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On the brown earth outside the city walls, Ur-mes sat cross-legged at the door of his new home. In irritation that matched his foul mood, he scratched the gray hair on his chest and yanked at his heavy woolen skirt. Some of it, caught underneath him, pulled uncomfortably. There. He settled down again. The midday sun glinted off the nearby irrigation canal. For an instant, it so blinded him that he couldn’t see the peasants, thigh-deep in water, diggingout the mud.

Short-tempered by nature, he grumbled, “If that river cartel doesn’t stop opening the floodgates from the Euphrates, the canal will overflow.”

He shifted his position slightly, bringing the distant walls of Ur into view. What good do those walls do anyway? he asked himself, venting some of his gnawing fear by criticizing the city. Hammurabi, king of Babylon, conquered Ur the same way he conquered every other city here in the lower delta. Still, our king, Idi-Sin, keeps a standing army. “I suppose it makes him feel important,” sneered Ur-mes aloud.

Hunching further down, he glared into the distance across the jumble of flat roofs and narrow, twisting streets, at the high platform built into the wall of the upper city. The sprawling royal palace and adjoining temple occupied the platform. Slightly to the left, he could see the soaring top of the ziggurat at the other end of the royal road, the Processional Way, that connected the two.

The city’s major temple, the ziggurat, rose tier on tier in a solid mass. Nanna, the most powerful god in Ur, lived in the little blue-tile house on top of the ziggurat. A complex of residential and administrative buildings nestled at its base.

But he preferred the temple next to the palace. Looking to the right, he contemplated the graceful way the temple on the high platform mimicked the ziggurat’s three elegant stories. It housed sacred prostitutes on the first tier, scribes and priestesses on the second, the high priestess on the top. Every day, as part of her duties, the high priestess placed grain and beer before the many painted wooden statues of gods on a long table in the room next to hers. Ur-mes stuck out his lower lip. He couldn’t think of one instance when the gods had done anything for anybody.

Defiant, he turned his thoughts back to his large, new home and the day ten months ago that had precipitated its construction. His grandchildren had spent the morning screaming at each other. His oldest son’s wife had fought long and noisily with the wife of his third son. The two serving women, distracted by the noise, spilled a caldron of soup all over the small interior courtyard. He had exploded. Why did he live in the center of the lower city? The small, narrow houses were densely packed. The dirt streets, pounded to hardness by feet, hooves and cart wheels, smelled of rotting refuse. And the noise! If it wasn’t the sound of the artisan’s hammer clanging on metal, it was the whirring of the potter’s wheel: more often than not, both at once.

Day and night, he heard the heavy tread of oxen pulling creaking carts, the constant drumming rotation of solid-wheeled military chariots pulled by four asses, the trampling of bronze-helmeted soldiers as their officers moved them from place to place. Crowds, both townspeople and priests, constantly passed to and fro. Inebriated men from the wineshop on the corner never failed to disturb his sleep.

The following morning, he had risen from breakfast, shrugged off the stares of his family and left the house. He walked out the market gate, past the fields of slowly waving grain, musty-smelling in the hot sun, the orchards fragrant with ripe fruit, and the cattle contentedly cropping the grass. Migrant shepherds pitched their tents in the surrounding area or built houses, some as large as the one he intended to build.

He stopped. Using both hands, he shaded his eyes and gazed across the fertile land and the canals that watered it. “This is where I will build my new house,” he announced to the wind.

He went back to tell his skinny, withered old wife what he had decided. Shub looked at him as if he had lost his senses, but bowed her head and said, “So be it.”

Thus, he had started work on a house much like his old house, but twice the size. Why not? He didn’t need to stint; he was a rich man. Enormous flocks of sheep and goats and many head of cattle grazed his land. In buildings he had erected, three of his sons and a score of paid workers carried on the family business in meat, skins and wool.

He snatched up his fly whisk and viciously swung it. An objecting buzz came from the all-pervasive flies.

He had gone to the best brick maker in Ur to place his order. He asked that each brick be twelve inches square by three inches thick. According to custom, each would have the maker’s stamp in the middle. He watched the brickyard workers set the wooden forms, mix the clay with straw or sand. At one point, he snapped, “Don’t use so much water. The mud will be too runny; the brick less strong.”

The man retorted, “I know what I’m doing.” He forced the thick, sticky mass into the corners of the form then filled in the center. Using a sturdy, flat piece of wood attached to a short handle, he pounded the dark red glutinous mixture to remove air bubbles. He straightened and looked at Ur-mes, daring him to object.

Defiantly, Ur-mes lifted his chin, but said nothing.

The worker started to measure the form for another brick. It was getting late; he was tired. He had only made ninety bricks so far, twenty short of his quota. Thanks to Nanna, the foreman had stamped the partially dried bricks so he didn’t have to do that.

Ur-mes continued to hover over the workers. He watched the bricks laid, two rows at alternate angles, then one horizontal. Each day, he inspected the work. He insisted on a coating of bitumen on the outside to seal the bricks against the weather and objected to the quality of the limeplaster the bricklayers used on the inside walls. Almost at the last minute, he remembered to place miniature statues of his household gods under the doorjamb.

Finally, the house was finished. Its small front door opened onto a tiny, brick-paved lobby that contained a jar of water for footbaths. A door on one of the lobby’s side walls led to the large cobbled courtyard that sloped slightly toward a central drain. The roof covering the balcony also inclined so that rain running off the overhang dripped onto the cobblestones below and trickled to the drain. The wooden, second-story balcony rested on pillars of sweet-smelling cedar imported from across the sea on his order, by the trader Ea-nasir.

Stairs near the entrance door, rose over the family lavatory. Across the courtyard stretched the rectangular reception room. A handsome rug for people to sit on lay against the back wall. Everything looked comfortable and familiar. He had kept the same arrangement as in his old house. On the first floor, he had set aside a lavatory and rooms for visitors. Three of his sons and their families also resided on the first floor. His two eldest sons and their families lived on the second floor with him, his wife, and Hana-Ad, the other girls having gone to the houses of their husbands.

Pleased with the spaciousness, he decided to try an innovation. He added a large, subdivided area accessed through a courtyard door near the reception room to house the kitchen with its two fireplaces, work and storage areas, and sleeping arrangements for his servants and slaves.

From the depths of his unhappiness, he sighed. What good was this big house, what good his thriving businesses now that the old queen had sent for Hana-Ad? His stomach still fluttered from the shock of seeing the richly draped ox cart and the four palace guards in their knee-length leather pants and waistband daggers stop before his doorway.

He flung his fists into the air and shook them, snatched them back and sat on them to make sure they didn’t shoot into the air again. He hung his head and glowered. And evil breath of air, a quiet rumble, a whisper in the marketplace, had come his way by accident. Many rumors flew around about the old queen. With Hana-Ad about to become one of her beautiful maidens, worry gnawed at him. Were they true?

Of all his children, his five boys and four girls, he loved Hana-Ad best. His youngest, his darling of the creamy, tanned skin and the blue-black hair that fell to her waist, his sweet, ripe pomegranate ready to be plucked, had enslaved him. He had thought long and hard about the plucking. The man had to be worthy. But a letter, written by a scribe, from Ur-Enlila, the shepherd living nearby, had taken him by surprise.

At table after the evening meal, surrounded by his family, slowly, deliberately, he read aloud that Ur-Enlila wished to negotiate a marriage contract between his son Daid and Hana-Ad. He looked at the blushing Hana-Ad. “You know this boy?”

“I’ve seen him.” She turned pink and hung her head.

“What will you answer?” demanded Shub.

“I don’t know. I want to observe Daid.”

As he refused to be drawn into further conversation, the family waited, not patiently on the part of Hana-Ad. Every other day, she pestered her mother until Shub, in exasperation, said, “Hana-Ad, I don’t know any more than you do. When he’s ready, he’ll tell us his decision. You just have to wait.”

Oblivious to the anxiety of his daughter, Ur-mes took his time about answering the letter.

“I’ll ask Apilsin about this boy,” Ur-mes told his oldest son. “He knows all the shepherd families around here.”

Apilsin smiled broadly when Ur-mes asked him about Daid. “My friend, marriage into that family would be excellent for your daughter. At sixteen, Daid is an unusually capable fellow. And he’s a hard worker. Two years ago when a berthing cow kicked Ur-Enlila in the hip, Daid took over responsibility for their large herds. He has done well. His future’s bright. Being the oldest, he will inherit.”

Apilsin’s comments satisfied Ur-mes. A letter went to Ur-Enlila agreeing to the start of negotiations. Immediately upon their successful conclusion, Daid asked permission to visit his future father-in-law.

“He’s not wasting any time,” a slightly huffy Ur-mes commented to his wife.

Shub laughed. “He’s young.”

Leading a heavily laden donkey, Daid arrived promptly at the appointed time. Slaves helped him remove the bags from the animal’s back. Once seated next to each other on the rug in the reception room, Daid presented three large disks of silver and beautifully wrought gold jewelry to Ur-mes.

“Did you know,” said Ur-mes, “that Hana-Ad already owns property in her own name?”

“No,” Daid said, trying not to show his surprise.

“She will have her own slaves when she comes to live with you, and I expect to give her more property, also to be held in her own name.” He turned a quizzical look on Daid.

“You are most generous,” said Daid, nodding his agreement.

An ecstatic Hana-Ad caught Ur-mes around the waist and danced him across the courtyard when he told her of the interview. That had pleased him. She would be happy. He had arranged that the writing and sealing of the tablet containing the marriage lines take place in thirty days. Now, he had to tell Daid that the old queen had taken Hana-Ad, that the marriage would have to be put off until—again, worry consumed him.

He had looked forward to having Daid as a son-in-law. True, Daid followed a different religion. His family followed Yahweh, as did Apilsin. They made a contract to serve no other god than Yahweh.

Yet, Ur-mes knew that Daid’s father had placed household gods under the doorjamb. Of course, Ninlil, his wife, was a woman of Ur. Her family followed Nanna, the leading god of the city. Most of those who followed Yahweh didn’t deny the other gods. They kept household gods. Apilsin was the only one who didn’t. Ur-mes remembered when Apilsin announced that he was going to be strict in worshiping Yahweh. He promptly terrified every family in the area by ripping his household gods from under the doorjamb and throwing them away.

One family rescued the little statues and carefully buried them beside the family’s own gods. Everybody watched and waited from some dreadful catastrophe to happen to Apilsin. Nothing did. Apilsin continued to pray to Yahweh and prosper.

Ur-Enlila kept a family altar where he conducted services for his household. He also stood alone before it and talked to Yahweh. What Ur-mes couldn’t understand was that Yahweh talked to Ur-Enlila. He talked to Apilsin, too, or so Apilsin said. Ur-mes often wondered how. Did a voice come from the altar, from the air around? He had never gotten up enough nerve to ask Apilsin, though they frequently discussed the power of Nanna against the power of Yahweh.

Apilsin had startled him during one of their talks by saying that Yahweh was holy. How ridiculous. Gods weren’t holy, though they were big and powerful and possessed eternal life. They made mistakes like everybody else. They advised men badly causing bad things to happen. That, on top of the bad things that men did, created havoc when humans and gods came together.

Ur-mes chuckled. Let Apilsin think that. He himself would have no part of gods being holy. The only thing that concerned him was suffering, and there was plenty of that.

He screwed up his eyes and pouted. This Yahweh business was beyond him. He had a god for stomach aches, a god for the fire on his hearth, a god for rain, a god for his crops, and many, many others. He prayed to each when necessary and never expected anything in return.

Ur-mes believed that he was put on this earth to serve the gods as their slave. For that reason, the wise god Enki, according to the great Epic of Gilgamesh, saved one man and his family from the flood.

The god Enlil, red-faced and angry, announced arrogantly, “I sent the flood because I have not been served to my satisfaction.”

Enki scolded him, saying, “You were too rash when you planned total destruction. Let lions and wolves keep their numbers down, or let famine beset them. But we need men. Who will serve our needs if you kill them all?”

For a day, Enlil thought about that. At the end of the day, he admitted that Enki was right. He said, “I will give the man who was saved eternal life.”

Ur-mes shuddered. He wished he could have eternal life instead of being sent to a gloomy cave where the souls of the dead were covered with feathers and had nothing to eat except the clay on the ground. He knew Apilsin expected to have eternal life with Yahweh. But if he prayed to Yahweh for eternal life, Nanna might destroy him for desertion. He felt a bit frightened for even thinking of serving Yahweh.

The nomadic shepherds who followed Yahweh moved their great herds of sheep, goats and cattle from area to area, usually choosing the outskirts of one of the city-states so that they could have access to the advantages of a stable community. Generally, however, they kept to themselves. Occasionally, like Ur-Enlila, a man settled down and built a house. Daid’s family had also bought a tiny piece of property outside Ur in which to bury their dead. Thus, Ur-mes assumed they would remain in the area, Daid’s mother being a citizen of Ur. He knew her family through his wool business.

Daid took after his mother’s family in looks. He had the square face, high cheekbones and heavy eyelids of the Sumerians. His black eyes drooped slightly at the outer edges. And he trimmed his still-skimpy black beard as did the men of Ur, rather than having the long face, hooked nose and full beard of Ur-Enlila.

Well, whether Daid looked like his mother, whether Ur-Enlila continued to live nearby, no longer mattered. In those few minutes this morning, everything had changed. He no longer controlled Hana-Ad’s future. He resented it. Yet, he had to accept his lot. The gods ruled it. If they demanded Hana-Ad, his duty was to comply. Actually, fear made him comply. The gods might retaliate with a worse fate.

Take Nanna, for example, the moon god, patron god of Ur. Ur-mes had no recollection of Nanna answering prayer. But then, he didn’t usually pray to Nanna; he prayed to his house gods. He couldn’t remember them ever answering any of his prayers either.

“Help me now,” burst from him.

He brushed away the tear creeping through the wrinkles of his face. Fortunately, he had kept the rumors about the old queen to himself. His wife, joyous at the honor bestowed on them, couldn’t understand his sadness. He had sloughed her off by claiming to miss his daughter. Her remark rankled.

She had snapped, “You’re an old fool.”

Well, let her think him a fool. She wouldn’t hear the truth from him. He drew his bushy eyebrows together while making a sucking noise through the space where he had lost an upper tooth. The sound of footsteps made him turn his head. Slender, stately Apilsin, his great beaked nose dominating his thin face, planted his bare feet solidly with each step. Even in his depressed state, Ur-mes noticed the food stains on Apilsin’s wool skirt and the crumbs in his bushy, black beard—so unlike him. He must have risen from his table the minute he heard the news. He knew I would be sad about losing Hana-Ad. What more he knows, he’ll tell me.

Apilsin crossed his legs and dropped to the ground, laying his fly whisk beside him. For a minute, the two men sat side by side without speaking.

“You know,” Ur-mes said finally, “the old queen has taken Hana-Ad?”

“Yes. My manservant was returning from the market and saw a draped cart with two palace guards in front of it, two behind it, and a slave guiding the oxen. Just as my man walked by, Hana-Ad’s face peeped out.”

Apilsin did not add that his man had said Hana-Ad was crying.

“He was surprised and rushed to tell me.” The slave had also mentioned the ugly whispering in the market about the old queen. Hearing that, Apilsin stood before his altar with bowed head and prayed to Yahweh before hurrying to his friend. Ur-mes certainly looked upset enough to have heard the rumor. Without moving, Apilsin let his support and sympathy flow over the older man.

“I must tell Daid,” sighed Ur-mes.

“He may already know. The news has spread.”

“Undoubtedly people are dancing with joy at the honor paid me.” He scowled. “They don’t understand my sadness at losing my bright spirit.”

“My friend, I have prayed to Yahweh to relieve your sorrow.”

“Your god, Apilsin, and mine aren’t the same.”

“Agreed.” Apilsin nodded his head. “But as I believe explicitly that my God is faithful and will answer prayer, I have prayed.”

Again, they were silent. Ur-mes broke it. “The law says, if the bride’s family breaks the engagement, they have to return double the bride money. Do you think I’ll have to pay Daid twice what he gave me?”

“No, the money is enough. You didn’t break the engagement; Ku-bau, the old queen, did. Actually, Daid may not expect any money. They still may marry in a year or two. The queen is old.”

Ur-mes cringed.

So he knew. Apilsin laid a hand on the shoulder next to him. “My friend, I shall pray unceasingly for your reunion with your daughter. God is great and performs many wondrous things.”

Without comment, Ur-mes laid his hand atop the hand on his shoulder.

A male slave, dressed in a short wraparound skirt of thin wool appeared at the door. Both men looked up.

“My mistress respectfully asks about the animals to be slaughtered for the feast.”

With a sigh, Ur-mes said, “I’ll come.” He turned to Apilsin. “My wife is warning me that I had better help prepare the feast to celebrate this honor that’s been bestowed on me.”

“I will leave you.”

“You’ll return later?”


The two men rose and parted. Apilsin started back across the canal, the way he had come. Ur-mes, his head held high, entered his courtyard. Servants and three of his daughters-in-law awaited his decisions. At the far side, near the door into the kitchen, he spotted Shub, his wife, anxiously pacing.

Squealing in excitement, the three girls surged around him. Wasn’t it wonderful? Imagine living with Queen Ku-bau.

Laughingly, one said, “I’m jealous.”

“Don’t be.”

She drew back, blinking. Had she said something wrong?

His eyes sought Shub’s. He held up two fingers. “One calf, one large sheep,” he said. “That should leave plenty for the priests.”

She nodded in agreement and disappeared.

As everybody turned to a task, he shook his head. This isn’t a celebration. It’s a dirge. I’m the only one here who understands that.