Banipal visited his nephew at the site of his home in the ‘new city’ on the western bank of the Euphrates. He admired the size of the plot of land then sat under an awning with his nephew and his wife and shared mint tea. After a mutual exchange of pleasantries his nephew asked him to oversee the dedication and blessing of the foundations of the house on a date yet to be decided by the family astrologer.
Ever since the Processional Way had been extended across the great bridge spanning the Holy River, new residential areas on the west bank had become highly desirable. Not only were they close to the temple quarters, they took advantage of the clean north-west winds before they blew through the old city.
A prosperous merchant, Banipal’s nephew had decided to exhibit his success by building a large and expensive property. Anxious to have the blessings of both Marduk and Tammuz, who would both have altars in his new home, and the River God Ekad, whose waters he would cross every day, he planned a lavish series of dedications and sacrifices. As a close blood relative, Banipal could be trusted to make the arrangements with integrity and at a reasonable cost.
For Banipal, only recently returned from his hunting trip with Ishkun, it was a time-consuming nuisance. Nevertheless, it was a family matter and he was obliged to accept with good grace.
As he returned home over the bridge he came across a small but vociferous crowd surrounding two men hard against the parapet wall. Banipal went to the back of the crowd to see what was going on.
One man, plump and angry, was clearly a local merchant. The other was a bush-bearded foreigner well past his prime, undernourished and unkempt. He was restrained by two men holding his upper arms. The old man did not struggle, rather, he was listless and resigned. Banipal was intrigued to see that under a ragged and dirty linen skirt he wore leggings dyed a rich and unusual blue.
‘What’s going on?’ Banipal asked one of the other men, a narrow faced young scribe missing his top front teeth.
The scribe took in Banipal’s priestly robes. ‘Holy one, the merchant claims this old one stole dates from his stall.’
‘Were there any witnesses?’
‘Apparently not, but the merchant’s friends attest to his honesty.’
‘What does the stranger say?’
The scribe grinned. ‘That’s the trouble. He lacks our tongue as well as coin.’
The problem was clear. Accused of a crime, the stranger was unable to defend himself or pay a fine.
‘To be honest,’ the scribe continued, ‘He didn’t have any dates on him either.’
This no longer felt fair. Banipal pushed his way to the centre of the crowd. ‘A moment, if you please.’
Seeing his temple robes, the merchant dipped his head respectfully. ‘Your servant, and the Gods’.’
‘I understand you accuse this foreigner of the theft of some dates?’ Banipal said.
‘From my stall, yes.’
‘But he has no dates on him.’
‘Admittedly, but I definitely saw him take them.’
‘How did this happen?’
‘The starveling was loitering so I kept an eye on him. I turned away for a moment, he grabbed the dates and ran.’
‘I also understand there were no witnesses.’
The merchant stuck out his chin. ‘It is true nobody else saw this. If my word is in doubt, first let me say I have no reason to persecute a stranger. Second, my friends will vouchsafe my integrity.’
Several voices chorused agreement.
Banipal looked over the parapet at the deep, fast-flowing water forty feet below. ‘In the absence of witnesses it would be a gracious gesture to not bind his limbs.’
‘It will be as you suggest,’ the merchant said. ‘Let it not be said I am a vindictive man.’
‘Marduk guide us all.’ Banipal raised his hands, bowed and stepped back. He looked at the foreigner with some sympathy. The man was alone and frightened. Probably he had been a victim of an earlier robbery himself and now was penniless, homeless and hungry.
Nevertheless, all was as it should be. The immutable laws, carved on a stele of black rock in the market squares of every city in the land, were being followed.
The merchant addressed the foreigner, mainly for the benefit of the crowd. ‘Go now, to Ekad’s justice.’
The two labourers hoisted the foreigner on to the top of the parapet. The crowd fell silent. Unresisting, the stranger looked wretchedly down at the river.
Then Banipal noticed the measuring instruments clenched in the foreigner’s hand. They were made of sheets of transparent crystal.
‘Wait!’ Banipal cried.
It was too late. The labourers had already pushed the bearded stranger and he was gone into the river.
To be continued…