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Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud

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BOOK: The Holy Sail
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The sultan was aware that he had many enemies: the tribes rebelling against him in Najd; Rashid bin Mughamis, emir of Basra, who was waiting for any opportunity to pounce on the Jabrid sultanate; the emirs of the Omani coast, who were loyal to the king of Hormuz, but who did not want the Jabrid army to be too close to them. These emirs were his enemies, and an obstacle to his ambition to establish trading posts on the Omani coast.

The servants brought dates on plates made from palm leaves, which they placed in front of him. The sultan took a date and put in his mouth, then spat out its seed as though he did not like its taste.

Bin Rahhal remained in the
, ready to be summoned by the sultan at any moment. The sultan lifted his robes and dipped his feet in the running water – a habit he had retained from childhood. He then gestured to Bin Rahhal to approach.

‘Bin Rahhal, I want you to think with me about this. If we succeed in restoring Salghur to the throne, we would not have to pay taxes to Hormuz any more. Our influence could extend to the Omani coast. But if we fail, Hormuz would smother our trade and blockade our ships, and we would lose our trade with India and the coast of Africa.'

The sultan removed his turban and laid it by his side, then said in an ominous tone, ‘We could lose our entire kingdom. It is a big decision that could cost us a lot.'

Bin Rahhal was not yet ready to express his opinion on such an important matter. He wanted to consider all angles before he said anything to the sultan. Things were truly complicated and any defeat – no matter how small – could tempt the tribes around Al-Ahsa to attack. After all, although on the surface they showed allegiance to Sultan Muqrin, the loyalty of the leaders of those tribes was motivated by the presence of a military force protecting the sultan. In the absence of this force, or in the event it was weakened, their fealty would turn into belligerence.

‘It is a tricky decision indeed, Your Grace. Let us take a few days to gather information to make an informed decision. We can make queries with the help of our merchants who travel frequently to Hormuz. We can also gather some information about the situation in Persia, since it is possible the Persians would intervene if they are not as preoccupied with their battles in the north as we think.'

The sultan stared at a school of small fish swimming in the stream. Bin Rahhal sensed that the sultan had already made up his mind and was just waiting for the right time to declare it.

‘Do that, Bin Rahhal. As you heard me tell the messenger, I will give him my reply in the coming days. He is waiting for my decision before he returns to Attar.'

A servant approached and informed the sultan that another messenger, this time from the Bahmani kingdom in India, was requesting permission to see him.

‘Where is he now?'

‘Outside, Your Grace.'

‘Let him in.'

As the two men returned to the
, the sultan turned to his vizier and said, ‘Stay with us, Bin Rahhal.'

The messenger entered the hall and presented himself to the sultan. He greeted him in impeccable Arabic, and the sultan asked him to sit.

The messenger started speaking as soon as he sat down. ‘I have come representing my master, Imad al-Din Mahmoud, vizier of the Bahmani kingdom in India. He sends you his greetings and sincere wishes for good luck and constant victory.'

The messenger reached for something in his pocket and then pulled out a gilded cylinder inscribed with magnificent calligraphies of Quranic verses, and handed it to the sultan.

The sultan opened the cylinder and took out a sealed parchment. He read it carefully and then gave it to Bin Rahhal, his eyes still on the messenger. ‘Send back my greetings to Vizier Imad al-Din Mahmoud. Tell him we would be pleased to cooperate with him in any way he wishes. Now you shall be a guest at my palace, where you can rest after your tiring journey. We will speak over dinner.'

The messenger stood up and signalled to one of his companions to come forward. The servant brought a small chest decorated with inscriptions and verses from the Quran and placed it in front of the messenger. The Bahmani man opened the chest slowly and took out a dagger, which he then handed to the sultan. ‘My master asks that you deliver this gift to the caliph of the Muslims. He considers this to be in your safekeeping until the caliph receives it.'

Sultan Muqrin took the dagger and brought it closer to his eyes, admiring its intricacies. It was a marvellously crafted piece, the likes of which he had never seen before. Its sheath was made of silver engraved with pure gold, adorned with seven large ruby stones. Its handle was of equally astounding craftsmanship and beauty, and was decorated with agates and diamonds; a golden chain in the shape of small miniature arms connected to one another linked the two sides of the sheath.

The sultan turned the dagger over between his hands for some time, before he passed it to Bin Rahhal to examine. The vizier unsheathed the dagger, revealing a blade fantastically decorated with interlacing engravings and gemstones, as astonishing and unique as the rest of the masterpiece. Bin Rahhal returned the dagger to the sultan, who took one more look before he replaced it in its casing. ‘We shall deliver it to the caliph, God willing, though it is a heavy onus, messenger.'

The messenger smiled and said, ‘Great Sultan, my master ordered this dagger to be made from jewels belonging to his mother and his wife and others he had obtained during his conquests. We do not have the naval experience you have to sail to Egypt, and the vizier believes you are the best person to deliver the gift on our behalf. He will remember this solemn favour for as long as he lives and he will pray for you.'

‘We will see that it is delivered, messenger, God willing.'

The sultan turned again to Bin Rahhal and asked him to look after his guest.

The messenger left the hall, saying loud prayers for the sultan.

The sultan paused, preoccupied by his thoughts. He then resumed the conversation with Bin Rahhal that had been interrupted by the messenger's arrival. ‘Send a message to my uncle Zamel in Salwa. Ask him to prepare as many ships and men as he can, and do the same with the emir of Julfar. Let us see how well prepared we are for something like this.'

The sultan noticed the ring that was still in Bin Rahhal's hand. He gave him the chest containing the dagger and said, ‘Pay the Banyan for the ring. It is magnificent. Put it with the dagger in the chest and keep them somewhere safe. We shall send them to the caliph in Cairo, after we have completed our mission. Now, you must start preparing yourself for the campaign that you shall lead to Hormuz.'



The Arabian Gulf

The ship carrying Covilhã sailed from Aden to Muscat, a city overlooking a clear blue sea, which he had heard much about. A flotilla of anchored ships floated flamboyantly opposite the coast, and together with the whitish homes along the shore, they gave the place a unique sense of beauty. The homes were in fact reminiscent of the Moorish buildings in the mountain villages of Portugal. A large mosque in the centre was set like a gemstone in the middle of the necklace formed by the rocky black mountains surrounding the city. Muscat's skyline was dominated by its palm trees, which intermingled with wind-catchers and mosque minarets, creating a colourful assortment that contrasted with the dark complexion of the mountains. The city looked not unlike a Persian carpet rolled out over a rocky ground.

Covilhã contemplated the scene in front of him for a few minutes. It was his first visit to Muscat, which, like the other ports along the coast, paid taxes to the king of Hormuz; Muscat's ruler was the brother-in-law of the deceased king. Covilhã decided he should visit Hormuz; he was carrying a message to its vizier from the rabbi in Alexandria, which he thought should make his mission there easier.

The Alexandrian rabbi had not met the Hormuzi vizier before, but the rabbi did business with the Karimi merchants who had strong and intricate relations in most
of the region's ports; it was the Karimis who recommended
Attar to the rabbi. Politicians and clerics seemed to have a knack for trade, and though they disagreed on most matters, Covilhã thought smilingly, money won their unanimous approval.

The distance between Muscat and Hormuz was not great. Ships traversed the sea between the two cities very frequently, which explained the large number of ships sailing in both directions; it was a maritime thoroughfare that was active throughout the year.

When Covilhã reached Hormuz, his ship dropped anchor to the west of the island. Hormuz's topography resembled a water drop tapering at the top. To the east of the island lay the large port that received ships from India and China. In the west, there was a smaller port for ships travelling from other ports in the Gulf. The city stretched from port to port, while the south of the island was covered by palm groves, water reservoirs and some rocky, barren hills.

In the port, he saw many oared military vessels, the smallest of which had eight oars and the largest of which had twenty. From that port, ships sailed to the rest of the ports on the west coast of the Gulf, or monitored the movement of ships entering and leaving, especially those trying to avoid paying their duties.

Covilhã immediately noticed how clean and well organised the city was. Its alleys were covered by large tarps hanging between opposing balconies to protect pedestrians from the sun. The merchants, residents and shops of Hormuz looked affluent. They obviously liked to show off their luxurious possessions, whether at the entrances of their businesses and homes, or on their balconies. As he
walked around, he felt he was in an oriental bazaar, and could not conceal how impressed he was with what he saw.

In some wealthy districts of the city, Covilhã saw that locals had laid large carpets outside their homes for people to walk on, in a gesture meant to highlight their own affluence. Servants carrying refreshments stood on street corners serving people date juice or soaked aromatic herbs.

The city had special inns paid for by merchants to feed and shelter poor people and travellers. Covilhã noticed that most of the food sold in the markets had been imported from Persia, India or Oman. The island, as he was told, had little water, which actually had to be brought in from the nearby island of Qeshm. Hormuz's land was not suitable for cultivation either, save for some palm trees, sidra trees and tamarisks in the south. Water was a very precious commodity and people were skilled at conserving it, storing it and even flavouring it with rose water.

The city was divided into neighbourhoods straddled by broad streets, which all merged into one main street overlooking the sea and linking the two ports. This was where all celebrations, festivals and royal occasions took place, as the king's palace overlooked the street directly.

Hormuz's streets were beautifully paved and tidy. There were special areas for street vendors selling barbecued meats and fish, and foods of all kinds and flavours. The delicious smell of their spices filled the streets. As he explored the city further, Covilhã did not spot any beggars or destitute poor people. When they left their shops, the merchants took no other measures than covering their merchandise
with sheets, unconcerned about securing them; there was hardly any theft on the island.

Attar's palace stood not far from the inn where Covilhã was staying. If Covilhã had looked out his window, he would have seen Attar sitting on the veranda of his seaside estate, enjoying the spring-like weather while the curtains, which barely blocked sunlight, danced with the northerly breeze. The balcony was Attar's favourite spot in the house. He liked to sit there facing the sea, contemplating its deep blue infinity. He also liked to sit alone, and his daughter, Halima, knew not to disturb him in his solitude.

Today, however, she decided to do just that. She took her shoes off quietly near the door, and tiptoed her way to where he was sitting. She kissed his hand and sat on the floor near his feet.

Attar gave her a look of paternal affection. She was his only daughter. Halima had grown and, at seventeen, she was already a young woman of exceptional beauty. Tall and svelte, she had a light brown complexion and charming, lustrous eyes that almost sparkled. She had long black hair, which was plaited so well that it pulled her scalp back a few inches. This made her eyes look wider and slightly elongated, adding an exotic tinge to her beauty. She liked to push her long black plait in front of her right shoulder and twiddle it with her fingers.

Attar looked straight into his daughter's eyes when he spoke to her. Her eyes reminded him of his wife, who had passed away several years ago; Halima was now everything to him, the centre of his world and his happiness. He placed his hand on her head unconsciously, praying to God
to bless her and protect her, before he returned his gaze to the sea.

Halima's eyes followed her father's. ‘What's on your mind, Father?'

Attar did not take his eyes off the horizon. After a while, he looked at her and said, ‘I don't want to upset you, my love. But you know things in our kingdom are not well.'

Her expression changed. ‘Yes, I know. You have been like this since Vays dethroned Salghur. I know how fond of Salghur you are because you raised him, but he is no longer king; Vays is. So let's accept that because there's nothing else we can do.'

Attar stood up and walked to the edge of the balcony. He leaned over with half of his body sticking out, his posture suggesting he felt deeply troubled by the
fait accompli
his daughter just described. He remained motionless for a few minutes. Halima came and stood by his side, leaning over in the same manner. He felt he had to share his thoughts with his daughter.

‘I have sent a messenger to the Jabrid sultan in Al-Ahsa, to ask him to intervene with his army on Salghur's side. I'm expecting the messenger to return any time now.'

BOOK: The Holy Sail
9.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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