Below Pergamum, On The Asian Shore

(This was the original introduction to this chapter.)

            A long colonnade of pillars, smooth and white, drowsed in darkness. Under their arches, in aisles covered with domed roofs, men and women lay sleeping on the ground. Between the lines of pillars, a road ran white and gleaming in the moonlight. The roadbed was sloped, allowing rainwater to collect in gutters along its edge. In the still quiet, the rippling sound of water flowing was very clear. A channel ran under the flagstones, carrying a swift stream down out of the hills behind the temple. At the edge of the road, curled in woolen blankets, more people lay sleeping. No man or woman was turned away from the gates of this temple.

            To the east, in line with the temple road and the pillars, a great hill rose up above a plain dark with orchards and farms. The heady smell of grape arbors, fields of flowers, sheaves of wheat and rye and tall fodder-grass, filled the night air. On the distant hill, sleeping houses rose up towards the star-studded sky. On the crown of the mountain, fires burned before the altars of Jupiter and Mars and the other great gods, illuminating the graceful temples for all to see, even from this distance.

            A pale blue light flickered in the darkness amongst the columns. There was a rattling sound on the marble street, the rap of a walking stick, the shuffling drag of a weary foot. The light danced on the faces of the sleeping people, showing young and old, hale and sick. Thousands of citizens, drawn from every corner and province of the Empire, thronged the cool shadowed courtyards of the temple, slept under the stars or in cubicles within the sprawling complex of buildings. Here, each man and woman could find the succor and ease of their ailments. Here, the voice of the god and physician Asklepios spoke in the darkness, filling the dreams of his penitents with answers and guidance. If the god did not guide them to a cure while they slept, the priests would by the light of day.

            At the end of the colonnade, a triumphal gate and steps led down to a square. Buildings of whitewashed plaster and stone bound it on all four sides. The blue light glittered on a broken column set in the middle of the square, showing surfaces polished smooth by the passing hands of countless worshippers. Once a tall slim statue, carved from fine Miletian marble by a Greek master, had been placed there. Then an earthquake had felled it, and the priests had taken it as a sign. Now, as each petitioner entered, they rubbed the stump for good luck. The light passed on, illuminating a pair of stout oaken doors that led into the inner courtyard of the temple.

            The great inner rectangle, filled with trees set in brick planters, was carpeted with the sleeping. The light, throwing long shadows across the softly snoring people, drifted out into the open space. At its head walked a tall figure bent with great weariness. Behind him, where a trailing thin hand guided it, a corpse drifted in the air. The man, for he was a young man with a face graven by deep pain, came to a halt at the edge of a rectangular pit cut into the floor of the plaza.

            The sound of falling water filled the air. A spring lay below, buried deep under the marble tile and brick porticoes, and its cold clear water welled up to be captured in a basin of travertine. Steps led down into the dark, close space, smelling of moss and ferns and growing things. The man left the cold blue light and the withered, curled, body that it enclosed and descended the steps. With each step, the air chilled a little.

            He bent over the waters, scooping with his hand. The water was fresh and cold on his face. It tasted even better than he remembered. Though weeks had passed, the taste of ash and sulfur still lingered in his mouth. Squatting, his dark cloak falling around him like the wing of night, he laved his face and hands, then drank deep from the spring. Bats squeaked in the air above him, flitting across the stars.

             Tarsus, a priest of the Asclepion, moved across the central square, his solemn brown eyes canvassing the bodies of the petitioners. He was a stout man, with thinning hair and a calm and soothing disposition. His life had been devoted to the order of Asclepius, though most of the last four years had been spent in the daughter temples located in Rome and Constantinople. As Tarsus walked, he looked upon the faces of the sleeping people, sometimes bending down over them, his thick fingers feather-light on their hair. Many came to the temple, seeking relief. Not all of them were afflicted with wounds or illness. Some carried torment within them, though they showed no visible wound.

            He stopped, standing over a man wrapped in a patched woolen sheet. The fellow’s breathing was labored and his brow twitched as he dreamed. Tarsus sighed, feeling the conflict within the brick-maker. The priest knelt, bending his head close to the sleeping man. With this little distance between them, Tarsus could feel the bitter anger that ate at the fellow, fouling his sleep and coloring his waking moments a dull gray.

            “You have hurt your family grievously.” He whispered. “Your pain is theirs. You know that you were wrong; rash and filled with hasty anger. Go home. Find your wife, tend her hurts. Speak to her bruised eyes, say that you were wrong. Hold your children up to the sky in joy. See the love that is in their faces. Tell your wife that you love her. Do not lift your hand in anger to any man, save he strike you first. Go home and be well.”

            The man’s face, taut with pain and fear, began to ease. Tarsus waited a moment, feeling his breathing settle. He bent his head, praying to the god of the spring and the temple for his blessing and guidance. When he rose, the man on the ground was sleeping deeply, untroubled.