much across thousands of years, but timeless links connect the essence of human existence. Likewise from days when the biblical David asked for Saul’s death to be hushed, to prevent rejoicing in the cities of Gath and Ascalon: “Tell it not in Gath; whisper it not in the streets of Ascalon.”

From Ascalon circa 5019 BC to the still existing Ascalon city of 2019 A.D in coastal Israel, lingering links become the bridges across time – across technology and 21st century evolution, across urban skyscrapers towering above clouds and the great cities of times when King David reigned, including the ancient and still existing cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Byblos, Argos, Erbil, Athens, Varanasi.

So following David’s wishes, the town crier did not broadcast news of the death of the first king of Israel, and the Philistines, Saul’s enemies, missed their chance to celebrate in Gath and the streets of Ascalon. In our Internet days of 24/7 satellite news and hyperactive social media, the town crier still exists. In my native village Sergudi, near Musiri town in Tamil Nadu, I was happily amazed to still see the town crier rapping away the rata-a-tat roll from his little hand-held drum as he walked from village street to street, under noon-light or moonlight, hollering out news of water availability and temple ceremonies.

The wooden-wheel carts of David’s time have mostly vanished in Sergudi, but not the town crier tribe whose work it was to spread headline news such as King Saul’s death in Ascalon. I can see the links across 5000 years, chords that strangely tug the mind like haunting music, perhaps the faint echoes of memories from past lifetimes. In city life 5000 years ago where did people go for their evening outings, or to meet friends in the equivalent of today’s Starbucks or Costa Coffee?

Who knows what happened to an adventurer from the kingdom of Kosala in northern India who voyaged across the Mediterranean seas and walked the lamp-lit streets of Ascalon? Ascalon (also called Ashkelon) has origins in the Bronze Age circa 3000 BC – 1200 BC. One of the largest seaports in the ancient world, Ascalon was part of the pentapolis (grouping of five cities) of the Philistines, north of Gaza and south of Jaffa, 54 km from Jerusalem, the ancient capital of King David.

The modern-day links of David versus the Philistine giant Goliath continue – it becomes a matter of perspective of who are the modern-day Philistines: Palestinians fighting to get back their country called Palestine? Or Israel’s struggle against terrorism but whose existence has terrorist origins, such as the bombing of King David Hotel on 22 July 1946, that killed 91 people from many countries.

Menachem Begin was commander of Irgun in 1946, the Zionist militant group that executed the Hotel King David terrorist attack. Begin became the sixth prime minister of Israel in 1977 and received the Noble Peace Prize in 1979 – the same leader of terrorists who blew up King David Hotel. Begin was involved in the 27 March 1952 assassination attempt on German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Did a terrorist-Philistine become a David? Someone’s villain continues being someone else’s hero, more so in the continuing upheavals in the Middle East. The David link lingers across millennia. Camp David in the USA was where Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the agreement on 17 September 1978 that led to them sharing the Nobel Peace Prize a year later. Camp David, in the mountainous forests of Maryland and country retreat of the president of the United States, was earlier called Hi-Catoctin. It flew back in time to 5,000 years ago when US President Dwight Eisenhower called it ‘Camp David’, in honour of his father and son both of whom were named ‘David’.

“Tell it not in Gath, whisper it not in the streets of Ascalon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice…”, said David. Gath was one of five Philistine cities thriving during the 15th Century BC, during times of the Egyptian, Hittite and Assyrian Empires. Mediterranean cities of more than 5,000 years ago still stand: Baalbek, Beirut, Sidon, Tyre (Lebanon), Latakia (Syria), Acre or Akko, Haifa, Jaffa, Ascalon (Israel), Hebron, Jericho, (Palestine), Tangier (Morocco), Palermo, Cagliari (Italy), Cadiz and Ibiza (Spain).

What stories lingering ghosts can whisper in the streets of Ascalon. Ascalon features as “Asqanu” in the Amarna letters (c. 1350 BC) of ancient Egypt, about 4,000 stone tablets of the earliest known international diplomatic correspondence. It included seven letters exchanged between Ashkelon’s (Ašqaluna) king or governor Yidya and the Egyptian pharaoh. One such Amarna stone tablet (letter EA 323 currently in the British Museum as exhibit BM 29836) is titled “Royal order for Glass” – glass was apparently in use back in the days when the pharaoh Amenhotep 111 took his evening stroll on the banks of the River Nile as the setting sun threw golden light on the great pyramids of his forefathers of the 18th Dynasty.

The Amarna stone-tablet writer displays grovelling that may have passed as polite greetings circa 4,000 years ago. Lines 1-5 of Letter EA 323 said: “To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, the Sun from the sky: Message of Yidya, your servant, the dirt at your feet, the groom of your horses” and goes on to (line 13-16) – “As to the king, my lord’s having ordered some glass, I [her]ewith send to the k[ing], my [l]ord, 30 (pieces) of glass.”

While a royal courier rushed through the streets of Ascalon carrying the stone tablet letter to the pharaoh in Egypt, Indus River Valley cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were long flourishing, as were cities of later kingdoms of Kuru, Kosala, Panchala, Videha in India – antecedents to 21stcentury urban life.

Ascalon or Ashkelon of 5,000 years ago to the 21st century coastal city in Israel with restaurants such as Ziara and the Gatos near HaGvura Street of Ashkelon – a fascinating, haunting continuum across time; from the past to the present 2019 to the future year 20,019 A.D when cities could orbit above the Earth and people communicate through telepathy. Life is a journey across time through cause and effect, until the mind is fully purified and there is no more cause to produce any further effect.

(The writer is a senior, Mumbai-based journalist)