Background to Song of the Wadi Hitan

This background to a recent discovery in Egypt and a most gracious introduction to my poem in his blog was written by Michael Parker and are reproduced here with his permission. Thanks, Michael. Click HERE to read his blog.  It's a good one.       Pris

Once upon a great time, speaking in the range of millions of years ago, oceans and inland seas covered most of the earth. Through the centuries, these seas have dried and their seabeds have become great deserts. One such desert is the Wadi Hitan in Egypt. And this week, the Wadi Hitan made international news.

Geologist Philip D. Gingerich and his team discovered the first known "complete" skeleton of one of the earliest known whales, the Basilosaurus isis. The Basilosaurus is 50-feet-long and estimated to be 40-million years-old.

The National Geographic highlighted this find, describing the Basilosaurus:

The first of the truly gigantic whales, Basilosaurus had the serpentine shape of a sea monster and short, sharp teeth for hunting sharks and other prey. Unlike today's whales, it had no blowhole—the ancient behemoth had to raise its head above water to breathe. What's more, Basilosaurus still had the feet it inherited from its land-dwelling ancestors,

Wadi Hitan, which means "Valley of Whales," teemed with sea-animals. The University of Michigan article on this latest find reported that the Wadi Hitan "included five species of whales, including the Dorudon atrox, presently exhibited in the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum. There are also three species of sea cows (Sirenia), two crocodiles, several turtles, and a sea snake, in addition to a large number of fossilized sharks and bony fishes."

The U of M article shows a skeletal representation of the whale. You can see graphic by reading "U-M team recovers ancient whale in Egyptian desert."

A few days ago, I introduced you to one of my favorite contemporary poets, Pris Campbell. This week, she was impressed to write about the discovery of the whale in the middle of the Wadi Hatin. She has given me permission to print her exceptional poem here for your review. (Thank you Pris!)


Song of the Wadi Hitan

Prone on the hot white sands
of the Wadi Hitan ,
I slide my arms up and down
making angel wings.
The dust storm still looms,
a huge powder puff on the horizon.
Soon it will sweep past me to Cairo,
that jeweled lady sprawled by the fickle Nile.
Men and women will cover their faces.
Cats will hide beneath buildings.
Windows will take weeks of polishing
to come clean.

Deep in the sands beneath me, a whale cries.
His flesh has melted, teeth scattered
like broken pearls. His last meal
of fresh shark meat has long been digested.

He laments the loss of his ocean
and friends to hunt with when nights are cool.
Unlike the Pharaohs, Cleopatra,and the Great Pyramids, 
he was forgotten, he tells me.

I can't sing whalespeak, can't tell 
him he wasn't forgotten, can't ask 
what song he sang so many years ago
that pierced thick sand and inspire 
turbaned men resting here at this spot 
on camel-back to name this place Wadi Hitan-
Valley of Whales.

Instead, I scheherazade him images
of high tumbling waves, fat sharks waiting
to be eaten, giant squid drifting under
moonless nights good for hunting.
Whales swimming free.
He sighs. The desert sleeps.

Pris Campbell

Note: An Egyptian friend, in reading of this discovery wrote me that this valley was actually named approximately 14,000 years ago, when there were no clues whales or other ea animals had once swam there.

Folded Word Press  2009

Return to Poetry Index Two
Return to Homepage