Today's Reading

For now, in late May, as the unrelenting heat of summer approached, he needed a good rest. Babylon had all the necessary facilities. There was water everywhere; the river Euphrates on its way to the Persian Gulf passed through the center of the city and poured into the moats that lay alongside the lofty defensive walls of baked mud brick. And beyond the walls lay swamps and lagoons bursting with wildlife, irrigation channels, and reservoirs.

Two colossal palaces stood in the north of Babylon, with offices and workshops. One of them functioned, at least in part, as among the world's earliest museums, housing treasured artifacts from earlier times, and was probably where kings and their families lived in grand but private seclusion. The other, which modern archaeologists have named the Southern Palace, was set aside mainly for administration and for ceremonial functions. Offices and workshops surrounded five courtyards, one of which opened onto a vast throne room whose walls were glazed in blue and yellow tiles and decorated with floral reliefs, lions, and fan-shaped designs suggesting the fronds of a palm tree.

On the river's edge beside the palace, the Hanging Gardens astounded visitors. A set of ascending terraces, angled back one above the other, rested on great brick vaults. Each terrace contained a deep bed of earth and was planted with trees and shrubs. The effect was of a wooded hillside. A staircase led up to all the floors, and water drawn from the river by mechanical pumps irrigated each tier. The story was told that Babylon's most successful king, Nebuchadnezzar II, constructed the Hanging Gardens for his wife, who missed the mountains of her childhood.

In principle, there was nothing so very unusual about them, for they were a condensed urban version of the large walled garden or park much favored by the wealthy and the powerful, who sought refreshing green relief from the parched landscapes of the east. The Greek word for such a garden was paradeisos, from which we derive our "paradise."

As the design of the Hanging Gardens goes to show, the people of Babylon and other Mesopotamians were skillful managers of water. They built canals and irrigation systems, and just to the north of the Southern Palace they constructed what seems to have been a large reservoir.

On the eastern side of Babylon, an outer wall formed a first defense against attack and enclosed large areas of less populated ground. It led to a so-called summer palace, two thousand meters north of the main city. Here ventilation shafts counteracted the heat of the day and, away from the crowded city center, afforded some relief to the ruling family. The palace may also have functioned as a military headquarters; there was certainly plenty of space for an army encampment nearby. Alexander preferred being with his men to living in the city, and spent time in the royal tent or aboard ships on the river. So whether there or in the palace, he oversaw the preparations for his Arabian expedition and relaxed.


The navy was approaching a state of high readiness and an intensive training program was under way. Different classes of warship raced against one another and the winners were awarded golden wreaths. Alexander decided to organize a banquet for the army on the evening of May 29 (according to the Greek calendar, Daesius 18). It was held to celebrate the end of one campaign, the invasion of India, and the imminent onset of a new one, the invasion of Arabia.

But in the interval there was time for a good time. Wine was sent round to every unit in the encampment, as were animals for sacrifice to the gods—that is, for roasting on an altar and then, as was the way in the ancient world, for eating. The guest of honor at the king's table was his admiral of the fleet, a Greek called Nearchus, a loyal if not especially talented follower, who had been a boyhood friend.

Alexander knew well his Euripides, the Athenian tragic poet of the late fifth century, and recited verses from his play Andromeda. The plot concerned a beautiful young princess who was chained to a rock and awaited death from a sea monster. At the last minute the hero, Perseus, arrives on his flying horse, Pegasus, and rescues her. Only fragments of the drama have survived and we do not know what lines the king spoke, but one certainly fits his high opinion of himself.

I gained glory, not without many trials.

The convention among civilized partygoers was that serious drinking only began once the meal was over. Wine was a little syrupy and could have a high alcohol content compared with vintages today. It was usually served diluted with water. A large two-handled bowl, or crater, containing wine (it could hold as many as six quarts of liquid), was brought into the dining room where guests reclined on shared couches. The host, or a master of ceremonies chosen by those present, decided how much water should be mixed with the wine and how many top-ups should be allowed. Guests had individual cups, and servants used ladles to fill them.

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