During the second Gulf War an ancient tale circulated in the ravaged neighborhoods around Baghdad’s Green Zone. Recent political turmoil in Iraq has revived the story. “Hummingbird poison” tells of a Babylonian king whose ambition was to outdo the pharaohs and build a city without Earthly equal. To ensure his people’s commitment and self-sacrifice — their labors would be long and all-consuming — the King sought to have himself declared a god. After years of scheming, though, the King couldn’t move the stubborn archpriest of the city, Ezilem, or sway his devout followers among the people.
The King withdrew into his palace. In his bitter seclusion he built a vast garden with flowering plants specially bred to attract hummingbirds in great numbers. When the sky above Babylon buzzed noisily with the wings of migrating birds (the sky thrummed like a lyre, says the original), the King expanded his botanical domain still further, sending canals to all azimuths, and at their most distant reaches the King planted oases whose flowering scents could travel a thousand miles more, spreading news of his desert garden.
Soon there appeared in the kingdom strange hummingbirds of kinds never seen before or since: birds with beaks like lances and the trains of peacocks; clouds of tiny hummingbirds that could be taken for gnats; and bat-like species that emerged at dusk to feed on night-blooming shrubs and downturned datturas. A person standing outside the palace gates might have noticed that birds flew into the garden but never came out. Large and small alike, the hummingbirds served a secret purpose known only to the King and his trusted counselor. A powerful alchemist, the counselor had designed a punishment to suit the King’s vengeful anger against Ezilem and his followers. It was not enough for the King that his enemies be killed, but that they suffer a long torture. This would be effected with a poison drawn from the glands of countless hummingbirds snared in the King’s gardens and slaughtered like mere fowl. Once distilled and bottled (or “weaponized,” as a modern variant has it) the poison could be applied onto a blade to extend the life of a person in the very throes of death. For like a hummingbird whose heart can beat a thousand times a second, and to whom a minute passes as slowly as a day, the condemned would endure a drawn-out agony at the moment of their execution.
One day the King’s foes were rounded up and swiftly condemned. The King was glad to think his enemies would suffer a terrible punishment, but he was privately dismayed their torture would happen for him in the blink of an eye. And in fact the execution was soon over, but not at all as the King expected. The monarch stood watching from the tribune as swordsmen advanced in ranks on their human prey; at his signal the condemned were run through with steel. One second later the King’s enemies had vanished and he found himself standing, like his counselor and consorts, with a blade planted in his own chest. He didn’t have time to grasp the vision that met his eyes as they glazed over: a city of light, towering above Babylon and his gardens, a spectacle of architectural magnificence unlike any he could have imagined.
“Hummingbird poison” is never set down in print. Likewise, storytellers’ descriptions of the city of the condemned are the occasion for improvisation without lasting record. Remarkably enough, the story transcends all politics and factions; at most it serves in harmless verbal jousts between rivals who seek to outdo each others’ renderings of worldly evanescence. Storytellers embroider on the details of a city built by people whose suffering inspired monuments to transience, uselessness and ruin. Hopeless and dying, but with time on their hands, the condemned learned to weave spider webs and craft walls like translucent leaves and dragonfly wings. Pools of water reflected the sky, but were made so shallow their images evaporated in no time. Hummingbird feathers were woven into carpets that covered the streets “as if the angels had cast their own wings down to Babylon,” says one storyteller (anon., Baghdad, 2003). “Exiled from heaven, the people brought the clouds down to earth,” says another (anon., Abu Ghraib, 2004). Architects experimented with the impalpable, raising fog dwellings, monuments of shimmering air. Constructed in the space of an instant, the city fell moments later like a house of cards.
Recent versions have added new twists to the tale, likening the hummingbirds to American drones and the condemned to reverse engineers in Iraq, Afghanistan or Gaza. As always, the message is ambiguous. “The world was theirs, but it was far below them now as they surveyed it without pause, marveling at God’s creation brought to a halt” (anon., Tikrit, 2014).