Chapter 18, Part 2:
Babylon is an ancient city which has, over the course of centuries been invaded and inhabited by several peoples, including the Sumerians, the Chaldaeans and more recently, the Assyrians. Each in their own turn, these various peoples and their sovereigns contributed successively to the building of Babylon’s walls and to the adornment of her temples. Among the most famous builders of all these monarchs were two queens. The first of these queens, Semiramis, reigned five generations before Nitocris, the later princess; who was also the mother of the current Assyrian king, Labynetus.
Semiramis raised certain very famous embankments in the level plain near Babylon to control the river, which before her time used to overflow its banks; often causing serious floods throughout the region. This taming of the Euphrates by Semiramis had ensured that crops would not be damaged by floods; ensuring good harvests from all the farms in the region. This had laid the foundation for the wealth and self-sufficiency Babylon now enjoyed.
But the later of these two queens, Nitocris, was even wiser than her predecessor. Observing the great power and the restless enterprise of the Medes, who in their revolt against their Assyrian overlords, had captured many Assyrian cities, including Nineveh, Nitocris anticipated that she too, would be attacked in her turn, and immediately she had spared neither herself nor her Babylonian subjects in the effort to strengthen her empire’s defences.
Originally the River Euphrates, which flows through the very heart of Babylon, had run in a straight course toward the city, but by excavating a series of looping channels some distance upstream, Nitocris made it wind so much that, as a vessel sails along the river it comes in sight of the village of Ardericea in Assyria three separate times on three different days. Then she dug a huge basin for a lake far upriver from Babylon right beside the stream. This basin was so broad that its circumference measured four hundred and twenty furlongs. The soil she had excavated from this basin was then used to build the broad and high embankments which lined the waterside in Babylon along both sides of the Euphrates.
When Nitocris had finished her excavations, she brought a great many large stones and bordered the entire margin of the reservoir she had thus created with them. The combined effect of these excavations was that, as the river was made to twist and turn, its current was considerably slowed. By this means, however, not only had she tamed the river, but she had also rendered any river-borne invasion too circuitous to be practicable. Such a slow-moving fleet would be ‘sitting ducks’ for artillery attacks from the riverbanks.
The only alternative to a naval invasion was an overland approach across the broad plains through which the river Euphrates now flowed so circuitously that it would have to be bridged – for it was still too swift and deep to be forded – at who knew how many points? And either way, even at the end of the voyage it would be necessary to skirt the lake and thus any invader would be forced to take a long and circuitous route before approaching the city itself. Such a route would give great advantage to the skirmishing style of warfare practiced by the Assyrian horse-archers. By Cyrus’ time, however, these had been mostly destroyed by the Median spearmen of Cyaxares and Astyages.
By now, what precious few horse-archers Labynetus still had left he kept with him in the heart of the city; safely inside their city barracks. Until Cyrus had determined to seize this ancient stronghold for his own capital, however, they and a relatively small complement of infantrymen had successfully deterred any Median incursion; relying mostly on their city’s own defences for their security. Now, however, Babylon was not only the Assyrian’s final stronghold; it was indeed all that now remained of the once-great Assyrian Empire.
The main purpose behind Nitocris’ excavations had been to prevent the Medes having contact with the Babylonians and thus to keep them in ignorance of her affairs. She feared that if they saw the fabulous wealth of Babylon they would most certainly want to take it for themselves; for the province of Babylonia lay in the most fertile region in the whole world, locally called the Land between the Rivers: Mesopotamia. For this reason all of Nitocris’ excavations had been dug on the side of Babylon which faces the passes through the mountains, where lie the shortest roads to and from Media.
While the soil from these excavations was being thus used to build up the city’s defences, Nitocris also engaged in a simultaneous project, although this one was on a somewhat smaller scale than those already mentioned:
Because Babylon was divided by the Euphrates into two separate parts; before Nitocris, anyone who wanted to pass from one of these divisions to the other had to cross in a boat; and the citizens found this very inconvenient. While she was excavating the lake above the city, Nitocris thought how she might simultaneously eradicate this inconvenience and also enable her to leave another monument of her reign.
She gave orders for immense blocks of stone to be hewn and transported to Babylon, and when they were ready, and the basin had been excavated, she turned the entire stream of the Euphrates into the cutting, and thus for a time, while the basin was filling, the natural channel of the river was left dry in the city itself.
Immediately she set her builders to work, first lining the banks of the stream within the city with quays of blue-glazed brick. She also bricked the landing-places opposite the river-gates, adopting throughout the same fashion of brickwork which had been used in the town wall. After this, using the hewn stone blocks which she had already prepared, she built a series of pylons to form the basis of a bridge, as near the middle of the town as possible. The blocks of these pylons were then bound together with iron and lead to resist the current once the lake was filled and the river was once again returned to its previous course. From Nitocris’ time onwards, during the daytime, square wooden platforms were laid, from pylon to pylon, on which the inhabitants could now cross the stream; at night they are all withdrawn to prevent criminals from crossing from one side to the other under the cover of darkness to commit robberies or other crimes.
Apart from building all of these famous monuments and defences Nitocris also planned a unique deception: She had her tomb built in the upper part of one of the main gateways of the city, high above the heads of the passers by, with this inscription engraved upon it:
“If there be one among my successors on the throne of Babylon who is in want of treasure, let him open my tomb and take as much as he chooses – not, however, unless he be truly in want, or it will not be for his good.”
This tomb continued untouched and the gate unused by Nitocris’ son until Cyrus came to Babylon. He too respected the tradition which had been established by Labynetus long ago, when his mother had died, and refused to either use this gate or to open Nitocris’ tomb. Indeed no-one would use this gate for fear of inviting upon themselves the event which they felt was symbolized by having death thus ‘hanging over their own heads’, so to speak, were they to walk underneath Nitocris’ mummified corpse. In any case, Cyrus was not so short of wealth that he felt it worth the risk of invoking the curse which the inscription implied would be cast upon any ruler who should be impious and unscrupulous enough to rob the dead.
The tomb of Nitocris would remain thus undisturbed until Darius III should ascend the Persian throne. To him it would seem monstrous that he should be unable to use one of the gates of the town, and even more monstrous that a large sum of money should be lying idle. Worse, this treasure would actually seem to be inviting his grasp and yet he was unable to seize it. Finally he would claim that because he was unable to use the gate, since driving through it meant having the dead body over his head, he would insist that thus he would eventually be obliged to open the tomb in order to remove both the corpse and its treasure. Instead of money, however, all he would find would be the desiccated remains of the cunning Queen Nitocris and an engraving on her stone sarcophagus which said:
“Had you not been insatiable for gold and careless about how you acquired it, you would not have broken open the sepulchres of the dead.”
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