Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 17)

Ergi Kapi - The Crooked Gate

Chapter 30 
11th November 1637

It had become almost a ritual for Catherine, after returning from the new nearby Egyptian bazaar - where every pod, root, stem and leaf known to be used in the healing of human ills was available - to wander, like the Sultana Roxelana, among the 60 columns of the mosque of the Hassiki. Touching the cool marble, she marvelled at the hues and shapes that the veins made. The beauty of the building reminded her of the loving indulgence and passion the great Soleyman had had for his wife and this thought somehow brought her closer to her absent Djivo. Her solitary thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the cry of the mu ’azzin calling the faithful to the midday prayers. Catherine slipped quietly out a side entrance knowing she would have to hurry if she was to meet Murad at the arranged time.
The journey on foot took the best part of an hour given the throngs of people entering the city. She reached the egri kapi entrance in the city walls - called from ancient times the Crooked Gate because of its unique double non-opposing arches - to find Murad walking in the graveyard which adjoined the outer wall. He looked relieved as she approached.
“Salaam Catherine. You were delayed.”
She smiled at his polite rebuke. “Salaam Murad. Yes, I am sorry. Have you waited long?”
Murad was tracing with a finger an inscription carved on one of the nail-like headstones. “No, not really, but we will have to hurry. Do you know that this is the spot where the Conqueror directed his first assault against the city? He was repulsed by the double walls and its valiant Frankish defenders.” He did not wait for her response, and after stopping for a quick word with the guards of the gate, rushed ahead. 
Catherine was relieved, given the fast pace he was setting, that it was only a short walk to the ruined Palace of the Blachernai. Entering the yard of the Mosque of Ivaz Effendi, which perched on the palace ruins some 60 feet above them, Murad made for one corner where two musket-carrying Janissaries were guarding what appeared to be a concealed wooden door. At their approach one of the soldiers opened it and taking a flickering torch from its wall bracket led them both into a dark, narrow tunnel. A short distance in she was suddenly startled by a loud trumpet-like bellowing noise that shook the air. It was answered by a series of shorter blasts. She pulled at Murad’s tunic. “What was that ?”
Murad laughed. “It is only the Sultan’s elephants. They are housed in the far part of these ruins. Come, let us continue.” The passageway descended and ascended in a spiral fashion until they reached an arched entrance thrown into relief by the light flickering within its chamber. 
Catherine whispered to Murad. “What is this place?”
Murad prodded her forward. “Do not be afraid. This is the guard room of the ancient Prison of Anemas. It has been all but forgotten by the city’s inhabitants and that ignorance serves our purpose well. This tekke is like no other, as you will soon find out, and secrecy is essential.”
He stepped ahead of her and after ordering the torch-bearing soldier back to his station at the entrance beckoned her in. The room was reasonably lit and about forty feet long. There appeared to be, in the far corner, a circular hole in the ground. In the centre of the chamber was a small raised pedestal. Beneath Catherine’s feet leading to the centre lay a tightly woven Kerman carpet, its azure wool emblazoned with star shapes embroidered in gold thread. Against the walls stood a number of shadowy figures, their anonymous faces covered by silk veils. At a signal from Murad, Catherine knelt down and it was only then she realised that the woven golden stars were not a random design but represented the constellations of Orion and Canis Major. Bowing her head fully her lips kissed the star Sirius. Ahead of her she heard someone take their place on the pedestal.

Hajjî Bektãshî

‘Ashiq, announce your self.”
“I am Catherine Cullen. A freewoman and surgeon, of Ireland.”
“Why do you wander amongst the sand dunes?”
Sahibdil . . .” Catherine paused for a moment before continuing. “I am no prodigy among the apostles; nor do I know what will be done with me or you. I follow only what is revealed to me, and my only duty is to give plain warning.”
The pedestal voice softened. “We have sent down to you revelations showing you the right path.”
Catherine thought she could hear Murad cough. She knew the answer. “Light upon light. God guides to his light whom he will.”
The pedestal voice strengthened. “The Lord of the two Easts, and the Lord of the two Wests. Which of your Lord’s blessings would you deny.”
“It is the Merciful who has taught the Quran.”
“By the light of day, and by the dark of night, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor does he abhor you.”
Catherine was unsure of the appropriate response and searched for inspiration. At that very moment a shadow moved and a shaft of light dazzled off the embroidered star of Sirius. “I seek refuge in the Lord of Daybreak from the mischief of his creation.”
The pedestal voice was quietened but after a few minutes of murmuring amongst the shadows it beckoned her. “You that are wrapped up in your cloak arise and give warning.”
Catherine stood up and walked slowly towards the pedestal where an elderly man, with silver flowing hair, sat shoeless. On reaching him she knelt once more and kissed his feet. “I long to be a disciple, accept me and make me one of your slaves.”
The elderly man’s hand touched her on the shoulder. “I am not worthy to be a master. There are others greater than I, go and be a disciple of them.”
“No it is you that I seek. You will be my master.” Catherine’s tone was adamant.
“That it is a grave burden you place on my shoulders. Are you worthy? Tell me of the black flag.”
Catherine leant back on her calves and looking up saw for the first time the tattered black flag that was suspended above the pedestal. “It is the Banner of Abu Muslim the glorious avenger of Hasan and Husein. It is the totem of the khorram-dinan brought out of Khosan by our glorious saint Hajji Bektash. It is the flag that flies on the winds of revolution.” At this point she felt the shadows surrounding her draw near and she was gently lifted to her feet. The pir - the elderly man whose questions had been testing her - descended from his pedestal and handed her a belt of saffron coloured cloth. 
“We will hear you recite your dhikr.”
Catherine took the belt and tying it around her waist, chanted.
“I tie up greediness . . .”
She fully loosened it again
“I loosen generosity . . .”
Catherine repeated the same process six more times.
“I tie up anger, I unbind meekness, 
I tie up avarice, I unbind piety,
I tie up ignorance, I unbind the fear of God,
I tie up passion, I unbind the love of God,
I tie up Hunger, I unbind contentment,
I tie up Satanism, I unbind divineness.”

When she had finished the pir handed her a small goblet of liquid. “Partake of this cup filled from the waters of the fountain of Zanjabil. You are welcome as a true murid of our tekke.”
Catherine took a sip of the ginger-flavoured water and passed it to her shadow companions who each in turn lifted their veils to drink and thereafter left their faces uncovered. A great weight suddenly lifted and she felt she was floating just above the ground. It seemed like an age before she felt the pir take her arm.
“Come Catherine of Ireland. You can now relax. The first initiation formalities are over. I must say however that your answers to my probes elevate you to a degree of understanding that I have rarely seen in an initiate. Even amongst the exalted company of this room. You are a true daughter of the Path. It is unfortunate that your destiny does not lie with us.”
Catherine was taken aback, puzzled at the old man’s words. “Hakkim. What do you mean?”
He looked at her gently. “Do not trouble yourself, sister. You are a rahrav or wayfarer and it will be my duty to equip you for the remainder of your journey. I will explain all this to you later but for now let us go and celebrate your presence with us. There are some fine wines awaiting our attention before we continue with the sama.”

Thomas Roe and Sir Peter Paul Rubens at Elewijit

Chapter 31
Elewijit, Spanish Netherlands. 
11th November 1637

There was a constant stream of cold rain beating into the faces of the horses and driver of the coach that came at speed along the muddy driveway. For the portly man waiting at the steps the warmth afforded by his paint covered cloak was not enough to prevent his joints aching in the damp. As the carriage drew up two of the house servants ran down to open its door and unfurl an umbrella to keep the visitor dry on his short walk.
“You are welcome Thomas. How do you like my new house?” The portly man bellowed with a deep laugh. 
The visitor laughed back. “Out of my way you fat fool. I am anxious to greet that lovely young wife of yours.”
The two men embraced and the visitor was led by his good- humoured host up the steps and into a large drawing room where a roaring fire banished the day’s damp. On a couch near the window a young woman with the fresh face so often seen in many of her husband’s paintings sat with her needlepoint. Helena Fourment accepted the visitor’s effusive greetings. She then excused herself as the visitor turned back to speak to her husband.
“Sir Peter. My King sends you his warmest regards and says that your panels in the Royal Banqueting Hall have attracted nothing but praise.”
Peter Paul Rubens - the pre-eminent artist of his age -accepted the compliment graciously. “Enough of the formality Thomas. We are old friends. How goes it with you in your well deserved retirement?”
Sir Thomas Roe - once ambassador to Constantinople - sat by the fire to warm his hands. “No longer retired Peter. I have been appointed by His Majesty to the Chancellorship of the Knights of the Garter and once again have become a roving emissary. I am envious when I see how much you are enjoying the fruits of a young wife and a new house. Returned to landscapes I am told.”
Rubens removed his painting smock and threw it casually over a nearby chair. “My greatest love Thomas. Painting the vistas and pageantry of the countryside that is, although gout is affecting my brushstroke.”
Roe looked up at the Dutchman and felt some sadness at hearing of any possible handicap of his dear friend’s genius. 
Rubens noticed the look of sympathy. “No pity, Thomas. I have lived the lives of many men and can still keep Helena well satisfied. I do therefore deserve your envy.”
Roe laughed. “Always the idle boast, Peter.”
Rubens fetched some wine and handed an overflowing goblet to Roe. “A modest one, Thomas, on account of my characteristic humility.”
Roe nearly choked. “Humility! Poppycock.”
Rubens drew a chair up and sat opposite his friend, their faces reddening with the warmth of the fire. “Thomas. What does bring you here at such short notice?”
Roe leant back. “I am here to ask for your help. Your famed diplomatic skills rather than the brushstrokes of a genius are urgently required. You know that His Majesty regards you most highly in this regard.”
Rubens said nothing and Roe was forced to continue. “We are attempting to set up a conference in Hamburg early next year to try and bring a resolution to this interminable war. We need your good offices to open a dialogue with Philip of Spain.”
Rubens stood up to refill his goblet. Roe had hardly touched his. “Thomas. You and His Majesty know that I worked for nearly ten years to broker the Peace Treaty of 1630 between England and Spain and where did it get us. Seven years later we are still at each other’s throats. My days of diplomatic shuffling are over. I have earned and been granted my respite.”
Roe slumped slightly in face of the resolute tone. “I understand Peter. I was only conveying His Majesty’s wishes.”
Rubens placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “You have done your duty, Thomas. Please convey my deepest regards . . . and apologies to His Majesty.”
Roe finally drank his wine. Rubens sat down opposite him again. “Tell me, Thomas. On a completely different matter. When you were envoy to the Turk, did you get to know the Patriarch Kyril Loukaris well ?”
Roe was instantly alert. “Yes, we were good friends. It was he who gave me the Codex. Why do you ask? ”
Rubens hesitated for a moment. “I know that he is also a correspondent of Laud. It’s just that . . .”
Roe looked up at his friend. “What is it Peter? Has something happened to him? ”
Rubens shook his head. “No at least not yet. Its just that I overheard a conversation recently where two French courtiers were discussing a Richelieu plot to have Loukaris killed. They joked about a deal with the Austrians. Some dispute with the Franciscans over the Holy Sites in Jerusalem, I understand. I thought that you might be able to warn him.”
Roe said nothing. Rubens took his hand. “Come on, my old friend. Enough of the intrigues of mere mortals. Let me show you some of my more recent poor attempts to capture God’s light and then we will eat.”
The two walked, linked arm in arm to the door. Rubens was laughing. “Don’t you think that this new found humility becomes me, Thomas? ”
His friend could only smirk. “Poppycock.”

©R.Derham 2001, 2009

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