THE BUILDING OF A CITY
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
The Assyrian host dragged westward till it wormed its way through notches in the mountain range, descended the further slopes, then fared upon its way. It split at last into lesser armies, each beneath the leadership of a trusted chief, each charged with a separate mission of its own. One force swung north, to harry the shores of the Black and Caspian seas and to levy tribute for the building of the city. Another force went south through the plains and valleys of Armenia, while still another fared afar to the Sea of the Setting Sun. Here fleets of Phoenician merchantmen were seized and pressed into the service of the King, for in the eyes of Ninus a nation’s traffic was but a paltry thing till Nineveh should be. These ships sailed out toward the delta of the Nile, presently to return with swarms of Egyptian workers, together with their cutting-tools of bronze, their winches and their levers used in the wielding of mighty weights. Ten score thousand riders spread forth through every land and every tribe, summoning workers by pay or promises; and where a tribe rebelled, Assyria’s warriors herded them like sheep toward one central hub of toil.
King Ninus himself sat down upon the river bank where the waters of the Tigris and the Khusur join, and here he wrought his plans. A band of men went northward to the forest lands, felled trees, and split them into boards with which they fashioned a fleet of wide flat boats. These boats, propelled by sweeps and pushing-poles, were manned by Phoenicia’s sons, for Assyria knew no more of ship-craft than hillsmen know the camel’s back; yet Ninus employed the skill of others in his self-appointed task. While the boats were being builded, he marked the line of his city wall in the form of a mighty egg, full twenty leagues around; then the King began to dig.
He caused two trenches to be sunk, the one within the other; the outer trench being twenty cubits wide and ten in depth, while the inner trench was shallower, but of greater width. These he flooded by means of the river Khusur, forming two vast canals, with a ring of earth between whereon should rest the walls of Nineveh. Then the whole wide world, it seemed, was set a-making bricks.
On the Tigris river-flats, above and below the city site, a million workers toiled by night and day—warrior, captive, slave, King Ninus cared not, so he moulded bricks. These bricks were fashioned from river mud brought down by inundation, the mud commingled with straw and the fiberous parts of reeds to give it strength, and were set to bake in the heat of the summer sun.
Later these river flats would be employed for the making of other bricks—the kiln-baked bricks which were glazed and tinted with every color known to men, designed for the facing of temples and of palaces; but now the work went on for the city wall alone. And yet not quite alone, for in the centre of the city’s line, where the Khusur cut the site in twain, the King erected a monster mound whereon his royal palace would one day sit; then on the summit of the mound he builded a watch-tower, and abode therein. Here, beneath a shading canopy, the master-builder sat from dawn till dark, watching his work, for he had sworn a sacred oath to indulge in neither hunt nor war till Nineveh was Nineveh.
And now he saw the budding of his dream. From the Tigris banks and up the Khusur came his flatboats, piled high with bricks; they floated on his two canals, supplying the workers who builded the wall between. In time this inner canal would disappear, being filled with earth, but the outer trench would ever remain, to serve as a moat which girt the city round about.
Like unto ants the workers swarmed beneath the eye of Ninus on his tower, yet every little insect moved in lines marked out by patient thought. The well-nigh countless throng was divided into ordered gangs, each gang provided with an over-chief who urged his laborers by word of mouth or the lash of whips. Beneath the tower sat a ring of mounted men-at-arms who galloped forth with orders of the King, or brought report from points too distant for his eye to scan; for the builder willed his work to grow, not with gaps or breaks, but as one splendid whole, each section of the wall arising in conformity with its brother parts, until a straight, unvaried line should mount each day toward the sky.
From dawn till dark the robe of Ninus fluttered on the tower’s crest—a banner of warning to those who shirked their toil. Where diligence grew slack from weariness, or the work of a section fell behind, a man-at-arms spurred out toward the offending gang, to strike off the head of its over-chief and cast his body into an empty boat. Presently this boat, on its outward journey for a load of bricks, would drop the corpse into the Tigris, and another chief was set in the sleeper’s place.
Beyond the wall the army of Assyria lay encamped, yet active beneath the rule of Menon and his chiefs. A kingdom in itself it was, whence recruits were drilled and trained to combat with the veteran warriors; whence engines of offense were builded against the day when Zariaspa again would suffer siege; whence foraying bands went forth to gather grain and fruits, likewise sheep and cattle, wherewith to feed the multitudes of slaves and soldiery. It was here deserters from the wall were caught and crucified in sight of those who harboured thoughts displeasing to the King; for Ninus punished, not in impotent gusts of rage, but rather with that cold precision of a master-mind. And because of these things his work went on apace.
When the wall had risen twenty cubits above its base, the King contrived from his inner trench a myriad of intersecting channels converging toward his central mound. Through these he conveyed material for the laying of his streets, for the erection of houses and the temples unto Ishtar, the fire-god Gibil, and the temple of his great Lord Asshur upon the hill. The royal palace would be modeled last of all, for the mind of Ninus, released from other cares, might give its power to the grandeur of his halls, to their splendour of adornment wherein the arts of an hundred nations would be taxed to lend them glory.
And now the deep-tongued voice of labour swelled in volume, rolling upward in incessant waves of melody to where the King sat smiling on his tower. He listened to the roar of sharp command, commingled with the answering cries of slaves and the groan of laden carts. Far out across the plain he spied a train of sleds, each drawn by a thousand men, and creeping inch by inch through tawny sands; from the quarries in the south they bore huge blocks of basalt wherefrom strange effigies would be carven in the likeness of gods, of lions and of wingéd bulls. Beyond the wall King Ninus heard the humming din of Assyria’s hosts encamped, the clank of arms and the rumbling tread of horse and foot. Within, he listened to the whine of ropes, to the creak of hoisting-cranes which lifted a world of brick and swung like living tentacles above the sweating pigmies down below. He heard the songs of boatmen on his black canals, a droning air that rose and fell, stilling the harsher cries of labour’s pain, and seeming to chant the kingly builder’s praise.
The heat of the summer sun poured down, a pitiless, parching blaze, while a horde of delvers bowed beneath their lashes and their loads. They staggered at their tasks, each praying to his gods for the shades of night to fall, when he slept like a beaten dog till dawn awoke him to another hell of toil.
And thus fair Nineveh grew, as if by magic, from the dust, the while a master-devil watched it from his tower. And the heart of Ninus swelled within him and was glad.