A Tale for Mr Spielberg?

Finally the professor put down his cup and stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen”, he addressed them in a steady voice. “I have been thinking at length about the best way of presenting my findings. I could, of course, give you lots of dates and figures. All of which, I am afraid, would be quite dull. Instead I will tell you about the history of the golden amulet as I think it happened. It is based closely on my findings. Are you all sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin…

….It was just a few weeks into the summer season and the weather was hot and dry. Wearing the blue robe of a temple priest, Teph-Sin approached the gates of the ancient city of Ur. Although weary after a long journey, his joy at coming home increased with every one of the hundred and seven stone steps leading to the huge city gates, now flung open. Centuries of use by men and beasts had made them so wide and low that even the merchants’ loaded donkeys had no trouble at all in climbing the steps to get their goods into Ur. He could already hear the animated shrill voices of the market sellers who sat all day in the cool shade of the massive deeply set arches that framed the gates. The front sides of the gates were covered in wood-cuttings inlaid with iron depicting previous sieges of the city, and prudently each night they were locked up and secured with heavy wooden bars placed across them.

The pleasant coolness of the arches’ walls made the market popular with the inhabitants of Ur who bought their daily food there, and also met their friends or acquaintances to talk business or simply to exchange the most recent news and gossip. The sellers loudly extolled the values of their goods which were displayed in huge, round green-rush baskets which were placed in front of them, and by the will of Nanna-Sin, didn’t they have every reason to be proud! There was variety there in everything, even in daily bread. The forward tipping baskets were piled with steaming hot flat bread, golden-baked on the sides of deep round ovens. Others were full of a round, ball-like, much denser bread, since it was made with quickly fermented milk. Honey-oozing cakes, called dabelah, made by mixing chopped dates and raisins, and then dried in the hot noon sun, glistened like jewels in special trays.

There were sellers of grain and sellers of pottery. Even the poorest could buy bowls fashioned from dried-out pumpkin halves. On the other side of the arches sat the prosperous sellers of scented oils. Just as their scent bottles were tiny, the cost of the oil they held was high, due to the great demand and the complexity and expense of their production. On their side a seller of magic spells called passers-by to his pile of clay tablets and bricks inscribed with magical words which were designed to protect the buyer from everything and anything, from a bout of bad fever to the evil, envious eye of a neighbour. All you had to do was to recite the powerful words several times a day. And if you didn’t get better?  Well, that meant the gods’ will was not with you. Among the crowd the fortune tellers, travelling charlatans, jugglers, and even beggars, all tried hard to make their living. 

Teph-Sin stopped at the gates for a moment to gather his bearings. Coming from brilliant sunshine into the darkness of the archways, he could hardly see anything around him but the familiar sounds and smells made him feel at long last at home. Slowly he made his way through the crowd, and people, respectful of his status as a priest, would make a space for him. The steep pathways of the city led to the temple situated on a plateau cut on top of a man-made hill, although no one could tell by whom or how long ago. If asked, the people of Ur would always say:  “It must have been after the big flood.” In the main square, close to the temple sat a dazzlingly white royal palace. Teph-Sin began to ascend but feeling weary now, he proceeded at a slower pace.

He had spent the last few months travelling to and from Memphis, a city in Lower Egypt, which was even older than Ur. He had been sent there on the orders of Elenh-El, the sangha mahhu, that was the most senior of the temple’s priests. The purpose of his travel was a secret mission to the all-powerful priests who served in the temple of Ptah, a revered Egyptian god. It was Teph-Sin’s first journey to Egypt, and curious at the country, its people and their customs, he kept his eyes and ears open.

At Ur, he was a baru, one of the specially trained from early childhood priests who, as everybody knew, could see both into the past and also into the future. They were highly respected and the third and highest circle in the hierarchy of the temple of the Sumerian god, Nanna-Sin, the one and only that could be seen every night journeying in the silvery moon-boat across the dark firmament.

He, the omnipotent, had held power over Ur, the city-state, the surrounding countryside, and even over the universe for a thousand or more years. He had a few more other gods to help him – the sun-god Sumash, the sky-god Anu, the air-god Enlil, and water-god Enki. Together, they ruled over the prosperous self-contained cities that had been built-in the highly fertile valley of the rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, in Lower Mesopotamia.  Nanna-Sin had been a good god, generously reciprocating the lavish gifts and sacrifices offered to him by the worshipful people in his temples. There was no denying that the past hundred years had been times of prosperity, glory and power, and so it wasn’t surprising that as far as people’s memories could stretch, their relationship with Nanna-Sin had worked harmoniously and was greatly cherished. But just recently, to people’s dismay, things had begun to change.

For no apparent reason, their god’s protection seemed to have all but disappeared. Without warning, a new, powerful empire grew close by, the almighty bloodthirsty Babylon. Its ruler, who demanded to be called the King of Kings, Sin Muballit, had a far-reaching ambition – to unite under his iron power all the people of the neighbouring tribes, the Sumerians, the Akkadian, the Elamites, the Gutians, the Hurrians, and some others, who up until now had lived untroubled in their rich towns. Their wealth came from trading and the fertile land of the valley.

The ancient trading route coiled around the basin of the Great Sea, and would cover all the cities and coastal towns including Gaza, and even that situated most to the west, the most vibrant of them all, Damascus. And further more, Egypt. The travelling merchants’ donkeys trekked up and down all year round that route with heavy baskets and sacks slung across their backs. It was said that the merchants had no nation, and perhaps for that reason the real importance and popularity of their visits could be attributed to their detailed knowledge of the economics and politics of the places and countries through which they had passed. They knew all the latest news and gossip, and everywhere they stopped there would be always an eager crowd quickly gathering to watch, buy and to listen. The town folk were hungry to know what life was like in these faraway places, who of importance had died, who had been de-throned, and who was involved in conflict with a neighbour. But now, the once funny or exciting tales increasingly became stories of terror, cruelty and extinction. And so, in the space of a relatively short time, there was only one name that could bring out an instant feeling of deadly fear in all listeners – Babylon.

It was whispered with horror that the people in the targeted towns who resisted were slaughtered upon victory, all men, women and children alike. Their possessions were plundered and the town was torched. Anyone who by some miracle escaped death would be taken into slavery. The fallen rulers, blinded and beaten, were dragged in chains behind Sin Muballit’s triumphant procession. The towns were rebuilt with a speed unknown before by slaves who had to work day and night under the soldiers’ whips. The new citizens who were settled there, were put to work, made to worship in the new temple to a Babylonian god Marduk, and heavily taxed. Their new ruler was directly responsible to the Babylonian King, and although he lived in luxury, his power was almost nil and his fear great as the spies of Sin Muballit were everywhere.

It was during one regular visit of a merchant called Terug that the king of Ur finally realised that the new power on the horizon was fast becoming a grave danger, which if not stopped would destroy him, the city and its people. As usual, the merchant was called to the palace to display his wares, but this time the king had something else in mind. The palace servants led the merchant to the main hall, where after customary greetings he was invited to take a seat on a big cushion in front of the king. Terug’s son spread out the goods in a big circle at the king’s feet. Rolls of fine cloth thrown into the air glided to the floor like huge exotic flowers. The intensity of their colours and the boldness of the designs took the onlookers’ breath away. The eyes of the women shone with feverish fire. Sensing the king’s unease Terug was happy to oblige.

“Rest assured, Your Majesty, that Sin Muballit is spending the next two seasons in his palace preparing a new military invasion for the next year. He won’t be coming this way for a good while, well several months at least…”
“Your words, Terug, are as refreshing as the breeze is on a hot day to a weary traveller! Dwell in prosperity; you, your sons and your family.”
Relaxed and jovial again, he pointed to the translucent clay cups.
“Where are these beautiful cups from?”
“Your eyes are wise guides, Sire. The cups come from an island called Crete. It emerges from the Great Sea, and their king dwells in the royal city of Caratos. They say that the king drinks from these cups daily. Made from a special secret clay, they are more precious than gold, Sire… and very fragile…” he added seeing one in the king’s hand.
“I will give you those two beautifully decorated gold plates from Egypt for this little cup,” said the king, his eyes narrowed with desire to own this beautiful trinket.
“Your servant will be only too happy to accept such a generous offer, Sire,” Terug bowed low. The crowd of servants surrounding them, and even the slaves hiding behind their backs, were all hanging on his every word. The king gestured to the women of the court, to choose any cloth they wanted, before leaving the hall.

The priests in Ur’s ancient temple which had stood squarely on top of the specially built hill for hundred of years, had their own, secret ways of acquiring the latest news, and now they were unduly worried. The new brutal ruler would certainly mean the destruction of all traces of their good god, Nanner-Sin, and the end of their own influence and power over Ur, although their lives would be spared. The temple would be given to the enforced worship of Marduk Bel, the ferocious Babylonian god who sat on his throne holding a bolt of lightning at the ready. And they would have to serve him devotedly, for the Babylonian king, it was said, had eyes and ears in every wall.

There was no time to waste. They decided to seek urgent counsel and help from the powerful priests in the temple of Ptah, in the city of Memphis. The ancient city sprawled close to the banks of the holy river Nile in Lower Egypt, the wealthiest country in the world, and the biggest city too. No one could compare with the power of Egypt since the country was awash with gold. Many outside rulers looked towards Egypt with longing, but those in possession of gold were also in command of the best army; they had no fear of any conquest.

The country’s ruler was called Pharaoh, as was customary in Egypt, but the real power behind the throne was in the hands of the priests. Travelling through Egypt was easy and safe. Both the authorities and the inhabitants were tolerant to foreigners, but the country’s administration was so well organised and efficient that within hours there would be an official interview with newcomers to establish they had come, how long they intended to stay and what the purpose of their visit was.

Egypt’s busy towns and villages, the mysterious, awe-inspiring temples of proportions unseen before, the opulence of the Royal Court, the beauty of its sophisticated, haunting art and the priests’ advanced knowledge of the sciences greatly impressed Teph-Sin. In everything they did, the Egyptians were ingenious, and seeing their unusual methods of thought and work, he longed to stay and learn more. But with the secret mission completed, and the counsel obtained and memorised, there was nothing more to do but hurry back to Ur and the temple.

Before departing for home he had to pay homage as was customary to the god of his hosts, the mighty Ptah in his temple. Entering, he first walked through the Outer Court. It was a pillared hall with brilliantly painted side-colonnades as well as high walls  all around it. This was a place where the festivals of the gods were celebrated and anyone could walk in, and take part in worship. The next chamber was the Inner Court to which were admitted only chosen people, and straight after was the Vestibule which pre-fronted the Shrine. No ordinary mortal was allowed into the Vestibule,  but as a baru priest and the guest of the temple, Teph-Sin had full access. Passing through the Inner Court with its forest of marble columns glimmering in the semi-darkness, he paused. The columns stretched up, seemingly into the sky. At this time of night there was nobody about. In the eerie silence, the eternal flickering lights allowed him to just see the richly decorated walls. He stopped to admire the beautiful frieze of Pharaoh hunting a lion when a sound disturbed his attention. Something, a whisper, came from among the columns. A soft voice floated in the air, coming closer, and closer, and the muffled sound suddenly became clear.

“Teph-Sin, Teph-Sin, I am waiting for you, Teph-Sin.”
He looked around but there was no one there. The voice became urgent:
“Teph-Sin, why are you keeping me waiting?”
Being a priest himself, he understood the mysteries of the temples, and the secret methods used to keep both ordinary people and those highly placed alike, submissive, respectful and fearful. And although this was Egypt, not Ur, and he didn’t know how it was done, he wasn’t alarmed but merely curious.
“Where are you, Master?” he called towards the sky since he could not pinpoint the direction of the voice.
“Your servant’s eyes are inadequate and cannot see you, and while I long to walk your path, I need your guidance to find it.”
“The blessing of Ptah will be with you, Teph-Sin, for you have courage as well as wisdom. Follow the star and it will lead you to me.”
A single ball of hazy light floated in the darkness, seemingly beckoning Teph-Sin to follow it. Without a moment’s hesitation, Teph-Sin turned in the light’s direction and entered the cool darkness of the silent colonnade.

To be continued

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