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Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud

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BOOK: The Holy Sail
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‘We will not accept anyone else!' they all started shouting at once. ‘You must sit on the throne. Long live Sultan al-Ghawri!'

Hussein's lips moved as if in silent prayer, ‘Please accept, sir!' He then glanced at his master in anticipation. Whatever he decided next, it would determine Hussein's future.

Amir al-Ghawri gave a deep sigh and looked to the ground. There was an awkward moment of silence. Ghawri then spoke slowly and sternly. ‘If you want to remove me all you have to do is ask me, not slay me. I want you to swear on this now, in front of me.'

Hussein had not expected Ghawri to accept the appointment, but when he did, Hussein felt he was about to faint. He knew that the sultanship was the most hazardous job in the sultanate, the sultan not unlike a sheep being fattened for slaughter. Yet it was also the post where a sovereign could fix things if he understood how to manage his people and his subjects, so Hussein hoped his master would have the skill to repair what the Mamluk amirs had broken before him. He struggled to keep his wrathful fist from striking the heads of some of those present, though he was reassured that he would be able to influence Ghawri by dint of their close relationship.

The commotion in the hall died down. Ghawri was invested as sultan. Celebrations for his coronation began soon thereafter, and the new sultan became preoccupied with receiving well-wishers.

Hussein left the palace. As he thought about what had happened, he found himself amazed by the wondrous things that transpired in Egypt. His master's title had now become Sultan Abu al-Nasser Qansouh al-Ghawri, Sultan of the Two Seas and the Two Lands. A grand title indeed, he thought to himself, though it could also be a death sentence. Were the Mamluk amirs going to abide by their oath not to kill him in cold blood like they had done with his predecessors? Perhaps, but Hussein was not so sure.

Leaving the castle that night was the only thing he could do. His master alone was able to deal with the new developments, and set things in motion to remedy the nation's ailments. There were many resources, tactics and levers of power that the sultan was going to have to use shrewdly to assert his authority over these people.

Hussein, wearing casual clothes this time, walked around the streets surrounding the castle. He wanted to mingle with people and listen in on their conversations, after his long isolation between the silent walls of the stone palace. It was the last night of Ramadan, and people were making eager preparations for Eid on the following day. Poor and ordinary folk revered and enjoyed this feast the most, and used the occasion to forget the misery, destitution and injustice surrounding them on every side. The rich and powerful, meanwhile, were busy springing at each others' throats and stabbing one another in the back.

The muezzin's voice rose out gently from the minaret of a mosque Hussein was walking past. The melody echoed through the alleyways, which were filled with the aroma of barbecued meat and sweets. People began to enter the mosque, handing over their shoes to a boy at the door whose job was to store them away from thieves. These days, even cheap, worn-out shoes were stolen.

Hussein was not religious. He only attended Friday prayers with Ghawri for the sole purpose of letting the public know the amir did not miss his prayers and to deny them any more pretexts to rebel against him. But Hussein had not abandoned prayer completely, either. From time to time, he had bouts of faith that made him pray sporadically. He also found it heart-warming whenever Ghawri distributed money among the poor Sufis; he did not have a cold heart after all, but it needed some patching, as the Sufi sheikh who was always outside the fort in Alexandria had told him once. Hussein had not quite understood what that meant, but he imagined his heart as a tattered cloth
that needed to be mended like the Sufis did with their ragged garments.

He took his shoes off outside the door, gave them to the boy and went inside the mosque.

After prayers, the imam stood holding a staff and began preaching to the crowd. ‘People! Woe to the Arabs for evil is approaching! Woe to the Arabs for evil is approaching!'

The sheikh's eyes bulged and his staff vibrated in tandem with his body. Hussein looked around at the other worshippers, waiting for someone to explain to him what was going on, but everyone looked as confused as he was.

A voice from the back rows called out. ‘What happened? What evil has approached, my sheikh?'

The imam did not answer immediately, and continued to repeat his cryptic warning until he felt they were finally ready to hear the story. Then he said in a quieter voice, ‘Woe to the Arabs for evil is approaching! A Frankish
ship has been spotted in the Abyssinian Sea. They have breached the dam of Dhul-Qarnayn
and are now at the gates of Mecca and Medina!'



Al-Ahsa, Eastern Arabian Peninsula

The Hormuzi messenger leaned on a pillow and looked Sultan Muqrin straight in the eyes before he started speaking. ‘Your Grace, I think you are aware of the conflicts taking place in our kingdom between the members of the royal family. A king hardly sits on the throne before he is killed or deposed. The kingdom has suffered greatly from such struggles, and lost a lot of blood and treasure.' Turan Shah, the king of Hormuz, had died recently and left four sons: Maqsoud, Shahabuddin, Salghur and Vays. A bitter struggle had erupted between the sons over the throne.

The messenger breathed out and hunched over himself, making him appear smaller than he actually was. He glanced at the palm trees in front of him and then continued. ‘Maqsoud succeeded his father first, but Shahabuddin did not let him rule for long. He deposed him and sat on the throne for a few months, before he was ousted in turn by Salghur. Vays then overthrew him, and he remains the ruler of Hormuz.

‘The spiral of violence is almost never ending. Before I came here, I visited Sheikh Suleiman bin Salman al-Nabahani in Oman, who is Salghur's father-in-law. But he could not promise us anything because he is preoccupied with another battle. Salghur feels that Suleiman has betrayed him because he has not backed him in this struggle, and
has vowed to take revenge on him when the opportunity arises.'

The sultan was listening to the messenger intently. When he finished, the sultan said, ‘I have heard of all these conflicts among the king's sons but I thought things had settled down after Vays ascended the throne. Tell me, what was the childhood of the four men like? Who raised them?'

The messenger replied, ‘They all grew up in their father's palace. But he made a mistake when he put each one under the care of a different tutor. These tutors imparted their rivalries into the young princes. Disputes between them started early on, and the father could hardly resolve one before another erupted. At the time, he was not aware that the problem was not the children, but rather the tutors he had not chosen so well.'

The sultan smiled faintly, and then remarked, ‘This is a problem in many royal palaces. In our palace, we tried to avoid this by appointing one educator for all children. We have chosen a trustworthy man because we know it will be he who shapes and moulds their minds.'

The sultan paused and then said, ‘I don't know why kings always make the same mistakes!' After another moment of silence, he asked, ‘So who sent you then if it's not the king?'

The messenger adjusted his sitting position. ‘I am here at the behest of my master, Vizier
Attar. He ordered me to come here to ask you help restore Salghur to the throne.'

The sultan chased away a fly that had landed on his forehead. He shook his head in thought before he asked,
‘Why does Attar want to bring back Salghur? Why him out of the four rivals?'

It seemed that the messenger was prepared for this particular question. ‘He is the wisest of the sons in the view of my master. If he is reinstated, then Hormuz could restore its lost glory. My master has pinned his hopes on him to restore stability to the kingdom, because the current situation is going in a bad direction. Vays wants to wage war with you to consolidate his power and plunder Bahrain and Al-Ahsa. If that happens, we will all lose. Vays is a reckless young man who does not understand the consequences of his actions, and he is surrounded by inexperienced advisers.'

‘How long will you be staying with us in Al-Ahsa?'

‘A few days, Your Grace. Then I will return with your answer to
Attar, who is waiting for me anxiously.'

Sultan Muqrin knew that the matter at hand required knowledge of the positions of the other powers surrounding Hormuz. ‘How are your relations with Persia in light of these conflicts?'

‘Persia is also unstable. There is a bitter struggle between the Ağ Qoyunlu
and the Safavids. The country is in chaos. We do not know who will ultimately prevail, though some merchants told us recently the Safavids have won a few battles. I believe they will remain preoccupied with consolidating their gains in the north for some time. They have no armies in the south. We tried to contact them for the same purpose, but they did not respond to us. We are not too keen on them, Your Grace, so we did not contact them again.'

The messenger then fell silent, seemingly reluctant to say anything else. The sultan did not like the messenger's silence, and wanted to know more. He asked, ‘Why is that?'

‘Your Grace, the Safavids have beliefs that are foreign to us. They have forced people to convert to their faith. Some refugees and merchants have told us of massacres in some of the areas controlled by the Qizilbash
. They force people to do unspeakable things and, if they refuse, they slaughter them and pile their bodies in the roads and alleys. In the evening, they gather the corpses and set them on fire in public squares.'

The messenger paused, visualising the holocaust in his head. He then murmured, ‘The mere thought of them near our kingdom makes us fear for its future.'

The sultan wished to keep the conversation focused, lest he misunderstand the messenger or vice versa. ‘So you are saying that Vays dethroned Salghur, and that
Attar wants to restore Salghur to the throne. You have contacted the Omanis but they did not help you, and the Safavids but they did not respond, and hence you came here to ask me to help. Have I understood correctly?'

‘Indeed, Your Grace. As I mentioned earlier, restoring Salghur to the throne will benefit both sides, yours and ours. Salghur was raised by Vizier
Attar, and the vizier, through the authority the king would grant him, can improve conditions in the kingdom, rehabilitate its trade and—'

The sultan interrupted him with a sudden question. ‘Do you have any idea how serious your request is?'

‘Yes, Your Grace, but if Vays survives on the throne, he will be a danger to us all.'

The sultan smiled, impressed by the messenger's answer. The messenger had linked the fate of Hormuz to that of the Jabrid sultanate, a shrewd political move to be sure. The sultan picked up his fan again and started waving it in front of his face. When the servants saw this, they brought a bowl filled with cold water and a folded cloth. The sultan wet it and wiped his face to cool it, and invited the messenger to do the same. It was very hot and humid now.

‘Where is Attar now?'

‘He's serving as Vays's vizier. The new king needs him to rule the kingdom temporarily. He has been the de facto ruler since the father died but not after Vays ascended the throne. Vays does not let him do as he pleases, and has started pulling the rug from under his feet. Now, he summons him to the palace only when it's absolutely necessary.
Attar feels he is no longer in control of the kingdom, which has become the plaything of King Vays and his courtiers. They will destroy everything that our forefathers built.'

The sultan understood now that the real struggle was not between Salghur and his brothers, but between Attar and the current king. Still, the sultan thought, this was an opportunity that he should use to his advantage as much as possible.

‘Where do the rulers of Oman's ports stand on this? Do you not fear they might secede?'

The messenger answered in a quiet voice, as he wiped his face with the soaked cloth. ‘That's not a big problem, Your Grace. Some of the rulers of the ports are loyal to
Attar. Some are semi-independent to begin with, such as Suleiman al-Nabahani. They know we can discipline them after we regain our strength. If your forces in the Omani hinterland make even a small move, you will see how those rulers will come submissively to us asking for our protection. This is the law of life: the people of the coast have been weakened by luxury, but the people of the desert and the mountains are cut from tougher cloth.'

The sultan came from a strong Bedouin clan, and the messenger's response pleased him. ‘Very well. You can go and rest now. I shall give you my response in a few days.'

Bin Rahhal, still fiddling with the Indian merchant's ring, was shocked by what he had heard. He had not expected the kingdom of Hormuz to ask the sultan of the Jabrids for assistance. After all, this was the kingdom that controlled vast swathes of the western coast of the Gulf, and the kingdom whose fleet controlled the entrance to the Gulf and all the trade routes there.

Sultan Muqrin stood up and walked towards a shaded stream nearby, carried away by his thoughts. He was Sultan Muqrin bin Zamel al-Jabri, leader of the Jabrid tribe, which controlled all the areas between Basra and Oman, and between the Gulf coast and the edges of Najd. The sultan had a formidable military force under his command that could strike terror in the hearts of his enemies; his powerful navy was rivalled only by the fleet of the kingdom of Hormuz. The sultan paid an annual tribute to the kingdom to avoid antagonising it, lest it stop his merchant ships
from sailing in and out of the Gulf. For the past few years, the sultan had tried his best to avoid tension with Hormuz. With all this in mind, it was surprising that the kingdom had now come to ask for his help. How should he act? How could he turn the situation to his advantage? And what if he failed in restoring Salghur to the throne?

BOOK: The Holy Sail
8.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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