Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 10)

Chapter 17 
Algiers. 20th February 1633

Catherine was puzzled by the sudden summons from Ali Bitchnin. She was pensive as she left the harem and walked the short distance along the link corridor towards the exit to the inner courtyard. Outside she immediately noticed the fine carriage being held by the stablehands and saw Ali Bitchnin and another man seated in deep conversation. Unusually, Murad Corbasi was also present. On her approach Ali Bitchnin seemed agitated but indicated for her to sit near him. The men stopped talking and for an eternity they all sat in silence.
Presently an elderly cadi arrived and handed Bitchnin three pieces of paper. He checked them over carefully and handed one to Catherine and one to the other man. Catherine looked at the page but apart from Ali Bitchnin’s stylised monogram she was unable to read the Turkish script. “That is your jeskenet. I will arrange for an Italian transcript later.” Ali Bitchnin was very curt.
“What is a jeskenet?” Catherine was nervous. She looked over at Murad but he said nothing. 
Ali Bitchnin continued pointing to his visitor. “Surgeon Cullen, may I present Signor Job Martino from Livorno. He has just arranged your redemption. The jeskenet is your certificate of release from my bano. You are free to leave us here in Algiers.”
Catherine was stunned. Although a captive, Ali Bitchnin had never made her feel like a slave before, something to be bartered and sold. This Martino reminded her of a bull frog that had just left the water such was his perspiration and appearance. “My release to go where? To whom?” The questions she needed to ask tumbled out. “Who has paid for this Signor Martino? Am I free or have I been sold as a slave? What if I refuse?” 
Catherine stopped as Ali Bitchnin suddenly got up to leave. She thought she could see a flash of sadness in his eyes as he spoke to her. “Martino here will explain the arrangement. You are entitled to appeal the sale to the cadi here, but you would be wise not to refuse, as the opportunity will not likely come again. I will talk to you again later.” With that, Ali Bitchnin and the elderly judge left.
Martino turned to her and spoke in a rasping voice. “Surgeon Cullen, your full redemption has been paid for by the Sultana Valide Kosem, mother of Sultan Murad IV. This was an offer from Constantinople that Ali Bitchnin could not refuse. He has been well rewarded for your services.”
Catherine stared down at the paper and could only watch as her trembling fingers left it drift to the floor. “What are the conditions?”
Martino leant forward with difficulty and picked it up. “You are invited to enter the service of the Valide as a freewoman. You will contract your skills for four years and then you may leave Constantinople.”
Catherine was angry and spat back at him. “In three years I should be able to pay my own redemption here. Where is the advantage?”
Martino shifted uncomfortably and looked over at the corbasi who was pacing the yard. “The Valide has also arranged that Dom Djivo Slavujovic will be brought to Constantinople at that time where he will be fully redeemed and allowed to join you in freedom. If you agree to the contract it is also arranged that he will become part of Bitchnin’s bano rather than the Dey’s. This we have agreed with the Dey and it will ensure his safety for those years. We are aware of your growing attachment.” Martino paused for a moment and took the opportunity to hand the paper back to Catherine. He then stood up abruptly. “I have been instructed to tell you that the alternative to this arrangement is a return to the galleys for your Ragusan friend.”
Catherine thought about her growing love for Djivo. The last year had awoken emotions she had always suppressed and now to her great surprise could not think of a day without looking forward to seeing him. “That is not a choice. I will not appeal the arrangement. When do I have to leave?”
Martino visibly relaxed at her response and wiped some of the sweat from his forehead. This had been his most important commission and now that it appeared to be successful, the thoughts of future profits from similar arrangements made him lick his lips. Catherine fully expected his tongue to start pulling the hovering flies from the air. “In two days time, once my ship is loaded and my other business done. I will send my carriage for you then. Be ready.”
Martino then left stopping briefly to talk to Murad Corbasi. Catherine sat there fiddling with the paper and rocking back and forth. She did not notice him approach. “You made the right choice.” 
Catherine looked up at him. “I did not really have one Murad Corbasi, did I? What is your role in all this? ”
Murad took Catherine’s arm and walked with her towards the centre of the courtyard away from hidden ears in the partitions behind the divan. “Very astute, Signora Cullen. Very little escapes your notice.”
“And why use Martino? I find him offensive.” Catherine was increasingly angry at the morning’s events and her helplessness in controlling her own destiny. 
Murad Corbasi stopped walking and had a careful look around the courtyard before continuing, “I was taken into the devshirme from the country of Montenegro. As you might be aware people call me Black Murad because of my colouring. My father was a hill bandit and my mother a black Christian Ethiopian slave bought from the pirates nest established at Ulcinj by the Bey of Algiers in 1571. Selected for the Imperial School, I was seconded to the household of the Sultana Kosem and somehow attracted her favour. The Valide Sultana is a patron of the Bektashi deverish sect and as most Janissaries are also Bektashi she is our greatest defender. She has been my personal sponsor and at her request I was sent with my troop from the 99th Cemaat division to support the ocak here and to gain further experience particularly in marine engagements. Thus it was I who brought your skills to her attention.”
Catherine was surprised at this revelation. 
Murad smiled as he turned to look at her. “As Murat Reis has probably already told you the Janissary force here in Algiers has all but broken away from control by Constantinople and formed its own ocak or regiment. There is an independent Divan and the Dey is elected by its own officers. However following the Janissary riots of November 1631 in Constantinople when the Grand Vizier, Grand Mufti and fifteen of the Sultan’s advisers were ripped apart by the soldiers, Murad IV has reaped his revenge and killed about twenty thousand of the mutineers. Sultan Murad has also banned tobacco, coffee and boza - the favourite drink of the soldiers in the city.” Murad paused for a moment and once again looked around the courtyard. “The Janissary council here realises that if the Sultan so wished he could turn his attentions on Algiers so they are more than willing to accommodate. If I had approached the Dey directly, even in the small matter of acquiring a slave, the sensitivity over possible interference might have created tensions. The Valide Sultana commissioned Martino to negotiate with Ali Bitchnin and to make a satisfactory financial arrangement before he revealed the source of the money.”
Catherine bristled at the reference to being a slave but her mood relaxed a little as she appreciated Murad’s candour. He noticed this and continued his explanation. “You are to be honoured by an appointment to a woman’s hospital and also to attend the harem of the Imperial Palace. By now there are nearly seven hundred women in the serai and your surgical expertise is required for their care as well as their children. In addition the Valide has picked two women for apprenticeship to you for the four years. It will be your duty to train them.”
Despite Catherine's reservations about how it had come about she felt a strange sense of wonderment and expectation at the opportunity afforded to few westerners. ‘Constantinople. The city of gold,’ she dwelt on this thought momentarily until an image of Djivo interrupted it. She needed to find him. “I must go Murad. Do you know where I might find Djivo Slavujovic?”
Murad smiled. “He is working near the Mosque at present. I will arrange for him to meet you later at the villa of Murat Reis. He may spend the night with you. I will clear the arrangement with the bano commander.”
Catherine stuttered. “Thh . . . thank you Murad Corbasi. Is there any news of Murat?” The Janissary officer had already begun to leave the courtyard but he stopped and turned back to look at Catherine. “No, except that he is still alive.” Murad smiled again. “By the way, do not worry about Martino. I will be travelling to Constantinople with you. I have been promoted to Aga of the Bursa orta. Think of me as your shaykh or guide in your voyage of discovery.”

Chapter 18 
Algiers. 20th February 1633

Once the meal had ended Catherine was led to the guest quarters of Murat Reis’s villa. She tried to protest but Su`da, the Dutchman’s wife would have none of it and giggling like a schoolgirl conspirator helped wash and comb Catherine’s hair before presenting her with the most beautiful embroidered silk gown. In the room the low bed was covered with its winter furs and she sat on its edge feeling their warmth. She could hear movement outside and then with great ceremony and much mirth Su`da came in with a pair of slippers which she placed at the end of the bed. She then withdrew laughing quietly to herself.
After what seemed an eternity to Catherine, Djivo entered, the passageway light casting his shadow across the floor to meet her. While watching her watch him he slowly removed his robes and washed his hands and feet. Finishing he held a towel about his waist and shivered slightly in the cold night air as he walked towards her. She laughed at his nervousness and picking up one of the slippers threw it at him. “Serves you right for preening about like a shorn goat.” 
He plucked it out of the air and dropped it to the floor. “And you my darling look like a goddess.” Djivo dropped the towel and sat down beside her.
Catherine flushed at the compliment as she could feel his warmth beside her. When he finally reached out to touch her she felt all previous restraint evaporate and her passion ignite explosively. It flamed as he lifted her gown over her head and keeping her arms aloft ran his hands down from her finger tips, gently and slowly, to touch every part of her by now quivering body. He then kissed her soul and the two joined first in the instinctive animal passion of mating but soon again in the mutual exploration of each other’s pleasure. Many days later Catherine tried to remember the moments but could not isolate one crescendo from another, fused as they were in an exhausting finale. They did not speak apart from calling each other’s name and sleep soon enveloped them both.

The light of the next morning’s sunrise filtered into the room and both stirred lazily before disentangling. After rising to wash and perform their ablutions they once again returned to their lovemaking, this time like two tiger cubs playing in the long grass. Later still when sitting back on the bed, Djivo told Catherine all about his life and how he had finally come to be in the galley. He briefly outlined his mission from the Order and the significance of the Scrolls. He had planned on telling her more but was afraid that it might place her in danger. 
Catherine realised that he was being cautious about something but said nothing. She then told him of her own life including the relationship with Boyle, back in Ireland and also of what had had to do more recently when she realised she was pregnant following the rape. 
Djivo held her tightly. “I wondered about that. What happened?”
Catherine moved away slightly so she could watch his face as she spoke. “About a week after the bleeding was finished I developed a fever and began bleeding again. Only for the skill of Suarez I might have died.” She paused for a second, tears welling in her eyes. “Because of the caustics he used to stem the flow it is unlikely that I will able to bear children in the future.”
Djivo leant over and gently kissed away the first tears tracking down across her cheek. “That will never be an issue between us Katerina. My brother Stefan has more than enough progeny to ensure the survival of the Slavujovic clan. If we have each other, my darling, it would be more than I dared hope.” Djivo stopped briefly to push the dampened hair away from her face. “My heart has longed for the love that I feel for you, and the beginning and end of that love will always be you. Nothing else matters and whether we die old or tomorrow it will only beat its rhythm to your drum.” Djivo then leant over to caress Catherine’s breast. 
She pushed his hand away gently. “Stop for a moment. I want to organise some food. I have regained an appetite I had lost, in more ways than one.” Catherine laughed as she got up. Putting on the embroidered gown she left the room and could be heard talking with Chico’s servant in the courtyard. As she returned to the room she paused in the doorway, watching him before slowly moving her hand until it was held close against her knee. 
Djivo glanced up at that moment and she saw that he had noticed. The shocked expression on his face said it all. “How do you know the signal of recognition?” 
Catherine joined him at the bedside. She held her finger up to his mouth until the servant she had organised to bring in some food had left. Both were ravenous and little was said again until they finished. Catherine was the first to speak. “There are very few female masons as indeed there are few female surgeons. The Guild of Barber-Surgeons in Dublin, the Guild of Saint Mary Magdelene, also functions as a Lodge. That is how I first met Boyle, although I am very low in the ranking.”
Djivo studied her for a moment. “Why did you decide to test me?”
Catherine shivered in the chill February morning air. “I guessed you were holding something back and I wanted no secrets between us, either personal or because of oaths. In any event I feel somehow that our meeting was pre-ordained.”
Djivo leant forward and wrapping her in a sable shawl, kissed her again. “You are right - our being together is no accident.”
Catherine was disturbed by Djivo’s matter of fact acknowledgement. “What do you mean?”
Djivo settled her back against the pillows and pulled the furs around her. He remained seated at the edge of the bed and with almost palpable relief then began telling her of his quest. “We, and by that I mean you and me, as initiates of the Scottish Rite are supposed to be the modern inheritors of a world order that has existed in some form or other since time immemorial. Freemasonry has its origins in the discovery of ancient and sacred histories which were found hidden in the vaults beneath the site of the old Temple in Jerusalem in 1120 by the founders of the Templar Order. The discovery was apparently no accident as the founding Knights had deliberately set about establishing the Order’s headquarters in Herod’s former stables. This then allowed them to begin excavating in secret beneath the old Temple walls. Their primary purpose in digging however, was not - as many generations have supposed - to recover the treasure stored there by the Jews before the Romans destroyed the Temple but ancient copper scrolls and other parchments which purported to document the relationship of mankind and God from the beginning of time. Nobody apparently knows how the Templar Knights came to know of the existence of the treasure and these Scrolls but the secret degrees of Freemasonry are apparently a map to understanding their provenance.”
Catherine frowned - aware now that her own level of initiation was restricted. 
Djivo noticed. “For this reason the President of the Council of the Sant’Iago order ensured I was initiated into a degree of masonry which would provide a starting point for my search. The rituals involved implied that there continued to exist pockets of men of priestly virtue who had kept their faith pure throughout the centuries of time and who were instructed in the great secrets and knowledge of the past. Furthermore the ritual of the Perfect Lodge suggested that some of these priests had accompanied the First Crusade to help regain Jerusalem and had initiated some select Knights - those who subsequently became the original nine members of the Templar Order - into the ancient ways of secret lodges. Thus the rebirth of Freemasonry in the West. I reasoned from all of the available information I had access to, that the most likely guardians of these secrets would have to have been some form of priestly or monastic Jewish cult who had remained isolated from Judea and thus Roman persecution. If I could prove that such a cult still existed I might then be able to get a lead to the Scrolls.” 
Catherine watched as Djivo stood up and walked across the room to the window. He began to close the shutters. 
“I, in all reality Katerina, did not know where to start. By chance, shortly after my masonic initiation in Naples, I had to travel to Sicily to investigate quarries that might produce suitable stone for our work in Naples. I was accompanied there by a certain Captain Alonzo de Contreras, a Knight of Saint John and recently Governor of the Island of Pantanalea. He regaled us with barely believable stories of his numerous exploits. My other companion was an engineer called Gever de Triana who was also an Arabic scholar, and who acted as our interpreter. Throughout our travels in the regions of Calabria and Sicily I kept hearing about the golden age of Roger II de Hautville, King of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. This King Roger was renowned for his wisdom and most of all his religious tolerance.”
Catherine patted the side of the bed indicating for Djivo to sit down again. 
“This, needless to say, was a most unusual trait for a Christian King of his era, particularly given the ferocity of the war waged by his uncle Robert Guiscard and father Roger, the first Count of Sicily to defeat the Arab and Berber tribes of Sicily, and the subsequent barbaric deeds perpetrated by their fellow Normans in exterminating Jews and Muslims in the cities of the Holy Land, during the First Crusade. I was intrigued about the circumstances that might have led to this enlightened and almost spiritual leadership so soon after those bloody conquests. This and all we had heard prompted me to search for more information on the Norman king. By accident we stumbled upon some writings of his, in the archives of the sacristy of the Cappella Palatina on the first floor of the Palazzo Reale. These again were a most unusual finding as given the fact that most Knights of the time were probably illiterate, Roger II had the apparent facility to write in Greek, Latin and Arabic as well as Italian and Norman French. In one of the documents Gever found that Roger refers to a friend of his father, one Geoffroy de Montescaglioso also known as Geoffroy Bise, who had fought with the Count when he removed the Arabs from Noto in 1091.” Djivo looked at Catherine to see if there was any reaction and when none was obvious continued his story. “This hit me like a thunderbolt. Was this the same Geoffroy Bise whom I knew to have been one of the nine founder Knights of the Templars? Something must have happened in Sicily that influenced Roger II and his father’s friend Geoffroy Bise to establish an enlightened regime in Sicily and yet encourage the continuation of the Holy War further afield. Were they trying to protect their interests in Sicily by encouraging Pope Urban’s call to arms and the subsequent crusade to rid the Holy Land of the Seljuk and the threat to Sicily? Unfortunately there were no further clues to this but of more interest Roger II’s writings kept mentioning the name of a man whom Geoffroy Bise and his mother Adelaide had arranged to be his tutor when they moved the seat of Norman rule from Messina to Palermo after the death of Roger’s father when he was only six years of age. The tutor’s name was Benjamin al-Ukbari and he was a Jew from Djerba - an island off the coast of Tunisia. This provided the second fortunate coincidence for my search as the Sant’Iago order had already established that the Scrolls had been kept at one time on that very island. My excitement was enormous but I needed to establish the connection.”

Panel in Church of Santa Mari dell'Ammiraglio, Palermo, Sicily
 showing George of Antioch

Djivo stopped for a second and leaning over squeezed Catherine’s hand. “As chance would have it the Jewish quarter in Palermo is very close to the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio. Interestingly, the church which had been built by Roger II’s admiral George of Antioch - the man who created a brief North African empire in eastern Tunisia for his King - had a mosaic which showed King Roger being crowned directly by Christ and not by the Pope, whose blessing was normally represented. I learnt that most of the people in the quarter were descendants of Jews who had emigrated from Tunisia during the time of the brief Norman occupation. As I walked, one day, down its central street I approached a group of old men and asked if anyone who could tell me more of the life of Benjamin al-Ukbari. They were polite but gave no information.
That same evening I had a visitor to my lodgings. He was a very old man, nearly blind from cataracts, and accompanied by a small boy who showed him the way. He wore a white hooded cloak. and introduced himself as Jacob ben Moses Erridah. After greeting Gever and de Contreras in Spanish he spoke to me in Venetian. Now very few people speak Venetian, least of all in Sicily where the Genovese had more influence but he indicated that he knew I was a Ragusan and would understand. He asked that Gever and de Contreras would take the small boy outside so that he could talk to me in private. I agreed and once alone, no more than with you tonight, he then gave me a secret sign.
I was flummoxed. I asked if he was Jewish and he said yes. I then asked him how he was aware of the secret acknowledgement and his story is so incredible that I still cannot fathom why I was entrusted with the information. I remember leading him to a cushioned bench near the window. Outside you could hear the light hearted voices of people returning from their evening stroll on the Marina. The peeling bellsounds of the many nearby churches seemed to vibrate for an unearthly time in the still night air. The old man Jacob settled himself and began his story.” Djivo hesitated and then moved up the bed to sit closer to Catherine. He wrapped one hand around her shoulders and she snuggled into his warmth.
“Go on Djivo, complete the whole story. It really is most interesting,” Catherine purred from beneath the furs.
He looked at her for a long time before pulling her even closer. “There are moments in one’s life like tonight and that night which, no matter what else transpires, will always remain etched in clarity. At the start I was only half listening to him, still puzzled by this old Jew’s knowledge of the secret signal. As if he could sense this, Jacob ben Moses Erridah asked me to sit down as well. I remember him talking my hand and tracing the palm lines before he spoke again, ‘Do you know that today is the 9th of Av, the holy day that most Jews observe as the anniversary of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples? It is also the anniversary of the fall of Bethar, the final battle of the revolt that Bar Kochba led against the Romans. Tomorrow is the day that I and my brothers observe but none the less it is still a day of great significance. My knowledge of the secret signal that you associate with the rites of what goyim call freemasonry, is a mark of the sequence of my identity and predates, by thousands of years, your own knowledge and current comprehension. However, I will explain. If you look to the east you can see the Palace dell Vittoria allo Spasimo. On the ground floor is situated the small church of Sancta Maria in one of whose chapels is the door through which Robert and Roger de Hautville entered the city in 1072. You will be surprised to learn that my ancestor acted as a dragoman or interpreter to Roger I, Count of Sicily.’ I become excited at the mention of King Roger’s father and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide it from Jacob.” ‘Your ancestor?’ I enquired. ‘Yes, Benjamin Al-Ukbari,' he continued. 'The man you asked about in the street today. That is why I am here. Not many Christians since the time of King Roger II have asked of him. I want to know why.' I felt by now completely at ease and did not hesitate to tell this old man of my quest and how I had found mention of his ancestors name in Roger II’s writings. When I finished my account, the old Jew said nothing for a while before whistling softly. ‘badonenu! ’ Jacob then continued . . .”
Djivo saw that Catherine looked puzzled. “Sorry Katerina I am probably going too fast. Badonenu is word of surprise used in the ghetto’s of Venice.”
Catherine shook her head. “No Djivo. Go on.”
“Well. Jacob explained that by the time Roger de Hautville, Count of Sicily, had captured Noto he had been joined by about one hundred and fifty knights from Apulia. One of those Knights was Geoffroy of Montescaglioso also known as Geoffroy Bise - a nickname which means ‘north wind’. He and Roger had become firm friends and when Geoffroy was injured in the attack he was put in Roger’s own headquarters and tended by a Jewish physician called Benjamin Al-Ukbari. This man was highly skilled and during Geoffroy’s recovery spent a great deal of time in conversations with both himself and Roger I. He let it be known that he was a senior member of the community of Hara Seghira or Erridah a number of whom had settled in Palermo about twenty years earlier. According to Jacob it was because of these conversations with Benjamin that Roger and Geoffroy became aware of the possible existence of a secret legacy buried beneath the site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and both made an oath to try and somehow recover them.”
Djivo shivered slightly and Catherine pulled another sable around them. “I was anxious that Jacob ben Moses would come to the point. La Magione was a Teutonic Order preceptory and I was unsure whether there were hidden ears in its thickly panelled walls. Although, as we continued to conduct the conversation in Venetian, I felt reasonably safe. ‘What do you mean by the community of Hara Seghira and what was their interest in the Temple?’ I asked of him. Old Jacob then gave an another signal which left me in no doubt that I was being sworn to secrecy.
‘Why me ?’ I enquired.
‘It is ordained. May I have some water?’
I got up and poured some water into a goblet from a cloth covered pitcher that lay on a nearby table. Jacob took a long draught before continuing-
‘About 500 years before the birth of Christ a small group of Jews escaped from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple of Soloman by the Babylonians. They were Jebusites –' ”
“What are Jebusites?” It was Catherine’s turn to ask the question.
Djivo thought for a moment. “Jacob told me that when David became King of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah he had to contend with the presence of the city state of Jerusalem right in the heart of his new Kingdom. The city was inhabited by the Jebusites a people of Caanite origin whose God was called El Elyon or God most high. The taking of the city was without bloodshed and the Judeans and Jebusites integrated. Indeed Zadok the chief priest of the Jebusites ultimately became the Chief Priest of the Temple of the Arc of the Covenant and all subsequent Chief Priests of Jerusalem have had to been able to trace their lineage to Zadok since then. There existed among the Jebusites a group of priestly initiates who were instructed in the secret and ancient knowledge that stretched back thousands of years. It was a group of these who were forced to flee Jerusalem from the Babylonians. I remember that Jacob became very intense at that point and began speaking in a much lower voice. Perhaps, he also was concerned about hidden ears. I had great difficulty in understanding him at first as he began to speak in Hebrew before realising my discomfort and switching back to Venetian, ‘This group of initiates were known as the ‘pious ones’ and traced the origin of their devotion to the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy in the Temple and Joshua’s enforcement of the rules contained within it. They travelled through Egypt and settled on the small island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia. They had also taken with them from Jerusalem the sacred histories of the Jewish people and they established in the centre of Djerba the Synagogue of El-Gharida and the community of Erridah. From its very beginning these priests rigidly applied the dictates of scripture. The community was only for celibate men and they had to undergo a series of secret purification’s, the tohorot. These initiations included most of the Jebusite tradition and others that had been developed by the Jews of Egypt, when they formed secret craft societies following the death of Joseph. These craft societies had both a practical and spiritual purpose designed to preserve a pure Jewish religious tradition undiluted by outside influences as well as a powerful and exclusive repository of the knowledge of human sciences. The community of Erridah and its practice of mitzvot or separation from society, was instrumental in the establishment of the Sadduces and more secret sects such as the Essenes and the Quamrans. Indeed it also has influenced our Islamic neighbours as Djerba is home of the extremely orthodox Kharijites’. Jacob then asked for more water at that stage. He seemed inordinately thirsty and I also noticed, as the night wore on, that the shakes in his hands were becoming much worse. When at one point some of the liquid spilt from the goblet as he brought it to his lips I, without thinking, dabbed it away. He smiled warmly at me, I remember, showing a mouth near empty of teeth. ‘Thank you Dom Djivo. My seventy years on this temporary journey will soon rattle to an end. Where was I? Oh yes - the community of Erridah. Since the sixth century of your calendar, Djerba has been the home of the amoraim and the guardian of the true cabbala. The elders as inheritors of the esoteric Jebusite tradition of yorede merkabah - the heavenly chariot ride - would, when it was deemed necessary at critical junctions in our history, in order to preserve the Jewish faith from external forces, ensure that gentiles were initiated into some of the ancient secrets. By exposing selected individuals to this knowledge and gently guiding them along the pathway to the Truth, our faith’s survival could be ensured. The development of other mystical societies such as your Freemasonry lodges and the tekkes of the Turks, were secretly encouraged to formalise the acquisition of the Knowledge among influential groups of individuals. Indeed the rituals of the turuq or organisations of Sufism are very similar to your mason’s rites. The founders of these secret societies would never know that they were being manipulated. The only requirement the ‘pious ones’ insisted on was a belief in the almighty and an acceptance that there was good and evil and that evil, the lot of Belial, could be marginalized. Once initiated into the knowledge each individual was permitted to find his own pathway to the Truth. In Sufism, for instance, the final degree of initiation of an individual’s path to ma’rifah - or self-knowledge - is known as arif bi llah which means ‘known by God’. You are now well along that pathway –' ”

Entrance to Palatine Chapel, Palazzo Reale,
Palermo, Sicily.

There was a sudden gust of wind and one of the shutters flew open. Djivo got up from the bed and went to close it. Outside he could hear the ‘kewick’ call of a young tawny owl. He lingered there for a while, listening, before returning to sit beside Catherine. “Jacob then went on to tell me that Benjamin Al-Ukbari, his ancestor and the man I had enquired about, was a nasi or prince of the karaite sect, the eighth century messianic movement whose founder Anan ben David had been initiated in the synagogue of El-Garida. He had apparently come to Djerba to seek out his spiritual home and once fully purified had been sent to Sicily to establish contact with the Norman invaders. The Jewish community recognised that their people faced increasing pressure to convert not only from the forces of Islam but now also from the militancy of Christendom. It was Benjamin who planted the seeds of a new order by telling Roger I, Count of Sicily and Geoffroy Bise of the treasure and secrets hidden by a group of Essenes beneath the Temple of Jerusalem before the Romans sacked the city about 70 years after the birth of Our Lord. It was also Benjamin who had initiated these Normans into to the ancient knowledge of the ‘great light of the day and the lesser light of the night’.”
Djivo shivered and Catherine once again pulled the fur covers around him. He snuggled closer before continuing, “Roger and Geoffroy shortly afterwards joined forces with Bohemond, Robert Guiscard’s disinherited son, to help suppress a revolt in Apulia. When Bohemond then joined the First Crusade he took many of Roger’s Knights with him including Geoffroy Bise. Roger and Benjamin, who by this time was the Count’s dragoman, returned to Sicily to consolidate the Norman dominion there. Bohemond was successful in capturing Antioch from the Turks and was still in that city when Jerusalem fell. He was unable, therefore, to prevent the massacre of its karaite inhabitants who were burnt alive with their rabbinical counterparts. Jacob told me that his people had a word for the majority of these blood thirsty Crusaders. They were known as to’im or misguided wanderers. Bohemond and Geoffroy, the ‘guided’ initiates, however soon made their pilgrimage to the Holy City to survey the Temple but as Bohemond was soon fully occupied governing Antioch, Geoffroy was delegated to seek out other Knights and initiate them. At the same time he sought permission to have these stationed on the Mount, ostensibly to guard pilgrims. Two of the earliest initiates were Hugues de Payen and Henri St Clair and when they returned to Europe, to drum up more support, Geoffroy stayed on in Jerusalem. Roger de Hautville in the meantime, before dying in 1101, had established in Messina a centralised efficient government for the island of Sicily. He had also ensured that Benjamin Al-Ukbari would become his young son’s tutor. This is the child who grew up to become Roger II and whose reign in Sicily was characterised by religious tolerance and learning and who from very modest beginnings became one of the most powerful political figures of his day. Although fully initiated by Benjamin he never went to Jerusalem as he felt his path to the Truth lay in Sicily. His influence however was not lost as his father’s friend Geoffroy arranged for Roger II’s widowed mother, Adelaide, to marry Baldwin I of Jerusalem. It was from the same Baldwin that Geoffroy Bise was trying to get permission to station his new Order of Knights on the Temple Mount. Roger II hoped to help Geoffroy by using his mother’s new position as Queen of Jerusalem to obtain it. The plan did not work however as Baldwin proceeded to spend all of his Adelaide’s dowry then divorced her on spurious grounds and had her returned to Sicily three years later.
It was only when Baldwin II succeeded his uncle, in 1118, as King of Jerusalem that permission was finally granted to Huges de Payen and Hugh of Champagne to establish the Templar Knights and have them stationed in Herod’s stables. This permission had been ensured by Roger II’s nephew Bohemond’s influence with Baldwin who had been the Count of Antioch’s neighbour Odessa before becoming King in Jerusalem. Over the next few years the founding members of the Templars, including Geoffroy Bise, excavated part of the Essene legacy in secret and it is that legacy that we - you and I, Katerina - have encountered in its Freemasonry dressing. I knew then that I was the latest link in the sequence of the Secret but was still hesitant. I remember trying to get old Jacob to elaborate some more about my own role and also about the Scrolls I had been searching for. He smiled indulgently at me. The way my father sometimes would, ‘Dom Djivo - you must find your own way to the Truth. I am just Uzzah the guide. The Scrolls you seek will shadow your destiny’. I remember feeling exhausted at that point, trying to digest all of the information. I did not understand the riddle he posed and said so, ‘What do you mean by Uzzah?’
Jacob I remember sighed indulgently. ‘Whenever the community of Erridah felt it necessary to intervene they would delegate an elder and senior initiate to make contact with the world. Uzzah was the son of Abinadad, a priestly Levite and descendant of Kohath, in whose house the Arc of the Covenant was kept before King David ordered its transfer to Jerusalem. On the journey the oxen pulling the cart stumbled and as the guide Uzzah put his hand out to stop the Arc from falling over God immediately struck him down for touching the Arc. We acknowledge this possibility as a community that in our efforts to distract the oppressors of our faith, our covenant with the Lord, it is equally likely that we may meet the same fate. The commonweal of the nation is far more important that the hurt of one individual. I am a guide and no more. The journey you must take’. Jacob suddenly got up at that point and was making to leave. I moved towards the door, aware that I was rudely blocking his exit. I felt ill at ease at the necessity to do so but it was important. ‘Moreno ben Moses, what of the Scrolls?’ I asked. He looked at me with tired eyes. ‘After Pilate’s brutal attack on the Samaritans at Mount Gerizim and his recall to Rome, and subsequent execution, by Gaius Caligula, one of his retinue, Marcus a nephew of Philo of Alexandria, had taken a number of megilloth or parchment scrolls from Pilate’s palace in Caesarea and made his way to Fostat. In year seventy of your Christian calendar at the sack of the Temple, despite what the Templars may have found, much of the Essene repository was rescued and taken via Fostat - the Cairo of today -to Djerba. There the sacred Pentateuch, the Aramacic Targum of the Prophets, the Targum Onkelos and the Scrolls that you seek, were stored in the synagogue of El-Ghriba. It is also said about the synagogue that one of the doors of the Temple of Soloman was rescued and incorporated into its structure. You know of the rest and what you have told me is accurate. My only advice to you is to think of our nasi’s island on your quest.’ - ”
Djivo lifted Catherine’s hand and placed against his forehead. “Jacob ben Moses then placed his hand on my forehead like this and spoke as if about to impart a blessing. ‘Do you know that El-Ghriba means the ‘God of strangers’. El was the God of Canaan whom we now call Yahweh. For you however the pathway to truth is linked with another. She is to be the true guardian of your destiny. A gift of the sea. I must go now. By the way be wary of the Spanish Captain, de Contreras’. ‘She - a woman, what do you . . .’ I stuttered. But before I could finish the question the old man had pushed passed me and finding the young boy waiting they left as silently as they came.”
Djivo had finished recounting the story and his head sagged. Catherine could feel his arm drift from her shoulders and she looked at him. He was watching her with tired eyes. “The woman he referred to, was obviously you Katerina. The morning after our meeting a package arrived for me. Opening it, I found a copy of al-Farabi’s De scientiis with an inscription from the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter Ten, Verses thirteen and fourteen on its inner leaf. There was no signature but beneath the verse, written in very ornate script was the single word, Asithane.”
Catherine felt a shiver race down her spine. All her life she was sure that her destiny was been shaped by forces unknown. “Asithane, what is that?”
Djivo looked eastwards towards the rising sun that now appeared in the veranda doorway. “It is the Persian for Constantinople, it means ‘House of State’. It is our destiny that we will next meet there. In the meantime I will be true to your memory and my love for you.”
At that moment - before Catherine could say anything more - a servant entered and informed Djivo that the corbasi was waiting outside for him. He robed quickly and left the room. After some minutes he returned and Catherine rose to meet him. “What is it Djivo?”
He embraced her. “I am also to depart Algiers. I am being sent to Constantine for my own safety and to work on the aqueduct there. I am to travel with the tax collectors. Immediately.”

With that Djivo dressed and after giving her one last - almost suffocating - kiss was gone. For some time after he had left, Catherine sat on the bed, rocking back and forth as she held one of the fur spreads close to her face. The scent of their lovemaking was everywhere. Su’da eventually came in and the two women held hands, sharing for a brief moment in time their mutual pain. “Su’da I will do everything I can to have Murat returned to you. That is my solemn promise.” 
The beautiful Moroccan girl’s tears fell freely as she embraced Catherine.

©R.Derham 2001,2009 

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