“No! Absolutely not! I forbid it!” declared Yusef. He paced the floor of the atrium. “You cannot go!”
“But I must go!” cried Miri, “I am destined to go!”
“Destined? Destined?” demanded Yusef, “And by whose augury are you destined?”
My own!” shouted Miri, “It is right that I should go! There I will learn a trade! There I shall be educated by the greatest minds of the modern world! The college at Philae is renowned even in Rome and Athens as a centre of the Mysteries!”
“Mysteries? Mysteries?” countered Yusef. “I shall tell you there are no mysteries other than God himself, and that is because he can never be known! The only mystery is that seemingly intelligent men- and women- can ever expect to know the Soul of the Almighty!”
“How do you know?” asked Miri, her anger flaring fiercely in her dark eyes, “Are you a Rabbi, Yusef? How can you dare to tell me I am not to find the truth of our existence! How can you judge me so quickly to be a fool? Are you an expert on fools?”
“You will learn nothing there but idolatry and blasphemy! The Egyptians will bow down to a sewer rat and present it with offerings and oblations as though it were God Himself!”
“And how do you know that God would not present himself as the most despised creature on Earth?”
Yusef was at a loss for words and he sighed in exasperation. He stared at Martha and Sister Miriam who clutched each other in concern for Miri. Yusef shook his head.
He turned and faced Miri. “I can see that you will go with or without my blessing, and I could not allow you to leave with bad blood between us. As the family priest, I shall give you my blessing, but you must first sacrifice to God at the temple.”
“Done!” said Miri.
“And-” said Yusef. “And, you must take with you the Sacred Scrolls of Moses. You must swear to read at least a verse each and every evening before you lie down to bed. I shall find you a copy especially. I understand David read it to you often. Also a copy of the Book of Isayah.”
Miri rushed to Yusef and hugged him. “Yusef, I love you! You are the most kind-”
“Enough! Enough already!” protested Yusef, “I am only consenting for you have left me no other option!”
Miri kissed him.
“Thank you! Thank you!” she gushed, “I must tell Mermaat! She will be so happy!” Miri ran from the courtyard and through to the room where Mermaat sat patiently waiting.
Yusef looked at Melcaart. “What?” he asked in expasperation at the ironic face Melcaart presented to him.
“You were masterful!” said Melcaart with a smile, “Never have I seen you present your case from such a strong position and reduce it to a total rout with such alacrity!”
“She has bewitched me!” gasped Yusef running his fingers shakily through his forelocks.
“Don’t listen to him!” said Yohanna to Melcaart as she slipped her arm around Yusef's waist. “You did the right thing, and Miri will not disappoint you!”
In the following few days Miri was a whirlwind spinning through the house, preparing for her journey to Egypt. It was all the family could do to prevent her from leaving immediately, dragging Mermaat away into the desert with her, but together and singly, Yusef, Yohanna, Martha, Sister Miriam as well as Mermaat managed to slow her down from time to time and change her course degree by degree. She went from walking to taking a donkey to travelling with a camel train to booking a passage by sea with a Sidonian sea captain of Yusef’s aquaintance who would return from Cyprios on the next full moon.
So it was within the space of a fortnight, Miri said her goodbyes to her sisters and little Eleazar at Bethany and found herself another two days later, sitting in the early morning on a sea chest on the deck of a Canaanite trading ship, revelling in the pungeant smell of seaweed and pitch. Yusef stood beside her. Mermaat had already entered the cabin to make sleeping arrangements with the captain. The excitement of all on board vibrated in the air. Sailors swarmed around Miri and Yusef, busy with last minute tasks before setting out to sea. The oarsmen were already seated at their places and were laughing and joking as they prepared to set to the oars.
“You have the scrolls?” Yusef asked.
“Yes!” said Miri smiling. “I have the scrolls! I have my purse! I have everything here in this chest!”
“Good! Good! You will dock at Alexandria. Here-” He handed her a small scroll sealed with his own signet ring. “This is a letter of introduction to the Alabarch in Alexandria. He is married to a cousin of mine, You will find his shop on the Street of Canopus in the Jewish Quarter. He is quite well disposed to me, and will show you great hospitality.” Yusef handed her a large piece of broken pottery inscribed in Hebrew. “I have arranged for him to hire you an Egyptian guide for your journey to Philae. This is my note to him to release funds held there on my behalf-”
“Yusef, I-” began Miri.
“Hush! Not a word!” He placed his fingertips to her lips. “I must do this for the honour of my son David, for he long ago swore to look after you, and his oath is mine!”
Miri pushed the ostraca back to Yusef, but he pushed back.
“I insist!” he said firmly, “Take it!”
“All ashore!” called a gruff voice. Yusef turned. A huge man with an incredibly luxuriant black beard stood on the deck beside them.
“You are sure you want to leave such a pretty lass to the likes of me, Yusef of Arimithea?”
“Annobal!” declared Yusef joyfully, and the two men embraced, “By the Lord, it’s good to see you old friend!”
“I wish we could tarry longer, Yusef, but the tide is running and the auspices are all good! I wish there were more time for two old warriors to raise a goblet or two!”
“Perhaps some other time!” answered Yusef.
“Perhaps!” echoed Annobal. “May the gods grant our paths will always cross, Yusef!” He faced the oarsmen. “Oars up!” he bellowed, then to Yusef: “Fare well, Yusef!”
Yusef turned to Miri and she stood up. They hugged, and Yusef patted her back. “May the Lord bless you and keep you from harm, Miri!”
“Steersman, to your post!” thundered Annobal.
“Aye, captain!” came the reply from the burly steersman already standing between the tillers of the huge steering oars.
Mermaat appeared from behind the curtain across the cabana and stood on the poop deck. “All is well!” she said happily. Miri raced up the stairs from the lower main deck and stood beside her.
“Oars up!” commanded Annobal.
A great shout exploded from the oarsmen as they stood and lifted their oars.
Yusef climbed the gangplank to stone steps of the dock. The moment he stepped from the walkway, it was withdrawn into the ship.
“Heave away the bowline!” Annobal roared, “Heave away the stern!” Dockhands loosened the mooring lines from the stone collars in the dock, and deck hands hauled them in and coiled them neatly onto the deck.
Miri’s stomach was tied in knots with excitement, her heart beat like a rabbit’s, and her breath stopped in her mouth. The salt breeze came up and she felt an exhilaration like none other she had experienced.
“Portside oars!” called out Annobal, and the whole crew on the left side of the ship, lowered their oars into their cradles and pushed gently off from the dock. The ship slid away from the dock in a large arc and Yusef, standing amongst a small group of well-wishers and dock workers, waved.
“Starboard oarsmen!” called Annobal and the oarsmen on the right lowered their oars into their places. The oars were attached to wooden lockpins by leather thongs attached to the oar shaft. “Oars ready!” called Annobal. In unison each oarsman leaned forward, adjusting every oar to the same angle. Miri leaned over the rail of the merchant ship. The great oars along the side of the boat were aligned perfectly, pointing forward, their blades not more than a cubit from the surface of the water
“Time keeper!” called Annobal.
The man with a patch over one eye seated before a large copper drum raised his mallets.
The kettle drum boomed with a regular beat. One, two, three..
The oars dipped into the water and with a surge she felt through her toes the great ship slowly began to move forward. The men leaned forward on the beat and lifted their oars on the second, and the vessel gained speed. The water hissed by her sides. The sound of pipes joined the beat of the drum, and the men began to sing a hearty Canaanite sea shanty as the ship moved through the surf and out to sea.
Annobal stood proudly on the poop deck beside them, his eyes gleaming with contentment. He smiled at Miri. She turned to Mermaat.
“Mermaat, this is the happiest day of my life!” she gushed exhuberantly. Mermaat smiled at Miri and hugged her, but a dark cloud passed over her eyes as she looked away. The harbour of Yaffa slipped away from them and soon they were a good distance from the shore. The sailors drew in the oars and released the huge square main sail. Cadmium yellow trimmed with deep Tyrian red, the sail blossomed and grew full with wind. In the centre, in the full belly of the sail, all in blue, was a circle above a triangle separated by a horizontal line. It resembled a child’s drawing of a woman in a robe.
“The goddess Tanit!” cried Annobal, “may she bless us on our voyage, this her ship, and this her crew!”
The appearance of the goddess seemed to lift the ship above the waves and she surged forward on the breath of the goddess. Miri swelled with joy for she felt the presence of a great spiritwithin her heart. Her very soul tingled with the smell of the sea breeze, the very breath of Tanit which tugged at her clothes, the pitching ship as it rode upon the rising and descending breast of the goddess. Miri stood transfixed at the railing watching the shore slip slowly by.
Towards the afternoon, the breeze died and the crew furled the sail and bent their backs to the oars. The rowing was not done to the tune of the Phoenician sea shanties this time, but the groaning of oarsmen as they called “Heave!” to pull the oars and “Ho!” as they pushed forward to pull again. Those who showed signs of weakening were replaced by crewmen who were not at oars. In this way, all were allowed a break at regular intervals without the stopping the rhythm of rowing.
One man, a farmer taken on in Yaffa, not used to the arduous back-breaking monotony of the oars, shook so badly during his second break he dropped the cup of water he was holding. Miri picked it up for him and held it to his parched lips. From that moment, the spirits of the crew lightened, and she became the water bearer.
Annobal watched her from his position on the stern deck. “She has a fine spirit!” he said admiringly.
Mermaat, who was the only person within earshot, smiled.
“Yes! Yes, she does!”
As the sun began to turn colour in the west a slight breeze rose from the shore. It was not enough to fill the sail, and it was raised soon after it was unfurled, and the heaving on the oars continued. Suddenly, as the rays of the setting sun cast on the shore, a city of gold appeared.
“Ashkelon!” called the steersman, “Heave to lads! Heave to! There’s land in sight!”
The bow turned toward Ashkelon, and the oarsmen rowed with renewed vigour. Within two hours, they anchored in the harbour of Ashkelon. A crowd of street peddlars swarmed the boat offering figs, dates and olives, loaves of bread, wine, and prostitutes called to the sailors promising untold earthly delights. The hustle and bustle fascinated Miri. All her life she had lived in the small town of Sychar, and the exotic vitality of the seaport took her breath away.
As if reading her thoughts, Mermaat placed her hand on Miri’s shoulder. “We shall stay on board.” she said firmly.
Many of the crew disembarked and disappeared into the taverns which filled the quayside alleys.
“We shall lose a few here tonight,” commented Annobal. The steersman, who with a few others had remained on board, nodded in agreement. “We’ll stroke double time for the first hour out, just to let them clear their heads,” he said with an evil grin. “Next port they will not be so eager for the taste of wine and a woman’s breast!”
Annobal clapped him on his back.
They sat on the open deck, using a battened hatchway as a table, and feasted on fresh produce purchased on the quay. After the meal, they sat and chatted; one or two men slipped away into the night, and the remainder settled into comfortable positions.
“Yusef told me you were from Sidon,” said Miri to Annobal in the way of making conversation
“He and I met there and I have business interests in that city, but I was born in Leptis Major on the African Coast. My mother was a Nubian princess, my father a merchant whose family fled Carthage during the last Great War with Rome.”
“Carthage?” asked Miri in amazement. “I thought Carthage was utterly destroyed and its people wiped out!”
Annobal laughed. “So, the Romans have filled your pretty little head with their propaganda have they? They do love to posture as the instrument of vengeance! Play Mithras to the world!” His features hardened. “No, some managed to flee the massacre with whatever possessions they could carry. On their way across country, they managed to bribe a few natives for safe passage overland until they were picked up by a trading vessel headed for Leptis Major. The captain and crew were Canaanite, from Tyre, and were sympathetic to the plight of their Carthaginian cousins.
“They sailed out to sea and brought the ship about alee of Leptis Major and entered the harbour from the East. When they docked, the survivors passed themselves off as Tyrian settlers. The Greeks and Roman officials never thought they were anything else, but to anyone speaking Aramaic, their accents were unmistakably Carthiginian.
“Look!” He reached under his tunic and pulled out a ceramic cylinder threaded through with a gold chain. He held it out so she could see it. “You see that? My great great great great great grandfather found it before the downfall of Carthage in a field by the walls of the city when he was a small boy! That is the seal of the Great Elissa, founder of the City of Carthage.”
Miri looked at him quizzically.
“Heavens, you have never heard of Elissa?”
Miri shook her head.
“She was a great woman! A natural born leader! The very incarnation of the Great Mother Tanit! She was born into the grand royal family of Tyre eight hundred years ago. She was the grand niece of Queen Jezebel, daughter of Ethba’al, King of Sidon, who married Ahab, son of Omri, who was slain by Elijah for her dedication to the old Canaanite ways.
In those days the royal blood line passed from mother to daughter, and the husband of the heiress would manage the crown until his death. The king, Elissa’s father, fell ill and was dying, and as his wife had had predeceased him, the throne fell to Elissa, and whoever would marry Elissa would become king in his place. But her brother Pygmalion was several years senior to Elissa, and contended the realm of Tyre should fall to him. Of course, Pygmalion had no hope of ascending the throne of Tyre through sanctified means for Canaanites are denied marriage to their direct siblings by holy law. Yet a faction of monied aristocracy saw an opportunity to place Pygmalion on the throne in exchange for trade concessions and monopolies, and so a cabal of capitalists plotted the overthrow of Elissa.
Elissa heard of the conspiracy against her and was in fear for the lives of her people, for she knew Pygmalion had the making of a despot. She quickly married her uncle Archabus, who was not only the high priest of the temple of Ba’al, but also the richest man in Tyre. The strength of Archabus’ holdings gave her the power she needed to retain her claim to the throne against her brother’s supporters. The marriage also consolidated the position of Archabus, for now he was not only the high priest of the city, but also it’s king by right of sacred marriage. The union of Archalus and Elissa was celebrated by the citizens of Tyre, for both were extremely popular. The cause of Pygmalion seemed lost, but in his desperation, he plotted against the lives of Elissa and Archalus.
His assassins struck and Archalus was murdered, but Elissa managed to escape. Pygmalion seized the palace and a contingent of the Palace Guard swore their allegiance to Pygmalion in exchange for payments in gold coin. In a brief battle, his hold on the Palace precincts was secured, and immediately Pygmalion sought to annex all Archalus’ possessions, but his agents could find no trace of his dealings, for Elissa had taken the business records with her and had secretly buried them.
Soon Elissa’s whereabouts were betrayed, and Pygmalion’s soldiers seizeded her and brought her before Pygmalion, bound in chains. She stood defiantly in the court and stared directly at her brother. But for the shame of what he had done, he could not keep his eyes leveled to hers. He recovered his composure almost as soon as he had looked away, but many had seen him falter.
‘Where are the records of your husband’s business?’ he demanded angrily, ignoring the eyes of the others in the room.
‘By what authority do you ask such things?’ Elissa asked haughtily.
Pygmalion drew his sword and and advanced on her. He shook the blade in her face.
‘By right of this! By right of the strength of my right arm! By right of the elder son!’ He glared at her.
‘What is the swath of your sword to the word of the Gods, Brother? Do you set yourself above the law?’
‘I am king!’ shouted back Pygmalion, “I am the law! Now, answer me! Where are the records?’
‘They are safe,’ Elissa replied calmly.
‘You will turn them over to me!’
Elissa smiled. ‘Archalus’ holdings have been sequestered amongst a large number of citizens, and it will take time to recover all his wealth. Some of it is here,’ She waved her arm to encompass the city about the palace and relished the suspense in which she held her brother, ‘Some of it is not!’
‘You will give me the names of those who hold the property of Archalus.’
‘In return for what?’ asked Elissa.
‘In return for your life!’
‘Hah!’ retorted Elissa, ‘My life! Do you think for a moment I would trust you with my life? You, who have murdered my husband? My life is not for you to give! As long as I live, your claim to the throne upon which you sit will never truly be yours! It is I! I, who hold the sacred right to the throne. I am the high priestess of Astarte! I am the Soul of the City, the authority by which a king may rule the City of Tyre, every citizen knows this as the truth which you seek to seal within your bowels and close your ears to it’s thunder! It is only by the gold of the puppeteers who dangle you like a doll behind the thin line of Palace Guards which puts you on a throne to which you have no true claim! One day, they will desert you like rats swimming from a dying ship! You, Pygmalion, have condemned yourself to a life of fear and suspicion! You have condemned yourself to a premature death at the hands of the same assassins you have used to gain your position! From this moment on, you will no longer be able to eat a single bite without a twinge of fear that it is poisoned, nor can you turn your back on your friends to watch the sun set. Your children will grow in a house of suspicion and you will never bounce them upon your knee without wondering if they might one day slip a sword between your ribs! It is your life which has been forfeit! You have dashed every hope of happiness for yourself and everyone you may hope to love! You shall be cursed in secret by your servants! The fire in your Soul will consume you, Pygmalion! Your fate has been sealed by your own hands!’
Pygmalion struck his sister across her face with the broadside of his sword, and she staggered from the blow. Her face was cut, but she did not lose the defiance in her eyes.
Pygmalion could not bear to look at her again.
‘Take her away!’ he shouted, ‘Take her from my sight!’
As the soldiers led her away, He shouted after her, ‘At dawn, you shall be tortured! I will break you, Elissa, and you will betray your friends to me, one by one! I shall have the wealth of Archabus and you will give it to me!’
Elissa spent a miserable night in a cell, and she called on the Goddess Astarte to save her. And during the long hours of darkness it was not Astarte but her daughter, Tanit who appeared. Tanit was more prone to action than her maother Astarte revealed a plan to Elissa. The next morning, the jailers came for her and chained her to a rack and locked her in the torture chamber. There, they heated hot brands with which to burn her flesh, and ripped away her clothes, and she was naked before them.
“You would mark the flesh of the high priestess of Astarte?” asked Elissa of the torturers.
They laughed. The chief torturer licked his dry cracked lips hungrily. ‘O yes, Mistress! I have hoped all my life to leave my mark on one as pure as you! It will bring me great pleasure to hear you scream! I cannot wait for your cries to fill my ears! I shall mark your perfect breasts! I shall burn your private parts!’ He came so close to her she could smell his foul breath, and she turned her head away from him. ‘You will scream in pain,’ he whispered in her ear, ‘and beg me for mercy! Me! Me who you would ignore passing on the street! Soon I shall be a god to you! Before long you will do or say anything I ask! I cannot wait to see you squirm beneath my touch!’
Fear reached deep into Elissa’s heart and squeezed it so tightly she almost fainted, but she knew she must be brave if Tanit’s revelation was to take effect. I cannot go into the atrocities the torturers inflicted upon her, but she bore the pain for as long as she could. But the torturer was right. She screamed in white hot burning agony. She writhed in unthinking fear, shrinking from the hot pincers and broke down completely. She swore to tell where the records were kept. She began telling names.
But the torturer didn’t stop.
She eventually passed out.
They revived her.
She fainted again and they revived her.
Finally all was blackness and she could no longer be brought back.
But she survived.
She regained her senses eventually, but when she came to, she found herself on a couch in her brother’s quarters. From the first instant, she groaned and the searing pain from every part of her body jabbed into her consciousness. Her face was swollen and she could see very little through the red mist which swirled before her eyes.
‘Well?’ her brother asked impatiently.
She could barely see him. She sat up groggily. ‘You win!’ she said hoarsely. Her words caught in her throat which was dry and raw. A slave brought her a goblet of water and she drank of it.
She turned her face to her brother.
‘You cannot take the holdings without legal deeds.’ she said, ‘If you seize them, you will make more enemies than you can handle. The town will turn against you to a man! But if you allow me to collect the possessions of Archabus, I shall ready the deeds and sign them over to you. I shall need ships to bring his gold and goods from other cities!’
Pygmalion stared suspiciously at his sister. ‘Do you think I shall just hand you ships? I know you, Elissa. I cannot let you roam the city preparing a fleet. I shall have you placed under guard.’
‘As you wish!’ replied Elissa.
Pygmalion’s eyes narrowed even more.
Elissa remained silent. Pygmalion mulled the idea around in his head. ‘The captains of the guard will accompany you everywhere you go, and at sunset you will return here to the palace, and stay in private quarters incommunicado until morning. One false move, Sister, and I shall have you beheaded!’
‘Very well,’ replied Elissa.
‘How long will you need?’
‘A month, maybe two,’ replied Elissa hesitantly.
‘You have fourteen days!’ said Pygmalion, ‘I need to move quickly to pay the army. Any less, and I will have you beheaded, flayed and your body dragged out to the rubbish tip!’
So Pygmalion’s agents under Elissa’s direction readied the fleet of Tyre to sail for other ports to recover the far flung wealth of Archabus. The captains grumbled against the tasks set them by Pygmalion, but every captain must pledge his ship in service for one of every seven voyages to the monarch. Elissa suggested to her brother that to assuage a chance of mutiny, he load the ships for the outward journey with trade goods that the captains could profit by, and thus the pressed service would pay for itself, and so the service would be performed more willingly.
Pygmalion was delighted at the suggestion for he was aware his hold over the city was still tenuous. Slyly, he let it be known that Elissa was working on his behalf and he put her in charge of lading the boats. Because she was accompanied in her travels by the captains of the palace guard, to the general population it appeared that Pygmalion and Elissa were reconciled, and he ruled by consent of the true heiress to the throne.
The grumblings stopped, and soon, the city was abuzz with excitement. The fleet of merchant ships was as busy as Rome readying for war. Everyone was involved in providing goods and provisions for the fleet, and talk of profit filled the air. Even Pygmalion’s bankers, anxious to cash in on the massive sailing, joined in the effort, secretly providing Elissa with merchandise to trade in foreign ports. Their only allegiance was to gold, and they saw this expedition as a chance to increase their own wealth.
Although she had the run of the city during the day, at night Pygmalion locked her in a windowless apartment within the palace, and released her each morning so she could prepare the fleet. Every night as soon as the great door to her rooms were barred, Elissa set to digging out the stones in which a grating was set in the floor.
Soon the fleet was ready to sail. Although the marks of torture barred Elissa from performing her duties as high priestess, the captains were so impressed by her efficiency and business sense in selecting the right goods for barter to the various ports they were assigned, they prevailed upon the court of Pygmalion for her to perform the sacrifice before sailing.
Pygmalion agreed reluctantly, for he had planned on killing her that night. He was jealous of his sister’s popularity, and he made up his mind to murder her as soon as the fleet disappeared over the horizon.
All was readied for sailing at dawn. The priests had selected a white bull and a black one, a white ram and a black one, a white cock and a black one. The sacrifice would take place at dawn, and the fleet would sail with the blessing of Astarte.
That night, Elissa lifted the grate which she had been digging free of the flooring, and slipped into the sewers below the palace, and made her escape through the culverts which emptied into the harbour. She made her way to a broker’s mansion nearby and she was let in through the back door, and there she bathed and dressed. Unknown to Pygmalion, she had left written instructions with each captain she knew would be loyal to her as the rightful heiress of Tyre to sail before the dawn when the full moon was at its highest. These captains and their crews had boarded at nightfall and were ready at their posts when she arrived on the docks.
So, in the deepest part of the night Elissa and her followers set sail from Tyre with all their possessions, as well as considerable trade goods provided by the unwitting supporters of her brother. Not until they had slipped their moorings and they were well out to sea did Elissa reveal their destination. Cyprios!
‘But why Cyprios?’ asked the bewildered sailors.
“I have been given a vision by the Goddess. We are founding a new city in the west, and so, we shall call it Carthage. But before we sail to the place the Goddess has shown me, we must sacrifice to Astarte in the proscribed manner. In Cyprus, the High Priest of the Temple of Astarte will perform the rites. He was my lover before I married my uncle!’
So they sailed to Cyprus, and Elissa’s lover not only agreed to perform the sacrifice, he demanded to join the fleet. When they heard of the story of the escape of Elissa, eighty women dedicated to sexual service in the temple petitioned Elissa to travel with her. They saw her arrival as a sign, for her name, Elissa, echoed their title in the temple. They were called the Melissae, which in their tongue meant busy bees, for they were the bees which tended the flower in which their goddess grew. They wished to raise a new temple, they told her, to be dedicated to the Goddess where the New City was to rise.
When the sailors heard that the women of the temple had joined them, they were heartened, for many knew settling in new land without women was a lonely business. Thus fortified, the fleet headed first to the north of Cyprus for they heard Pygmalion had set sail with warships to intercept them at Cyprus. He knew of Elissa’s lover, and had guessed she would search him out for he knew of their great love for each other.
Once the fleet had cleared Cyprus well to the west and out of sight of the island, they heaved into the prevailing southerlies and raced to the coast of Africa. The voyage was long and hard, for they could not land along the coast at night for fear of someone discovering their whereabouts and the news travelling back to Pygmalion. Finally, they closed on the coast of Africa.
Elissa followed the vision of Tanit, and soon found an easily defended promontary in Lybia. They were met by Libyans, and Elissa treated with them to purchase land where she and her followers could settle. The chieftan, who was a proud warlord, was contemptuous of Elissa for he thought it below his dignity to bargain with a woman.
‘For ten chests of gold each year,’ he sneered, ‘you can occupy as much of our land as you can cover with the hide of an ox!’
His warriors laughed and jeered for they were ready to fight the newcomers and take all they could from these strangers.
Elissa stood and smiled. ‘I agree to your terms!’
The warriors cried out in merriment at her answer, and even the chieftan was smiling. He motioned to his advisors and they produced an oxhide and one of them threw it on the ground between them.
“May I have until sunset to select the land I want?” asked Elissa.
The chieftan bowed with mock gallantry, “Take all the time you need!” he said magnaminously, and he and his warriors retired.
Elissa called several women and for the sharpest knives they could find. They set to work on the oxhide with the knives and cut it into a single thin strip. The aggressive mood of the Lybians had relaxed and they watched the proceedings in amusement, anxious to see why this mad woman had agreed to such a treaty.
Finally, Elissa stood up, and holding the flimsy leather thong they had created in her arms, she walked to the crest of a hill on the promontary. The eighty women followed her, and at the crest of the hill they held hands and formed a circle about the point. To each, Elissa gave a portion of the leather strip from the hide and commanded them to walk back down the hill untill the leather string was tight. They circle they created surrounded the hill completely, and Elissa turned to the Lybian chieftan.
He smiled in defeat, and suffered the jibes of his clansmen with great humour. He bowed in deference to Elissa.
‘I shall take your first payment now,’ he said simply, and Elissa signalled her sailors to bring the chests.
So, they purchased the hill upon which the Tyrians built a great fortress. The hill was named Byrsa for in Greek it means ‘hide’, and in Canaanite it means ‘fortress’.”
Miri clapped her hands in delight. “What a wonderful story! Did she live happily after that?”
“For a time!” replied Annobal, “But her lover died of some strange malady shortly afterwards and she ruled without a husband, though many vied for her hand. For as well as being intelligent, she was a handsome woman! But she would not marry. Eventually, the chieftan with whom she had struck the bargain died in combat, and his son replaced him.
The son was not of the same metal as his father, and as Carthage had prospered, he realized ten chests of gold were only a fraction of what the land was worth. He wanted the city for himself. By that time several families had arranged different deals to farm the neighbouring land and the Carthaginians had spread out far beyond Byrsa itself.
This warlord demanded of the city’s electmen, that he wanted the hand of the beautiful Elissa as a wife in his harem. If they did not agree to his terms, they would suffer raids and harrasment on their borders. This placed the elders in a difficult position. They were sure Elissa would refuse and opt for war, and they were afraid to bring this matter to her attention, but they also knew that they must before the chieftan began to attack the farms around the city. There were not enough men in Carthage to raise a large army to defend themselves and so would be at the mercy of the warriors.
Unable to bring themselves to confront Elissa, one of the elders, Hamilcar, approached the queen and complained that he and his kinsmen had been asked by the war lord to live with members of his tribe in order to teach them the ways of the Carthaginians. If he did not, Hamilcar told her, the war lord had threatened to murder several farmers on the land he held.
Elissa scolded Hamilcar, calling him a coward, and upbraiding him for not showing backbone. ‘If you must preserve the safety of Carthage by risking your own neck then you must do so!’ she said angrily.
‘He also said,’ replied Hamilcar, ‘That he wished to marry you, your highness, and if you did not agree to his demands, he would declare war upon the city of Carthage!’
Elissa was furious for she saw she had been manipulated into her answer by Hamilcar. But she was also a woman of her word.
‘Then, Hamilcar, send word to the prince that I accept his offer of marriage and will wed him in three month’s time!’
The court was shocked. They gasped in horror for the prince was a cruel and vain man, and not the kind of ruler they desired to govern Carthage. Had they not run from Tyre to escape the hands of a despot? It had been a mistake they saw to allow Elissa to reign as queen. However, they were bound by their word for they had elected Elissa to rule for life.
Elissa sent word to the prince she would marry him on the plain beyond the city, and there she would build a great throne for their nuptials. True to her word, she designed and assembled a magnificent temple made entirely of wood, Carvers engraved the pillars and rafters of wood, and all who saw it marvelled for it was a work of art on a grand scale. Several merchants of good standing grumbled because the levy for the construction was great.
Still, within three months, the temple was finished. For an entire week before the wedding, flowers and fresh boughs were fastened to the structure. When it was finished, it was a sight to behold! It not only resembled a temple, but a garden! It was as if Mother Astarte herself had sown magical seeds and commanded the flora to grow into the shape of a place of worship! Its size was immense! Within it’s confines, there was room for seven thousand and more! On either side to the approach to the temple were erected stands for the people of Carthage to watch the spectacle.
Citizens lined up for space the day before the wedding, and by the time the groom and his attending army arrived in the afternoon, the entire city of Carthage sat in the stands. As the sun climbed to its apex, her servants lit the lamps in the temple, and Elissa arrived and mounted the steps to her throne. Beside hers was the empty seat waiting for the prince.
Elissa had stationed her Palace Guards along the perimeter of the temple, one every seven paces. The prince was magnificent, festooned with finery, a crown of ostrich feathers, a leopardskin robe, and his warriors dressed in their finest battle dress.
Elissa herself sat unmoving on a throne in the centre of the temple. She was dressed in Tyrian red silk with a crown of orange blooms. The wedding procession climbed the wooden steps and entered the temple, taking their places amongst the pillars. The prince mounted the dais, and Elissa took his hand. It took a full two hours for the hosts to be seated. Hamilcar entered and took his place with his relatives at Elissa’s right hand. To her left, the merchants who had complained of the burden of taxes in the weeks before, now sat proudly in their seats of honour in the inner sanctum of the temple.
As the prince sat, Elissa nodded to the captain of her guard. He nodded to the trumpeters who sounded a fanfare for the wedding to begin. What happened next took everyone by surprise. It was so shocking that no one moved or cried out for several moments! Those moments were their undoing, for the Palace Gurad to a man grasped a lamp and threw it into the temple!
Flames leapt up and ate quickly of the dried out pine boughs and in a flash the entire temple was in flames. The cries of the people within it rang out, too horrible to describe! A few tried to flee the flames, but they were cut down by the guards. Carthiginians on the stands were spared, but all within the temple itself died.
Elissa had built herself a funeral pyre and taken every one of her enemies with her! Ten thousand died that day!”
The campfire flickered in Annobal’s eyes, and Miri shrank back in horror, but his features softened when he saw her fear.
“Since her death the Carthiginians swore never to elect a monarch for life for as long as their city stood! No general was allowed to command for more than a year at a time! Their affairs were always conducted by elected officials in committee.”
“Then if it is true by what I have been told that the Roman Republic was governed the same way, without a king, why did Rome and Carthage wage war against each other?” asked Miri.
Annobal rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.
“Money!” he said with relish.
“But more than that,” he added with a little thought. “The Roman was once a farmer and so think differently than the Canaanite sailor. You see, a farmer stands on terra firma, a solid unmoving mass, but a sailor is constantly being moved up and down, up and down, by the Mother Ocean. He learns to roll with the sea, constantly adjusting to the currents, the tides and the winds. He learns to think. How to turn what is to his advantage! There is no running against the elements at sea, only with them.
You see, no sailor would ever dream of sailing his ship through the rocks, but he must learn to do so because sooner or later, the sea will push his ship into them. But once in the clashing waters, by every trick he knows, he steers around the jagged rocks. But a farmer- the farmer, however, seeks to change the earth, to lay claim to her, to dig deep into her body, to assert his will, to bend it to his desire. If a farmer ploughing his field encounters a boulder, he unharnesses his oxen from the plough and rips the boulder from the ground and moves it aside. Landlubbers have no need to think of how avoid the rock.
The Romans are farmers. When they saw the wealth of the Canaanites, they sought to take it for themselves. We have never sought conflict, and always tried to avoid war. It is not profitable in the long run. War drains the resources of the combatants for the wealth produced by armories is transient. Efforts are expended to claim by might that which could be bought or sold, and lays to waste the source from which the wealth arose. We Canaanites prefer brain over brawn.
The Romans, who will resolutely overwhelm an adversary with the might of arms, they say Phoenicians are deceitful and sly. They do not appreciate the true art of thinking deeply as we Easterners do. The intricacies of diplomacy, of give and take, of compromise! It is all or nothing for the Romans! Win or lose, the point of a sword is the only law they understand!”
“Has it not always been so?” asked Miri, “The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, did they not all set out to conquer those around them by the point of a sword?”
A sadness passed over Annobal’s eyes.
“Yes,” he said softly, “You are right! I am not looking far enough back. It seems it has always been so. I am getting old. I have no fight left in me! Would we could all be left alone to live our lives without men seeking to be our masters!”
“Amen!” echoed the steersmen and the crew laughed.
“Well, I must turn in!” said Annobal. “Goodnight, Mistress Miri! Mermaat!”
Mermaat nodded to Annobal as he rose and disappeared in to the blackness of the night. Miri and Mermaat retired to the cabana. It was small, but well appointed. They lay down in separate beds, and Mermaat blew out the lamp on the stand. Miri’s body ached from the tense excitement of the day, and she stretched her toes. In the darkness she could feel the strange slow motion rocking motion of the ship as it lay at its anchor. It creaked as it rolled; beams and planks moved with the swell against each other. It seemed the ship was speaking, telling its tale of strange cargoes, of storms and ferocious seas, of laying becalmed with no land in sight, of men lost at sea and fortunes won by those who survived.
She lay awake for quite some time. She could hear men coughing quietly in their sleep, sailors returning on board, challenged by the watchman, then stumbling for their sleeping places, the complaints of others being stepped on in the night. Occasionally a sailor would get up; she could hear his bare feet padding on the open deck, and the sound of splashing water as he peed over the side. Slowly she drifted away, but even in her dreams she was still on board the faithful Phoenician ship.
True to Annobal’s prediction, they had a few less men in the morning than with which they had arrived. Those which remained voted to leave without taking on more men; they opted for a little extra duty for a higher share of the profits. However, an Egyptian was taken on for he was willing to work in exchange for passage to Alexandria. The wind blew strongly from the east, and they made sail, travelling quickly across the sea passing Gaza well out to sea and anchoring that evening off Rhinocolura. There was no shore leave, for even those who had a mind to were feeling quite out of sorts and were grateful for the tranquil peace and quiet of the ship rocking at anchor.
Annobal was standing on aft deck by the shoreside rail, staring in to shore when Miri approached.
“Rhinocolura!” he said, not taking his eyes from the shore. “Miriam, the sister of Moses, is buried out there somewhere. The Israelites had no water until the day she died. As the followers of Moses carved out the rock for her burial chamber, water sprang up from the rock where he was digging!”
As she peered at the land, the ship shuddered.
“The tide is dropping!” said Annobal, “We are grounded for the night. We will sail on the high tide in the morning!” He turned his attention to the ship. “I must see to securing the cargo, and arranging our supper!”
He headed amidships, leaving Miri alone, staring shoreward on the aft deck. Until that moment, she had never realized her own name was connected to Moses. Yet, here, on the deck of the Canaanite trading ship, staring out at the burial place of Miriam, she felt she was not only connected by name, but by purpose.
The evening meal, taken ship board, was gay and ended with songs and music. In the heat of the moment, the passion of the celebration, the Egyptian offered to entertain the crew with a poem. It was, he said before he began, a wisdom poem, parting advice from a father to his son leaving on a long journey. As the crew settled deeper into their places, he spoke, or rather sang, in what Miri knew as Rei-en-Kaam, the native speech of ancient Egypt. The rhythm and timbre in the unknown tongue held the crew spellbound, and inspired, the shipboard musicians accompanied the beautiful poem by a tolling on the time keeper’s kettle drum and the haunting wail of sailors’ flutes.
After the recital, the crew crossed their hearts and held their amulets of Tanit close for they were sure the Egyptian was a magician and had bewitched them. For the rest of the voyage, they spoke to him with overly obsequious deference and avoided if they could, stepping into his shadow. But, despite their fear, at nightfall, the men would crowd close to the Egyptian and beg him for another poem. He always obliged, and always, always, held the men enraptured for as long as he spoke. Miri was as captivated as the crew members. Even Annobal was impressed by the Egyptian.
“I have never seen my men so well behaved!” he commented to Miri as they stood alone on the deck, one evening. “The Egyptian has calmed their souls with his incantations!”
“You think he is a magician?” asked Miri.
“He is a poet,” interrupted Mermaat as she approached from behind.
“Some say a poet and sorcerer are the same but come from different directions.” replied Annobal.
“Some say so,” said Mermaat enigmatically. “Some would never deny the power of carefully placed word. Some say a single word whispered softly into an ear can penetrate the closed mind and move a body to greater heights than a thousand blows to the head. Some say both the poet and the magician must believe the tongue is mightier than the the right hand curled into a fist if we are to survive.”
“It is as true for a sea captain as a poet or priest,” said Annobal, “But that man has a true gift from the gods! I have heard now with my own ears the magic with which Orpheus must have steered Jason and the crew of the Argo! That man is worth a hundred strong backs! But you- you understand the words! How much more wonderful the effect must be if you know the meaning of his speech!”
“Yes,” sighed Mermaat wistfully, “He speaks the ancient tongue as artfully as if he were Ausar himself. But do not feel at a loss, for I know his meaning touches your soul as deeply as mine. The true message is the emotion, the feeling which the poetry produces! Not the words! The words are embroidery, fancy loops and whorls to beguile the mind and distract it while the soul of the poet reaches into yours and you become One with him. There, you have the connection with the All-Living. There, is the meaning of our lives! There, is the Truth! There, is Wisdom! There, stands the White Goddess! There! The part of us responds to the poem as the part of us responds to the Great Mother herself!”
The desert coast gave way to the low palms of the Nile delta, and the sea turned ruddy from the fresh water flow of the great river. They avoided docking through the Nile estuaries, and anchored off shore to avoid port duties. Miri ached to go ashore, but only two crewmen, the time keeper and one other were allowed to leave. They paddled inshore in a coracle of skins which, for the most part, lay upturned on the deck like the hollow carcass of some giant turtle. They returned a few hours later with jars of fresh water. But at most anchorages, vendors came alongside in small river craft peddling their wares, offering fruits and vegetables, wines and water at exhorbitant prices which could only be brought down to reasonable prices by long and vociferous bargaining which involved every ancestor and deity of the participants, as well as their sick mothers, dying fathers and innumerable dowryless sisters and wastrel brothers. On one occasion, a rather handsome young man on spying Miri on board, offered to marry her in exchange for the entire boat load of wine he was selling. Miri blushed for she was rather attracted to the young man in question, but Annobal goodnaturedly rebuffed him.
“She is not the kind of woman you can have for a few jugs of wine!” he shouted, “For such an insult, you should pay us the wine and beg our forgiveness!”
“A thousand pardons, efendi!” called the young man, “Please accept my apologies, but I cannot let the wine go, for it is from the winery of my aged and crippled mother! The woman is a saint! An angel! If not for her, I surely would have become the lowest of the low! Be assured I would offer all my wine and the fruits of my holdings if it would bring but a smile to the lips of such a beautiful young woman as your daughter, but my mother I am sure would forbid it! But she would let you have three amphorae for sixty sesterces!”
“Sixty sesterces!” retorted Annobal, “Do I seem a doddering fool to you, young man, that I could part with that much even if I had it to give? Thirty sesterces and not an iota more!”
“Oh, if my mother were here, surely she would drop and fall into her grave! Ausar himself would give his right arm for such wine! I will give you four jars for seventy sesterces!”
The banter continued interminably, but Miri, attracted by the young man’s tanned brown body, handsome features, deep dark eyes and impish good humour found the transaction great entertainment. She was disappointed when finally Annobal and the wine trader agreed on fifty sesterces for five jars, and the young man turned his craft back to shore.
They passed the great papyrus swamps the next day and rounded the point which marked the edge of the Canopus mouth of the Nile. The wind was against them, but they rowed diagonally across the river current and finally crossed well beyond the headland before Alexandria. As the ship passed the promontory, a bright flash passed over them and all eyes turned southwestward.
The light of the lighthouse of Pharos twinkled in the sun. The flash was from a huge burnished mirror which reflected the light of the sun itself. Although they could not yet see Alexandria, the Pharos beacon told them where the city stood. Miri’s heart leapt for joy and excitement.
The city of Alexandria!
More opulant and brighter than any other city on Earth, outshining even Rome herself, Alexandria was within her reach. She moved along the rail, and leaned over it, searching for her first vision of the city. She felt she would jump out of her skin, and fought hard to contain herself. She wanted to dance in exhaltation, but with a great effort of will maintained her decorum.
Except for the towering lighthouse, Miri could not make out the coastline for some time, for no mountains rose from the low flatland of Egypt. Even as they came closer, the men straining at the oars, she could barely discern the long, low island of Pharos above the breaking surf. Alexandria was still hidden from view by the island which lay directly in front of the city. Two promontories projected laterally from the land at oppposite sides of the island, barely discernable from the mainland. She noted the breakwaters built to extend the reach of the peninsulae and encompass and cradle the harbour like the enfolding arms of a protective Goddess. Standing upon the eastern point of the island the collossal Pharos lighthouse overshadowed the main port of the harbour. A stupendous column of white alabaster, it shone as brilliantly as the hot Egyptian sun.
“It was erected during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus by Sostratus of Cnidus,” said Annobal drawing alongside her, “More than three centuries ago it was built of white marble and stands almost three hundred and fifty cubits!”
“It’s beautiful!” exclaimed Miri.
“Stand fast lads!” Annobal roared as they approached the breaking surf, “This entrance is treacherous!” Annobal leapt from the aft deck, passed quickly amidships, and climbed onto the foredeck, his eyes scanning the breaking waters ahead for the narrow passage into the Royal Harbour.
“Haul to starboard!” he cried out to the helmsman, then, “More! More! Steady!”
The ship steered towards the great lighthouse, around whose base, waves boiled white and broke in showers of foam against treacherous dark rocks. The men heaved on the oars and the ship rolled and heaved through the white breakers. Rocks lined both sides of the narrow channel. The ship seemed tiny and insignificant now, dwarfed by the great tower of the Pharos lighthouse. Even against the Diabathra breakwater to the east, the ship now seemed a primitive raft of sticks. Miri’s gut tightened.
“Starboard!” called Annobal, bringing the ship closer to the rocks on that side, then, “Port!” The ship rolled. “Oars out!” he cried, and the great oars lifted as one from the water, and pointed upwards like wings of a great insect, and for a brief moment it seemed to Miri the ship would leave the water and take to the air. The bow rose steeply then plummeted down, once, twice, rolled, then glided serenely into the quiet waters of the Great Harbour.
The sea was so clear and transparent, Miri could see the shadow of the ship passing over the sand and rocks on the bottom of the basin. On the sea floor, gently swaying seaweed of exotic hues danced in rhythm with brilliantly coloured sea anemones cubits below her feet.
“Haul starboard!” called Annobal and as the oars dipped once again into the clear waters, the ship’s bow arced towards the west. There, a great embankment over two and a half thousand cubits long, the Heptastadium, cut the harbour in two. At either end, guarded by huge towers, two waterways led into the Harbour of Eunostos, known to the inhabitants as the Harbour of Happy Returns.
To her left, Miri stared in awe at massive Roman triremes, great battleships and galleys of a size she could never have imagined, moored alongside the quays of the Lochias Promontory. Broad flights of steps descended directly into the azure water.
“Haul portside!” called Annobal.
The ship slowed its turn and headed toward the Timonium, a large quay to the west of the small harbour locked island of Antirrhodus. As they moved toward the quay, Miri, caught a full view of the Royal Palace on the Lochias Promontory. It gleamed white in the sun. All of Alexandria seemed to shine of its own light.
Mermaat came up behind Miri and wrapped an arm about the young girl’s shoulder. “You see the temple behind the palace?” Her bony finger pointed at a spectacularly columned building which riose behind the palace, “That is the temple of Isis! South of the palace is the breakwater guarding the Royal Harbour. That is where Cleopatra set sail for Actium!”
“Haul together, lads!” called Annobal, the ship moved in half-time oars.
“There,” said Mermaat as the ship rounded the island of Antirrhodus and the mainland behind it came into view, “The temple at the end of the quay was erected by the Greeks in honour of Poseidon. Behind it to the south, the Caesarium, the plaza to the east, the Forum, then those circular stairs, the theatre.”
The ship passed the tower at the end of the Timonium quay.
“Hard aport, helmsman!” called Annobal, “Portside up!” The oars on the portside of the ship came up, and were hauled halfway inboard. “Starboard heave!” The starboard banks of oars dipped hard into the water, and the trading ship swung abrupty to the left and slowly glided to the dock. The port oarsmen stood up, bracing themselves. As the tips of their oars touched the sides of the stone quay, the port oarsmen hauled as one as their oars absorbed the impact of ship against the quay. The starboard oars dipped into the water and were held fast and the great ship slowed and stopped. Front and aft, sailors leapt onto the quay, ropes wrapped about their chests. The oarsmen hauled in the oars as the men on shore deftly looped their lines through circular holes carved into stone sides of the quay and hauled the ship shoreward. Several men on the portside threw bundles of scrub branches tied to the rail over the side where they hung against the side of the ship.
The ship heaved a little, bumped gently against the stone wall, the impact absorbed by the bundles of branches, then settled contentedly into her berth.
“Well, we made it!” declared Annobal proudly.
“And we’re dry for a change!” added the helmsman with a grin.
“One slight accident, and he hounds me for life!” commented Annobal to Miri and Mermaat, “My ladies, welcome to Alexandria!”