How They Saved Nisibis
This is the story of Jacobus of Edessa, who came in his rough goat-skin and took his place amid the splendour of the Synod of Nicæa, more like a wild creature of the woods than a bishop.
Loath had he been to forego his hermit life among the Masian Mountains, where he had lived on wild herbs, nuts, and berries; his drink had been the torrent; his bed in summer the earth, with the leaves of the forest as a covert against the planets that strike and the blindness that comes of the light of the moon; but in winter, when the great cold which is the sister of death was abroad on the heights, he took shelter in a cave hewn out of the rock.
Amid the peace and gladness of that lonely life, his nearness to God brought him nearer to men, and most of all he loved the people of Nisibis, the city of his birth. Far below upon the plain, in the Land between the Rivers, it lay glittering within the strength of its triple brown walls; wide orchards and gardens and fruitful fields around it; and Mygdon, the blue river, flowing through the midst. Fair as it seemed in the beauty of youth, this was one of the ancient cities on the earth—as old as Nimrod; and Jacobus would stand on a cliff, gazing fondly down upon it, but he refused to be its bishop.
At last his reluctance was overcome by the words of an old gardener, who said to him: "Have I leave to speak? Lo, then, I have a lad, and when I bid him to keep the foxes from the vines, he answereth me, 'Master, I go a-fishing for thee in the pools of Mygdon;' and when I would have him among the orange-trees, 'Master,' he saith, 'there is need that I gather thee fuel for the pot.'" And as Jacobus smiled, "O servant of God," said the gardener, "what will it avail thee to pray in the mountain, if God would have thee for His work in the busy streets?" So Jacobus was made bishop; but he would not lay aside his hermit garb, "Lest," he said, "I should forget the hole of the pit whence I was digged;" and he continued to live as of old on meagre fare and scant sleep, and was ever ministering among his people.
When long years had passed since the great synod, the Emperor Constantine died. He was carried to the Byzantium he had built on the edges of two continents, and in his tomb they laid him in the porch of the Church of the Apostles. Thus did the Master of the World watch as a doorkeeper in the house of the holy fishermen.
While he lived the very shadow of his sword held the world in awe; now that the strong hand had turned to clay sedition spread among the troops of the empire, the worshippers of the sun rose in fury against the Christians, and Sapor, Sultan of Persia, took the field to recover his lost provinces.
The Land between the Rivers seemed an easy conquest and a rich spoil. Nisibis on the frontier barred the way. Twice he besieged it, and twice he was driven back. For the third attack his summons roused the depths of the East. A mighty array swept across the floating bridges of the Tigris—hordes of Tartar horsemen who used the lasso and scalping knife; hill-tribes of the Five Rivers who were armed with bamboo bows and crane-skin shields; Indian kings with troops of elephants bearing towers on their backs; long trains of engines of war. Scarcely visible in the clouds of white dust, legion followed legion to the clash of barbaric music.
The immense host closed with a multitude of women, slaves, servants, whole families with their children and their aged folk. It was a migration rather than a campaign, for these families were to be the first settlers in Nisibis when its champions had been impaled round the walls and its citizens driven with whips into exile. For miles around the clamour and tramp of that invasion sounded like the hoarse roar of the sea, heard far inland on a frosty night.
Lucilian was the Governor of Nisibis, but its real defender was the Bishop Jacobus. At the first news of the advance he assembled the inhabitants, distributed arrows, and manned the walls; and his voice rang through the city with the proud cheer of a valiant heart: "O you men of Nisibis, are not these the worshippers of the sun, whom you have driven once and yet again from your walls? They come a third time, and yet a third time will you blacken their faces. They will encompass you, and sit about the city like vultures about a camel fallen on the sand of the desert, but why should you fear? Stand fast, strike, laughing for joy, for the Lord God will give them into your hands, even He who made the sun. Quit you as mighty men, knowing that twice you cannot die and once you cannot miss. Who saith they are many and strong? Nay, if need be, your eyes shall be opened and you shall see the mountain, even Masius yonder, full of horses and chariots of fire."
Day and night Jacobus prayed, and Ephrem, the Syrian Deacon, went among the people, heartening them greatly. And the hosts of Sapor closed about Nisibis, and filled the gardens and orchards and the fields of rice and wheat. But when many days had passed, and the great war-engines were beaten back from the walls, and the elephants strove in vain to break down the gates with brazen rams, and fire and iron came like hail from the towers, Sapor turned the course of the river, thinking to reduce the city by thirst.
When that failed, for there were many wells, he cast earthen dikes about Mygdon, huge and high, and gathered his waters to a mighty head; and when the ripples began to run over the mounds, he loosened the waters. They burst in a booming flood upon Nisibis; the wall of sun-dried bricks rocked, and for the space of a hundred cubits it fell in a mass, but before the Persian hordes could mount to the assault there broke upon them wind and rain such as no man could withstand, and through the storm raced thunder and lightning, as it were horses and chariots of fire.
All that night the men of Nisibis stood with Jacobus and Ephrem in the wide breach, and behind them the citizens reared a new wall to the height of five cubits. At sunrise drums and cymbals sounded the onset, when suddenly upon the rampart appeared a stately form in the dazzle of the morning. It was Jacobus, golden-mitred and robed in episcopal purple. The barbaric music ceased, and dismay checked the assailants. For a moment the priests of the sun thought it had been the imperial spirit of Constantine himself come to the rescue of the city.
Once again the cymbals clashed amid the beating drums, and the heavy cavalry led the wild swarms to the breach; but the rushing waters had left unseen chasms which swallowed horse and man, and tracts of mud in which they floundered and sank. The dead became a bridge for the living, and still the hordes struggled on.
Then Jacobus ascended the watch-tower, and lifting his arms to heaven chanted in a loud voice—
and below, on the new wall, that cry was taken up by the warriors of Nisibis. Yet louder than the song and the tumult of the onset was heard a sound of hissing, as when the bee-keeper beside the hives hisses for his bees. And the zimb-fly heard it, and came out of the south. As he came, the earth was filled with his humming. He came as a little cloud, which spread and darkened the sun. In myriads he fell on the Persian, man and beast. Horses threw their riders and trampled down the dense ranks about them. Screaming with pain, the castled elephants cut their way with the scythes fastened to their trunks, turned upon each other, and died raging. An agonising rabble, unable to advance or to retreat, the forlorn hope of Sapor shrieked and perished under the dark cloud of the zimb-fly.
The sultan leaped from his high throne. "Death to thee, God of the Romans!" he cried, and bending his bow, shot an arrow into the heavens. Then he mounted the great Horse of the Sun and fled, leaving twenty thousand slain under the towers of Nisibis.
In that year Jacobus slept in Christ, and the city, weeping, buried him in his raiment of goat-skin; but Ephrem the Deacon lived to an old age white as the almond-blossom, and left many hymns and songs and glowing discourses, which may still be read in printed tomes of Latin, Greek, and Syriac. And though himself lowly of spirit, it was he who made the fair young daughter of the Governor of Edessa promise that never again should she enter a litter carried by slaves, for, said he, "The neck of man should bear no yoke save that of Christ."