Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 11)

Chapter 19 
Smyrna, West Coast of Turkey. 27th May 1633

Martino’s ship lay at anchor in, what was called by English sailors, Pagg’s Hole. It was a sheltered harbour overlooked by the castle of Smyrna and all around the vessel the waters were busy with small tenders ferrying large bales of cotton from the shore. From her vantage point on the fore-castle Catherine could make out Pelican Point and beyond it Long Island and Partridge Island in the distance. The ship was already low in the water from the sherbaff of silk from Aleppo that they had loaded in Scanderoon, however this was to be the final port of call before making for the Mamara. It was also carrying pumice from Santorini and mastick gum and turpentine from Scio and whose fused scents filled the air with each agitating wave.
Scio, or Chios as the Greeks called it, was only a short distance away but it had taken them nearly two days because of unfavourable winds to reach Smyrna. To Catherine while they were anchored there, the harbour of Chios had appeared like the cross-roads of the world as also anchored inside the Diamond was the great fleet of the Kapudan Pasha of the Sultan’s navy beginning its annual tribute tour. Murad Corbasi had pointed out with pride the Royal Galley and twenty others from Constantinople. There were also nine galleys from the Rhodes squadron, and others supplied by the Governors of Cyprus, Alexandria, Tripoli, Nauplia, Negropont, Caballa, Damietta, Bizerta, Mytiline as well as the three from Chios itself. The spectacle of the fleet’s departure for Negropont was something that Catherine would always remember. Murad had said that the fleet would be joined by other ships from Tangier and Algiers once it left the Archipelago. 
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by someone calling her name and she turned to see four men hailing her from the main-deck. She descended the ladder to greet them. Of the four she did not recognise one was dressed in the garb of an English cleric. The smallest of the three men, bent by the rigors of extreme age yet with a voice as strong as his younger companions, beckoned her to where they stood. She made her way towards them, dodging on the way some sailors portaging provisions for the galley.
“Surgeon Cullen, this is the Reverend Edward Pococke, Fellow of Corpus Christi College in Oxford and Chaplain to the English Levant Company in Aleppo. I will be returning with him there and thus our paths must now diverge. I have come to say my farewells.” Both Catherine and the priest seemed surprised by the introduction and eyed each other suspiciously before cautiously leaning forward to shake hands. “Pococke is one of the many reasons that I undertook this journey as I have been asked to instruct him in the history, philosophy and teachings of our beliefs. Currently many of our own northern rabbis are erroneously propagating a dangerous interpretation of the powers of Cabbalistic knowledge and this will only serve to alienate, eventually, our few allies. It is my duty to try and correct some of these tendencies by instructing people like Pococke. With the development of the printed presses our ability to directly influence individuals in power by becoming personal translators, teachers and doctors is lessening. Because of this we, as a community, now have to try and reach a far wider and more dispersed audience. Towards this end seek out sympathetic gentile individuals whose learning and writing will be seen as more acceptable. This clergyman Pococke is probably the most erudite man of his generation.”
At this compliment the English priest grew embarrassed. Catherine however was dismayed. “But Rabbi Jacob I also have much to learn.”
Jacob ben Moses, Uzzah of the El-Gharida community took her hand. “That is not true. In our discussions, you have been like a sponge and there is little of the Path that you remain ignorant of. The remainder of the journey is yours to take. My duty to you is complete.” The old man was fixing her with his child’s eyes. “Do you want Pococke to contact your family?”
Catherine realised that the answer to the question would probably be the defining cross-road of her life. Jacob was testing her and she needed to think carefully. An image of Djivo flashed before her and at that moment she also knew she did not have to think at all. Her eyes drifted briefly towards the west, before coming back to focus on Jacob. “No, it would only cause further misery. My destiny is now in the Levant. I am happy to continue the discovery. I will write a letter on reaching Constantinople.”
Jacob ben Moses came and embraced her. He turned to the English chaplain and asked him to give them a few moments of privacy. Pococke withdrew and Jacob fixed Catherine with his intense eyes. Thanks to her expertise they were now free of cataracts. “Binti, you are a true daughter of the Path, and your life will be long and of true consequence. The duat of the eastern horizon will determine your destiny and El will guide its celestial provenance. Always remember that the mysteries and secrets of the Cabbal, that I have initiated you into, are no more than a framework of ancient knowledge, left behind by others who have trodden the same road as you. In turn you will also contribute and others will benefit. Do you understand?” 
Catherine nodded her head slowly. 
Jacob then squeezed her hand tightly. “There is something else that you can do for me. The community understands that in addition to the Scrolls that you seek, the only surviving copy of Manetho’s Egyptian History are in the hands of the same person. We are anxious to recover this and require your help.”
Catherine relaxed somewhat anxious to help. “Manetho, who was he?”
Jacob continued, “An Egyptian priest, fluent in Greek, employed by King Ptolemy II Philadelphus to translate the ancient historical hieroglyphic records in the temples. Although he was very antagonistic to Jews his parchment account of the time of the Pharaohs Ramses II and Merenpath and the exodus of the people of Israel is a crucial link in our understanding of our past and our future. We are very anxious to recover it. Will you help?” Catherine nodded. Joseph drew out a package from under his cape and pressed it into her hand. “You will always know when to loosen the shackles of your Path. As the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, remarked ‘My companions are like the stars; whichever of them you follow will guide you.’ That thought and this book are my final gifts for you. Farewell.”
Catherine was slightly bewildered by the Rabbi’s Islamic reference but watched silently as the old man gingerly made his way to join the two younger men and the other older man who stood beside them. He suddenly stopped as if remembering something he ought to have said. Catherine moved to join him. “What is it Rabbi Jacob?”
The old man pulled at his beard. “Pococke the English cleric. . .” he paused. 
Catherine glanced to where the pale priest was standing by the gunwale. “What of him?” She saw that he was making his way towards them.
“You will meet up with Pococke again in Constantinople. He has an academic’s insatiable lust for old manuscripts and part of his future destiny, although unaware of it yet, is to search for those that you seek also. Make use of the contact.”
Pococke and the younger man then joined them and led Jacob to the gunwale and helped him carefully climb down into one of the empty shorebound tenders. She looked then at the book he had given her, a Latin edition of Maimonede’s Guide for the Perplexed, and as she moved her finger along its spine she thought of the day when Jacob ben Moses had entered her life.

The departure from Algiers had been painful. She had waited until the last possible moment on the mole. After the signal gun of Martino’s ship had been discharged she said her farewells to Ali Bitchnin and Suarez and accompanied by Murad was ferried to the ship. With a favourable wind and current they soon cleared the roads of Algiers and its white walls faded all too fast. The intention was to make directly for Alexandria and she was surprised when coming on deck one morning to find the ship dropping anchor just outside a small harbour. She thought it an eerie place. There was no town and although the harbour was big enough for six or seven galleys, there were none to be seen. Indeed even the large tower commanding the harbour appeared deserted. She sought out the corbasi. “Murad Corbasi, what is happening? Why are we anchoring in this place?”
The Janissary was watching the sailors hoist the longboat from its recess on the maindeck and drop it over the side. “This is the island of Lampadosa. We are taking on fresh water and meat, and it seems we will be picking up a passenger.”
Catherine continued staring at the harbour. “But it looks deserted. What passenger would wait here?”
Murad was already climbing over the side. He looked back up at her. “I do not know but come and we will find out. I am as intrigued as you appear to be.”

On rowing into the harbour and landing on its small slip- way, she followed Martino, Murad and two sailors as they crossed the sandy foreshore and headed inland. As they walked she was astounded by the number of turtles on the shore and she saw some of the other sailors gathering them up and loading them alive into the longboat, where they were turned on their backs. They were to be the fresh meat for the ship.
The land was flat and only the dense shrubbery made the walk difficult. After a short time they came to the mouth of a cave and on entering it she was astonished to see a small altar surmounted by a wooden slab on which an image of the Virgin and Child was painted. On the altar and floor around it were offerings of bacon, oil, wine and even some money. Murad noticed her surprise and joined her. “This cave, according to Martino, is a sanctuary for shipwrecked sailors and runaway slaves. Both Christian and Turk will hide out here, sustained by these offerings, until one of their own ships anchors. Further down the cave is the grave of a Muslim saint, and so it is a refuge for all faiths. Nothing is ever taken from the cave and miraculously that lamp on the Virgin’s altar always remains lit. . .”
His whispered words stopped suddenly with the emergence of two figures from the shadows. One was a young man of nineteen or twenty and he was helping another of very great age. Martino was rushing forward to greet them warmly. After a brief moment they all retreated out of the cave and into the bright sunlight. Martino was sweating - even more than normal. “Rabbi, it is so wonderful to see you.”
The old man nodded, dismissing the Italian Jew’s exuberance and coming to where Catherine and Murad stood. He greeted Murad in Arabic and Catherine in English before continuing in Italian. “My students, it is good to meet you.” 
Both were taken aback and almost simultaneously asked. “Your students, what do you mean ? Who are you ?”
The old man, took her hands in his and Catherine was surprised by their coolness and strength in somebody who looked so frail. “I am sorry. My name is Jacob ben Moses, I am from the nearby island of Djerba. This meeting is part of all our destinies. I am sure Dom Djivo mentioned me.” Catherine slowly nodded her head, no longer surprised. 
They then all returned to ship to continue the journey. And what a journey it was. In the weeks that followed both onboard and in the ports of Alexandria, Tyre, Scanderoon and Rhodes, Jacob ben Moses had spent endless hours with both of them, together and as individuals, instructing, questioning, educating and imparting a breath of ancient knowledge that she had never realised existed. It was obvious that the Corbasi’s Path was to be different and it appeared that hers was to be far more mystical. She had observed only yesterday, by invitation, Rabbi Jacob presenting a cloak or khirqa to Murad. Hers would come at a different time, he had said.

Now it was ended and as the tender drew away bearing Rabbi Jacob and the Reverend Pococke and the fourth man to the docks of Smyrna, her very soul ached for his continued wisdom. She saw too that there was almost a tear in the eye of Murad Corbasi, who was also watching the departure. Such was their, by now, shared experience he did not attempt to hide it from her. She moved to join him. “Murad. Who was the other older man? Rabbi Joseph did not care to introduce him.”
Murad’s face burst into a smile and he laughed. “His name is Franceso Luppazzoli, the Lonewolf. He is the Venetian bailio in Smyrna. He has been here forever and is rumoured to have had at least five wives and a score of children. In addition it is also said he has fathered about a hundred bastards. I do not think that Rabbi Joseph approves but the English priest and himself are guests in the Venetian’s house.”
The ship’s cannon roared and Catherine could hear the capstan engaging the anchor chain. “Finally, ” she shouted.  “We are making for Constantinople. ”

Chapter 20 
Constantinople. June 12th 1633

It was nearly sunset when Martino’s ship finally rounded the Seraglio Point to enter the Golden Horn and the very busy outer harbour that lay between Galata and the city of Constantinople. Catherine could feel the boat shudder as its two bow anchors scraped along the bottom before finally holding fast. This caused the ship’s stern to swing slowly with the flood-tide towards the Arsenal. A small tender drew alongside and Catherine could make out the liman reis of the port telling Martino that he could land his cargo at the Custom House in the morning but that nobody was to disembark that night. As Catherine watched the tender pulling away she rubbed her eyes and her thoughts drifted back over the last part of her journey. She murmured quietly to herself. “Be patient. Only one more night.”

It had taken longer than expected to enter the sea of Mamara for the final stage of the journey to Constantinople. After leaving Smyrna their ship had lost the favourable wind and it had been nearly four days before they rounded Janissary Point to enter the Hellespont. Catherine had been very surprised by the amount of sea-traffic that hitched the currents on either shore and it took a great deal of manoeuvring to enable them to reach the narrows between the imposing castles of Sultaniye Kale and the Kilitbahir Kale. Here they had remained anchored in the harbour for three days compulsory quarantine and inspection of their goods. Neither presents from Martino or the sulky irritation of Murad Corbasi would hurry the port official’s bureaucracy.
After being allowed leave the quarantine harbour - and avoiding the dangerous rocks marked by the lighthouse near Gelibolu - they eventually entered the Mamara Sea proper. As Martino pointed his ship close to the island of Mamara Adasi, Murad had pointed out the galleys loading cut stone for the ceaseless building work going on in Constantinople. From there they had made for Rodosto where some of their merchandise was unloaded. 
Martino appeared to be in his element in this unusual city of synagogues, lording his sea-borne prosperity over his shore-based exiled Andulasian fellow believers. Finally they had entered the Bosphorous but appeared despite a favourable wind to reach an impasse just before the Seraglio Point. Catherine had been amazed to see ships with full following winds coming from both directions suddenly lose their momentum. It had taken many hours to navigate the last half mile but it had given her all the opportunity to marvel at the city’s imposing and beautiful presence.
The cacophony of noise emanating from the hundred minarets of the west bank and the Christian bells of the east bank carried on the still evening air. All around them there was tremendous activity on the water as numerous small craft darted across the waves. The Greek caramusals and caiques with grain, the gebes with sheep and the many tartans, frigates and Genovese polaccas arriving with their full holds to feed the insatiable appetites of this the world’s most glutinous city.
Everywhere was evidence of the city’s ordinary inhabitants winding down the day’s business. For some like the fishermen who were being collected from their hazardous pole perches - where they had watched for shoals of fish - today had been no different from any other. A better catch perhaps but then there would be lean days. What was important was survival and duty. On the Galata shore the karatia nets were been withdrawn by their long yards into the houses. One of the Greek boats - free of all taxes as a result of their ancestors’ services to Mohammed the Conqueror - was landing a dolphin caught among the islands. Tomorrow it would become the Sultan’s medicine.
Small ferries powered by between four and eight perspiring oarsmen - not all free to bargain their labour - were returning many of Galata’s foreign residents at the end of that day’s struggle with the multitudinous layers of official Ottoman bureaucracy. The obvious frustration was etched in some of their faces. Other boats and oarsmen were straining against the fast flowing Bosphorous to make their way to Scutari on the Asian side. These ferries had mainly Turkish passengers and the heavily jewelled turbans of some of them sparkled in the last embers of the dying sun.

Her thoughts were interrupted when one of the ship’s crew, who was busily belaying a loose halyard near to where Catherine was standing, excitedly pointed out to her the boat of the chief of the Imperial ice-porters as it made its way filled with compacted snow from the Anatolian highlands. This was destined - the sailor went on to inform her - for the palace kitchen. Catherine remained there watching for some time before retiring to her cot. With the night closing in fast a slight breeze got up to cool the air and by the time the muezzins had completed the asha’ prayers the minarets and the city had became strangely silent. What noise there was - apart from the creaks of the ship’s timbers beneath Catherine’s cot - came from the distant occasional barking of disturbed dogs and from agitated animals on late arriving boats. Near midnight however there was a loud cannon roar and Catherine - who had not in any event been able to sleep - came back up on deck to find Murad staring at the city’s glittering lights. “What was that cannon for Murad?” Catherine enquired in a quiet voice as she joined him at the gunwale.
Overhead disturbed birds were returning to their roosts. On a nearby gebe the horses onboard were clearly agitated and their whining cries took a long time to settle. The sharp crack of a whip bullied the silence back.
“Somebody has been executed. Probably on instructions from the Serai given the late hour of the cannon.” Murad spoke in a detached manner. The night air became suddenly colder and Catherine shivered. She waited for him to explain. “When somebody of noble rank or importance is dispatched, usually by strangulation, the bodies are then placed in a sack which is weighted and thrown into the Bosphorous at night. Women are less lucky as they are usually put in the sacks alive. The cannon acknowledges the deed.”
Catherine stared at the dark waters. “Murad. Does this callous disregard for life, ever bother you?”
The corbasi’s dark skin rendered him a barely visible dark shadow. Suddenly the flashing eyes caught what light there was and focused with a blazing intensity on Catherine.
Mashallah! Never! We all have our duties and our destinies. Whatever happens is already ordained. The threads of time that we weave for ourselves can unravel in an instant.” Murad paused for a moment as if regretting his outburst. He relaxed his strident tone. “I must retire to prepare for tomorrow’s disembarkation. I will be leaving at sunrise. Somehow I know we will meet again Surgeon Cullen and until then I wish you the protection of Allah’s angels. Good night. Ma’as-salama.”
Fi aman Illah, Murad. Thank you for your kindness.” Catherine called after him as she watched him descend to the hold below. 
Pulling a linen shawl tight around her shoulders she turned once again to stare at the city of fireflies. The light from the necklace of braziers placed at intervals along the city ramparts reminded her of the Towers of Kilitbahir and the nearby ancient site of Sestos which they had sailed past in the Hellespont. There Leander and Hero had consummated their love until one night the guiding beacon failed and he drowned, dashed against the rocks. The thought made Catherine suddenly think of Djivo. She looked up at the night’s constellations. 
“Orion watch over my love. Let him come to me soon.”

©R.Derham 2001,2009

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