The Prelude to The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue includes a recounting of the death of the prophet Daniel. For those of you who are a little rusty on your Old Testament, Daniel was taken into slavery as a child when the Babylonians invaded Palestine in the sixth century B.C. Daniel’s captivity in Babylonia lasted around 70 years, under the authority of four different rulers: Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus.
During his life, Daniel’s power as a prophet became renowned throughout the kingdom. Probably the best-known episode in Daniel’s life was how he survived the dreaded lions den. In the story, Daniel is thrown to a den of hungry lions after being accused of praying to the Hebrew God rather than to the king. Miraculously, Daniel survives when God sends an angel to shut the mouths of the lions.
[Daniel in the Lions Den by Briton Riviere]
When King Cyrus finally consented to let the Hebrews return to Judah, Daniel was too old for the journey so he remained in Babylonia for the remainder of his life. The death of Daniel occurred sometime near the end of the sixth century. According to the tradition, he died and was buried in Susa, a city located in what is now modern Iran, near its southwest border with Iraq.
There are various traditions about what happened to the body of Daniel. My character Victoria mentions a couple of these in Chapter 9…
“Susa is the traditional burial place for Daniel. There’s a shrine there and everything. But then there are other places that claim him as well. There’s also a tomb in Uzbekistan where they say the relics of his dead body continue to grow every year. But it’s all just folk tradition.”
[On the left, the tomb of Daniel in Uzbekistan; on the right, the tomb in Susa]
And since it is all “just folk tradition,” it is here that, as a writer, I find my open door.
In my version of the story, rather that remaining in Susa, the body of the prophet is moved in order to save it from Xerxes, the new king who has just come to power…
“Not long after Daniel’s death, the great Xerxes became king over Babylon. Xerxes did not know Daniel. Xerxes was also a proud and jealous king, believing that he himself was a god. When he learned of our wondrous tribute to Daniel, he became angry and determined to destroy it. However, his plans were discovered and a warning was sent to the faithful Hebrews living in Susa — the keepers of the tomb.
The decision was made to move the sarcophagus. They would take it west through Babylonia, then along the Old Silk Road route to Damascus, and from there to Jerusalem. They would return the prophet to his home.”
And what was this “Old Silk Road” exactly?
The Silk Road was a network of trade routes, which linked the eastern and western regions of the ancient world. The western portion of the road had its beginnings as the Persian Royal Road that ran from Susa to the Mediterranean Sea1. There was also an artery of the road that went west from the city Babylon to Damascus, skirting the northern border of the Syrian Desert. It’s here that the caravan transporting the body of the prophet gets lost in a terrible and fatal sandstorm.
As the Archangel Cassiel recounts…
“Several nights later a great sandstorm arose in the desert, obscuring the road and driving the caravan into the dark emptiness. When the winds subsided, they wandered, trying to find their way back, but it was no use. First their animals died. Then, thirsty and bleeding form the wounds inflicted by the sand, they themselves fell dead as well.
They left the sarcophagus, along with their journal, describing their journey. They also left a note to whoever should find the prophet’s body — that they be given wisdom in what to do.
Thus, the table is set for the novel to begin. As Cassiel goes on to say, “As is the nature of prophets, dead or alive, quiet is something that only lasts a season.”
1. Joshua J. Mark, “Silk Road,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified March 28, 2014, http://www.ancient.eu/Silk_Road/.