By Mender Mae
“My lord Marduk told me in regard to E-temen-anki, the ziggurat of Babylon,” the scribe read pompously, sweat visibly beading on his beaky nose as he perched in heavy white robes on the keystone slab of rock, “–to ground its bottom on the breast of the netherworld, to make its top vie with the heavens.” Only one foundation stone of baked clay was currently in place, forming a sacred altar in the middle of the open pit of dirt. They had leveled the old Tower of Babel, to be rebuilt as the new Ziggurat of Marduk in Babylon. It would be a structure of grand proportions, its length one hundred strides of a grown man on all sides.
When the priests had plunged their hands into the entrails of the sacred bull slaughtered at dawn, they said the omens declared the auspicious time for the ceremony was at the sun’s zenith. Hours of waiting later, goats and small children around him bleated unhappily in the baking heat of the midday desert.
Now they were starting, and Nebuchadnezzar began his role, spreading myrrh and frankincense on the soil in his baskets. The priest droned on, reading out the King’s inscription which Prince Nebuchadnezzar’s father had dictated to the priests a week earlier, which had already been baked into cylinder seals to be buried in the temple’s foundations. Though it was his first time hearing it, Nebuchadnezzar soon lost interest. “I had them shape mud-bricks without number!” the priest continued. Nebuchadnezzar tuned him out.
He and his little brother had their own duties. He swung the handles of two heavy, glinting baskets full of soil and pine-chips onto his shoulders, carrying the weight easily. He was impressed at the baskets’ craftsmanship, which didn’t leak even a trace of dirt or oil, in spite of how difficult getting so close a weave would have been from threads of pure gold.
He waited patiently while his little brother Nabûsumilisir struggled to lift his baskets, made from silver. He didn’t shame him by offering to help. It was hard work to be asking of a five year old, but their father the King had insisted the young boy would take part. Nebuchadnezzar nodded at his brother encouragingly, and together they struggled up the dirt ramps, following workmen who were beginning the difficult work of hauling massive baked clay bricks into place for the foundations. A dozen workmen heaved on either side, pushing and pulling ropes around the blocks that were twice as tall as them or more. When two bricks groaned together with a thump that shook the ground, the princes poured the sweetly scented dirt into place to act as grout between them.
“Through the craft of exorcism, the wisdom of Ea and Marduk, I purified that place and made firm its foundation platform on its ancient base,” the priest shouted, working himself into a sweat which dripped from his long nose onto the white wool of his robes as they walked past to re-fill their soil baskets. Nebuchadnezzar was idly surprised – the priests of Marduk were pious, but preferred to remain cold and dignified, not often as worked up in holy zeal as this one was today.
The Etemenanki was to be a temple unprecedented in scope, with no expense spared. His father did not take chances. He would sacrifice whatever was needed to ensure that the wars continued to favour Babylon. With so much riding on it, perhaps it was unsurprising the priests were going all out. “In its foundations I laid out gold, silver, gemstones from mountain and sea,” the priest was yelling as they passed him again, loaded down with those treasures themselves. Nebuchadnezzar paused at the extraordinary sight of a brick more than a dozen times his size sliding down a ramp to thump into place beside the others. The temple would be a marvel of engineering.
For a time he watched, stunned and impressed at the incredible feat they were attempting. The gods were honoured. For months workmen had done nothing but dig mud and pour it, into brick-moulds made from sacred materials themselves – ivory, ebony and musukkannu-wood.
Even his father was working, his robe rolled up, balancing smaller mud-bricks on his head alongside the workmen. Nebuchadnezzar nodded at him respectfully as he got back to work himself, but was astonished to see tears rolling down his father’s cheeks.
This temple was his father’s greatest pride, the work of countless months of preparation, the work of years upon years to come. He couldn’t think of a time he had ever seen his father cry.
The priest was reaching fever pitch, and Nebuchadnezzar’s head jerked up from the soil he was pouring as he heard his name read aloud; “…Nebuchadnezzar, my firstborn son, beloved of my heart, carried alongside my workmen earth mixed with wine, oil and resin-chips.” His mouth tugged down. He still felt a bit bitter about the wine, which was from his own personal stores. His father had been adamant, they would all sacrifice what was most valuable to them.
Nebuchadnezzar returned to the edge of the foundation, and took more aromatic oils from a priest. The man wouldn’t meet his eye and then hurried off. Disconcerted, he poured the oil into a new basket of soil, listening with half an ear to the priest. “I made Nabûsumilisir, his brother, a boy–” the priest’s voice was growing louder and louder, and Nebuchadnezzar looked at his brother, just as he staggered under the weight of the silver baskets he was carrying. Nebuchadnezzar unconsciously stepped forward before halting himself. His brother had to do this alone. It was his offering to make. “–Issue of my body, my darling younger son, take up mattock and spade.” Nebuchadnezzar was half-way back across the distance between them when he saw the danger.
His little brother was standing still as a stone, swaying on his feet under the hot sun, a huge and peaceful smile on his face. Above him, one of the huge clay stone bricks reached the top of the ramp, far too close to him. Nebuchadnezzar called a warning, but the workmen paid him no heed, and the priest shouted from his reading, louder than them all — “I burdened him with a soil-basket of gold and silver–”
His brother staggered again, and his father was weeping openly. Nebuchadnezzar frowned. His little brother was a tiny thing, yes, but he was proud, and he was not weak. When the boy fell to his knees, Nebuchadnezzar dropped his baskets. Something was wrong. His little brother fell forward, looking up to the sky, his face smiling even as his muscles twitched.
As the huge stone block tipped, and began to slide, the priest’s voice was screaming in fervour, and Nebuchadnezzar began to run. “AND BESTOWED HIM—” Each step was molasses, “ON MY LORD MARDUK—”
Time froze. His brother, his baby brother, only five, looking glassy-eyed with drugs and peaceful, disappeared as the impossibly huge mass of stone slid down, slamming into place.
“AS A GIFT.”
The silence echoed, and nothing had ever been as loud.
From somewhere, priests began to chant, singing to the glory of Marduk. The King sobbed. And Nebuchadnezzar stumbled, falling and rising and falling over the smooth sand to lay trembling fingers onto the sides of the huge stone slab.
He traced his fingertips over the surface, catching on the roughness in the brick. Then he crashed into it with his shoulder, heaving, pounding on the massive foundation block with his fists. His father came up behind and tried to pull Nebuchadnezzar into an embrace, but he shook the King off. “What did you do? What did you do?” he shouted.
Nothing showed beneath the huge rock. No trace of the child. No speck of blood, nor scrap of flesh. His brother was simply erased, and only the stone remained.
“What did you do,” Nebuchadnezzar howled.
“I gave the greatest gift a father could give. To the gods, and to my beloved son. Child of my heart. He will belong to Marduk forever now. As it should be.”
Nebuchadnezzar yelled incoherently, pounding on the stone with bleeding fists.
“Be calm, my son, as your brother was. The future is ours, now. Our empire is assured.” The King stepped away, his face tear-streaked but serene. “It is a high price to pay. But worth the cost. The gods demand much of us. Such is the way mighty empires are built.”
The tower of Etemeranki would stand over 90 metres tall when it was finished, a monument to Marduk’s benevolence. A wonder of the world. The Empire of Babylon expanded in all directions. And all his life, wherever King Nebuchadnezzar II fought, he left inscriptions describing the building works of Babylon. People so far away would never see Babylon, and never care. But everywhere he wrote it, so that it would never be forgotten. What was built, and what it cost.
Author’s notes: Foundation cylinders with inscriptions from Nabopolassar were found in the 1880s at the base of the Etemenanki ziggurat. One of them reads:
“At that time my lord Marduk told me in regard to E-temen-anki, the ziqqurrat of Babylon, which before my day was (already) very weak and badly buckled, to ground its bottom on the breast of the netherworld, to make its top vie with the heavens. I fashioned mattocks, spades and brick-moulds from ivory, ebony and musukkannu-wood, and set them in the hands of a vast workforce levied from my land. I had them shape mud bricks without number and mould baked bricks like countless raindrops. I had the River Arahtu bear asphalt and bitumen like a mighty flood. Through the sagacity of Ea, through the intelligence of Marduk, through the wisdom of Nabû and Nissaba, by means of the vast mind that the god who created me let me possess, I deliberated with my great intellect, I commissioned the wisest experts and the surveyor established the dimensions with the twelve-cubit rule. The master-builders drew taut the measuring cords, they determined the limits. I sought confirmation by consulting Samas, Adad and Marduk and, whenever my mind deliberated (and) I pondered (unsure of) the dimensions, the great gods made (the truth) known to me by the procedure of (oracular) confirmation. Through the craft of exorcism, the wisdom of Ea and Marduk, I purified that place and made firm its foundation platform on its ancient base. In its foundations I laid out gold, silver, gemstones from mountain and sea. Under the brickwork I set heaps of shining sapsu, sweet-scented oil, aromatics and red earth. I fashioned representations of my royal likeness bearing a soil-basket, and positioned (them) variously in the foundation platform. I bowed my neck to my lord Marduk. I rolled up my garment, my kingly robe, and carried on my head bricks and earth (i.e. mud bricks). I had soil-baskets made of gold and silver and made Nebuchadnezzar, my firstborn son, beloved of my heart, carry alongside my workmen earth mixed with wine, oil and resin-chips. I made Nabûsumilisir, his brother, a boy, issue of my body, my darling younger son, take up mattock and spade. I burdened him with a soil-basket of gold and silver and bestowed him on my lord Marduk as a gift. I constructed the building, the replica of E-sarra, in joy and jubilation and raised its top as high as a mountain. For my lord Marduk I made it an object fitting for wonder, just as it was in former times.”