Halicarnassus - a tale of love and war
Halicarnassus is a Rock
The setting sun is flooding Halicarnassus in dark orange light. From the battlement atop the Myndos Gate, Memnon is gazing down at the city. With each passing day, he cannot keep himself from brooding over his separation from Barsine and he is not able to rest for the questions that thunder through his head: where is she? is she safe? Never had they faced such a long parting. Love is stronger than war. Memnon envies the gods, he's longing to fly with the winged sandals of Hermes, so that he might be at Alexander's throat by day, but resting in Barsine's arms at night. He remembers those summer evenings back in Colophon, the olive gardens overlooking the dark-blue waters of the Great Green Sea. The endless concerts of crickets and cicadas, the fireflies dancing through the night. He pictures Barsine, sleeping on a divan near the softly trickling fountain, her raven hair falling over her shoulder, the contours of her firm breasts under a thin garment of deep Egyptian blue.
"Memnon, my lord …" a sentry calls excited. "They are here." Torn out of his sweet memories, Memnon steps to the other side of the gate tower to confirm the inevitable. In the dry heat of the setting sun, twenty thousand men and their machines kicking up clouds of dust. A choking grey shroud is hanging over Alexander's advancing army. Little detail can be seen safe for the reflections of their weapons. The young tower guard next to Memnon is shaking, he is still a boy, Memnon thinks. "They are so many" the boy whispers while he is staring at the endless column winding its way through the hills west of Halicarnassus. "Yes, soldier …" Memnon tries to calm the boy, "… they are many. But Halicarnassus is a Rock."
I'm Memnon of Rhodes
The stars glitter in the night sky over the Macedonian camp in front of Memnon, just a hundred paces away. He can see the campfires behind Alexander's siege engines and the four massive siege towers. Fifty-foot-high frames of covered timber, mounted on reinforced wheels, the lower part sported with a suspended battering ram. Memnon and a two hundred light infantry squadron are crouching behind the embankment of a dry river bed. Strips of cloth muffling their heads, their faces smeared with soot, lampblack dulling the sheen of their weapons. He takes a last glance at the dozens of straw-packed clay jars full of bitumen. Behind him, waves of Cretan Archers, Persian Cardakes and Greek Hoplites get in position. Silence. No cries of alarm, no horns or hooves sound is in the still air. With an unseen nod, Memnon gives the order and a small squad ascends out of the river bed, fading into the night in the direction of the Macedonian sentries, that guard the siege train. Minutes stretch, Memnon can feel his heartbeat. Finally, shadows rise behind the five nearest guards, stabbing them to the ground without a noise. Soon after, an owl hoots twice - the signal for 'path is clear'.
Moments later, his light infantry heads for the breach in the Macedonian sentry line, carrying the precious jars to the Macedonian siege train. Soon, the acrid stench of bitumen reaches Memnon's nostrils when the flammable liquid gets spread all over catapults, rams and towers. Done. The light infantry vanishes back into the darkness. Memnon snatches a torch from the empty sentry post, lights a trail of Bitumen and watches as a fast-spreading flow of fire races along the ground, igniting everything on its way. It reaches the catapults first and with a roar the fire blazes to life, consuming the engines like a corpse on a pyre. The fire spreads to other siege machines, consuming in its way ammunition cages, stands of javelins, all the way to the base of the nearest siege towers.
Eventually from other sentry lines, alarm signals cut through the noise of the rising inferno, spreading fast through the Macedonian camp. The battle begins. Now they can hear the shouts and cries of soldiers roused from sleep, rushing out of their tents, trying to snuff out the blaze. Memnon gives the signal to the Cretan Archers. Moments later, a hail of death drops out of the night sky killing anyone between the burning siege engines. The archers send volley after volley into the chaos and Memnon's Cardakes go after any man foolish enough to fight the flames.
Two of Alexander's siege towers blaze, fully engulfed. By the light of their flames, Memnon spots a squadron of Alexander's Companion Cavalry circling to the left. Soon, more would advance from the right trying to cut off their retreat. Memnon sends his Hoplites backwards to meet the Macedonian Cavalry at his rear. The Cretan Archers are covering their advance with volleys of arrows. Hooves thunder, horses and men scream all toppling as the javelins of the Greek Hoplites slam into Alexander's elite Cavalry. Another wedge of the Companions smashes into the right flank of the Persian Cardakes, followed by shouts and screams, the clash of iron, the crash of bones. Soon Alexander would realize the limit of Memnon's night sortie and would mobilize his entire corps to capture him.
"Break off, back to the city" Memnon's order echoes above the fighting. His men do not tarry and with a last parting shot, a last spear trust, they disengage and turn for the gate. The Macedonians pound after them, mounted and on foot, howling with rage. But the Persian Archers on the battlements hold them at bay, raining arrows on Alexander's Cavalry and slaughtering any Macedonian coming into range of their bows. Now the Greek Hoplites are forming a protective phalanx in front of the gate bridge covering the last paces of the retreat. Finally, the Macedonians come to a halt and seek cover behind their shields, watching Memnon's troops passing through the sixteen-foot ironbound oak doors of the city gate into safety. Inside the city wall, raucous cheers and shouts of victory can be heard. Memnon is the last man to cross back into Halicarnassus. But he stops in the middle of the gate bridge and turns around.
Next to the burning siege towers, a lone Macedonian horseman is watching him. There is no mistaking the intensity of the horseman's gaze or the white kestrel feathers adorning his helmet. There is no mistaking Alexander on his black stallion, turning furious and exited, keeping himself out of range of Memnon's Archers. Memnon looks at Alexander and sketches an exaggerated bow to the Macedonian king, filling the pose with every ounce of mockery he can summon. He had outfoxed Alexander and with this gesture, he sends his message: "Alexander, you are but a boy playing at war - I'm a soldier, I'm Memnon of Rhodes". Taking the helmet off his head, Memnon raises his sword towards the sky. From inside the gate, he can hear the shouts of his soldiers, "ha-uuh, ha-uuh, ha-uuh".
A small night breeze was gently moving the linen curtains that lead to the small colonnaded terrace outside the chamber. The fading light of an oil lamp paints deepening shadows on tasteful Persian rugs and wall hangings. Slowly opening his eyes, Memnon can see the outline of Barsine's face, just inches from his own. Unbound, her dark hair glistens in the moonlight, her delicate brows drawn together while she speaks in her dream. Barsine, he whispers, softly as not to startle her into wakefulness. He moves closer to her until their shoulders touch. The smell of her hair, of orchid blossoms, drifts up to his nostrils. With the delicate touch of his fingers, he traces the line of her spine down to the feminine curves of her hips, memorizing every detail of her womanly features. The transparent shawl around her neck complements the soft olive complexion of her shoulders. She reminds Memnon of a creature of divine origin, as she lies there, in the light of the setting moon.
Gently, he lifts her head from his shoulder. Moments he waits until her drowsy voice, barely rising to a whisper, changes into a sleepy moan and she is asleep again. He steps to the open terrace above the olive garden, overlooking the dark-blue waters of the Great Green Sea. He enjoys the cooling sea breeze that enwraps his mesomorphic naked stature. First light on the eastern horizon announces the end of the night. He enjoys this silence before sunrise, he always has, but he also fears that this night with Barsine will end too soon. Striding back into the bed-chamber he silently closes the curtains hoping to keep the first sunbeams away from her. At this moment Barsine turns around, still asleep, unwittingly exposing the feminine features of her goddess-like appearance. Silently enjoying the sight to behold, Memnon feels the blood running through his groins. Slowly he approaches his lover as she breathes calmly, sunken in sweet dreams, outstretched on white linen.
Lightly, he is leaning over her, spreading gentle kisses all over her shoulders. Slowly his lips move down between her divine bosoms. He has the urge to caress her dark round areolas, to gently suckle their still soft peaks, but he doesn’t want to wake them yet. His lips softly move down along her tummy, circling around the shining gem of Lapis Lazuli that adorns Barsine's navel. Memnon can feel tremors running through her when his lips reach her venus mound, his kisses sliding lightly over the silky skin of her full lips. Still holding on to her dream, Barsine opens her thighs, her lips are parting, revealing little orchid blossoms, releasing the scent of passionate memories. Now, her hands are sliding down, combing her fingers through his hair, pushing his lips gently over hers. Soon Barsine becomes defenseless to her desires, revealed in the way her hips move, her brows crinkle and smooth. Demanding and without control over herself she pushes her lover to carry her higher and higher, up to the sky, until he releases a cloudburst of passion in her. Then she pulls him up on top of her, and Memnon cannot tell if joy or embarrassment brought the tears to her eyes that reflect the colour of the night sky. She gazes up at him, clasping her arms around his shoulders when he gently slides in her. "Memnon my love, oh Memnon …"
Papyrus of Hope
"Memnon, Memnon, Lord Memnon, are you awake? We have to leave." a familiar voice calls at him. The sunrise finds Memnon still sitting at his desk, torn out of his wonderful dream. The oil lamp had burned out, and the wine flask at his elbow lay tilted over, drained and forgotten. Buckling the last strap of his breastplate, Memnon is ascending the acropolis wall as the rising sun sets fire to the eastern horizon. The scar on his right shoulder is aching and the pain triggers memories of the months he was holding up the city's defenses. From the battlement Memnon can see Alexander's men plodding out to the siege towers, putting their shoulders to the wheels to move the massive structures back into fighting positions. The Macedonian battering rams had breached the walls at two positions the day before but nightfall had prevented Alexander's infantry to storm the walls. Memnon knows that within an hour the city will be taken by the Macedonians.
Descending from the Acropolis, Memnon makes his way through the dusty streets, heading for the harbor. The city, spreading out below him, resembles a theatre. The agora at the harbor forms the stage and in semicircles above rising successive tiers of stone and plaster, houses and shops that are shaded by boxwood and scrubby oak. Simplicity is the beauty of Halicarnassus safe for one architectural folly, the massive tomb of Mausolus. Towering higher than the city's Acropolis, it has a podium base of white marble, topped by an expansive colonnade and a pyramid. At its apex, a four-horse chariot gleams in the morning sun. Memnon shakes his head - the dead tyrant's memory be damned.
Reaching the harbor he watches the last warships leaving the bay. During the night Memnon had sent his army on 300 Persian triremes to the safety of Kos island. He was prepared for the day Halicarnassus would be lost. "Lord Memnon! I have a message for you". The herald hands Memnon the Papyrus roll. Memnon recognizes the seal, the letter is from Barsine. "If you want to send an answer, I can wait, my lord", the herald offered. Memnon opens the letter:
"Barsine to Memnon, her beloved husband, hail. My love, after a long journey, I arrived safely at Susa, where I was received with great honors by the Great King. … Come back to me, my beloved husband, my hero. … I would give away all the riches of this world for a moment in your arms."
Memnon rolls up the letter and is suddenly weighed down with weariness. At the harbor master's office, he recognizes several scribes who write poems on papyrus. "Could you write down a poem in Persian for me?" Memnon asks one oriental looking scribe. "Of course my lord" the scribe answers. Memnon thinks for a moment and says: "It begins like this:"
"When the lamp of the moon turns on, when the stars bloom, when the briny breeze of the seas sniffs at the white foam, you return …"
"I know this poem well" the scribe ensures. "I will write it down for you." Soon after, Memnon hands the papyrus to the herald and walks to the pier. A skiff is waiting to row him out to his flagship, the 'Ganymeda', a Phoenician Trireme. The banner of the Great King flutters in the light morning breeze over the stern. The crew is a mix of Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians, chosen by Memnon himself for their seafaring skills; the best men in the Persian armada. Short after, the oarsmen pull the Persian flagship out of the harbor towards the open bay. Memnon looks back at Halicarnassus. Smoke rises from the Acropolis when down at the harbor a squadron of horsemen arrives, Alexander's Companion cavalry. Again, there is no mistaking Alexander on his black stallion Bucephalus, turning furious, shouting and screaming. Memnon's mood brightens. "You are late, King of Macedon, too late."
It is midday in Bodrum when I climb the ancient battlement of the Myndos Gate. Although not much is left from the walls that once surrounded the city, the site of the tower gates is still impressive. From up here, I have a wonderful view of the city and the islands of the Mediterranean sea. I try to imagine the beauty of the city millennia ago when these walls protected one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
Nothing of the monument is left in Bodrum today, but unlike many other ancient wonders, it survived throughout antiquity, shaken only by a few earthquakes over the centuries. But this is not all that Halicarnassus was famous for. Ancient history had been written here, literally, by the Greek historian Herodotus, in his book 'The Histories'. A good read still published today.
While I'm taking a rest in the shadows of the battlement, I'm wondering about the life of another famous figure in the history of Halicarnassus. One century after Herodotus the city was besieged by the Macedonians. The General in charge of defending the city, and supreme commander of the Persian army in Asia Minor, was a man called Memnon of Rhodes. Although the history books mention his name and his merits as a general, the more fascinating records about his life we can find in ancient poetry. That is because he was married to the most beautiful woman in the Persian empire, Princess Barsine. Their tale is full of love and passion but ends tragically with the sudden death of Memnon in the year after Halicarnassus. Defending the city, he didn't know that he would never see Barsine again.
It is late spring when a Phoenician merchant ship moors in the harbor of Lindos, on the south-eastern shore of Rhodes island. An old man in a blue Egyptian garment disembarks. With him, he carries two wooden chests adorned with Persian ornaments.
He walks up to the crest of a hill until he reaches an old rock tomb in an olive garden, overlooking the dark-blue waters of the Great Green Sea. Both chests, side by side, he lays to rest in the vault and speaks the Persian prayers. Then he disappears.
With the woman he loved, Memnon had returned to Rhodes.