I arrived in Uruk, the so-called City of the Sword in the land of Shem, a good three months ago. It is a vile place -- a lawless place and a den of iniquity. This city wearies me with its decadence and barbarism If I were a younger man, I might find it a city of endless pleasures but I am, indeed, old. I am old and I tire of its swaggering mercenaries, of its whores, of its slaves, and lawlessness. It is a cesspit of idle corruption and abominable temptation like most Shemtish cities, though in truth it resembles Zamora more in its unabashed depravity. But enough of my contempt for this place, good Pyrrhides -- on to the history, such as it is.
Tracking the history of such a wild and young city is a terrible and taxing feat for any scholar. For me, it was an even more difficult venture. I am a traveler here, having been drawn to Uruk by its impressive and mounting reputation. Even in the ale-houses of great Tarantia is the peculiar city discussed over tankards of grog by men and women eager to pry fortune from fate's sturdy grip. It is a city of splendors, of corruption and degeneracy, and a city of blood renowned for its grand arena where trained combatants put on ornate physical displays to the roar of an insatiable crowd. It is a city of vast wealth with an iron hold on the caravan routes criss-crossing Shem's vast desert, a city where one might literally ascend from rags to riches, or from riches to rags conversely.
How the city came to be is somewhat shrouded in mystery, much to my annoyance. No one seems to know exactly how it came about. Some say that it was founded by marauding Shemtish mercenaries returning from some northern campaign. Others believe that the city itself was raised from the very sands by Ishtar, the patron deity of the city to whom many are wildly devout. The account that I believe is most likely speaks of the city's location as being what has precipitated its rise. There is, after all, a city within a city in Uruk -- the crumbling ruins of a much more ancient settlement comprise Uruk's slums, most of them sinking into the sands below.
I am forced by a lack of evidence and credible documentation to guess that being a crossroads for so many caravan routes through the unfriendly desert is what raised that ancient ruin, though none might say for certain what civilization was responsible for their construction. They certainly predate most modern Shemite cities by a span of centuries. I can only guess what cataclysm befell its unlucky people.
Whatever the cause, Uruk did rise. It rose steadily, huddling about those ruins, building upon them, expanding upon them until a sturdy wall encompassed the whole of its unwieldy mass and gave shape to what we know as the city proper during our era. What defined its cultural maxims, its class of effete nobility, and its bizarre customs of government and statehood, I must admit with frustration that I do not know. I waited for weeks for an audience with the former Trade-Prince before the man's untimely demise and do you know what he told me when I finally spoke with him on this topic, good Pyrrhides? "Old man, we care little of history here. Uruk is a city of life, a city of potential and opportunity. We live for today and tomorrow -- many come here to forget their yesterdays and so, perhaps, we have all forgotten."
I do not need to tell you that I stood aghast at this dim view of our profession. The man was a fool and a reprobate besides -- it is no wonder that he was dead inside of a week. Oh, yes, Pyrrhides, such events are not uncommon in this accursed city. The High Priestess of Ishtar and the Trade-Prince both fell prey to the same poison, as the rumor goes. I could find little in the way of confirmation, of course -- the city guard was tight-lipped over the whole of the affair. I would not be surprised if they were in on it, or were at least bribed to look the other way.
You see, Pyrrhides, commerce is truly king in Uruk. With enough gold, minted in coins they call denars, a man might achieve anything. Murder a man? Bribe the guard and bribe them well. If he was not a man of prominence, chances are that you will go free, entirely unmolested by the farce they call 'law' in this place. Desire to sit in the fine palace of the Trade-Prince and rule over the wild masses? If you deliver a fortune to the High Priestess of Ishtar, you very well may be her choice regardless of your background. Indeed, the office of the Trade-Prince is not restricted to the nobility. Even the most base of criminals might sit that fine ivory seat if they pay well enough. The habits of these folk disgust me in earnest.
I must say that I blame King Conan for the growth and prominence of such a city. His stabilizing influence on the west has shifted the dynamic of the whole region and regions beyond. Stygia sleeps, embroiled in Mitra knows what sort of internal affairs. Koth and Ophir have settled peaceably, for now, and the Shemite cities of the meadowlands to the west dare not wage war on Uruk -- the city has such a command of the caravan routes they rely on that they can do little but submit to its dominance. This has left a good many career mercenaries out of work. And so they scurry here like rats, as if they can hear the clashing of swords in Uruk's arena from miles away.
Ah, the arena. I must admit, Pyrrhides, it is quite a sight when the weekly games are taking place. The roar of the crowd, the clamor of swords, the blood, the sweat -- it is an invigorating experience to watch the sport of combat that has been fostered here. And it is everything to Uruk culturally. It has a strange, almost pacifying effect on the unruly masses of the city. Everyone looks on rapt, exchanging coin for bets, drinking themselves blind, shouting slurs at fighters they do not favor. Perhaps, in the place of the bloody civil wars that have so often plagued Shem and its people, the barbarism of bloodsport might be an honorable alternative. Rarely does a fighter die on the sands -- typically, the matches only go to the first drawing of blood or serious wounding. You will probably think me a debauchee for my enjoyment of the games but you must allow an old man his guilty pleasures.
The culture of the arena is a peculiar one. Most of the combatants are not slaves which is often the case in other gladiatorial ventures, even those of Aquilonia's storied past. They are free men -- and women, too, yes -- that are brokered into the games by a pair of 'training houses' that have risen to prominence. The House of the Jackal seems to me to be the lesser house, though it is apparently the more storied in the city's relatively short history. This house was founded by one of the locals, a Shemite, in days forgotten. The Jackal has not fared well as of late. Its competitor, the House of the Lion, was apparently founded much later by some of our own countrymen from Aquilonia. It is no surprise that it is the superior house and has produced the most champions as of late -- we are a superior culture, after all.
Occasionally, you will see a slave fight in the games. These are never fodder for bloody farces, however. These are men that have debts to the city which must be paid to regain their freedom. Oh yes, Pyrrhides, Uruk's culture of slavery is also peculiar in its own way. It is not unlike other cultures, even our own, in some ways. The difference is that again, commerce is king in Uruk. Men who are charged with crimes by the city guard are often punished by way of heavy fines. If they cannot pay, they are put into indentured servitude. Those capable are sent to the arena to provide light entertainment, though it has been said that the present captain of the guard, a Nemedian named Valens, rose from slave to champion on its sands. Even a slave might rise to make a career from the spectacle of the games. Princely sums are earned by its great fighters. The nobility often sponsor combatants and resolve their political quarrels by proxy through bloodsport. I have even heard that, once, a Trade-Prince fought in the games against a political rival to the death. Both died upon one another's blades. Can you imagine such a thing happening in Aquilonia? Well, the king would certainly enjoy resolving his disputes in that way, no doubt.
I wish that I knew more of this city's history, in truth. It is a bizarre place and I can only ponder what circumstances shaped Uruk's culture. By all accounts, it is a young city -- much younger than most of the Shemite cities of the meadowlands to the west. In many ways, it is still forging its identity. There is a sense of possibility in the air, however, one that brings foreigners from all over the Thurian continent. Indeed, sometimes it seems that Shemites are in the minority in Uruk, so thick is it with men and women from all quarters. I have met a Stygian academic, a Zamoran thief, a burly and fierce woman of Vanaheim, a Turanian envoy, a fortune-teller from Iranistan, even a traveling merchant from distant Khitai in this place. I can only guess what will become of Uruk in the years ahead. Perhaps, in a thousand years, another scholar might be writing a letter to a friend musing over the origin of its ruins.
But if I were a younger man, Pyrrhides -- if I were young, and strong, and capable! Ah, the things I would do in such a place. But I am not young, and strong, and capable. I am old and I must rest. Give my love to my children in my stead. May Mitra guide you to wisdom, old friend.
Ever your friend,
Apollodorus of Tarantia,
written in the year 1301, After Atlantis.