This week the big news in the U.S. has been about torture, as conducted by the C.I.A. after 9/11. I’ve spent some time with the comments section in my hometown newspaper: the majority of readers are outraged, while some defend the practice. Some even seem naïve enough to be shocked. However, most ruling elites, ours included, achieve and maintain their power by violence or the threat of violence.
My novels about Jezebel take place when the Assyrian empire on the rise. A major predator without much in the way of natural resources (they didn’t know what to do with all that oil yet), it devoured the wealth and slave labor of other nations through conquest. Still, life was good for the elite and for what you might call the Assyrian middle class.
In writing historical novels, I do my best to absorb historians’ and archaeologists’ descriptions and present the reader with snapshots that convey the color and flavor of an ancient civilization without descending into tedious academic detail. Below are a couple of the snapshots of ancient Assyria, from The Throne in the Heart of the Sea.
1) The new Assyrian king has invited guests from other nations to celebrate the inauguration of his new capital. These guests include our heroine, Tamar. Wealthy and middle-class citizens are also in attendance.
Hundreds of brightly striped awnings stretched from the riverbank up along the gently rolling terrain. Thousands of people milled about. Somewhere at the front of the mob the king was offering a sacrifice to Ashur. Tamar came late, so she waited at the edge of the crowd, hearing nothing of the ceremony, seeing nothing over the heads of those in front of them except smoke rising from the flames that would prepare their dinner.
When the offering had been made, she threaded their way to the women’s section. Finely dressed ladies pushed ahead of them, trailing expensive scents, burbling effusive apologies without relinquishing a hair’s breadth of space, squatting knee to knee in every available bit of shade. Eventually they squeezed in across from a group of ladies in white linen, who seemed as cool as a school of fish in the Tigris.
Servants carried jars of beer and copper trays up and down the aisles. The first course was roast chickpeas, pickled locusts, and pomegranate seeds, and a towel for the ladies to wipe their fingers.
An enormous pastry arrived. They broke through the crust cover and found it stuffed with songbirds cooked in milk and sprinkled with mint. Then more beer arrived, along with the main course—a huge bowl of beef simmering in onions, surrounded by heart-shaped loaves. Within moments the ladies had torn the bread apart and were scooping up thick chunks of fragrant stew.
“This is delicious!” Tamar exclaimed. “I’ve never had anything like it.”
“Oh, I’m so glad,” said an Assyrian lady. “I do it this way at home. It’s one of my husband’s favorite recipes.”
“How do you make it?”
“Easiest thing in the world. Simmer chunks of fresh cow spleen with salted stomach, add milk, onions, and crushed dodder seed. While it’s cooking you pound more onions and some leek with fresh beef blood, add that during the last few minutes, sprinkle in a little mint and serve.”
“Blood?” Tamar stared at the dripping hunk of bread in her hand. Dear Goddess, forgive me this sin against Your law and don’t let me throw up in front of everybody.
2) Later, Tamar wanders through the city and accidentally encounters one aspect of the violence that supports the Assyrian empire and the comfortable life of its more fortunate citizens.
Tamar was intending to stroll along the riverbank. After a while, however, she found herself in an unfamiliar quarter and realized she’d taken a wrong turn. She turned to retrace her steps and saw a large man coming on rapidly, hand on his sword belt. He yelled something. She began to run.
In the distance she saw a flickering light and heard what sounded like drumming. A military band. She’d be safe with them. The man behind her increased his pace and she ran faster, until the stitch in her side became a stabbing. Then she rounded the last corner and arrived at a construction site. It was bathed in torchlight and surrounded by guards.
She was standing at the edge of a plaza where naked men and women dragged stone blocks up ramps. Others squared the stones with chisels and shoved them into place. Work gangs slapped courses of bricks atop the foundation stones. Tamar forgot the stitch in her side, almost forgot the man behind her, as the syncopated ear-splitting hammering engraved this night in her heart forever: she drank in the stench of slaves who hadn’t bathed since their capture, drank the fetor of blood and the crack of whips, the black fumes of stone oil torches—
Two men approached, hitched like donkeys to a heavy cart, its solid wooden wheels clattering on the cobblestones. She drew back to let them pass. The cargo of bodies was piled neatly, feet to front, heads lolling back at the rear. She gasped, and the donkey-slaves turned to look at her, displaying the brands on their cheeks, and something new in the world: the Assyrians, with their genius for organization, had tattooed numbers on their captives’ foreheads.