- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Yerushalayim
Show me your Aramaic, a good tongue for this part of your journey. Tell all. Omit nothing.
We rode an ox cart to the docks. We took ship with the Queen of Waves. And I pouted the whole time. Until we were on the deck of our sea-going vessel and shortly thereafter underway.
My escort, Aunt Mariamne, told me only that our first port of call should be Eskanderejai. I barely heard. I retched dry for long, after having swallowed a full draft of the wave-sickness preventative, laced with syrup of poppies, before we left the palace. The poppies kept me dream-numbed. The wave-sickness prophylactic seemed notional at best.
My dreams were haunted by angry waves. Foam-born sprites rode them in menacing dark-crested fury to my certain destruction. The wind in my visions moaned. I moaned in my dreams. I tossed and retched and slipped along the permeable border between sleeping and wishing for sleep, or death.
On the second day aboard, I opened my eyes on a hempen canvas roof. Surrounding my makeshift lean-to, the sun blazed on the open sea in every direction. I felt the presence of the Mother, Mar Yam-haMariahne, the Great Beginning and Proliferator.
I fell into troubled dreams and painful, drowsy tossing. Always one elbow, ankle, knee or shoulder made bruising contact with the wood framed cot. Or my neck or side or flank spasmed. Inactivity and ennervation were the cause. Over and over, I sank into wakefulness. The aches of my muscles and the digestive misery combined to overwhelm me into fitful unconsciousness again and again.
Day three of our voyage, I woke near dawn, calm and empty, like the unbounded sea around us. Mar Yam-haMariahne, carried me like a dove chick in an apron. I was safe, and I felt I was done retching.
The autumn winds had risen while the Cranes tended Bahar. The Queen of Waves had made all speed on those prevailing winds blowing east and south. On the evening of our third day under sail, we sighted the lighthouse at Pharos. Sea lanes became crowded near the many ports of Eskanderejai. Our captain ordered the crew to strike the sails. She reckoned it wouldn’t be worth the stress to her liver to try guiding us in through the darkness of night.
At first light, we pulled up our anchor and sailed until we were forced to set our sailors to oar. Mariamne and I also took a bench and joined in rowing in through the fraught sea lanes of the Eunostos Port. Though greater by far than the Sidonian Port at Tzor, this was the old port of Eskanderejai on the south side of the Heptastadion, another causeway like the mole connecting Tzor to Ushu, but not as wide and much farther away from Mar Yam-haMariahne. Our Captain guided us to the Kibotos Arsenal, built into the Heptastadion itself.
The arsenal served as a weapons crafting, repairing and storage facility. It also served as a customs port for missions not concerned with official business to, from, and with Roma Imperia. At the arsenal, Mariamne and the Captain went through the manifest with painstaking thoroughness, and the full attention of the harbor master’s representative. They insisted on verifying the stamps of passage on all declared cargo, and quietly argued the final assessment before grudgingly passing their coinage across the tripod-mounted portable scales of the duty collector.
By then the Lady in Her Cart of Glory had ridden halfway to her midday station. The ship’s biscuit and a hot flowery tea were little enough even in my delicate stomach, and hours behind us. I waited with growing impatience and began twirling one of my practice batons.
“Hsst. Stop that at once Hanna. We have yet to leave the arsenal, we don’t need to draw attention to ourselves while we are here,” my aunt counselled in an irritated undertone.
I remembered I had meant to continue sulking, and gathered up my pack and a longer bundle I strapped to its side. Mariamne interrupted me as I started to shrug into the straps.
“Wear these, they will assist our anonymity. None of the personages serving Roma Imperia needs to know our business here, and I have a distinctive enough face, well known in certain circles. Better we should pass with no notice on this visit.”
She handed me a shroud-like drapery of dusty grey with a crocheted panel for my eyes. I floundered into the chadour, remembering the few I had seen on select hospice guests at Tzor. In Misr, I would walk the streets like one of the Amazigh or Bedu women, guarded from every eye.
“What do we take besides our packs?” I asked, not knowing if we had more to carry or not.
“I have one bale to go to a factor’s workshop in Nome Yudaica. After we make that delivery, we have an errand requiring only ourselves and whatever good fortune we may carry with us,” she informed me elliptically.
“Do we walk there?”
“Oh heavens child, this isn’t Phaistos or Tzor. This is the city of the Conqueror, and it is stadia upon stadia from the Arsenal to our first stop today. We shall hire a wagon in which to ride, or a share of one, once we reach the Canopic Way, we will have a choice of charabancs. Come now, the day isn’t growing longer.”
With a wave farewell to the captain and crew of the Queen of Waves, Aunt Mariamne and I left the majestically walled Arsenal on foot. We shared the weight of the single bale between us. We used the cords with which it had been secured to make handholds.
By the time we had reached the Canopic Way, I felt only relief that my aunt had decided on our riding to the Nome to run our errands. We had walked far enough that the bale had begun to seem like the magical Old Man who got heavier with every step he was carried. My fingers were pinched white where my palm was flushed red from the bale ropes On the Canopic Way, we crossed the broad street to stand at a pole with different symbols painted on wooden boards and mounted all near the top, well over the heads of the crowd around it.
“We want the eye-on-the-mountain,” Mariamne advised me pointing up the pole. I looked up to see a triangle with a simple eye painted over it on one of the boards.
“It runs the full distance to the Canopic Gate from the Moon Gate behind us. The eye-on-the-mountain is how they symbolize the god who has no face, for the Nome Yudaica. That is where both of our tasks are located. Don’t worry, we’re headed not too far from the Street of the Mouseion, so you won’t have to disembark at the Canopic Gate I promise.” She smiled like our plan of travel couldn’t be bettered from my perspective as a new visitor.
We both knew that every moment of our time in the city of the Conqueror had already been measured for its usefulness by herself. I would see what I saw, and count myself lucky for the views and famous sites I found along the way. My guide couldn’t be bettered.
Mariamne bat Cleopas had been born and raised in the teeming city. Yeshua had lived more of his childhood here than even she. But my aunt continued to carry herself like a native of Eskanderejai. I knew her travels brought her through the city at different times from the stories she had told us at Migdala. And through the talk at our table when Bet Maryam gathered once a turn of all four of the Lady’s Wheels.
Before the dust of the great surrounding desert which lived perpetually in the air of Eskanderejai became a burden to breathe, a dray pulled up. The one of the pair of donkeys harnessed to it I could see wore a leather square fixed to its backstraps. On the square was painted an eye in yellow ochre, balanced on the point of an ochre outline of a triangle.
“Come along, they won’t wait for us if they don’t think we’re embarking,” my aunt instructed as she used a repeated swing, with me working the other side, to lift the bale onto the back of the long wooden bed on wheels. We climbed up after our parcel, and situated ourselves with our backs against the framing for the driver’s seat. We were early enough in the route of the eye-on-the-mountain that we had our choice of positions. After not many stadia of travel, I reflected on what good fortune had given us our early seats.
There were children down to babies, livestock up to a veal calf, and all manner of persons with or without attendant bundles, on their way from the edge of the Nome Rhakotis where most of the residents were natives of Misr and likely inhabitants of the lower orders of the great city. Truly, eye-on-the-mountain ran from one city gate to the other, up and down the Canopic Way. The Way itself was half a stadia in width, having room for date palms and citrus trees to grow in lines down the middle, dividing the traffic headed in one direction from the traffic headed in another. I had never seen traffic organized like that before. Not even out on the Mole into Tzor. All the roads on Kriti, whether they went to the palace or not, were just the size for one ox cart to trundle along. Most of the ways at Migdala were footpaths or narrow herding lanes. There were roads made for the Roma Imperia at the south end of the Yam-haKinneret, but truly this immense expanse in the middle of the city took my breath away. If I never saw more of Eskanderejai than the Canopic Way, I would have seen enough. And it ran on and on.
“Look, that’s the Tomb. Eskandar may once have been buried there. He is said to have been moved. But no women are allowed to attend his crystal coffin, so I couldn’t say from my own experience or that of any of our sisters. And there, that’s the Gymnasion. Isn’t it grand? I adore all those lovely statues of gods in their kilts and muscles. Any one of them must surely be the champion and triumph in any game at which they might take part. The marble for this, the south facade, comes from north of Roma Urbs. The laborers and craftspeople came up from the second cataract of the an-Nil.
“Look to the right, that’s the Street of the Mouseion. The great Theatre is down near the Royal Port if you care to go only twelve more stadia along past the Mouseion, and behind it the Biblioteca. Ah the Biblioteca! Pure Misr on the outside, and all Ionic orders and chiselled Ba within. But the collection is beyond parallel, and the staff are trained ten years before they are let to fetch so much as one scroll with the most recent tax levy updates on it.” She smiled in reverie.
No doubt some adventure in research she had once undertaken. She had studied at the open-air colleges conducted in more than half a dozen scholarly languages. ‘Elines was most frequent, and lately Roma had been popular. In addition, there were wise scribes from Ur-Sum-Er, magi of Medes and Bahar’s home temple at Hagmatana, ancient Phoenoians from Gades and Qart Hadast, smatterings of shamen and prophets from Arabia Felix, Ta-Seti and Gallia, even re-transplanted Ysraelites returned from the shores of far shining Taprobane to argue the midrashim of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai. And at all of their feet she might have sat, taken notes, argued premises, or plumbed the divine. She had seen much and by now certainly knew more.
Eskanderejai was a city of wise secrets and hidden accesses. I felt this in my aunt’s presence as we rolled with plodding majesty down the greatest road of my time through a haze of dust, learning and unspeakably old practices now almost buried beneath a patina of ‘Elines philosophy and the administrative protocols of Roma Imperia.
Yet Misr continued beyond the reach of her invaders. They might name her streets, they might turn the minds of a city to modern godlessness and grammars, but ancient Misr lived. Only sail south of the delta of an-Nil, and there look for vast cool temples carved from living rock, river islands paved with crocodiles, and megalithic doors to altars worn smooth with time and practice.
This seaside city had been built by a foreign conqueror to serve a foreign will and need. Misr looked in on herself and had no need for a great port city. Eskandar had changed much in his brief time. He built an entire city to go with the lighthouse on Pharos for one thing.
“Hey, sleepy, wake up. We’re here. The next stop is ours. Be ready to hop off, and keep hold of the bale as you do. We don’t want to lose it now, not after all the trouble we’ve already had with it.” Aunt Mariamne sounded fresh and ready for our foray into the Nome running along the northside of the Canopic Way.
I brushed dust from the screen on my chadour. Then I scooted to the edge of the dray bed. When the driver called our stop, we hopped down, each with a hand on the bale again between us, packs well shouldered.
We crossed the vast boulevard, taking a breather beneath an orange tree while we watched the flow of traffic, looking for a means of threading our way to the other side. Once we had taken the first side road after crossing, I asked my aunt how she knew where to go in the quarter.
“This was all rebuilt after the first Caesar took it completely apart. Every building on a corner has a picture of the road name on it, at the top of the ground floor, so that it can be seen from a distance. Look, we’re on the Road of the Camel, and we will be crossing Bee Lane. Do you see?” My urbane aunt was pointing out the standardized tiles with their distinctive color and clear outline of the object representing the street’s name. I felt like everyone for two streets around could see that we were visitors amazed by the modern conveniences of a city built by Roma Imperia on the bones of Eskandar’s dream. I cringed and blushed beneath my chadour, glad no one could see my face painted in embarrassment.
“Didn’t Yeshua used to live on the Road of the Camel?” I asked as that idle flotsam floated to the tip of my tongue.
“No, no. It was the Place of the Camel, further down. We’re turning when we see the Hare’s Way. Oh, there it is. Right where it should be.” She almost seemed to be babbling.
We walked a while longer, with the Nome Brucheum, where the grand buildings and palaces were clustered, falling farther and farther behind us. With another turn and a short distance down a yet smaller lane, we found a dark wooden door set into a white stucco wall, gilded with the city’s universal layer of dust. Aunt Mariamne knocked the heavy bronze knob hanging there against the door five times.
We waited, and we waited. She didn’t knock again. And she didn’t seem to expect anyone to be at the door any sooner. So I tried to wait patiently, but I stood there hot, dusty, and hungry after four days of eating nothing and holding less than nothing down.
Then the door swung inwards. A person waited in the dark within. They said nothing.
“We come with goods from Hagmatana. I am expected. Is your mistress at home?” My aunt spoke with assurance from beneath her chadour.
“She is here. Wait while I tell her the goods have arrived.” With that, the woman answering the door shut it and left us standing in a darkish room, with only the one small window allowing meager light through an oiled-skin.
We waited less long than before. But I still felt dirty and hungry, though much less hot in the deep-walled room shielding us from the day’s strong sun. My aunt hummed a little to herself. I couldn’t catch the tune.
“Well, is it here at last? I have the equipment. We were at pains to have it all ready. Though I practically had to hold the blow pipe myself to get them to do as you had instructed. Are you sure this will work?” Rolling in on a wave of queries, our hostess stood taller than either of us by nearly a full hand. Her hair was bundled under a linen cap, and a long matching apron, well stained everywhere, draped the front of her from neck to ankle.
“We have it right here. This is a full bale of fresh rose petals from the fields at Hagmatana. They were wrapped in waxed linen to keep the air from drying them. You may lose a little from the outer layers, but the rest of it should be fully usable,” Mariamne informed her interlocutor. “Have you got anything to eat I might give the child? She had wave-sickness from Matala to almost within sight of the Lighthouse.”
I blushed to hear myself so described. I was one of the Cranes. I was a cliff-diver at Tzor. To be helplessly sick when all around me were hale suited me not at all. To have this weakness known pleased me less.
“Of course, and maybe some sherbet for you as well, to rinse the dust of the city from your tongue. Follow me, it’s no trouble at all. Eubos, get that bale to the workshop, would you?” This last she tossed over her shoulder as she led us into another room, one with a table and benches. I could sit down to wait this time.
Again the wait seemed less than the one before. Our statuesque hostess reappeared with a pitcher and cups tucked under one arm, and a cheese with something folded under the other. Something folded quickly revealed itself to be a sheet of barley-emer flat bread. It was fresh, rich and had a distinctive toasty flavor. With the cheese and the melon sherbet, and then little candied melon seeds to follow, I felt like a person again. Or would have with the addition of a bath to our list of errands.
“Thank you Sekmer, your hospitality never comes amiss. I will come through tomorrow or the next day to ask after your progress. I will be leaving immediately thereafter. I must deliver this one to Beit haMiqdas, before Yom Teruah.
“While we have the wind, which is all to the good, we will land at Ashdod. From there it is a day, a day and a half, until we reach the city proper if we move at speed. And we won’t present ourselves until first light, of course. The sacrifice doesn’t do any good if it isn’t processed at the correct time in the correct manner,” Aunt Mariamne finished wryly.
“Well, a mitzvah on your journey. And you will thank the Goddess in her Cart that you don’t have to be taking this one to the Temple at the start of Pesach. That would be a horror to the senses,” Sekmer added generously.
“Thank you. We must go. Alphaeus is expecting me any one of these days now. I can hardly wait to take him into my arms again. Send a message, you know the place, if you run into any difficulties. I will find a way to be where I am needed if you ask,” my aunt concluded. We resumed our chadours before leaving Sekmer’s.
Walking took less effort without the bale bumping along between us. I suspected I had a bruise forming on the side of my calf where the edge of the bale had caught again and again. We turned briskly and walked up the Hare’s Way for a distance, then we turned and turned again at the Place of the Tortoise.
Here Mariamne showed no hesitation, only anticipation in the swirling drapery of her chadour and the brisk rhythm of her footsteps along the slab paved walkway. I trotted just behind her. My shorter stride telling at the pace she had set. Soon we reached the doorway she wanted and walked in.
There were two doors on the left. We took a set of stairs, winding up on the right hand side. At the next landing, there were two more doors. Mariamne knocked on the heartside door. Within a moment it had opened.
A man held the door. He was of medium height with merry brown eyes, darker than my aunt’s near-gold. He was bald, and the hair around his ears and neck was black. His nose and mouth were large, as were his hands.
“You came. You’re here. Iakobos, come quickly to see who has knocked on our door. Bring Matheos. He will want to see this as well,” the man called in a voice to carry.
“I said I would come. I said I had to be back in Yerushalayim by Yom Teruah. And I said I would stop here first to spend a jar of time with you and the boys if there were any way the Lady in Her Cart would allow it. Here I am, as I all but promised.” My aunt threw herself into the arms of the man who had answered the door and commenced kissing and hugging him. I stood stupidly, not knowing who he might be or what I ought to do.