Across the Aegean
A tale of a time when East met West
When Aristagoras, Greek sea-trader of Piraeus, first laid eyes upon the treasures amassed by his distant cousins in the Asian provinces of Lydia and Ionia, more than just his avarice was awakened. When he studied the layers of gold inlay on an earring crafted on the shores of the Oxus, and ran his hand over a luxuriant, thick robe woven high in the Zagros, he did something a Hellene rarely did:
He stared in shock.
Though he could not know it, he was hearing the last dim and distant notes of a symphony whose first strains swelled in the high fertile plains of central Asia more than five thousand years before his grandfathers first sailed east from the shores of Hellas to colonize Asia Minor.
But it was not only the scale of time that made the power of the East so compelling; its mysterious grandeur so unparalleled. It was something more all-encompassing; something that, from the most ancient days, had impressed wonder upon the Eastern mind:
Aristagoras, raised in a verdant valley between rocky sea-cliffs, could hardly imagine the seemingly limitless expanse of the Mesopotamian plain; his world was one of heather and forest, of mountain and seashore. Indeed, most of Europe was, in those days, covered in a forest so thick and packed with life that
We might well call it a jungle today.
From that shadowed domain rose the wild hills, where, on certain summer nights, one might still witness Bacchic celebrants tearing live goats limb from limb, feasting on fresh blood in savage abandon. The Hellenic lands were full of secret places; enchanted groves where dryads dwelled; crags where rogue gods had lain chained since the world’s dawn.
Europe was a continent where, since time immemorial, half-mad men had journeyed alone into new territories, and found them rich in untapped resources. It was a place where not just life itself, but individual life — unique life — constantly cried out:
Journey onward! Seek new adventure!
Exploration meant discovery; and indeed, the Hellenes seemed to be stumbling upon unexpected treasures, dangers, and ways of life in each new valley they colonized. After all, even if a man died in battle, the abode of the gods awaited him, and he would spend eternity in feast and song.
But to Bailshar, scion of a wealthy Assyrian merchant family, the Greek world — and the whole mode of perception of its inhabitants — seemed, at best, inscrutable; at worst, willfully idiotic.
It wasn’t that Babylon lacked its own savage rituals — after all, did not the men of that city, on a certain day each year, slit the bellies of goats, and bathe the streets in fresh blood?
But even rituals such as this, to the Assyrian’s eyes, were civilized. They, like virtually every aspect of life in Assyria, were conducted with a sacred regularity and solemnity. No act performed in Babylon went unseen; every transaction was recorded, every traveler (human or otherwise) counted, every regal decree and achievement inscribed in stone or clay for posterity.
Thus, Mesopotamia was a land where tremendous spans of time were accepted as a matter of course. Who, in a land filled with five thousand years of crumbling ruins and records, could fail to grasp the obvious truth about himself and all he knew?
It had been over two thousand years ago (to the Assyrian) that Sargon had first ridden out from Agade to conquer all the cities between the Tigris and Euphrates — and even that great king was only expanding the borders the Sumerian empire, whose annals reached back over tens of centuries…
Into the mists of far more ancient epochs.
Legends and relics from all these mighty empires, and more, were passed down over millennia from dynasty to dynasty and race to race across the Mesopotamian plain. The tales of superhuman conquerors, chosen by the gods to bring order and justice, were embellished in myth and legend, and preserved in art and song for the common people.
Architecture, in the palaces and ziggurats of cities like Babylon, Ashur, and Nineveh, was the culmination of traditions founded in the dawn of man’s childhood. Its object was to impress upon man the power of heaven; the cosmic Order, in which
Every man’s life was ordained a sacred role.
Indeed, all persons and lands were considered the property of the gods; and thus, of the Temple and its representatives. But what was the alternative? To die alone, on the steppe or in the desert? To fall prey to the bands of savages who prowled the hills like wild beasts? Better to serve in the fields, where, according to age-old tradition, farmers kept a portion of all they grew, and received in return the protection of the king’s armies in times of barbarian raids.
This anti-isolation; this never-ending transplantation and fusion of groups and cultures; produced a wealth of stunning products: weapons, jewelry, sculpture, textiles, literature and song. Cross-continental trade had been a vital part of the Mesopotamian economy since the days of the earliest empires, and the workmanship of an item was judged not only against the standards of all the lands and peoples known in the Asian world, but also against those of still more ancient races and half-forgotten cultures,
Whose relics filled the museums of Assyrian kings.
Raised in the lands of Mesopotamia, one could never forget his own finite nature, his insignificance against the inconceivable scale of the universe — a universe where even gods crumbled to dust over time.
In this universe, there was nowhere for the civilized man run off to; no undiscovered sea-coasts rich with fruit trees; no tropical isles populated by beautiful enchantresses. No, the once-mighty forests of oak and juniper, which had been a realm of savage wonders in the fabled days of Gilgamesh, had been hacked down long ages ago to make room for farmland and cities.
Though Babylonian astronomers were renowned, their studies were based mainly on preexisting formulae and rote techniques, which, when applied assiduously over spans of centuries, yielded splendidly detailed reference materials.
Pious refinement, not wild originality —
That was the height of virtue in the densely packed cities of Mesopotamia.
One could only labor on, the Assyrian merchant would say; striving to become the best at one’s task, to discover and trade the best work in all the known lands, confident in the knowledge that all shall always be as it always has been: powerful men will make weaker men work until they die, to build cities that will someday fall to dust.
And the men who build cities on top of the dust, like the men before them, will always pay for fine things of gold and linen.