Outside my window it’s a cold and miserable day in what is supposed to be spring. I hope it’s warmer and sunnier wherever you are. If not, here’s the next chapter form The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms to entertain you. And so, without further delay, somewhere in ancient Babylon…
Chapter 75 – Perfection
The table was ready and it was perfect. Asklepios admiringly ran his hand over the smooth sanded surface. Two gold-inlaid lines divided the circular top into exactly equal quarters. He rested his cheek on the top and looked along them. Each one ran straight and true. Two finer lines subdivided each quarter into thirds, also inlaid with the precious metal.
Asklepios had been intrigued to discover the craftsmen worked in both base ten and base sixty, as did all numerate people in Babylon. He soon understood the advantages of working in a large base divisible without remainder by many numbers. Though it was difficult to learn the higher base he persisted.
Each third was further subdivided into thirty sections, each marked by a short groove on the table’s circumference, with every tenth line cut twice as long.
Banipal watched Asklepios closely, happy see the pleasure in his guest’s eyes.
‘Your carpenters are at least the equal of the finest in Baghdad.’ Asklepios’ vocabulary had increased rapidly, he was grateful he could now express his thanks properly. He clasped Banipal’s hands in his own. ‘Thank you, my friend. This is a gift beyond kindness, beyond hospitality–’ His throat grew tight, he wanted to say more but could not.
Banipal did not mind, he could see Asklepios’ joy, though he was not sure the cabinetmakers would appreciate being called carpenters no matter how fine.
Once he fully understood Asklepios’ request Banipal was interested in the idea for his own purposes. The cabinetmakers quickly grasped Asklepios’ ideas and encouraged by Banipal’s status and gold they worked fast. In fact Banipal found Abil-Ilishu, the shaven-headed and bright-eyed elderly guild leader, enthusiastic to the point of arm-waving.
‘It will be magnificent! Seasoned cedar, teak and ebony, ivory–’
‘Northern oak will be fine.’
Abil-Ilishu absorbed the instruction without pausing. ‘Yes. Fine-grained oak, an economic choice and almost as good quality. I guarantee not one knot-hole or other flaw. I propose it is inlaid with alternating segments of ebony and ivory, the contrast will be–’
‘Again, not necessary. This is a working table.’
‘–beautiful.’ Abil-Ilishu pouted, then burst back into life. ‘A double rim around the circumference bounding the degree marks and inlaid in silver, broad and deep. The marks and radii inlaid gold, major diameters capped with rubies and minor alternating jacinth and sardonyx. I suggest chalcedony–’
The conversation wore on. After a long hour, a pause for refreshment, then further negotiations they settled on a simple medium cost design with diameters, radii and tenth-angle marks inlaid with gold. There would be no silver, rubies, sardonyx or jacinth.
‘This is a prototype,’ Banipal explained, feeling oddly guilty about not spending his own wealth. ‘A table to your original design may well follow.’
‘I understand completely.’ Abil-Ilishu said, equably, his grumbling protests that a plain design was unworthy of the cabinetmaker’s craft apparently forgotten.
Looking back, Banipal wondered if Abil-Ilishu had in fact got exactly what he wanted. After all, he, Banipal, had only wanted wooden a table.
Asklepios watched as Banipal fetched twine and began measuring the table’s circumference.
May I help?’ Asklepios asked.
Banipal passed Asklepios one end of the twine. ‘Hold this against the table.’
Asklepios pressed down on the twine with his thumb. ‘What are you trying to do?’
‘The world is round. I wish to measure it.’
‘What is the problem?’
‘I do not yet understand how the diameter changes relative to the circumference as a circle grows.’
‘It doesn’t,’ Asklepios said.
Banipal looked up. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It is the same for all circles, part of their mystery. The ratio is always twenty-five eighths.’
Banipal stared in amazement. He drew lines and circles in the air with his fingers. ‘You are quite certain?’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘It is a part of our history. Once, a group of foreign monks fled persecution because of some learned scrolls in their possession. They founded a monastery at a place called Jundi Shapur, lived peacefully and obeyed our laws. In time the emperor became ill and no cure could be found. A servant sent for one of the monks and as a result of the monk’s medicines and care the emperor grew well. For a reward the monk asked only that he and his brothers be allowed to teach philosophy, medicine and astronomy from their scrolls, which were exceedingly ancient and the only copies that yet remained in the world.’
Banipal fetched parchment and drew more lines and circles. ‘How can this be? How can a line grow in simple length yet the proportion of the bounding circle–?’
Asklepios spread his hands. ‘I don’t know, but it does.’
Banipal frowned, then laughed long and loud. ‘It was me all along. My mistakes, my errors. I’m relieved, you know. I really am.’
‘It happens to us all.’ Asklepios remembered his own mistakes keenly.
Banipal ran his hand over the table. ‘We need better instruments.’
‘We do indeed.’
That evening Asklepios narrated his own adventures to Banipal and Ishkun. They listened attentively, accepting not only had he been magically transported from another land, but from another age as well.
When he had finished Ishkun sat back, his hand on his chin. ‘Truly, Ea sent you here to teach Banipal. Before that could happen Marduk asked Ekad to test both of you with his river.’
Not wanting to argue religion Asklepios said nothing. Sensing his discomfort, Banipal asked him about his plans for the table. Specifically, when would he perform his magic?
Asklepios grew even more uncomfortable. ‘If I could teach you ten times what I know it would not repay you for your kindness. Before I can perform a ritual I have to ask you for even more – herbs, incense, lamp oil.’
Banipal sat forwards, his eyes burned bright. ‘Tell me what you need.’
Asklepios tried without success to describe the herbs and spices. Banipal clapped him on the shoulder. ‘We will go to the market together. You point to the things you need and I shall buy them. That way there is no risk you will have to jump into the river again.’
Late in the night Asklepios rose and went to the table. The wick from the evening lamp guttered as the oil ran dry. Idly he traced the ritual place markings, curves and lines crossing the surface. Once again he marvelled at the accuracy of the design.
Now there could be no errors, all would be perfect.
Banipal related Asklepios’ tale of the monks to Ishkun. When the story was done Ishkun wept.
‘What in this tale troubles you so?’ Banipal said.
‘It tells me that one day Marduk and Ea will turn their backs on us. Babylon will be nothing but fallen walls under drifting sand.’ Ishkun dried his eyes. ‘Our achievements will be forgotten. We will be less than memories.’
‘No,’ Banipal whispered, half to himself. ‘No.’ he looked out across the glorious stepped pyramid of Etemenanki and considered the might of Babylon’s armies, her foot soldiers and chariots, the strength of her double walls, the wealth of her storehouses and granaries, the grand canals and temples and tried to imagine it all gone.
It was all too easy.
To be continued…