By Mark Mellon
Siege equipment rumbled slowly forward. A horse, a four wheeled hut on wheels, was maneuvered into place. The men inside vigorously jabbed away at the fired clay walls with a massive iron spike and soon tore open a breach. Babylonians shot flaming arrows into the horse’s roof, but failed to ignite the soaking wet, raw sheep hides that covered it. Unwieldy siege towers rolled remorselessly on specially laid tracks, higher at forty cubits than Babylon’s outer walls. Expert bowmen rained arrows down on hapless Babylonians from the fighting tops.
Well out of range, Sennacherib, King of the Assyrians, reclined upon his upholstered palanquin and watched the greatest and most beautiful city in the world’s destruction with inexpressible joy. He gestured for a eunuch to fetch snow chilled palm wine, but capriciously dashed the jeweled gold goblet away and stood.
“Why loiter when my men fight bravely? Better to lead the assault.”
He seized his bow and quiver and ran toward the walls. An infantryman grabbed a shield of thick, plaited reeds, taller than a man, and hurried before Sennacherib, expertly protecting him. Resplendent in his imperial purple, gold fringed tunic, Sennacherib nocked an arrow, pulled, and released. As suddenly as he conceived it, Sennacherib lost interest. He returned to his palanquin to his eunuchs’ relief.
“Soon, Samsu-iluna will be on his knees before me.”
His eunuchs squealed with sycophantic, high pitched laughter. What could be more delightful than to see the once mighty King of Babylon laid low and defeated, his city in flaming ruins, only at the start of his misery, pain, degradation, and ultimate, horrible death?
Samsu-iluna ran down the tunnel that went beneath the Purattu river, kilt hiked up around his knees. Sweat poured down his shaven head, smeared the kohl around his eyes. Fat and inactive, Samsu-iluna nonetheless hurried to Babylon’s eastern half, accompanied by Rimush, captain of his guard, ten warriors, and Nidintu-Bel, Priest of Baal-Shem-Nibburath, personally fetched by Samsu-iluna from his seldom visited underground temple.
“God King, are you sure this is wise?”
“Quiet, priest. I know what I’m doing. Did you bring the tablets?”
“In my tunic sleeves, God King.”
They reached the tunnel’s end, ascended the stairs, and stood in the Esagila’s courtyard. They were safe for the moment behind the temple’s solid brass doors. Muffled by the tunnel, the noise from the siege in the courtyard was an overwhelming, ear shattering mix of screams, roars, drumbeats, and the constant, sinister shuffle only tens of thousands of marching feet made. Abd-ili, High Priest of Marduk, awaited as Samsu-iluna had ordered, guarded by more warriors. Their presence reassured Samsu-iluna. At least his authority still held good here.
Dignified in his long, fringed kilt and cape, thick, hennaed beard woven into tresses, Abd-ili bowed low, rose, and frowned. He pointed at Nidintu-Bel.
“It’s forbidden for him to set foot within the Esagila. He defiles Marduk’s house.”
Samsu-iluna struck Abd-ili in the face. The priest reeled from the blow.
“Quiet. I decide what’s forbidden. Are the Awellum’s children assembled?”
Face red, a chastened Abd-ili nodded. “Yes, God King. Young men and women of the noblest houses, fifteen each, taken to the Tower as you commanded. But what is the purpose? I know no rite that involves-“
Samsu-iluna raised his hand again and Abd-ili cowered.
“Quiet. The sacrificial rite is Nidintu-Bel’s business. Do you understand?”
Abd-ili drew himself to his full height and spoke with hardly a tremor.
“That’s blasphemy, God King. You outrage Marduk and will surely pay.”
The bronze blade cut Abd-ili nearly in two. He wailed and fell to the ground, entrails trailing.
“Take me to the summit.”
“Yes, God King.”
The outer walls were breached now in several places. Towers burned while Babylonian defenders doggedly fought on. There was a portentous thud. A battering ram crashed against the Gate of Urash. The iron bars that held the gate in place groaned from the strain. A few more blows and they would certainly give way.
Nahro the division commander raced on a horse up to Sennacherib. He halted the galloping animal, dismounted, ran to his monarch, and prostrated himself.
“King of Kings, Lord of Hosts, King of Assur, the Gate of Urash will soon be breached. Babylon’s fall is imminent. The Division of Harran awaits your orders.”
With a great shout of exaltation, Sennacherib leapt from his palanquin. He sneered at Babylon’s lofty outer walls, already partially enveloped in flames.
“Who will defend you now, Babylon? Where are your mighty gods now? Samsu-iluna, my feet shall tread upon your neck. You’ll be my footstool.”
He turned to Nahro. “Here are my orders. Throw down the city and its houses from the foundations to the roofs. Ravage the women and burn everything. Tear down the outer and inner walls, destroy the temples, especially the Esagila. Smash all their idols and throw them into the Puratta. Let them be carried to the sea. And massacre the population. Let no one survive.”
Nahro beamed at this display of manly Assyrian ferocity. He rose and bowed.
“As you command, Mighty King. Before the night is done, pyramids of severed heads will be set up before Babylon’s gates.”
Nahro rode off. Sennacherib lay on his palanquin.
The Tower of Babel, tallest building in the world, consisted of seven different colored stories, surmounted by Marduk’s blue Sanctuary. Samsu-iluna and the others hurried up a side staircase that flanked the ceremonial Grand Stairway. The climb only added to Samsu-iluna’s stress. Each step was leaden agony. Rimush draped an arm over his shoulders and helped Samsu-iluna. Babylon lay spread before them, the bright moon reflected in the Puratta, flames on the outer walls, and everywhere, in all directions, flickering Assyrian torches.
Disconsolate wails rose up, pitiful moans, sobs, and lamentations from men, women, and children, bereft by the certain knowledge that only ruin and death awaited on the morrow. Their cries cut Samsu-iluna like a knife. He looked skyward and asked Marduk yet again.
“Why? How have I failed you?”
Yet as with each prior fervent appeal, the sky remained silent. Marduk had deserted Samsu-iluna and Babylon, left him and his people to fend for themselves against the Assyrians. If he was taken captive, Samsu-iluna would be led through Nineveh with a ring through his nose like a bull, displayed in a cage like a monkey, and finally have his hands, feet, nose, and ears cut off with cleavers by jailers before they tore out his tongue and eyes with red hot pincers. This fate awaited after Sennacherib made him watch his city burn, his people massacred, and his idols destroyed.
Defeat was certain. The Assyrians had already breached the outer walls. Yet another choice still remained, a mean, miserable one, but still a choice. Samsu-iluna could take the revenge of the vanquished. If he reached the Tower’s top and if Nidintu-Bel could properly work his incantations. He looked behind. The old priest had physically failed long ago. Two warriors carried him up the stairs.
They reached the second story and ran to another side staircase. Sharp pain rhythmically pulsed in Samsu-iluna’s stomach. At the second story’s top, the Hanging Gardens came into view. Flaming, pitch tipped arrows arced over the walls into the terraces. Once verdant palms, fruit, almond, and olive trees blazed in the night, quickly burned to a crisp. Like everything else, the green Paradise where Samsu-iluna spent so many happy moments over the years among scented terraces with his wives and concubines was ruined by the Assyrians.
“By my own genitals I swear, Sennacherib, I’ll take you with me.”
The Gate of Urash’s portals lay broken, torn aside by the Assyrians in their frenzy to take Babylon. Soon after, the Gate of Ishtar fell. Gold and yellow bulls and dragons stood bright against the blue tiles by flames’ light. Infantry hustled through the open gates only to find themselves trapped between the inner and outer walls on narrow, open ground, ideal targets.
Stones and pottery fell on the Assyrians. Aware the inner walls were their last defense, Babylonians fought with desperate courage and determination. Men fell with battered skulls and broken bones.
Battle hardened, accustomed to reverses and crises, the Assyrians quickly rebounded. Scaling ladders were propped against walls. Chain mail glittered in the fire as the Assyrians scuttled up the ladders like a horde of malignant beetles, shields held overhead for protection.
Babylonians smashed Assyrians’ heads with stone maces as they crested the walls, pitched over ladders so Assyrians fell to their deaths by the score, slashed off fingers that clutched at parapets, and fought on, against hope, against reason, beyond the limit of human endurance, until breath was wrenched from their chests in ragged, sobbing heaves.
And still infantry poured through the open gates in steadily increasing numbers, indifferent to dead comrades for that only meant more loot. They mounted an organized, disciplined attack on the walls from all sides. The sheer number of ladders and men on them simply overwhelmed the Babylonians. Warriors fought to the death on the ramparts, hacked and slashed at Assyrians only to be stabbed by spears and thrown over the walls. Wild, triumphant screams went up from Assyrians on the ramparts, savage gloats of raw, inhuman glee at Babylon’s coming misery.
Other Assyrians, skilled swimmers, floated on inflated goat skins down the Purratu and infiltrated Babylon. Once inside the walls, they climbed onto the piers that supported the bridge between the city’s halves, and charged the inner gates. They died in great numbers, but pinned down more warriors Babylon couldn’t spare.
A great wail went up from the populace who crowded Babylon’s narrow streets in happier times, goldsmiths, millers, brewers, and barbers, now doomed to slavery at best or death after degradation at the cruel Assyrians’ hands. They rent their garments, tore their hair, poured ashes upon themselves, and beseeched Marduk for rescue.
And Sennacherib laughed to hear such pitiable misery. Drunk on victory and palm wine, he held his goblet high in a toast to his marauding infantry.
“None excels us in siegecraft. Truly Ashur blesses me. If any escape, have them crawl before me on all fours to humbly beg my pardon and then crucify them along the road to Nineveh.”
“As you command, O King of Kings,” the eunuchs responded, almost on tiptoe with anticipation. Soon, Samsu-iluna would be dragged before them, a gold ring through his bleeding nose, naked, ashamed, forced to beg for mercy.
Samsu-iluna stood on the Tower’s summit by Marduk’s sanctuary, a blue square topped by curved horns on each corner. A solid gold statue of Marduk ten cubits high stood inside the sanctuary. Samsu-iluna ignored his supreme deity, focused on Nidintu-Bel. The priest sat on a guard’s back, drank water from a flask, and gasped for air. Samsu-iluna’s own heart pounded against his ribcage. His temples throbbed as if about to explode. A powerful urge to simply give up swept over him, to lay down and die.
Samsu-iluna forced himself to act.
“Priest. Pull yourself together. Perform the rites now.”
“God King, I know the liturgy. At least, I think I do, but I’ve never read it aloud.”
“Rimush, cut off his ears.”
“No, God King. I can perform the rites. Just give me a torch to read by.”
“Good. Rimush. Take us to the Awellum’s children.”
At the whitewashed story’s edge, thirty sons and daughters of Babylon’s richest noble families knelt in two ranks, surrounded by warriors, each armed with a stone mace. They wore their best finery, the women in red headdresses, emeralds and pearls, the men with gold diadems and imperial purple tunics. Eyes glazed in a potent, synergetic stupor, barely able to hold up their heads, drool hung from several mouths. A priest highly skilled in potions had administered a stiff dose of opium mixed with palm wine.
“Read the tablets, Nidintu-Bel.”
Nidintu-Bel reached into a trailing sleeve and removed three small, fired clay tablets covered with cuneiform ideograms, curious indentations like chicken tracks. Battered and chipped at the edges, they were obviously of great age, the work of some Sumerian scribe in the time of Ur of the Chaldees. A guard held a torch close so old, nearly blind eyes could read.
“When I say ‘selah,’ a guard must do his part. It’s essential. This is understood?” Nidintu-Bel quavered.
“Yes, hurry. We don’t have much time.”
Nidintu-Bel held a tablet to his nose and recited. Strange, distorted, polysyllabic words streamed forth, crude transcriptions into Sumerian’s dead writing of a language no human tongue was ever meant to speak.
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Baal-Shem-Nibburath Pnath wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
A curious chill ran over Samsu-iluna. Hairs prickled along his spine.
A guard brought down a heavy mace with all his strength and cracked a young noble’s skull, killed him with one blow. He slumped over as blood seeped from his shattered head. In a drugged trance, the others sat motionless.
“Ch’yar ul’nyar Baal-Shem-Nibburath. Selah.”
A young woman was bludgeoned. Nidintu-Bel worked his way through the incomprehensible verses. At each line’s end, another aristocrat was sacrificed until a wide pool of black blood formed. Meanwhile, the Assyrian assault intensified. Infantry were inside the inner walls in increasing numbers. They cut people down in the streets and dragged women out by their hair to rape them. At any moment, they’d storm the Esagila. Samsu-iluna grew increasingly agitated. He fought to stay silent while Nindintu-Bel read the last tablet.
“Mglw’nafh fhthagn-ngah cf’ayak ‘vulgtmm vugtlag’n, Baal-Shem-Nibburath cf’tagn. Selah.”
The last body fell. Samsu-iluna looked expectantly around, yet saw nothing but rapine and plunder and Assyrian infantry headed toward the Esagila, torches in hand, plainly bent upon arson. He looked to the sky and the plains beyond, but there was nothing, no hint of intervention.
“Nindintu-Bel, you miserable, lying old fool, you’ve tricked me. Rimush, cut him into pieces and throw them over the side.”
“No, God King. Please -“
A strange, thin piping interrupted, mysterious, atonal music of an utterly alien kind from an undetectable source. The pipes grew louder until they became an awful, cacophonous, staccato wail that drowned out the Assyrian war drums. Strange lights pulsed in the sky, gauzy, intertwined clouds of unearthly colors that irked and tortured human eyes. Confronted by the unknown, stalwart infantrymen blanched in terror. The awful, headlong, Assyrian onslaught stopped dead. The army stood transfixed and awestruck by the cosmic rupture, no more powerful now than ants in an earthquake’s grip. Babylonians as well were in dread as the colors grew more intense and the music louder and shriller.
“For the love of Marduk, will no one save us?”
The Puratta foamed between Babylon’s halves, a roiling whirlpool that spun at incredible speed. A huge black and purple tentacle shot forth from the seething waters. The enormous, sucker covered arm smashed down onto Babylon’s eastern half, pulverized everything and everyone in its path, Babylonian and Assyrian alike. Another tentacle fell onto the western half with equally devastating results. An amorphous, shadowy monster pulled itself from the Puratta, the mountain sized head infested with multiple mouths ringed with fangs and hooded eyes that burned malignant blue. Nindintu-Bel cried out with professional joy at his vindication even though it meant certain doom.
“Behold, God King. Baal-Shem-Nibburath, Lord of the Lands beyond Irkalla Kur.”
More tentacles snaked out. They grabbed people by the thousands and jammed them into Baal-Shem-Nibburath’s multiple ravenous maws. As he ate, Baal-Shem-Nibburath grew in size and darkness until the monster loomed over Babylon, greater than the Tower of Babel. A bilious blue eye looked dead into Samsu-iluna’s. A tentacle reached out. The King of Babylon showed no fear.
“Yes. It’s the bargain I made. But take Sennacherib too. Let him die with me.”
Exhalations of rotting flesh, sickly coughs of cynical laughter poured from multiple mouths. A tentacle sailed over Babylon, straight and sure as a well aimed arrow. Before Sennacherib’s eyes could even widen in surprise, a sucker slapped down and lifted him from his palanquin.
“Ashur, save me,” he screamed as the tentacle guided him toward a grinding maw.
“Yes, pray to your god. He’ll save you,” Samsu-iluna laughed as he went feet first into another mouth.
And all the others in Babylon fell prey in turn to Baal-Shem-Nibburath’s unquenchable hunger, from Nindintu-Bel to the least slave. Warrior or merchant, woman or babe, whether they cowered behind walls or ran to hide in the fields, the tentacles slithered into each hiding place and dragged victims away kicking and screaming until in the end, no one was left but Baal-Shem-Nibburath, bulk taller than the sky, ruler of an empty domain.
And Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, the haunting place of dragons, a horror and a hissing, without an inhabitant.