Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 7)

Chapter 11 
Ragusa, Dalmatian Coast. 30th July 1631

Dom Miho Slavujovic, merchant of Ragusa, friend and ally of Spain sat in his office which overlooked the busy harbour. In front of him was Djivo’s last letter from Toledo. He did not know whether his son was alive or dead and tears welled up in his eyes as he attached his seal to yet another plea to the Master of the Sant’Iago Order begging his help to effect the release of Djivo. Miho had also sent a letter to King Philip of Spain about six weeks previously, reminding him of his family’s services to his grandfather and entreating him to help. He had heard nothing.
Getting up from his bureau he walked to the far corner of the room and began pushing a small bookcase sideways. Once satisfied he stooped down and lifted a loose floorboard at the spot where the bookcase had stood. The creaking timbers called attention to his actions and this caused him to look up and around furtively. Happy that he was unobserved he searched for and found a small metal lever. Pulling it back, a section of the nearby wall - slowly and silently - swung out to reveal a concealed vault. Taking a lighted candle Miho entered the dark room and after a period of rummaging returned with a small package in his hand. This had been sent by Djivo before leaving Italy for Spain. The accompanying letter explained that these were his most valuable possessions and he wished them stored in absolute safety. After looking at it for a while Miho began to open the package, feeling somehow he was invading his son’s privacy but even more worrying, it felt like an admission of his youngest son’s loss or death. The package contained his family ring and the espada insignia of the Sant’Iago order as well as a beautiful Arabic ceremonial curved dagger in which was embedded a number of fine emeralds and diamonds that glistened in the light. Miho marvelled at the beauty of the dagger and its possible worth. On pulling the dagger from its sheath he saw that a carefully folded letter was wrapped around the blade. He gently unravelled it and began reading.
It was a letter written in Italian from the Archbishop of Durazzo, from his base in Gravina, to his cousin Giovanni Andrea Comneno. There was an detailed summary of the ongoing negotiations with the descendants of Ladislas, King of Naples, over whether they or the Comneno family had the right to use the title Duke of Durazzo. Ladislas had ceded the Dukedom of Durazzo and his other Dalmatian rights to Venice in 1409 and the Comneno family had been given the title by the Venetian State for services rendered. The argument was further complicated by the fact that the old fiefdom of Anjou-Durazzo had been dissolved by Stefan Dusan, Emperor of Serbia, when he had conquered Albania and introduced Serbian privileges and titles. The Archbishop pointed out in the letter that he had determined that the offending abuse of the title had only begun being been used for the first time by John, son of Charles d’Anjou, King of Naples, after the Angevians had surrendered Durazzo to Stefan in 1343. The Archbishop wrote that he was using all his influence with the Papal authorities to try and have the situation resolved.
The information on the machinations surrounding the Dukedom of Durazzo was followed by some family information and Miho could not make out the reason why Djivo had gone to such lengths to conceal the letter. The last section was written in Greek and Miho’s ability to read Greek was poor. The only part he could decipher was a reference to a family friend of the Comnenos from Alexandria called Kevork who was going into the city to meet the Grand Logothete. 
“What city?” Miho pondered aloud as he shook his head. There were a final few lines about negotiations to retrieve some valuable icons, with the local Dey - who had begun converting Durazzo’s church into a mosque - and most of the comments were highly derogatory. The Archbishop intimated that the once thriving city was now a plague-infested swamp of only two hundred dwellings and that the heathen Ottomans were more than welcome to it. Perhaps, Miho thought, Djivo was afraid of the letter falling into Turkish hands and being used against the Angelo-Comneno. Refolding the letter he carefully wrapped it around the dagger and slipped it back in the sheath. It was only then that he lifted the book of what appeared to be scientific writings and began turning its pages. A folded page of parchment slipped from between its centre leaves and floated to the floor. Stooping to retrieve it he recognised that it was very old and written in what appeared to be ancient French. He could only decipher the name Syracuse and it was with a grunt of frustration that he replaced the parchment, closed the book, and gathering all the items, resealed them in their package. This he then replaced in the hidden vault. Miho returned to his study, pausing briefly for a glance back into the darkness before gently pushing the wall closed behind him. He relaxed only when the sharp clicking noise indicated that the secret lever had re-engaged. He then repositioned the floor board and cabinet and left for a meeting with his ship captains, one of whom was to carry his letter to Spain along with his cargo of Mamsley wine. 
As he descended the steps of his house to join the throngs of people on the Placa and begin his short walk towards Orlando’s pillar and the Custom House Miho could see the clock tower’s figures about to chime the hour. The sunshine was bright and the mood of the people good. ‘And so it should be,’ he mused to himself. Here was a city surrounded by war and devastation which had abolished torture and slavery and whose welfare system included schools, hospitals and old people’s homes. Executions, in a time where life was considered disposable elsewhere, were so rare an event that they had to bring in a Turkish executioner. The necessity would plunge the entire community into a mood of mourning and gloom. The five hundred or so noble families had ensured that Ragusa had remained wealthy with its control of the shipping and silver trade to the Turks. 
This thought brought a frown to Miho’s forehead. The increasing amount of American silver controlled by the Spanish was undermining Ragusan influence. In addition the Republic’s spies had reported deliberate attempts by the French to flood the Ottoman economy with cheap silver coin forgeries. This would have to be counteracted, if the city was to survive. He made a mental note to discuss this with the council, when they next met. In the distance a cannon roared a welcome to yet another merchant ship.
Miho would have to hurry as he had arranged to join his family in Sipan that evening and needed to catch the evening tide. 

Chapter 12 
Algiers. 2nd August 1631

As the dawn broke Catherine was standing on the fore-deck, exhausted from tending the wounded sailors. Her cotton shift, soaked in the blood and grime of the night’s labours was fluttering in the stiff wind almost as if trying to rid itself, she thought, of the relics of man’s inhumanity. Behind the ship both the galley and merchantman were in close formation, the galley’s broken spars repaired and its heavy cargo dispersed to the other ships to allow greater speed. Most of the captured fishermen had been transferred to man the vacant oar slots so that it could continue the journey. She was gazing at the distant mountains stretching away to the south -east, their snow-capped peaks caught in the early morning sun. Catherine did not hear Murat approach.
“Those are the Djurjura Mountains whose icy heads source the spring rivers of this laughing coast. If you look closely, the lower set of hills nearer the coast are the Sahel separated behind from the higher Atlas by the Metidja marsh. At their base lies Algiers which you will see shortly, once we round the headland,” he pointed out as he joined her by the rail. “It has been a good trip and the rewards will be great. Indeed the capture of the galley has saved your bacon, I expect.”
She turned to look at him and noticed that he had brought her a fresh cotton robe. She accepted it with genuine appreciation. “Thank you. What do you mean about saving me?”
Murat smiled. “As the Spanish galley was a military encounter all slaves and captured booty will go to the Dey and the Divan which means there will be less interest in the other captives.” He stopped suddenly, and ordered his ever attentive grommet to fetch the boatswain. When he arrived there was a hurried conference and Murat seemed particularly insistent. The sailor sped off and he rejoined Catherine.
“What was the problem?” She asked him.
“Our conversation reminded me. I ordered the galley signalled to hoist its old sails and rigging and for all of the fisherman to be returned to this boat.”
Catherine was puzzled. “Why the old sails? Surely they are useless.”
“As I said to you before, everything in Algiers is controlled by the various guilds. The liman-reis or port captain and his guild are entitled to all sail and rigging of captured ships. The good equipment will be transferred to my other boat and sold at a profit later. The port authorities will have to make do with the cannon shredded remnants.” Murat stopped and began to point excitedly. Look over there. Behold El-Djazair. . . Algiers, the jewel of the tha’aliba and Khayr al-Din.”
Catherine turned to gaze on the whitest city she had ever seen. A cascade of pearly buildings descended from the low green hills to the sea. It was surrounded by an impressive wall with many watchtowers. Ahead of them was a large mole connecting the city with a small island and she could make out a number of minarets rising high into the sky. There appeared to be about ten ships of various sizes anchored in the roads. They and the city sparkled in the sunshine. “What or who is Khayr al-Din?”
“Khayr al-Din is better known as Babarossa, or Redbeard, one of the Greek pirate brothers who occupied the city at the request of the local tha’aliba tribe in 1516 and who defended it, fighting off the Spanish and Berbers of Kouko to take full control in 1525 in the name of the Ottoman Sultan. He was then appointed Beylerbey and High Admiral of the Turkish navy. An inspiration to us all.” Murat laughed loudly as he pointed once again at the city. “Do you see the minaret outside the walls at the north western end?” Catherine nodded. “That is the personal villa and mosque of Ali Bitchnin. The hospital and bano are inside the city surrounded by a high wall.”
The mole was rapidly approaching and Catherine could make out a small fast galley racing out to meet them. Suddenly the two cannon beneath the Yildirim’s fore-deck bellowed. She turned to Murat . “Do not worry," he said. "It's just a greeting. Do you see that small island at the end of the mole? That is the old Spanish penon and it is where the taiffe or league of sea captains have their meetings. Most of the captives will come to hate it as they will likely spend their winters hauling rock to repair the mole.” 
Catherine said nothing, caught as she was in thoughts of her own destiny. Murat was still talking with a good deal of excitement in his voice. “Do you see those two ships in the roads with white flags? They are ransom ships come to negotiate. All in all Algiers is a very busy city.”

The rest of the morning was full of frenzied activity. With the direction of the pilot galley the Yildirim and its sister ship negotiated a passage through the busy harbour approach and rounding the southern end of the mole, anchored in the protected harbour. The Spanish galley was brought directly to the slipways of the shipyard gates at the eastern end of the harbour-side city wall. The galley chusma after full documentation were marched to the Grande bano and almost immediately the galley was stripped of every possible item of value. 
The captives detained on the Yildirim and her sister ship were brought on deck - most of the men for the first time in the entire journey - and after adjusting their eyes to the intense light were herded into small galleys and brought ashore to the mole. Once fully accounted for and chained at their necks they were marched along the mole to the city walls. After entering the mole gate they were met by a Janissary mehterhane band with their ‘folds’ of drum, clarinet, trumpet and cymbal players. The noise of the welcome was added to by the loud cheering by men and the high-pitched cries of women. This cacophony accompanied the chain all the way to the zoco.
Murat had insisted that Catherine remain onboard to accompany the injured ashore, once all the captured cargo had been safely unloaded and transferred to Ali Bitchnin’s carts which had rushed down the mole past the chained captives. When this was done the injured surgeon - by now reasonably stable on his wooden peg - and four others, one of whom had lost an eye, were taken ashore. Murat and Catherine joined them in the longboat and on landing Murat had disappeared into the taiffe’s tower to give his report. Shortly afterwards Catherine noticed a small profusely sweating man approaching them. He spoke in Arabic to Suarez whom he had obviously recognised. After what appeared to be a long explanation the man turned to Catherine and spoke in English. “My name is Frizzel. I am the English Consul here in Algiers. I gather you were taken in Baltimore. How many are there of you? I will need to inform London. Now maybe they will send me more funds. Your arrival is most opportune.”
Catherine took an immediate dislike to Frizzel. His only concern appeared to be his report and justifying his existence and not the actual welfare of the hostages. Before she had a chance to answer him, he scurried away when he sighted Murat coming back to join them. 
“What did that dung-beetle want?” Murat asked. The hobbling ship’s surgeon explained. Murat glared at the departing Frizzel before turning to Catherine. “I would not put much faith in that man for your freedom. He almost welcomes the arrival of captives so that he can demand greater expenses from England. These are spent on whores and whiskey and not on helping his fellow countrymen.” Murat waited as the injured men were loaded onto a cart, then lifted Catherine to sit her on the tailgate and ordered the driver to move out. They followed the other carts into the city only to immediately leave again by the bab-el-oeud or western gate to reach the bano of Ali Bitchnin. Walking alongside the cart Murat pointed out the various landmarks but Catherine sagged with tiredness and was asleep by the time they reached their destination - dreaming of home.

©R.Derham 2001,2009

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