Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Final Chapters)

Chapter 42 
Burano, Venice
10th June 1667

Most of the council members of the Constantinian Order had gathered earlier that day in the Comneno Palazzo. After a light lunch the Grand Master of the Order Angelo Maria Angelli Flavio Comneno - Prince of Macedonia and Tessaglia and Duke of Drivasto and Durazzo - welcomed them into the large room that served as their council chamber. He waited for all to take their seats before beginning to read - aloud - the recently arrived letter of Alessandro Zatta, the Venetian envoy or balio to the city and republic of Ragusa. The letter gave his graphic account of the devastating earthquake that had struck Ragusa -and other towns on the Dalmatian Coast- between the twenty-third and twenty-fourth hour on the sixth day of April in the year of Our Lord 1667.

“A citta di Ragusa posta nell’illirico versa la bocca del Golfo Adrriatico...”

Apart from the extraordinary description of the strange phenomenon where the harbour was seen to completely empty and then refill with three successive tidal waves the early part of the report did not appear to interest Comneno much. He skipped over many of the details before pausing to emphasise the section of the account where Zatta had noted - while documenting the destruction of the city’s Palazzo and the death of the Knez and twenty four other nobles of the Legislative Council - that one Dom Djivo Sorkocovic and his lady wife Katerina were amongst those killed. A tenth of Ragusa’s entire population, Zatta estimated, had perished in the earthquake.
When Comneno had finished reading the report he pushed the document towards the centre of the table. It slithered across the polished surface. He waited a moment to see if anybody reached for the letter before speaking again. “I am now convinced that the person we knew as Dom Djivo Slavujovic of the Sant’Iago Order was in fact this man Sorkocovic.”
One of the other council members suddenly reached forward and pulled the letter towards him. He read it with more emotion than the Grand Master had shown and his face flinched and an eyebrow lifted at the recognition of a familiar name or place. 
Angelo Maria watched him and waited, somewhat impatiently, until the man had finished. “I have also received a further report from one of our Order’s own spies in the city. He managed to search through the rubble of the Sorkocovic house but there was no apparent sign of the Scrolls. He relates, however, that in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake many peasant looters had come down into the city from the outlying villages and were still there two days later when he arrived. Everything was in chaos and what was not in ruin was burning. He even reports encountering and being chased off by a peasant group, led by a black slave-woman, who were sifting through the charred remnants of the Franciscan convent library.”
Comneno paused for a moment and reached into an inner pocket of his tunic. “This was all he could recover from Slavujovic’s house.” He placed a jewelled dagger on the table. The sheath was missing and the blade tip was broken. 
The council member who had re-read Zatta’s letter a little time earlier lifted the knife and noted that many of the bigger jewel sockets were empty. He looked at Angelo Maria. “We were never certain brother, that Djivo Slavujovic or Sorkocovic as you now call him, still had the Scrolls.”
The Grand Master appeared to be distracted, lost in his thoughts, and there was a long pause before he answered. “True brother. But if he did, the secret has died with him.”
Marco Comneno - the Constantinian Order’s Grand Prior in Constantinople - continued to run his finger along the curved edge of the blade. “It is probably for the best. His lady wife Katerina Cullen, was quite an extraordinary woman.” 

Chapter 43
Artillery Walk, London, England
2nd Sept. 1667

“Mammon led them on-
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven; for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed,
In vision beatific...”

The round faced man -with the high wig of the times- stopped reading aloud as the woman entered the room. She spoke in an apologetic voice,“I am sorry Mister Dryden, but my husband is asleep and I will not wake him. He had one of his terrible headaches this morning.”
The visitor tried to hide his disappointment. “It is of no consequence Mistress Milton. I hope he is well soon. I will call again and pay my respects.” Dryden then left the book he had been holding back on the table. It was still open on the last page he had been reading from. He turned to the woman. “John must be happy that Paradise Lost has finally been published. It is a truly splendid effort.”
The woman blushed. “I must confess Mister Dryden, I understand very little of it. On the other hand I loved Nell Gwynn in your own Secret Love. It is nice to see real women rather than eunuchs in the female roles. Much more my taste.”
It was Dryden’s turn to be embarrassed. “Thank you Mistress Milton. It was gratifying that it was so well received. However. This work of your husband . . .” He pointed to the first book of the opus as it lay open on the table. “ This . . . this cuts us all out. And the ancients too!” Dryden lifted the book up again and began reading from where he had left off.

“. . .By him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother Earth
For treasures better hid.”


Murat Reis was finally released by the Knights of Saint John in 1640. He retired to become Governor of Oualidia in Morocco. In 1648 Murad Corbasi was one of a number of senior Janissary officers returning from the ill fated campaign against Crete who revolted and executed the mentally unstable Sultan Ibrahim brother and successor of Sultan Murad IV who had died in 1640. The hospital for the insane was never built in Tvanshanli.

In 1797 Napoleon abolished the position of Doge in Venice when he ceded the republic to Austria in exchange for Belgium. In 1798 he expelled the Knights of Saint John from Malta without resistance. In 1806 the Holy Roman Empire was disbanded by Napoleon as was the Republic of Ragusa the following year when he created his Illyrian Provinces. Finally, in 1809 Napoleon annexed the Papal States, disbanded the Inquisition and removed the compulsory internment of Jews in designated Ghettos.

In 1903 the private collection of books and manuscripts built up by Masseo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII, until his death in 1644 became part of the Vatican Library.

©R.Derham 2001,2009

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 27)

Chapter 41
6th April 1667

The four litter-men carrying the curtained chair lowered it gently from their shoulders to rest the base on the ground. One of them then drew back the curtain and helped Catherine step out onto the roadside. Although happy for the custom they all appeared equally eager to be homeward bound for their evening meal and fidgeted impatiently as they watched her walk towards the figure of an elderly man who was standing at the end of the small mole that jutted out from the base of Saint John’s fort. He appeared to be mesmerised by the setting sun.
As Catherine drew closer the man turned and even now as he neared his sixty fifth year she was struck by his handsomeness. Although slightly heavier about the jowl and paunch Djivo still had the bearing of her warrior lover. She could not be angry with him. “Djivo. I knew I would find you here. You should have been home some hours ago. We are due at the Knez’s palace for the reception.”
He smiled, disarming her completely. “Must we go? I would rather you stay with me here and watch the sun go down.”
Catherine pretended to be cross. “The Knez is your niece’s husband. Personally I can not suffer his pomposity but we promised her we would come.”

Djivo looked beyond her and held up his hand to the litter-men, asking for their patience a little longer. He then lowered his hand and wrapped it around her waist, pulling her close. As he did so he spoke quietly,

“I strive dear sweet - for Libya nor wild Thrace
Gave birth to me - to draw thee to this place
This, where warm winters and cool summers reign:
Washed with calm waters of the still-quiet Maine.
Here vacant life, here Peace her empire keeps:
Never disturbed Rest, unbroken sleeps.
No noise of Courts, nor wrangling strife of laws:
Old usage is their rule.”

Catherine snuggled even closer. All the cross words had deserted her. “Virgil? ” She asked.
Djivo laughed. “No. You heathen! It was written by Pampinius Stadius to his wife, inviting her to Naples.” He paused to look seawards. “I was thinking of my time in Naples all those years ago and how fortunate I have been in my life to have had you Katerina. My still beautiful Katerina.”
Catherine felt her eyes watering. “Come on you old fool poet. Flattery will not release you. We must not delay.”
They walked hand in hand like young lovers back along the mole to where the litter rested. Before ducking under the canopy to take his seat Djivo looked up at the sky. He spoke as he sat in beside her. “I have a sense of strange unease Katerina. It feels as if the sky is leaning heavily on us. Did you notice how few sea-birds were about? ”
Catherine felt the litter being lifted. She had also noticed on her way here from their house near ‘The Holes’ - the city’s granary - that there was a distinct quietness of the normal evening bird-song. Even her two pampered cats were nowhere to be found as she left. Catherine tried not to convey her own unease. “You are imagining it, my love. Perhaps a bad storm is coming.”
Djivo squeezed her hand. “Perhaps.”

The four litter-men strained as they took a route that took them along the city walls of the Karen and then up the narrow stepped street to the plaza where the Cathedral of King Richard the Lion-Heart stood. Dodging the evening worshippers they pulled along side the arched portico of the Knez’s palace. Ahead of them the ‘green-men’ of the clocktower chimed the twenty-third hour. Then, just as the litter was lowered, the ground it rested on appeared to tremble and just as suddenly went quiet again. Doves took to the air from the rooftops all around. Djivo stepped out quickly and helped Catherine do the same. “It is over. Here take my hand.”
They were just under the central archway when the second tremor hit. Catherine was thrown violently sideways against the base of the supporting column and could only watch as Djivo fell heavily as well. He struggled to get up, taking the strain on his one good arm. Suddenly the capital stone from the column nearest him suddenly caved inwards and fell towards the ground. Catherine looked on, helplessly, as if almost in slow motion, it crushed into the half-kneeling Djivo at the base of his neck and shoulders. With a loud snap and sickening thud the light went out of his eyes.
Catherine tried crawling towards him, reaching out with her hand to touch his fingers. She screamed with the intensity of a trapped animal. “Djivo. Djiiiiivo. . . Djii- ”

Her own cries were also suddenly cut-short as the whole archway, and indeed the entire series of arches of the portico, gave way to topple. Imploding they showered Catherine in a hailstorm of fatal masonry.

©R.Derham 2001,2009 

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 26)

Chapter 40
Djerba, North Africa  
10th Av 1647

Issac was relieved to enter the secret tunnel that buried itself into the hillside. The raging sandstorm that had whipped across from the mainland had turned the summer heat into a choking furnace. He leant against the rough-hewn wall to clear his throat and eyes and to shake off the sand. The grains fell and dispersed - as droplets of quicksilver would - across the stone floor, its surface like polished marble from the footsteps of centuries. As Issac began to walk forward towards the first door, the passageway and his ears reverberated with the squalls. It was only when he had closed the door behind him that the sensation finally stopped. Ahead of him lay the second door - more ornate than the first - with its three carved panels. Issac relaxed as he touched the familiar depiction of the white Bull of Mithra, the labours of Samson and on the lower section that of Tyche. As he opened this door the passageway widened. Bright light from the large wall-mounted torches lit up the mosaic floor. He knelt - as he had done so often as a child with Jacob - to read the words deeply carved in marble flagstones. He whispered them as he kissed the floor. “The Most High never does anything without contemplating the celestial host.” Issac paused for a moment before standing up and moving forward. He reached the third and final door and drew back the pink curtain that concealed it. This was the door of Solomon’s Temple saved after its destruction. Hiram’s brassworking on the cedar panels was as polished as it had been thousands of years before. The heavy door opened with no sound and beyond its portals lay a circular room its walls covered in frescoes.
In the centre of the room was a menorah standing on a gold, scale model of a four-wheeled chariot. Each of the wheels was being pushed by an angel. One had the head of an ox, another a lion, another an eagle and the last the head of a man. At that very moment a number of figures emerged from the shadows. They wore the togas of old and, barefoot, carried their sandals in their hands. In unison they placed these on the floor and facing him stretched out their forearms palms upward. “Welcome back Khalil Issac to the Closed Temple of Mal’ak. Our beloved Duran of Algiers is dead and it is the wish of our waad that you should now occupy the position of the Resh Galutha.”
Issac stepped forward and accepting a taper, lit the candle atop the central shaft. “Jabrail your light is with us.”
The other members of the Temple then retreated to take their seats. These were carved into recesses in the walls. Issac circled the menorah seven times, lighting the remaining six candles at the start of each circuit. When finished he stopped in front of a small throne whose base contained a basalt slab covered in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Issac knew it to be part of an ancient historical record recovered from the Temple of Apis which had been built by the Egyptian monarch Djoser at Sofar-Osiris. Behind the throne - on a small pedestal that sat in a deep alcove - lay the Arc of the Law. 
Issac’s eyes were glistening as he faced the slab. “Begone Asmodeus ! The throne is now mine. Be about your business within the temple.” The candles behind him appeared to flicker as he turned to take his seat on the throne facing the others. “Brothers. The waad is now in session.”
Almost at once the dignified restraint that had characterised the ceremony thus far appeared to evaporate. Eleven voices clamoured to make themselves heard. Issac waited for the noise to settle of its own accord but when it did not he held up his hand with authority and some impatience. “My friends, you have done me great honour today and I hope to serve you well. It is right and proper that the eldest member of the waad will speak first.” Isaac’s voice was strong and he was gratified when an old man - with flowing white beard and locks - shuffled forward. “Elias ben-Henadad.” Issac bowed his head to the old man. “I welcome your counsel.”
The older man smiled. It was a smile that reminded Issac of Jacob’s grandfatherly indulgence. “Issac. I have known you since you were a boy and have been proud to watch you becoming a man. Uzzah Jacob was rightly justified in his faith in you but I fear that times have changed. We have become increasingly impotent in our capabilities and there is little you or any of us can do to alter that fact.”
Issac leant forward to look up at the impassive eyes of the older man. He knew he was been tested and therefore must show his resolve. The words came freely as he looked at the faces around the chamber. “My brothers. We are the Uzzah of the Path, the inheritors of the legacy of Philemon. We are the Oaks of Mamre, the Witnesses of the Covenant. We are the merkabah , the servants of the bein-ha-arbayim. For thousands of years the members of the waad of this Closed Temple of Mal’ak have striven to protect the interests of our people. By necessity our own lives are spent in the twilight. We are visible yet cast no shadow. We guide yet have no determined destination save opening the eyes of our oppressors to the true Path and the value of our Diaspora.”
Issac paused to see what effect his words were having. The shadows remained silent. “It is true that the ancient secrets and sciences, that we were privy to, are no longer exclusive and the skills honed over thousands of years that allowed us to blunt the edge of our oppressors by influencing their leaders are less effective. We must adapt to the improvement in literacy and have to try and alter the thinking of many rather than the few. This is the role that Jacob dedicated us to and that is the mission that I will continue.”
Elias ben-Henedad appeared satisfied with the answer. He bowed deeply then retreated to his seat and sat down. 
Issac exhaled deeply before continuing. “Now my brothers. I would like a full report of your labours of the past few years.”

The full council had not been together for nearly five years and the reports took the best part of four hours. Three of the members had concentrated their efforts on the New World. It was soon obvious to the others that the colonisation of the Americas presented a whole new opportunity for the waad and they deliberated - long and hard - on how best to capitalise on it. 
Finally it was Isaac’s own turn. “Since we last met I have been in Amsterdam with Manassem ben Israel. He is working with our friends in England to negotiate a re-entry for our brethren to that country.”

A Book by Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657)

A voice from the shadows sighed. “Kezeh - ha - arez. I would like to have gone there.” Issac smiled. “Yes Elias. Angle-terre. No longer the ends of the earth mind you, it is none the less, a very powerful country. Getting our people back in would be a great step.” He paused for a few moments. “I was also privileged to be the tutor of quite an extra-ordinary young student called Baruch Spinoza. For one so young he carries a fearless pursuit of the truth in his veins and in the century to come he will be, as Maimonaides was, the torch-bearer of our Path.”
Silence descended. Issac stood up. “We are all tired and hungry. Return to your lodgings. We will meet with our sisters in public council tomorrow at the synagogue and God willing will open this temple again in three years. Retrieve - ” Issac was suddenly interrupted by the strident voice of one of the younger members. Issac recognised it as belonging to David ben Levi who had responsibility for the Balkans and Russia. “What ever happened to the Jesus megilloth ?”
Issac had not thought of his friends for many years. “They are in the Library of the Franciscan Church in Ragusa, secreted amongst the legacy of Queen Catherina Cosaccia of Bosnia.”
Ben Levi persisted. “Should we not endeavour to retrieve them at this time? ”
Issac shook his head. “I promise you that they will return to our care within a generation. For the moment the megilloth are safe and I have an angel watching over them.”
More than one voice called out. “Who? ”
“Maryam. Daughter of our brother Arif.” Issac turned to look at the tall black council member - from the Ethiopian highlands - who sat in the nearest recess to his right. There were no further questions. Issac took one last look around the chamber before continuing. “Brothers. The yeshibah is closed. Come forward from the shadows and retrieve your sandals.”
All stepped forward to kneel - one at a time - in front of Issac. Each in turn held out his hand, palm upward and squeezed the back of Issac’s left thigh. They then retreated and gathered their footwear. Once reshod the council members linked arms and formed a circle around the menorah. Issac also stepped forward and entered the circle. As he doused the candles he dismissed them with his final words, “We love God through the knowledge we have of him, and as the measure of the knowledge so is the measure of the love.”

©R.Derham 2001,2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 25)

Chapter 39
10th January 1639

As Catherine sat at her bureau she strained to see through the small panes of the bay window that overlooked the harbour. It had been a bitterly cold night and the glass was frosted over, and she could just about make out the masts of the ships sheltering in the harbour. They appeared to rock in the biting winds that whipped across the waters. The door behind her opened with a loud creak and she turned to see Djivo bringing in a steaming glass of spiced Malmsey wine. Catherine noticed, as he walked towards her, that with each passing day his left arm appeared thinner and somewhat more withered than before. It hung there trapped in its sling, useless, the muscles and nerves destroyed forever by his fight with O’Driscoll. He ignored her concerned look and smiled at her indulgently. “What are you doing? ”
Catherine accepted the glass, delighted to wrap her cold hands around its warmth. She took a small sip and sighed approvingly. “I had promised to write to Seilim Zeitun Oglu with news of our safety and with instructions. I have just finished the letter. Would you like me to read it to you. It is in Arabic script.”
Djivo place his good hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently as he kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear. “Do you feel safe now, Katerina? ”
She nuzzled against his hand as she remembered their flight to freedom.

The Ragusan ship that had taken Djivo to Constantinople was waiting as arranged in the harbour below the Velvet Castle. It was a few days before he was strong enough to travel. Catherine had been able to do very little, apart from cleaning and suturing the skin wound, to help his shoulder and she knew it had lost its power forever. After leaving Smyrna they had made a brief stop at Chios before Catherine - with Djivo’s transferred power of ownership - instructed the Captain to make the long dash for Malta. Accompanying, for his own safety, them was Marco Angelo Comneno. The Aga Hakem al-Buda had wanted to kill Marco so that reports of what had happened in the courtyard of the Velvet Castle would not reach Constantinople and it was only after a tense period of negotiation and the handing over of most of Catherine’s savings that he was allowed to accompany them as their prisoner. Once on board she struck a bargain with Comneno. She told him that they would hand him over to the Knights in Malta if he gave an solemn oath not to escape. He did so and was almost a willing captive as she and he, spent many sailing hours in deep conversation.
Rapidly recovering some of his dignity and authority as they neared Valetta, Comneno had pressed her on the whereabouts of the Scrolls. Catherine told him firmly that they were safe and that when she thought it was time for them to be revealed, she would then, and only then, do so. He had asked her whether she read the Scrolls and was deeply disappointed when she indicated she had but sternly refused to discuss their contents. Catherine had brusquely brought that conversation to an end. “They are no longer the exclusive property of the Angelicks.” 

Later when he pressed her yet again, her patience wore thin and she had told him in no uncertain terms that he would be a better man and future leader of his Order if he followed the dictates of his personal faith and to let that path guide him rather than relying on the crutch of possible ancient secrets.
After anchoring in the harbour of Valetta, and despite displaying the patent and carrying the pratticke showing they were free of plague, they were told by the harbour authorities that they would have to wait in quarantine for forty days before being allowed disembark into the city. Djivo - by now recovered from most of his wounds - and Catherine did not seem to mind as they passed the days like teenage lovers. Arguments, giggles and playful teasing came in bursts of short lived moments. 
Marco Comneno could only watch, the loneliness of his isolation made worse by their joy. It was a particularly hot and humid day when he approached them on the fore-deck, his mood soured by meagre rations of increasingly tasteless biscuits and beef. “Why did you deviate so much from your obvious course home to come here?” He spoke gruffly. “It was surely not just to release me!”
Djivo and Catherine broke away from the game of chess they were playing and looked up at the Venetian. It was Catherine who spoke. “You are right Marco. There is another reason and you are an important part of it. Please calm your irritation and join us.”
He sat down somewhat reluctantly, swatting away with venom his escort of flies. Djivo then continued. “We have a friend who is a prisoner of the Knights, and we are going to use you in part exchange for his release.”
Comneno bristled, his status as captive being suddenly reiterated. “What do you mean? Who are you talking about? ”
“There is a Dutchman called Murat Reis, an Algiers corsair captain, who was a good friend to us and who has been a prisoner of the Knights these past two years.”
Comneno spluttered. “A Barbary pirate! I am to be exchanged for a bloody pirate.”
Djivo smiled. “Marco stifle your indignity. We will be faithful to our word and will release you once quarantine has been lifted. However . . .” The Venetian relaxed a little, but waited pensively to hear the conditions that were surely coming. “The moneys that Catherine paid to obtain your release in Smyrna were to be used to gain our friend’s release. Your freedom is dependant on your promise to repay that money and you will swear to us, here and now, that you will do so by arranging to ransom Murat Reis from the Knights.” Marco Comneno was a man of honour and he nodded his assent to the bargain. Djivo smiled and held out his hand. “That wasn’t so bad was it. Now come and sit with me. I need your help. Catherine’s years in Constantinople have made her a better chess player than I. Maybe the two of us can take her down a peg from that smug perch of hers.”

To all their relief the Quarantine period was shortened to twenty days thanks to the efforts of the local Ragusan consul. He also arranged with the Prior of the Aragon Alberge to effect an introduction for Catherine to the Master of the Hospitallier Hospital. This was to take place on Friday, when all of the ‘Great Crosses’ - the council members of the Order of Saint John - had completed their weekly duty of a day’s service in the hospital. The longboat took them to the tunnel that linked a small shore-side jetty with the Knight’s hospital high on the hill behind Fort Saint Elmo. They climbed their way upwards dodging the porters who were hauling ice-blocks from the boat that had arrived from Syracuse the same day. Shown into a small parlour they waited until sunset before being escorted to the Grand Master’s palace. It was here in the council chamber - its walls covered in the paintings depicting the great sea and land battles that the Knights had fought in - that the Grand Master Fra Giovanni Paolo Lascari Castellar and the sixteen councillors of State listened to Djivo and Catherine’s proposal. On hearing no objection from Marco they agreed to the arrangement.
The following day Djivo was taken to the prison to see Murat Reis. He looked unwell, suffering from the undulant fever peculiar to Malta. The visit was brief and at a distance and Djivo was to voice his concern that he feared for Murat’s survival. No wonder the Knight’s had so readily agreed. Once they heard she was a surgeon, the Master of the Hospital asked Catherine to visit the three nunneries of the island. These were uniquely distinguished by their inmates. There was one for virgins, one for repentant whores and one for innocent bastards. Djivo expressed his surprise when he heard later that the Virgin’s nunnery was the biggest. A local wit had told him that Malta was an island where you would find Turks and virgins in equal numbers.

It was two days later that Djivo and Catherine had set sail for Ragusa. A journey over and another beginning. Catherine brought her hand up and squeezed Djivo’s tightly. Looking down at the letter she had been writing, she resolved to sign it later. She stood up and turned to face Djivo. Her beautiful Djivo. “Yes, my love. Because of you.”

©R.Derham 2001,2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rihla (Journey 5): Tabriz – Habsīyah Iran

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This one is about Tabriz, Iran.

My heart and thoughts are with friends in Iran, who at this moment in their history have such an overwhelming desire for democracy, for freedom from a suffocating theocracy, that I have real concerns that the bloodshed will exceed that of the ’79 revolution.

In March of this year I wandered across Khaqani gardens in Tabriz, from the Blue Mosque to the Azarbayjan Museum. Shirvani Khaqani, a 12th Century Azeri poet in Northern Iran, wrote one of the most powerful jail ballads – Habsiyah – ever penned while incarcerated for five years. He was known originally as the ‘seeker of truth’ and today that truth is further away than ever.

Ahmadinejad’s Ayatollah Khamenei-sanctioned crackdown of democratic protest utilizing the revolutionary paramilitary guards and religious police (know sarcastically as the ‘fun’ police in Teheran) in support of an elitist regime that has lost the confidence of the people is but that of a failing purpose flailing out.

The present democracy demonstrations have been called ‘The Twitter Revolution’ because despite attempts by authorities to suppress in a vacuum its lifeblood is being maintained nationally and internationally by modern communication methods.

The immediate danger is that that lifeblood will ebb away by the continued use of brutality, imprisonment and murder.

Once across the Khaqani gardens I entered the Azarbayjan Museum and went downstairs to see the enormously powerful sculptures of Ahad Hossein. If the regime in Qom want to see the imprint of what they hope to achieve with the brutality they only have to take a moment to reflect on these sculptures.

Oscar Wilde, an Irish poet, wrote another powerful jail ballad, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. One of the repeating verses states,

I never saw sad men who looked 

With such a wistful eye 

Upon that little tent of blue 

We prisoners called the sky, 

And at every careless cloud that passed 

In happy freedom by.

Let us not be careless. Let not the careless cloud of freedom pass by for Iran!

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 24)

Chapter 38
Velvet Castle, Smyrna, Turkey. 
October 12th 1638

The journey from Tvanshanli through the parched ravines and scorched plateaux of the Anatolian highlands had taken them the best part of a week. But now, as they dismounted in the outer courtyard of the Velvet Castle, they could see city of Smyrna below them with the topaz-blue waters of its bay beyond. In the roads were numerous ships waiting to discharge their cargo and others waiting to take onboard the huge cotton bales that were piled high on the quayside.
Djivo’s attention was drawn to a bleeding wound on one of his horse’s forelocks. As he was about to bend down and inspect it one of the gate sentries approached their group. Catherine moved towards the soldier and he was about to ignore her until surprised when she addressed him in Turkish. She said that she wished to see the Aga and indicated that she was relaying a message from his fellow Aga and friend - Murad Corbasi - in Broussa. The sentry turned smartly on his heel and almost ran back to the gate to relay the conversation. Presently the soldier returned. This time he was accompanied by an odabasi who ordered Catherine to return with him inside the fortress. She looked briefly at Djivo before following the officer. He waved her on before turning back to attend the horse. 

Although they would not be needing the horses for much longer Djivo was relieved - after cleaning away the congealed blood and dirt - to see that the wound was very superficial and causing no pain to the animal. He stood up and had just begun to unload their baggage when he saw a small troop of horsemen gallop at high speed into the courtyard. They pulled to a sudden halt opposite the gate. It was only when the dust cloud thrown up by the hooves had cleared that Djivo recognised the two lead figures as Dermico O’Driscoll and Marco Comneno. They were escorted by four siphai cavalrymen elaborately dressed in the uniform of the Grand Vizier’s personal guard and riding horses that had obviously been captured in the Sultan’s Persian campaigns. Djivo could see that the panting animals were branded with the tulip mark of the Shah’s royal stables. He hesitated for a moment before stepping out into full view from behind his horse.
The two Europeans had dismounted quickly and were brushing away the accumulated dust from their Cavalier hats when Dermico O’Driscoll suddenly saw Djivo. He immediately rushed towards him. Djivo stayed where he was but shouted out a greeting. “This is a chance meeting, is it not O’Driscoll? ”
The Irishman’s face was a contortion of anger and sneering malevolence. “Do not toy with me Slavujovic. I have chased after you these past two weeks and my patience is sorely at an end. Hand over the Scrolls this instant. Their recovery is my sworn duty and you had better not obstruct me.”

Djivo managed to force an expression of puzzled innocence as he nonchalantly removed his heavy riding cape and draped it over his left arm. His right hand then came to rest on the hilt of his sword. “We no longer have the Scrolls. They are deposited in a safe place. You have wasted your time.” O’Driscoll noticed the movement of the sword hand and his momentum slowed. 
The commotion in the courtyard had been brought to the attention of the Aga. Jumbing up from his seat in the divan he strode out of the building and through the gate towards where the siphai sat atop their sweating horses. At the sight of his obvious anger the horsemen shifted uneasily in their saddles. High above him Djivo could see a troop of musket-carrying soldiers taking up their positions on the battlements. The guns were immediately trained on the new arrivals. A fierce argument between the Aga the leading siphai erupted. The Aga suddenly turned his back on the horsemen and came towards where Catherine, who had followed the Aga out, and Djivo were standing.
At that moment Djivo thought he saw a slight nod of the Aga’s head. A fusillade of shot rang out across the yard and all four siphai were instantly blown from their horses. Three appeared to have been killed outright but one was moving agonisingly on the ground, as he clutched a huge wound that coursed across his right shoulder. He tried crawling away but was trapped by the sudden collapse of one of the horses - whose death was caused by a fountain of blood gushing from its severed carotid artery - across his legs. Looking back at the carnage the Aga stopped, then retraced his steps and stood for a while watching the injured man squirm. All of a sudden, as if tiring of the spectacle, he drew his sword and decapitated the fallen siphai with two crude hacks. 
Simultaneously a troop of Negro slaves rushed into the yard and began removing the bodies. The Aga calmly cleaned his sword on the headless soldier’s tunic and walked back over to rejoin Catherine and Djivo. By now four of his Janissaries had pinioned O’Driscoll and Comneno’s arms and had forced them to kneel. Catherine’s face could not disguise the disgust she felt at the carnage she had just witnessed. The Aga turned to her. “Those lice were part of the Grand Vizier’s guard who murdered near 10,000 of our Janissary brothers. One of those cruelly killed was my brother Hasan. Today is my revenge. Allah was merciful to them in granting a quick death. Indeed woman . . .” he bellowed to allow the insulting tone of his voice carry across the courtyard, “I was thinking of crucifying them between a pig and a dog. As an example.” Catherine swallowed hard - to stop herself gagging - as the Aga looked down at where O’Driscoll and Comneno were pushed to the ground. He turned to Djivo as he threw a sneering glance at the cowering Europeans.. “What shall I do with these sons of whores? ”
“Aga Hakem al-Buda this is my fight. Let that man up,” Djivo said sternly. He pointed at O’Driscoll who hadn’t taken his wild eyes off him. “If I die, let the other go.”
The Aga nodded, smiling at the prospect of an unexpected afternoon’s entertainment. O’Driscoll stood up, shook off the dust from his tunic and haughtily accepted his sword back from one of the Janissaries. He growled at Djivo, “Defend yourself, you Ragusan coward. You and your harlot witch will pay for your treachery.”
Djivo immediately smarted at the insult. He squeezed Catherine’s hand before stepping to one side and drawing his own blade. He could see that O’Driscoll’s sword was broader and heavier than his own, but also noted that he carried it lightly with a well muscled arm. Djivo swished his rapier a number of times through the air, briefly admiring the flashes of glinting sunlight. He would have to be careful. He thought to himself. Although his sword was more manoeuvrable, its lighter construction would make it suspect to breaking if hit by O’Driscolls broadsword. He drew in a large breath as he reminded himself of Saviolio’s teachings.
“Judgement, measure and a two-fold mind.” Djivo murmured as he took position, adopting his Italian fencing master’s close ward position. Placing his right foot forward he took most of his weight on the back left foot. The hilt of his sword was by his right hip and its point aimed upwards towards O’Driscoll’s face. O'Driscoll on the other hand was moving forward in the high ward position, his intention was clear. To get in close and press the first attack. It came, fast and with furious intent. Djivo deflected the lunge as he pulled back to one side but was now caught on the back foot. O’Driscoll took the initiative pressed again and again with repeated stocatta until Djivo - retreating - was trapped against the castle wall. Despite the protection offered by the riding cape wrapped around his left forearm he knew he was bleeding from deflecting some of the blows. He could feel the warm liquid seeping through the draped cloth. 
The courtyard and overlooking battlements were, by now, filled with spectators. The Aga was clearly enjoying the sport on offer and whispered to Catherine in an excited voice. “Your friend is defending well but the other is strong. However both men are tiring and someone will soon make a fatal mistake.” Catherine shuddered as she watched the rivulets of sweat course down Djivo’s face. 
Djivo did feel the fatigue setting in but so too was O'Driscoll. Because of his heavier sword the Irishman was having to make a wider and wider arcs with his elbow and shoulder in order to press home his attacks. This gave Djivo momentary respite in defending the blows but also meant that O’Driscoll was more open to a counter-thrust if only Djivo could get on the offensive. Dermico O’Driscoll was smiling, confident, as he pressed forward yet again. Once more Djivo deflected the oncoming blade down with his left arm but trapped, as he was, against the castle wall the trailing bloodstained cloth of his cape suddenly caught under his foot and he stumbled. O’Driscoll was poised. He knew this was his chance to finish his opponent off. With an explosive burst he brought his rear leg forward and began his shoulder rotation to launch his thrust, in full extension, at Djivo’s exposed chest. At that moment terror was etched across Djivo’s face. Catherine could not watch any more. The Aga was jumping forward. The spectators began to shout. The Ragusan could not possibly avoid the oncoming blow.
As Djivo waited, mesmerised momentarily by the oncoming blade completing its initial arc. His brain screamed at him. ‘Attack! Attack now! Close the distance.’ At that very instant he sprang forward taking an angle to the right. Imbrocatta. He dropped under the arc of O’Driscolls thrust deflecting the blade’s direction with the hilt of his rapier. It was only enough, however, to take the point away from his chest. Its direction and force cut through the muscles of Djivo’s shoulder and he could feel its edge run along bone before existing to spark off the stone wall behind. At that moment, Djivo saw his opening. His own blade had travelled past O’Driscolls right temple and as his momentum had taken him to open space on the other side. As he drew his sword back he executed a quick reverse flick of his wrist and opened a deep wound across O’Driscolls forehead. Djivo’s own pain then set in. Although now away from the wall, his left arm hung limp, useless, the draped cape trailing on the ground. 
O’Driscoll temporarily blinded by the spurting wound on his head disdainfully wiped the blood away, turned to face his opponent and made to attack again. He watched with satisfaction as Djivo appeared to slump, his guard in a very low ward and with the point of his blade caught behind the cape.
Catherine let out a cry. The Aga smiled as he sensed the kill. The soldiers pressed forward to surround them. Everyone was shouting. The noise grew louder and louder. O’Driscoll lunged again. 
Then... a sudden silence. At the very moment it looked as if he was doomed Djivo stood suddenly erect. With a sudden lateral movement of his wrist he lifted - with the point of his blade - the trailing cape off his arm. The strength of the movement threw the sodden cloth high into O’Driscoll’s onrushing face. The Sant’Iago Knight was instantly stopped in his advance - almost as if hit by one of the earlier musket shots - and realising the danger twisted in mounting panic to his right as he tried to disentangle himself. Djivo pressed his own attack. Extending his sword arm fully, he lunged and powered by two quick forward steps of his hind leg drove his rapier up and at O’Driscolls undefended side. He could feel its blade bending as it scraped off the ribs and buried itself deep in O’Driscoll’s chest. He then continued the thrust at an angle forcing the blade’s point to cut laterally. Air then blood hissed and spurted from the entry wound. O’Driscoll - for a brief moment - tried his best to recoil away from the plunging steel but then suddenly collapsed as his heart muscle was torn asunder. 
As he toppled forward Djivo took the weight of the fall to one side and then pressed back to push Dermico O’Driscoll’s lifeless body to the ground. Standing over him he then gave a final twist of his sword before stepping on the Sant’Iago Knight’s chest to remove the crimson blade. He turned away holding his left shoulder, leaving the bloody cape to cover the death mask of somebody who once had been his comrade in arms. He only managed a few faltering steps before collapsing - exhausted from the effort and the blood loss from his own wounds - to the ground.

As Catherine rushed to attend him, the Aga and the watching soldiers returned to their day’s duties, bemoaning the brevity of the sport. They dragged Comneno with them leaving O’Driscoll’s body to be cleared away by the Negro slaves. 

©R.Derham 2001,2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

My Eden – Marmalade and the Perfect Pillow

This is entirely a whimsical piece, precipitated in the main by a desire to examine the concept of happiness. On a daily basis, fully cognisant of the ‘luck’ involved, I give thanks for my emergence from the human gene pool into a particular society of plenty, where the opportunity not only to dream or to achieve exists, but also providing the latitude to seek the ‘green coral’ as Gilgamesh did. 

My mythical journey in search of enlightenment? An intensely spurious quest in search of the best marmalade and the perfect pillow!

Where marmalade is concerned I have put in the miles in search of that particular produce of paradise. And there is a direct connection to the Biblical Garden of Eden. Marmalade derives in the English language from the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, and the jam made from its fruit. Quince is a fruit, related to the apple and pear, which is native originally to the present day borderlands of northern Iran, Eastern Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. 

It is in this area, to the east of Tabriz that the archaeologist and writer David Roth placed his notional Garden of Eden and it is not too far fetched to consider that the apple, that Eve of Genesis plucked in defiance from the tree, was in fact a quince and not an apple. Left on a tree the fruit will soften enough to eat directly, albeit with a slightly astringent taste. 

When Catherine of Bragança of Portugal married Charles II of England she introduced into court life the notion of taking afternoon tea and using marmalade made from Tangerines instead of quinces from her fruit estates in Tangiers (Tangiers and Bombay (Mumbai) were given to Charles as part of her dowry). 

All of this entirely redundant historical information somehow informed my senses and in my travels in Armenia, Eastern Turkey, and Northern Iran in search of ancient history I somehow always kept looking for the perfect marmalade made from quince, or any other fruit.

And at night, I love a cold, firm but forgiving down pillow. I have not yet found the perfect one. My spiritual metaphor! 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 23)

Chapter 37
Tvanshanli, Anatolia. 
Oct. 4th 1638

As Djivo and Catherine descended into the village, the mountain path behind them disappeared into a dense early morning mist. Even if they were being followed it would have been impossible to tell. Ahead of them, standing beside the sacred fish pond, Issac and Seilim Zeitun Oglu were waiting, as arranged. Catherine saw that the older man was wearing the robe and crown, with its green istiva strip, of a Seyh of the Mevlevi Order. They greeted each other warmly and as Seilim helped Catherine down from her horse he spoke to her in urgent voice. “Come my child. We have little time and much to discuss.”
Catherine nodded and after whispering something in Djivo’s ear joined Seilim to walk the remainder of the way to Tvanshanli. The older man offered to carry her shoulder bag but Catherine shook her head. Issac watched them for some time before helping Djivo water the horses at a nearby han where they would stay the night.
The town of Tvanshanli was small, dusty, dirty and - it seemed to Catherine - devoid of all life apart from the occasional mangy dog. It was only as they neared the bazaar and it’s hubbub of noise that Catherine instinctively began to lift her veil so as to cover her face. Seilim stopped her. “No need for that Catherine. As the beloved pir Bagli once said - ‘Separating beauty and love would be a crime.’ ”
Catherine smiled and followed Seilim as he entered a round stone building near the central doorway of the bazaar. Once inside - and accustomed to the faint light from the cupola above - Catherine was amazed to see the stacked shelves of a library. There were a great number of movable bookcases containing – thousands she estimated – beautifully bound ancient and modern manuscripts and folios.
Seilim watched her eyes darting back and forth taking in the wonder of it all. “A hidden jewel in an ocean of ignorance.” He whispered as he moved forward to one of the bookcases and chose a manuscript at random. Bringing a pristine copy of ‘Attar’s Mantiq al-tayer - the Language of Birds - to a small low reading lectern Seilim opened it carefully, almost reverentially, to reveal a fantastic centrepiece illustration of many types of birds. Turning to Catherine he lifted his hands and rotated his wrists so that the palms were facing upwards in homage to the shelves. “This library has been my family’s responsibility for many generations. Much of the collection came from the great library at Cordoba, when it was sold off, and other purchases since. Others again are locally made copies of great works given on loan to us at one time or other.” He pulled over a chair and bade Catherine sit down, drawing over another for himself and positioning it close to hers. He waited for her to speak.

“Celebi Seilim. You know I have embraced the teachings of the Qur’an and that in my heart am mu’slim. It’s just . . .” she hesitated unsure as to how to continue. Seilim’s face did not register any obvious reaction and he remained silent. “It’s just . . . before I knew Djivo was alive, the Path of the true believer was my only salvation. But now with my love returned safely I know I will travel with him to his home in Ragusa or to the ends of the earth. In doing so I will surely be unable to proclaim my faith publicly. This is for his sake rather than mine.” Catherine paused for a moment and looked at him with pleading eyes. “Does this make me a kafir ? Does publicly denying the brilliance of Islam and hiding it’s beacon for the sake of temporal emotion negate the love I feel for it’s teachings? ”
Seilim took her hand and lifting it touched her lips and then his with her outstretched fingers. He spoke softly, 
“Detach thyself, be hanifi
And from all faith’s fetters free,
So come, like the monk, step up
Into religion’s abbey.”

Catherine waited for an explanation and as the gentle old man continued, a shaft of sunlight bathed them both in dusty gold, “Those lines of great wisdom are from Mahmud Shabistari’s poem the Garden of Mystery. He was a great student of both Rumi and Ibn ’Arabi and it espouses the true Sufi’s enlightened approach to religion.” Seilim stopped for a moment. He was somewhat pensive. “The only truthful Path, Catherine, is the one that takes you to God. Formal religious structures which obscure the Light are irrelevant. Throughout the Christian lands many people, such as the Alumbrados in Spain, are throwing away the shackles of directed and constricting dogma and returning to their roots of gnosis and private spiritual experience. We are no different. The ulema of Islam hate our mystical explorations and do no less than the Roman Inquisition to stamp it out.” He looked at Catherine directly, squeezing her hand to give reassurance. “Have no fear my child. You are bathed in the Light of the Divine Being and the clothes you wear are transparent.”

Catherine reddened and fingered the edge of the opened manuscript page nervously. After watching her for a moment Seilim leant forward. “Do you see that large bird? ” He pointed to the central figure of the illustration, a large peacock type bird with flaming tail feathers and a golden crown. Catherine nodded. “That is the Simurgh, the ancient supernatural bird and helper of humanity. The Simurgh is the bird of the dawn, the bird of the Opening. Its flight represents the ascent of the human spirit to heaven to find both God and its true self. You Catherine! My child. Are the Simurgh.” Seilim paused again before pointing to the representation of a small brown bird sitting with its beak wide open in a rose bush. “That is the Nightingale. The possessor of a thousand songs, the harbinger of the dawn. He, represents human love. That bird is Djivo, your lover. By its very nature the nightingale’s passion wanes at the dawn of your day. However. . . there are times, like now, when the flights of your destinies will converge bringing you to nest together in the embrace of the celestial tuba tree.”
Catherine’s eyes had begun to water. The ecstasy of revelation and the joy of its relief coursed down her cheeks. She moved her head to prevent the falling tears soiling the manuscript and her eyes, suddenly, focused on the shoulder bag that lay on the floor between them. She reached down and retrieved the container holding the coiled Scrolls. “What should I do with these Celebi Seilim? ”
He took them from her and rolled the container between his hands. “They would be secure here Catherine. You know that now. Later, when you are safe, you can write to me with instructions. In the meantime I will take the opportunity to copy them, if that is acceptable.”
Catherine nodded with visible relief. “Thank you Celebi Seilim Zeitin Oglu. You are a true friend. I am only sorry I could not have stayed with you longer.”
Before Seilim led her from the room he secreted the manuscripts in a small alcove hidden by a false panel in the wall. The bright sunlight blinded them as they closed the library door behind them. Seilim took Catherine’s arm. “Those that surrender themselves to God and do good works shall be rewarded by their Lord.” 

©R.Derham 2001 &2009