The artistic representation of history is more scientific and truthful than a historical one. The art of poetry penetrates to the very essence of the matter, while an exact account gives you a mere list of details.
The garden was never inhabited. In the daytime, even the birds fell silent. It was only in the morning or in the cool of the evening when a breeze blew in from the distant mountains to the green pains of Ghutakha that the birds would recommence their blithe, careless chatter. The gardener had only been there a week after having arrived from quite distant parts, and for him, the most enchanting moment came in the early morning hours before dawn when the tender turtledoves engaged in their mysterious conversation of love. The gardener opened his eyes, washed his face with cold stream water, and before getting to work, picked up his kipchagi. While plucking the strings, he listened for the chatter of the birds and sank into a reverie.
The singing of the birds frequently made his return to his -long-standing wish to write a book about music. As he tried to catch each varying tone and timbre, he strove to carefully analyze every birdsong. He wrote down his ideas on music, developing both a history and theory, but one needed much time to bind scattered thoughts into an organized work. It was also crucial for one to study up on those grains of wisdom in ancient Greek and Hindu writings on the science of music and musical instruments.
In his youth in Otrar, then a peaceful place, he spent days in its extensive libraries where he often dreamt of becoming a musician. His wish came true. Both slaves and their masters came to admire his musical prowess. He had even created his own instrument and called it the kipchagi. Young Otrarians loved the throaty sound of the two-string instrument that in skilled hands could reproduce the songs of Kipchak steppe and the sound of the wild horses’ hooves upon it, and while his father’s warriors loved his music, they respected him as much for his keen eye in shooting and his courage in fighting.
Never did he part from his kipchagi, in the strings of which were preserved the restless voices of his faraway land, and which evoked memories of the past, his youth, the beautiful girls of the steppe, their songs at bonfires, as well as his tribe’s wild warrior dances on moonlit summer nights. Yet, the thought of completing the book brought with it the anxious premonition that this incessantly bittersweet yearning that conjured those memories would cease too, and that fear kept him postponing his work.
As for the birdsongs, they reminded him of the birds in Otrar during his youth. He had seen them in the gardens of Djend and Sygnak, in the groves of Taraz. These memories of his homeland often evoked wistful homesickness that of late gave him no respite wheresoever he went. It was a rather natural feeling for a man who spent many years traveling through foreign lands in search of Кnowledge. He had walked thousands of miles down many paths, and he visited every town on the Great Silk Road. He had read many books and numerous manuscripts by sagacious philosophers, historians, geographers, travelers, poets, and scientists of various Arab, Persian, Hindu, Greek backgrounds. Learning languages had been his pastime since he was young. Often had he surprised his father by chatting with Arab or Persian merchants, or Greek winemakers. One could only but wonder how it was they got to Otrar.
Now, his bountiful memory kept revisiting one vision after another, selected out of the kaleidoscope of his past, and binding them with a thin but unbreakable thread; he tried to dispel the bothersome melancholy memories by hastening back to his work or to Socrates in the Dialogues of Plato.
And yet, however early he rose, it seemed as though there was never enough time to ponder nor work on his book. Hours fled by in the blink of an eye as he plunged into mathematical problems or, while following Aristotelian logic of the Poetics or Metaphysics, mechanically translated them into Arabic.
He hid the manuscripts he studied into a canvas bag only when the heat of the day fell upon the entire green plain. It was when the birds hiding in the foliage fell silent, and the bees went to work. This was also when the shack owner, the watchman who also was the mirab, the man in charge of irrigation, came back after watering the vineyard and rose plantation. This time he brought a rose branch and a basket filled with juicy plums.
The gardener greeted the mirab and shared his tea. Then he went into the garden in order not to disturb the mirab’s rest, and walk amid the rosebushes. Now he was Мaster of the garden. It was a young garden. One had to watch every seedling, especially the rose bushes. Roses like these did not grow even in the gardens of the Samanids. In time, they would become like the trees in the gardens of Southern India or here in Syria with huge red flowers. Each tiny stalk would become the trunk of a sturdy shrub with an innumerable plethora of rosebuds.
The rose butter made of these flowers had long been prized in bazaars of the East. These mighty bushes with their huge flowers would provide cool shade and fill the air with their fragrance one day, but for now, they were still quite small.
As usual, he went to inspect the bushes before the noon heat, looking for damaged branches or pests. Perhaps, it was time to call the servants to harvest flowers.
Here and there, carefully, watchful of the thorns, he would open a bush and enjoy its fragrant scent. As in all of the valleys of the Barada River, roses came in endless varieties. Each had an aroma all its own, though they were planted at the same time in the same soil. It led him to think about the origin of plants’ varieties, about the mystery of the seed and its underlying structure. But these thoughts were not organized into a system; long observations and experimentations were needed to draw conclusions about the nature of plants. They would, however, be of use in the future. For now, he devoted his brief lunch to his tract on Science Categories. He strove to reach a strict demarcation between all the sciences known to him.
Finally, the sun leaned to the west, and the gardener headed for the vineyards. Rapt in thought, he proceeded to cut off the dried branches, slowly making his way along the shady side of the lush wall of green, when he noticed two dust-covered horsemen dismount at the far gate. One stayed behind to guard the horses, while the other headed into the garden. He wore a long abah, with a light-colored turban, wrapped in the manner of young warriors from Damascus. Beneath his eyes, the lower part of his face was covered with a soft white cloth.
Noticing him, the man, perhaps somewhat startled, paused momentarily as if in reflection and then looking upon the odd, slightly hunched over figure of the gardener, decisively strode toward him.
The sudden arrival of the stranger did not disturb the gardener. He calmly went on with his work. He carefully deposited the pruned dry branches in the shade of the plum trees that grew amid the rows of grapes next to the bolt of brushwood that he had collected yesterday. Usually, he would take the brushwood every other day to the bazaar in a village close by and trade it for a few copper coins, enough to buy salt and flatbread. Last time, however, the mirab – his landlord of sorts – had taken the whole bolt and went off to sell it himself.
“That is our simple work,” he said. “Since you honored me and we are sharing everything, then I have to do some work, too.”
The mirab came back at night. He had gone to the Great Bazaar in Damascus. He produced a package of thick paper. It was a letter from the Chaldean who lived in a large stone house a block away from the city’s Little Gate. The Chaldean, a book lover, reported that a caravan had arrived from Baalbek, carrying a valuable package from a merchant he knew – two old Greek books. He wondered if these would be of interest to one so honored by all learned men in Baghdad, Damascus, Amman, and Jerusalem, the esteemed Abu Nasr?
The gardener was puzzled. How did the Chaldean know he was here? He had left the city a month ago and told no one. He was in hiding from the Caliph’s spies. Most importantly, he did not want evil rumors to hurt his beloved. Who could have known of his flight from the Caliph, his trip to Bokhara, and back to Damascus? He had hardly any friends left. In the last few months, he felt as if he were in a desert even when among people. At one time, he had plenty of friends in Caliph’s court. They were by his side while he composed odes to the Caliph of Baghdad, to the Sultan of Damascus, and honoring Allah taught others, exhorting them to obey Islam.
All that was in the past with the caliphs and emirs alike. Carried away by the kingdom of knowledge, the world around him grew empty once he deigned to question the teachings of the Prophet.
But then what kept him in Damascus? He could hardly admit it to himself…
The mirab who had brought the letter told him he had been seized at the bazaar and taken by force to the Chaldean’s house, where without a word, he was handed the letter.
The message alarmed Abu Nasr. At the same time, he could not pass up the opportunity to leaf through the old books it described. For three days, he had been wondering whether he should go out to town. Concealing oneself from spying eyes was a futile endeavor one way or another. And then there was the chance to see his love if but once more!
Could the old Chaldean have found out about him from the rose plantation’s landlord? But how would he know that his gardener is the exile from Otrar who was addressed by scholars as the Sage of Farab? No, the owner was far from that world. He was beholden to his wealth and desires of the flesh. As for the mirab, he did not even know his real name, nor ever showed interest in his past.
The mirab was a man of few words, with one thought on his mind – the timely watering of every little seedling, bush, and flower. Few strangers visited. The trees were not tall yet and provided little shade. Thus, the garden drew little attention either from its owner or from flower buyers. The owner had not built any structures. In the summer heat, he would leave for another garden, old and shady, about twenty miles from here, on the banks of Barada River at the bottom of Hemron, where the air was fresher and cooler. There he had built a summer palace with pools and houses for his servants and courtiers.
This garden he ignored, and hardly ever sent his servants or court officials. As the mirab said, the first plentiful harvest was coming, and in about three days, the slaves would arrive to pick the fruit. Perhaps the stranger had been sent by the master himself or by the manager of his gardens, wheat fields, cotton plantations, and fig groves? Abu Nasr wondered.
One way or another, the stranger was the first person to come by after he heard from the Chaldean. This worried the gardener. Once the fruit pickers and their overseers arrived, he would not have time or space for the seclusion and quiet necessary to work on his treatise categorizing the sciences, and on which he had been working for years, albeit not without interruptions.
The book was to be in five parts and drew close to completion. Still, each definition had yet to be pored over, and the narrative was made as straightforward as possible, the evidence rendered precisely. He needed to double-check his arguments and conclusions on logic, to expand the third part on mathematics, on the stars, on gravity.
As the gardener cut away the dry twigs and freed the green stalks from the dead weight, his mind went back to his notes. He kept finding lines and words that belabored the idea or obscured its meaning. He needed to get rid of them carefully so that the thoughts could evolve lightly and freely, much like these stalks when rid of dead twigs. The bag which contained his notes, a reed qalam, and vials of ink lay next to his kipchagi, which always had to be kept in the shade to keep it from desiccating. Abu Nasr tossed a cut twig into the pile of brush, quickly covered the bag with leaves, and, straightening up, glanced at the stranger.
The stranger’s face was covered by a white cloth, as were the faces of many travelers and warriors in these hot lands. Only the eyes shone. A cape of expensive Baghdad cloth draped the unknown visitor whose hands carried a small bundle and a pitcher. Lightly the stranger stepped over the ditch. The stride was light – not heavy like that of a man. He could recognize that stride among a thousand others! Then he saw the eyes. Her eyes! She tore the cover off her face, and it was she!
“I found you!”
He was almost ready to run to her like a smitten adolescent, but he did not move. One could not even tell by his expression whether he was glad or upset. He was unchanged. Happiness and joy flooded her eyes, and while her desire to leap into his arms seemed irresistible, yet he did not stir.
Giving her an almost indiscernible bow, he greeted her with restraint and unperturbed, invited her to sit in the shade. He removed the strap from which hung the pruning knife and, laying them aside, went to wash his hands in the irrigation ditch. “What worries you, hanum? Is all quiet in town?” His voice sounded unnaturally hoarse.
“My love was stronger than me… I found you again.”
She looked into his lean face, firm lips, trimmed black mustache, and thick beard.
Outwardly he had not changed…the same long cloth coat, the same soft calfskin boots, with slightly arched toes, a white turban on his head. As he straightened, she noticed a slight slouch, or perhaps she simply failed to observe it before? Maybe it was from fatigue or from working on his treatises.
He wiped his hands and tied his old belt strap with a small sheath for the knife… still the same clean white shirt and loose pants of sturdy cloth…
The observant eye of a woman could not miss the graying hairs of his mustache and beard, nor that his hands had grown rough and sinewy. She wished to rub against the stubble of his cheek and press her lips to his rough hands.
“The past is a reservoir of memories. If it remains pristine, it always gives strength to the imagination and helps preserve the beauty of tender feelings,” said he, laying a small rug for her.
“Was not our love such a fount?” He sensed a note of despair in her voice.
“Why do you sound so cold?” she went on. “Did your mother deprive you of tenderness? Had your father not instilled kindness in you? How may moonlit nights have passed since last we saw one another!”
“Whosoever is not reared by his father, will be reared by time,” he said enigmatically.
She regarded him closely as if meaning to ask a question, but she did not. Instead, she untied her bundle and produced soft white flatbread, dried dates, and a pitcher of wine.
“Trust me, I cooked it myself… not the slave girl. This was made by my own hands.”
“It ill behooves the daughter of the Grand Vizier and widow of a renowned noble to sweat before a hearth like a servant at risk being mocked.”
“And yet I am the granddaughter of a Turkic nomad; else you would not call me Banu, for the Arabs, have no such name. My mother comes from the same land as you do, and I wish to be one of the free-willed women of the steppe as well. I want to cook for you and to serve you alone. Did you not say that there is no feeling greater than love? No mystery more sacred, my dear Abu?”
“You are right, but sometimes love conceals madness, and madness is an enemy of reason. As for your name, it is a beautiful word among the Persians. Banu is my Noble Lady.”
“Yet without love, a man is deprived of the seed of life’s pleasure, its joy, and pain. It is the beginning of all beginnings. It is the flesh of life. Did you not say that? I love you, and I am ready to face all the torments of hell in the name of love. Even the Prophet did not refuse Khadija, the daughter of the Arabian desert when she fell in love with him.”
“Life starts with reason, my beautiful Banu. Love must submit to it. Vast is the ocean of knowledge, and it can be navigated only by someone who can overcome the madness of passion, submit his will to reason, and multiply his knowledge by drawing strength from the Greats. Knowledge is the highest bliss of the heart and soul. It lights one’s path as well as the paths of others, for it is like a beacon while traveling on the ocean of life. Only knowledge and reason are loyal to man, while love can betray him. Knowledge cannot be taken away or chained, punished, or destroyed.
Did you not know that Love can be mocked? Whether it comes from the steppes or from the mountains, it can be spat upon to amuse the greatest of sinners. Even honest minds can mock it- some out of banality, others out of contempt, while others just because they can put in their judgment. A decent man becomes the executioner at the sight of his rival’s wound. Not unlike a pack of wolves, if they see one of their own with a wound, they tear him to death. You are aware of this.
‘And while Love can be fettered and betrayed, Knowledge is always a true and loyal companion to your mind; it does not shift; only new knowledge can affirm or reject it. It ennobles you as it enriches itself and stays with you throughout your life.”
He spoke quietly, trying to drown out his pain. He not so much lectured her as tried to convince himself. He realized he had no way out. He loved her and would love her all his life. He had loved her since he was young, from the time she had first come to Baghdad as well as later when they met again in Damascus. Afterward, he traveled to Bokhara and the Samanids. Now, he was back in Damascus, brought back by the callings of his heart. Yet cold reason told him that if he surrendered to love, another passion would die- that of the quest for knowledge. The fire of love might win. He was not afraid of obscurity and death. He was more worried that he would not be able to finish his work or leave behind his words of counsel. But who needed his knowledge or his counsel? Could this sacrifice be too great? She spoke truthfully, after all, his Banu. She would follow him anywhere and would reject the sweet things of life that were showered upon her by wealth and beauty.
How beautiful you are, my Banu! Oh Lord Creator, give me strength! Where is that line between human desire and one’s duty to reason?
He accepted the glass of wine from her, and after a sip, put it back. Despite his age, Abu Nasr was still full of energy. He could go back to Baghdad with Banu, ask the Caliph for protection, and become his court scholar. However, that would once again make him an obedient slave to his desires.
Where was the Truth? Callicles had said once to Socrates: “Are you sure you are looking for the truth? But here is the truth- in luxury, in freedom of will and desire– they contain both virtue and happiness… naturally, if favorable circumstances comply. The rest, all those loudly vociferated words that contradict the conditions of nature – it is just nonsense.”
It seemed Callicles was right. Had he, Abu Nasr, not enjoyed favorable circumstances? Had he not enjoyed the benevolence of the Caliph al-Muqtadir? And even now, the Caliph would not deny protection under his auspices and would be quite pleased to see him at court in his palace. He could take Banu to Baghdad, or his native land, and find a safe haven there. For her sake, he could forget about his treatises. She was worthy of it.
He could become a musician, or he could write odes of praise and live in the lap of luxury, enjoying love and winning over Grand Viziers and worthless men, dogmatists, and epigones of Islam. She could be his assistant, his disciple, and his friend. What a blessing would that be!
Banu understood him instinctively. His expression was intense. His complexion grew pale. She knew that once again, he was wrestling with himself and his own thoughts.
So what did Socrates say to Callicles then? He thought to himself in despair as he remembered the words of Socrates.
“You once said knowledge alone is eternal,” said Banu. “Yet, does it not also perish with its possessor? Wise men say that love is eternal as well since it is the continuation of life and a pledge to posterity. Man is not a stranger to passion, and knowledge is not acquired without passion either…”
“As always, you do not relent,” Abu Nasr interrupted. “Your words betray a thirst for knowledge and the yearnings of developing reason. You would make an honorable student and a good philosopher. However, though it appears our discourse is on one and the same thing, it is not, and we speak in different tongues. You speak of love, passion, and the desires with which our Creator had endowed us along with all living things. I speak of the infinite and eternal love of the beatific, the beatific that is infinite discovery enriching the mind and expanding knowledge. Knowledge is timeless and is what makes us human. It richly rewards not only the inventor. Its mysteries, however, are contradictory to those mysteries of love on which you speak, my beautiful Banu.”
“You called me ‘my beautiful!’ Thanks be to Almighty Allah! None that are wise lack the knowledge of love’s sweetness. Let my love be the way you see it. Do not reject it. We discovered it together, did we not? Love may vary, but I have but one that is my own, and I fear no torment for it.”
“Cease, my Banu! You are weak. You do not know of man’s skill in torment and cruelty.”
Yet, she would not let him continue.
“You do not know what a woman is capable of in the name of love, my wise Abu. However, I do know how multifaceted love is, sometimes treacherous, sometimes wise, sometimes audacious, and cruel. Sagacious Shiva knew the great measures of love – erotic, spiritual, physical, platonic, the love of the ethical in which harmony is comprised of the unity of the interests of intellect, of habit, of mutual trust in friendship… I do not know all the measures. Perhaps Haroun al-Rashid mastered all the mysteries of love or al-Mutawakkil who had four thousand concubines, but more likely than not King Solomon came the closest.”
Abu Nasr smiled.
“Oh, do not mock me, my beloved sage and tyrant! Be my protector and tell me- what kind of love is it you wish for?”
“The ocean of knowledge is vast. Only he who tames his naturally occurring passions may master it. To seek knowledge is to suffer. It dominates the man at times, even more than love. Love is suffering as well, but the suffering of love may overwhelm a man and cloud his mind. I fear it, my incomparable Banu.”
He looked past her, beyond the green trees. He seemed to be in a fog as his thoughts wandered elsewhere, someplace far, far away. He had not touched the wine. He could not bear to look at her directly.
She knew he was scared… of himself, of his own feelings. His love was so great he could hardly admit it, and this pained her more than ever. “Love has many generous gods, my dear Abu” she said quietly. “My love lies in the wish to protect you, to be at your side and as inseparable as your shadow when you are in difficulty, to support you when you are weak. Love is the gentleness by which rudeness is muted. Love is the tenderness that softens savagery. It engenders the will to live. Your Shiva is wrong. Love is the desire to give freedom to one’s beloved. It is an involuntary, unspoken acquiescence that drowns out your own self-centeredness. It is when least of all one seeks to oblige another’s love.”
Silently he swallowed the contents of his wine glass in one gulp.
“And still you are cruel, my teacher,” she went on. “You are the hangman of your own wishes. You, who are alone, and have not a few enemies that are strong and treacherous. I fear for you. I want to be your friend and your servant. May this service enlighten my path – a woman’s path! I have said everything, my Master.”
His face grew tense. He briefly looked upon Banu, and his sharp glance concealed anger and confusion. He drank some more.
“You are right, woman. Love has many generous gods and goddesses, but also many vicious ones. The Kama is the oldest one. It is what the Hindus call passion… the painful kind… and it is the one that dominates you now. It, however, is merely an instance of desire that is not ruled by the past or the future. Which is why your words are not burdened with reason. Hindus created the Kama Sutra and thought they had learned all the varying forms of love, but true wisdom lies in learning the unlearnable. So I ask you once again… who has known all there is to know of love? Nebuchadnezzar? Solomon? The salacious caliphs? Haroun al-Rashid or the Barmakids he put to death? Which of them? There is but one origin of love, and that is the flesh- its face, so beautiful yet so mercurial…
‘Do you recall the words we spoke to one another the night I arrived in Damascus from Baghdad to attend the majlis of poets and scholars? Do you recall our first night in the steppes of Mesopotamia at the time of the hunt? I read you my poetry about the stars and the universe. My words were mad, but they spoke the truth. It was the truth of the moment born of passion. And yet, do you recall your own feelings as we hid in a secluded part of the palace at night, in a garden behind seven of the innermost chambers of the palace that were guarded by your slaves and eunuchs, and when someone’s unwelcome shadow passed between the trees and we were in deathly peril… that fear of the gazelle that has scented its hunter. You were afraid we would be caught. There was horror in your eyes. That was when I saw the abyss between us. I understood that a Turkic nomad could never wed so noble a personage of Damascus. You know that wherever we go, we will be pursued by assassins, even in the caliph’s palace. I realized this too late. Otherwise, I would have taken a different path from Bokhara and Basra. The cruelty of the Samanids there was abhorrent, so I made my way back, but then the thought of you drew me to Damascus.
‘You say love gives freedom, but does it give us equanimity? Wishing to give freedom it may fetter us. Wishing to protect us, it may toss us into the fires of hell. It may intoxicate our minds. Enslavement to its sweetness may turn out to be nothing more than the bitter ruefulness of a refined sybarite.
‘Regret kills a man. My solitude is my destiny, and it suffers neither pity nor praise. Solitude is not yearned for, nor is it sought. It is acquired. Some do so unconsciously and others mindfully. My solitude is my choice, however. Though my barque is weak and totters in this sea of lies and treachery, in this kingdom of evil, but it is free!”
Abu Nasr rose to pick a few sweet plums and tossed them on the tablecloth. Banu’s large black eyes filled with tears.
“You are like that Greek you mentioned, the one who wrote didactic tales.”
She brushed back her hair and straightened the tablecloth as she tried to regain composure.
“Aesop? He is no Socrates nor could he be one, much as I could not be your protector,” he said as he laughed, though it seemed out of place.
“Have you ever loved? Do you recall the name of the first woman who charmed you?” Her voice was sharp and demanding.
Abu Nasr fell silent. He observed her carefully, and their eyes met. Oddly enough, he could not hold her stare and looked away. He sensed great strength in her. He realized that everything she said was a confession. She loved him more than ever. Now she was in possession of her passions, which was why she was able to argue so boldly without a trace of her usual shyness. She was sincere. If she sounded calm and reserved, it was only because she sought to preserve her pride in front of him. Yet the way she looked at him was sincerity itself. It gave away her every weakness. How many wishes and prayers, passions, and reproaches were in that look – it held them all! At that moment, she was ready to submit to every one of his desires, follow him to the hiddenmost corner of the garden, and for an instant, forget herself… to then regain peace as someone else.
“It may be hard to fire a spark of love in a woman,” he thought, “but it is even harder to extinguish the fire of passion when she is ready to force you to submit to her will or turn you down after her esteem is insulted and demands vengeance.”
“You are beautiful, my Banu. You are right. Fear forces a hedgehog to hide behind its needles, not unlike the tortoise hides in its shell. Why should we go back to our mysteries? The mystery of the first love is a treasure of the spirit. A sacred mystery. It is not something to be revealed to others, and you know this, Banu. Do not try to go back to it – if it still lives. Do not wait for it. Let it remain a beautiful moment that lit up your youth. Let it remain in your heart as a melancholy aching, a warm joy, a tender sadness. Do not tamper with it. If you regain your first love, you may lose the former feelings forever that it once stirred. It may be different from how you saw it when you were young and how your young heart perceived it… I treasure my love as a light that illuminates my life from the depths of the past.”
He flinched. You know I love you. However, unlike you, I am not in possession of my emotions. You have to suppress your feelings. Remember that your father considers himself a Great Arab. And Arab daughters like you need much strength – especially now, in these hard times. You need to preserve your strength for the struggle. Do you remember the death of Abassa, the beautiful sister of Haroun al-Rashid? No woman was wiser, braver, or more beautiful. A sister of the Caliph and a friend of the Grand Vizier Jaffar al-Barmaki. They loved each other. Her brother, the omnipotent Haroun, loved her, too. Islam, however, allows only love for Allah.”
He let out a grin. And so the love died, and so did the lovers.”
Banu grew thoughtful.
“You are mistaken. People talk of them differently. They glorify Abassa. She was the favorite daughter of the Arabs and their wise ruler.
You are right in that both Jaffar and Abassa contributed to the glory of the Caliphate. Women often rule over people and affect their fortune, good or bad, happiness or death. You know that the rich wife Khadija helped Prophet Muhammad.”
` “Quiet, my Abu!” Banu looked around in fear. “Your words are blasphemous! Their fire can burn you. Didn’t words like these multiply your enemies? May Allah forgive you. Glory be to Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s Messenger!”
“Be still, my love. We have but one God, and it is a truth all people fear. We are no better than them. People may make up pretty stories about the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid and his sister Abassa. You have heard them. The Arabs indulge in them. The bazaars of Baghdad and Damascus, the caravanserais of Mysr – everywhere people listen to these stories for hours in the belief of Haroun’s nobility, but they ignore the truth: that he was cowardly and cruel, that his concubines, slaves, and servants lived in torment. It is true Haroun al-Rashid was sly. He wheedled his way into the hearts of scholars and poets through patronage, knowing full well that his legacy would be perpetuated through paeans and odes to his wisdom and nobility. He was a treacherous murderer who simply paid for their poems with feigned affection. That is the truth.”
“What is the actual truth then, my teacher? It is more pleasant to believe stories than to discover the actual truth of your words. I no longer understand you.”
She refilled her cup.
“Wise is he who will discover the truth and disclose it to people.”
“But people value the wisdom of the girl, the Grand Vizier’s daughter, who stayed the hand of the executioner padishah who did not believe in women’s fidelity and would execute all women after the first night. She created a story that lasted a thousand and one nights. She saved a thousand lives. She brought peace to parents’ hearts. She brought calm to the padishah and conquered his heart with her wisdom. Is it not the main truth? Is truth, not kindness? Is it not the friendly trust that becomes sincere affection and then the high love that you talk about and which you desire?”
Banu had changed since they started the conversation. She was no longer begging for his tenderness. She was an antagonist, and she was on the offensive. Her look was no longer that of an obedient woman yearning for an embrace. Now it was one of courage, decisiveness, and revolt.
“I am not talking about the truths of kindness or cruelty or love, woman!” Abu Nasr was now talking to a philosopher in a debate, rather than his beloved. “I am talking about the truth of justice and of the character traits in the leader of people!”
Suddenly he fell silent and sank in thought again. The garden, too, grew quiet. Only sparrows were bickering in the bushes. In the distance, a nightingale let loose his song, but then fell silent, too. A breeze blew through the foliage, making the bright rose blossoms quiver.
“What is wrong, Abu? What bothers you?” Her voice became soft and tender again. She noticed the gloom in his face. It was as if he had withdrawn completely.
“You are right, my dear.”
With a sigh, he reached to tune up his kipchagi. “People need nice fairy tales; they need dreams. Dreams move people, and fairy tales ease the hardship of their lives. Fairy tales of sage and virtuous rulers are another faith and could be the most important truth of them all. I will have to write about it!”
His voice grew firm. “I will write about kings and cities, about rulers and the ruled, but it will not be a fairy tale – it will be about the truth all fear, but none dare touch!”
He strummed his kipchagi. The notes flowed from his instrument – a distant clopping of the hooves approaching quickly… The birds flew out from behind the bushes in fear. Banu’s face lit up with unexpected joy.
“You are so right, my Banu! No one needs my truth – and that is exactly why I will nevertheless disclose it! Against the Koran! I will finish what the Brothers of Purity did not.”
“Allah be merciful! May no one hear this! You frighten me! Do not talk about the Brothers. They were executed.”
“They are many – you cannot kill them all! You cannot stop the freedom of thought!”
“But they executed all of their teachers as well… all who were in the secret societies of Damascus.”
The music abruptly ceased on a half-tone. Abu Nasr grew pale and tossed aside his kipchagi, upsetting the wine pitcher. He rose, and so did she. He took her by shoulders and looked into her eyes. She was crying. Banu pressed herself against his chest to hide her tears.
“I looked for you, my Abu! I sent my servant to the old Chaldean who lives near the market. I heard that you knew the Brothers, that you attended their secret meetings, but I also heard that they are infidels whose blasphemy tainted the Holy Koran. Now the Caliph’s informers may seize you and put you in chains, as they did with Brothers.”
“Did you see their execution?” he asked quietly as he stroked her hair.
“No, but my servant Tana told me. It is the truth. She is loyal to me. She heard the crier who read Caliph’s message to all the officials of Damascus. You know: the ruler’s words echo throughout the city. None of the Brothers could escape his wrath. I know that you were well acquainted with them and that they knew you as well and respected you for your wisdom and your knowledge. People are evil, however, and even among Brothers, you can find those who are envious.”
“One’s reason cannot be bought,” he said. “I was not their teacher. They are the heirs of al-Kindi, a wise and noble man, and they themselves do not lack the wisdom of the great sages. They did not accept the Prophet’s claim that Allah created the world. They borrowed their ideas from Aristotle, Plato, and Heraclitus, all of whom had preceded the Prophet. Al-Kindi came to these ideas on his own path. He claimed the world had no beginning at all… And what of the Caliph? He should have burned al-Kindi’s works. Instead, he executed the Brothers … which was the wiser move, since books are not his domain,” laughed Abu Nasr.
“Fret and lose sleep, oh rulers of Baghdad and Damascus! May you be plagued and pestered Samanid Emirs! And may the Caliph be distressed with worriment! You cannot execute al-Kindi, the first Arab philosopher! Muhammad brought you the Koran and wars, while al-Kindi brought you his reason with no armies. Which of them will be the victor? Whose fire burns the brightest?”
Banu regarded him with fear and astonishment.
He straightened up proudly with his arms open wide, and he laughed as if he, and he alone, was lord of the world.
“I then will write that the world has no beginning. I will write on intellect and reason, on the power of spirit, on the virtue of cities with noble rulers. The Brothers of Purity and Justice shall not have died in vain! You are right, my Banu. We shall leave. One must leave the places where scholars are persecuted.”
“Did you say We?”
“Yes, Banu. We will find a way back to Baghdad to Caliph al-Muqtadir. I will tell him: ‘Glory be to him that is beneficent and helps one evade error! I did your will, oh, great Caliph! I visited the Samanids, and I saw your loyal servant Nukha the Shah of Samanids. In order to strengthen his faith in you, I created a set of teachings, translated from Greek, Persian, and Syrian, into the noble language of Arabic! However, he did not understand and rejected it. His cruelty and vanity are dangerous for the Caliph!’”
“You are excited, Abu. Calm yourself. The Caliph expects you. The old Chaldean said that your presence in the palace would gratify the Caliph’s vanity. For now, however, you should maintain your reserve. You will not save the Brothers. This is Allah’s will.”
“You are wrong, woman! Neither imams nor emirs nor the Caliph have power over the Brothers of Purity. They will spread beyond Damascus. Their minds are not encyclopedic, but their breadth is wide. Their deeds are pleasing to people. This, however, is not about them.”
He became quiet, retreating into thought as he picked up his kipchagi again.
“Let us not argue,” she said, the strain in her voice flagging. “This garden was made for quiet contemplation. Give me a present of your quiet song. Did you not say that music is a friend of those who suffer and struggle, a friend of all lovers, happy or not? I am tired of searching for you. Just stay with me for a little while. I will leave when the sun touches the earth…”
He eyed her in surprise as if trying to remember something he forgot. How did she put it? You will not save them. This is Allah’s will? How could she say this? He had to hate her for saying this, and yet, he could not. Nor could he answer her because in her words was that sudden ring of truth that disorients one. This eternal truth was simple, palpable, and so accessible that one did not need any profound revelations to perceive it.
She was right- he was unable to save the Brothers once they were seized. However, he could play to the Caliph’s vanity and vainglory. He could become his Grand Vizier, mock the simpletons of the court, unravel the intrigues of the envious, and at the same time, continue the cause of al-Kindi and the Brothers of Purity. By focusing on and revealing the essence of real things, he would be on the path of discovery to uncover the truth of human happiness – not in the afterlife promised by the Holy Books, but here and now on Earth!
Banu followed his expression closely and caught his sudden cheerfulness. This was the Abu she used to know, who could be merry as a child and then of a sudden gloomy and anxious… and now he became just that. He realized how hard a war to wage it would be in the hornet’s nest of the Caliph’s palace; his fight would be nearly as futile as that of the butterfly in a spider’s web. He dispelled these doubts from his mind and became cheerful once again.
“You are right, my dear Banu. You tire of searching, and I tire of waiting, though I could not admit this to myself. Let this time before sundown be our time. We had barely taken advantage of it.”
He looked at her wide-open eyes, her dark eyebrows, her clear forehead, and her moist half parted lips.
How foolish he was! To sit together for so long without admiring her, ignoring her beauty! Suddenly he wished to inhale the aroma of her hair, to feel her breath, but he resisted.
“You spoke of a song… let us go over there.”
He indicated toward a green clearing that was surrounded by foliage and enormous white rose blossoms that would conceal them from view of any chance passer-by. “It is the best place to listen to the evening song of the birds.”
The foliage and flowers hid them from the world, and their quiet conversation merged with the birds’ chatter. When the garden grew dark, and the sun bid the earth its farewell releasing its last rays of light to the sky, Abu Nasr said: “Let us not anger the Creator. Let us render him honor for our meeting and lay our disagreements to rest. It is late. Hurry, my love, before they miss you.”
He rose, looked around, and gave her his hand. He admired how lightly she leaped from the ground. “How beautiful you are! Your countenance so sweet, your wishes one with nature. Yet, you are as proud as a palm tree spoiled by the sun and seeking the wind’s sweet embrace. The palm knows not that the wind is inconstant. You, however, are quite aware of this.
“I am an aging banyan tree that grows along the roads of India.”
He smiled. “Banyans are as massive as the cedars of Lebanon. Like an old banyan, I strive for tranquility and to last on earth for as long as possible, holding on to it with all my roots, harboring the wish to give people as much serenity and shade as possible to save them from the sly rays of the ever-loving sun.
“Buddha said, ‘Do not take that which does not belong to you, for it will die.’ Palm trees die in the shade of banyans. You spoke of Khadija’s love for the Prophet, but he saw women as mere servants. He used her wealth to conquer Mecca. He saw women as slaves to entertain men and their male whims. I do not accept the Prophet. That is the Creator’s will – not the will of gods, but the Creator himself. There are multitudes of gods as there are of prophets, but there is but one Creator of all creatures.”
They crept through the rosebush plantation and thickets of plum trees. He picked up his jacket in the grass and slung it over his shoulders.
“I am a creature vulnerable to all sin. I have no control over the person I am, nor of you. Today, however, I will be the executioner of my love in the name of the Brothers of Purity and what they stood for. You, however, will forever remain a friend and the fresh flower of my memories. You will remain a friend of freedom. You will hear no more reproaches from me – you are a free woman!”
He looked into her face, and then suddenly, he kissed her and walked away without looking back. She wanted to run after him, but she did not. Then she heard a voice break through the silence from behind the trees:
“I will do as you asked. Tomorrow night, I will be at the old Chaldean’s house.”
The sun’s last gleaming melted slowly on the snows of Mount Hermon. Banu still looked in the direction of his voice. She heaved an audible sigh and turned around in fear, wondering if anyone had overheard? She covered her face up to her very eyes. The birds continued their soft chatter before going to sleep. She picked a white rose and headed out of the garden toward the old stone walls.
“You are silly, my master…” she said to herself as a smile lit her face. “You want to run away from yourself, to evade your feelings. You wish to tell me that your love is pure. I know that… and I am pure in my thoughts before you. And so it turns out that I am stronger than you… or no, it was you who actually said so. You likewise said ‘where there is sun, there is shade.’ You cannot run from a shadow… And the shade protects one from the wrath of the sun’s fire. I will save you from yourself.”
Rapt in thought, she failed to notice that she had already reached her horse. The servant was napping. What would he have thought if he had overheard her ponderings? She called him quietly. The servant leaped to his feet and flung a man’s thin cloak on the shoulders of his mistress.
“Is he here?” he asked, daring to inquire.
She glanced at him as he helped her into the saddle.
“He is here. After midnight you will take him to the old Chaldean’s house. Not one informer must learn of this.”
“Praise be to Allah!” he blurted out.
“Did you understand, Hassan?” she said to him abruptly.
“Yes, Mistress! Not one dog in all the streets of Damascus will catch a trace of his scent nor see his tracks.”
Banu grinned… to herself as it were since her smile was hidden. She lightly kicked the horse’s flanks, and it carried her forth. Her servant barely kept up with her.
The city guard at the gate would not dare stop a horseman with his face covered, wearing so expensive a cloak, and accompanied by a strapping, young bodyguard. One never knows these days… stop one like that, and then the blame is on you. What if he were a barid – a messenger from the Caliph of Baghdad?
He spent two days at the old Chaldean’s home. Only the most devoted servants and slaves knew about him. Banu came to visit after dark when after long conversations over dinner with the host, Abu Nasr retired into a tiny cubicle in the back of the courtyard. Helped by a dim light of the lamp, he anxiously pored over the books’ mysteries. These books significantly differed from all others he had encountered primarily by the fact that these were written by the hand of a masterful calligrapher. However, the first book, Ptolemy’s Almagest, abounded in mistakes and omissions. Upon second perusal, he also noticed that it also contained chapters he had never seen before.
Rapt in reading, he suddenly heard a quiet cough. He turned to see his Chaldean host’s loyal servant Joseph standing in the doorway. With an air of mystery, he invited the esteemed guest to move to a room more fit to his station, where a confidant noble person was awaiting him.
“Who is this person?”
“I dare not utter her name, Master.”
Joseph went on to pack Abu’s belongings, indicating that the latter should not bother with his papers, but, instead, to make haste. Then he silently led the guest past the flowerbeds and through the labyrinth of the rear entrance. Finally, they arrived in a large well-lit room, and Joseph simply vanished.
Abu Nasr realized it was Banu. He was seized with anxiety and even fear for her – she kept taking such risks for him. The person was covered in black from head to toe, but he knew it was Banu. Without showing her face, she sputtered:
“They are looking for you. You have to show up and bow to Sultan’s viceroy or else seek protection with the Caliph. Otherwise, you will run into the blade of a dagger, or else a soaped noose will find its way around your neck! Hear me, my Abu! I do not want that to happen! I have to go. If I should be found… Allah have mercy on us!… I may bring tragedy upon you. I do not wish to get you into trouble. But do not worry…”
She was filled with anxiety, and her speech was disjointed. “Do not stare at me… this is my servant’s dress. I am leaving now. There will be a caravan leaving for Baghdad in a day. Your host will help you. I am prepared to share all the hardship and peril on your path. Say the word, and I will be your slave…”
“The fate of the Brothers worries me,” said he, instead of replying to her.
“Oh, Holy Prophet! What do you care about the Brothers? You said there were many of them. They will not execute them all… but let Hassan tell you more about that.”
She briskly walked to the secret door and opened it. The lamp revealed the face of old Joseph standing in the narrow passage behind the door. He politely stepped aside to let through a young man, lanky but broad-shouldered, who bent his knees before Abu Nasr.
“His father is Chaldean, and his mother is the daughter of a Kurd,” Banu said. “He will be your faithful slave. Faithful to death, as he is to me.”
At the words ‘faithful slave’ Abu Nasr gave Banu a look.
“How stubborn you are! He is your faithful friend, not a slave. He is loyal to you because, in his childhood, I saved him from death and then from an execution. He will be your shadow, my master. He loves you and esteems you as a wise teacher.”
“Time is running out, my mistress,” Joseph interfered. “The palace guard will change soon.”
Banu gave a quick nod. Hassan left the room with a bow. Again, they were left alone.
“I am still awaiting your answer, my master.”
Banu stood facing him calmly, her eyes on the small niche in the wall with a sand clock. She produced a white rose from inside her black cloak.
“This rose comes from your garden. It is purer than snow. I have to hear your answer before its petals wither. Did you hear that? Little time left before the change of the guard.”
“Hard is my way.”
“You have said so. One word from you, and I am prepared for anything.”
Abu Nasr stalled. As in the garden, he was still fighting himself and his thoughts. He could not give her a decisive No… and he could not say Yes either.
She understood. “I will come back… await me!”
For an instant, she pressed herself to him; then instantly, she slid out of his arms and was gone.
Abu Nasr, fatigued, lay down on a soft leather pillow. His head weighed heavy with thoughts. Banu did not realize that rose petals were a hundred times more fragile than a straight blade of grass. The slightest chill in the air could kill them, and so could a moment of thirst. White roses did not grow in cold or arid climes. He had seldom come across them in his native Otrar, but perhaps he had paid little attention. Old age is more appreciative of flowers.
He could well remember, however, the calm radiance of the first snows on the Kipchak steppe; how it braced one’s young blood, how it lured one forth to the hunt, to vie with the beasts of the wild… Ah, the exhilaration of hunting golden foxes on virgin snow when the horses tear forth… the animal tracks on the fresh white blanket, as precise as Arabic abjad on the snow-white paper of Samarkand’s master artisans.
Then there was the hunting of koulans, those wild equines that in winter roam the steppes and deserts around the Aral Sea, where snow is more scarce and food more plentiful. Male koulans can fight hunters to protect their mares, and the noble animal will rear up in single combat to face the hunter’s lances and arrows. Sometimes a hunter will try to take a stallion alive once he ensnares him, choking his throat in an ever-tightening noose. The freedom-loving koulan will fight with the most extraordinary vehemence, yet however much he resists, the man will prevail. The koulan, however, will remain a koulan… never will he grow docile, and never will he allow himself to be saddled. Freedom is his element.
Abu Nasr closed his eyes while his memories took him back to his native steppes. He seemed to distinctly hear the koulan band’s stallion aggressively neighing. He was even surprised at the vividness of the memory. He moved closer to the lamp and opened the Almagest. However, the reading did not go well. He opened another book, an early manuscript of songs by the ancient Greek poet Anacreon. He sang of exquisite love, effervescent and longed for that accompanied the poet well into his old age. The sound and the beauty of the ancient poem drew him in, and he read a few more, but then the poet’s words of love reminded him again of Banu…The book remained open.
The memories took him away from the quiet room with its scents of leather and candle wax, back to his youth. He remembered the thick smell of sweat in the markets of Otrar. Then he attempted to imagine the dungeon of the Damascus fortress where the Brothers were being held by the city rulers. Abu Nasr knew the location of all the guard towers, gates, and secret passages. He was reputed to be a master among builders – an expert on the secrets of ancient Babylonian structures. It was he who had designed the uncanny waterfall fountain in the garden of al-Muqtadir, the fourth Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, fourteenth after Haroun al-Rashid.
The mystery and beauty of the waterfall fountain consisted of its unique design and construction. Regardless of when the Caliph and his Grand Viziers visited the garden, they would always see water flowing a thin stream before a tall marble-plated façade down into a hidden chute at its foundation. And since mica-glass flakes were embedded in the wall, the water was illuminated by their reflected light, at times turning blue and at others merely sparkling or reflecting the colors of a rainbow. No one understood where the water came from, nor how it rose through the thick walls and fell from above.
The garden had many ponds and marble pools, and no one knew that the bottom of the farthest and the deepest pool was almost level with the top edge of the wall. This was also the location of the delicately wrought gate where the Caliph usually started his promenades through the garden. Clay pipes led from the bottom of this pool to the gate. Since the water pressure in the pool was always stable, the thinly layered waterfall on the walls would never stop.
Al-Muqtadir had been ruling for a long time – twenty-three years since he had ascended to the throne, but nothing is eternal in this world, thought Abu Nasr… except knowledge.
On his visits to the palace garden of the Baghdad Caliph’s viceroy in Damascus, Abu Nasr often examined its walls and pools. The walls of the fortress with the ruler’s palaces and gardens were surrounded by moats and canals. Inside, as in Baghdad, were the gardens with pools with cold spring water. The palace of the viceroy, whom the locals called Sultan, was in the center, behind the second wall. It was surrounded, at a respectable distance, with residences of viziers and treasurers, the wealthiest city officials. They were smaller palaces, with foliage and flowers behind the brick walls, but even they could not cross the invisible line and approach the steep walls of the harems, the throne hall, and the treasury. The rooms of the central citadel were carefully guarded by slaves and eunuchs.
Banu’s house was between the inner and the outer walls. An overgrown garden path, invisible to strangers, led from her garden to the secret passage under the old walls and opened to a steep bluff in a most remote spot that was strewn with rocks and overgrown with wild trees.
Only Banu’s loyal servants knew this passage, and so did Abu Nasr. He had used it once when Banu needed to take him out of the fortress in secret.
So what if the passage existed? You still could not use to reach the part of the fortress with the dungeons where the sultan kept his worst enemies and rivals. That included the Brothers of Purity. Who would help them? He did not even know their names. You did not know how to help, and you did not even know whom to help. Even looking for a secret passage was no use. In order to transplant a tree, you had to know the root. Before you thought of saving the Brothers, you had to know which of them had been seized.
And so the circle closed. Moreover, Abu Nasr knew that the sultan was not as sly and treacherous as he was cowardly, cruel, and suspicious. He saw plots everywhere. The fear for his life and his throne made the viceroy even crueler. He feared the rioting crowd as much as he feared the Caliph to whom he kept sending caravans of generous gifts. The gifts were being collected from his lands, and the more he collected, the angrier the people became. In order to keep his reins tight, he had to give more power to his viziers, guard commanders, city police, Syrian and Jewish moneylenders, wealthy Persians, and Kurdish warriors, all to keep them happy so that they would keep the rebels at bay.
Every report, every rumor of disobedience, every hint at plotting, sent fear through Sultan’s heart. He ordered without hesitation to execute anyone who was spreading ideas of revolt or even suspected of it. Now, he had overheard of a secret club calling themselves “The Brothers of Purity” who spread heresy. High Damascus officials followed his every step and demanded that he stop sending gifts to Caliph. They wanted Damascus to be independent; they said the days of the Baghdad Caliphate were numbered. And it was the fault of rebellious Qarmatians who had settled in Bahrain and spread the seeds of revolt everywhere, from the banks of Amu-Darya to the Tigris and Euphrates and – the horror of it! – even threatened to raid Mecca! Damascus used to be the gateway to Mecca. All the pilgrims passed through and contributed to the viceroy’s treasury. Now their numbers waned for fear of the Qarmatians, who demanded that property be equal, that all slaves must belong to the state, and even that the religions must be equal!
Abu Nasr smiled as he imagined Sultan fearing for his life and adding palace guards daily. None of this was new. However… it was ever so, and thus would it ever be. It was not only conflicts of religion and caste, slave rebellions, and palace intrigues that determined the ultimate fate of rulers. In history, the issues that arose in conflicts between people of different tongues played no small role. That is how it was in Babylon. That is how it was between the Turks and the Persians in the Sogdia and Samanid kingdoms. That is how it was in the present time between the Arabs and the Persians, the Turks and Syrians, the Armenians, and Jews.
Abu Nasr had known of this since childhood, for it was the same in his native Otrar, which Arab merchants called Farab. They came to trade with merchants from Khwarazm, China, and the Samanid Empire. This made the city powerful, for it was a crossroads for caravans from all corners of the world. The Arab word Farab was rich in its meaning, standing for generous, green, beautiful, plentiful, and so in his treatises, Abu Nasr referred to Otrar as “Farab.”
So much time had passed since he had left his home town, but he still recalled the day his father had died, the day his wanderings had started, the day his careless youth came to an end. The memories of his recent wanderings in the streets of Bukhara and Otrar were so fresh, and he remembered the execution of Qarmatians in Bukhara.
He remembered it all, the past, the present, the recent and the distant… and his father’s last words. His father’s face distorted in pain and flushed with blood, then his dimming eyes, and finally the bundle of citrus wormwood in his dead hand.
Abu Nasr sighed deeply. He set aside the open books. He slowly rose to put out the lamp. In the dark, he pulled the leather pillow closer and lay down on the rug. Oh, Allah! It was so long ago! Yet, the vision had been as clear as if it had happened yesterday… the first snow, the wormwood in his father’s hand, and Anida’s eyes, tender, and pleading.
All night long, his eyes would not close. He tossed and turned, rose, and got back in bed again. The memories of the past, the thoughts of tomorrow, of Banu, of the Brothers, kept him awake.
She was right: rivalry, envy, treachery, lies, and truth – all were combined in one man. Even among the Brothers, one could find traitors, and no force could endow a man with the good only. Man is comprised of duality: he is the hangman and the savior, the tyrant-destroyer, and the godlike creator. This is how it always was.
The fate of all those Turks from various tribes that had left their homeland in their youth, as he did, simply confirmed this. In Otrar, they were rivals, ready to cut each other’s throats. En route to Baghdad, they banded together out of intimidation. So it was once they were in the service of the Caliph when they felt they were aliens and slaves. United by fear, they were one. In times of war, however, or when they went into battle to put down a popular rebellion, each of them tried to single himself out and distinguish himself before the Caliph and the Caliph’s men.
Once one of them was made to inform on others, once one felt the sweetness of victory and the fruit of betrayal, once one of them was granted a reward greater than that which his comrades had received, it all started again, and they were once again at each other’s throats.
His tribesmen were fearless in the battle and hypocrites to one another in days of peace. This is how they were seen in the caliphate- Turkic slaves, Turkic warriors, defenders of their master’s wealth. This is how the Caliph wanted them to be. Their hands were to tear out the throats of his rivals and keep the rebels in fear.
The rich and the poor, the beggars and the moneylenders, they all lived in this world side by side. The struggle between good and evil never ceased.
Abu Nasr rose. Dawn came. He could no longer lie in bed. His sides were aching, and the arm under his head went to sleep. He came up to the small window that filled the room with early morning freshness.
Alas, all in this world was a duality: day and night, the sun and the moon, the air and the water that gave life to all living creatures.
His thoughts leaped back and forth. He recalled that all his fellow tribesmen, Kipchaks, and Konyrats, often simply called themselves kassaks, merging two words, kas, and sak. They were common for all the Turkic people: Kas meant “aggressive,” and sak meant “vigilant.”
His fellow tribesmen stressed that a man was always a stranger to another and always had to be wary of being struck by another. The word had been used by Herodotus first, and so historians of antiquity called Abu Nasr’s fellow tribesmen who roamed the steppes from Yedil to Black River “the Saks of Herodotus.”
Perhaps this was why all the warriors who had, like Abu, come to serve al-Muqtadir, called themselves sacs, or kassaks, to distinguish themselves from other Turkic people. Arabs simply called them gulams or soldiers.
A voice outside interrupted his thoughts. He opened the door to the courtyard. It was almost light. The birds had left the trees where they had spent the night. In the distance, he spotted Joseph, who was giving orders to slaves. A peacock was lazily sprucing himself under a shady tree next to the fountain. There was another hour until dawn—time for the morning prayer.
Abu Nasr washed his hands and face in the fountain and did not even see Hassan holding out a towel for him.
“May your coming day be good, Master.”
The young man bowed respectfully.
“Ah, is that you, my brother. Thank Allah, another night has passed,” said Abu calmly, indicating he was about to do his prayer next to the fountain.
Hassan briskly brought him a travel prayer rug, then stepped aside, spread a black cloth, and followed his master’s example.
“Any news, Hassan?” asked Abu Nasr after the prayer. He asked idly, just as a distraction from his dark thoughts. Actually, he was listening to the turtledoves and the clicking of the peacock, which, upon seeing his hens, flashed his plumage and fanned out his tail.
“Double guard has been posted outside the mistress’ house. She is banned from leaving.”
“How do you know?”
“Before the sun came up, her favorite servant Tana came with a black eunuch slave.”
“Tana is from my tribe, Hassan.”
“Truly so, Master. Tana is closer than a sister to the Mistress. She came crying. She fears for the mistress who is not allowed to leave without her father’s permission, who is the Grand Vizier—”
“Last night, the Grand Vizier sent a man to invite his daughter to meet the guests who had arrived from Haleb. The Mistress did not come out, however.”
Hassan glanced at Abu. “She could not because she was not there. She came home later through the secret passage. When the vizier sent his servant again, she came out to thank her father for the invitation and said she could not see guests at such a late hour for she had a headache. The Grand Vizier sent his doctor, who later said that she was merely tired. He decided to punish her for disobedience and told her not to leave the fortress without his permission.”
“So, the Grand Vizier does not know where she went?”
“No, Master. Tana says no one knows. She passed a message from Mistress.”
He handed Abu a small pouch embroidered with silver thread. It contained a letter and several golden dirhams.
Shame fought anxiety in Abu Nasr’s heart as he silently eyed the gift. Whether she wanted to or not, Banu reminded him of his poverty and that he was embarking on a trip without a coin in his pocket! How could she! He had always provided for himself. He could always get a job as a caravan driver, or a scribe, a bookkeeper to a merchant, or as an interpreter!
Of course, in his heart, he knew she meant no such thing. She just wanted to make his trip more comfortable. She was prepared to sacrifice more than a few dirhams. She was prepared to join him and expected his consent.
He was increasingly filled with anxiety for Banu. He realized that neither Tana nor Hassan might have known the whole truth. What if the informers discovered she had left the fortress last night? What if they attempted to investigate, and she was in danger? Her father loved her, of course, but he had enemies, too, and he feared their mockery. He would not spare his only daughter to protect his honor, even though unlike others, he tried to bring her up free and resolute. He provided her with knowledge, taught her in the matters of court, and met her every whim. He was glad to see her marry a high-placed local noble, a wealthy Persian general. Yet she was widowed early. Her husband was killed by rebellious African slaves who dried salt marshes in the hills, where the ground was white with salt and the bones of African slaves and rebels who were dealt harshly. Banu was left alone, a mistress to a vast fortune, which she entrusted to a silent Syrian, who obediently followed the Grand Vizier’s will. What if this Syrian or some other informer found out about her relations with a wandering sage, a Turkic named Abu Nasr?
How cruel was this world! It was about to take away his only friend, the one who awakened his love! So what if he, Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, had turned down her love a thousand times! So what if he still believed that a man who became a hermit to dedicate himself to science should be wary of love since love was so often blind and cruel. So what of it! He realized that even a blind and cruel man could not live or create without true love, affection, and trust. He had to know that he was being loved.
Abu Nasr glanced at Hassan, surprised he was still there. He handed Hassan the pouch with money. “Keep it for yourself.”
“I understand, Master. Everything will be ready for the trip. Any guard will look the other way for a dirham.”
Abu Nasr took Banu’s letter back to his room to read it in solitude.
“I am addressing you, my Master and Ruler of My Heart! May Allah have mercy on us. Only He can save those who cry out for help. Only He, omnipotent and omniscient, knows how eternal my love for you is. He, the Creator of all that lives, has put this fire in me, for whatever happens does so at His will.
‘I am in a cage. Tomorrow the ruler’s servants will go out collecting taxes, and only Allah knows how much blood will be spilled and how many bodies will fill the dungeons. Hurry while the roads are open. The viceroy is out to wage holy war on heretics – Qarmatians, Jews, fire-worshippers. Hurry, for Allah is merciful. When He opens my doors, should it be His will, I shall find you.”
Banu never mentioned her name, but he knew her handwriting- tiny but perfectly legible. He saw in his mind his Banu writing nervously in the middle of the night, her face pale from fatigue and anxiety. His heart beat harder, as it had done when he was young.
To stay calm, he tried to think of something else – how he would leave this town, which had become so dear to him, thanks to Banu. All this time, he knew that she was not far behind the fortress wall, and the thought always soothed him. Only now, as he was about to leave, he became aware of his love for her in all its fullness – despite the thousand times he had tried to shake himself free of her. He had told her that a man who devoted himself to knowledge and quest for truth could not be in love.
Plato was so right! Or was it Socrates? Or perhaps Callicles? The important thing was that one of them said: The quest for love is a quest for the unity of two beginnings and their compatibility of desire, for love can only be love when two “I’s” merge into one. How was she faring, my poor Banu? What disturbed her? Was she finally able to give herself over to the forgetfulness of sleep, or was she weeping? She would not be at peace until he left Damascus, but even afterward, would she have peace? Ongoing unrest, palace coups, interreligious fighting, slave rebellions.
The letter mentioned the new tax collection. It always involved beatings of headstrong city dwellers and the poorest of peasants – potters, tanners, plowmen, and watermen. In order to fill the Caliph’s treasury, as well as the storages of the vizier, the judge, and other powerful officials, and to maintain an army, the people had to give up cattle and poultry, bread and dates, the last dirham, and the last yarn. Banu was right; they had to hurry in order not to see the beatings in city squares and to hear the wails of parents whose children would be taken into slavery for failure to pay.
Was life in Baghdad any better? Should he head for Jerusalem instead? Or Amman or Mysr or Alexandria? It would be the same thing all over.
After his night of reminiscences, Banu’s letter, and the uncertain circumstances of the situation, Abu Nasr’s thoughts were in disarray. For the first time, he suddenly felt forsaken and alone, a boat without oars in the middle of a storm.
He could no longer afford to spend time in reflections. He had to pack his manuscripts and set aside his work. He had to go out, hear what people were saying, see what was going on with his own eyes, and then choose a road to Baghdad. Yes, Baghdad because at the very least there were still poets there, people who still swooned over A Thousand and One Nights, which had been brought in by the Persians and Indians during the days of the first caliphs, translated into Arabic, and rewritten to satiate the people’s dreams of good rulers and to please the caliphs themselves… or perhaps to set them an example with stories of kings’ and shahs’ good deeds?
Baghdadis were like children in believing these stories. They called their city a “City of Peace,” though when it had seen times of peace, the chronicles of history did not indicate. More importantly, however, was that there he could find the spiritual fathers of the “Brothers of Purity.”
Abu Nasr smiled at this sudden idea and rubbed his hands. When the old Chaldean came in, he took him back with his question.
“You have many threads running through your hands, my friend… You know both merchants and scholars; you know the secrets of not only the Damascus viceroy but that of the ruler himself. So, tell me if I might still see living in Baghdad Abu Suleiman, Abu al-Hassan, Abu Ahmed, and most importantly, the holy and sagacious face of Zeid Abu-Rifaa?”
“All is in the power of the Creator, whosoever He may be,” said his host slowly. “As Baghdad is not Damascus, and the Caliph not a viceroy… He is the ruler of all God’s servants and custodians of both the wise and the foolish, and even we, the children of Zarathustra and many Buddha worshippers, today depend on him, o my wise guest.”
“Then help me, my friend and brother. Teach me to avail myself of good thought through righteousness. Thus spoke Zarathustra, and I repeat his words. I am leaving Damascus, and I am going to Baghdad, my generous host.”
“Said Zarathustra- What land shall I run to, where am I heading? - I ought not to know of your intentions, my wise guest. I am a devotee of knowledge. Could I help a man who possesses the great treasures of reason? If so, I will be glad to be of service. For now, the road to Baghdad will be long and hard. The Qarmatians are in revolt again. Everywhere you will see their banners with a quote from the Ninth Sura of the Quran: “God bought the lives and possessions of believers and paid for them with Heaven.”
“The same words were on the banners of al-Barkawi, and on the banners of the Zinja rebels who created their own state and demanded an end to slavery – but they never freed slaves and died,” objected Abu Nasr.
“Qarmatians demand communal property and religion and no more taxes.”
“May their wishes come true,” said Abu Nasr.
“I never heard your words, o my wise guest. Slaves cannot own what is mine. The Qarmatians were right about one thing: everybody has a God of his own, and everybody is free to worship his own God.”
“But virtue must be the same for everyone, and the fruit of the tree must be accessible to all. Here Qarmatians are right also. This is what Brothers of Purity stand for as well.”
“Once again, I have not heard your words, o my guest!” exclaimed the Chaldean. “I do not know your Brothers, and I bow to the mercy of the viceroy who endows me with his attention. I am happy that he, like the Judge of Damascus, accepts my gifts. I am prepared to sell you the two old books you pored over at night if you leave your works with me for storage. I will give them to copyists and only sell the copies. You do not need them en route. I told you your voyage would be a hard one.”
“Yet it is no harder than the route to the Samanid ruler Nukh and back.”
“Then you have obeyed the will of Caliph al-Muqtadir,” the host said. “On the way back, you avoided Baghdad.”
“I had good reason,” said Abu Nasr.
“The beautiful Banu.”
The Chaldean grinned slyly. “But she is the daughter of the Grand Vizier and is now in a cage.”
Abu looked at his host, sternly. Their eyes met.
“Calmness adorns wisdom,” said the Chaldean. “A father often does not know his daughter’s secrets. My walls are deaf and mute.”
“I will present myself again to the Caliph’s throne and ask for her freedom,” said Abu Nasr as he went to pick up his kipchagi.
CHAPTER TWO Learn the causes of things Heraclites
“Truly, a baby could envy a sage’s simple-mindedness.”
So grumbled Hassan, as he urged on his horse to keep up with the rest. To leave the Caliph’s palace with all its wealth and entertainment, to deny yourself all honors and privileges, and then drag your feet on hot, dusty roads looking for shade, while risking an attack by bandits or runaway slaves at all times. The Master was beyond comprehension, may Allah forgive his insolent thoughts, but where were we going? Baghdad or not?
“Hey there, Chaldean’s son whose mother was a Kurdish beauty!” cried out Sanjar, a tall, broad-faced Turkic, whose voice filled Hassan with fear. “What are those curses you are mumbling? Or are you praying?”
Sanjar looked quite severe, including a deep scar from his right ear to the chin. Once Sanjar had been a personal slave of Caliph’s, but then was punished and escaped from Samarra… Still, Sanjar treated Abu Nasr with the same esteem as Hassan did.
“Where are we going?” he asked Sanjar after collecting himself.
“Heaven is far, but hell is everywhere around us,” said Sanjar vaguely. “Right, Zuheir?”
The young Syrian held his horse back. “True, my revered brother… but let us not disturb the Teacher’s peace.”
He nodded towards Abu Nasr, who either had not heard their conversation or had not been paying attention.
The horse, moving at a steady trot, carried him forward. All three men riding with him observed a respectful distance. Hassan dared not pass Sanjar and Zuheir, yet the moment they saw oncoming people – vagrants, messengers, caravan drivers, herders, or slave traders taking poor black slaves to the markets of Damascus, Amman, or Jerusalem – Hassan instantly spurred his horse and stayed close to the Teacher. Tense as a panther, he was ready at any moment to protect his master from any insult or assault.
It had been a week since Hassan followed the order of his mistress Banu - whom he honored as his savior - and became Abu Nasr’s servant and slave. ‘In the name of Allah, in the name of my love,’ she exhorted, ‘be the Teacher’s shield if someone should strike him; be his guide if he, Allah forbid, loses his eyesight; be his slave if he so orders! Take care of him.’
Hassan’s father, a Chaldean slave, and his mother, a Kurdish slave, had died of cholera. Banu had saved him from starving to death, taught him to read and write, and had him instructed in warrior arts. Now, though he had met the Teacher only recently, he felt as if he had known him all his life. It felt as though he had spent months, not days, with this man - odd, generous, and seemingly naïve as a child.
Hassan felt neither a slave nor a servant. The Teacher never insulted or humiliated him; he did not behave like his owner or a master, and even Sanjar, who looked threatening and could be crude, treated Hassan as an equal.
Hassan protected the Teacher as he would his own father and perhaps even the more so. Who knew what his father might have been like if he were alive?
The Teacher was always pensive. He rested little during their shortstops. He would share a meal, listen to Sanjar’s chatter, and then go aside to be by himself, while Sanjar, having filled his stomach, stretched in the shade and instantly fell asleep. Zuheir, however, tried to get close to the Teacher. At first, he merely listened, but then he responded and even argued. Yet when the Teacher asked him something, he would fall quiet or become peevish and speak off-topic. He would often quote his former teachers, naming them fully and with respect:
“Old Abu Suleiman Muhammad Abu-Harun az-Zanjani used to say: Allah did not create anything other than that which had already been created. This, in turn, was proven by great Abu Ahmed an-Mahradnuri in his treatise on the works of the greatest al-Kindi.”
Zuheir often cited al-Aufi and Zeid Abu-Rafaa, quoting from their treatises and epistles and calling them “Masters of mind and spirit.”
He recalled in delight the time he had spent in “The Treasury of Wisdom,” the Baghdad library founded by Haroun al-Rashid. He quoted poetry by Abu Nuwas and Kassan Sabit.
The Teacher always listened without interrupting, but once, two or three days after they had left Damascus, he interrupted Zuheir-
“Do you remember Socrates, brother? A beautiful youth joined his group and remained silent for a long time. Socrates said to him: ‘Say something so I could see you.’ Do you remember what the young man said in response?”
Zuheir sheepishly fell silent.
“I saw you with your first words, my brother,” Abu Nasr continued. “The path of reason is cruel. It is hard even for those who are strong. Sometimes, however, the feeble may also find strength on the way. I thank the Creator for meeting you, my friend, and the “Brothers of Purity,” and their disciples have my gratitude.”
Zuheir opened the palms of his hands and laid Abu Nasr’s heavy hand on top of them and touched it with his lips. “I am all in your power, Teacher, and I am happy to be your shadow.”
Zuheir kept talking to the Teacher for a long time until Abu Nasr carefully changed the subject. Hassan wanted to hear some more, but he had to water the horses and check the harness and replenish their water supply. As usual, Sanjar managed to procure a pitcher of wine and a full cup of Syrian arak, so that time, Hassan did not manage to hear the conversation with Zuheir to the end.
One way or another, Hassan liked Zuheir. He was not lazy like the young nobles whom Hassan was used to meeting. He was straightforward, modest, unspoiled, and remarkably friendly. He was always polite not only with the elders like the Teacher and Sanjar but with Hassan as well. That made Hassan grateful to the Creator not only for becoming the Teacher’s servant but also for making friends like Zuheir and Sanjar.
Hassan heard and saw a lot in those days. His former life had been spent among servants and slaves. All he had to do was silently accompany and guard his mistress on her brief outings to Damascus, but now he shared meals and conversations with people whom he had not known before. Zuheir and Sanjar had known each other before. Both had served at the court of the Ruler of the Faithful.
They had met before they had even left Damascus. The Teacher decided that before they departed, it was necessary for him to procure the full text of Abu Bakr al-Razi’s treatise A Refutation of Religion. He tied a simple turban, like that of a Bedouin or a Syrian peasant, slung his bundle over his shoulder, got on a horse, and to Hassan’s surprise, calmly rode out of the place where they had spent the night. He headed straight for the center of town where seven streets intersected and followed the road to the famous bazaar.
Hassan followed. He had known the dark maze of this ancient covered bazaar since childhood. More than once, he would come here, accompanying his mistress or doing her errands, and could never satiate his curiosity. All the merchant routes from every direction, from the Cordoba Caliphate, from the Samanid Kingdom, from China and India – they all crossed here. So many spices, so many strange goods, so many different people! Obsequious porters and fierce city guards, moneychangers and whoremongers, buyers and beggars, slaves and homeless vagrants, cripples, and silent Bedouins – one could see them all on these narrow streets upon which were crammed all manner of goods and wares. The guards’ penetrating looks examined each foreigner and each Syrian. Sometimes they would grab someone, drag him out of the crowd, and take him away, ignoring his groans and tear-filled prayers while they prodded him with sharp lances. Other times they would beat and manhandle the crowd, to help clear the way for the bodyguards of a wealthy noble.
Camels, elephants, and Arab racehorses made their way through the crowds, too. Some moved in the usual pace, while others, obeying the rider, knocked down the idling pedestrians. Dust and smoke, various odors, bellowing camels, squeaky carts, the beating drums of wandering musicians… and the all too frequent Alla, Alla of poor pilgrims robbed by someone… all these merged to create a human sea called the Bazaar of Damascus.
Hassan did not dare ride in front of Abu Nasr, but he could not lag far behind. On a narrow street, it was hard to ride at his side, as he had to give way to the endless stream of people. Everyone moved as best as they could. Huge bales on camels’ backs could quickly push a rider off his horse. Yet somehow, Hassan managed to keep up. He was afraid that the city guards or someone else might recognize the Teacher or suspect him – but of what? That, Hassan, did not really know. He only heard that the Teacher was in as much danger as those they called Brothers of Purity.
Hassan swooned from the aromas of spice and food and grill smoke. He relaxed only when they left the main road and moved into covered side stalls. Deafened by the hammers clinking against the metal and swallowing bitter smoke from the smiths’ bellows, they went through the armaments’ stalls where famous Damascene steel was forged. Then porters with vast stacks of lamb hides on their heads blocked the road. The Teacher paused to view a couple of metalsmiths but proceeded in silence, ignoring the yells of the vendors who grabbed at his harness, trying to show him their goods. They left behind the rows of metalworkers, wool makers, tailors, barbers, solderers, tanners, butchers… they barely made their way through a thick crowd of white-clad pilgrims proceeding to Mecca. They passed by the jewelers’ stalls with gold and silver and pearls from Basra and Yemen and turned into a quiet side lane.
Once again, they were in the sun. City guards were napping against the walls. They seemed nothing like those comrades that were fighting crowds in the bazaar maze. They glanced in the direction of Hassan, and the Teacher and lazily went through the motions of looking them over.
A few elders sat in the shade, drawing on their hookahs. A fat one in a dirty turban was telling the others a story, while the servant boy was adding tea to his cup. Must be the owner, Hassan thought. For a coin, he could keep dragging on his pipe to bemusement.
The street turned even more narrow and veered to the left. Mount Qasioun loomed afar. Grapevines hung from the walls on both sides. Behind the walls, one could see the foliage of gardens and tops of date palms.
The Teacher stopped his horse at a nondescript gate. Without dismounting, he knocked with his whip. No one answered. He shouted- “Anyone home?”
A tall, broad-shouldered Syrian youth wearing a long shirt and a round white cap emerged from inside. He eyed Abu with a mix of curiosity and wariness.
“Whom are you looking for, honorable, sir?” He hesitated how to address the stranger – was he a commoner or a wealthy merchant, a city noble, or a pilgrim?
“Don’t you know around here that a Muslims should not interrogate a guest in front of your doorstep?” Abu smiled. “Tell me, brother, does Master Mahmud reside here?”
“He does,” the youth murmured and closed the door tightly.
He was not wealthy, nor seemed like a rich man’s son, thought Hassan. His hair was not cut… that was odd. He could get punished. Commoners could not wear their hair long.
Abu Nasr’s behavior seemed strange, too. He said he was looking for a book, but he did not bother going to the bookstalls. Instead, he came here and asked for a Mahmud. He was undoubtedly careless, for he ignored the city guards and behaved as if he were unaware that informers who could be anywhere, including at this house.
All over town, they were looking for Qarmatian heretics and book lovers like his new master. Ah, Mistress Banu, why did you hand over your servant to this stranger who did not listen to you, who ignored your love, and who abandoned you at this hour of hardship? If only your loyal servant had stayed with you, he would protect you from all dangers and would risk a noose or a knife to save you! Whom did you have now? Just Tana? She was a woman, what could she do? Though she could be as crafty as she was beautiful under that dark kerchief of hers, and it was confirmed that she was honest and loyal. He often felt his heart beat faster next to her, and he always wanted to look strong and brave before Tana, but what could he do now? He could not tell her about his heart, nor could he protect his mistress Banu.
Trying times had come to Damascus. The Sultan, who observed his faith, along with other faithful Muslims, declared war on rebels and heretics. If Allah would only spare his slave Hassan from terrible punishment! Hassan wished the Teacher would release him. He would be forever grateful and would run off to his mistress and lie down at her doorstep. Yet, the mistress had ordered that he never leave this strange man, that he defend and protect him with his life.
The door squeaked, and the same youth let them inside. The shady front yard was cool and quiet. The Teacher dismounted and handed Hassan the reins. The youth nodded at the path that led to the hitching post; then, he looked outside and, once he made sure no one was watching, he shut the door tightly. Hassan moved to follow the Teacher, but he ordered that he take the horses to the post. The youth invited the Teacher into the garden.
A white-bearded older man met Abu Nasr next to the gazebo, where even sunshine did not penetrate the thick foliage.
“How did I deserve your interest, my honored guest?” The host indicated the couch covered with soft lamb hides.
“I know no higher honor than meeting the famous calligrapher Master Mahmud. It is your hands that plant the seedlings of learning in the sages’ books available to all the readers.”
“This is me. Your words, honored guests, are like a balm to my soul.”
He moved a leather pillow closer to his guest.
“Thank Allah, there are still many people who value the mystery of words above gold.”
Abu Nasr shook the master’s hand with both hands.
“Peace be upon you, stranger. May good fortune follow you everywhere. I have never met you. What brought such a noble believer to my door?” He looked outside and called to bring tea and flatbreads.
“I seek knowledge. A path has brought me here, to one who treasures priceless gifts of knowledge, in order to master the path of those who seek virtue and wish to give people the good things.”
“Mysterious are ways of people, my brother. Each has his own heart, his own mind, his own path. The measure of our knowledge is the measure of our labors and sufferings. Our lives are in the hands of Allah, the omnipotent. We are all his children, his disciples, and his slaves. He is our judge, and only he can lead us to the font of learning. I am a slave of Allah, just like you. Only he can give the good to the people.”
“But He, too, is the fruit of our thoughts and desires,” Abu Nasr objected.
The old master was in shock: “Brazen are your words, brother. May Allah forgive me. I did not hear your heresy. But if the servants of the ruler of the faithful have sent you to test me; if you, honorable sir, are one of those who risk their lives to protect the Caliphate from heresy; if you are the eyes and ears of the Sultan, then I am delighted, brother. I am a loyal servant of the Caliphate and the Sultan. I collect holy books on prophets and can show you a book by our Prophet Muhammad copied in my own hand. May Allah bless us and give us strength! May all Qarmatian heretics burn in hell!”
Now the older man spoke calmly and firmly, his eyes semi-closed. He did not seem to justify himself to the stranger, whose arrival seemed to worry him, but, instead, was confessing himself. Said, the black-haired youth brought in tea, flatbreads, dried grapes, and dates. Abu Nasr noted that he was the host’s son, rather than a servant.
Said went into the garden, and Abu Nasr noticed two shadows behind the plum trees. He sensed that these were not informers or thieves, but, rather, people who had found shelter in the old master’s house. They could have been his disciples – gifted calligraphers – or young interpreters of holy writs and works of philosophy. The older man was perhaps afraid not for himself but for his students, for what kind of a master would he be if he had no students to continue his work?
This passing thought made Abu Nasr sad and pained him, for he physically sensed his solitude and the emptiness around him. He thought of Banu, so near and yet so far, defenseless in this world of distrust, suspicion, and fear. How was she? He looked Mahmud directly in the eye. The master was dispassionately waiting for his guest’s response.
“I do not need the Prophet’s book,” said Abu Nasr calmly and gravely. “I do not need the Quran. I need the full text of Abu Bakr Muhammad Razi’s Refutation of Religion. I am not an informer nor an executioner. I am neither rich nor poor, neither a moneylender nor a merchant… and I can pay you only two golden dirhams. The secret of this trade will leave Damascus with me. I am a wanderer, o wise and great master, believe me.”
“Who are you, stranger, to brazenly question a known calligrapher and scribe that enjoys the benevolence and protection of the great Sultan?” Mahmud spoke firmly. “The sword of vengeance awaits you! These days heretics are executed, and the blood of the Qarmatians and the Brothers of Purity who lost their path in Satan’s webs flows freely. Do not anger Allah, the ruler of believers, and his shadow on earth! I hear the words of a madman who sets Abu Bakr’s treatise above the Quran… Does my honorable guest know that Abu Bakr was executed at Shahr-e-Rey by the Caliph’s personal orders?”
“I was in Rey after his execution,” said Abu Nasr calmly. “The Caliph has no power over his ideas.”
The old man said nothing.
“Your doubts are unnecessary, Master Mahmud,” Abu Nasr said tiredly, with seeming indifference. “We live in hard times indeed, if nightingales have to pass for magpies if fear generates disbelief even in the strong, and if the treasures of wisdom are locked away from those yearning for knowledge. Nothing surprises me.”
He rose about to leave.
“It ill behooves a guest to depart, leaving the host in the dark.”
Mahmud’s voice grew softer as if assuaged. “You did not tell me your name or your tribe.”
“I am a seeker of knowledge.”
“I know every scholar on the banks of the Barada, Tigris, and Euphrates.”
“I am not an Arab or a Jew or a Syrian or a Persian. I am from a Turkic tribe of Kipchaks. My name is Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad from the town of Farab.”
Mahmud slowly rose, straightened himself, and looked into the stranger’s face. Their eyes met again. The old man’s thin sinewy fingers went over the beads, briskly and quietly.
“How would you prove that? Or are you challenging me? If you spoke this name while being unworthy of it, I do not care if you are Caliph’s swordsman or informer, I will not hesitate to throw you out of my house.”
Abu Nasr smiled. “Great Master, I am not that wise or brave for Damascus informers to know my name. I am a commoner, a former warrior, and slave, and I can prove whom I am by quoting al-Kindi, or the words of Socrates as recorded by Plato… the verses of Abu Nuwas, or the ideas of Heraclitus about fire and cosmos… Aristotle is my teacher… A glorious master by your own admission. However, I want you to know that my time flows like the sand in a glass vessel. The last grain can turn into the Rock of Gibraltar and impede my road to Damascus… and should the Sultan’s executioners arrive, we will both be in chains.”
“Omnipotent is Allah! Peace and patience, Teacher! So far, the Sultan is benevolent to his servant Mahmud,” the old man spoke solemnly. The mask of indifference slid off his face. He twice clapped his hands. “Said!”
“Make sure that donkeys do not roam in the street,” he told his son, “and that the walls do not have ears. Feed our guest’s servant. Give water and oats to their horses. Welcome, Teacher… thanks to the Creator that he provided me with joy by sending me a guest like you. Although time flows fast and you have a long road to travel, I cannot let you go in such haste. Let us be patient and leave haste to others. My friends will help you find your way out of the maze of Damascus, while I want to show you all my treasures – my books.”
They entered the inner courtyard, passed along a narrow path with grape and plum branches, and arrived at a gazebo with a small fountain. Three young people with reed pens pored over the open books, laid out next to stacks of golden white Egyptian paper.
“They have sharp eyes; they sense the beauty of the word and the exquisiteness of the letters. The Great Sultan is happy with their work and ordered three more copies of the Quran.”
Mahmud brought his guest into a cool room and seated him at the place of honor. In front was a low table with a flat dish with dry almonds, pistachio nuts, and other food. A black servant brought towels and cups with warm water for washing hands. No sooner did Abu Nasr wash his hands and settle down than did a dish with pilaf arrive before him, along with a kettle of mint tea and flatbreads. The host took a pitcher of wine and filled a cup of thin copper, covered with metal ornaments. One could tell it had been made in Rey.
The host called his son and told him to tell Zuheir to bring whatever was under the parchment, as well as a treatise by Abu Bakr that had been brought from Basra. Meanwhile, Abu Nasr looked around. There was an exquisite Persian rug on the floor, and there were rugs from Mecca and Medina on the walls. One carried the Sunni symbol, the Rock of Ka’aba, while the other, the Shi’ite one, the hand of Ali the Prophet. Is he Sunni or Shia? Abu Nasr wondered… but thought better of asking.
Meanwhile, the servant brought in small dishes, an aromatic broth, pieces of hot lamb with spices, and young vegetables. Abu Nasr took a sip of wine and pondered a tiny grape he tore from the vine.
“The soil of Damascus is fertile due to volcanic lava,” Mahmud said. “The juice fermented in these grapes is worthy of the inspirations of the greatest poets. You mentioned Abu Nuwas and Hassan ibn-Sabit. They loved wine and women and did not believe in the afterlife, just like the Qarmatians.”
“Any comparison is possible, honorable Mahmud, but it is only useful if one wishes to clarify the subject of the debate. I cited their names not to compare them to Qarmatians but to win your trust. Qa’aba ibn Zubeyra from Mecca was also a contemporary of Hassan ibn-Sabit, and both sided with the Prophet. Qa’aba started by mocking Islam and the prophet himself as an unsuccessful poet, but then came to his side and was rewarded with a cloak. It became a tradition among Muslims – rewarding poets with cloaks and gowns for their complacence. Ibn Sabit was even more complacent- he sang hosannas to Muhammad so passionate that the Prophet ordered that the poet receive some of the spoils of war, though he had never been in a battle.
‘But are Qarmatians’ deeds comparable with those of these poets? Don’t Qarmatians demand freedom for all sects and castes, freedom of religion, and equality in possessions? Don’t they provide their readings of the Quran? While these poets blindly followed the Prophet or perhaps could not resist his fame and became his shadow… As for wine and women, Prophet Ali was their most ardent lover. As we know, Muhammad was angry with Ali, saying that a true believer should not drink wine and decorate his bedroom with obscene pictures.”
“Will the All-Powerful forgive us the bare essence of our speeches!” the host hastened to intervene. “I bow to the logic of your mind, my wise guest. Let us leave poets and Qarmatians aside. I just mentioned Abu Nuwas, Haroun al-Rashid’s favorite. Yet, this conversation is not for young ears,” he added, nodding at a young man who just entered the room.
The young man was tall, with delicate features. He observed the guest with surprise and admiration. Then he bowed respectfully and held up a silk parcel with a book on top of it. Mahmud accepted the book and handed it to Abu Nasr. “Abu Bakr’s treatise. Please accept it as a gift. I am happy to offer it.”
Abu Nasr accepted it with awe and immediately submerged himself in it. He did not notice Mahmud carefully unwrap the parcel that contained another book. Mahmud placed it on a leather stand in the corner. He nodded to a young man to take a seat and fell silent, breaking soft, warm bread. Finally, Abu Nasr tore himself away from the book, glanced at Mahmud, and spoke slowly,
“Jewelers and goldsmiths and potters leave their products as a memory to the future generations, and they are worthy of great praise. Yet, how great must be the praise of those who copy books with such love and tenderness! They are breaking and clearing the path to knowledge through the hardship and cruelty of millennia in order to pass the wisdom of the ancestors along to their descendants. In this way, they make people dispute, refute, or continue the great quests of the past.
‘One day, a poet will come who will sing about the labor of calligraphist copiers, without whose efforts the thread of history and science would be torn. For the words of Socrates would be forgotten, along with Homer’s poems and Aristotle’s treatises, al-Kindi’s thoughts, and the verses of Abu Nuwas.
‘Your work is noble, Mahmud. Beautiful is your objective. Your reed pen weaves the ornaments of eternity that contain breath and wisdom, confusion and happiness, love and cruelty, joy, and suffering. Allow me, Master, to call you a sheik from here on, and not merely for your wisdom and your old age, but for your blessed deeds… and may your disciples now call you Sage Master, and Sheik Teacher. May our young friend support me likewise.”
The youth shyly rose and bowed in consent.
“This is Zuheir,” Mahmud said. “He is not a mere copyist; he is also interested in scholarship and discoveries. Praise to Allah for a joy so great! I am grateful to you, Teacher, for your words. You exceed a hundredfold the value of the gifts that I could receive from the richest and most generous client. Your words inspire and encourage me. However, if a calligrapher’s work is similar to that of a bridge builder in time, now in our days of mutiny, we already have a saying: A scholar’s ink is as valuable as a martyr’s blood. As we copy books, we enjoy the beauty of the author’s style, admire the depth of his thought, and see his mind as the source for our own life. He slakes the learner’s thirst like life-saving water from the holy well of Zamzam. We are the water carriers who fill their water bags from Zamzam and dispense it to pilgrims to help them on their way through the desert. While the source for our deeds is your wisdom, and wisdom of those like you. Zuheir! Pour us more wine, you cannot treat a guest with words alone… but let me ask you… how did you find my home?”
“It was pointed out to me by the old Chaldean, a passionate lover of books and old parchments who knows all the secrets of Damascus and its wealth.”
“That old, sly fox…” said Mahmud, relieved. “He is a moneylender, but books are his weakness.”
“I was staying with him and planned to leave Damascus yesterday, but as I was about to leave, he said the Caliph had supposedly announced that the Ishmaelites would be dealt with most harshly, for the Qarmatians have stemmed from them and from the book collectors, scholars, and poets.”
“Yet, how would a moneylender know the secrets of the Caliph’s court?”
“You may be right only if the great Sultan is still unaware of the Caliph’s new order.”
“I am astonished by your words as well as your serenity, Teacher! You speak of the Ruler of the Faithful as if he were a common acquaintance, yet you know the powerful al-Muqtadir, and not only of his cruelty and treacherousness but also of his respect for scholarship and poetry. Al-Muqtadir is envious of Haroun al-Rashid’s fame and the campaigns of the three Umayyad Caliphs who made Damascus famous. Would he give an order to execute all scholars and poets?”
“My god is only the truth. The same truth for which you, despite all fears, continue your work, copying and multiplying books forbidden by the rulers of the faithful; the same truth that guides us along streets paved with blood and breeds contempt for the hangman whether he is a silent slave or a ruler extolled by poets. How many books have been written about them! How many dastans! How many stories the Persians have… the Shahnameh and Tarikh-i-Sistan… and it is all about the rulers. They keep talking about the grandeur of the Persian spirit, while the Arab ones talk about the greatness of Arab rulers. In the name of what? So that people could read the truth between the lines. So that they remember the names of the executioners and their victims. I want to write a book, too, but mine will be about noble rulers, ones that they should be. This is why I am more interested in Abu Bakr, rather than memoirs of caliphs’ good deeds. So many years have passed… and one cannot get them back,” continued Abu Nasr after a sip of wine. “I found myself in Baghdad in my youth. I must have been like Zuheir here. The beautiful time of hopes and disappointment, of dreams of feats and discoveries.”
For a moment, he closed his eyes, giving in to his memories. He looked like a decrepit older man, lost in tormenting thoughts. Mahmud did not bother him.
“Years are like leg chains. One yearns for peace, but time hurries you up,” Abu Nasr said pensively.
“You spoke of caliphs and your youth,” Mahmud said. “We are all ears. Your story will give the joy of discovery to the young who quest for knowledge and the disciples of Brothers of Purity. I am sure that you will not regret the time you spend with them.”
Abu Nasr was surprised to see that they had been joined by several young men with piercing eyes like those of Zuheir.
“We might as well have a majlis. But we need a different subject.”
“Truly, you are right, Teacher.”
Mahmud rose. “The Creator brought us together… and here are the ones who were the first in Damascus to open the pages of this priceless book. Ever since, it has been on our minds and our lips.”
Zuheir and another youth picked up a book that the guest had not seen yet and handed it to Mahmud. He then passed it to Abu Nasr, who accepted it with a bow. He peered into its pages and looked up.
Everyone was quiet. Once again, he stared at the book, turned over a few pages, and was overtaken by complete astonishment.
This was his own work! The one he thought was lost forever, ripped up or burnt by the Samanids. His own Talim As-Sani… “Second Study” …The book for which he had almost paid with his life.
But how did it get here? Who had copied it? He was sure it no longer existed. In those dark days, he had been unable to bring the original out of Bukhara. Nukh, the new Samanid Shah, ordered it taken away from him.
Abu Nasr came up to Mahmud with the book still in his hands. “You brought me joy today, Master. As if by magic, you returned to me something I believed was lost forever. You have revivified my strength and re-instilled my faith in the immortality of good deeds. I do not know how I can ever repay you! How did this happen? To whom do I owe my gratitude, and by what manner was this book found, saved, copied, and delivered here to Damascus?”
“You are mistaken, Teacher. The book ceased to be yours once you placed your last period. Wisdom and knowledge invested in letters on paper no longer belong to one person – even to the one who invested his own wisdom and knowledge into it. It is not you, but rather all of us that must praise Allah who gave you health and strength for this work. This is a priceless gift of wisdom to people. Now I know why you were so interested in Abu Bakr’s work on religion. However, since you asked about payment, all of us have but one desire alone… that you devote this day to us – to my students and me. We want to hear about Bukhara and Baghdad and how this book was born, and you must also make sure that the copyist did not distort your words and thoughts.”
Abu Nasr noticed Hassan appear in the doorway with an anxious expression and excused himself… “My traveling companion is worried about something; please forgive me… Yes, Hassan. What news?”
“I am sorry to disturb you, Master, but they are dragging Qarmatians in chains outside. All over town, they are looking for rebels and book lovers and taking away their possessions. I overheard it from the guards who were taking Qarmatians to the dungeons. One said that that there were guards reinforced at every gate, and they were taking anyone they deemed suspicious, by order of the Caliph. By the evening, all the gates will be closed.”
Said then confirmed Hassan’s words.
“Serenity and patience,” Mahmud said. “We will have to wait.”
“I do not believe in miracles or fate! But what is this coincidence?” Abu Nasr said to him. “This is exactly what my servant told me in Bukhara when I finished this work and put down the final sentence. I had a feeling of pleasant fatigue, I experienced great joy, like a farmer who had reaped a good harvest. Then Nukh’s soldiers burst in and took me to the palace of the new Samanid ruler. Can history repeat itself so precisely? No! For then, a mere contingency would become law. It would become a pattern that would repeat itself for the same person in these fierce battles between good and evil.”
“It’s all in Creator’s hands, honorable Teacher,” said Mahmud. “We cannot change the course of events. Patience is the essence of all decisions and all human faith. I am the Sultan’s chief copyist and calligrapher, and I am under his protection. My home is untouchable. Let us not act hastily.”
“You are right, Master.”
Abu Nasr sat down, tired. “Today the roads are closed to us, and tomorrow they will open. This is also the essence of contradictions. We cannot concern ourselves with the commotions of the city and the problems of rulers. Let us talk.”
“You have already begun your story, Teacher,” the young Zuheir hastened to say. “We await your words anxiously,” said the youth as he reddened.
Abu Nasr stared at him and grew perplexed as he wondered… Where had he seen that face before?
CHAPTER THREE Knowledge is man’s window into the past and the future
Memories… they often took Abu Nasr into that world of paths traveled, forced him to relive his joys and sorrows, and gave birth to endless thoughts. His memory was remarkably generous. It could reconstruct any past event down to its tiniest detail, yet at the same time, following the logic and the flow of his thought, from among thousands of faces and events, it picked one that related to what he saw and experienced in the present.
Even now, as he picked up his book, Talim as-Sani, he recalled all of the writing it involved, and the face of Zuheir bore a remarkable resemblance to a young Samanid in the city square of Bukhara. Everything in this world was alike and, at the same time, different! On that faraway day, a young Samanid, not fearing the executioners, approached a poet that had been blinded, took his hand, and placing it on his shoulder, silently led him away. No one, neither the executioner nor the guards, dared stop that brave youth, who was still too young to shave. Abu Nasr stood among the foreign ambassadors and officials, tightly ringed by Nukh’s soldiers, and did not know how the day would end – with his execution in the square, his blinding, his return to the dungeon, or a mere whipping and banishment.
Allah knows, on that day in Bukhara, he thought not on that. He watched the blinded poet, with his hand on the youth’s shoulder feeling for support, leave the city, proudly holding his head up and stepping carefully. The poet had been charged with Qarmatian heresy – that was the verdict- but the truth was that the poet had fallen in love with Nukh’s slave girl. You do not get punished for heresy alone, but love as well.
Abu Nasr knew the poet, known as Abu ‘Abd Allah Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn Hakim ibn Abd al-Rahman Rudaki. He was the only man in whom he felt a kindred spirit the moment they had met. The first time he had seen him was in the throne room of Samanid ruler Nasr ibn-Ahmed. He had been invited as a part of the Baghdad Caliph’s entourage, along with foreign ambassadors and merchants. Nukh, ibn-Ahmed’s son, on whose order the poet would later be blinded, sat on his throne, next to his father’s. The performance in front of the ruler and his guests represented the songs and music of many nations. Abu Nasr thoughtfully watched the art of the magician from China, admired the plasticity of dancers from Hindustan, the tenderness of the young Khwarazm girls, and listened to Persian singers, but he was especially touched by the dances of the Taraz beauties and by the music played by an older man from Otrar.
Those were his first days in Bukhara, the first days after a long time away from his homeland. His home town Otrar was nearby, on the border of the Samanid state, on the banks of Seyhun, which Kipchaks called Syr-Darya. It was from Otrar that he embarked for faraway Baghdad after his father’s death.
It happened in the Year of the Snow Leopard, in the month of the fast-running deer. On an early morning, Abu Nasr was awakened by a messenger, who invited him to join his father on a hunt of koulans, foxes, and wolves. Abu Nasr could not disregard the invitation. His father paid him little attention while his mother was alive. Now, however, he tried to spend time with him to teach him the arts of war, though by then, Abu Nasr was already eighteen and was a reputed marksman, lancer, and wrestler, as well as a great swordsman. His father knew all that, and parental vanity would have been satisfied, had it not been for his son’s other pastimes. Learning the languages of the Greeks and Arabs, the Dari of the Persians, Hindi of the Indians, or Hebrew of the Jews – that was still acceptable. A warrior, for that was his father’s dream for him, in a significant crossroad city like Otrar, needed to know what his enemies were planning. You also needed languages to negotiate with ambassadors or perhaps become one, if the city’s ruler wished that. In time, his son could become more than a great Kipchak warrior.
However, what about reading? For a good Muslim, there was one book only – the Quran. He should respect only the sword since only force can bring you the power and have others respect you. Only to the holy words of the Quran must one bow one’s head. Yet, people were saying his son was reading heresy! That his son was fraternizing with vagrant Greeks, Hindus, Chinese, and Jews. Instead of spending time among slave beauties or his father’s soldiers, he spent days in the storage of ancient manuscripts, following the orders of a beggarly older man with teary eyes, whom the ruler charged with storing these huge volumes that no one could understand.
His father was worried that Abu would turn into a weakling scribe or a pathetic scribbler of praise songs for which people paid a few copper dirhams. Such scribblers sought to please only those with a whip. They were soft and powerless, like dogs who wag their tails when the owner beats them in anger and then, barking, attack anyone for a meaty bone from the master.
His father feared that Abu would never experience the sweetness of the victory on the battlefield, the division of the spoils, the celebration at the bonfire, or the pleasures of captured women slaves.
Of course, a particular pride stirred within him when the sages of Otrar spoke of his son’s God-given gift for acquiring scholarly knowledge. However, knowledge was knowledge, and strength was power, and it was the knowledge that served power. This was something his father was well aware of as one of the Kipchak tribal leaders who instilled fear even in the city ruler. Power rules the world, and the sword controls people. Only the power that instills fear rules both those is hiding behind the fortress walls and those roaming the steppe. Even the Quran says the weak must concede to the strong. Such is Allah’s will. Thus reasoned his father, the great warrior Muhammad ibn-Tarkhan ibn-Uzlagat-Turki… and his father was angered. Abu had not deemed it necessary to accompany him on the first autumn hunt, so he had had to send a personal messenger for him.
A gulp of fresh horse milk, a piece of koulan meat, and a flatbread wherewith Abu leaped on his horse and, accompanied by a group of youths like himself, rode through Otrar’s main gate, followed by the guards’ wonder as to where the young men were galloping off to at the first crack of dawn.
The first rays of sunshine just brushed upon the blue dome of the newly built city mosque, but Abu was already several miles out of town, riding through the farms that surrounded the city in a tight semicircle.
The messenger tried to pass Abu to show the way, but Abu was like his father, he did not like being outraced, and he knew where his father hunted anyway.
The Otrar oasis was not just a great place for farming but also had poplars and reeds that abounded in wild fauna.
Abu passed the various gardens and cotton fields and turned off the main path. Now he was on the vast plain, with its thick growth of briar, elephant grass, buckthorns, barberries, and poplars. The plain was lined with ravines but had hills too that were thick with bushes of fragrant wormwood.
This was the pristine part of the oasis, where you could run into herds of wild boars. It was where it veered into and overlapped with the steppe, where you could encounter a herd of wild koulans or even the occasional tiger. Golden pheasants, grouse, and other foul were plentiful too, but warriors often looked down on this kind of hunting.
Abu sped his horse on as the thin layer of snow was quickly melting in the bright sun. The air was fresh, and the dry wind swept his face.
By noon they reached the hunting place. The messenger saw the traces of the Tarkhan’s retinue. It seemed that his father had made his first stop here and divided his companions into groups of two. He sent half of them to the left and half to the right, while he rode on slowly, waiting for the signal when the first koulans show up after being flushed out by his companions.
As Abu observed the horse tracks and the barely visible contours of the ancient road, he realized that he really cared little for the hunt. He would rather have turned and followed the ancient road to the Djend Sea. Where would that road bring him? Straight to the sea, to the Darya delta, or the hills of the dead city? Older people said that Djend, the great city of antiquity, was gone; that the Seyhun changed its course and leveled the city. He heard after the first flooding, the Seyhun pulled its waters away from Djend, and people tried to resettle the town, but then they saw that the town had become the snake kingdom and left it, after which the Seyhun flooded it forever. When was that? A great town that gave its name to the sea could not vanish without a trace.
Suddenly Abu saw the messenger hurriedly dismount and run around on all fours, peering at the pieces of clay and snow, broken up by many horses – a lot of horseback riders had followed father’s troop here.
“Aruakh kanibakh!” The courier’s cry was more like the yelp of a stricken dog. He raised his arms to the sky. “The Tarkhan has been ambushed by enemies! May Allah save us!”
Abu lashed his white stallion, who already covered with sweat and foaming at the mouth, gave his all, and rushed down toward the dry seabed of what had once been the bottom of the Seyhun. After galloping a distance of approximately three miles with his companions following close behind, he caught the shrill cries of the horsemen in the battle. He turned abruptly onto the straight, white with snow. The sun and the snow were blinding, but he was able to make out his father’s soldiers, fiercely resisting the attacking enemy.
“I am here, father!” he yelled as his horse reared on its hind legs, eyes bulging as it figured where to join the battle. An arrow whistled by Abu, barely missing his unprotected chest. Instantly he grabbed his shield from the saddle to protect himself from a lance strike and then, pulling the saber that was his father’s gift out of the scabbard, charged into the fray.
The plotters thought not a soul knew of their plans and were now stunned to see the Tarkhan’s son on a white stallion heading a troop of young horsemen, all of whom were sons of town nobility yearning to prove themselves in battle… and now they had the additional fear that these sons would be followed by their fathers and more bodyguards and mercenaries, as well as the Tarkhan’s guard. Terror-stricken, a great many simply fled, ignoring the cries and threats of their leaders, and quickly took to hiding among the rushes and ravines.
As Abu Nasr fought, he kept looking for his father. At last, he noticed his horse, bleeding, and reins were torn, the hanging saddle upside down. Mad with fear, the animal had broken free in the thick of the battle.
“Father! Where are you?” he screamed.
Finally, he saw his father, limping and helmetless, fighting against two noteworthy warriors whose faces were distorted by malice and animal ferocity as they circled him on horseback like vultures. They were the leaders of the Konyrats who also served in the Otrar army under his father. His father, fighting silently and frantically as a cornered wolf, stood his ground with the distinction of an old lion.
With a frightening battle cry, Abu came down on his father’s tormentors with untold fury. Companions soon came to his aid, and before long, the two Konyrats were lying on the snow, slashed to grisly pieces.
Abu swiftly dismounted just in time to support his father as he stumbled. An enemy lance had ripped open his father’s hip, and a saber stroke had hacked into his shoulder. His face was covered in blood. With a dagger, Abu cut open his father’s leather pants and attempted to stop the bleeding of the wounds with burnt cloth and tourniquets, but the blood from his shoulder continued to flow copiously. His father was dying.
His eyes rested on his son’s face, and he demanded water. He took a sip, and his head dropped. His good hand was still clenching a wormwood twig. His pale lips barely opened to murmur. “Blood… Avenge… To the end…” Abu barely heard the words, but he read them from the movement of his father’s lips.
Abu’s father was still clenching the wormwood twig as his body was brought back to the city. The sudden death of the chief commander did not affect the Otrar army. Rebellion, murders, and fighting between tribes were typical among the Turkic peoples. The Kipchaks took their revenge by ambushing Konyrats in a similar fashion, and then made their new leader the Tarkhan or commander.
After the death of his father, Abu soon felt an unprecedented change in the attitude of what were his former friends. Perhaps it had something to do with the dissipation of his father’s wealth and acquisitions, which in a year were all but gone. His home town had then suddenly become a strange place to him.
Abu left his home, hiding some remaining gold coins in the folds of his clothes. He moved into the confines of a mosque that took in youths in order to do that, which he felt suited him. In the daytime, there were five prayers and discussions of the Quran, while at night, he enjoyed reading ancient treatises in philosophy.
One day in the marketplace, he was struck by the sweetness of Indian and Persian melodies. It sent him back to his thoughts on music, and secretly he tried to make a musical instrument of his own. He tried to make strings out of horsehair, tendons, and, finally, catgut obtained from a goat. He started with a sad tune that had been born in his soul the day his father died and which had haunted him afterward. The sound was still not as refined as he would have liked, but he kept working on it, and in time succeeded in making it sound as tender and delicate, and at times as solemn, as that of the Indian and Persian instruments he had heard. That was the instrument he had called the kipchagi.
Once, he even sang a song while playing the kipchagi that was about his father’s battles. Abu’s voice and talent elicited awe and delighted his former friends, who were now officers in the Otrar guard, and people began talking about him again. This, however, brought about the ire of the imam, who believed the youth should be a humble Quran interpreter and who, with his excellent voice, was slated to become a mullah reader in the mosque.
Abu understood that he had to flee the city. This, however, meant that he had to say farewell to his true and tender friend Anida, the daughter of a poor tanner who used to visit him at night and listen for hours to his songs and stories of mysterious faraway lands. Abu truly loved Anida, but he loved her the way one loves a weak, defenseless creature. How they cried together when he decided to leave! It was for her sake that he had come back a year later, after having spent his last copper dirhams on the books he had bought in Bukhara. Yet, his Anida was no longer there, for her father had sold her to a butcher.
Abu resolved to buy her from the butcher. He got work as a copyist and a calligrapher, but it did not pay enough. He became impatient and tried to kidnap her, but was caught, beaten, and then placed under arrest.
He should have been executed, but some high ranking individuals in the army who still remembered his father begged the city ruler to spare his life. The ruler agreed and sent Abu to Baghdad to lead a hundred tall young Turkic tribesmen, from the Kipchaks, Kangly, and some other tribes to join the ranks of the ghilmans for the great Caliph al-Mutamid. En route, the future ghilmans had to guard the caravan with rich gifts – the tribute to the Caliph’s court. That was the beginning of Abu’s long road and his farewell to Anida and his homeland.
Thirty years later, he was back in Bukhara, sent by Baghdad’s Caliph al-Muqtadir at the invitation of Samanid Shah Nasr al-Ahmed. He was now in the throne room, listening to an older man from Otrar play the instrument he invented, the kipchagi. How sweet was that sound of his motherland after ceaseless travels and long service to the caliphs?
Suddenly he was close to his homeland, and his tribesmen were right in front of him as he listened to the old man playing the kipchagi. Repeatedly, it reminded him of dusty streets, of the hot arid steppe, of the blue though sometimes murky waters of the Seyhun, of wild stallions, and soldiers were dancing at smoky bonfires. Then, the dancing girl from Taraz unexpectedly piqued his desire even further, and he longed to see his home town again.
Seated on leather pillows and fine rugs, Abu sipped his wine now and again, but he was completely wrapped up in the childhood memories awakened by the music and ceased paying attention to what was happening around him. It was a moment of silence that suddenly brought him back. The Master of Ceremonies announced that the greatest living poet, Abu Abd Allah Jafar ibn Muhammad al- Rudaki would read his poems.
The hall grew silent again. Accompanied by a chang, the poet’s words rang at once with distinction and serenity.
Look upon the world with reason, Not with your former prejudicial creeds, The world is a sea. You wish to embark? Then build a ship of your good deeds!
The poet seemed to speak to him, Abu Nasr, directly. He was standing before the throne straight and dignified, a lock of gray hair peeking out from under his turban.
As he strummed his chang, he attentively eyed the audience - the ruler, nobles, merchants, the sheiks, and ambassadors…
However long one lives, so it hallows, Death is the end that surely follows. The rope of life ends in a noose, The fate of earthly things, a gallows.
Should you live in peace, luxury, and prosperity, Or on a small strip on the outskirts of barbarity, If Rey to Taraz is yours by dint of station, Or else a life of destitute privation, A passing dream is your very being, Fading away and forever fleeing.
The Samanid ruler, the old Shah Nasr al-Ahmed was motionless. His dispassionate face was thrown back proudly, his eyes semi-closed. He seemed to ignore the poet. Not a muscle moved on his face, so no one could tell whether he liked the poem.
Abu Nasr observed the Shah’s face. He had heard from friends who were wandering singers that the Shah loved this poet. They also considered the Shah a “pearl in the Samanid necklace.”
He kept the country peaceful, he enriched the treasury, his army was strong, his slaves were obedient, and the crops were abundant. Even before the Bukhara riots, the Shah would spend the summer in Samarkand, winter in Bukhara, and always had Rudaki the Poet with him.
It was said that once the Shah would spend the spring in Bagdis, the best pasture in Khorasan and Iraq. Once his battle horses replenished strength from abundant meadows, and so did his soldiers in rich gardens and the cool air, he would head for Herat and make camp in a small place called Marg-i-Sapid. It was a heavenly place, where everything grew in abundance, and had a cool soft climate with fragrant flowers that was pleasing all year round.
In the fall, when young wine was aging, and the royal basil and daisies were in blossom, the Shah had a feast, for which all the beauties of Herat were gathered. The Shah did not wish to go back to Bukhara, but his troops were bored. They yearned for battle or to return home to Bukhara. The Shah paid them no mind. So, the commanders went to see the Shah’s favorite poet.
Rudaki heard them out and went to see the Shah. The Shah asked what troubled his friend, and in reply, Rudaki picked up his chang and sang a song about Bukhara, and so powerful was the song that the Shah ordered his horse to be brought, and without changing, they rode back to Bukhara, the poet at his side. The grateful commanders then presented him with five thousand dirhams.
That, however, was long ago. Since then, the Shah had aged and become more suspicious. His commanders no longer got along among themselves. Nukh, the heir to the throne, was unruly. Influential officials spread rumors and intrigue to keep the Shah’s old and loyal friends away from him.
So what was the Shah thinking now as he listened to his favorite poet’s songs? The room was quiet. Everyone in the audience struggled to catch a single gesture of the Shah before they could applaud the poet or denounce him, while Nukh, the heir, stared into the poet’s face riveting him with his eyes and nervously fingering his ivory beads. Then, someone in the audience said:
“Abu Nawas was unsurpassed among the Arab poets! And yet, the verses we hear now from this honorable poet are no less powerful, for they pulse with the very blood of life!” The words were spoken in Persian. Abu Nasr uttered them involuntarily. Nukh raised his head in anger, but other voices that concurred began to issue from members of the audience. Nukh turned to Abu Nasr, and the poet fell silent for an instant.
“Go on, Abu Abdullah!” said the Shah.
The poet calmly glanced at the infuriated Nukh and went on:
’Tis not for violence and murder that righteous swords shine, For evil deeds, the Lord’s memory does not rest, ‘Tis not for violence and murder righteous swords are forged, As grapes are not merely for vinegar pressed…
Food was served on gold trays by slaves. Slender bare-breasted girls poured wine from silver pitchers. The singers and dancers passed the poet to join the musicians. Two young beauties came to caress Nukh. The Shah was listening with his eyes still half-closed.
Desert winds of heartbreak gust – and then you are not there, My life uprooted from its home soil in the aftermath, The lock of your hair, a deadly bow, your eyelashes, arrows that pierce me through, Without my love, how can I still amble this earthly path!
Abu Nasr half-rose… “Is the poet so fainthearted that he has no pride, or is it that he is beseeching that someone protects his love?”
“He is not happy with the lot of a courtier poet,” Nukh spat out as he pushed away a slave girl with his foot. “He wants the fruit from the Shah’s garden… He wants that we show mercy to the mob, to the dung beetles, to the rebels.”
“Reward the Samanid poet! Where are the dancers? Where is the music?” yelled the Shah, drowning out the angry words of his son.
Voices of approval emanated from the audience. Oblivious to the shouts of admiration and the pouch of coins tossed at his feet by the treasurer, the poet left the room, lost in his own thought.
In Bukhara, Abu Nasr confined himself to the storehouse of sacred writings in order to complete his book Talim as-Sani… He became very preoccupied with reading various Greek, Persians, Arab, Hindu, and Chinese philosophers, and his studies left him no time to roam about the city, nor did he have much of a desire to do so anyway.
Not only was he trying to put together translations from Greek and Assyrian in a coherent manner, but as he read about Zarathustra and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, as he recalled all he had read about the gods of Sumer, Midian, Assyria, and Babylon, he kept trying to reconcile what he had read with what he had realized, to find the common basis for truth, to discover its common thread in all the stories, and bring it together in one book about gods and prophets, about the natural way religions emerge with different people.
“Theological doctrines reflect people’s hope and faith,” he reasoned. “The Creator is one, the first, the original, however numerous the gods, but what is the Creator? Perhaps it could be defined as the Prime Cause? Yet it might also consist of three parts – soul, form, matter? How did Aristotle and Confucius explain it? Back to the books…”
Vain human pursuits did not interest him. A stroll around ancient Bukhara was enough to send one into silent retreat. The dark neighborhoods - ugly and impoverished, sick people, beheadings in the public squares, the cruelty of the Turkic people – his own tribesmen, who now were the primary support not only of the Caliph of Baghdad but of the Samanids as well. Then there was the dervishes’ self-torture and the unbridled luxury of the rich. The nobles’ gluttony and perversions disgusted him, as they had in Baghdad. He avoided merchants and moneylenders, hangmen, and religious fanatics. He hastened to finish his book. The Caliph’s messengers were happy to see him in solitude and conducted their secret negotiations without him.
Abu Nasr felt that Bukhara was ripe for new riots, which tended to end in massacres and executions. Every riot here ended in bloodletting. Bukhara remained a hotbed of fanaticism. Yet, was it Bukhara only?
He learned of the news from Abu Fazl Balami and Muhammad Jeyhani – two local scholars who visited him sometimes. They spent time in pleasant conversations and debates about scholarship and the benefit of learning to the human community. He was also visited by Abu Yakub and Abu Abdulla Muhammad, who happened to be in Bukhara. Once they brought in Rudaki.
Abu Nasr came out to greet him out of respect for his age and work. “I bow to you, oh, the great poet. Your fame has spread from Rey to Jeyhun.”
“Fame is fleeting, my friend, and it is treacherous. It clouds your vision and poisons your mind, and it is not a worthy subject among wise men. I came to hear you talk about Baghdad. I dreamed of breathing the cool air of the Tigris and Euphrates, but I am old. My home springs of Rudak, my stone hut in the mountains… they call to me.”
“I heard of you as I struggled on Persian roads, and I have heard you here in the Shah’s throne room. I saw your eyes, and the secrets of your words revealed themselves to me. You cannot hide sadness, and you never disclosed your reason for it. Yet, you have many friends. Not even the ruler can ignore your fame and the power of your words.”
“What do you know about my suffering?” asked the poet coldly. “Who told you about my love?”
“You did. I listened to you in the throne room, and I was sure that the Shah fears you and tries to stifle his fear with his love of your gift.”
“You want to make this world peaceful, oh wise philosopher, while the world wants to keep turning. You said I had many friends. I have as many enemies, and finding an assassin is easy. You mentioned the Shah’s love, but this love is cruel and treacherous. We are like little parrots in a cat’s paws. The cat plays with soft paws, but they always hide sharp claws.”
The poet’s face grew pale, and his eyes glistened.
“Compose yourself, Abu Abdullo!” Abu Fazl touched the poet’s hand. “The walls have ears… the master’s reach is long, and his web sturdy.”
They called the poet “Abu Abdullo” in their own way. Or simply “Rudak,” after his own village.
“Your master is contemptible – beware of his hallowed treats!” the poet parried.
Take not a single crumb of food that should be unsalted, Or, soaked in poison, this kebab, whose nourishment is faulted, Wet not your lips in water sterile that is really rife with bane, Leave with parched throat and soul aflame This green garden, fraught with peril.
“No more, Rudak! Remember your own words, ‘He who lets his tongue go free will himself end up in chains.’ Do you want to put our friend here in jeopardy?”
Rudaki slowly turned to face Abu Fazl and said tiredly:
“You are right, as usual.”
Then he turned to Abu Nasr: “Even in old age, a poet remains a madman. I envy you… oh, wise philosopher. You are like Socrates, I was told. Your serenity is without bounds, your logic unsparing.”
“A serene appearance is not the same as a soul at peace. Socrates was never at peace and was executed for mocking the gods of Olympus.”
“My friends call you the Teacher who has surpassed the sages of the East. I believe them. I am familiar with your work… the depth of your thought, your reasonings on logic and numbers… they have no equals… while your music is like rages of the Seyhun and betrays your kinship with the inclement ghilmans.”
“I am a Kipchak,” said Abu Nasr calmly. “Both executioner and poet are often born under the same roof.”
“I am both impressed by as well as envy your knowledge of languages. They say Shah Nasr ibn-Ahmed invited you to Bukhara to make a scholarly compendium of Islamic teachings well as those of other faiths… Yet, perhaps it is enough that we speak of these things, for we are not unlike women in praising one another,” said Rudaki as he smiled.
“You are right. Especially considering we are among friends.”
The conversation subsided. The wine was brought in. The subject turned to philosophy. Then Rudaki read his poems, filled with sadness about the past. Abu Nasr grew somewhat tipsy and recalled Banu, as well as his faraway youth… Otrar… and Anida, the tanner’s daughter who opened to him the mysteries of love in that dark cubicle outside Otrar’s main mosque where you could still hear the splashing waves of Syr Darya.
A few days later, he suspended his work on the book, and his new friends helped him join a small caravan heading for Otrar. He carried with him a firman, a paper which said that this court philosopher must be rendered assistance in his travels and which had the Caliph’s seal, which served its purpose.
Before leaving, Abu Nasr handed the unfinished manuscript to a reliable friend. He planned to come back and polish it off before showing it to anyone.
Not much had changed in Otrar since Abu left. It had grown more powerful and had its own separate fortresses a day’s ride away. Located on the banks of Syr Darya, they were called Char-Dara and monitored rafts and merchant vessels heading for the sea and back.
Otrar had experienced no conquests, nor wars, and was dutifully supplying soldiers to Bukhara and Samarkand, as well as Baghdad and Damascus. Anyone who needed the steppe warriors’ whips and lances. The more roughly and cruelly they defended the throne, the more fear they instilled in the hearts of peasants, miners, builders, and all those who fed and enriched the state officials, and as a result, the more privileges they gained. The Ruler of the Faithful, the Samanid Shah, the viceroys of Persia, the rulers of Khwarazm – all of them needed Otrar.
Haughty and aggressive, Otrar lived its own isolated life. It recognized only force. Its gate was opened to brave steppe horsemen and trackers, to wild horse tamers, to rough-living youths with the stamina of the Kipchak tribes, be they Konyratys, Arguns, Turkic Oguzes, or the dozens of other tribes who fled the Karahanids or resided in the wide-open steppes to the north, east, and west of the great sea into which the Jeyhun and Seyhun poured their waters.
Tribal chiefs would bring tall, handsome, agile boys, as well as beautiful girls to Otrar in exchange for weapons and other goods. Consequently, the local rulers levied taxes and set steep prices on the traveling merchants who ignored them at their own risk.
The scholarship was not honored. Hunting tigers, koulans, and especially wolves and foxes, whose fur decorated warriors’ clothing – that was the main pastime of the denizens of Otrar. That had not changed since his childhood, and just like then, there was still the same clandestine, internecine struggle for power among the brazen and mindless guard officers.
The city was growing, and many famed cities of the East could envy its citadels, palaces, caravanserais, mosques, and madrassas. The neighboring states’ warriors and rulers came here to get new blood for their armies or obtain guarantees of assistance for putting down riots and rebellions. Many started their invasions from Otrar, while the sons of the great steppe would leave home to become mercenaries elsewhere, killing one another on faraway battlefields, protecting someone else’s interests.
That was how Otrar was, and that was how it would remain until another power came to change it. “And should someone attack and conquer Otrar, then there would be no one from whom to seek help,” thought Abu Nasr.
He did not stay long, but he found time to see both the old and the new neighborhoods. He saw no familiar faces. He did not look for Anida and doubted whether he would recognize her anyway, for time is cruel and changes not only cities. No one even remembered her name.
He wandered about the market, listening to different tongues, and looking at the goods without any interest. Neither in the stalls nor the slaughterhouses did he find the butcher from whose hands he had once wanted to rescue Anida. He even wondered… did she actually exist? Was the past a dream? So much sand through the hourglass, so many long roads tread, so much seen, and so much lived. Perhaps even then, when young Abu was sent to Baghdad, the enraged butcher, having learned of Anida’s liaison, killed her or sold her into slavery. Thus he, Abu Nasr, may have become the cause of her humiliation or even her death.
“Why did I come back? To prove to myself that time is cruel? That the past is irretrievable? Even if Anida were alive, what could I do for her? It seems that all I wanted to do was satisfy my curiosity and just see her… and if I did see her, desiccated by time, by sorrows and humiliations… then what? The same torment? The same sadness for the past and our irretrievable youth?
He recalled the poet’s lines-
Desert winds of heartbreak gust – and then you are not there, My life uprooted from its home soil in the aftermath.
and bitterly, he smiled at his thoughts.
Why did he yearn to come back? He was as much of a stranger to Otrarians as any other traveler passing through. He rode up to the central square and got stuck in a crowd of idle observers. The square was surrounded by cavalry guards. They were beating tax dodgers. It was the same place where they executed rioting slaves. Perhaps there was no riot at all, but the slaves were being executed to entertain the bored soldiers and to keep the poor in line.
He pushed through the crowd, seeking egress. He did not want to hear the cries and lamentations of those about to die, nor the belligerent war-whoops of the horsemen who showed off by galloping back and forth, beheading their victims with a single swipe of the saber without stopping.
Abu Nasr could no longer stand the sight of the mob, whose eyes were stricken with horror, yet who were inured to brutality and the sight of blood. His clothes were torn, and his forehead broke out in a cold sweat, but he finally extricated himself from this hell. He felt like there was not enough air and tried to catch his breath as he leaned against a wall looking up at heaven. Still gasping for air, he remembered his unfinished book as his lips tightened, and face grew hard. Suddenly, losing both patience and reason at once, he screamed: “Ye gods of the Upper and Lower Nile! Of Babylon and Assyria! Of the Sumerians, of the Greeks… JESUS!… ALLAH!… Which of you is responsible for this hell on earth?”
“What is going on with me?” he wondered as he regained his senses. “Am I going mad? Perhaps, it is exhaustion.”
For the first time in his life, he felt like a haggard, old man and was seized with an odd indifference to everything around him.
The next day he went back to the neighborhoods he knew from his childhood. This time he was not looking for anyone. He worked his way through the narrow maze-like streets to find his way to the mosque, then crossed the courtyard towards the book storage. It was closed. The guards told him that the ruler had ordered that all the book lovers be beaten, for reading any book except for the Quran was heresy.
He did not seek out his father’s friends or childhood friends. He hurried back to Bukhara to work on the manuscript. He wanted his work to drown out the greatest of sorrows – that of a homeland forever lost.
Abu Nasr arrived in Bukhara late in the day. A massacre was taking place outside the city gate. The guards were beating upon and robbing the peasants who stayed in the field for too long. They paid no attention to Abu Nasr and his companions.
The beheading of the slaves in Otrar, the beating of the tax dodgers he had witnessed en route, dried chopped-off heads of criminals (or perhaps innocents) on the gate and atop the walls of Bukhara, and now this humiliation of peaceful peasants, all finally exhausted him. None of this was new to him, of course. He had seen the same when he served in the Caliph’s army and later as his courtier, but he had never been as depressed as he was now.
He had always dreamed of his homeland. Impressions from one’s childhood and youth soften your outlook, and your homeland always seems better and more attractive than strange faraway lands.
Hundreds of thoughts became tangled in his head. A heavy load weighed on him. He mechanically clenched a twig of wormwood he had picked in the steppe, and he recalled how his father held one before he died.
He wanted to see his scholarly friends and Rudaki in order to ease his soul, but how was he to find them in Bukhara, where treachery was even more refined than in Otrar and cruelty more sophisticated?
He reached his room and, utterly exhausted, sank into the oblivion of sleep.
He met sunrise as he was going over his manuscripts. He even surprised his servant by missing morning and noon prayers. He washed up with cold water, quickly ate something, and then with pale face and red eyes, both excited and nervous, he plunged into his work.
He spent two days like this, going over the entire manuscript, and failed to notice that not one of his friends visited him during this time.
At night, he closed the last page of his book and stared in front of himself in silence. The lamp was burning out, the scrolls and books his friends had brought him before his departure were scattered around him. Everything was quiet. Pleasant fatigue took over his body. He did not feel like talking to anyone, though hidden anxiety filled his heart… How would his friends receive his book? Suddenly the door was flung open, and the terrified servant ran in.
“Master, Nukh is in power now! He took over his father’s throne! May he have eternal glory! May Allah favor him!”
Abu Nasr stopped him with a calm gesture. “We are all in the Creator’s power, and time is the best judge.”
Then he went to gather his books.
The servant lingered and then, struck by the philosopher’s calmness, left the room stepping out backward. Outside, he called on the guard, flashed his secret informer’s sign, and told him not to let the philosopher leave. Then he left, with a peculiar grin.
The light heralding the sunrise had not come up yet, and a solitary star, bright but cold, shone in the sky. Abu Nasr was deep asleep. Suddenly, enraged ghilmans burst in and dragged him out of bed. They tied his hands and put his neck in a wooden pillory.
“He does not pray! He is a book lover! He failed to praise the Great Nukh!” exclaimed the servant spitefully. “He is a real Qarmatian! All the heretics visited him! He came here at the invitation of Nasr ibn-Ahmed, and he wants to justify the Qarmatians in his writings. He compares the holy Quran with the writings of the Christians and Jews!”
“Shut up!” Abu Nasr told him sternly and then cursed himself. How could he forget that here, just as it was in the Caliph’s palace and all other palaces, the servants were the first to inform and betray! So, where was this experience of life that he kept referring to in his works?
Meanwhile, a tall guard picked up the manuscript upon which the title, Talim as-Sani, freshly written only the night before, stood in bold letters.
“Do – not – touch – that – book… do you hear?” said Abu Nasr, though he did not raise his voice, which was calm and confident. “It describes the Quran’s holy suras! All of the gods and saints!”
He looked the man straight in the eye and then spoke in Kipchak, using the crudest words, as if he were a ghilman himself. “This book is to be given to the great Shah!”
“Who are you?” the guard asked. “Where do you come from?”
“I am a Kipchak from Otrar. I came here from Baghdad.”
“Do not listen to him!” the servant yelled. “He is a spy! He came to poison Shah Nukh! Did you hear him talk about gods? But we have only one God – Allah! This book lover carries the poison of Qarmatian heresy!”
The guard looked at Abu Nasr, then at the servant, and without warning, punched the servant.
“You ass-licker! You old castrate! I know you! You are the culprit who once caused my wage to be cut! Hey, take this block off him!” He pointed at Abu Nasr.
No sooner did the soldiers follow the order than suddenly palace guards burst in.
“Not one stranger is to leave the palace or the city! They all go to the dungeon! And keep them there until the Great Nukh decides their fate!”
Abu Nasr’s hands were still tied.
“Do not waste time on this one,” shouted the senior guard and commanded his men to leave. “Let others handle him. There is nothing to take here, just papers and rags.”
The servant, with his face bloodied, cursed him to his back and went on to denounce Abu Nasr to the palace guards. The subject of these accusations was pressed against the wall and watched his books and scrolls fly across the room, as ink spilled on the stand, and thick Samarkand paper rustled underfoot. He did not feel the punches he was being dealt with, but the thin rope cut into his wrist deeper and deeper.
When they led him into the yard, he saw many torches. He heard horses neighing and weapons clanking. He tripped and fell. They hit him and dragged him somewhere. What chaos… If only I could save the book… He could no longer control his thoughts.
Abu Nasr was brought to the dungeon. It reeked of clay and mouse droppings. He wondered how long it was since he was arrested. Narrow strips of pale light shone down on the floor. He heard groaning and snoring nearby. He attempted to stand up but could not. Sharp pain in his back held him down. His legs went to sleep, but his hands were no longer tied. With difficulty, he rose and sat up, leaning against the wall.
When his eyes got used to the dark, he saw a large rock in the far corner of the cell which had chains woven around it like a cobweb. The chain links rubbed to a shine, gave off a dull luster, and stretched out in various directions. He realized that at the end of each chain was a prisoner. He shivered as he saw hairy overgrown monsters stumble about in the dark with voices that more resembled animal groans than human speech.
He knew many secrets of the Caliph’s court. He knew and saw what was going on in the dungeons and extraordinary torture chambers in Samarra and Baghdad. This, however, was his first taste of a Samanid dungeon. “A man is not an animal,” he thought. “He is more sophisticated than this. How many days or years have these poor creatures been here, and what sort of crimes have they committed?”
“Could they be criminals who were once like me, the son of a famed Otrar warrior, yet now…” And, who was he? A truth seeker, a seeker of knowledge, or just a tired man, seeking a safe, peaceful haven… a seeker of his own homeland?
“So what did I find? I came here with the Caliph’s retinue at the Shah’s invitation, and now I am imprisoned by another Shah?”
Where was the Caliph’s ambassador? Would he not put in a word for the court scholar of his ruler? The thought made him grin. What good was he to the ambassador? He was understood and accepted only by the scholars of Baghdad, Alexandria, and Damascus, though he had plenty of enemies among them as well. Did caliphs, shahs, and kings, much less these guards, ever even understand him?
In fact, he had been a ghilman and soldier for a long time. He had given his health and energy to serving the caliphs. His arm was strong, and his eyes were sharp. He was a young officer in the palace guard of Caliph al-Muqtadir in Samarra. The Caliph had done him a great favor by not punishing him when Abu Nasr decided to become a healer and moved to Baghdad. There, in a small hut, in a date grove on the banks of Tigris, he spent nights secretly learning to identify illnesses, taking apart human bodies, studying the blood vessels on lambs from old Chinese medicine scrolls. If he was not killed then or thrown in the dungeon, it had to be because they still encouraged sciences in Baghdad then, but also because no one knew of his experiments.
In Baghdad’s library, he studied science and established the basis for musical notation, which drew the attention of Caliph al-Muqtafi , who loved music and songs and invited the best singers from Mosul and Basra to his palace. Abu Nasr traveled all over the Caliphate, through all the of the Tigris and Euphrates.
In those days, he had a good voice. He sang his songs and played his kipchagi at the crossing of Tigris and Euphrates as the Caliph rested in the shade of the foxglove tree. The Caliph’s bodyguards also admired his bow-shooting, his powerful voice, and his music. He became a noble. He was free to step aside in the middle of a hunt and, deep in thought, marvel at the grandeur of Babylon’s walls, trying to resolve the mystery of the Babylonian lion, winged bulls of Nimrod and Nineveh, and the statue of Hatra. All these ancient capitals were a mere hundred and fifty miles away from Samarra, where the foul was plentiful on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.
He was struck by the wealth of clay tablets in Babylon and all the stone books of Nimrod and Nineveh. He was surprised that ancient books were left alone at the destroyed walls. No one was even curious about the history of ancient civilizations.
Moreover, Arabs were frightened by the mysterious cuneiform on stones and bricks. Even more so were they horrified by the colossi – the huge winged bulls with human heads as well as the winged lions.
It was understandable, however, considering Allah through his prophet Muhammad said these statues were Idols of Sin that had emerged before the flood. As for the stones and bricks, the Quran said they had been baked in hell and written over by demons. Why these books and idols were messengers of evil was not clear, but a good Muslim had to destroy them – so said the imams!
Even a female statue in Arab clothing outside the grand ruins of Hatra, an ancient Arab town, was considered the work of djinns, and wherever you find demons and djinns, that is where human disasters come from. So says the Holy Quran. Umayyad Caliphs sent whole armies to Palmyra to raze the marble statues.
The only thing Arabs worshipped was the grand arch of the Samanids – the Khusraw Arch- one of the most significant clay structures in the world… and even more, were they impressed by the Tower of Babylon, of which legends were told.
Caliph al-Mutawakkil was interested in the ancient laws of Ashurbanipal and Hammurabi. He ordered a tower and dungeon to be built in Samarra, imitating similar ones in Babylon and Hatra. Bricks for the construction of the minaret were brought by rafts from the ruins of Babylon. Next to it was a settlement for Mutawakkil’s four thousand concubines, with a mosque of golden domes, and a palace farther up the road.
Every ruler was primarily interested in building palaces and dungeons. The palace had to be more beautiful and grandiose, the fortress more powerful, and the dungeons more terrifying than those of his predecessors.
It had an inherent logic- the beauty was passed along with palaces, while cruelty and tyranny, through the dungeons. The good and the evil, wisdom, and ignorance always went hand in hand. “Therefore, should you be surprised that today you are in the dungeon?” pondered Abu Nasr. “Have you not lived enough? Or had enough pain? Or seen enough death? All is in the hands of the Creator.”
“Calmness and patience,” he whispered. “You have not had time ‘to build your ship of good deeds,’” he thought as he recalled Rudaki’s poem. Where was he now? Where was Abu Talib? Abu Fazl? Muhammad Jeyhani? Where were the Samanid scholars and poets? At this time of chaos, of riots and coups, these were among the most unprotected individuals in the East.
The clanking of chains broke his thoughts. The prisoner who was the closest to him crawled towards him. Yet the chain went taut and would not let him go farther. The wretch groaned and stretched his hand out. Whiskered and completely overgrown, dressed in utter rags, he looked like an animal. His moans suggested he was begging for something.
Other prisoners’ chains clanked, too. Now they all crawled towards him, moaning and stretching their hands. They were begging for food. Abu Nasr pressed himself against the wall. He finally realized that their tongues had been torn out. The moaning and clanking filled him with terror.
Suddenly he heard a voice in the corner. “It is me, the ruler of all Jeyhun’s armies! I am the Great Shah! These are my slaves!” A huge man shouted and banged his chain on the rock. Then he broke into laughter, which grew increasingly louder, drowning out all other sounds. The others, in fear, all crawled back to their places.
Silence fell. Rats, the real masters of the underground, scurried about the ground. The thought that he, Abu Nasr, was about to share the fate of these wretches made him sick. Once again, he felt pain in his legs and his back, and his head grew heavy. Sadness, hunger, and thirst kept him confused.
“Serenity and patience,” he whispered to himself, closing his eyes and trying to distract himself from thinking.
He lost track of time. He did not know how long he had been in the dungeon or whether it was day or night. He could clearly hear the noise behind the wall. Then the door opened with a screech, and a group of people with torches entered the cell. The one in front lowered the torch, examining the prisoners’ faces.
“A foreigner,” someone explained. “From the caliph ambassador’s retinue.”
“The ambassador of the Ruler of the Faithful is long on his way! He is riding to see the Caliph with great news! If this one got left behind, keep him here, and throw the rest of them out!”
Abu Nasr remained silent, never asking questions, never demanding explanations. He was extremely thirsty but kept quiet. With an effort, he rose and stood against the wall. The rest began to scream and yell, not yet aware of the man’s words, but a few strokes of the whip made them quiet. The nails on their wooden collars creaked under strain. Each released prisoner bowed, kissed the guards’ feet, and accompanied by whip strokes, crawled to the exit. Those who could not move were dragged out. In a few moments, all that was left were a few torches attached to the wall and the chains bound to the rock. Abu Nasr glimpsed at the guards’ silhouettes in the corridor.
Tired and hungry, he once again sank into his thoughts. He remembered how in Baghdad, poor fishers cooked fish on the riverbank and how the aroma of fish fried with spices drew the passers-by. The locals said that great poet Abu Nawas, who was murdered by the caliph’s guards in the summer of 810, did not merely sing of love and wine, but was as sarcastic as Aesop. He enjoyed strolling along the river, and the fishermen cooked their best dishes for him and treated him to their last wine to hear him read his verses. They were both similar and dissimilar to Rudaki’s. He wondered if the greatest poet of the Persians and Tajiks had ever heard about the great Arab poet Abu Nawas.
The drink of blood one may not indulge, Except for the blood of the sweet grapevine, He whom his secret decides to divulge, Should ever bear on his forehead the sign.
Abu Nasr tried to keep his mind off food. He remembered that Banu loved the poetry of Abu Nawas’ and knew it by heart. Ah, the power of memory! To remember, Banu in this dungeon was like remembering his love when he was in Otrar, and instead of finding Anida, witnessing the beheading of the slaves.
It had to be ten or eleven years since he first saw Banu. She was young then, and she had just arrived in Baghdad, from which she proceeded to Samarra with her husband, whom the Caliph al-Muqtadir had invited to hunt lions and gazelles.
Abu Nasr was in Caliph’s retinue as well. The ruler ordered that he meet the noble lady and make her sojourn pleasant. He was to oversee her and the Caliph’s sister on their promenades together. He was also responsible for her guards, and he had to pick spots for their rest stops and strolls.
They were guarded by three hundred eunuchs and black soldiers, and no man except for Abu Nasr was allowed near the Caliph’s sister’s tent, and the only reason for him to do that was to take her orders.
The door screeched again, and through the entrance, which was brightly lit, several foreigners were led through. They were well-dressed but silent and dejected and cast fearful glances. Abu Nasr recognized the merchants who had attended the shah’s feast along with him.
“Here, you will await the decision of the Great Nukh!” declared the commander of the guard. “May his star shine forever! Glory to Allah! The great Shah is done with Qarmatian heresy!”
“Glory to Allah!” echoed the guards. “May his star shine forever!”
They left behind them the merchants’ groans and cries of outrage as they bemoaned the loss of their goods.
Abu Nasr attempted in vain to find out what was going in Bukhara. Only after everyone was convinced that the situation was hopeless and settled down on the floor did one of the merchants speak to Abu Nasr.
According to him, the Sunnis’ spiritual leaders and Turkic guard commanders had conspired against the Caliph, suspecting him to be on the side of Qarmatians. They wanted to overthrow Samanids and kill all the Qarmatians, but someone betrayed them. Shah Nasr ibn-Ahmed and his son Nukh concealed their loyal bodyguards in the palace and lured the unsuspecting leaders of the conspiracy inside – imams and viziers and even the sipahsalar, the Chief General. The Caliph invited them to a table groaning with food and wine. Just as they settled down, he rose as if to share their meal, but it was a signal, and within minutes all the guests were beheaded. The Caliph told his arms bearer to hide the General’s head in an embroidered bag. Then the two, the father and the son, went to the citadel where the conspirators were gathered.
When the two passed through the gate and entered the hall, all rose to greet them. No one realized what had happened. Instead of their leaders, they saw the Caliph and his son. They thought he had merely decided to share their meal with them.
The Caliph took his seat with his son seated next to him, and their bodyguards around them in a semi-circle. He told the nobles to go on with their meal and then said, “I have learned of your plot to kill me! In your hearts, you bear me ill, and my heart has hardened against you!”
The nobles were terrified. Their hands, still with pilaf in them, froze. Not one brave man was found to call them to arms.
The Caliph went on: “Your hearts have hardened because I had strayed from the Sunni path… but is there any flaw in my son Nukh?”
“No!” they responded.
“And so I appoint him my successor,” the Shah said. “I do not know whether I was right or whether I have sinned, but from now on, I shall pray to Allah for forgiveness. Those who urged you to revolt, however, got what they deserved!”
He ordered his bodyguard to drop the general’s head on the floor. Then he descended to a prayer rug and let Nukh take his place on the throne.
One after another, the astonished officers dropped on their knees in front of Nukh.
“Forgive us! The general compelled us to conspire! We are your slaves and obedient to your will! Give us your orders!”
“I am Nukh – not the Shah Nasr – in every way! What happened has happened. I will grant you forgiveness… Bring the chains!”
The arms carriers quickly expedited the new Shah’s order.
“Put him in chains!” Nukh pointed at his father, “And take him to the dungeon!”
The former Caliph was dragged away, urged along by whips.
“Now rise and let us have our feast in the throne room!”
After three rounds of toasts, the young Shah Nukh said, “Your plan was to drink three cups of wine each, then kill Shah Nasr and then divide all the gold and silver here. True?”
“True, oh great, Nukh!”
“Take the gold and silver then! Three items each!”
Astonished, they followed his order.
Nukh went on- “Your general planned evil against us, and he got what he deserved. My father strayed from the Sunni way, and he got what he deserved, as well. After the feast, you made plans to move against the Shia, Ishmaelites, Fatimids, fire-worshippers, and other infidels. Then let us have us a holy war. We can start it right here and now. Everybody who has turned to heresy in Bukhara, in Khorasan, in the whole Transoxiana – kill them! Take their possessions! I am handing you our whole treasury. Do not spare the infidels – kill them all! All those who do not worship like the Sunnis! And now immediately bring Vizier Muhammad Nakhshabi and the other viziers! Tie up your commanders! We will chop their heads off right here! We will kill every single one of our warriors who turned heretic! For seven days shall the blood of the unfaithful Qarmatians flow, in the name of Allah!”
He also ordered a unit to cross the Jeyhun and enter Merverut to kill the son of the viceroy Savade.
Rats were scurrying about underfoot. The torches were enveloping the cell in smoke. The narrator was speaking Arabic, but everyone understood him. Abu Nasr was no longer listening, however. He looked into the faces of his cellmates, all of whom grew quiet. He was thinking of all the people they had robbed and impoverished. The secret intrigues they had woven. The many murders they had caused… and now they were here. They were not condemning Nukh. Nor would they have condemned the Turkic ghilmans or even Shia Qaramites if they had been the victors.
The story, however, assuaged them. They were convinced that the new ruler saw no reason to execute ambassadors and foreign merchants. He needed them to spread the word of his power. Abu Nasr, however, along with the sages of the Samanids, was hardly needed by Nukh, who needed no knowledge or books. Force alone ruled in this unjust world. No one could pass judgment on Nukh. Socrates and Cicero alone could make a speech appealing to reason, in all fearlessness of the ruler. True, Socrates had been stoned by the mob for no reason. Good and evil were still fighting.
Was it worth his while, then, to appeal to people to discover the truth? Was not the war of the good and the evil the only truth that one learned early in one’s life? He had already written about it in his book – which by now might not even exist. Why should he even worry about it, with so much blood being shed? Or perhaps it was necessary after all?
The foreign guests were freed a week later. Nukh invited them to a feast to celebrate the victory over Qarmatians. At the feast, the new vizier spoke about the new shah’s greatness and benevolence. The merchants and the ambassadors were returned their goods, and they presented Nukh with generous gifts. Musicians and dancers worked harder than ever. The poets that used to burn with envy of Rudaki now competed in singing hosannas to the new ruler. In fact, the life of the court was going on as ever, with new performers, but the poet was not to be seen. Nor did Abu Nasr see his scholar friends. What happened to them? He had no one to ask. Nor did anyone know what had happened to his book and the ancient scrolls that he had collected en route from Baghdad to Bukhara and in Bukhara itself.
Abu Nasr withdrew into himself. He looked for a chance to escape outside the thick palace walls. The pilgrimage season was approaching. Now that the Sunnis triumphed over the other sects, and all of Transoxiana was soaked in blood, the hadj to Mecca had to be more pompous than ever.
He decided not to waste time and to travel to Mesopotamia with pilgrims’ caravans. Now he was painstakingly observing prayers and getting ready to leave.
Bukhara would always see its pilgrims off with a mix of sadness and awe. The fear of Allah’s punishment, mixed with the fear of losing a family provider on the way, and then the hope that Allah would appreciate their obeisance and hear their prayers and send peace to their homes – this mix made Bukhara commoners quiet and thoughtful.
This time the departure of the first caravan was commemorated with the beheading of forty Qarmatians on the bazaar square. Before the execution, they prayed to Allah, which instilled in people more fear than hope. After the execution, the poet Abu Abdullo Rudaki walked past the executioners while their axes were still bloody. He held high his gray head as if looking up into the sky. Three days earlier, he had been blinded, not for being a Qarmatian, but for having spoken out for the beheaded peasants… and for loving one of the Shah’s slave girls, too.
On that terrible day, Abu Nasr saw a brave youth step out of the crowd, take the poet’s hand, and lead him to the city gate. The crowd stepped aside to make way silently, as did the pilgrims, and the guards did not dare stop the blind man and his guardian. Afterward, when Rudaki was gone, a long caravan of pilgrims started out for Mecca, with bells ringing, women and children crying, and dervishes chattering. They rode camels and donkeys and horses, while some walked.
Abu Nasr was among the horsemen. He was silent as he thought about the poet’s fate, about time and truth, and the roots of evil. He cursed all the rulers in the world and the great hypocrisy that they generated.
The caravan stretched along the dusty road, running along the Zeravshan, crossing the fields and gardens of the villages that had not escaped the recent massacre, even though their residents were unlikely to be Qarmatians, Christians, or Zoroastrians. Still, they had not been spared.
There were ashes everywhere, the traces of robbery and murders as if a terrible desert storm had blown through the country. Dead bodies tossed by enraged ghilmans in Bukhara floated down the river. Wild dogs and jackals finished off the unburied bodies.
The caravan progressed in silence. No one dared pick up the bodies that the river had tossed on the bank to cover them with soil. None of the pilgrims risked being called an infidel or a heretic or dared to subject themselves himself to the rage of the fanatical crowd that proceeded to Mecca with the name of Allah on its lips.
Someone had to gather the bodies and either bury or burn them. Otherwise, there would be a plague, which would take even more lives. Jeyhun was no holy Ganges, and Seyhun was no Jamuna. Corpses would decompose in the water, waves would toss them ashore, while the heat and the flies would carry the plague. Who would dare bury or burn them?
The sword of fear hung over the miserable land. At the place where the Zeravshan flows into the Jeyhun, the caravan turned south. Then, after some traveling up the river, they would reach the crossing. They would spend the night on its banks and then leave Transoxiana and its ruler, the fierce and treacherous Nukh. Afterward, they had to cross the Black Sands of the terrifying Karakum Desert.
This was the Holy Road, the usual route to Mecca ever since the Umayyads expanded Muslim lands as far east as the Syr Darya and Indus. The merchants from China and Hindustan, Persia and Arabia, Byzantium, and Andalusia called it the Silk Road since, in those days, the most expensive good was silk, perhaps the greatest manufacturing secret the Chinese ever kept. Spies, ambassadors, vagrants, and other adventurers tried hard to obtain the secrets of the Chinese. Of course, almost no secret stays one forever. Allegedly, the Chinese cocoons were stolen by the ambassador from Samarkand, who hid them in his wife’s long and intricately wrapped braids of hair and thus outwitted the strictest customs guards.
In short, the Silk Road witnessed not just great battles and the birth and the death of many states and nations, but also great warriors and kings. It knew how rulers turn into commoners and slaves into executioners… it served everybody – secret spies, wise travelers, traders, and rebels. It shook under the hooves of Attila and Darius’s horsemen, and it carried the traces of Alexander the Great’s victorious phalanxes. It branched out into thousand paths, cutting through mountains and deserts, and then it merged to bring people together.
The roads were as the sinews of a human body, and like the rivers in the body of the earth. There was no life without them, and nothing could stop their movement. Cities and states might die, but life on the roads would not, for nothing had power over the perpetuity of life. Death did not break the thread of life but merely renewed it.
Such were Abu Nasr’s thoughts as he moved forth with the caravan. It had been a few days since they left Bukhara. He still could not forgive himself for failing to save his manuscript or pass it into reliable hands. He had worked on it with such enthusiasm as if it were the last thing he ever wrote. It was depressing that the former dreams of his homeland had been dispelled so cruelly. He had not regained a heavenly home, and the dream had turned into a bitter emptiness. In the huge caravan of fanatical pilgrims, Abu Nasr felt like a solitary wanderer who had just happened to fall inside a human flow and float like a woodchip, wherever the waves would take him.
If early in his voyage, he was happy to break out of fanatically cruel Bukhara and try to reach Baghdad and then the Caliph’s palace in Samarra, now the idea faded daily. He had no desire to serve anyone, anywhere. He knew that the Caliph’s palace was essentially no better than Bukhara.
Rulers committed evil deeds with Allah’s name on their lips, while slaves and peasants suffered fate’s countless blows, worshipping the same Allah without complaint. Both executioners and their victims prayed to the same God. Many of those angered by beatings, robbery, and humiliations, and unable to worship gods and rulers any longer, would leave the cities and villages, gather into gangs in the desert or in the woods, and follow the path of vengeance and banditry.
The slave avenged himself on his master, the oppressed on his oppressor, the victim on the executioner. The circle of life. “Perhaps this is the essence of great truth?” wondered Abu Nasr. But then he caught himself thinking that he had to be wrong, that gods had nothing to do with it since it was not the religions that divided people into rulers and slaves. Religions were born, or, instead, created in order to help the rulers legitimize their power. That was what Prophet Muhammad did as well.
For hundreds of years in Mecca, there had been statues of idols worshipped by various tribes. There were three hundred sixty-five, as days in a year. Hence the time of pilgrimage to Mecca was the time of chaos, not unlike the Babylonian one. Each pilgrim made a sacrifice and worshipped his god-idol and tried to find fault with other gods. Not far from Mecca were rich gold mines. People would pick gold right from the surface to adorn their idols. They were called King Solomon’s Mines, since Solomon had carried all the gold away, across the Red Sea, to the Jewish kingdom.
Stone idols, granite, and marble ones with gold decorations remained in Mecca until the arrival of Muhammad – a poet, a goldsmith, and a passionate orator. At a pilgrimage competition, when each tribe exalted its idol, he drew everyone’s attention to a rock that had fallen from the sky. He appealed to the pilgrims to worship one God – Allah. Since then, Black Rock had become a sign of Allah’s power over all earthly creatures.
There had been no idols in Mecca ever since. They had been smashed. There was a cubic temple, the Holy Ka’aba – a relic created by Muhammad’s imagination. These doubts and thoughts depressed and even horrified Abu Nasr. Life without religion, without faith, was for him inconceivable. There could be no life without a quest for truth… Who created this world, with its paradoxes and contradictions? When? How? Or this cruel sun, the dust, the heat, the despondency, the pilgrims’ silent concentration.
They passed Balkh, Herat, Mashhad, Jey, and everywhere he saw dervishes who were estranged from reality and torturing themselves. He saw beggars and cripples, slaves and their masters. Everywhere the Sunnis were battling the Shiites, and both called each other heretics. While all those who believed in Buddha or fire, in Christ or the sun, called the slaves of Allah heretics. Everybody was at each other’s throat. Even runaways and rebels who revolted against their rulers found their own saints and gods, their own rulers – they, too, savagely attacked those who did not accept their rulers. Any faith or religion that preached loving and helping your neighbor would turn into evil and violence since its path was soaked in blood, and it was being forced by weapons. That was the eternal circle, and that was how people lived. Abu Nasr had never thought about it before, or had he? If he had, then this thought had not bothered him or touched his heart the way it did now, in these long days on the road.
In Rey, he stayed behind the caravan to find Abu Bakr, a philosopher and a healer, whose work was known to scholars in Baghdad and Bukhara, Samarkand, and Samarra. He was the personal healer of Rey’s ruler Ishaq, the brother of cruel Nukh.
Abu Nasr had met the famous healer when the latter had visited Baghdad and Damascus at the invitation of Caliph al-Muqtadir. He remembered their conversations. Friends in Bukhara told him that Abu Bakr conducted experiments, or rather studied blood circulation in deep secrecy. At first, he frequented slaughterhouses, but this was fraught with danger. He could get beheaded as a heretic, challenging the holy of holies, since only Allah knew the secrets of life and death. Hence Abu Bakr had to do his research in secret, in the mazes of tiny underground cells.
A eunuch slave, the healer’s former servant, told him that Abu Bakr had been executed. The old slave must have still felt affection for his master, for he warned that Abu Nasr should not tell anyone that he knew, or what was worse, respected Abu Bakr. That would land him in trouble.
In Rey, Abu Nasr wandered through the streets, looking for booksellers, hoping to find out where the Brothers of Purity were hiding. He knew that many prominent scholars lived here beside Abu Bakr. You could not execute all the scholars. You could not stop the progress of thought. But how could he find someone who would lead him to people who dedicated themselves to science? His quest was in vain. Just like in Bukhara, the authorities had hunted down heretics and burned all books except for the Quran. He considered it a miracle when, after much idle wandering around the bazaar’s narrow mazes, he bought crumpled pages from Abu Bakr’s treatise Refutation of Religion from a blind man. They were copied by an illiterate hand.
The pages were from a treatise that had cost the author his life. Abu Nasr found himself a cell in a small caravanserai on the outskirts, far away from curious eyes, and read the pages in one sitting. He was struck by their simple clarity. Abu Bakr was rebelling against all religions. “The Creator created all slaves equal and gave no preference to one over another…” he wrote.
As Abu Nasr copied these lines, he went back to his own thoughts and was about to resume work on his own treatise. But in less than a week, the owner asked him to leave. He was fearful of having a guest who was literate, and who did not read the Quran or pray five times a day.
Abu Nasr felt alone. He did not know what to do with his energy, his skills, his knowledge. En route to Rey, he often helped the sick. Sometimes he ventured as a scribe or an interpreter in caravanserais, and somehow it distracted him from his dark thoughts. Perhaps this was why he decided to join another caravan of pilgrims. In those days, as now, most roads to Mecca go through Mesopotamia, through Baghdad and Damascus. However, the caravan that Abu Nasr joined headed for Basra and then through the desert to Mecca.
Memories of the past are the food for your mind. You cannot retrieve or change the past, for it sits in your memory as an imprint of time. However, you treat everything that you did in your youth. However you criticize yourself, it will not go away but merely burden your mind in the moments of dark reflections.
For Abu Nasr, the entire road to Basra was filled with thinking about the truth of life. He assuaged the pain of the pilgrims and calmed them with wise thoughts when they stopped for the night. He listened to the sorrowful songs of wanderers, to the stories of dervishes and traders. He examined the life of peasants and nomads and remembered how he had traveled the same roads for the first time in his youth. He tried to understand what had changed. Yet, he could not. Perhaps it was because, in his youth, he was not particularly interested in the life of town dwellers or peasants or slaves. He was young and strong and had a powerful voice and felt superior to other youths both in his knowledge and in his fighting skills. All he could think of was showing off his skills in a battle or his knowledge to the most powerful and the wisest. Youth is always vain. As he was leaving Otrar with his parents’ graves and Anida behind, he could not think of going back. He hurried to Baghdad and would do anything to get into the Caliph’s palace and to become a court scholar or a noble warrior. His dreams came true.
The situation favored his ambitions. The slaves and the poor were in revolt in Iraq. They were led by Ali ibn-Muhammad al-Barkawi, nicknamed “Behind the Curtain,” for he never opened his face, which was disfigured by his torturers. Shiites and Sunnis, Hindus and Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Christians, slaves and vagrants, Persians, Arabs, Kurds – all gathered under his banner that had a verse from Quran’s tenth sura on it:
Allah bought the lives and property of his believers And paid with paradise
Al-Barkawi demanded an end to slavery. To the poor, he promised freedom and food and equal land plots. His army was growing. Cities surrendered without fighting and opened their gates. The rebels seized a huge territory in Northern Iraq and Khuzistan and made it into a state. Al-Barkawi declared himself a Caliph.
By then, his friends had accumulated wealth, shared the spoils, and went to fight one another. The Caliph of Baghdad had no trouble bribing some and luring away others, and then destroying the new state and executing al-Barkawi.
Thus, came real the vain dreams of his youth. Instead of satisfaction and joy, however, they brought him bitterness and frustration for time unwisely spent.
Now it was the Qarmatians who rebelled. Everything just kept repeating itself. Spartacus had challenged the Roman Empire. Mazdak had promised freedom to the slaves. Yet, no one had ever succeeded in bringing equality by force and creating peace among people. Force without reason was useless, and what can impotent reason do? Force, then, must be guided by reason.
CHAPTER FOUR Learning is a recovery of that which the memory has forgotten, while reflection is a striving to knowledge.
Four horsemen left Damascus together in the train of the caravans heading for Baalbek. A few days later, they inconspicuously turned off the main road and took small country roads to reach the small town of Dum.
Hassan was sure they were heading for Baghdad and expected that after Dum, they would turn onto a busier road. Instead, the Teacher led them to Adra. Then they passed Kuteir, and following the eastern slopes of Hermon, headed straight up to Homs.
“Before Homs,” Abu Nasr explained, “we will turn straight into the desert and get to Tudmor. Then, we will take the road to al-Furat, follow the current, and hit the main road to Baghdad.”
“How the years have changed you, Teacher,” said Sanjar in his slightly hoarse, low voice. “They made you too cautious, like a lion who is aging. We are making our route three times longer.”
“But more peaceful.”
“Me, I do not care how long we will be wandering or where. I just do not want to get into the claws of a tiger,” Sanjar grinned curiously.
Hassan realized that the Teacher was still not sure if they would reach Baghdad. The uncertainty frustrated the young servant. The farther they went from Damascus, the more often he glanced back longingly at faraway Mount Hermon, behind which lay Damascus and his Mistress.
Hassan reined in his horse and once again glanced back at Hermon. He saw black clouds hanging over the mountain and wanted to tell the Teacher, but the latter was so wrapped in his thoughts; it did not seem worth the distraction. Anyway, the sky over the plain was clear, and the rainy season was far away.
In this desert, rain is as rare as a joy for a slave, Hassan thought.
But by noon, the clouds got closer and spread across the sky. Hassan became worried.
“Teacher, should we look for cover?”
Abu looked around. “There is no cover. No pistachio or olive groves. Rain will wash off our sleepiness. Do you fear rain in the desert?” He did, however, urge his horse to go faster. They traveled only a few miles when the downpour came without warning, thunder or lightning, or even a strong wind. It was as if the water burst out of a broken dam, pouring over the road and uprooting the bushes. The horses’ hooves were getting stuck in the reddish-brown clay. They were soaked.
Abu Nasr rode closer to low bushes; here, the soil was harder and stonier, and the horses stepped more confidently. The rain stopped as unexpectedly as it had started. A strong wind cleared the sky, and the sun bore down on them even more furiously than before. They needed to make a stop, make a fire, dry their clothes, feed the horses, and have a small meal of the gazelle meat that was in Sanjar’s bag.
The night before, while Hassan was cooking, Abu Nasr had prepared the wild roots they had picked on the way and dictated their names and some of their healing attributes to Zuheir. Sanjar went down to the river and shot a jayran gazelle, thanks to which the meal was plentiful, and afforded today’s meal to be substantial as well- cold meat with onions and boiled beans. Sanjar resoundingly admired Hassan’s culinary talents.
At present, however, they had a hard time finding any place for their stop. Now they were far away from springs, rivers, and wild groves. Nothing grew here but thorn bushes. Rainwater had washed out the paths, exposed the plants’ roots, and ran down into the plains, leaving behind some puddles the sun had not yet dried.
“Let us get over the hills,” said Abu Nasr. “There must be some kind of meadow, a hiding place for the likes of us.”
They turned right and rode through thick thorn bushes. Once upon the hill, they surveyed the landscape, and in the ravine below, they saw several horsemen with tightly covered faces chasing a herd of sheep. One of the horsemen had a saber up in the air was circling a Bedouin peasant, trying to deal him a deadly blow. A horse without a rider was nearby.
The robbers did not notice Abu Nasr and his men. One of them was already chasing the Bedouin’s horse, trying to take it away along with the sheep. The Bedouin was cautiously dodging the man’s attacks. He struck the enemy with his lance, and the horseman groaned with pain, while the herdsman with a terrifying yell went after the herd.
The Teacher reacted first and said, “We must help!”
Sanjar unsheathed his saber with a yell and sent his horse into a gallop. The Teacher also felt his Kipchak blood boil. Letting the reins loose, he took his sword out of its scabbard and grabbed the shield that was tied to his saddle.
Sanjar caught up with the robbers and struck one with his saber, but the man remained in the saddle and, grabbing hold of his horse’s head, rode away. The rest scattered and got their bows ready.
“Back!” the Teacher yelled to Zuheir, who did not have a shield.
Sanjar turned back to his voice, and instantly two arrows struck him in the back. His horse spun in place. Abu Nasr leaped to him to prevent him from falling. Hassan covered the Teacher from the arrows. One of the bandits lassoed Zuheir, throwing him out of the saddle, and the bandit dragged him away with a yell of triumph.
Zuheir managed to catch hold of a bush. The rope tightening just as the Bedouin thrust his lance and got the bandit off his horse. Hassan came up to finish off the fallen bandit and free Zuheir out of the noose. The bandits withdrew, with their two wounded, leaving behind the sheep and their dead comrade.
Continuing the trip was out of the question. Sanjar’s wounds were grave. One arrow had damaged his spine, while the other had gone between his ribs. Zuheir had broken a leg, and his arm was dislocated, and his face and body were scratched and bleeding. Abu Nasr carefully extracted the arrows and bandaged Sanjar’s back wounds. The old warrior loudly cursed himself for exposing himself to the arrows and failing to punish the bandits. Then he suddenly fell silent. The wound between the ribs was deep; the blood kept flowing.
Zuheir groaned loudly.
“Go help him,” Sanjar murmured him.
With Hassan’s help, Abu Nasr reset the joint and went to work on his broken leg. The young man passed out from the pain.
The Bedouin caught his horse and produced a bundle attached to the saddle, which contained pieces of burnt felt and an ointment. Abu Nasr inspected the ointment and applied it to Sanjar’s wounds.
The sun started its way westward, but the heat had not yet subsided. The two wounded asked for water. They were given what was left.
Hassan and Bedouin quickly dug a shallow grave with a knife and a saber and lowered the dead man’s body into it. Before covering it with earth, the Bedouin said a prayer and removed the man’s shield, a saber, a bow, and a quiver with arrows. Then he invited everyone to follow him.
They crossed over the hill and soon arrived at the Bedouin’s camp. It was by an abandoned well with a few stumps of date palms. Just above the bushes, like a crow spreading its wings, was his tent. All his sheep were black, and so were both his tent and his attire.
A fire was smoking among three rocks. Next to it was one flat iron dish and a pile of dishes made of gourd and coconut shells. Two camels, a young female, and an old male grazed nearby.
A woman peeked out of the tent. The Bedouin shouted at her. These were the first words they heard him utter. His voice was clear and demanding. She hastily raised the curtain over the entry. A boy of around ten grabbed a bucket and rushed to the well. The floor of the tent was covered with a black rug. It was dry – they must have rolled it up during the rain. The wounded were placed on sheepskins.
Multan, the Bedouin, was a generous host and tried to thank his saviors by slaughtering two large sheep and offering to wrap the wounded in the still warm sheep hides. It was an ancient treatment used by all the nomadic cattlemen. Sanjar, however, simply tossed the sheepskin aside. He was continually going from feverish sweats to getting the chills and back to the sweats again and just once uttered, “It is as if my guts were being ground up inside.”
He never once fell asleep all night. Once, while in delirium, he broke into Kipchak. Only Abu Nasr understood his words. Now he threatened someone, and now he cursed, now he prayed, now he called on his parents for help. By morning he grew weak, unable to eat or drink.
In the farthest corner of the tent, the boy ground black seeds with a mortar and pestle. Then the powder was boiled for a long time until the water evaporated. Abu Nasr knew that these seeds had been brought from the Kaf Valley in Ethiopia. In the markets of Baghdad and Haleb, merchants traded them with Bedouins in exchange for wool, hides, and live sheep, which they then sold to city dwellers.
According to Bedouins, the thick black drink from Kaf seeds slaked thirst, made you alert, and was just right for your health. It was so thick and bitter that at first taste, it burned your lips and mouth.
Multan’s wife tried to give it to Sanjar, but he was delirious again. His face was pale, and his eyes stared vacantly. Zuheir could not drink it either and only burned his lips. Abu Nasr stayed by the side of the patients, with Hassan close by to help. Then he stepped outside with Multan, leaving Hassan to care for the patients. Hassan poured water into Sanjar’s dry mouth and then recalled how happy Master had been when he saw his book at Mahmud’s house. It turned out that the book had been delivered by Sanjar, who was then one of the Caliph Ambassador’s bodyguards. When the ambassador was leaving Bukhara for Baghdad, Sanjar learned that the ambassador had taken the manuscript of the Teacher, who was already in a dungeon, under the pretext that it was similar to Qarmatian heresy, which meant it had to be delivered to Caliph as evidence against Abu Nasr. Sanjar had known the Teacher since youth and had respected him as the wisest among his tribesmen. He decided to help him escape the Caliph’s fury. Just before arrival in Baghdad, he managed to get hold of the manuscript and fled to Damascus in order to give it to a scholar.
The ambassador ordered a chase. The escapee hid in the alleys of the Damascus bazaar. He tracked down Master Mahmud and gave him the manuscript with a threat- If he passed it to the viceroy of Damascus, that he, Sanjar, would personally cut him to pieces. He also gave Mahmud all the money he had to have a copy of the book made for him.
After perusing some of the books, Mahmud realized that it was a new book by the great philosopher that no one knew about. He swore to Sanjar he would keep it safe and asked him about Abu Nasr’s life and how he managed to acquire the manuscript. After hearing Sanjar’s story, he offered Sanjar shelter and then finally introduced him to Abu Nasr in the morning. The latter was leaving the city. That day, the Teacher recalled how once in the distant past, they had traveled and arrived in Baghdad together, and he then spoke to Sanjar inquiring about the ambassador’s return from Bukhara.
“I had always served loyally as the bodyguard of the Caliph and his ambassador, and now I hide from them like a groundhog. I had my fill. Allah will not judge me. From now on, I will be your guard,” he smiled. “You could use my company. Always better to travel with fellow wanderers than by yourself.”
It turned out that Mahmud had also sheltered Zuheir as a follower of “Brothers of Purity.”
Zuheir wanted to get out of Damascus as well and wanted to be the Teacher’s disciple and to serve him.
This is how they all found themselves together.
Hassan recalled how early on, at Mahmud’s, the Master had told them about Basra, where he found himself after Rey. Basra was the site of the first revolt by the black slaves who worked at drying the swamp, on the reed plantations, and on baking bricks for Caliph’s construction works. They took over the southern regions, including Basra, and would not give Caliph any rest for thirty years.
In speaking about Basra, the Teacher spoke about how every slave and every beggar and every boatman would tell you – in private only – the story of that revolt and its great leader who had never really been defeated but actually left, frustrated at the treachery of his own troops. Each of them would also include that their father or an uncle or cousin had fought in that revolt, too… and would say that the leader of the slave revolt was as fearless and incorruptible as Babak.
Rebels had won their last victory under Caliph Muqtafi, who turned out to be much slyer than his predecessors. He slowly moved his army on riverboats down the Tigris and Euphrates, but unlike his predecessors, he did not torture or kill prisoners, nor burn villages. He spoke kindly with the captured and rewarded traitors and deserters. All of this weakened the rebel army.
The great rebel leader went to build defensive fortresses from which he launched sudden forays and attacks. The Caliph, however, closed all manner of egress from them and began a three-year siege of Basra that left the leader with just a garrison. Rebel forces weakened, famine and disease reduced their ranks, traitors grew in number.
Finally, the Caliph offered the leader a chance to surrender, with life and property intact, but the leader rejected the humiliating offer. With a group of the bravest rebels, he left the fortress to go and fight out in the open. The fortress fell.
The leader’s head was tossed at the feet of the Caliph, and only now, he let his claws out. The vanquished slaves were subjected to the worst torture. They were tossed into the fire and drowned in water. They were buried alive, hanged, put on stakes, trampled by horses, and their wives and children were massacred as well. The slave markets of Baghdad and Damascus were filled to capacity. You could buy a young girl for two or three dirhams.
The Caliph wanted the peasants and the slaves to forget their leader, but they never did. Even now, no one in Mesopotamia believed in the leader’s death. Even now, poor peasants and slaves in Basra and other towns said secret prayers every Friday. They called him “the hidden imam” and cursed the Abbasid caliphs.
He was being awaited everywhere – in Bedouins’ huts, on salt marshes, and reed plantations, where they awaited him to start another revolt. They said he had left the battlefield unharmed, that he had been seen last under the sacred Adam’s tree that grew at the confluence of Tigris and Euphrates. Others said that he had been seen on a tiny Sinbad Island in the Arabian Sea. Everybody was waiting for him to come back and free his people from slavery. No one in Basra would betray his real name. The “Hidden Imam” would show up himself and reveal his name. He was alive and waiting for his hour. As for the head that was tossed at the caliph’s feet, it really belonged to one of the traitors. The executioners had deceived the caliph.
Sanjar believed it, too. Poor Sanjar, fighting for his life in a Bedouin’s tent. Sanjar also dreamed that a day would come when he met the leader and became his loyal warrior. Or the day the Qarmatians regained force and he would join them against the Caliph.
“But best of all would be to go to Bahrain,” he would say; “that is a Qarmatian state.”
Poor Sanjar. Hassan wondered if his dream would ever come true.
Sanjar opened his eyes and attempted to smile at Hassan.
“I am dying… take me outside, I want to see the sky… Ah, Teacher, that old vagrant. I told him we should take the main road to Baghdad. It is better to die on the main road.”
The sun was retiring, having burned the mountains with its last hot breath. All was quiet. The boy tossed a few twigs in the fire. The sheep moved closer together and fell silent. The young female camel circled her old companion who lay down next to the well, thoughtfully chewing on grass.
“Just like our steppe outside Otrar,” Sanjar said quietly.
“Save your strength,” said Abu Nasr.
“What strength? I understand that men die in silence, but I feel like talking. Abu, do you remember that grass we had at home – the wormwood? It has this smell in the evening… I remember childhood, but I do not remember my parents. I imagine her as a kind old woman… why is that, Abu Nasr?”
Abu Nasr went through his bag and brought out a tiny pouch that carried a few dry twigs. He rubbed them into his palm and held it to Sanjar’s nose.
“Ooh… that is our wormwood… they do not have grass like this around here. Now I remember my village, my first camp, just like that old camel and his young wife. You think he has got enough stuff saved for her?” He attempted a smile.
Sanjar asked his companions to take him off the soft sheepskins and to lay him on saddle blankets with a saddle under his head. Hassan and Multan carefully dressed him up. They fastened his leather belt, the thick leather breastplate, and attached his quiver and saber to his belt. He wanted to meet death as a soldier. Multan suggested they shave off his beard, but Sanjar said no.
He lay there with his eyes wide open.
“The smell of that wormwood, that is good… it is not like the kind that grows here…”
It was getting late. The horses grazed far away; their neighing was heard sometimes. The sheep gathered in a tight herd behind the tent. All that was heard was the crackling of the fire and the deep sighs of the old camel who was chewing the grass.
“Just like home,” Sanjar repeated as he looked up at the early stars, “But not home…” Hassan helped Zuheir step outside and settle on the felt cloth.
Abu Nasr realized that Sanjar could not be saved. Unable to either comfort him or assuage his pain, he eyed the camel pensively. The female struck it in the neck as if demanding that he come with her.
“It is that time,” said Multan. “It will pass.”
Multan stood up right next to the fire, like a statue, leaning on his lance. His wife stirred a thick mutton drink for the guests. Pistachios, dry dates, pieces of cold meat were spread on greasy rags next to Sanjar.
“Time for the evening prayer,” she said suddenly, breaking the oppressive silence.
“Remember me in your prayers,” said Sanjar to Abu Nasr.
The latter said nothing. He rolled out the rug and started praying. All but Sanjar and Zuheir followed his example.
“You are a scholar,” said Sanjar after the prayer. “Tell me if there is life on the other side. Do you believe it?”
“It is all in Creator’s hands,” said Abu Nasr evasively.
“You never played kipchagi since we met… The last time was…” He could not finish the phrase. His face turned yellow, and his breathing became hard.
Abu Nasr shouted, “Hassan, bring me the kipchagi!” so loud as to make the old camel stand up.
Hassan ran – never before had Master spoken to him in a raised voice.
Abu Nasr’s face darkened. He picked up the kipchagi, tuned it, and, without looking at the dying man, slowly started an ancient Kipchak song.
No one understood the lyrics but Sanjar. However, they realized that it was a sad song about their homeland, that Abu Nasr was comforting his friend, and perhaps saying farewell.
The old camel followed his young mate. The fire was dying. The boy, lost in a song, forgot about the twigs. More stars appeared in the sky. A cool breeze blew as the last faint glimmerings of the sun vanished.
The singer’s voice grew stronger. Sanjar’s pale yellowish face, which was covered in a thick beard, exuded peace. With his eyes open, he stared into the deep sky as he listened to the song.
Hassan noticed Multan’s wife sit down on the palm tree stump close to her husband. She regarded the singer with surprise. They respectfully called him the Teacher, and she took him to be the guests’ leader. Hassan noted that she was much younger, and her skin was lighter than Multan’s, though her hands were as rough as his from the sun and the wind. Perhaps, it was because she had traditionally covered her face with the kerchief, though this time she forgot.
The boy generally kept himself at a distance, but now curiosity overcame wariness, and he settled next to Abu Nasr to watch him play a new instrument, forgetting his duty to keep the fire going.
The song flowed above the empty desert. Abu Nasr’s voice was still weak, but he invested the song with his sadness and confusion. He seemed to be talking about his grief, his solitude, about the suffering and torment of someone who wanders about foreign lands. Perhaps he was also singing about his love, Banu.
The song was a sudden discovery for Zuheir. If it had not been for his leg, if his arm were not in a bandage, he would have tried to write down the lyrics, but he could not, and so he just stared at the Teacher enthralled, moving his lips, and trying to repeat the lyrics after him.
No one’s eyes were able to close on this moonless night. When the Pleiades- the constellation that served as a navigator for travelers and nomads- showed up in the sky, Sanjar stopped breathing, and his soul went to God.
At midnight, the men said the prayer for the dead. “May Allah show his kind courageous slave the path to Heaven… Amen.”
This was Multan’s longest speech since they had met. No sooner than he finished it, they heard hooves in the night. The boy peered into the dark. “They rustled the horses! They took off the reins and rode them away!” No one said a word. Abu Nasr covered Sanjar’s face. Zuheir cried silently. “They will not come back.”
Multan sighed. “And this too shall pass… All things must pass in this world – horses, people…”
The morning was filled with grief. When the sun rose above the height of a man, they climbed the nearest hill to dig the grave. It took them a while. The soil was hard and stony. The boy kept an eye on the sheep. Multan’s wife puttered about the stove after Multan slaughtered another sheep as a sacrifice for the dead man.
Zuheir sat next to the body and chased away the flies with his right hand. The old camel came back long before the sunrise and, with a groan, lay down on his usual place by the well. A lonely tear flowed out of his large, colorless eye. Multan commented: “It will pass. Such is the Creator’s will.”
He turned to Abu Nasr, and in an attempt to ease his grief said, “It was my grandfather who dug the well. He grew three palm trees. He had three sons. I was the third one. The palm trees died in his lifetime. I stayed alone with my brother. He should be coming back soon with his herd…”
The young female camel came back, circled the tent, looked around, and then stared into the distance. She sniffed the air and raised her long neck.
Hassan and Bedouin were still digging the grave when they heard the boy yell. He was running after the female camel as she trotted away, breaking through the bushes.
“You cannot stop her!” his father shouted and went back to digging after he repeated, “This too shall pass.”
The next day, while everybody sat around in reflection, Zuheir suddenly asked the Teacher’s permission to stay with the Bedouin. Abu Nasr was silent. He did not want to leave Zuheir, but they had no energy to keep going with him. His leg was still hurting. The Bedouin offered them his remaining camel and was already packing him for the road, but Abu Nasr could not take the man’s last hope. How would he transport his belongings through the desert? A Bedouin is not a Bedouin without a horse, but without a camel even more so.
He saw that everybody was awaiting his answer. Multan and his family sensed they were desperate. The old camel was their last hope to leave this site. The young mare was seeking a younger partner. It was doubtful she would come back, and she could also be caught by someone else.
Abu Nasr silently went to Sanjar’s grave. Hassan sat by the well, unable to help. As Multan packed the camel, he called Abu Nasr loudly: “All ready! You will make it to Tadmor today!”
Abu Nasr turned. Smiling, Multan pointed north. The young camel was coming back, plodding through the nettles. “She met a male from another herd in the night, but she was born here! Glory to Allah! Get ready to leave!” His voice was filled with hope and joy. His son and wife rushed towards the camel.
The Bedouin helped Zuheir climb on the camel. “This shall pass, too…” he repeated. To Abu Nasr, this sounded like a truth about the irretrievability of the past. He was sad to leave the nomad’s tent.
None of the travelers knew what lay ahead. Yet youth was a youth – Zuheir and Hassan were not particularly worried. Zuheir felt uneasy because he could not walk next to the Teacher, while Hassan was calm. They were safe from bandits, for who needed an old camel, rejected even by his cow? They were just three vagrants wandering through the desert, an old man and his servant, and one on an old camel. Not even a decent donkey.
Abu Nasr led with a walking stick in his hand. He never looked back. He led them towards a major caravan route that went to Tadmor. As before, he thought of the vagaries of human lives.
Had he heeded his old experienced friend’s advice and ridden straight to Baghdad, rather than hiding from people, perhaps today Sanjar would be alive. Wasn’t he, Abu Nasr, the cause of Sanjar’s death?
It was not his fate or Allah’s destiny, but chance and circumstance, caused by him, Abu Nasr. But then how should he understand holy books saying, “All is God’s plan” ? Could these words be the fruit of presupposition and imagination? Imagination was not a lie, but a quest for truth. A lie’s purpose is to deceive its victim and take him astray from the truth, while imagination always looks for a path to truth.
Then the holy books are right? Sanjar was fated to die at the Bedouin’s tent? Yet, if Abu Nasr had not gotten the idea to wander about the desert, would he have stayed alive? No – it was not God’s plan. It was a pure accident.
He kept arguing with himself as he strode away from the road, and his own deductions seemed heretical, for their logic was that the Quran is a fruit of human imagination designed to take people away from the truth. Did it mean that everything in it was a lie? He broke out in a sweat in agitation and tried to chase away this heretical thought. Suddenly Zuheir called: “Look, the road is close! I see a big caravan! Must be the road to Tadmor!”
Abu Nasr stopped and dried his sweat. The desert was all around them. The Bedouin’s tent was nowhere in sight.
“That is right, my friend, this road takes us to the ancient and strange town of Tadmor.”
In fact, he could not see the road yet. Zuheir had a better view from the camel’s back. “Tadmor has witnessed many events in history,” he added, trying to shake off his worrisome thoughts.
“Did you call it ‘strange,’ Teacher?”
“Yes. It is also strange that we are reaching it in such a roundabout way.”
It was not just Hassan that was impressed beyond words by Tadmor, but Zuheir, too, though the latter had visited many ancient towns of Syria and Mesopotamia and had heard stories and read about many of the ancient cities of India and Persia, Greece and Rome. Their first view of the city was like that out of a fairy tale, and they would remember it for a long time.
They did reach a major road and followed the caravan that was raising dust a mile ahead of them. A small herd of gazelles rushed among the rare bushes and disappeared. Birds, rare in these parts, hid in the shade of foliage along the road and mudholes, formed during the rains. There were no mountains, no hills, no trees, not even pistachio bushes. The land rose slowly in front of them.
Zuheir felt awkward, riding a camel, with the Teacher walking by. Now, they were headed directly eastward. The sun had passed its zenith and hung over their right shoulder, casting a crooked shadow.
There was not a breeze, nor a sound- just the shuffling of the feet on the sandy soil and the hard breathing of the old camel interceded at times by yells of caravan drivers and the ringing of bells.
The caravan was moving slowly, and Zuheir was sure they would catch up. The Teacher, however, was not in a hurry. After about three more miles, Zuheir’s leg was hurting again, his head was aching, and he did not even notice the caravan vanish. The road grew steeper, and then he saw straight ahead of them the fairy-tale city.
He did not notice as the caravan entered the city gate. His eyes were fixed upon a city that shone in its purity, with its magic contours, its beautiful buildings, with the lemon-yellow walls of its palaces and temples, a city that teemed with parks and gardens and green meadows. Dark green palm groves surrounded it from the east and southeast, with light green meadows and boundless blue waters lying beyond them.
The travelers felt a cool breeze. They stopped, enchanted. Zuheir did not even notice his camel drop on its knees. Abu Nasr leaned against its saddle. All three were silent, struck by this beauty. They seemed to be afraid to take another step lest they disturb the beautiful vision.
“Hassan, get water for Zuheir, and for me, too,” said Abu Nasr.
Hassan did not hear him. He tried to decide whether the picture in front of them was real or a dream. Did people really live under these roofs supported by columns of white marble? This could not even be so in paradise. Who lived here? How come the Teacher never told them about it?
Abu Nasr grinned and got the water himself. He recalled that once he had stood in front of the Sphinx just like that, and then in front of the Great Pyramid. He did not heed the guides either, and nothing existed for him at the moment, but these incredible creations of human minds and human hands.
“This is Tadmor. The great Aramaic capital. No one knows when it was built. Tadmor is the Aramaic word for “palm tree,” or coolness. While the Greeks called it Palmyra.”
“But it is the desert all around,” Zuheir said suddenly. “Where did they get the water?” “That is the mystery of Tadmor, my friend. Nobody knows how old it is.”
“Look! The caravan has entered the gates of the city and passes along the street! You can see it through the marble columns! It really is like something out of a fairy tale!” said Hassan as he kept admiring the view.
“Perhaps we should start looking for a place to stay,” said Abu Nasr with a grin. They passed between two guard towers at the western gate. The guards paid no attention.
This was where the desert that approached the city from the west and northwest came to a stop. As if taken aback by the city’s beauty, it was suspended above with its sharp stone cliffs, with walls of stone blocks and defensive towers. The tallest cliff featured a castle, reached by a road that continued from the city’s main street.
Zuheir noticed that the fortress walls receded at a natural, somewhat broad, valley that reached a mile or two into the desert, parallel to the road they had traveled. The valley seemed to enter the city and ran into the walls of a huge arena built of pink volcanic stone. On both sides stood numerous tall stone buildings and towers. They were tombs and mausoleums of local nobility, decorated with sculptures. People had been buried here for millennia, and the place was called the Valley of the Dead.
Hassan looked around with curiosity as he held the reins of the camel with Zuheir on top and could barely keep up with the Teacher. Barely had they passed the gate as they found themselves at a pool. The water was flowing noisily from under a tall stone building. Its walls were covered with marble plating. With all the water flowing in, the level on the bottom did not change. The water kept gurgling. They circled the pool but never found where it was going.
Ahead was a playground, followed by attractive arches and houses. Where did the water go?
“This is a healing spa,” Abu Nasr explained. “The water is piped into public buildings and bathhouses.”
Hassan never heard him. They were entering a four-lane colonnade of tall marble columns. Ahead of them rode a chariot and a group of horsemen in full panoply, which they were near approaching. The sun did not penetrate the colonnade. Beyond it were alleys laid out in polished stone, with well-dressed people strolling on them.
Every hundred or two hundred steps, there were arches decorated with statues of women and warriors, with their heads removed. Islam’s orders, Hassan thought. Alleys and main street branched out into side streets towards houses, covered and open-air markets, pools, a theater. Slaves carried rich masters in their chairs to gardens and temples or perhaps to the mosque to pray.
In antiquity, Tadmor was called ‘the pearl of the Syrian desert,’ and ‘the ruby of Arabia’s northern face,’ as well as many other epithets that praised its beauty and importance.
The city stemmed back to the Nabataean Kingdom, which was populated by the Arameans. Tadmor’s first laws were in Aramean, whose alphabet had preceded others used in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. Tadmor was closely linked to the Arameans as they were one of the ethnic groups that had formed the basis of the Arabian Empire.
How many tried to conquer and rename Tadmor - Roman emperors, Egypt’s King Ptolemy, Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar – and more than once they came close, but Tadmor, or Palmyra as the Greeks called it, remained as it was; the hub of East-West trade.
Scribes of Mesopotamia and Egypt wrote about Tadmor’s laws, its political system, and the stability of its society, while Bedouins and Berbers told stories and legends about it. All of this had taken place many years before the ancient land of Tadmor was visited by the traveling philosopher, composer, warrior, and singer Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn-Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Uzlag al-Farabi al-Turki.
At the time, the history of the city so excited his thought and imagination that he forgot about the work on the music he started in Damascus and Baghdad, although it was something he was always trying to return to. He knew that in Baghdad, after the murder of Caliph al-Muqtadir, the war over the throne continued nonstop, with one caliph replacing another.
Even now, Tadmor attracted the Teacher with its wealth of history and a beauty that had not faded. Here he could gather both materials and reflections on a book about the City of Virtue- its life, its rules, and its citizens’ duties.
As he got deeper into Tadmor’s history, Abu Nasr found himself trying to compare Tadmor with Otrar in an attempt to identify their similarities and differences.
“Were these the only two examples for delineating principles for a City of Virtue?” he pondered.
Perhaps the essence was that the quest to get as close to the truth as possible was based on experience, on whatever one had lived through and learned. This was the reason for the associative nature of human thinking. It was logical that Tadmor would bring Otrar to mind. The two were quite unlike each other, but each held different ends of a thread called the Silk Road. None of this, however, brought him much closer to any valid, philosophical conclusions on the nature of his imagined City of Virtue and its citizens.
There were many trade and caravan hubs in the world- Carthage, Babylon, Latakia in antiquity, Baghdad and Basra, Samarkand, Rey, and Damascus. They were more than just crossroads for trade caravans, but also the points of intersection where various religions and cultures, the arts and sciences entwined and developed, he thought. How else did you explain that many of the myths and legends described in the Rigveda, the most ancient Hindu holy book, were retold in the books about Zarathustra, or those about the Babylonian and Sumerian gods, and also reappeared in the stories of Buddha and Adonis, as well in those of the prophets Jesus and Muhammad? In other words, the ceaseless flow of human communication was the actual reason for the similarities of gods’ deeds and miracles: stopping the Sun, healing the lame and blind, dying, and being reborn. In fact, their deeds repeated everything once experienced by Egyptian gods. They even looked like them.
Egyptians had three-faced gods. All Hindu deities were considered subjects of Trimurti, or the trinity of Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu the Savior, and three-faced Shiva the Destroyer. The Holy Trinity of Christianity reflected the tripartite nature of Christ.
“No, no…” debated Abu Nasr with himself. “The Holy Trinity of Christianity had been borrowed from the Babylonians, who had inherited their gods from Sumerians: Sin the god of the moon, Shamash the god of the sun, and Ishtar, the goddess of the Earth. Muslims, like Christians, borrowed a little bit from everywhere. They forgot about the trinity, though, of course, a trinity was at the foundation, if we accepted Egyptians as the source. Osiris was the Father God, Isida the Mother Goddess, Horus, their son. Then there was Hecate of ancient Greece, who was always depicted as three figures grown together.
Suddenly Abu Nasr sensed his powerlessness. He wandered through the mazes of all the myths and legends he knew, but he could not find a link between two Holy Writs, the Bible and the Quran. He was astonished that he could not find in them what had to be at the basis of every teaching – the natural logic inherent in it. That astounded and frightened him.
“Forgive me, Oh Creator!” he said as he tried to soothe himself, though he could not shake off the thought that the science of logic must lie at the basis of all teachings. That was what he had proposed in his finished treatise. He swore at himself, “You could never achieve constancy or consistency in anything you do!” and went back to studying Tadmor.
In the company of Hassan, Abu Nasr spent days wandering about Tadmor, collecting old books, listening to stories of locals, regarding monuments from different eras and various writings on the stones, as well as admiring the goods brought from faraway lands. Zuheir could not join them yet; his leg was healing slowly.
Once, strolling about the marketplace and watching Bedouins spread out their goods, wool, and leather, for the buyers, and how they displayed their sheep and camels designated for sale or trade, Abu Nasr exclaimed: “I am so dumb! I am so dumb!” And, talking to himself, headed home. Hassan did not understand but asked no questions. He was used to his master’s oddities. “People need cities. They are built not just for states to interact with one another, but also for cities to interact with the steppe. The steppes and the deserts provide cities and countries with slaves and soldiers, but when cities grow obese with luxury and wealth, complicate their lives with intrigue, and start suffocating under their internal diseases, they begin to fall apart like rotten fruit. ‘The deserts of Arabia, just like the great steppes beyond Otrar, have always served as a source of new tribes and new people with a primeval perception of life. Nomads brought the winds of the steppe and the desert and forced the city dwellers to defend or adjust.
‘It was a natural phenomenon. In all of these cases, the old had to act and to transform. The peace of powerful kingdoms often depended on the peace of the steppes and the deserts. Therefore, they needed a point of contact, a site where they could speak with the steppe and the desert as equals and attempt to anticipate or satisfy the nomads’ natural desire for constant contact, for trading goods, slaves, and news.
“This was the reason that both Tadmor and Otrar came into being!” Abu Nasr reflected. “Neither Arabia nor the great steppe remained untouched by culture, and often they witnessed the rise of governing states of the past that left behind monuments of different historical eras, as is evidenced by Parthian culture, the Kush Empire, Aramaic burials, and their alphabet.”
He found hundreds of facts and proofs of his conclusions and was already seeking explanations to long-gone historical events generously served up by his memory. Why did Alexander the Great, who had conquered so many lands and cities, leave only Tadmor and Otrar untouched? Both cities, lying far apart, remained unconquered. When Alexander tried to pass through the Great Steppe, part of Otrar’s holdings, he was stopped by Spitamenes, a steppe-dwelling warrior.
Alexander’s army used to engaging with regular armies, could not deal with small detachments of steppe horsemen, who materialized suddenly like wolfpacks, did considerable damage to the phalanges and cavalry, now from the rear, now from the flanks, and then vanished without a trace. They ran Alexander’s troops ragged but remained inviolable.
So it was with Spitamenes, the Sogdian warlord that rose up with the Bactrians against Alexander. He would not touch either Otrar or Tadmor and lived with them in peace – they were his cities. Perhaps Alexander, as Aristotle’s disciple, realized the importance of these cities for communication between peasants and nomads and therefore left them alone? But then Alexander’s wisdom would have had to match his martial talents, and that would have created internal conflicts. He would have had to become a philosopher, rather than a conqueror, and wisdom cannot be cruel.
New insights took Abu Nasr away from the central concept of his treatise on the City of Virtue. He found himself involuntarily comparing the laws of Otrar and Tadmor, and he concluded that there was nothing about them that could be accepted as ideal. The laws of Rome, the Eternal City, were anything but eternal and, therefore, unacceptable. Only after studying the laws of Hammurabi and the social order of communities like Babylon, Rome, Athens, Carthage, and Nineveh, could he gather grain by grain the roots of decency that would lead to conclusions on the duties of rulers and citizens in a City of Virtue. As Plato said, “Learning is a reminiscence, while reflection is the desire for knowledge.”
Only a knowledge of the history of cities, of their laws, and numerous other things, could provide the philosophical formulas for a treatise.
In Tadmor, they traded, wrote, and communicated in Aramaic, Syrian, Arabic, and Greek. As before, the city was tolerant of all religions. Sometimes it appeared immune to the passions that raged all over the Caliphate. Yet most denizens had adopted Islam quite some time ago under the Umayyad caliphs.
Most city dwellers considered themselves faithful Muslims, prayed in mosques five times a day, yet at the same time, whether out of habit or tradition, still visited pre-Islamic temples that had been popular for thousands of years. The Sun Temple, which was the most grandiose and beautiful among them, stood in the eastern part amid magnificent buildings. It was equal to Parthenon, though different in architecture. From its parapet, which was framed by Corinthian columns, one could observe the sunrise and sunset and the entire city and all other temples and palaces, aqueducts and colonnades, squares and markets, and magnificent gardens with fruit from various lands. Across from the northwestern corner of the temple was an entry gate similar to Constantine’s Arch in Rome. It was a starting point for the road that went throughout the entire city and was flanked with four rows of covered columns made by the most skillful masters – it was a road that had no equals.
In order to earn dirhams for rent and writing paper, Abu Nasr turned to healing. In his free time, he would often follow the road uphill and pore over ancient volumes in the quiet of the temple. His command of Greek and Aramaic, ancient Syrian and Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit helped him find the needed books easily.
An unknown historian wrote that Tadmor had always existed. The first time it had been destroyed by Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar but had been speedily rebuilt. Historians and travelers described Tadmor-Palmyra as the immortal capital of Palmyrene State, the ruler of all the surrounding desert, and all the Saracens who lived in it. Palmyra was ruled both by a ruler and a popular assembly. It was a caravan hub that connected Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, and India as well as other countries of the East with the Mediterranean. It was equidistant from the Euphrates in its mid-course and the Mediterranean. At all times, Palmyra was the sole supplier for pack donkeys, and after camels were tamed, camel caravans of merchant traders traveled through the desert, while its real rulers, the children of the desert, provided for the security and safety of the goods.
Through millennia, Tadmor-Palmyra import-export tariffs remained unshakeable: one denarius per donkey load, two per camel load, with special tariffs for more frequent users. Altercations and abuses involving tariffs were punished strictly by a superior court. Deception, theft, and adultery were punished by death.
Abu Nasr examined closely the list of goods moving through Palmyra: papyrus, dried fish and fruit from the Near East and Egypt, purple-dyed wool and olive oils from Phoenicia and Babylon; black slaves from Africa; animal hides, leather, and lard from the desert; cloth and expensive decorations from India; spices and fragrances from Arabia; bronze and marble statues from Greece and Cyprus.
Palmyra respected cultures of all tribes: they adored Adonis, celebrated Marna , and worshipped heavenly Baal. Any primitive religion claimed that a man could avoid the gods’ ire by sacrificing whatever he valued the most, and hence the dearest to the deity. While keeping all religions equal, Palmyra priests still gave preference to the cult of the Sun – Helios. This cult could allow all other faiths while staying above them. Perhaps this was due not only to the fact that pre-Islamic desert tribes worshipped various idols, but also to the proximity of Palestine, Byblos, Babylon, Sumer, Baalbek, and Egypt.
Phoenicians worshipped the River Adonis, flowing down from mountains of Lebanon, and claimed it changed color at God Adonis’s will. Byblos was the first to practice virgin sacrifice for foreigners as well as holy prostitution, and the Phoenicians also sacrificed children – such were the neighbors that surrounded Palmyra.
Palmyra’s worldview was substantially shaped by tolerance for other faiths and strictness in observing their own laws. Like any city with a thousand-year history, Palmyra had various rulers. Abu Nasr tried to learn their deeds to form a notion of their knowledge and wisdom, their cruelty and treachery, in order to understand what traits were required for the ruler of a City of Virtue, if such were to appear on earth.
Still limping, Zuheir helped Abu Nasr find and copy texts from old chronicles. Hassan realized that the Teacher did not need him much when he was not healing people, so he often left for the market to listen to traders and travelers. Transit caravans were now rare, however. The city had lost much of its former grandeur.
About two hundred years earlier, in 744, Umayyad caliphs had tried to convert the city to Islam. This led to a massacre, and many statues were disfigured or smashed. The Tadmor-Palmyra of old did not survive. The Umayyads and then then the Abbasids and Damascus’ viceroys preferred the ancient city of Haleb as a center for trade. It was located almost two hundred miles to the north, on the banks of a small full-flowing river.
Going over old scrolls, Abu Nasr ran into stories of military campaigns from the life of Queen Zeynab. Many books claimed that under her rule Palmyra had reached its apogee. She was named differently in different sources. The Greeks called her Augusta, as she had taken that title herself and founded a city she named after herself on the eastern border of her land on the banks of the Euphrates. In Roman sources, she was called Septimia or Zeynobia. But Palmyreans always referred to her as “Wise Zeynab” or “beautiful Zeynab.”
Another reason why he was so interested in her was that her stories reminded him of Banu. He never really forgot Banu – whether during his desert travels or in the Bedouin’s tent or here in Palmyra. He always sought to stifle his yearning for her with his work.
In the daytime, he studied the Palmyra chronicles, and in the evening, unless he had patients, he retired to re-read Aristotle and Plato, al-Kindi, and Abu Bakr, or else work out the mysteries of ancient mathematical formulas.
The more he learned of Zeynab, however, the more he worried about Banu. Yet, in the end, cool reason won, and he was once again engaged in the study of the queen’s life.
In 260, during the Romans’ war on Persia under Emperor Valerian, her husband Odenat the Second, the ruler of Palmyra, was captured by the Persians. He declared himself King of Kings and decided to conquer Persia on his own. He victoriously entered Ctesiphon on the Tigris and, during a celebratory feast, was treacherously killed by his nephew General Meon.
Zeynab accompanied her husband on all his campaigns. She won the fight and had Meon beheaded. Then she returned to Palmyra and took over her husband’s throne. People greeted her back happily. Now the entire eastern part of the Roman Empire belonged to Palmyra. Tadmor was not just a trade hub, but the capital of a state. Zeynab gathered the best sages of her day. Her beauty and intellect, her sense of purpose and decisiveness, and purely female charm gave her untold power over people.
The best architects and sculptors came to Tadmor from all over the world. Slaves were brought in by thousands from Africa, from Carthage and Cilicia. Marble and granite were brought from Palestine, Lebanon, and Cyprus. The city had grown even more majestic and was now called “the best capital in the world.”
Rome could not abide by rivalry. Emperor Galien sent his armies to bring down the “Eastern Queen.”
Zeynab beat them back brilliantly, which enhanced her status with neighbors.
While Galien’s successor Claudius was busy fighting the Goths, Zeynab sent her troops by land and by sea to Egypt and conquered it. Thus, in less than ten years since her ascent to the throne, the world, astounded, witnessed the birth of a new great power, whose borders ranged from Tigris and Euphrates to the Upper and Lower Nile – and now had designs on Rome. Emperor Aurelian, who took the throne in 270, decided to forestall Zeynab’s invasion. He had been preparing his troops for three years. In 273, Roman legions suddenly landed on the east coast of the Mediterranean and moved against Palmyra. Drunk on its power, Palmyra was itself unhurriedly preparing to start on Rome but was preoccupied with creating new fairy-tale palaces, colonnades, and erecting monuments to its heroes.
The legions easily seized a few seashore towns and proceeded inland. Zeynab sent her troops to meet them. They crossed the desert without stopping to rest or waiting for cavalry reinforcements, and her army engaged the Romans in one of the most fierce battles in history. The Romans won. Zeynab retreated, losing the rest of her wounded army in the desert. She took cover behind Palmyra’s walls and strengthened her garrison. The city was surrounded completely.
The negotiations were fruitless. Neither side accepted the other’s conditions. The siege lasted for six months. There was no help expected. With a handful of bodyguards, Zeynab broke the blockade and escaped on camelback to bring the Persians to Palmyra. She crossed the desert and reached the Euphrates, but as she was boarding the ship, she was seized by Aurelian’s horsemen and returned to Palmyra. The city surrendered.
Zeynab was brought to Rome along with her retinue and treasures. She became a gem in Rome’s crown. The “beautiful Queen of the East” took residence in a quiet palace near Rome. She did not live long. The last stroke for her was the news that Palmyrean revolt against Rome had been suppressed harshly, and the city was destroyed. Zeynab could not know that the city would be reborn in all its brilliance and then destroyed again, this time by Arabs, the worshippers of a new religion.
The Queen herself was a heathen and died as one. She was considered the most literate woman of her day. She spoke and wrote in Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Persian, Syrian, and Egyptian. She was a musician and an artist and knew the basics of many sciences. She certainly possessed many traits required for a mindful ruler, but not all, Abu Nasr thought. He condemned her campaigns and her vanity that brought her death. Aurelian might not have waged war on Tadmor if she had not broken her own laws on peace. As Abu Nasr thought of Zeynab, his mind kept going back to Banu. He just could not separate them. His thoughts of Zeynab smoothly flowed to Banu.
He wondered how she was faring in Damascus and whether her father was still angry with her. “I should tell Hassan to keep me posted of caravans from Damascus,” he thought. “So as not to miss a message from her or to send her a letter.”
‘The ruler of the City of Virtue,” Abu Nasr wrote, “must love teaching and learning, must love the truth and its advocates, must hate lies and those who resort to them. He must also possess a proud soul and treasure honor. His soul should by nature be above all lowly deeds, and by nature, he should aspire to hallowed deeds, and likewise despise dirhams, dinars, and other attributes of worldliness. He should naturally love justice and its champions and hate injustice and tyranny and their practitioners. He should be courageous and know no fear or cowardice in the name of justice.”
“Finding all these traits in one person is difficult, and people endowed with such natures are rare,” he wrote as he readied his new treatise.
As he compared all his knowledge of the history of cities, from Rome and Athens to Tadmor and Otrar, he dictated to Zuheir his notes on types of cities: vain, cruel, ignorant, power-hungry, meretricious. He laid out to Zuheir his dreams of a place where all people are equal, and all the goods belong to the people. Zuheir enjoyed listening and thought - He is a strange man, my Teacher; such an odd fellow.
Hassan listened in with great awe and thought, “What a kind and wise storyteller my Master is. Places like this one finds only in one’s dreams, and then not always. Perhaps he is a prophet or holy man, and all that he says will come true.”
Yet life in Tadmor was getting harder. Its denizens perceived every bit of news differently and had different views on the killing of various viziers or caliphs, which traders and messengers from Damascus or Haleb carried in with them. Faithful Muslims believed the killers were infidel Qarmatians, heretics, evil Christians, or treacherous Jews, while Christians and Jews gloated about infighting among the Muslims. Worshippers of other religions were praising their gods more boldly. Sects were celebrating their feasts without fearing punishment. Newly appeared priests and missionaries got into fights. Every other person spoke about the imminent resurrection of his particular god. In public places, in the open-air theater, ancient cult worshippers staged shows about the resurrection of God Adonis, who had allegedly lived twelve hundred years before Christ.
As ancient Greek poetess, Sappho’s poems were being recited, the priests came out to stage to announce that Adonis River had again turned red, and “gardens of Adonis” were blooming on its banks, confirming the resurrection…
The Sphinx was rumored to awaken in Egypt, while in Mecca, Qarmatian soldiers who attacked the rock of Ka’aba went blind. These two events meant that Prophet Muhammad had been resurrected and that soon his revenge would crush all the infidels who harmed Islam.
Book lovers, warlocks, healers – all were sought out and persecuted. Some people healed by Abu Nasr denounced him as a warlock and as one of those dangerous fire worshippers who studied satanic writings in secret temples to manufacture curses and poisons that would lead good Muslims astray. Others said that Abu Nasr was not alone and that he was linked to rebels. As proof, they mentioned the news from Baghdad about the new Qarmatian revolt and the killing of Great Caliph by heretics. Abu Nasr realized that when rulers fought among themselves, the entire state had the tremors, so victims were sought after everywhere, and people maintained their distance from one another. Not surprisingly, Abu Nasr’s landlord demanded that he and his companions leave. People were spying more frequently, while others were being followed. Some books from the temple treasury had been burned, and the rumor spread that it was someone like Abu Nasr, although he had his defenders who said that the healer could never burn or steal books and that the books had been lifted by strangers who had secretly infiltrated the temple, perhaps heretics from Alexandria. Some believed the new Sultan of Haleb sent his ghilman, while yet others said that no one had taken any books and that they had been burned by the messengers of the ruler from Baghdad or Damascus.
Hassan and Zuheir were vigilantly following the Teacher everywhere and feared for his life, while Abu Nasr feared for theirs. They had to leave, but where to? Both Damascus and Baghdad were out of the question. Zuheir dared voice his apprehension-
“Tadmor will suffocate us, Teacher.”
“Stay calm, my young friend.”
Abu Nasr remembered the Bedouin’s words and, trying to suppress a vague sense of anxiety, added:
“It too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever.”
Reading had fatigued him, and as Abu Nasr closed the last page and raised his head, he noticed the sun was setting. Through the columns, he saw thick palm tree groves flanking the southeastern neighborhoods. Beyond them, the blue lake merged with the pale blue sky. Everything was quiet. A barely perceptible chill was coming from the groves and the lake. He could not take his eyes off this picture of nature, so clear and vivid. The sunshine coming from the southwest seemed to transform the city. He wished that instead of a temple, there was an observatory on this site; constant observation of the stars could have opened many secrets by now. What sort of an observatory did Abu Jaukhari try to build in Taraz and later in Otrar? Memories, memories…
Hassan’s patience ran out. He got tired of leaning against the chilly column and coughed to draw attention.
“Are you still here?” asked Abu Nasr. “I thought you were going to return the camel to Multan when you told me that he and his brother were in town to buy a horse. Where is Zuheir?”
“I have already returned the camel, Master. Zuheir is busy copying your comments on Aristotle’s Poetics. He said that afterward, he would go on to copy “Objection to Galen on his Dissent from Aristotle Regarding Human Organs.”
Abu Nasr glanced at him and gave a fleeting smile. “Already you are talking about Aristotle. You might make a good student one day, Hassan. For now, take these books to the storage.”
As the Teacher was leaving the temple, Hassan ran up to him anxious with some news-
“I met Shamsuddin, the merchant. He recognized me.”
“Who is this Shamsuddin, and how does he know you?”
“He is one of the richest merchants. He supplies fragrancies to the richest nobles in Damascus. His ships carry sandalwood and cinnamon, aloe and nutmeg, musk and ambergris, fragrant reed, and Mecca balm. He often travels to Baghdad and Basra and Egypt. My mistress often sent me to him, and he would bring her balms and herbs with the most incredible aromas. He also supplies gems and expensive fabrics for the viceroy’s favorite wives. My mistress ordered black pearls from Yemen from him.”
“Banu, you mean?”
“Yes, Master. He saw her recently. He was surprised to see me here serving you. He wants to meet with you.”
Abu Nasr fell silent.
Hassan followed him in silence. He never knew where his master was headed – to the bathhouse, to the market, perhaps to see a performance involving the gods of Babylon, Phoenicia, or his Chaldean ancestors. He was used to the Master being deep in thought, and what his thoughts were, no one knew but Allah.
On a whim, Master could easily step aside or turn back. He might have already forgotten about Shamsuddin. Perhaps he should remind him? No – Master knew how to hide his feelings. He remembered Banu, whom he loved and to whom he was as loyal as much as Hassan was.
Having calmed down a bit, he followed the Teacher, but paid little attention to the oncoming crowd in chitons and cloaks, in turbans and skullcaps, beggars and dervishes, traders and vagrants, on palanquins and camels. He thought of the hardships of vagrant life. The Teacher said he might make a good student, but these words did not please him. What was the use? Again, wandering and poring over papers and the fear of being considered a heretic… he was getting tired of wandering. He remembered his childhood, Damascus, his mistress, and the mischief wrought by her beautiful and very sly and merry maidservant.
Lost in thought, Hassan did not notice that Abu Nasr had turned towards the arena. Two men were in a clutch, throttling each other’s throats while a mob rushed towards them with cries. In a moment, the fighting spread into the crowd, and mayhem filled the street with sticks, and rocks, and glints of knives as Muslims, Christians, and Jews all fought with one another. The cry “Allah!” came the loudest. Someone was wounded with a knife. The sight of blood inflamed passions even further. People fought for their God without regard for their own lives, for what is more sacred than dying for your God?
Hassan was so rapt by the spectacle that he had lost sight of the Teacher, who was right in the middle of the mob trying to calm people down! He raised his hands and yelled, “Stop fighting, in the name of the Creator! Calm yourselves! You are all brothers!” Yet, no one was listening. Then someone attacked him with fists. In one leap, Hassan tossed him away and, parrying the blows, dragged the Teacher away.
“We must find Shamsuddin, fast! Only he can protect us!” Hassan was afraid they would be followed.
“Long live new caliph!” came the cries from behind. “He is a true son of the Prophet! Long live the Ruler of the Faithful!”
Apparently, the Muslims had won the fight. It was also evident that they had been the ones to break up the show that praised other gods. To the dervishes’ laughter and shrieks, the winners sent other the followers of other religions on the run.
“Allah is powerful! Allah is with us!” Hassan heard again from behind. “Yet another new caliph,” Hassan thought as he dragged the tired Teacher through the maze of the city streets. “What happened to the old one?”
CHAPTER FIVE - A DREAM IN HALEB A day in the life of a wise man is more valuable than the life of an ignoramus. Arabic saying
What an incredible dream! If only because Abu Nasr remembered it in every detail. Every word spoken that night was filled with such profound meaning. The dream seemed to encompass his entire life, permeate his thoughts, and therefore became prophetic for him. Much time had passed since, yet he remembered it still, and not only the dream, but that time as well.
It was in his early days in Haleb, to which he arrived from Palmyra with Merchant Shamsuddin’s caravan. Abu Nasr sent Hassan with the same caravan to Damascus with one request- to return to his former Mistress and to bring back a message about her or from her. On the day after his servant’s departure, he felt unusually tired and went to bed early. The night was long… as was his mysterious dream… if it was a dream at all.
Strangely, the more time passed, the more apparent it appeared in his memory, although dreams generally faded away in one’s memory, as did reality.
How did one explain the tenacity of these visions? Fatigue, loneliness, old age? If he narrated the dream in detail to young interpreters of Islam or an old muttaqalim, they would call him a saint or prophet, or as happened in Tadmor, a warlock or magician.
Yet, be that as it may, at the current time, while he was lauded by friends and enemies alike as a great Teacher and a Sufi, as the renowned author of the “Treatise on Cities of Virtue and Wise Rulers” in which he was able to show that cruelty was incompatible with wisdom, and while he had finally achieved a modicum of peace in the gardens and palaces of Sultan Saif al-Daul, still Abu Nasr was reluctant to reveal anything about that all-important dream – a dream that had forced him on many an occasion to question every single one of his deeds, past and present.
As he reconstructed everything from that fateful night, he found himself still debating the eternal nature of truth and the meaning of life. However, he remembered it all.
The night was cold and starry. Somewhere behind him, as if winking at the moon in the sky, the flowing Nile gleamed. Abu Nasr did not know how he had gotten to this side of the river; how he had gotten across. Could he have stepped over it, or even walked on water as Jesus did? That night he felt he could make miracles happen. With a wave of his hand, he could pass lightly from dune to dune and from bank to bank. He could even fly.
Suddenly, he was stopped by a calm yet powerful voice that issued from the night-
“Why did you come here? Do you realize where you are? Kneel!”
“Who are you? Tell me your name or show me your face,” called back Abu Nasr, who was dressed all in white. A nocturnal breeze was blowing in the folds of his light clothing. “I wish to know with whom I speak.”
“I am the Voice of the Sky and the Desert. And I say once again… get on your knees and kneel! For, there is no place on Earth more sacred than that upon which you now stand. Whosoever comes here treads upon these sands with the utmost care, be they king or sage, poet or executioner – and all of them are inevitably struck still with awe !”
“But, where am I?”
“This is the Giza Plateau. Here sit those who pass silent judgment on time… Do you hear? This is where history begins. Here, on the banks of the Nile, are the cities and people that you search. You! Child of the wild steppe who shows no respect for holy places…” The solemn and magisterial voice resounded. “Again, I say, get on your knees and kneel! My anger is without limit!”
Abu Nasr felt an incredible weight on his shoulders. It was piercingly cold, and he hid his frozen hands in his white robes as he slowly knelt. His head, as heavy as lead, fell to his chest. He lifted it back with a tremendous effort.
“I wish to see you, Oh Great One!”
“You will never see me, but you must know that I am the one who created these deserts, mountains, and rivers! I am the one whom people worship!”
“People worship reason!”
“No!” said the Voice somewhere from above. “People worship gods!” he stated as the stars sparkled more brightly. The moon, inspiring, brightened as well. The dark cloud over the Sakkara sands moved away. Abu Nasr did not budge.
“I know people who have used reason to discover the secret of life, and hence the secrets of the gods.”
“They lived here… and still do!” The Voice responded more calmly. “These sands hide all the secrets of life and the universe.”
“But death has no power over reason! You cannot preserve it in the sand!”
“Of whom do you speak, weakling?” roared the Voice. “Where do you think gods live if not here?”
“They lived on another shore of the great sea. One of them gave a name to all who are on this plateau. Another gave eternity the name of Kosmos and named the sun Helios. Not only did they prove the greatness of reason… There was also Aristotle, a Greek, a disciple of Plato’s, who revealed many of the secrets of life to his students. His teacher Plato was a disciple of Socrates…”
“Quiet! You are weak and pathetic!” A deep sigh swayed the land underfoot; the stars moved, too. “You awakened Him!”
In the first glimmer of sunrise, Abu Nasr saw the face of the Sphinx – serene and thoughtful.
“He saw the sun before the Greeks ever erected temples to their gods,” the Voice continued. “Now listen and do not say a word. Do not anger Him.”
Now Abu Nasr was silent. A weight slid off his shoulders. He rose and felt he was a fragile reed facing the mighty Sphinx, whose colossal body, freeing itself from the dark coverlet of the night, rose in front of him. His eyes were half-closed. He did not seem to be fully awake. Finally, Abu Nasr heard his voice. This voice was unhurried and temperate; it seemed to soothe and encourage silent reflection.
“With every new dawn, I see the Deity of the Sun rising over the Nile, and its first rays of light are for my face, which is why I face the East- so as I may greet Him. In my five thousand years, I have seen all the suns people may remember. I have seen the history of Egypt in its original glory, as clearly as I see every new sunrise. I am a loyal vigilant guard at my master’s feet. I am the Pharaoh’s companion, and I am the Pharaoh himself. Throughout the centuries, I have been named differently by the people who approached me in awe. You mentioned one of them. Who was he?”
“Herodotus,” mumbled Abu Nasr, like a poor student addressing a teacher.
“I do not know him,” said the Sphinx thoughtfully. “When all humanity was still in its infancy, multitudes of stonemasons, geometricians, and astronomers worked at my feet on this wide plateau. They were building testaments to time, while the rest of the world lived in caves and hunted wild animals. So, where were the ones whose names you mentioned?”
Abu Nasr said nothing. The Sphinx was silent, too. As if to help the philosopher, the strange and mysterious Voice resounded:
“Greetings, oh, noble Nile! Majestically flow your waters, irrigating these sacred valleys. You remember how the desert sands once dominated the fields, and the plants went dry. Man built dams and canals to save his fields. People loved the land and wanted to be buried in it. Ever since here on the Giza plateau are the eternal homes of the dead whose souls remain immortal.”
“While I am a faithful companion of time,” said the voice of the Sphinx, “ and have seen many a dynasty rise and fall, with all its nobility and grizzled priesthoods whose noble footsteps once tread upon these very sands.”
The face of the Sphinx glowed with an enigmatic smile. Once again, he fell silent, as if deep in memories.
“Do you recall the oft-repeated story of a falcon that stole a sandal while a woman was bathing in the Nile?” the Voice said to the Sphinx. “It dropped the sandal in the Pharaoh’s garden. So beautiful was the sandal, and so tiny, that the Pharaoh wished to meet its owner and then ended up marrying her.”
“A legend of many versions, my eternal companion,” said the Sphinx.
“Do you remember in Pharaoh Khufu’s court there was a nobleman who lured his wife’s lover into a deep lake using a wax figure and then turned him into a crocodile using a trick he learned from a magician? Wishing to impress the court with his magic, he repeated the trick in front of the Pharaoh, but then Khufu punished both the courtier who was tossed to the crocodile that ate him and the unfaithful wife as well.”
“Another legend… but a lesson for him,” said the Sphinx as he glanced at Abu Nasr.
“What about the young Pharaoh Amenhotep II? He had broad shoulders and the waist of a wasp, and he could tame the wildest of horses. His name is engraved on the stone in front of you.”
“That is the story of my life.”
Said the Sphinx as he closed his eyes. “Continue…”
“People then forgot about you, and you decided to hide from them under sand and soil. Amenhotep was detained by the war in Mesopotamia, far away from his land. Once, as the prince was coming back home from a hunt, he stopped to rest in your shade. You sent him a dream and spoke to him.”
“I do remember that day!” the Sphinx spoke again. “The Prince was my favorite. I told him- ‘Turn your eye to me, my son. Heed me, and then you will have both the white and the red crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. This whole land will be yours, far and wide. You see how abandoned I am, how unattractive is my body! But I am the master of Giza: take me out of the sand, and you will be king!”
“Indeed, that was the case,” the Voice confirmed. “The young man woke up, removed all the sand in which you were buried, and then he was crowned King Thutmose IV, and between your feet, he engraved the dream that you had inspired. You, little man! The truth seeker and reason worshipper! Would you like to see how it happened? Then watch! The crowning ceremony has just begun. See the crowds on the riverbank?”
Everything was lit up by a bright light, and Abu Nasr saw people on both banks of the Nile. He saw the king’s barge upon which two hundred oarsmen rowed, as it moved up the river … Then the barge was moored, the pharaoh stepped down and headed towards the roped-off area to shoot his bow. Crowds followed him.
The young pharaoh is courageous: he sees a half-tamed horse and orders that it be harnessed to his chariot. He holds the reins tightly and forces the horse to his will, as the chariot does one circle after another…The crowd greets him, and after trying what must have been over fifty longbows, he made his choice.
Once again, he rides the chariot to the target. He pulls the bowstring and hits the center, and then once again. His last arrow pierces the target.
This is his triumph. Proudly standing atop his chariot, he heads for the court, where his throne awaits him. The court, the priests, and the people all greet him with wishes and praises. He receives the double crown; he climbs the triumphal chariot and heads for the temples of Kharmak, Khufu, and Khefren. “Long live the Pharaoh!” roars the crowd, but then the voices quiet down and fade away wholly…
The vision was gone leaving only the night. Astonished, Abu Nasr looked around and up at the stars. He was cold and lonely. Once again, he heard the Voice -
“The rule of the monarch is over… the Pharaoh is dead. Sorrowful funereal sounds come from the valley – can you hear them, oh wanderer?”
“I do. I can hear the crying from the underground.”
“Peer into the dark. Do you see the pharaoh in the wooden sarcophagus, encrusted with gold and gems? The lower temple ceremony is over; now, the cortege is rising towards the tomb – the pyramid.”
Abu Nasr saw the pyramid and its burial room. All was ready for crossing the lake and the gate to the netherworld.
The last stone block would be installed so skillfully that no one would ever know which part of the wall was last.
The high priest delivers the last farewell… the vision is gone. A tall clean-shaven priest in a white chiton emerges in the predawn dark. He stands on the elevation next to the pyramid.
“Now, great King, you are not leaving us dead – you are leaving us alive! If you are leaving, you will be back soon!” The priest solemnly raised his arms to the sky. “If you are asleep, you will awaken. If you died, then you will resurrect yourself. You who rose to the undying stars – you will never vanish!”
Abu Nasr could hear weeping women’s voices come clearly through the monolith of the pyramid of Khafre that loomed before the priest -
Alas! Alas! Will, we weep, and weep, and weep without rest, Now, oh glorious traveler into eternity, you exist –
The moon and the stars became brighter. The morning drew closer, as other Giza temples and pyramids became more visible to Abu Nasr.
“Thus, dynasty after dynasty followed one after the other through the millennia,” the Voice continued. “Yet, no other monarch in Egypt was as attractive as that young Pharaoh, a poet, and a mystic… Remember that, wanderer! He left Thebes to build a temple of his own. He rejected Amon and his priesthood to worship Aten, whom he had personally chosen. He gave up the name of Amenhotep and adopted another – Akhenaten, “Beneficial to Aten, the One and Only.”
He died at the age of thirty. Three thousand years ago, he wrote his own prayer: “You rise, Oh Divine Aten, and take my breath away. You rule my heart. You are the creator and the giver of all that exists. People live by the blessings of your grace, Aton – ‘forever living and forever giving life.’ ”
“Wait!” spoke the Sphinx. “I saw conquerors dreaming of fame shine before me and bow their heads. I saw many with burning eyes who envied my fame and immortality. Centuries went by over my face. I knew times of despair when people feared my smile when children thought me ugly, and no one listened to me. The keys to Ancient Egypt are lost. All our knowledge, our soul in thousands of papyri, is asleep, unknown and unneeded, in the dark silence of the tombs. And you, little man who deems himself a worshipper of reason and a truth-seeker, will never know them!”
“Forgive me, oh incomparable and powerful ruler!” Abu Nasr interjected. “But men’s dreams and plans never completely come true, since wisdom is infinite.”
“Ruler of eternity!” cried out the Voice to the Sphinx. “How dare this pathetic wanderer, an insect on a grain of sand, argue with you?”
“You are deprived of the greatest good for all the living and the dead – tranquility!” The Sphinx responded. “I, however, am tired of silence. Let me enjoy my conversation.”
He addressed Nasr:
“You mentioned Herodotus.”
“They call him ‘the father of history,’” said Abu Nasr.
“He called me the Sphinx, did he not? As if I came from his land. How would he know my history? He is as much a naïve child of time as you are.”
“Civilizations are islands in the sea of barbarity,” said Abu Nasr. “You do not only see God in the sunrise– for millennia, but you have also watched the river upon which the most diverse people, from pharaohs to slaves, have sailed by. Every day, you see these hills and the pyramids before which all seems fleeting and inconsequential, and before which a man is but an insect… but they were built by men! The glory of the pyramids, your own glory – this is the glory of people and their reason! You know that, oh ruler of the Desert and the Nile!”
“Be quiet, man! People are pitiful! They submit only to power! A power that can turn them into ants and forces them to build pyramids to eternity!”
The Sphinx’s face lit up, his eyes were open, and their strange deep-set glow froze Abu Nasr.
“But people’s strength lies in their reason!” proceeded Abu Nasr.
“No! Strength lay in the power that governs people. You are nothing but a speck of dust, traveler, and you dare seek out the mysteries of existence and the secrets of truth? You dream of Cities of Virtue, and you are surprised at what has been long forgotten and now rediscovered? Know this: great and powerful was the city of Memphis, a capital that stood in this very valley – and where is it now? Where is Babylon? Where is Carthage? Where is Palmyra? Where is your Otrar? All dead! All have lost their power and will! All have drowned in their luxury and debauchery. There are no past cities here. There is no Memphis, and no palaces and all the kings and caliphs have turned to ashes. Only the pharaohs are left.
‘Not all of them were great and powerful. Only three are left and will rule: Khufu, Khefren, and Menkaure! Ants like yourself – emptied their sarcophagi and tombs… but the pharaohs lived.
‘Time will change generations, but these three will keep on living and ruling, wearing a double crown of the Upper and Lower Nile. They rule their courts and courtiers, who are buried here as well. They rule the small pyramids, where their queens are buried; they rule the tombs of their priests, scholars, astrologists, singers, poets, court jesters, and concubines. Here they are – look!”
The Sphinx swayed and raised his right paw. The earth quaked, thunder-struck, and a flash of lightning lit the three great pyramids for an instant.
“You will perish, oh, miserable man!” cried out the Voice of the Desert. “You made him angry!”
“Settle down,” said the Sphinx. “I shall spare the traveler. I only wish to teach him about the truth, much as he instructs his students. I am merely witnessing the will of my father, Khufu. I saw the vain dreams of conquerors and the madness of priests scatter apart, like dead leaves, and I said, ‘The world fears time, and time fears pyramids.’ Remember that. Your Greek, Herodotus, called the pyramids one of the world’s seven wonders. Where are the other six? Where are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? The Beacon at Alexandria? Nothing compares to these pyramids! The great sage Imhotep who designed the pyramids in Saqqara, was the father of all historians, astronomers, mathematicians, architects, and philosophers. His mind and knowledge, submitting to the pharaoh’s power and will, created these monuments to eternity that can stand up to floods and storms and every disaster known to Earth. They even withstood the tremendous earthquake that had ever struck Egypt! …but you seem thoughtful, traveler – what are you thinking about?”
“You are right- those who created these monuments deserve our deepest respect and admiration. They knew what they should be doing and where they should be going. They believed, and belief comes above all else. Belief in people, their power, and in reason.”
“Not people! And the Pharaoh knew that! He believed in his power and subordinated all to his power and his will!”
“But you also mentioned Imhotep – the scholar?”
“Yes, he acquired power and immortality, submitting himself to Pharaoh’s will… and he wrote, ‘Do not respond to good with evil, and fight evil with good.’”
“But where is justice, oh, Ruler? Is it not above all else?”
The Sphinx ignoring the question, went on: “You heard here only the voices of the millennia past. That was my desire. And if they seemed familiar to you, that was only because their first echo reached you through Persia and India and Greece and Rome, through Christianity and Islam. Now be on your way. Know that it was not the Greeks that exalted reason. The reason is the child of the gods… And do not bother me anymore. I must properly welcome the God of all Gods, my most powerful ruler who can destroy or resurrect all that is on Earth. Go! My God is the Sun!”
His face lit up and glowed red as rays of sunshine shot out from the distant hills and were scattered upon the ground.
The vision was gone.
Abu Nasr woke up, covered with sweat. The morning sun came through the trees. The birds were singing, but Abu Nasr paid no attention to them. Neither then nor on the days that followed did he pay attention to the birds nor the sultan Saif al-Daul’s beautiful garden where he was allowed to spend his free time talking to his students or scholars – as was the will of the ruler.
At that time, he could not spend mornings deep in his work, as he usually did. He even avoided debates and scholars’ meetings. His thoughts were dominated by his dream.
He spent days wandering about Haleb, as if forgetting everything else, while at night, he lay with his eyes open, unable to go to sleep. He sought reasons for this mysterious dream. He did not feel like disclosing the secret reason for his unexpected silent withdrawal to anyone. Before with Hassan and Zuheir at his side, he could think out loud and tell them what was on his mind through a story, but now he had neither Hassan nor Zuheir whom the Sultan took away.
After arrival in Haleb with Shamsuddin’s caravan, Abu Nasr and his companions spent a week in a caravanserai. There, in a tiny cell, he wrote a letter to Banu. Afterward, Abu Nasr and Zuheir saw Hassan and his caravan off to Damascus and then headed for the main mosque.
Following the prayer, the two were coming down the stairs when Abu Nasr recognized Abu Ishaq, who was a regular at scholarly gatherings. Even in those years, when they were young, Abu Ishaq was already known for his curiosity. It was not that he stood out for his knowledge or his talents. Yet, he always tried to use his own reasoning to determine how right or how wrong a particular position was. His natural modesty or perhaps indecisiveness would not let him reveal his own opinions to the full. More importantly, however, Abu Nasr had never seen him be greedy, obsequious, or seeking favors with those in power. True, in those years, when they met at majlis councils or rode out with the court retinue for a stroll or a hunt, or in Salman Pak , which was outside Baghdad and featured the powerful Khosrow Arch – Abu Nasr never paid much attention to this silent man. Although it was in Salman Pak that Abu Ishaq invited him to his small but rich estate with a garden of rare beauty. Next to cedars grew elms and palm trees, tender Arabian pines, oranges, bananas, lemons… Abu Ishaq was a skillful gardener and collected almost all kinds of trees and flowers in the world. He was also a philanthropist who unobtrusively helped the poor knowledge seekers, both old and young.
Now, it was the same Abu Ishaq in Haleb. As before, he was not richly dressed, but his attire was neat. Yet the years had taken their toll and turned him into a respectable-looking gray-bearded older man. Accompanied by a few scholars like himself, Abu Ishaq sedately descended the steps and paused at the edge of the square, still in conversation.
Abu Nasr was about to pass him by, for he was not sure whether he should show curiosity and interfere. Too much time had passed. Perhaps he would not even recognize him. Yet he did.
“May Allah help me! Do my eyes deceive me?” Abu Ishaq left his friends and leaped towards Abu Nasr. “Is it you, Teacher? Do you remember me? Abu Ishaq from Baghdad! So much time has passed.”
Such emotion was unusual from Abu Ishaq, but his sincerity left no doubt. Abu Nasr was moved by their meeting, too. They spent the evening together at Abu Ishaq’s home, reminiscing about the past and their friends. It turned out that Abu Ishaq had been in Haleb for over ten years. Following the death of Caliph al-Muqtadir, after endless plots and persecutions and murders of scholars and poets, he sold his magnificent garden and left.
He said that local Sultan Saif-al-Daula patronized poets and scholars. And only the great sultan was the firm support of Islam. Haleb escaped riots and massacres of Baghdad, Mosul, Damascus, and other places.
“Sultan Saif is far-seeing as a politician, wise and tolerant as a philosopher, cruel and severe as a ruler. He is the true protector of the faith, of all who are true to Allah.”
“Being true to Allah means submission to one’s fate and being at the ruler’s mercy,” Abu Nasr shyly objected. “Submission occurs not only in one’s deeds, but also in one’s thoughts, which leads one to spiritual slavery, and causes one to give up on the search for truth.”
The words did not seem to ruffle Abu Ishaq. He was composed, and neither agreed nor disagreed. “You must be right, Teacher. Your words are precise as usual, and your thoughts never cease to rest.”
Abu Nasr remained silent. Abu Ishaq tried to break this uncomfortable silence.
“At the same time, notions of fighting and violence are alien to many people. To them, the spirit of serenity and reconciliation with one’s fate comes naturally. It is submission to one’s fate, as prescribed by Allah, that predetermines the longevity of traditions and mores, and belief in Allah provides desired peace and satisfaction with one’s situation. It is all in the hands of Allah, and we are all His slaves.”
Abu Ishaq was not arguing; he merely tried to move the conversation into a calmer mode. He told Abu Nasr about the wealth of the Sultan’s library and that the ruler spared no cost to collect the best translations of many respected scholars of antiquity. The Sultan brought them as trophies from campaigns, bought them at markets, and even sent buyers to faraway lands.
Abu Ishaq said proudly, “According to al-Kindi, the last two centuries were a period of discovery for Arab science and philosophy by virtue of translation, so all these books that describe the scholarship of the Chinese, Indians, Persians, and Greeks will be assembled here! Such were the words spoken by the Sultan.”
Abu Ishaq introduced Abu Nasr into a majlis of scholars who had gathered in Haleb over the last decade. It was a Thursday, the day the Sultan dedicated to book lovers’ meetings. According to Abu Ishaq, he rarely attended such meetings. He preferred to spend his time at war or on a hunt. Or else he would watch the stonemasons at work, as he was rebuilding the interior of the old fortress that rose on a hill in the city center. However, the day Abu Ishaq brought Abu Nasr, the sultan chose to attend. His guards searched the Teacher and reported him to the sultan.
“You brought us a traveler, a stranger,” said the sultan the moment they entered, not letting them say a word. “He must be deserving of this honor. I trust you. He should take place in the circle that he deems proper for himself.”
Saif drilled Abu Nasr with his eyes.
The Sultan was seated in a place of honor, decorated with lion hides. About thirty men, some bearded, were seated in a semi-circle facing him. Some held cups with wine, and some were reflexively fingering their beads. Trays groaned with food. The men met the sultan’s words with cries of approval, praising his wisdom. Abu Nasr took a small bow, which caused a flutter: a stranger ought to show more gratitude. Then, however, it turned to loud indignation when Abu Nasr made straight away towards the sultan and sat next to the ruler’s seat.
The sultan was silent. The audience was quiet. The chief bodyguard made a move from behind the sultan’s back, but Saif raised his hand to stop him.
Zuheir, who accompanied his Teacher, paused for a second at the door, but then headed for Abu Nasr to take a seat next to him.
The Sultan stopped him. “Our guest picked his own seat. We have not asked him yet if he deserved this honor. Our guest’s servant or disciple, however, should leave this majlis to his elders. Take him to the room with young book lovers and calligraphers who chronicle our deeds and state affairs.”
Zuheir glanced at Abu Nasr. The latter lightly nodded. Zuheir was taken away, and the room was silent again.
Abu Ishaq rose, perhaps to try again to introduce Abu Nasr, and once again the ruler interrupted-
“We are asking you, stranger! Do you realize that the seat you have chosen is only for those whom we show our highest grace? In this room, we have those whose knowledge is worthy of our attention. How do you prove you are worthier than they?”
“Let us be composed, Sultan,” said Abu Nasr.
The sultan was astounded. His hand reached for his saber, its scabbard decorated in gold and diamonds.
“Tranquility,” Abu Nasr repeated casually, shocking all present into amazement. “Surely the esteemed sultan, as all participants of our majlis, knows the story how the great philosopher al-Kindi entered the room of Caliph Mamoun and took a seat above those of the imams. You know what the majlis leader said: ‘Why did you take a seat above the imams?’ To which al-Kindi said, ‘Because I know all that you know, but you do not know all that I know!’”
“I do not see al-Kindi here, vagrant!” the Sultan grinned. “You speak like a doomed madman!”
The guests laughed.
“But neither is Caliph Mamun here, the patron of the arts and sciences!” Abu Nasr parried loudly.
All fell silent. The sultan’s black mustache twitched, and his eyes gleamed in anger. He redrew his saber.
Abu Ishaq prostrated himself before the sultan. The sultan, however, contained himself and dropped the saber flat on Abu Nasr’s shoulder. The latter did not stir.
“During the meeting, you mentioned that one of the imams asked al-Kindi questions to find out who he was.”
The sultan’s voice subsided. He addressed a man who was seated closest:
“Say something, our incomparable poet!”
A fat, round-bearded noble in a big turban hurriedly rose. After a pause, as if trying to anticipate the ruler’s desire, he puffed out his chest and started in a singsong manner:
In this world, but the firmament remains, So the centuries extol, Day and night, cruel, reckless death Greedily stalks man’s soul. You cannot escape it, From it be delivered, Should even a ransom For your crimes, be offered.
The room was still quiet. The voice of “the incomparable poet” sounded like that of a muezzin calling for prayer.
“Do not trouble yourself, honorable sir, with a quote so long,” said Abu Nasr, still sensing the cold steel on his shoulders. “This was written by Abu Zakar, a blind poet, a kind-hearted man who lived in the time of Haroun al-Rashid. His efforts to save Vizier Jaffar, a decent Barmakid, were in vain. It is a great sin to pass someone else’s poetry as your own.”
“It is mine!” cried out the man. “I’ll swear on the Quran!”
The room grew noisy. Someone said he had read this poem, and Abu Nasr was right.
“Off with his head, my ruler!” yelled the incomparable poet. “The vagrant is lying!”
“Do not desecrate the holy book with a lie,” calmly replied Abu Nasr.
The Sultan took his saber off his shoulders and broke into laughter.
Once again, everybody grew quiet and then joined him in laughter.
Abu Nasr was quiet.
“Enough!” shouted the sultan. “How pathetic you are, you bearers of wisdom, and worshippers of art! May the stranger’s decency be a lesson to you. If he spoke the truth, then you” – he pointed at the incomparable poet – “fooled us, and you are the one who should be beheaded. Yet, even if the stranger spoke the truth but took his seat without deserving it, then he should be punished, too! Who will vouch for him and tell us he is worthy of our respect!”
“Let me, oh ruler, say something.”
Abu Ishaq approached the sultan with a bow. “Who of you has heard the name of al-Farabi?” he said after turning to address the audience.
“Who does not know the name of the Teacher,” they exclaimed, “who opened to us the wisdom of Aristotle and Galen, Plato, and of course, Euclid, the great mathematician, musician, astrologer, and philosopher who surpassed al-Kindi?”
“What does al-Farabi have to do with it?” asked the Sultan.
“This is the man, my great Sultan!” Abu Ishaq pointed at Abu Nasr. “May your fame and generosity be known forever!”
“What is the most beautiful thing in a man?” The sultan asked Abu Nasr when the noise in the audience died down.
“Kindness, Oh Right Honorable Sultan.”
“But what do you value in a man the most?”
“And what do people need the most?”
“Justice, my ruler,” said Abu Nasr, trying to anticipate his intentions.
“I read your treatises,” the Sultan said amicably. “I heard you wrote one about the City of Virtue. Many admire your wisdom. But is it possible to have a city where people will live in peace? Even the ancient Greeks wrote that it was impossible.”
“Plato said that whatever the state, it always contains two states, at odds with each other. One of the poor and the other of the rich.”
“That has always been and will forever be.”
Saif eyed the Teacher closely.
“Plato considered justice, the main trait of an ideal state. Justice to all, including slaves and peasants; justice that allows everyone to do his work.”
The Sultan, changing the subject, suddenly asked, “What do you respect in your friend Abu Ishaq?”
“Truth, kindness, and sincerity, my ruler.”
“What do you think, Teacher… what do I value in these people?” Sultan pointed at his servants and two musicians at the entrance.
“Servants for their ability to please you, and musicians also for the gifts that we enjoy.”
“Wrong, Teacher. I value them for their loyalty.”
“Pleasing someone is not the same as loyalty, my ruler.”
Clearly, his answers were slowly irritating, not just the sultan, but the Grand Vizier standing next to him.
“You can get both with wealth and force,” the Grand Vizier rejoined. “You cannot even get a bull in a yoke without roping his horns. A wild horse will not offer his back for a saddle if you do not pull the reins. And the ring of a coin sounds as sweet for the servant as it does for beauty.”
“The Grand Vizier’s wit has no peer,” exclaimed a voice in the audience.
“Not every truth is comprehensive, honorable Vizier. Not every woman will sell her honor for a coin.”
“But if people no longer seek to please rulers or submit to force, power will no longer be respected, and they will even think love can be liberated. They will go after the power and wealth of the faithful. Who then will build the city that you dream of? Incidentally, the Brothers of Purity write about that as well,” said the Grand Vizier, his eyes narrowing in anger.
Music, calm and tender, suddenly filled the room.
Abu Nasr refused to concede. “Knowledge and reason, in possession of power yet motivated by justice, can create the good for people.”
“Enough debate! Let the fun begin!” rang out the sultan’s words peremptorily.
This was the first meeting of Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn-Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Uzlag al-Farabi al-Turki with Sultan Saif al-Daula Hamdani, the ruler of Northern Syria known as “the Penalizing Sword of the State.”
He never saw Zuheir again. Sultan assigned him to a retinue of gifted young scholars and poets who escorted their ruler everywhere.
Abu Nasr did not know that after the majlis, the sultan called Abu Ishaq and asked him about Abu Nasr’s life and asked him also to provide the Sultan with all the Teacher’s works as well.
The majlis did not provide him with either peace or joys of communication. Although he won the honor and respect of the sultan, he did not find a worthy company. Once again, he felt loneliness and anxiety. He was also profoundly insulted by the sultan’s words, which were addressed towards the audience: How pathetic you are, bearers of wisdom, worshippers of art! He also missed Hassan and Zuheir – he got used to them – and he kept thinking about Banu, realizing he could not help it. But life went on, and once again, he was deep in his work. Now he had it all: his books, a roof over his head, food, clothing, paper. He was protected by one of the most powerful rulers of his time. Yet more and more often, he felt tired. Sometimes he was taken over by sudden sadness. It was at one of those moments that he had had this wonderful dream.
Just as before, he looked to work to distract himself from anxiety. But there were days when he could not read or write a single page. Wrapped in his thoughts in silence, or wandering far away from people’s eyes, helping a gardener here or watching a peasant at work there… More than once, he recalled the lines from his letter to Banu that he had entrusted to Hassan:
“… I am grateful to the Creator for the days and nights that He allowed us to spend together. Allah knows I always live under your star, unable to forget the blessed moments, the warmth of your hands, and the sweetness of your voice. Your home fire could be far away, such is the Creator’s Will, but God knows I am warming next to your fire. You are so far and yet so close; every moment I feel your distance, and yet I speak to you, and I feel you. I look for you in the garden and in the fields, and Your breath lives in every gray speckle in my hair. I have said before, my solitude is my choice, but if the Creator endowed me with the power to protect our love from life’s cruelty, not a day could I live without you. This, you know. Even so, glory be to Allah for the days you showered your caresses on this Turkic nomad. How I wish I could see your smile, your fleeting anger, and the eternal joy in your eyes.
‘May Allah protect you from the evil eye, from the anger of those close to you, and from the powers that be.
‘May the Creator shift your sorrows and your torments onto my shoulders…”
It was a long letter. He wrote it in private, so Zuheir and Hassan would not see, but would this secret remain a secret? Would Hassan gain access to his Mistress and safely hand it to her? What if it fell into someone else’s hands? Oh, Creator! – the thoughts that come into a man’s head when he ages alone!
The worst was not having anyone with whom to share one’s anxieties, one’s sorrows, one’s secrets. There was no one with whom Abu Nasr could even share his prophetic dream, though, according to Confucius, communicating with people was an excellent good, both in sorrow and in joy.
Confucius, like Plato, founded a school of ethics that sought not only the causal understanding of phenomena but studied the rules of conversation, and in Memphite theology as well, they all posited that “tongue repeats what heart suggests.”
Yet how hard, how incredibly hard was it when that which begged for release the tongue could not voice, however, the heart demanded!
Abu Nasr could not and did not wish to share his secrets with Abu Ishaq. He was used to solitary introspection and tormenting self-analysis. Besides, his innate pride would not permit him to reveal his most profound thoughts to others. He realized that once he made his dream public, it would cause dozens of false rumors, provide fodder for the astrologists who were growing in number, and would evoke all sorts of commentary from the theologians and faith-healers, of which there was no shortage in Haleb.
At the same time, he sincerely believed that the dream had been caused by his harrowing search, by his reflections on the mysteries of existence, and by that life experience which brings one to an experience of history. Having completed his “Treatise on Logic,” could he have forgotten these points of departure for all his comparisons and philosophical conclusions?
The experience of life! That was actually what he had in mind when he wrote to his beautiful Banu: “If the Creator endowed me with the power to protect our love from life’s cruelty…”
It was the power and force of evil that had made him flee Otrar and Bukhara, Baghdad and Damascus, and then Tadmor. It was the same power and force that he had sensed in the words of the sultan when he had executed the man who had tried to pass Abu Zakar’s poem as his own.
How complicated everything was in this world, Oh Creator, and yet how simple! The Sphinx in his dream spoke of force, but he could have meant the force capable of protecting reason and the good as well. He spoke of force and of the will that came along with the good and with reason. For neither reason nor the good could withstand evil on their own. There was no such thing as abstract reason… or an abstract good… or an abstract love. They needed sturdy shields and sharp lances – or else they were doomed. Reason and the good had to know how to defend themselves!
Millennia had passed since Imhotep, the great builder, scholar, and philosopher used the Pharaoh’s power and will, as well as the people’s strength to build the pyramids and thus convert his ideas of immortality into reality.
The great thinker must have wanted to say to his descendants: “Behold! The power of the people! Learn to use this power – not for the dead, but for the living! For the triumph of the good and reason!”
What a paradox! To build on the bones of slaves, a structure of such magnitude and with one sole objective: to affirm the immortality of reason! Neither vanity nor wealth nor cruelty nor treachery – only the power that submits to reason can enable man to create and love freely!
Abu Nasr wrote about the City of Virtue and its wise rulers, forgetting that no city could be virtuous if its wealth were created with slave labor and that people who put others in chains could not be considered wise rulers. But how then should the world be? And how could it change if there had never been equality among people?
Oh, Great Creator! Help me find the answer, help me find the truth!
CHAPTER SIX We still do not have access to facts on Consciousness or the ability to think.
During the Arab Caliphate, the ancient city of Haleb, which had never been of great prominence, suddenly found itself one of the liveliest of crossroads. Fewer merchant caravans went through Tadmor and Antioch. The route to Haleb became safer and more profitable, and one could use it to get to Damascus, Jerusalem, and other major cities. The northern roads from Haleb leading to Byzantium, India, and Persia also became more crowded. Haleb was also close to the Euphrates, where trade vessels could sail to sea and head for the shores of India and Africa.
When the Emir Saif Hamdani Haleb came to power, Haleb became the capital of Northern Syria, rivaling not only Damascus but even challenging Baghdad. To the merchant traders and spies that inundated cities of the caliphate in those turbulent times, it became clear that the Abbasid Dynasty was losing power and had to be wary of the local sultans. A new dynasty of the Khadanids was on the rise. According to the chroniclers, this started when the Baghdad Caliph al-Muqtadir appointed one of his closest advisers, General Hassan al-Daul Khamdani, whom historians call Nasr al-Daul, his vizier in Mosul in northern Iraq. Al-Daul was accompanied by his younger brother – brave Saif al-Daul, a connoisseur of the arts, scholarship, and poetry.
Saif proved a fearless leader and loyal servant, albeit to his brother and the Caliph. This was only, however, while al-Muqtadir was still capable of holding all the secrets threads of governance in great, multilingual power. Gradually, the Caliph grew more fearful of losing his throne and surrounded himself more with sycophants rather than wise viziers and military officials, who were, to his mind, overly independent-thinking.
Fearful for his treasures and his life, he surrounded himself with eleven thousand eunuchs and a massive army of bodyguards, who robbed and killed people, disregarding the Caliph’s own will. His power over them was slipping… He was increasingly sinking into luxury and debauchery, increasing his harems without limit, unaware that his days were numbered. The slaves’ revolt, the Qarmatian movement, the loss of Egypt, the independence of Egyptian viziers – all these spelled doom for the Caliphate. Then the Khadanids openly challenged the Caliph and took upon themselves the defense of their northern borders from Byzantium.
Saif al-Daula left his elder brother in Mosul, conquered northern Syria, and settled in Haleb. He put together a vast army, bringing together Iraqi and Syrian Arabs under the banner of Islam to start a war on Byzantium. The new leader presented himself to his subjects like a trustworthy Saracen able to put down the riots and strengthen the state. They perceived his reckless thirst for power and wild cruelty as the will of Allah.
Caliph al-Muqtadir was killed in his palace in the Year 320 after Hegira. He was followed by al-Kakhir, who lasted a mere two years. The same happened to al-Radi, and al-Muttaki held on to power not much longer.
Scholars, poets, and generals who had long made Baghdad famous fled one after the other and found a haven in Haleb. By now, Mysr had a new Caliph and ruler of the faithful who never acknowledged the power of either the Baghdad Caliph or the one in Cordoba and who declared himself a prophet.
Seized with fear, the Abbasids remembered their early days when the Barmakids, the Persian nobility, had helped them stay in power. Now they rushed into the arms of the Buyid dynasty, whose followers had seized Farsistan and Khuzistan and were now perilously close to Baghdad. The Buyids, however, who considered themselves the heirs of the Sassanids and Barmakids, reminded the Caliph of Baghdad how Haroun al-Rashid had executed the innocent Vizier Jaffar, a great Barmakid, and made an open claim for the Caliphate.
Abu Nasr gave the Sultan his due- he was tolerant of all scholars, whether they were Arabs, Turks, Jews, or Persians. The majlis became more interesting. Now the Teacher often crossed swords with Muttakalim, dogmatic Muslim theologians. He mercilessly revealed contradictions in their dogma and appealed to follow actual logic, based on historical experience and facts of life.
After long years of travel and loneliness, Abu Nasr finally found many friends and followers. They helped him assemble and systematize all his works in logic, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy, as well as his extensive comments on the works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Plato, and Euclid. He completed his books on music theory, poetry, and poetics, on words, reason, and science.
As he pored over his social and ethical treatises and made citations from the texts of ancient thinkers, he would often hail back to the dream and would ruminate over the numerous doubts and contradictions brought about by it. In his mind, as he debated his teachers, he would paraphrase a famous saying: Aristotle is a teacher, but the truth is worth more to me.
“The entire world would be virtuous if people only helped one another to achieve happiness,” he wrote. “Reason is the most specific form of goodness since man became man due to reason.”
He was convinced that the ethics of life and death dictated that everything must submit to reason.
“People are already mortal, so why should they be killed violently? Why subject them to torture? Why destroy cities and put people in chains? Why drown whole nations in blood only because they believe in a different God?
‘Only reason- empowered, enlightened, and forceful- can stay an executioner’s hand! ‘But how do executioners come to being? The built-in duality demands a constant renewal in the struggle – perhaps that is the root of all evil? One aspires to power, another to riches, and each is trying to impose his will on the other. Wealth and power, vanity and lust, generate treachery and cruelty. People vary greatly not only in their good qualities but in bad ones as well. Due to their resemblance to honor and glory, those given achievements and character traits appear happy, while those deprived of them and the façade of glory appear unhappy. Hardships, joys, passions, fears – all these things dominate people’s minds in the same fashion. If faiths vary, this does not mean that those who worship cats and dogs are more superstitious.
‘What people would not value friendliness, kindness, and the ability to remember good deeds? What would people not disdain or hate the haughty, the malicious, the cruel, and the ungrateful? When we realize that these sentiments are common for all humanity, that this commonality should be ruled by laws that are based on reason and that it can strengthen friendships, life will be better.
‘All great minds have been preoccupied with the ethics of society and the foundation of state laws. The likes of Socrates and Plato, of Confucius and Aristotle, came into being and passed away, and each was right about something in his own way.”
Abu Nasr knew that even before he wrote about the City of Virtue, its citizens, and its statesmen. And what of it? The words and the thoughts of the great remained on scrolls, parchments, and the pages of books. They only came into the hands of only such philosophers as Abu Nasr. Or else they became the property of wealthy noblemen who used wise words and the thoughts behind them without penetrating to the core and capturing their essence. For whom was Abu Nasr working, then – he who rejected love, lost so many friends and disciples, refused the world’s joys and avoided its vain pursuits? Who needed his algebraic formulas and geometric theorems and his views on astronomy? For whom was he analyzing the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy so carefully?
Godly “prophecies” and “holy writings” that cast aside the most elementary logic mattered more to people than Aristotle’s thoughts. Millennia went by, but the world refused to change. Same slaves, same rulers. Even he, Abu Nasr, was now developing his ideas under the protection of one of these rulers, Sultan Saif, who had risen to power not through his wisdom and knowledge, but his treachery and cruelty. And yet he, Abu Nasr, was working today on his book protected by this tyrant and wanton.
Ceaseless work and fatigue began to make Abu Nasr irritable. He needed a distraction, a chat with friends. He was sincerely overjoyed when Abu Ishaq visited him.
Abu Nasr lived in a small clay house deep inside a date palm grove, on the banks of a small but fast river that came from the northern mountain slopes, passed through Haleb, and ended up in fields outside the city, never reaching the Euphrates.
At first, the river flowed snake-like, going left and right, as if trying to avoid the desert, but Syrian peasants kept building dams, and numerous water wheels effectively channeled the flow into ditches to slake the thirst of the gardens and fields. Such a wheel labored near Abu Nasr’s house.
“Neither the Syrians nor the Arabs, nor anyone else in the East, had made real use of Archimedes’ intake screws,” said Abu Nasr. “The wheel lifts the water three meters high and pours it into a stone pipe which distributes it farther into ditches. These wheels had to be around at the time of Pharaohs, long before Archimedes. The reason Archimedes’ screw never worked here is that it required an energy source. It had to be worked by mules or donkeys walking in a circle day and night. Here the wheel was put into motion by the water itself, which means one should never go against nature. Its laws should be used, rather than destroyed. Nature does not like violence any more than a man does. Its laws are immanent, and violating them is fatal, but using them as they are serves the popular welfare.”
Abu Ishaq noticed something on the ground. “This, esteemed Teacher, you must have borrowed from the same Archimedes.”
The guest pointed to a square of sand, which was spread evenly under the tree and framed with rocks.
“This is where I test my formulas and solve problems. I used to check Ptolemy’s formulas when I was compiling my Comments to his Almagest. I am also using it to check the precision for measuring the earth’s meridians, which was developed by Muhammad al-Khoresmi, the creator of the science of numbers and algebra.”
“Those were the times of great mathematicians and astronomers,” said Abu Ishaq. “Abu al-Abbas Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani… Ahmad ibn ‘Abdallah Habash Hasib Marwazi… Abu Nasr Isma’il ibn Hammad al-Jawhari… and other scholars from India and Persia. They were a constellation that decorated Caliph Mamun’s Palace of Wisdom.”
“The powers that be never settle for the fame of the conqueror,” said Abu Nasr reflexively. “They want to be benefactors of scholarship and defenders of poets so that their lives would not seem as bloody and dour.”
Abu Ishaq sensed that the Teacher was not in the mood and was seemingly depressed with some thought he could not voice.
“But perhaps everything has a logic of its own,” Abu Nasr went on. “Perhaps both al-Khoresmi and al-Jawhari were right when they used the caliphs’ wealth and power for developing and proving their wise ideas. They knew they were serving time and the people, rather than the caliphs. There was a reason why the Greeks came up with the story of Prometheus. Every epoch needs a Prometheus of its own!”
Abu Nasr’s face lit up. He was actually talking to himself, responding to his own questions and doubts that had emerged while he was pondering alone on his ethics treatise.
“We especially need these knights of reason in the hardest and gloomiest of times and in a society of cruelty and violence. They and only they are the torches of people’s faith in reason and justice.”
He fell silent. He was unhappy with himself for what seemed like an expression of weakness, borne out of fatigue and loneliness.
“So what is new in Haleb, the new Syrian capital, my honored friend?” he asked with forced cheerfulness.
“The city teems with rumors that Damascus has conceded to our great emir, who is moving there.”
It was no surprise that Damascus’s weak and cowardly ruler acknowledged Saif’s power so soon. Abu Nasr was worried about something else, however.
“What happened to the caliph’s viceroy?” he asked.
“Executed, like all viceroy’s courtiers,” Abu Ishaq said calmly.
Abu Nasr was in shock, though he had seen more than once that rivaling tyrants never forgave one another. He was thinking about Banu’s father. Perhaps the emir’s anger had never gone as far as him? What of Banu- where was she? What about Hassan? He wished he could find Zuheir as well, but the latter was now in the emir’s retinue.
Thoughts rushed through his head, haphazardly. Only now did he realize how deeply he had been engrossed in his work, and how little attention he paid to whatever was happening around him. If it had not been for Banu, he would never have paid attention to Abu Ishaq’s news.
He had to go into town right away and ask around – traders, soldiers, refugees from Damascus. There had to be plenty of those. Everybody wanted to pledge loyalty to the fierce emir, but where was the emir himself? Abu wondered, but thought better of asking his friend.
Haleb spread out wide in a green valley. Wherever you were in the city, you could see the mighty fortress, the sultan’s residence. The high hill was ringed with a deep water-filled moat, and behind the thick fortress walls were palaces, harems, and the treasury. You had a particularly good view of the fortress from the garden path that Abu Ishaq and Abu Nasr took to the Conversation House near the city’s south gate.
The sun was not as hot and fierce as in Baghdad or Bukhara. People felt less the heat, and it was always calm on garden paths.
Still sharp, Abu Nasr’s eye noticed caravans moving out of the fortress gate to the central square. Slaves and eunuchs were loading the carts and the camels down on the square, he thought.
“The great emir ordered that his treasurer, chief general, and harem keeper move to Damascus,” Abu Ishaq explained. “All the palace guards and soldiers are moving, too, and so are most scholars. The Grand Vizier stays in charge.”
“All of us are eternal wanderers and guests on this earth – both slaves and the rulers,” the Teacher said pensively.
At the Conversation House, Abu Nasr missed a few scholars he had wished to talk to. He saw only the regulars – Quran interpreters, copyists, theologians. Gray-haired swarthy Moroccan Muhammad al-Tain, deemed an expert in the history of Palestine, Ethiopia, and Yemen, was reading from an old text:
“…they say that Ḥimyarite King Lakhni Yanuf Dhu-Shanatir did what Lot’s people did.”
He was reading slowly, almost syllable by syllable, in a smooth and loud voice. “After every war victory, he would take prisoners, which included the sons of a vanquished king, and had a feast.
‘After the feast, Zu-Shanatir retired to a special room, had one of the princes brought in, and humiliated his dignity…”
All listened attentively, silently fingering the beads, leaning on soft leather pillows. No one saw Abu Nasr and Abu Ishaq take place in a far corner behind the columns.
“…Dhu Nuwas was a little boy when evil was done to his brother,” al-Tain continued. “He grew up into a smart and handsome youth. Yanuf Dhu-Shanatir sent his courier to do to him what he had done to his older brother. Dhu Nuwas inserted a knife between his foot and his sandal and went to see Shanatir…”
Abu Nasr kept trying to remember the author. The text was familiar, but he could not place it.
“…When Dhu Nuwas met Shanatir in the latter’s bedroom, Shanatir attacked him, but Dhu Nuwas stabbed him with the knife, killing him. Then he cut off the king’s head and tossed it into the feast room. He put a toothpick into its mouth and stepped up to the guards, and they said, ‘Be our king!’ And so Ḥimyarite and Yemenite tribes came together with Dhu Nuwas as their king…”
Abu Nasr recalled that passages from Yemen’s history belonged to a well-known author, and Jews read it differently, showing that Dhu Nuwas was a Jew; Christians called him a Christian, and Muslims claimed he was one of the first Muslims in Yemen… Abu Nasr was amused by such debates, especially when they grew serious, with honorable people joining in. But his inner voice, as if berating him for this light-heartedness, said that it is arguments like this that led to quarrels, enmity, and wars, and killing thousands of people, as holy wars broke out…
Weren’t arguments like this that started Qarmatian riots? Is not your ruler Saif al-Daula acting as the defender of the faithful, ready to erase all those who do not believe in Allah off the face of the earth? Abu Nasr again sank into his thoughts, not listening to the reader, and was awakened by the messenger’s voice:
“Be aware and submit! Is honorable teacher Abu Nasr Muhammad from Farab in this room?”
“I listen to you, brave soldier.”
Abu Nasr stepped from behind the column.
“Is Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn-Abdallah al-Baghdadi in this room?”
“I am all ears!”
“The Shield of the Faithful, the Defender of all Arabs, the Punishing Sword of the State, Invincible and Glorious Sultan of Sultans, Emir of Emirs, Great Saif al-Daula orders that you come to his tent tomorrow at dawn!”
Northern Syria’s sun just started its daily shift, when Abu Nasr and Abu Ishaq, accompanied by the emir’s messenger, arrived at the lake twenty miles southeast of Haleb.
The morning sun was turning the giant blue cup of the lake golden. The thick grass on its banks was cool and dewy. The birds’ voices in the reeds came especially clearly in the morning quiet. Wild date palm groves were like merging islands on the expansive green plain. Beyond them were the steppes with bush-covered hillocks.
There was plenty of fowl in this space between the lake and the Euphrates that was the border between Iraq and Syria. The lake was known for fishing.
In the old days, the reed growth would hide runaway slaves. But some had been torn apart by wild beasts, while others went south, to the vast swamps outside Basra, and settled on floating islands. From there, on tiny boats, they would slip by Sinbad Island and Adam’s tree into the Gulf of Arabia, to attack the sailboats of traders and pearl catchers.
The two scholars had never been in the area. Now they rode slowly, admiring the flight of the flushed birds and watching the silvery splashes of fishes. The road led away from the lake into the elephant grass. Suddenly, the path was blocked by soldiers. The messenger and the two palace guards that accompanied the scholars stepped forward and ordered the soldiers to move aside.
After a short while, the travelers found themselves at the edge of the river valley, with tents and guards all over the place. Closer to the grove were smoking fires, with cooks puttering around. This was the emir’s field camp.
Saif was resting after his return from Damascus. He was rumored to like this place for hunting lions and gazelles. The friends dismounted and were told to wait until their arrival was reported. The sun was already high, but they could see no preparations for hunting or raiding. Abu Nasr peered into the guards’ faces; most were from the Caucasus or Turkic tribes. There were also Indian Gurkhas and local Kurds. Like most caliphs, Saif preferred mercenaries for his palace guard and main cavalry – this made it easier to keep his subjects in control.
The camp was orderly, and everyone knew his place and his duties. Some were oiling the carts’ wheels, while others watered the horses. All the shields, lances, and sabers were shining. The soldiers’ clothing was not particularly luxurious, but well-kept light armor, sturdy helmets, arrow quivers, and bows that did not get in the way.
“Look, there is an elephant,” said Abu Ishaq. “Fully equipped. The emir must be hunting lions atop that elephant.”
Suddenly a horseman popped out from behind the tent and dismounted.
“Glory be to Allah! I see you again, my teacher!”
Abu Nasr recognized Zuheir, though soldier’s garb, the wind, and the sun had changed his appearance. He had grown and was no longer the youth Abu Nasr remembered. Abu Nasr ran forth to hug him before Zuheir could kneel.
“Be aware and submit! The great emir expects you!”
The two left their horses to servants and followed the messenger on foot. Zuheir followed his teacher. A close look revealed he was limping. But Abu Nasr did not see it; he thought that a talented youth had dreamed of being a scholar and fled Baghdad because he did not want to be in the Caliph’s cavalry, and yet here he was, a soldier.
“You cannot avoid fate,” he told Zuheir; “we have all gone through this. One day you will be in Wisdom House again.”
Zuheir quickly whispered: “I saw Hassan in Damascus. His mistress’s father is in the dungeon. Hassan gave me something to pass on to you.”
He quickly gave Abu Nasr a small black parcel. “It is a letter for you. But be careful. The emir is not here. He left an hour ago, and we are to follow him. He gave an order to seek out messages from Brothers of Purity in every market, caravan, and home and to burn them.”
Abu Nasr did not betray his agitation, nor did he ask questions. He hid the letter, which was wrapped in black silk, close to his heart.
The guard indicated for Zuheir and the messenger to fall back. Abu Ishaq and Abu Nasr headed for the tent in the center of the meadow.
There was a long gazebo outside, covered with Persian rugs. The guards stayed at a respectable distance.
“Rulers are like children,” Abu Ishaq said quietly. “Who knows what awaits us today, and what is the will of Allah and the great emir?”
He was nervous. He did not like the quietness in the camp, nor the relative lack of people.
Abu Nasr was silent. His thoughts were on the letter. Was it good news or bad? Why was Zuheir anxious, and where had the emir gone?
“Look, Teacher! Sailboats!”
Three sailboats showed up on the lake- one in prow and two in escort. The two scholars, lost in admiration, missed the moment the guard was gone. Then he re-appeared and, opening the entrance to the tent, shouted:
“The Grand Vizier and Defender of the Faith, the Invincible and Honorable Sultan of Sultans, Emir of Emirs, is expecting you!”
They stepped inside. The floor was covered with thick, soft rugs. The Grand Vizier was seated in the far corner in the seat of honor.
“I awaited honorable scholars to do the emir’s will,” said the Grand Vizier, having returned the guests’ greeting. “The great Saif al-Daula left these shores at dawn to oversee the new appearance of his palace in Damascus, as well as give orders for a new Wisdom House, whose fame would surpass the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, created once by the Caliph al-Mamun.”
“If knowledge and reason are honored, people are ennobled,” said Abu Nasr with dignity.
“Once again, justice comes from your mouth, oh, wise Teacher. But there is not a thing that our ruler would forget to make his state more powerful and glorious.”
The Grand Vizier straightened up. “He orders that you and all scholars in Haleb head for Damascus to manage and adorn the House of Wisdom with your presence. The Great Sultan and Emir grants you unlimited patronage, confirmed by his seal that says that everywhere under his rule, all slaves and soldiers, merchants and city dwellers, peasants, and caravan drivers should treat with honor and extend service to the noble and wise Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi!”
The calligrapher servant handed the vizier a small printed scroll, which he passed to Abu Nasr. Then he commanded the guard at the entrance- “Show them in!”
Two young beauties entered and put silk robes on the scholars’ shoulders. They were Byzantine slaves, Abu Nasr noted. “The gardens of Damascus teem with such flowers. They will decorate the majlis of gaiety in the ruler’s palace, and the first such majlis will take place very soon. Our caravan is following the sultan shortly. You can take a look.”
The Grand Vizier left the tent and invited his guests to follow.
The sailboats were moored. Girls with frightened expressions in white tunic-like dresses descended one after the other. On the shore, they huddled close together, looking around with wariness and curiosity. There were at least two hundred of them on three ships of Byzantine, Arab, Persian, Turk, and Indian origin. Their skins were of different colors, and they spoke different languages, but all were young and beautiful. African girls’ faces seemed as though they were sculpted out of black marble and drew one’s eyes to their perfect beauty and to the freshness of their youth. Some shyly hid their faces, while others stared with child-like curiosity.
“They are still children, snatched from their parents,” thought Abu Nasr. “And they will be trained as maids, dancers, and concubines to fill the harems.”
The Grand Vizier no longer paid attention to the scholars. He now gave orders and hurried the servants and the soldiers. Drivers were bringing camels with palanquins out of the grove. The girls would be seated atop, the curtains would be closed tightly, and under a watchful guard, they would be taken to Damascus.
The servants were already rolling up the tents. The elephant was led away from the meadow. The guards on prancing horses were whipping slow-moving slaves and servants. Armed eunuchs took the girls from the crowd in twos and threes and settled them in palanquins.
“From now on, for a long time, these eunuchs will be your guards and executors,” thought Abu Nasr. He did not realize he was staring at a beauty standing close to him. She was slightly older than the rest. Her forehead, her cheekbones, the wavy black hair, the large sly eyes, and a slight smile on her lips – he could not see anyone or anything else. His aging heart beat harder. She reminded him of Banu when she was young. Oh Creator, was such resemblance possible? Her smile pierced him, and he felt a bittersweet wistfulness for the past.
He saw and felt his Banu. He wanted to take her into his arms and inhale the intoxicating scent of her hair, mixed with aromas of bitter herbs and salty waves. She sensed his stare, opened her eyes in surprise, frowned, and then smiled again, now with defiance.
For the first time in a long time, Abu Nasr felt himself blushing. He looked back to see if Abu Ishaq had noticed. He had not. Abu Ishaq was watching a girl swathed in silk from head to foot, being hoisted onto a camel.
She might be the pearl they saved for the emir, but she had not come on a boat. She had come out of the covered gazebo next to the emir’s tent. The eunuchs were leading the last girls to the camels. The girl who had evoked in him such unexpected associations now turned around and stuck her tongue at him.
The Teacher broke into laughter – light and careless, the way no one had ever seen him laugh. The vizier rode up to him to find out why.
“It is a secret, oh Grand Vizier! A secret of the old age that a playful gazelle reminded me of.”
“Do not worry, laughter adorns old age as well as a young age. The young gazelle must have been careless. The poet said, ‘The eyes of a proud beauty may confuse even gods.’ Do not hold back, Teacher! It is up to you whether you punish or pardon her. You are the hunter – she is your prey!”
“Oh no, Grand Vizier, each one must pick a load that fits…”
“Up to you, my honored friend,” said the vizier, still smiling. “But I almost forgot another order of my generous master! He told me to pass you these golden dirhams! For your treatises on music and sciences that adorned his treasury of books!” Reining in his horse, he tossed a leather pouch that landed at Abu Nasr’s feet.
The caravan had already gotten underway. The tents were gone. The vizier’s retinue sat aside, in a direct line, barely reining in their horses.
“What is that?” Abu’s face had changed. “Are you buying my knowledge and my reason, or my will and my soul?”
Abu Ishaq came up to intervene and soften the mood.
“Excuse me, my friend!” The vizier now sounded cold and harsh. “Our great Prophet Muhammad gifted his own robe to a poet. Ever since, this has been a tradition honored by the old and the young, the poor, and the rich!”
“The Prophet gifted the poet for flattery and his services! And he bought his soul! But who could buy the hearts of Brothers in Purity and Friends of Justice?” “And that’s why they rotted away in dungeons! Remember that, my friend! But I am in a rush; I have to follow my master. We’ll see each other at Wisdom House in Damascus!” Zuheir cast his former master a nervous look and then galloped after the vizier – Haleb’s new ruler.
They took a different road back in silence. Abu Nasr was blaming himself for his hot temper, excusable in youth, but heavy on the heart in old age. He remembered Sanjar’s death and the Bedouin’s words: All passes, and this will, too. He remembered the dream and his talk to Sphinx.
They left the lake behind, the groves grew sparse, and now they were riding through deserted fields, arid with thirst. Conic narrow clay huts of Syrian peasants looked orphan-like in this steppe; they did not have windows and looked like burial monuments, numerous in his native steppe.
Always shy with the Teacher, Abu Ishaq dared not bother him. The city loomed ahead, and, to break gloomy silence, Abu Ishaq recited:
How many daily cares torment my soul, How many affairs take away my peace!
Abu Nasr interrupted: “Wrong subject, my dear friend! How about this:
Should you find your fame and power between the lion’s jaws His mouth you must rend and fear not for the honor of your cause, Either you will obtain those honors due in the service of God, Or a more than worthy death which any true man would laud.
“Tell me, my friend, and soothe my concern, what is the hardest thing for a man?”
“Obscurity, nostalgia, loneliness.”
“You are both right and wrong, my dear comrade. The hardest thing is a struggle without the chance to succeed.”
“Do you speak of yourself?”
“And of you… perhaps of our ruler as well… but you know, however successful the conqueror, he will never know the holy feeling of a discovery known to a scholar. That is a noble feeling that sets the scholar above the world’s rulers.”
“And nevertheless, how those in power still yearn to be spoken of only as they themselves would wish.”
“The cooing of the turtledove brings closer her death in the falcon’s talons. Although you are right, my friend, and so is the vizier. He who cannot control his tongue wears chains on his feet, as said one poet who did not concede to the Shah. It is easier to be loyal and submissive, but currying favor is repulsive. A mouse born in a mill should not fear thunder. What is done is done, and what has been said cannot be taken back. An arrow shot does not return… Tell me, do you think Brothers of Purity are dead?”
“You yourself have taught that man is not free of being. If that is so, then we have but one path – to Damascus.”
Abu Nasr did not object.
At the city gate, they ran up against a long caravan. They might have passed it by without paying much attention, were it not comprised of Bactrian camels.
“May you have fortune on your way!” called Abu Nasr. “Where do you hail from?”
The caravan drivers must have banded together to save on security – the road was not always safe.
“Have you never heard of these towns, good sir? You should know Musa al-Khoresmi and Abbas ibn-Said al-Jauhari!
“And the wise Teacher Abu Nasr al-Farabi!”
“We are from his country!” shouted a passing horseman who looked like the caravan’s leader.
Abu Nasr looked into their dusty faces and into the tired, teary eyes of the camels who carried their loads with groans, though keeping their heads high and proud.
Suddenly he sensed the bitter wormwood aroma of his land. Clenching his reins, he was captivated into stillness, just like in his distant childhood, when he was standing on the street in Otrar, enchanted, staring at the caravans from faraway lands.
He sensed his loneliness and helplessness, unable to stop the caravan and bother these tired people from his homeland with questions. He felt that this long caravan, which he had run into by accident, stood for his entire long and hard life.
He should ask them something. But what? A substantial lump rose in his throat.
“What was your route, sir?” he asked the last driver.
“We took the northern branch of the silk route through Mosul, sir,” the man said wearily.
“We were counting on rest in Haleb, but the fierce Saif al-Daula ordered all deliveries straight to Damascus. What does he care if we are dead tired? Or if we collapse on the way? It is not his concern. Someone will pick us up – people and beasts always follow big caravans.”
Late in the evening, Abu Nasr returned to his hut, lit the lamp, and opened the letter. Banu wrote:
“I waited so long to write you this letter! Yet, I have so little time! Thanks to Allah, I know you are alive. Hassan brought me your message. I have a mad desire to see you, to hear your voice, to share your solitude, my stubborn nomad. I have so much to tell you, but time is running out. Hassan is rushing me… I heard from him so much about you… I beg Allah one thing only – that he helps me see you before my hair turns gray, and time covers my face with wrinkles.”
Signed, “Umm Abu Alim.”
Abu Nasr stared at the page again. This was her handwriting. This was her letter. He knew it as well as he knew her voice and could recognize it among hundreds of others… but her signature at the end of it? Umm meant “mother,” so “Mother of Abu Alim,” which means she has a son? Is she not alone?
The day had been long and hard, and then this letter which had brought him so much joy but even more anxiety concerning her and her son. He kept rereading it. His thoughts were in disarray, in part from the excitement and part of fatigue.
“Serenity and reason, oh poor traveler!” he said to himself out loud, trying to gain control. “It is not the Grand Vizier or the fierce ruler which summon you to Damascus, but the torment of the Brothers of Purity, and a mother’s love.
“You are wrong, Vizier! The Brothers have not all rotted in dungeons! Even the terrible Saif could not conquer them all. They are nameless and numerous, and they speak to all their brethren, lighting the torch of knowledge and the fire of reason for them.
“Only a fool would think that the blade of a knife, or the soaped rope of a noose, or a malicious arrow could halt the flight of an idea. An idea is not like an arrow; it neither submits to the bowman nor to his bow. It never ceases its flight, and no force can stop it.
“No one has power over the idea- not pharaohs, nor time itself, since the future is a continuation of the past and the present, and it is infinite. It is for this future that the Brothers of Purity write their inspirational messages.
“They are calling you, expecting you… and your love calls for you and awaits you. Life continues. You once fled the rulers, and now you find yourself in their nets again. You fled your love, but never have you found anything that was more beautiful. The circle closes, yet with each time, it has a new beginning.
“Man cannot escape himself, and more importantly, he can not escape neither human concerns nor the human society from which they arise. This is how it was and will ever be. For, man is subordinate to the laws of his time, even though he looks to the future.”
EPILOGUE : THE STORY BEHIND THIS BOOK A THOUSAND YEARS LATER
I attempted to follow the path of Abu Nasr well after a millennium had passed since he traversed it. On a chilly December day, I arrived at Mount Behistun in the Kermanshah Province of Iran. High up on the rock, there is a cuneiform text and bas-reliefs to commemorate the victories of King Darius the Great (522-468 B.C.).
A brisk wind stung my face. It was a different world that lay all around me. Perhaps, in those faraway times when Abu Nasr had passed through, the winds had been just as cold as they were now? A great traveler like him could not avoid visiting Hamadan, and after all, Behistun is located right between Hamadan and Jey.
A hundred years later, his disciple, the great healer Avicenna, would find a safe haven and spend his last days in Hamadan. I took a handful of soil from his grave and brought it to Almaty to give to a local poet who was a descendant of the great traveler.
Nowadays, they claim that Behistun is between Hamadan and Tehran. At the time when Abu Nasr was traveling, he would pass through the ancient city of Jey, which is now the Iranian city called Isfahan.
Jey was a beautiful place. It was built long before the Achaemenid Empire, and each generation of Eastern architects brought in something of their own. So impressive was it that the French even used Isfahan’s King Square as a model for the design of the Champs Elysees.
Jey was also a hub on the Great Silk Road. As Abu Nasr proceeded to Samarra, the residence of the Caliph of Bagdad, he would likely not have missed the chance to admire the art of Jey’s goldsmiths nor its dancers.
Perhaps after he left Otrar, he went through Samarkand and Bukhara, Merv and Balkh, and instead of Jey found himself in the Persian city of Rey, after which he headed for Hamadan. In any event, he would not have bypassed Behistun and likely visited Hamadan for, however, the Silk Road zigzagged. It always followed from Hamadan straight to Mesopotamia, towards the Tigris and Euphrates, and then branched out again, heading for the oldest cities of the Middle East. It was so during the Assyrian Empire, and when Babylon and Nineveh reached their height, and later under the Arab Caliphs, the road from Hamadan went straight to Baghdad.
In those days, the Great Silk Road was busy with caravans from China and India to Otrar and Bukhara, to Samarkand, to wealthy Khwarazm. Then it cut through the steppe and the desert and bypassed the Khazar Sea (now the Caspian Sea) from the south. Then it went across Iran to Mesopotamia, Baghdad, and then to the Nile, Cairo, Mecca, and faraway Andalusia.
It was the most crowded and multi-lingual trade route the world had ever seen. The Caliph’s messengers and guards galloped on this route with errands, messages, and news, while gifts to the Caliph flowed in the direction of Bagdad. Spies used it to get from one ruler’s palace to another, while poets, scholars, musicians, and philosophers followed it in the quest for knowledge and friends.
Those were the times when the Tang Dynasty in China had fallen, and pagan Russia was just awakening. People who lived in the lands ranging from the Arabian desert to the banks of the Jeyhun, were under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Volga Bulgars, helped by Jewish rulers of the Khazars, opened a trade route to the center of the Caliphate. The people of India were desperately trying to stop Islam from moving deep into the subcontinent. The people of the West, having forgotten the campaigns of Charlemagne, watched the Arab invasion in amazement. In Andalusia, in Cordoba, Abdar-Rakhman al-Nasir overthrew Emir Abdallah, declared himself independent of the Abbasids, and his realm prospered.
The Arabic language had expanded its influence and ruled Spain for two hundred years. The Christian bishop of Cordoba, sadly retreating to his palace secretly wrote-
“Many of my faith read Arabic tales and poems and study writings by Muslim philosophers not to refute them but to express themselves in Arabic correctly and with grace. You cannot find one who could properly read Latin comments to the Holy Writ. All gifted Christian youths know only Arabic culture, read and study Arabic books, and even forget their language, so there is hardly one who could write a decent letter in Latin. By contrast, numerous students learn Arabic with proficiency and compose verse more artful and beautiful than the Arabs themselves.”
At that point in history, Arabic was the language of science, poetry, and trade. Perhaps this is why we are still talking about Arabic “encyclopedists,” for though they were scholars of various nationalities, they communicated and wrote in Arabic.
By the time described by the Bishop of Cordoba, the nomadic tribes on the other end of the Great Silk Road were paying less attention to the world of Islam. Palace coups and slave revolts were becoming more frequent.
As often happens on the cusp of an era, fairy tales of the recent past flourished in the lands of Mesopotamia, where once Assyria, Sumer, Babylon, and Nineveh and many other civilizations had their roots – and flaws, too.
The tales themselves were not new. They were told and retold by Persians and Indians. The Arabs simply retold them differently, renaming the characters and turning them into caliphs and their viziers.
In a hundred years, the name of a cruel despot and executioner who was hated by both commoners as well as his servants and viziers while he was alive would come out of the mouth of a storyteller. The storyteller never knew that his hero had never lived in his capital of Baghdad. He was unlikely to know that Caliph Haroun al-Rashid was afraid to live in Baghdad and was afraid of city dwellers, its artisans, and slaves. He lived far away, in the fortress of Anbar, ringed by sparse impoverished villages and water-filled moats. He lived with his slave girls and concubines, enjoying the agony of those he executed in person, including his sister and his favorite vizier, Barmakid, the Persian, whose intelligence and deeds helped strengthen the caliphate.
The Caliph did not visit Baghdad often. None of his visits ever boded well for the denizens. Often, impoverished by taxes and tired of fear, they would attack his retinue and the Caliph himself. Fearful for his throne, the ruler did away with everybody he saw as a rival or whose influence he thought dangerous. The execution of Barmakid took its toll, however.
In order to pacify the nobles and regain Persia’s trust, he appointed his scion, born of a Persian slave, his “eternal” viceroy for all eastern provinces. His name was al-Mamun. He became the heir and a patron of the arts and sciences. Four years later, he became the Caliph, and Haroun al-Rashid would be killed a year later, in the year of 193 of Hegira, or 809 A.D. while the rule of al-Mamun would last.
One hundred fifty years later, Thousand and One Nights became known throughout the Caliphate. You know these beautiful tales. Remember how they begin; listen to young Scheherazade, whose words put love in the ruler’s heart and which saved her country’s girls from inevitable death. Every night the padishah would kill the girl he had just sated his flesh with. The country was in mourning, and the city lived in fear. Fathers did not know where to take and how to hide their daughters. Then came young Scheherazade, the daughter of the Grand Vizier. She went against her father’s will and chose to sacrifice herself. She went to the palace to conquer the padishah or die… and she won – with her caresses, her wisdom, and her beauty. The love she put in the ruler’s heart was her victory.
The reader should not forget, however, that this tale of the East is not so cheerful, and Haroun al-Rashid does not look so wise. People say that al-Muqtadir, the 14th Caliph after al-Rashid, was very fond of these tales, and not only of them alone. After putting down another revolt and massacring slaves or Qarmatians, he would call a gathering of famous scholars and poets in his palace. He would generously reward them and sit in on their majlis, where theologians spun long yarns from the life of the Prophet and read from the Quran. He called Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, a great philosopher of Turkic origin and his friend. When the empire was in danger, and Samanids on the banks of Jeyhun and Seyhun threatened to leave his rule, he sent Abu Nasr there as a philosopher. Abu Nasr was to make a compilation of holy books to increase faith in the Caliph’s power.
Neither al-Muqtadir nor caliphs that came after him knew that the great scholar had witnessed the massacre of Qarmatians and poets in Bukhara and come out against violence. When he came back from Jeyhun, he avoided Baghdad. He wandered about the wary merchants in caravanserais, visited wretched huts and rich palaces in Haleb; he listened to stories of traders and travelers in the bazaars of Homs and Damascus; he spent weeks in the ruins of old Baalbek and traveled to Palmyra.
The caliph’s palace heard of him only when he emerged at a scholarly majlis in Haleb in the palace of the audacious sultan Saif al-Daula. Caliphs would not know that sometimes Abu Nasr did not have a dirham to buy a handful of dates or a piece of a barley flatbread. Legend says he would go to the slaughterhouse, drink a cup of fresh blood, and retreat to his solitude at the nearby ditch in the shade of a palm or an olive tree, to commit to paper his thoughts and observations and his dreams. Sometimes he would sing, accompanying himself on his two-string kipchagi, which would centuries later be called a Kazakh domra, and a crowd would gather to listen. Sometimes he would disappear from the city in the company of his friends. Some would see him in a secret majlis or among the soldiers, or spending hours with a vagrant or a pilgrim, conversing in a language no one else knew. He would often speak up to defend a slave, and he could give his last dirham or piece of bread to a beggar. People saw him staring in the sky and listening to the birds’ chatter.
His contemporaries did not understand and feared his speeches about equality. Some stayed away, others feared him, yet others called him an oddity. He knew how fairy tales were born. He wanted to know how life on the planet had come to be. He reflected on the rise and the fall of Babylon, on the joys and tragedies that had befallen the Sumerians and Arameans and Midianites and Chaldeans. He thought about Palestine and things that happened millennia ago. He wanted to know the secret of fire and the power of the wind, the histories of people, and the causes of wars.
When he was young, slaves revolted in central regions of the Abbasid Caliphate led by Ali al-Barkawi, who was called the “Closed Curtain,” for he never opened his face. The rebels demanded that slavery be outlawed. The state they created included a part of Iraq and a part of the Khuzestan province of Iran. Ali proclaimed himself Caliph, and his active supporters shared the gained wealth and prisoners.
The slaves’ dream was drowned in blood. They did not achieve freedom. The army of the Caliph of Baghdad defeated the new state, and the self-appointed Caliph was executed. The story repeats itself: when elderly Abu Nasr returned to Damascus from Haleb, it was the time of the Qarmatian revolt. Shiites and other religious people joined forces under their flags. Artisans and shopkeepers formed secret organizations and called for equality of all religions and sects and castes. Qarmatian heresy spread all over the caliphate, from Syria to Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, on to Palestine and Central Asia. The Baghdad throne was teetering, and Sultan Saif al-Daula became more powerful. Love was the only constant, but it was in chains, as usual. He could not win freedom for his Banu.
Abu Nasr lived dreaming of the City of Virtue and wise rulers. He roamed the streets, listening to the pilgrims headed for Mecca. He listened to the songs of the night, to vagrant philosophers’ speeches, to washing women’s chatter, to traders’ haggling, to slaves’ complaints, to children crying, to caravan drivers’ legends, and he kept thinking of his past, of his awkward love, of the power of the sword, of the mystery of words, of the magic of music, and the hardships of life as well as its ceaseless motion. He became a wanderer, although, for his time, he was a Teacher who revealed the inner sense of the teachings of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Ptolemy, Heraclites, Hippocrates.
Now the ancient caravan roads are forgotten and abandoned. I planned my first trip following in the great thinker’s tracks a thousand years after his death in Hamadan, but then I had to break it and restart it from the other end – in Cairo and Alexandria.
I visited the ruins of Carthage, then went on to Damascus, Homs, Haleb (Aleppo). I traveled through Latakia, Palmyra, the ruins of Baalbek. From Beirut to Jerusalem to Amman, then to Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. I silently looked upon the Hisraw Arch, the temples, statues, and the ruins of el-Hatra, Babylon, and Nineveh. I stood in the shade of Adam’s Tree at the confluence of Tigris and Euphrates. I walked on Sinbad Island and wandered the mountains and valleys of the Great Northern River. Finally, after I traveled all the places that I supposed the great philosopher might have visited at different times, I went back to the banks of Tigris, to the ancient but still beautiful Samarra, wherein those days Caliph al-Muqtadir had ruled, and where Abu Nasr had arrived in his youth with Turkic slaves, and I thought nothing is eternal in this world except for love and quest for truth.
Yet, what was it that compelled me to follow in his tracks? What is it in general that makes those of us living at the end of the 20th century – the “cosmic era” – travel to the past? Is it merely our curiosity and quest for truth? Why did the discovery of the Rosetta Stone produce such a shock to the greatest thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, and why did it become the key to discovering the greatest mysteries of the world’s civilization?
Perhaps this seemingly paradoxical phenomenon contains a great force that compels us to repeatedly look back, seeking the roots of today’s gains and losses. The wisdom of all the tales of the past represents the struggle between good and evil, which has always caused the birth of not only new societies but new evils as well.
Among the scholars of his time, Abu Nasr became renowned as a great thinker, as well as a mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, healer, musician, and historian… and so they called him the Second Teacher – next after Aristotle.
I thought about these things as I walked in his tracks a thousand years later. One thought haunted me, however- he could not have become the greatest philosopher if he had not seen the roots of ancient civilizations from Nineveh and Babylon, Assyria, and Sumer… if he had not been awed and turned to reflection by the mysterious look of the Sphinx that came from the secrets of the Pyramids… if he had not studied all the vagaries of wars and invasions that had come before him… and if he had not become depressed by human cruelty and eternal inequality among people!
At the time, it seemed to me that he was still alive and offering us the crown of his dreams, his great treatise On the City of Virtue, and its Noble Citizens.
In any event, he is still remembered in the East. In their imagination, the people see him as a wise eccentric. That was what an elderly scholar from Sri Lanka said outside an old café called “al-Farabi.”
I asked whom the place was named after, and he said, “A wise ancient eccentric.”
The oldest Cairo university is named after al-Farabi. A Bengali student from Calcutta showed me his work named Muhammad al-Farabi – Materialist. A Pakistani poet recited his verses about al-Farabi, the Storyteller. In vain did I try to find his grave in Haleb and Damascus. In Haleb, they said that the great philosopher returned to Haleb and spent his last days there and so he must have been buried there, around the old fortress. I visited every cemetery in the area with the locals, but no one knew exactly where we should be looking for it.
Damascus scholars and writers believe he was buried at one of the ancient cemeteries near the Small Gate. I visited these cemeteries. I met an older man in a white tent pitched right on graves. He was reading the Holy Book, waiting for his death. He would not respond to the questions from the living. A pitcher with water and a dried flatbread lay in front of him.
My friends from Damascus showed me several graves in different places and called them al-Farabi’s. Finally, they said, somewhat embarrassed-
“Why don’t you just write that you found your countryman’s grave, and we will confirm it. In those days, Arabs used to look down on other people and did not always respect Turkic people. They were unlikely to immortalize his memory and remember his grave. Perhaps you would like to take a handful of earth from the bank of Barada River and take it to the Teacher’s homeland. This way, you will not go wrong.”
“What has been created by a great thinker serves all people,” I said. “This is why for the first time in history, we dared to hold a Farabi Day in the Kazakh Republic.”
It was on September 9, 1973, in Almaty during the conference of writers from Asia and Africa. Writers and scholars from almost all continents were in attendance.
On the eve of Farabi Day, late in the evening, I came to the local hospital to visit Sajad Zahir – a writer, a critic, and a prominent cultural figure in the subcontinent. Despite being ill, he had arrived in Almaty to participate in the Farabi Day celebration. Along with the outstanding Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz and writer Alex La Guma from South Africa, he helped us hold Farabi Nights in India and prepared one in Kazakhstan. However, once he arrived in Almaty, he fell sick.
Despite our age difference, Sajad Zahir was one of my best and wisest friends. I reminded him that Farabi Day was the next day. “You dreamed of it…” His eyes opened slowly. He attempted a smile. He looked around, then at me, and started speaking very quietly and slowly.
It was very quiet, yet the interpreter still had trouble catching his words.
“I dreamed I would make a speech about Farabi. I thought about him a lot. The circumstances have changed, so I cannot act upon my wish, my dream… But while I still can, I will say a few words that you should read from the podium to all who came to honor his memory…
‘Farabi was a man who dedicated his life to the struggle for human fraternity. A thousand years ago, this man lived for others. He was a fanatic for whom nothing else existed but reason and knowledge and quest for learning: a beggar, a vagrant, whom no one knew outside a few scholars. I am happy that he found his homeland, a place where he was born. I’m happy to be born in the same continent as he,” he said, his energy ebbing. “He dreamed of peace and equality… Let those who assembled here for the Faradi Day understand him and justify all the effort you put into it and accept me as a particle of it.
‘I am happy to be dying in his homeland…” These were his last words.
‘…A beggar, a vagrant, whom no one knew outside a few scholars.’
Even the storytellers who authored 1001 Nights were not aware of Abu Nasr, or else they would have put him in their stories.
He absorbed all the best in the culture and history of its homeland, he mastered the writings of ancient Greeks and Jews, he took in the philosophy of Persians, Hindus, and Arabs, he touched upon the ancient Chinese works – and on this basis, he created works that assembled the ancient knowledge, but also laid down the basis for future discoveries in all sciences known at the time.
Our own time has a skeptical attitude toward fairy tales. We are forgetting Scheherazade. We listen to historians, and we dig through the scholars long gone in order to find a reference to the older man who created his works at the time of 1001 Nights. We see these lines about him as an immortal story of the force of reason. The older man was a slave to life and the ruler of spirit, a founder of many sciences, a brilliant musician, and a passionate champion of justice, a mathematician and an engineer, an astronomer and a thinker and a prophet.
It is not easy to write about him, especially since neither he nor his contemporaries left any notes of his life. Until the 1960s, he was little known here too, but once we heard his name and saw his writings, we could not part from him.
Perhaps the reason is that there are moments of great awakenings in the history of nations. People live through grim centuries and years of victories, realize the power of fraternity with other nations, experience the light of knowledge, and become equal in the century’s most perfect society – and then they want to revisit their past from the peaks they have climbed, in order to reinforce their friendship with their brothers and contribute to the common altar of culture all the best that has ever been achieved in their history.
At the end of the 20th century, the world is so huge, complicated, and filled with anxiety; it is bursting with information on everything under the sun, and the war between good and the evil continues – does not each of us, as citizens of the most significant, most progressive, society in the world, wish to be a part of the history of reason?
Is this perhaps the desire that sends us to look more closely at the history of nations and civilizations? Once we find that rare phenomenon that is related to a shared history and culture, we cannot remain silent about it. If, among the greatest thinkers, we found a man who had once trodden the same land where we live, who had been born and lived at the same rivers that we knew, who had seen the same hills and mountains and the same alluring great steppe that we did – do not our hearts fill with pride and excitement?
This is when we feel our common humanity, our kinship with the great thinker, and the kinship of our nation with others, which stem from ancient cultures that offer up their numerous riches to the whole of humanity.
Is it not the simple reason why we pore over the ashes of Otrar with the same excitement as we follow the launching of a spaceship?
People always seek a fuller perception and a more profound knowledge of their history and, through it, the history of humanity. People have always sought and still seek what brings them closer to others, rather than what divides them and leads them to conflict. In short, there is no limit to human aspiration of higher ideals. Without aspiration, there can be no literature.
Without such ideals, we would not have high objectives – if a man had not invented a bow and shot an arrow at an eagle, he would not be walking through outer space today.
One way or another, the ancient sage has returned to us, a millennium later, and remains with us. For, geniuses do not die. They live forever. Their minds are with us, always and everywhere.
Anuar Alimzhanov was a Soviet and Kazakh writer wrote in Russian, a well-known publicist, a public figure. He served on the Council of the Republics of the Supreme Council of the USSR.