Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud
THE HOLY SAIL
THE HOLY SAIL
Translated by Karim Traboulsi
Kingdom of Portugal
Manuel: king's brother-in-law and confidant
Mr Rodrigo: king's private doctor and astronomer
Moses: renowned cartographer
PÃªro da CovilhÃ£: diplomat and explorer
Afonso de Paiva: diplomat and explorer
Afonso de Albuquerque: general
Miguel Ferreira: Albuquerque's aide
AntÃ³nio Correia: military commander
LourenÃ§o de Almeida: military commander
Francisco Ãlvares: priest
Sultanate of Egypt
Al-Nasser Mohammed: son of Sultan Qaitbay
Qansouh al-Ghawri: amir
Hussein al-Kurdi: Mamluk army officer
Suleiman: Mamluk officer and Hussein's best friend
Sultan Muqrin bin Zamel al-Jabri
Nasser: Sultan Muqrin's cousin
Ghurair bin Rahhal: vizier
Jawhar: Nasser's slave
Jamal al-Din Tazi: religious scholar
Kingdom of Hormuz
Turan Shah: King
Maqsoud, Shahabuddin, Salghur and Vays: sons of Turan Shah
Halima: Attar's daughter
Farah: Halima's maid
Sultan Amer al-Taheri
Murjan al-Zaferi: emir of Aden
Zamorin of Calicut
Qasimul Haq: Zamorin's most senior adviser
al-Tayeb: son-in-law of Qasimul Haq
Malik Ayaz: king of Diu and environs
December 1486 AD
As night fell, Lisbon's main road grew crowded with the poor and wretched unable to find shelter from the bitter cold. They piled rubbish on the pavements, set it on fire and gathered around its warmth. From time to time, children emerged from these haphazard congregations to chase after passers-by they spotted from afar, pulling at the people's garments and begging for money while pointing to their mouths or rubbing their bellies to crudely signal their hunger: the harsh cold, the merciless wind and the relentless rain afforded them little chance to speak.
It was a filthy road, like many of the roads and alleyways of a city hit by extreme financial hardship. Drawn into protracted wars with neighbouring Spain, and embroiled in costly campaigns in North Africa, Portugal had depleted its coffers to the point where a shortage of precious metals left it unable to mint its own currency. Poverty and crime were on the rise, and many people had to abandon their farms and villages in search of safety in cities that they soon overcrowded.
In such conditions, crimes of all kinds abounded. City dwellers started barricading their homes and concealing their wealth, and avoided many roads and alleys after dark. They no longer that their property, or indeed their lives, were safe, as more and more corpses turned up in the morning outside homes or on the roads, looted of their belongings and stripped bare. This sight became familiar, and soon people found it hard to differentiate between dead bodies and piles of waste: both often had things worth stealing. Even once-honourable people experienced the bitter taste of poverty and joined robbers in scavenging for anything of value. Trust vanished, to be replaced by fear of one another, and many turned into recluses in their attempt to cling to life and stay out of harm's way.
Two men appeared from afar, dressed in heavy robes with conical hoods that resembled the mitres worn by Catholic bishops. They passed quickly among the destitute street dwellers who had covered themselves with every torn and ramshackle rag they could find. The urchins noticed the two men and gathered around them, crying and begging for money. The duo ignored the children completely and continued onward against the wind that was now sprinkling ice-cold water in their facesÂ â to which they appeared immune and indifferent. The two men had no time to stop and look at anything around them. If they had examined the faces of the children for even a few seconds, they would have seen their frosty red noses; they would have seen them biting their lips to hold back the pain from their empty stomachs. But who had the time to pay attention
to all this? The pair kept their gaze on the road and their expressionless faces did not betray their nervousness. As their pace quickened, their panting produced a fog which rose from both sides of their cheeks. They were trying to get away as quickly as possible. The children had by now given up on trying to attract their attention, and returned to the makeshift fire pits and what little warmth they provided.
The two men continued along the main street for some time, and then turned right into a dark alleyway. It appeared to be faintly lit, less filthy, and otherwise deserted as if off limits to humans. The pair drew their shoulders together instinctively, reaching out for a sense of security that had been lacking throughout their trip across the city. They started moving quickly again with more forceful strides, urged on by the sound of their footsteps that the walls around them echoed back after a small delay. It felt as though there was an army of ghosts on their trail.
They inspected their surroundings, unsure of how they should feel in this eerie place. Should the sudden absence of any trace of humans make them feel safe or should it make them feel cautious and afraid? But they did not give the matter much more thought, and continued walking until they reached the cul-de-sac at the end of the alleyway. There was a stone wall there, to the left of which stood a large wooden door, cut through by a small hatch and a ring-shaped knocker hanging above it.
One of the men, the taller and bigger of the pair, used the ring handle to knock on the door, making a jarring noise that reverberated throughout the alleyway. The man knocked again, with more urgency, and the noise was even more cacophonous, merging with the echo of the
previous knock that the alleyway had only confined and concentrated; not even the loud, brisk wind could mask it. The cold would show them no mercy if they did not go inside soon.
Finally, two eyes finally peered through the hatch, and a hoarse voice that sounded as if it had come from the depths of hell uttered three words: âThe Holy Sail.'
âIt is heading
,' the taller man answered in a melodious voice, his body shaking and his tongue and lips made heavy from the cold.
The hatch closed and the door opened with a strange squeak. The pair entered quickly and the door was closed again.
Inside, the guard raised the lantern he was carrying to their faces. The men were now rubbing their hands together to get warm. The guard scrutinised their faces before he said, in the same coarse voice, âFollow me.'
They looked around them and found themselves in the courtyard of a Moorish house. It was painted white, and was clean, well lit and beautifully designed. At the centre of its marvellous garden stood a fountain. The entrances and balconies were decorated with large arches adorned with spectacular engravings. The house resembled many other homes whose Moorish owners had left abruptly, melting one day into the darkness, never to return.
The guard crossed the courtyard to the other side, passing by the fountain. The two men exchanged quick apprehensive glances, before turning their gaze to the man leading the way. They had no idea why they had been summoned here. The soft purling sound of the water brought them a bit of reassurance. The man
stopped in front of another door; he knocked before he entered, followed by his two guests, who began removing their hoods in a mechanical manner.
Candles in the corners lit the room. In the middle stood a rectangular table where three people sat, and it seemed from their garments that they were noblemen as far removed from the destitution outside the house as one could imagine. The appearance of these noblemen did nothing to assuage the two men's fear. Moses, the host, stood and extended his arms in a welcoming gesture. As he moved, a large silver cross hanging from his neck flickered.