Low evening sun shone through the glassless window of prince-priest Banipal’s work room. Outside, the ochre mud-brick walls of ancient Babylon glowed golden orange across the city. At the end of a long and tiring day Banipal still worked at his bench, transcribing his notes from the reusable wax trays onto a stack of clay tablets.
Amending and expanding as he went, he pressed his stylus into the damp clay with painstaking care, filling tablet after tablet with dense cuneiform script.
Finally the task was done. Banipal wiped the stylus clean and laid out the tablets ready for the ovens. After firing the clay would be nearly indestructible. With good fortune his work would endure.
He rubbed his eyes and stretched. Although he was weary from the day his brain seethed with plans for tomorrow. The implications of his discoveries, what they might let him attempt and what might one day be possible years or even lifetimes from now, awed him. The universe was indeed a beautiful and wondrous place.
Hunger growled in his belly. By the length of the shadows he realised he was late for his evening meal again. Banipal washed his hands, face and shaven scalp and dried himself with a small towel. He left his room, descended the exterior steps and crossed the sun-warmed flagstones of the square to the open-fronted cook-house. The other prince-priests were already eating at the wooden tables. Conversation buzzed, a few raised their hands in greeting. It was the normal contented end to a normal day. Also as normal one of the bonded servants had put aside a bowl of dates, millet bread and goat cheese for Banipal.
Not in the mood for conversation he took his food back across the square and climbed up to the roof of his quarters. He sat on the low parapet with his legs dangling over the edge, nibbled a date and looked out across the city.
Directly below him lay the main quadrangle of Esagila, House of the Raised Head, the home of Marduk, patron deity of Babylon, and his consort.
Banipal had been in the quadrangle many times and seen the golden god statues, their attendant butler, hairdresser, baker and door-keeper, and the fearsome winged Kurubs guarding the inner portal. Like the vast majority of the populace he had never entered Marduk’s temple. Only once had he glimpsed the interior and seen for himself what everyone knew – even the great cedar rafters were gilded.
Towering halfway to the sky beyond Esagila temple soared the enormous stepped ziggurat of Etemenanki, the broad Euphrates river flowing around its feet. Three hundred feet on each side, Etemenanki, the House of the Platform of Heaven and Earth, was visible for miles across the plain.
Banipal became lost in thought. Knowing how to measure the world, how could he measure the heavens?
That was how Banipal’s great friend Ishkun found him as the golden edge of evening rose up the platforms and broad stairways of Etemenanki.
‘Blessings of Enki fall upon you,’ Ishkun said, his ready smile white above the tight black curls of his beard. He frowned as he saw Banipal’s barely-eaten meal in the bowl. ‘Oh, my friend, you are still eating. I would have come later, but I missed you.’
Banipal swung his legs over the parapet. ‘Then stay. It’s good to see you and I have had my fill.’
Ishkun made an expansive gesture. ‘Eat! No need for formality between friends.’
This was an old conversation. Banipal’s face was thin from lack of eating, not lack of food. ‘Truly, I am full. What remains is for Marduk.’
Ishkun thought Marduk fed well enough as it was. How much fruit meat and bread did the Gods need?
‘Let us walk through the city then. You’re so thin I worry that if we stay up here a zephyr might waft you away. Then what would I do?’
Banipal laughed. ‘You would do very well. And I’m sure Inanna’s priestesses would be much happier not having to pretend to like me as much as they do you.’
Ishkun and Banipal walked down to the temple courtyard and out into the streets of the merchant quarter. As they passed through the temple gate Ishkun finally said what he had come to say.
‘Banipal, I’ve just had a marvellous idea. Tomorrow let us go –’
‘Not hunting, Ishkun, please.’
Banipal’s eyes were fever bright, Ishkun could see the skull under his skin, his raw bones. He determined to stay cheerful. ‘All right, I have a confession. Banipal, listen to me for this is the truth: I have transgressed.’ He held up his hand before Banipal could speak, ‘No, don’t ask me what it is, it is far too embarrassing. The thing is I must hunt, and soon. A sacrifice for Marduk.’
Banipal nodded, smiling patiently. ‘And whatever he does not want – we shall eat?’
‘It had crossed my mind.’ Ishkun clutched Banipal’s arm as they ducked under the hanging fabrics of the merchant stalls. ‘But listen, now I really have transgressed because I lied about the need to make sacrifice and in doing so I invoked Marduk’s name. He surely heard me, so–’
‘So your lie about transgression has become the transgression itself. A neat circular argument. That is very clever, I like it.’
Ishkun beamed. ‘So you will come?’
‘Not tomorrow, nor the day after. My work…’ Banipal looked up at the great ziggurat, the summit still capped with the last of the sunlight. ’I am discovering too many wonderful things.’
‘Think of what we could discover out in the wide world,’ Ishkun protested. He loved his friend dearly despite, or possibly because of their differences. He simply wanted him to be happy, to put on a little weight. To not fade away through obsession. He was convinced that if he could only prise Banipal away from his studies he would relax and learn to enjoy life. ‘We would hunt, race, feast, lie with women –’ Ishkun saw how unconvinced Banipal was and took a deep breath. ‘We could even go fishing.’
Banipal gave a great shout of laughter. Ishkun could not abide fishing. Hour after hour sitting on the river bank or floating on a reed raft. Meanwhile the implacable urge to get up, to do something, do anything, grew in him moment by boring moment. At his side Banipal would be perfectly content, last in thought, lost in his beloved numbers and never minding if they caught sixty qa of carp or none at all. Taking up Ishkun on his offer was something Banipal simply could not do. That the offer was sincere broke his resolve.
‘All right, I promise you,’ Banipal said. ‘The day after tomorrow I will ride with you in your chariot through Ishtar’s gate and we will hunt and run, and bring back enough meat for Marduk to forgive you and feed Babylon for a year and a day.’
‘We will, we will!’ Ishkun cried, hugging his friend. ‘And in return I will help you with your sticks and string and counting pebbles.’
‘Then you are the better man,’ Banipal said. ‘Because I do very much enjoy hunting with you, my friend.’
‘Very much?’ Ishkun queried.’
‘Quite enjoy,’ Banipal admitted. ‘Mostly.’
Ishkun had visited Banipal’s poles and pebbles out on the plain and listened patiently to his friend’s explanations of distance, measurement and angle. He looked at the neat rows of stones, the sets of pebbles grouped and arranged into further sets, and tried to understand. It made his head swim and if he persisted, sent him into a black mood for failing to see what was so obvious to Banipal.
‘That’s exactly how I feel when we’re tracking game,’ Banipal said. ‘You point to plain signs and I see nothing.’
‘But they’re so obvious anyone –’ Ishkun began, then raised his hands in apology. ‘We both dream of great exploits. Yours take place between your ears.’
Banipal shook his head. ‘Across the universe, Ishkun. The world is made of numbers. Just by knowing the days in a year, the seasons, the cycles of moon and sun, we know when the rains will come, in which season the rivers will flood, the nights the moon will be hidden by the spawn of Anu. All these things affect our lives and destiny. Numbers prove they are connected to one another.’
‘Think what might we discover if we measured the heartbeats in a man’s life, the direction of a bird’s flight? Our Astrologers can tell us something of the future, if I can combine my discoveries with theirs we might find out so much more.’
Ishkun was troubled. ‘Surely some things are too big to measure?’
Ishkun gestured around him. ‘The whole world.’
‘Even that is almost in my grasp.’
Now Ishkun laughed. ‘You could never have a rope long enough.’
‘But I already have the rope.’
Ishkun listened to his friend’s explanation of the varying distances between the top and bottom of vertical poles on a sphere. It was common knowledge the world was round – stars rose at different times in different places, the tops of distant mountain appeared before their bases.
‘Some things the Gods do not mean us to know.’
‘They test our worth.’ Banipal looked steadily at Ishkun. ‘If I could measure everything I would know everything. I could even make new things happen.’
This troubled Ishkun even more. After walking in silence for a while he reminded Banipal of the things he should bring for the hunt and departed.
To be continued…