The Tiger and the Cauldron(ch12)

Chapter 12

The merchant caravan comprised mostly Byzantines and Indians and had three escorts altogether. The Byzantines formed a close-knit group and the Indians, though friendly enough, were obliged for reasons of language to travel together with an interpreter. Hassan found himself in the company of three Venetians, Jacopo Zola and his sons, Luca and Antonio, traders in silk who had made the journey twice in the past.

Robert Brackley was a wiry man of about fifty years of age. His face, though probably once of the pallor that Hassan associated with the English race, was browned and deeply lined from years spent in the Levantine sun. He had a small mouth and thin lips. Two of his front teeth were missing and, close to, his breath smelled strongly of decomposing food. His clothing was woven from coarse fabrics, unfashionable in the city but no doubt suited to days of constant travel. The only sign of wealth about his person was a broad scimitar with a jewel-encrusted hilt. The blade hung naked from a thick leather belt and Hassan could see it was inscribed in Arabic, though he was never close enough to decipher it. He thought it strange that a Christian should carry such a weapon and decided it must be a souvenir of war.

The cost of an escort’s services to Tabriz was two gold pieces per traveller, plus all necessary travelling expenses. One royal was payable in advance. This only confirmed to Hassan the merchant banker’s opinion: that Brackley was a rogue and with him the others who followed his profession. He guessed that, with the current party, each swordsman would profit by ten royals, not counting any income for the return journey. A Persian emir could probably hire a small army for such a sum. For safety he had already emptied his purse of its royals leaving only silver to tempt a thief. The gold coins he had secreted elsewhere, two in the hollowed hilt of his sword, the others in a pouch at the back of his belt.

Brackley had procured a vessel in which they crossed to Uskudur. There they purchased horses and for two days rode first east, then south towards Bursa, begging hospitality at monasteries and in villages.

In Bursa, they replenished and augmented their supplies. Despite his haste, Hassan was eager to explore this ancient town that lay in the shadow of the Ulu Dag. However, as the majority were anxious to be on their way, he had to be content with a stop of only one night.

In mid morning on the day following its arrival, the caravan took the road eastwards into the Anatolian interior. It had grown in size. A few local merchants, reluctant to undertake the journey to Erzurum alone, attached themselves to the end of the column where Hassan rode with the Zolas. Brackley rode alongside, allowing the rest of the party to draw slightly ahead. He proved untalkative. Indeed, the Englishman spoke very little Italian and any necessary communications were conducted in the lingua franca, which Hassan had not taken the trouble to learn. He discovered that Brackley knew Greek but refrained from revealing his own proficiency in that language. Moreover, he had not confided to either the escort or the Zolas any more information than was necessary for the journey and thus none of his present companions took him for anything other than what he appeared to be, a young gentleman of Italian birth and modest fortune.

On the fourth day of their journey, they left the mountains behind and, still travelling east, reached the ancient route that wound its way north from the Aegean coast and through Rum towards Armenia. Sometimes the terrain was inhospitable but there was no shortage of stopping places. They passed through towns where the population, though not over-friendly, was quite willing to trade supplies for either Western, Turkish or Persian silver. By the ninth day, they were nearly half way to Erzurum.

Their way led through mountain passes and along river valleys, majestic country wherein they had no sooner left one range behind than another appeared, misted and blue on the horizon. The weather was hot and they had to rest frequently for the sake of Jacopo, who was unable to tolerate long periods in the sun.

They veered south away from Erevan. Now, their northern horizon was dominated by the soaring peak of Mount Ararat, its snow-covered upper slopes glistening in the sun. The Kuh-e-Sahand was grand, thought Hassan, but it could not surpass the majesty of this one, where legend told that Noah’s Ark had rested after the Great Flood. His excitement was growing. He had little memory of this countryside, yet there were features of the landscape that seemed familiar, in vision, sound and smell. The distant peaks reminded him of the Alburz. The noise of water falling into a gorge made him think of the streams that gushed from the summit of the Mount of the Chalice into the fertile gardens of Maragha. Trees and grass and even rocks had their own special scent, the scent of a long-awaited homecoming.

They travelled within sight of Ararat for almost a week, but at length even its white summit disappeared from view and they came into the plain in which lay Lake Urmia. Beyond it to the east was the city of Tabriz.

*

Hassan parted from the Zolas on the main highway near the north gate, they to pursue their business, he to explore the lanes, gardens and secret corners that had been his haunts in boyhood. He left them with the pack animals.

It was late afternoon. In the horse market he exchanged the beast that had served him so faithfully since Uskudur for a Steppes pony, and purchased a second to carry his box. The transaction cost him twenty dinars and he suspected the Armenian dealer had the best of the bargain. Both animals were overfed and lazy.

He led his ponies through the suburbs, searching for the old, stopping here and there to absorb the new or recall the forgotten. Tabriz, the city of his birth, where he had lived for the first eleven years of his life, was no longer familiar. The paving stones and the facade of the chief buildings had not changed, but they were now cold and unwelcoming. Many of the houses in the poorer quarters were damaged and the tenants, lacking the means to repair them, had abandoned them to crumble into dilapidation. At the mercy of tremors, poverty and an indifferent regime, not a few, with families to feed, had been reduced to begging or had turned to crime.

In the better parts of the city, masonry and carpentry had always been blossoming trades, but even there the residents seemed to have been inflicted with a new torpor. Roofs had been left un-tiled, walls un-built, windows unglazed.

From the Great Mosque with its magnificent dome and soaring minaret, the wailing summons of the muezzin still wafted over the rooftops and echoed back from the mountain before fading into the early evening air. It was a sound that Hassan had heard countless times and which, countless times, had brought him to his knees, even if from habit or an instilled sense of duty rather than innate piety or spiritual awakening. But the once urgent call to prayer, like the anonymous cries of the street traders and the yapping of stray dogs, spoke to him now of another time and place. These sounds were lost memories that might have been part of a tale by Firdausi or a verse by Khayyam, rather than belonging to his world of the present.

The people too were strangers. Hassan found himself searching for familiar faces in the crowds, hoping to see an acquaintance, an old servant or perhaps a former playmate who would penetrate his western mien and greet him as the young prince, wayward child or mischievous companion he had once been. He watched the artisans, the weavers of rugs, sword-smiths, saddlers and many others, parading their skills in front of their shops. Once, there would have been a cheerful greeting or a few bantering words, but that was no longer the case. The few he recognised stared blankly as he passed and resumed their craft. Despite his weeks of travelling, he was still a Venetian, just another foreigner in a city of foreigners. Even the language seemed unfamiliar at first and he had to listen intently to understand it. Though he had continued to converse with his mother in Persian when they were alone, he became aware of how isolation from others of his race had resulted in a modification of his accent and a diminution of his vocabulary.

In the streets bordering the castle, there was a strong military presence, and he noticed an unexpected alertness in the eyes of passing soldiers. The castle main gate was closed and guarded by three sentries in full battle armour, while three more armed with bows kept watch from a platform atop the walls. Hassan wondered what could have brought about such an increase in security. Arghun had always kept a few jaguns in Tabriz while the family was resident there but, whilst hand-picked warriors kept a watchful eye on the corridors and doorways round the royal apartments, patrols in the city itself were at best half-hearted except in times of disturbance. The guards at the castle gate were usually lazy conscripts who took little notice of who came and went. The main gate itself was rarely shut.

However, he had seen the Mongol mercenaries that the rich emirs used to guard their villas in the city and keep watch over their farms and estates in the suburbs. The sentries who now watched the gates of Tabriz Castle were of the same type – big, wild-eyed northern men, their long hair spilling from beneath their metal-reinforced helmets and fastened in knots over their shoulders.   New emotions surged through him, regret for his missing childhood, resentment at his exile, anger at being denied access to the courtyards, verandas and gardens that had once been his home. As he stood silently, trying to understand these feelings and wondering yet again why he had come back, a bony hand rested on his arm.

‘It would be unwise to remain too long in this spot, young man,’ said a friendly voice in his ear. ‘These bowmen on the walls have itching thumbs.’

Hassan turned round. The speaker was an elderly man with intelligent eyes. He wore a stained white robe and a black turban. His grey beard covered most of his face and reached to his chest. Despite his hirsute appearance, and the passage of time, Hassan knew him. The beard had once been shorter and less grey, the shoulders straighter, the forehead less lined and the hands less bony, but it was undoubtedly the same man, Muhammad Baha-al-Afdal, a candlemaker and lamp seller, one of the many tradesmen who had frequented the castle in days gone by.

Hassan thought it unlikely recognition was mutual and he decided it was best not to reveal his identity. With his stepbrother, Oljeitu, he had often been in the old man’s shop and he suspected the owner had no reason to remember them affectionately. Their many pranks when Afdal wasn’t looking had included pouring water into the moulds and removing strands of wick from the hot wax before it had properly set.

To hide his surprise at the chance meeting, he bowed respectfully.

‘I’m grateful for your advice, sir,’ he said. ‘It was not my intention to linger. Only, to find the castle gate closed and securely guarded was a surprise.’

‘It will allay their suspicion if you walk with me,’ said the candlemaker, taking his elbow and gently propelling him away from the castle into a side street. ‘A lone stranger needs to be doubly careful.’

Hassan did not protest. Here was his best opportunity to listen to city gossip.

‘I arrived only today from Anatolia,’ he began when they had gone the length of the lane in silence. ‘Before that, I was in Constantinople and in Venice. I am no stranger to Tabriz, but there have been many changes since I was last here.’

‘No more so than in the last month,’ said the candlemaker. He stopped, glanced back over his shoulder at the castle, then resumed his walk.

Hassan fell in step. ‘How is that, sir?’

Although their pace was not brisk, al-Afdal began wheezing badly. He stopped again suddenly and peered at Hassan over his beard.

‘Do I know you, young man? My eyesight is not as good as it once was.’

‘I do not think so, sir,’ Hassan said cautiously. ‘My name is Assano.’

‘Is that a Venetian name, or Greek?’

‘It is Venetian, sir.’

‘Venetians are welcome in this city, and I always enjoy the company of the young.’ The candlemaker wheezed again. ‘The news in Venice will be much out of date. The castle gate has been closed since the second month of Jumada. The city commander fears another attack and has called in reinforcements.’

‘An attack on Tabriz castle?’ Hassan said, incredulous. ‘Who would dare?’

‘That is the mystery,’ Afdal replied. ‘But it happened none the less. A few guards were killed. Their captain received a bloody nose and has been replaced. Sent to the front, it is rumoured, or deserted. They say the attackers were supporters of Ghazan … or independent rebels.’

‘Rebels?’

‘Rebels or bandits – who can tell? There have been incidents all over the province. Attacks on the Mongol garrison and raids on Baidu’s property. A few soldiers dead. Others join these outlaws. People call them the Tigers. It’s said that after robbing the Tabriz treasury, they carved the likeness of a tiger on the inner door, though I can’t vouch for the story’s truth.’

Again al-Afdal peered over his beard and Hassan thought his eyes, even if short-sighted, had become wary. He wondered if it would be wise to ask too many questions. However, after a pause the candlemaker smiled and continued.

‘So the castle has been shut up and two arbans of Armenian Mongols brought in to guard it. As well as a Persian garrison! A curfew has been imposed on the city from dusk to dawn and when Ramadan is over our celebrations will be denied us. For nearly five years there’s been little enough money for public works but now there’s no civilian administration.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘There was always oppression, even in the days of Arghun’s Jewish chancellor, but now Tabriz is descending into chaos. Allah has granted me a long life, young man, yet I did not expect ever to see such madness! Baidu dismissed the Grand Wazir and threw the finance minister into a dungeon. The only good thing is that the Il-khan  himself has left the city.’

Three men of the militia were coming towards them and the candlemaker moved closer to the buildings on the right to let them pass. It was not in Hassan’s nature to yield ground to men who might once have given way to him, however instinct warned him not to provoke a conflict he could not win. He shortened the lead reins of his ponies and drew them in to the nearest wall.

On the other side of the road, two youths were lounging against the wall of a house. They were plainly dressed, one in a brown jubbah, the other in a jacket and wide trousers, this latter conspicuous by the red silk scarf wound round his head and knotted at the back. Seeing the soldiers, they immediately straightened and made off down a secondary lane. The militia followed.

‘You see,’ said Afdal. ‘The city too has extra guardians! It’s nearly dusk now, and they pursue anyone they suspect of defying their new law. I am known to be harmless and they’re unlikely to stop me or question my companions. Do you have accommodation for the night?’

‘None yet,’ Hassan replied. ‘I plan to seek it outside the city walls. I have lived in the open so long that it has become second nature.’

‘You are welcome to my hospitality. Indeed I advise it, Assano.’ Once more the candlemaker peered with his failing eyesight. He wheezed yet again. ‘Strange people walk the lanes and byways of Tabriz at night, despite the curfew – these Tigers perhaps – and that box of yours might be very tempting to a thief, even if your horses are not.’

‘Then I accept your offer, sir,’ said Hassan. ‘In truth, I’m glad of the invitation as I have not slept in a bed, nor under a roof for several days.’

*

The candlemaker had no stabling. However, a small courtyard shared with the adjoining houses had a well and posts to which the ponies could be tethered. Having drawn water for the animals, Hassan entered the shop.

It was less cluttered than he remembered, but the tidiness that had marked the business, which his escapades had often sought to compromise, had gone. The shelves, once sagging under the weight of countless finished candles, were sparsely stacked. The jars full of mysterious substances that had lain on benches around the room were now few, and those that still had contents were half empty. The section of the premises once set aside for trade in lamps had been mostly cleared and of the few lamps that remained the majority were either broken, caked with oil and dirt, or both. The variety that had once brought the old man the custom of princes was missing.

The floor was unswept. Some broken moulds lay in one corner. Misshapen phalluses of wax had been thrown carelessly in another, while the baths for mixing the oils, fats and esters looked as if they had not been cleaned for a year. Hassan could not hide his dismay.

‘Business is slack in these times, Assano,’ said the candlemaker, ‘and my hand is less steady than it was in my prime. Sadly I’ve no children to take over the work. I have a nephew who promises to learn the trade, though I’ve seen little of him these last weeks. He’s taken to spying on maidens, I fancy, or has found one in particular who loves him for his beauty. Allah knows he has no marriage portion to offer.’ He gave a chuckle that degenerated into a bout of wheezing.

The living and sleeping quarters above the shop were clean. Hassan could have afforded to pay many times over for food and comfort at an inn, but to offer silver in exchange for private hospitality would have been to insult his host. He therefore agreed graciously to share the candlemaker’s modest supper and, having eaten, settled down on a soft, if worn, mattress and fell asleep almost immediately.

His sleep in the hour before dawn was broken by nightmares, memories that since his childhood had not troubled him: his stepfather’s death and the terror-filled days that had followed; his mother’s arrest; their reunion and forced exile. Believing her dead he had travelled with Giovanni through the Alburz Mountains to Rayy only to learn there that she had been abducted by Gaikatu and was his prisoner. He had seen war too, and images from that experience invaded his dreams – the corpse-littered battlefield, blood-encrusted swords and pale, drawn faces, the realisation and fear of approaching death in their eyes.

He awakened early and the dream faded into the morning. In a day or two it would be midsummer and it was already grey daylight. He had decided to head for Maragha and there was one promised visit to make before he set out over the mountain.

The candlemaker had already risen. The dampness of the air had brought on a severe bout of wheezing and coughing and he had been forced to quit his bed lest he choke on the mucus. Having recovered somewhat, he took out a frayed prayer mat and knelt awkwardly to perform the first Salat of the day. Hassan did not feel obligated to join him and waited to see whether he was to be offered breakfast or, since an orange segment of the sun had already appeared on the horizon, whether his host’s piety extended to strict observance of the Sawm.

To his relief it did not, and, as they both ate and drank a frugal meal, Afdal talked freely about recent events in the city and the country at large. He appeared to have no inhibitions about expressing his political opinions. He was openly critical of all authority and contemptuous of both city commander and captain of the castle. Most of the rumours Hassan had heard were true. Gaikatu had been killed in an ambush about three months previously and Baidu had proclaimed himself Il-khan. Ghazan was believed to have seen his chance of revenge for his father’s murder and had mobilised his armies. Baidu had gone east to engage him.

‘There’s a lot of support for Ghazan in the western provinces,’ Afdal said, ‘but it’s badly organised. Known sympathisers are picked off by Baidu’s thugs. What he calls law patrols!’

The sun was already streaming over the rooftops when Hassan fastened his box to the thicker of his two ponies and made ready to leave. Though he had no use for candles, he purchased several as a courtesy. Afdal seemed reluctant to part with his company, insisted on walking with him as far as the main highway, and pressed him for a promise to pay another visit to the shop. Having agreed to do so one day, Hassan said goodbye and rode for the south gate.

The streets and lanes were already crowded and noisy. All races of the earth were represented – Chinese, Indians and Africans as well as Europeans, native Persians and dark desert Arabs. Imams from the mosque rubbed shoulders with labourers and fruit sellers. At some crossroads, street women, bareheaded and openly flaunting their voluptuous figures, brash clothing and tawdry jewellery, solicited custom among the ever-watchful Mongol patrols. Round the mosque doors, beggars were vying for the most advantageous positions from which to catch the attention of worshippers as they came and went with full purses and heavy consciences.

On his way out of the city, Hassan overtook a merchant caravan making its way towards the Silk Road. These travellers had camels as well as horses, three ungainly animals with huge lolling tongues that threw white spittle in all directions as they lumbered along. A group of local boys, unmindful of the deluge, ran beside them, waving their arms and begging to be allowed a ride on the already laden beasts. The camel-driver hoisted one of the lads onto the rearmost camel’s neck and held him there while the others crowded round, chattering among themselves and tugging at the man’s clothing in an effort to claim the next turn.

Hassan had often seen camels, but this was the closest he had ever been to them. They smelled of excrement. As he drew level with the leading beast, it swung its head in his direction and attempted to bite his mount in the rump. The pony lashed out with its hind legs, whinnied loudly and broke into a trot. The camel-driver roared with laughter.

Three riders passed at a canter, halted briefly and turned to ascertain the reason for the commotion. Hassan saw they were about his age and, though none was known to him, he noticed with a brief sense of unease that one wore a red headscarf knotted at the back.

[to be continued]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s