Mystery set in ancient Carthage
"Salaamum a-le-kram!" had been the greeting in ancient Babylonia since time immemorial. Believing in "peace and good fortune," later colonists from Phoenicia going into the west transplanted the name Le Kram for "Good Fortune" onto the southern harbor district of coastal Carthage in North Africa. It was no coincidence that so many representations of smiling faces could be found throughout The New City. From glazed cosmetic jewelry in the marketplaces to smiling masks hanging off the walls of temples and homes, the desire to bestow blessings and peace onto others was extant throughout the city.
An oasis for trade with scattered Macata tribespeople in the west Libyan deserts, the early settlers to Carthage were later flooded by refugees from warfare in the East. Consequently, the merchant princes of Tyre ("Rock") had their viceroys expand the city off the original Byrsa Hill settlement. The subsequent acropolis came to include a high council chamber and the religious heart of the city - the Tophet of Salammbo. The oligarchs who ruled from the Byrsa would have argued that what their acropolis lacked in height it made up for in sheer Greekness. Everywhere one looked one saw white marble steps and white columns, topped by white triangular roofs. Surrounded by a protective limestone wall, seventy-two steps at three locations ascended the Byrsa. The walled acropolis overlooked the flat-roofs and square workshops of downtown Carthage north of the all-important harbors.
To the northeast on the diamond-shaped peninsula sprawled the residential Megaron Quarter. The Megaron was home to the rolling green hills and whitewashed suburbs for homesick Greek immigrants to the city who had come to make their fortunes. Unlike the blockish downtown district, the Megaron housed many elaborate Greek buildings whose only purpose was entertainment and pleasure. Theaters and colonnaded shops surrounded food courts, while schools, libraries, baths, and other interesting buildings served the movers and shakers in any affluent Greek polis. Beyond these, three-story tenements topped by flat roofs surrounded private courtyards. The enclosed courtyards could be entered only through unmarked wooden doors that opened to the narrow gray-cobbled streets. Wooden pillars supported exterior running balconies within the courtyard walls.
Which made the region a terrible landing site
Demosthenes of Athens swooped down out of the sun as he headed in from the sea over coastal Carthage. The bag of the giant yellow balloon over the wicker basket in which he sat billowed with the gusting wind and he reached back one pudgy hand behind his seat. He was an older man, clean-shaven, with pink skin and short white hair. His ample bulk was swathed in a voluminous yellow toga whose extra folds billowed wildly behind him, revealing a large round belly. Curled up on a blanket on the floor behind Demosthenes was a little brown-and-white-and-black dog with long hair and a pug snout. It was a small breed and as the basket jiggled it ducked its head and whimpered. (“In fear?” Demosthenes wondered, then decided: impossible. All of my experiments have always proven rock solid. Well, most of the time anyway.)
With groping fingers, he adjusted the little release valve atop the iron brazier that he had designed, filling the yellow balloon above him with more hot air. Lately an outcast from the Aereopagus or “School of Intellectual Enlightenment" in Athens, he pursed his lips in concentration. He looked over the edge of the basket and saw far below the roiling blue-and-white Mediterranean Sea. In the distance, a galley approached the city, the oars of its rowers making it look like a white, many-legged bug against the blue of the water. He gulped as he straightened, then pulled back hard on the steering stick before him, adjusting the rudder. The balloon skimmed just over the tops of the approaching buildings.
Feeling happy, and reveling in the sight of the sky, he lifted the nose of the balloon that looked for all the world like a giant lemon. (He had used extra togas from home to construct it. What could he say? He liked yellow. Such a cheerful color.). The basket skimmed the approaching top of a brick warehouse and he banked left then continued north, to the grassy Megaron District. He dipped left, just over a second warehouse, then right to soar over a third. The wicker basket shuddered and rattled as it bounced off the compression effects of the air in between the buildings of Carthage. He needed every tiny bit of lift if he was going to reach the Megaron.
He knew there would come a time when the coordination and precision that the flopping, billowing bag over him required would prove more than he could provide. Until then, though, he chose to live at the cutting edge of what was (and what was not) possible, to the astonishment of the unfortunate ground-bound masses below.
Rousing from his daydream, he saw that he was heading straight for an alley mouth below. With one hand he flipped the lever and released more flame into the bag, then turned the stick in the direction that he wanted to go. This was no easy contraption to fly. It combined the delicacy of flight with all the physical demands of a ceiling-painter.
The throttle that regulated the flame jet stuck and he banged it with one palm. Tilting at a steep angle, he wafted up and over the flat square roofs, heading northeast. Below him, astonished faces filled the windows. Six months ago, the philosophers of the Aereopagus had declared that such flight couldn't be done. But one brave man with a yellow cloth fetish and a . . . minor . . . weight problem had proved them wrong. That was why he had decided to call it an aereoplane. At least, for now. It's a working title, he told himself. Until I think up something better. The balloon hit a patch of bumpy air and Demosthenes released more flame. The balloon rose.
He worked the pedals, moved the stick, danced the raucous Dance of the Satyrs in the air around him. The crowd that was gathering in the streets below were pointing and going wild as he caught a heavy gust of wind and went skidding sideways over the rooftops, heading east but still in the direction of the sprawling Megaron. Then he brought everything under control and the balloon flew evenly again. "Just wanted to get your attention," he chuckled down at the crowd who couldn't hear him.
A grassy area appeared at the northern quarter of the city and he aimed for this, throttling back on the stick. He reached back and flipped the lever on the brazier to reduce the flame filling the bag. Slowly, the square grid of the city loomed closer as he headed toward the grassy area. The bottom of the wicker basket barely skimmed over the peaked red-tile roof of a classical Greek temple, and he held his breath as he squeezed between two tall tenement buildings.
The balloon came down with a thud and then a shudder as it skimmed the grassy surface, then rose again. Demosthenes pulled back on the stick. "Oh no you don't!" He reached back and cut off the flame release and the balloon descended again. As it did, he rose from his seat and placed his fists on his hips in self satisfaction. Victory. Suddenly a stray sheaf of yellow papyrus blew up from a nearby street and plastered itself across his face, blinding him. He struggled back and forth against the wind to pull it free as the dog jumped up from the blanket to help him. When they finally tore the papyrus free they saw the grid-like city rising up at alarming speed. Demosthenes clutched the mutt close for comfort as they both turned their heads and watched the ground rush up at bone-crushing speed. The Athenian pursed his lips. The dog pursed its lips. Even a passing bluejay pursed its lips at the sight. From somewhere nearby, a monkey that turned out to be Demosthenes shrieked: “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah! Mom-eeeee!”
Thump! And then thump again!
Stars filled Demosthenes’ vision and he dreamed that his childhood teacher was telling him what a good boy he was. Which was strange because he had always considered his childhood teacher a beast. After a time he woke up and spat out a clump of green grass that filled his mouth. He looked up. He was lying on his stomach on green grass, the yellow wicker basket of the balloon two fingers’ width from his nose. He had been thrown clear. He rose to his knees and dusted himself off, then continued up to his feet. Looking down, he checked himself. No injuries. He smiled. But wait! His eyes goggled! He was, in fact, injured! The most grievous, disheartening injury of all! An injury that cut to the very soul of a man’s being!
His beloved toga was torn!
The fiends, he thought frantically, referring to no one in particular. Don’t they realize how hard it is to come by a yellow rectangle of cloth? Well, okay, he confessed to himself, markets all over the world are crammed to overflowing with fabric of all kinds. But it’s the principal of the thing, gosh darn it!
Oh, and the dog was around somewhere.
Looking around at his successful landing, and ignoring the shrieks of alarmed people hurrying his way, he smiled in triumph. A moment later, as he continued to smile, the bag began to slowly flop down around his head. He got tangled in the descending fabric, then worked himself over to the edge of the collapsing yellow cloth. Finally, he winnowed out from under the balloon and faced the residential Megaron district in victory, hands on hips again. Cries of “Witch!” sounded from the crowd that was collecting behind him.
The philosopher turned and headed into the city as the dog jumped out from under all of the collapsing togas and ran to him. It’s short legs jiggled as it hurried to keep up with the long strides of the yellow-robed man. The man turned back to the dog. In Koine, the common Greek slang of Mediterranean trade, he called, “Here, Stubby! DO try to keep up!”
The dog panted as it came up behind him. “I’m doing the best I can, boss! That was quite a landing! I’m a little speechless!” They continued walking like that for some time, master and pet. Finally, the dog said, “So. Want to tell me again what we’re doing here, boss?”
The man resumed walking. “We were invited. And stop calling me boss.” They made their way in silence through a veritable maze of narrow residential streets, even as the sun climbed higher and burned away the morning mist. All around them, people went about their morning routine, taking scant notice of the fat man in the yellow toga and the little long-haired pug-mutt huffing down the cobbled lanes.
The man turned toward the dog as they walked. “Beautiful city, Carthage. The locals call it Mistress of the Western Seas.” Actually, Demosthenes thought that the city of Carthage smelled a little . . . hmm, fishy. But he didn't want to demoralize his companion by actually saying that.
The little dog sniffed. “It smells like fish. So, what are we doing here again, boss?”
Demosthenes sighed as the continued. “Well, it seems that one of the city councillors of Carthage has asked the mayor of neighboring Alexandria to the east to ask me to come over and solve one of their little problems for them.”
Stubby jiggled as he double-timed to catch up with Demosthenes.
“Asked? Or did you lose gambling at senet again and didn’t have the money to pay. Again.” They walked a little further and the dog said, “So did the Carthaginians communicate with the mayor of Alexandria of all places by carrier pigeon? Because I’ve heard of that and heard that it’s really cool.”
Demosthenes sniffed with disdain at the notion. “Actually, they used a much more reliable system of communication than homing pigeons.” He snorted down at the little mutt. “Homing pigeons indeed. Actually, they used homing monkeys.”
Stubby goggled up at him. “Did you say homing monkeys, boss?”
Demosthenes sniffed again. “I’ll have you know that monkeys have an infallible sense of direction that automatically draws them to their destination.”
Demosthenes slumped. “Actually, the monkey only turned up as dinner at a rich man’s banquet, with the Carthaginians’ message requesting help in its mouth.” The little dog chuckled and Demosthenes cast it an annoyed look as they walked. “Anyway, they’re having a little trouble here with a group of religious fanatics, or so I’m told.”
Stubby sniffed again. “Why can’t they just arrest them themselves? Why do WE have to be here?”
Demosthenes wended his way past several people -men and women - who were running toward where he and Stubby had landed. “Well, now, that’s the problem, isn’t it? They don’t exactly know the identities of the culprits, or even if this cult - the cult of Baal Hammon, Lord of the Storms - exists at all. If it does, our employer on the council thinks that it may include influential people in this city. That’s why they asked for outsiders: so that any cultists among their ranks won’t recognize us.”
Stubby looked up at him with what Demosthenes assumed was the doggy equivalent of admiration. “Whoa! Employed? I like the sound of that, boss! It’s a good thing for us that you’re lousy at senet.”
Demosthenes gave him another annoyed look. As they walked down the nearly-empty early morning lanes, the Athenian said, “Two centuries ago, the people of Carthage had a custom . . . well, a religious practice really . . . that some of their ancestors had brought over from Canaan. It was a very rare practice, that they turned to only during times of emergency. It seems that there had been some . . . um, er . . . human sacrificing going on . . . um, of ritual immolation . . . among the high priests. Of children. Specifically, boy and girl children in Canaan and just boy children here in Carthage. They called it moloch.”
The pug-mutt stopped and as Demosthenes turned to him it seemed to the scholar that the dog raised one quizzical eyebrow. “Whoa, boss! Kids!? That’s insane!”
Demosthenes sighed. “That’s what many of the people of Canaan and Carthage thought, so they eventually outlawed the practice. It seems that some on the high council of Carthage are worried that someone has revived the old practices. In secret. The last six months have been marked by a number of startling and successful criminal raids. Public buildings and the homes and warehouses of distinguished people were especially vulnerable. There was the theft of the Madonna statue from Elche in Iberia, the theft of information pertaining to the number and make of military vessels stored in the harbor, the burglary of an elderly councilor named Adherbal's house, resulting in the disappearance of 7,000 talents' worth of silver. The burglary at the country villa of a well-known admiral named Hasdrubal which exposed that thriving old oligarch as a confirmed blackmailer; and the snatching of a gift of pearls from the Mauryan Empire, a most sensational coup.”
The dog considered. “Hmm. In that case I’d be worried too. I’d bite them all on the leg!”
Demosthenes talked as they walked. “I’m afraid that if our employer is right it won’t be that easy. Moloch was the ritual immolation of boys from the best families. That was why it was possible to outlaw it in the first place . . . because the most important families were also the most aggrieved. That, and an Athenian boycott of imported Carthaginian wheat that Pericles back in Athens engineered. No, if there are cultists they will include some of the best families of this city.” He stopped and turned to face the dog. “Now. Could YOU please explain something to Me?”
The little dog panted its usual grin at him and, underneath all of that mottled hair, Demosthenes couldn't tell if the pug was feeling happy, sad, aggrieved, constipated, or what. The dog continued to pant. “Sure, boss, if I can.”
“Good. So. How is it that you can talk?”
“You got me, boss. YOU’RE the philosopher here. You tell me. It was one of YOUR experiments back in Athens. I’m just along for the ride.” They resumed walking.
Demosthenes rubbed his chin. He often did that when he couldn't think of anything but wanted to appear smart. “Hmm. Yes. I remember. I was trying to test the intelligence of animals. Wanted to see if they could be taught mathematics.”
The little dog giggled. “Yeah, heh heh, I remember that parakeet you taught. Big pain in the neck. Always thought that he was smarter than everyone else.
Demosthenes rounded on him. “Tweety was a GENIUS, a complete genius!” They continued walking as Demosthenes sulked.
The dog sniffed disdainfully. “Wasn’t all that smart. Two of his books were refuted.” Demosthenes harrumphed and sulked even deeper as they continued walking.
The Temenos - the high council chamber of Carthage - lined the eastern terminus of the square public agora or marketplace that sat at the southern foothill of the low-slung Byrsa slope. Down below in the bustling market, line after line of white columns enclosed a square perimeter around a veritable sea of colored awnings and vendors’ stalls. The Athenian scholar and the little dog strode purposefully through the crowds of men, women, and donkeys as they ignored opportunities to become poorer. Stubby hustled his four short legs in an effort to keep up with Demosthenes’ long strides. “Where are we going now, boss?”
Demosthenes shrugged. “Where else? To meet with our employers. It's our duty to report to the high council and, anyway, we'll need help.”
Stubby panted as he hustled beside Demosthenes. “To accomplish our mission?”
The philosopher's tone was grim. “No. To get through it alive.”
At the eastern edge of the marketplace, the Temenos had a classical Greek facade, with white marble steps and columns topped by a triangular red-tile roof. Demosthenes barged through the bronze-plate double doors and past two unarmored room attendants dressed in plain blue tunics. “No need to get up. I'll see myself in.”
The Athenian and little dog burst into the main chamber. Inside, the Temenos was cast in airy ethereal light by three narrow clerestory windows situated near the vaulted ceiling. Parallel rows of empty white marble benches lined the long walls on either side, while at either end sat a single seat for the two co-executive heads of the government.
From the far end of the long sun-lit chamber, two men and a woman dressed in the long ornate robes of the East approached. One, whom Demosthenes recognized, was Bomilcar, one of the two executive shofets of Carthage. Bomilcar wore a long white galabeeyah robe of the desert, made of pure silk that shimmered in the light with each movement. Over this, stretched across his square shoulders, shone a thick Egyptian status collar of pure gold.
To Bomilcar’s right strode an elegantly draped woman with long brunette hair playing about pale bare shoulders. Diamonds dangled from her earlobes and she was dressed in an off-the-shoulder gown of an expensive Carthaginian dye that Demosthenes knew the dye-makers called “true-purple” that was actually blue. The two Carthaginians were bare-headed, with blue highlights in their dark hair by the light of the high windows, and dressed in long, colorful silken robes with ornate geometric patterns woven into the fabric.
Walking stiffly on Bomilcar's other side was a young man just come into his first beard. The young man, by contrast, wore the white-and-blue prayer shawl of the Jews draped over his head and shoulders and was dressed in long desert robes of humble brown and light beige.
Bomilcar stepped forward to Demosthenes and they clasped hands. The shofet's voice was deep. “Ahn-lah-kah salaam, memsahib. I bring you peace, master! Good of you to come! May I introduce my colleagues?” With a white-draped arm he introduced the blue-gowned woman. “This venerable matriarch is the lady Malathat, from one of the wealthiest families on the council. She’s in charge of city sewer maintenance. It was her workmen who first discovered the betyle dedicated to Baal - that is, the ritual tablets hidden in the sewers. That’s what put us on to the nature of our enemies’ machinations.” The elegant woman bowed.
Demosthenes bowed in return, just a cursory nod of the head. Greek men and women hadn't engaged in the custom of bowing since the advent of democracy in Athens. But he knew that in Canaanite socierty courtesy demanded at least some bowing.
Bomilcar stretched his other arm to the dark-bearded youth. “And this young rapscallion is the rabbi Jehoikim, leader of the small Jewish community in exile in Carthage and newest member of the council.” The slender young man bowed and Bomilcar continued. “He is the youngest of his people to attain the honor of being the chief rabbi of this city.”
Jehoikim's dark eyes flickered with a humble light to Bomilcar.
“That’s because I am the only one in Carthage with the necessary training.”
In the Ugaritic of Canaan Demosthenes said to them all: Tahwab bae-ek-ar, memsahibi! Good morning, masters!”
Bomilcar’s deep, melifluous voice continued. “Meryptah had told us that you would be punctilious!”
Demosthenes blew out an explosive breath. “I really couldn't NOT come! Not when the mayor in Alexandria said that you had children disappearing!”
Bomilcar looked uncomfortable. “Ah . . . yes! For some time now children have, in fact, been going missing from some of our foremost families! Predominantly boy children! The women are most distressed!”
Demosthenes commiserated with them. “I can only imagine! Back in Alexandria, Meryptah said that you thought that these disappearances might be - ah - hmm - ritual?”
Bomilcar looked embarrassed. “Er, um -yes. The work of a few . . . a very few, mind you . . . er . . . die-hard fanatics!”
Demosthenes turned to Bomilcar and pointedly asked: “Meryptah said that you had mentioned a ritual called - moloch?”
They looked in embarrassment to each other. There was some shifting of sandalled feet on the cold floor tiles. “Ye-es.”
Malathat’s deep female basso added, “Hanno doesn't agree that we have a problem!”
Demosthenes turned to her. “Hanno?”
The lady councilor explained: “He's one of the two shofets on the high council, the other being Bomilcar. Hanno says that belief in moloch is just so much superstition. He says that the people of Carthage abandoned the custom two centuries ago and good riddance!’
Demosthenes looked from one to the other of them. “But you don't agree?”
They exchanged looks. Bomilcar said, “There are those in Carthage - including a few on the high council - who wish to return this city back to the old ways. To placate strange demon-gods!”
Jehoikim added: “There are many cults in Carthage whose members are dedicated to different gods. Most of them are fairly benign if crackpot. But one - the cult of Baal Hammon, Lord of the Storms - is particularly dangerous! It is they who engage in moloch, the ritual immolation of children!”
Malathat was adamant. “It is an abomination! It is our shame! We must stop it!”
Bomilcar let his colleague have her head. When the lady councilor was finished the shofet turned to Demosthenes. “All that we've been able to find out so far about the cultists of Baal is that they all bear as designation a letter of the Canaanite alphabet and that their leader is called Aleph for A!”
Jehoikim chimed in. “And that they've been active behind the scenes in Carthaginian politics for many years. It’s even rumored that, two centuries ago, their denizens on the high council caused to be built - in secret - an underground tophet or temple dedicated to Baal, sacrificing children somewhere in this city right under our very feet.”
Demosthenes mused. “Hmm. Daedemonion! Demon-worship! The Greeks made extensive records of the religious beliefs of the East! I hadn't heard that they extended this far into the west, into the heart of such a commercial minded city as Carthage!”
A new male voice added from behind them: “And so they don't!”
They all turned. Across the white-marble floor tiles, the physically imposing form of the shofet Hanno approached them. In his prime and with rugged square features, Hanno was of above-average height and wide-shouldered build. With shiny black hair, Hanno's curled beard extended like a coil of serpents down the front of his dark blue robe. A glint of gold in the strong light of the windows reflected from the wide Egyptian necklace spread across his shoulders, showing the international nature of Hanno's trade. As he walked, his leather sandals made quiet slapping noises that echoed in the chamber.
Bomilcar was the first to address his colleague, plastering a phony smile across his features. “Effendi! Sir! Good to see you!”
Hanno acknowledged the greeting with a slight nod, then turned to include the others. “I didn't know that the council was scheduled for a meeting today, so you can imagine my shock when I was informed that high councilors were convocating here in secret!”
Bomilcar struggled to keep his tone conciliatory. “Hardly convocating and hardly in secret! We're simply talking to a guest from Alexandria!”
Hanno stepped toward Demosthenes with a smile that the Athenian felt was as phony as a wooden coin. “Ah, yes! Demosthenes of Athens! My people had informed me that you were on your way here, and to the nature of your visit! I'm sorry, my Greek friend, but you won't find anything amiss below the streets of Carthage. Just cisterns!”
Demosthenes returned the shofet's smile. “Then you won't mind if I try. It's my own time to waste, after all.”
Hanno's own smile disappeared. “But they are our sewers!”
Malathat's husky voice answered the shofet. “I would remind you that I am in charge of maintaining the sewers, not you. And that it was I who contracted this man, privately, after our custom. I will decide where he goes and where he doesn't.”
Hanno looked from one of them to the other. Seeing the resolution on their faces, he sneered. “Bah! Cultists! You would send this city back to an age of witch-hunts and persecutions! In such times, people, especially poor people, get persecuted for the slightest hiccup!”
Bomilcar spread his arms. “By no means. We seek to end the spiritualism and mysticism that plagues this city and usher in an era of enlightenment and science and reason. Rational scientific thought is the only avenue available to the people to help each other. If someone needs an appendix removed they hire a physician to remove it. They don't go to a spiritualist. At least, not if they want to get well.”
Malathat turned to Demosthenes. “Some of us are members of a group of scholars and scientists calling ourselves The Therapeutae.”
Demosthenes tried out the word on his lips. It felt strange and alien.
“Therapeutae? I've never heard of you before.”
Malathat smiled, revealing perfect teeth. “Few people have. Our group includes scholars from Greece, Egypt, and Judea. We want to triage medical care to the poor and to those who live so far off the beaten path as to be forgotten. We use major cities like Alexandria and Carthage, Ephesus and Antioch and even Babylonia as staging areas to bring medical care to local villages. From there our members spread out even further into the wilderness.”
Demosthenes looked at them all for a moment. “But . . . why me?”
Stubby added: “Yeah, why HIM!?”
They all turned, looking for the source of the dog's words. To Demosthenes, Jehoikim asked, “Did you just say something?”
Demosthenes gargled his voice. “Er, just clearing my throat. Now then, why not just use one of your own people?”
Bomilcar answered his question. “If the cult of Baal Hammon has a mole in the high council, they'll recognize us and any of our people. We need an outsider for this. Someone smar . . . er, um - I mean . . . someone stro . . . ah - that is - someone brave . . . um . . .” He paused, at a loss. “Someone who's willing to do it!”
The lady councilor concluded, “And then your gambling debt to the mayor of Alexandria will be wiped clean and you can return home.”
Demosthenes hesitated, then turned and addressed all of them with a flourish. “Never fear! Scientific fact and rational thinking will soon make matters clear! Within days we will have this matter well in hand!” The councilors all looked relieved. Everyone except the burly form of Hanno. Oblivious to the high councilor’s reaction, Demosthenes clasped his hands together. “So. This Byrsa acropolis of yours. Can we go for a tour?”
Jehoikim held up staying hands. “Perhaps . . . perhaps I'll just wait for you here.”
The party passed by the bustling agora crowds, Stubby doing a double step at Demosthenes’ heels, heading north. As they walked, Hanno gestured with a blue-draped sleeve at a long white-limestone aquaduct that extended north past the far side of the low-slung Byrsa Hill and terminated in a large tube-shaped white basin behind the hill. “This is the great aqueduct for Carthage. Without it the city would die of thirst.”
They ascended the seventy-two sacred steps up the holy-of-holies of Carthage. As they climbed they found the Byrsa Hill to be very low and muddy in places although most of the hillside in every direction was covered with wall-to-wall tenement houses and workshops on the ground level facing the steps. Above them as they climbed, the surrounding propylaea wall of the acropolis overlooked the clustered flat-roofs and square workshops of downtown Carthage that lay north of the all-important harbors. Overhead, the sky was a deep, clear blue.
They reached a tall double wooden doorway in the surrounding stone. As they approached, Demosthenes saw that the double doors loomed before them and were easily the height of five men, dwarfing the newcomers. Whew! he thought. It must take a lot of people to open and close those!
Two muscular bare-chested guards who looked like they came from subtropical Africa stood with arms folded over their chests on either side of the doors. Hanno turned to Demosthenes. “These are the high gates to the acropolis of Carthage - this one is called the Tania Gate because it overlooks the town of Tania to the south. The other two to the east and north are the Sun Gate and the Moon Gate. The gates of the acropolis remain closed at night. Each morning, with the blowing of the priests’ solemn horns, twenty-four priests and priestesses swing open the gates, signalling the beginning of the work day.”
The high doors stood open and were panelled down their length with large bronze squares that bore geometric patterns. Recognizing the high councilors, they said nothing as the party strode through and they all moved in quiet reverence over ornate decorations in the marble floor tiles. All around them, the small temples of the Byrsa acropolis faced inward toward the large open marble-tile courtyard. The architecture here was small-scale Egyptian temple: rectangular and vertical.
As an Athenian used to the acropolis in Athens, Demosthenes didn’t find the temple acropolis of Carthage all that impressive. He was pleased by the square floorplan of the Byrsa, and the fact that the temples and civic buildings were crowded together in efficient use of space. The exterior architecture of Carthage’s temples, however, struck him as unimpressive. The designers had stuck with the Canaanites’ original rectangular box, vertical, and had simply added a raised porch and triangular marble roof as an afterthought. The whole effect, Demosthenes felt, had been designed to imitate Greek architecture. Badly.
They found the tophet dedicated to Baal. This building appeared to be older than the others, perhaps being one of the oldest still standing atop the Byrsa. Following a small-scale imitation of Egyptian temple architecture, the temple was made of gritty yellow sandstone rather than the white marble of the other buildings. With a long flat roof, and atop a wide shallow stairway, plain Egyptian columns bowed outward at their centers. Behind this colonnade lay the temple itself.
Hanno pointed. “That is the temple dedicated to Baal Hammon, lord of the storms, where I can assure you that there are no human sacrifices going on.” They turned to the blockish temple and walked up the shallow front steps. In the deep shade of the porch, they saw that the twin doors were divided by another series square bronze plates.
Demosthenes leaned toward the blue-swathed Hanno. “So each god in this city has his or her own temple?”
The shofet turned to him. “Baal and Tanit, in that order, are the two principal deities of Carthage. They have temples on the Byrsa as well as throughout the city. The cults dedicated to the other gods fend for themselves.” He pointed to the temple again. “Old Abd-Melkart is in there now. He's always in there. His mind falters but he's harmless. Lives in his own world.”
Inside, the first image to confront Demosthenes was the seated image of Baal. Sculpted after the realistic fashion of the Greeks, the bearded statue of the god wore a deceptively pleasant expression as it stared back at them. It reminded Demosthenes of similar statues that he had seen of Zeus enthroned back home. He mentioned this to Bomilcar.
Bomilcar's tone conveyed disdain for pagan beliefs. “Yes. They liken the two deities as one but in the past the rituals for the worship of Baal were not the same as those for Zeus.” He looked at the Athenian. “Much more brutal.”
Demosthenes turned to him. “You would rather worship Zeus?”
“I would rather that we reserve judgement in the face of our own great ignorance.” He looked at Demosthenes. “I would rather tread softly.”
Demosthenes tended to agree with the sentiment. If Hanno wasn’t putting him on, that was. “That seems wise.” Before the seated figure, like a square sentinel, stood a square stone altar with four decorative knobs, one on each corner, which Demosthenes supposed was to keep offerings from falling off. Looking around, they saw gilding around the top of the altar, decorated with writing in Canaanite and an earlier tongue. Demosthenes turned to Hanno. “What is the purpose of the writing?”
The shofet shrugged. “Who remembers anymore? Decoration, I suppose.”
Bomilcar's voice interrupted. “It's a warning against trespass and hubris. The usual threats of spiritual retaliation if this holy place is disturbed.”
Demosthenes went over for a closer inspection of the altar. Pointing up to a line of script, he said, “This appears to be written in an archaic form of pictographic writing from the Middle East. I see that here is used the Babylonian phrase ‘soo-mah ah-wee-lum ooh-tah-peed ooh-hap-ah-do/soo-mah ah-wee-lum maht ooh-tah-peed ooh-hah-pah-do. If a man should do to another man/so that will be done unto him.’ Hmm. An eye for an eye.” He turned to Bomilcar. “Poetic justice. And in a Babylonian that is far older than Carthage.”
Hanno sighed. “The knowledge of the priestly cults of Carthage extends farther back in time than the founding of this city.” He turned to Demosthenes. “But all of that information is evil. Nor will they share it with you willingly.” Changing to a more businesslike tone, he clasped his hands together in eager anticipation. “Well, perhaps our Athenian friend here has all day to go sightseeing but some of us have a city to run.” He turned to the other councilors. “If you ladies and gentlemen would care to join me -” With a backward glance at Demosthenes, the rest of the party left the chamber in a huddle.
Stubby looked up. “Well, they certainly left in a hurry.”
Through the still-open door frame, Demosthenes watched the councilors’ backs recede into the sunny distance. “I think Hanno would like to bury this matter quickly and quietly.”
“Do you think he's one of the cultists, boss?”
Demosthenes considered. “Could be. For now, I'd like a word with the high priest of Baal, Abd-Melkart. Let’s find him.”