Sunday, November 24, 2013

Miranda's Folly: Part 2 - Steampunk Short Story continued

It has been suggested that I continue Miranda's misadventure with the bathing machine's 'spatial dilation portal' so here it is. You'll want to read the first part, well, first, because it won't make much sense otherwise. 

Victorian Attic by OokamiKasumi

Although her bedroom was comfortably situated on the first floor, Miranda often avoided Madam by retreating to the privacy of the attic. And she needed time alone, time to consider the difficult position in which she found herself.

Think Miranda, think. If Madam Hamilton questioned her, what should she say? What could she say? It took her well nigh half the night to settle on a course of  action but when summoned by the bell the following morning she'd settled on an excellent response.

Tyntesfield servants bells

Miranda carried the hot tea into Madam's bedroom carefully. She used the gilt tray specially set aside for the purpose and was ruefully reminded that she was as skinny as a barber's cat with her small bosom. After all, didn't Mrs. Chatterton, unknowingly implicated in Miranda's scheme, boast such an enormous bosom that she could carry two cups of tea upon them without spilling a drop?

Miranda opened the heavy drapes to let in a little sunshine then jostled Madam to awaken her. Her mistress stirred, yawned and sat up, accepting the tea without a word. While Madam sipped the hot brew, Miranda laid out her morning clothes and waited to see if anything would be said about yesterday's bathing incident. She didn't have long to wait.
"Miranda, I have a somewhat indelicate question for you." Madam Hamilton began. "It seems that a woman wearing a bathing dress identical to my own - which is impossible as you well know - appeared suddenly near the gentlemen's swimming area. Miranda, I am forced to ask.  Did you use Mr. Pastorini's portal?"
Miranda was ready and quickly whipped up a few tears as she dropped her head and nodded in as miserable a fashion as she could manage.
"Oh, Madam," she wailed, quite impressed with the pitiful sound of her own voice. "Oh, I did. I did. I am horribly sorry for my brazen act but oh, Madam, I was in such a state I hardly knew what I was doing."
She peeked up through her lashes to gauge Madam Hamilton's reaction. Satisfied, she went on, keeping her tone bleak.
"It's my Wendell, madam. We are engaged and well, I am afraid he may be playing me for a fool with a ladies' maid in service at Chatterton House."
Madam gasped. "Mary Chatterton's, in the Queen's Hotel alleyway?"
"Yes, Madam, the very one."
Madam Hamilton frowned. "But what has that to do with ...?"
"Well, Madam." Miranda plunged on, warming to her subject. "I recognized Wendell farther along the beach drawing up horses behind Mrs. Chatterton's bathing machine - you know, the one with the pink door? I wanted to see if he was there with her and thought I might catch them out while Mrs. Chatterton was swimming. But I couldn't think how I could do that and yet remain unseen. Then it came to me. If I used the portal - I know it was wrong of me but I was desperate - I could turn the dial a bit more and be instantly farther along the beach out in the sea, close enough to get a proper view and judge for myself if he was being true to me or not."
Madam raised her eyebrows in understanding and motioned for Miranda to continue, thankfully asking nothing further about the nonexistent Wendell.
"But it all went wrong. I turned the dial too far and the portal shot me out as far along as the gentlemen's beach. Once I realized my appalling mistake I instantly pressed the dial to return through the portal into the bathing house."
"And it worked? You came back unhurt?"
"Yes, Madam. Well, not quite, Madam. I had gone out so far that my return was quite brutal and the portal  threw me against the back wall with terrific force. I was severely bruised." 
"I see," Madam said slowly, and then, "You could show me how you turned the dial? So that I don't repeat your error." she added quickly.
Miranda brightened. "Oh yes, Madam. To be sure, Madam."
The next time Miranda accompanied Madam Hamilton to the beach, wisps of steam drifted gently from the brass tubes of the portal's vent holes and she was surprised to see the back wall of the bathing machine heavily reinforced with layers of padding.
Her mistress had the good grace to redden slightly, then recovered and said in as severe a tone as any good teacher instructing a dull pupil. "Spatial dilation is an imprecise science, Miranda, and mistakes must be anticipated. Now, show me the dial position on the circlet."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tower of Babel in Babylon : What Did it Really Look Like?

The precise age of the original Tower of Babel is unknown. When Gertrude Bell visited the archaeological site of Babylon in 1914 she wrote in her diary, "So across the Sahn to the Tower of Babel. We sat on the edge of the pit, looked at it - Etemenanki. The outer brick is all gone - some robbed by Alexander who piled up Hommera with it. They have found half a cylinder here and the other half in Hommera. The sundried brick core is there in part. Within it a core not yet of bricks. I call that old said K (Koldewey, archaeologist responsible for many of the discoveries in Babylon) How old? said I. 10,000, 20,000 years how can I tell. It is one of the oldest temples in Babylonia."

Depictions for The Tower of Babel are similar to the one painted above by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1563 - a cone-shaped structure with each tier of reducing size as you ascend. But did it really look like that fanciful creation ? As my novel-in-progress is set in ancient Babylon I looked at what evidence I could find and this is what I learned.

Founder of the neo-Babylonian dynasty, Nabopolassar (625-605 BC) restored the Babylonian tower during his reign. "The lord Marduk commanded me concerning Etemenanki, the staged tower of Babylon, which before my time had become dilapidated and ruinous, that I should make its foundations secure in the bosom of the nether world, and make its summit like the heavens."

A tablet giving the dimensions of Etemenanki, the ziggurat, dates from 'the twenty-sixth day of the ninth month of Seleucus king' , being December 12, 229 BC. After careful study by expert Assyriologists, the cryptic language was interpreted and the first storey calculated to be 295 feet long by 295 feet wide by108 feet high; a perfect square with each of the stages continuing on up in perfect squares of diminishing size.

(aerial view of Babylon - ruin of Etemenanki below arrow - Saddam Hussein's modern palace on top left circular mound, directly across from partial restoration of Nebuchadrezzar's ancient palace complex)

I couldn't think how to envision the actual scale of the thing so I tried to consider it in terms of an average house. The base of the tower was 87,025 square feet so using a 1,500 square foot house as a template you could fit 58 houses in the area taken up by the first stage of the structure. The second level would contain 43 houses, the third 26 houses, the fourth 19 houses, the fifth 12 houses, the sixth 8 houses, the seventh around 4 houses.

 The first stage rose to a height of approximately 5 houses and all seven stages added up to a height of 295 feet, just 5 feet shy of the height of the city walls. However, that was still roughly the height of a 15 storey building. But there was an eighth level without any recorded measurements that would have been the crowning glory of the edifice, a great temple richly appointed in gold.

(closer view of ruins. projecting arm likely the indentation left by a walled road leading up to the structure, probably a ramp-like stairway given the top of the first tier was at a height of about 5 houses! And no elevators.)

But was their interpretation of the measurements correct? Herodotus viewed the ziggurat tower in about 450 BC and he said it was "a solid tower measuring a furlong both in length and breadth, and on this tower another tower has been erected, and another again upon this, and so on up to the number of eight towers. An ascent to these has been built running outside round about all the towers: and when one reaches about the middle of the ascent one finds a stopping-place and seats to rest upon, on which those who ascend sit down and rest:"

Now a furlong is 660 feet, not 295 feet, or about an eighth of a mile so Herodotus thought it was much larger. Still square though. Who is correct? We may never know. All in all the thing was massive and easily visible over the city walls by any traveler approaching Babylon. Pretty cool.

Above is the ruin of The Tower of Babel as seen from ground level. Not very impressive. The rubble at the bottom right could be the remains of a walled walkway leading into the tower's precinct or, if Herodotus is to be believed, possibly into an enormous temple that enclosed the tower, but don't quote me on that.

(Ur Ziggurat)

The ziggurat at Ur is probably closer to the design of The Tower of Babel, Etemenanki. While only the foundation survived, Saddam Hussein partially reconstructed its fa├žade and staircase. Hussein's intention was to rebuild it with three terrace levels but it was never completed. You can see the original ruin projecting out of the rebuilt portion at the top. The Ur ziggurat's foundation was only 31,500 square feet - enormous but less than half the footprint of the Babylon tower. It is speculated that it would have been around 100 feet high so again, not nearly as lofty.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Hanging Gardens of Babylon: Did They Exist?

digital art by Sergy Lekhachev

Elevated gardens probably did, but likely not in Babylon. Too bad because I wanted to include the gardens in the novel I'm currently writing set in ancient Babylon. Sadly research not only confirms the things we've always 'known', it also destroys some of our romantic notions.

Early in my research I came across the diary of Gertrude Bell, a British writer and adventurer who accompanied Robert Johann Koldewey, the German architect and archaeologist who became famous for excavating much of Babylon.

On March 31, 1914 Gertrude wrote, "So we went to Esagila (temple of Marduk, patron god of Babylon). The outer lines of the temple have been found by subterranean diggings. They have left the inner cella which K (Koldewey) wants to dig out completely. So down to the Parthian houses which he would very much like to dig. The very long colonnade is possibly an agora. The Hanging Gardens were built by Nebuch. for a Susan. wife to remind her of her mountains! But the gardens were not planted high up. They were low down beneath the vaulted substructures. It is still possible that they may be found in the Babil mound."

supposed site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - photo by Raymond Kleboe

Although a vaulted structure was found at the northeast corner of Babylon's massive southern palace, its fourteen large rooms and thick walls probably housed a royal storehouse. A Babylonian ration list was found within the structure, confirming its logical use. Instead of being the underpinnings for the magnificent Hanging Gardens it was likely merely a giant storage facility.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, supposedly visited Babylon around 450BC but in describing all the amazing buildings and sites of the city he did not mention the Hanging Gardens, which according to legend would have been magnificent and higher than the city's soaring walls.

So, how did the story start? Where did it come from? Stephanie Dalley in The Mystery of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced, posited an interesting theory. That Josephus, the first century historian, may have been misled by a novelist! How cool. A writer living in south-west Turkey in the first century wrote a novel containing the theme of a woman abroad, crossing the Euphrates from the west and homesick for her native land.

The theme of homesickness is unknown and unlikely in Babylonian and Assyrian literature and Babylonian gardens were described as being set in flat areas. However, the description does match a type of elevated garden made in Nineveh at the palace of Khorsabad by Sargon II, father of Sennacherib. He said,  "a high garden imitating the Amanus mountains in which are planted all the aromatic trees of northern Syria, all the mountain's fruits, I created alongside (Khorsabad)"

A stone panel carved in bas-relief and found in the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, shows such a garden, possibly even the very garden he described. Here it is below. The carving is difficult to make out so I've also included a drawing I found that makes it easier to see and enjoy.

But what did Nebuchadnezzar have to say about it? Nothing. Nothing at all. Found by Sir Harford Jones Bridges in Babylon, an engraved column of black basalt bears Nebuchadnezzar's own description of his building efforts. And while he mentions the walls he rebuilt and fortified, the gates, temples, shrines and palaces he built, there is no mention of any garden. Discovered to the north of the palace was an enormous elevated reservoir. For the garden? Evidently not. After detailing his rebuilding of the palace of My Royalty for the land of Babylon he simply says, and a depth of waters I collected.

Below is a photo of a vaulted water conduit next to the palace taken by Gertrude Bell while she was in Babylon. This conduit likely carried the water from the reservoir into the palace buildings.


The legend of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is no doubt untrue, as it is unsupported by archaeology or the kings of Sumer and Akkad. Disappointing but I guess it's better to get your facts straight before attempting to write historical fiction. Fictitious characters are fine, fictitious history not so much.

Friday, November 1, 2013


I'd become a pretty good thief. I started slow, testing the waters so to speak. A wallet here, a wallet there. At parties small valuables disappeared but I was never suspected. It wasn't that I needed the money for myself. It was my wife. Now there was a girl who needed money, and lots of it. Magenta. Who names their kid Magenta?

Don't get me wrong. She was a beautiful woman and beautiful women are high maintenance. I just hadn't realized how high. I made a fairly decent living but she was draining me pretty good. Once the bloom was off the rose I realized I'd made a huge mistake.

But to satisfy Magenta's demands and keep us out of the poorhouse, my life of crime began. And I would have gladly continued if she'd spent the money on something normal - clothes, jewellery, even cosmetic surgery. But no. She had this ridiculous obsession with unicorns. A unicorn picture hung over our bed. I had to sleep under that thing.

image from  

She painted her nails with something called 'unicorn droppings'.

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She chewed 'unicorn poop' bubblegum. She doesn't even like gum.

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  When she started on the statuary though, I knew I was in trouble.
                                 image from
"Dahling", she said. She never pronounced the 'r'. I don't know why.
"Dahling", she said, "I simply must have this. The garden absolutely cries out for such a magnificent beast. Don't you think?"
I didn't think but I plastered a brave smile on my face and vowed that this was going to be over - and soon. I just couldn't take it any longer. So I upped my game, began hitting jewellery stores. Magenta had no idea that while I dutifully doled out money so she could buy her crazy unicorn stuff, I was also accumulating a small fortune for myself. I fantasized about leaving her high and dry with her bizarre unicorn collection.
And my plan was going great. I had a pile of cash and unset gems crammed into my office wall safe. I could taste freedom. I was daydreaming in front of the open safe when the unthinkable happened. Magenta walked into my office. She never came into my office. She said watching me work made her head hurt.
"What do you have there, dahling?" Magenta's voice was smooth and honeyed.
I was speechless. Horrified.
She reached out a spotty-nailed hand to the gemstones spilling from the safe's top shelf. "Wasn't Braemar's Jewellers robbed last night?" she asked, idly sifting through the colorful, glittering pile.
I'd forgotten how to put words together and I gibbered unintelligibly.
She looked at me. "What did you say? What are these?"
At last I found my voice and blurted out."They're unicorn droppings."
I grinned foolishly. Who would ever buy that? What an idiot.
Dumbly I watched as Magenta scooped up a handful of gems. I followed her out the door and into our bedroom where she crossed to the bedside table sitting under that stupid unicorn picture. She opened her purse, exposing a short stack of twenty dollar bills, then sprinkled the stones over the cash.
I was confused and I guess it showed on my face for Magenta gave me a slow, long-lashed wink and said, "Fertilizer, dahling. Fertilizer."    
This short story is in response to the Absolute Write November blog chain prompt 'unicorn droppings'.
My fellow participants are:

BB Burke -
julzperri -