The Sin of Truth

Artwork by Duncan Long

Artwork by Duncan Long

The novel is finished, but not yet published. Many thanks to Duncan Long for the cover art.

The story is a historical adventure that crosses two continents and the borders of four empires. The Ottoman Sultan Murad IV is invading the empire of Persian Shah Safi. In Russia, the first Tsar of House Romanov, pressured to accept the throne at a young age, consolidates power in the Baltic states and fights off the Ottomans in the south. In continental Europe, the Holy Roman Empire is being torn apart by the Thirty Years War.

The Renaissance and the Reformation, underway for two hundred years, have changed everything: science, medicine, trade, religion, politics, art, and war. Against this historical backdrop, three unique individuals fight to survive and flourish in a world that is struggling to be born anew.

Mina: A young Hungarian girl, enslaved by the Ottoman Turks in 1630, escapes from Istanbul with an ancient manuscript. She makes her way to the Caspian Sea and joins a German trade mission on its way home up the Volga.

Jens: A Swedish trader, formerly of the Hanseatic League and now the wagonmaster of a German mission trying to open a new Silk Road to Persia.

James: His parents killed by Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, James is raised by his uncle, a Protestant military officer.

Can a slave girl learn to be free? Will an old Hansa trader, grieving the loss of his wife and daughters, learn to accept new ways? Can a Protestant boy raised on war forgive the faith which murdered his parents?

And underneath it all, will an ancient truth finally be revealed, or will it sink back into obscurity?

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Porta de le bonbarde

After finishing the “final edit” of my novel last week, I realized that 1) the ending sucks; and 2) there’s not enough pent-up tension throughout to sustain the reader through 33 chapters and 126,000 words.

So I’m going through it again one last time – because novelists shouldn’t let their novels suck.

At the end of Chapter 7, our heroine leaves Istanbul from the southeastern end of the district of Galata. Old maps of Istanbul call this gate the “Porta de le bonbarde” – the Cannon Foundry Gate – seen below at the top right of the image.

Galata_CannonFoundryGate

Passing the serpent’s jaws into Valhalla

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

On a ship out of Lubeck, headed downriver to the Baltic and bound for Castle Gottorp, two of the hands find time to play an ancient board game.

Valhalla is a game of both chance and strategy, in which the players overcome physical obstacles, attacks by their opponents and the whims of the Gods in order to reach a joyous afterlife in Odin’s hall – Valhalla. The game is loosely based on Senet, which originated in ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, until it may have made its way north into medieval Scandinavia.

I found the game online a couple of years ago and downloaded the instructions (which are apparently no longer available).

The game board is in the pattern of a serpent, representing the Midgard Serpent which dwelt in the deep ocean and encircled the world. Along the serpent’s back are three rows of 12 spaces each, some of which are marked with runes representing various special conditions. The first row is the home harbour, where each players pieces begin the game. The second row is the open ocean, where each side battles for position. In the middle is an island with a ship yard where players must go for repairs if their ships are damaged. The third row represents the final leg of the journey, where players may form blockades, take shelter in a safe harbour, or be washed up on the rocky shoals, sending them back to the repair yards. Once past the serpents jaws, your ships pass into Valhalla, at which point they leave the board. The first player to remove all their ships is the winner.

In my novel, Ulf is the educated son of a Swedish nobleman who has abdicated his birthright to become an apprentice trader. Thadeus, a giant of a man whose birthright and interests are inferior to those of his opponent, collects various games and asks Ulf to play his latest acquisition.

Ulf sat down with his back against the bulkhead, sheltered from the southwest wind that drove the fluyt forward from the rear quarter. The surface of the river rippled and the small bow wave gurgled against the hull. The canvas, not yet filled with wind, luffed and flapped, reminding him of servants at home drying the household bedsheets. Ahead, the river began a wide turn to the east, past the old island fortress of the first Lubeck settlement. Cows meandered among a few black stones, but nothing remained of the citadel that Ulf had read about in his father’s library. On both sides of the river, workers were already in the fields. On the western shore a small caravan of wagons, loaded with grain, eased their way toward a local jetty where an old bark and her crew waited.

He was tired from the early morning work of outfitting the ship for sea, but cool air and the sun in his eyes conspired to keep Ulf awake. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened, hoping no one would bother him, and pulled the collar of his fine leather coat tighter against his throat to keep out a sudden gust of wind. He pulled his cap down tight and settled himself more snugly against the bulkhead, feeling the alternating mixture of warmth and wind.

He heard heavy footsteps on the wooden deck, and opened his eyes as a pair of legs lowered themselves down next to him.

“Aaah, so there you are!”

Recognizing the voice of crewman Thadeus Schynnagel, Ulf groaned in disappointment. The man was constantly enticing him to play one game of chance or another. He had given in a few times on the condition that no money would exchange hands.

Thadeus lowered his considerable weight onto the deck and tossed a red velvet bag into Ulf’s lap. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen this game before. Want to play? Just for fun, of course.”

“I was resting before we reach the open sea and I have to stand watch. Can we play later?”

“We need a stable surface and the river is calm today.” Thad retrieved the bag and dumped its contents onto the deck. “I found this in Lubeck. It cost me all the money I had. Very nice quality, don’t you think?”

Ulf took the rectangular board in his hands and turned it over. Carved into the soft spruce, the body of a serpent formed a playing area of three rows, tail to snout, across its surface. Evenly spaced holes pierced the snake’s body, apparently for inserting the oval tokens that Thad now held.

“Do you want dark or light?”

Do I have to choose?”

“No, but that way is more complicated.”

Ulf watched the man’s thick fingers place the twelve pieces onto the board, surprised again at how deft such a big man could be.

“Throw the four rune sticks.”

Ulf picked them up, cupped his hands, shook and threw the sticks. Two of them landed face down.

“Two points,” said Thad, pointing at the runic symbols. “The sun and god runes are face up. The gift and fate runes are face down. The most points you can get are five. Now move that ship two spaces, out of the harbor.”

Ulf selected the ship at the head of the line and moved it two spaces. “How do you win the game?”

“By moving all your ships off the board, past the serpent’s maw, here.” Thad pointed to the other end of the writhing snake. “Now it’s my turn. I’ll tell you the rules as we go along.”

The runes clattered. “The serpent is Jörmungand, who dwells in the deep oceans and encircles the earth. You command the white ships, and our two fleets do battle in the open ocean, here.” He pointed to the middle row of peg holes. “I threw a three, so my ship defeats yours in battle and you must make repairs at the island shipyard. So I will move your ship there now.”

“And what happens to that ship?”

“After one turn, you can move it back into the harbor if you roll the right number. For now, throw the runes and move the next ship in line.”

Ulf picked up the runes and dropped them, differently this time, the ends perpendicular to the deck. One of them stood for a moment and then toppled. He read the names out, feeling the familiar sense of pride in his memory.

“Tiewaz and Hagalaz.”

“Zero points. No move.” Thad threw the runes. “Four tails up. Five points.” His first ship, already in the lead, landed in mid-ocean.

Ulf could see how the game would play, and allowed his mind to wander, only uttering sounds if necessary. He already, unfortunately, had Thad’s friendship. He didn’t want to encourage intimacy. He mentally put his opponent onto the ocean-island shipyard and left him there, sailing eastward to Alandia with captain Wisna, a woman he could fall in love with if she didn’t have the soul of a man. The wind whipped the hair about his eyes, obscuring the outline of the City of Sle, where the long cold days aboard ship would fade into warm beds and meade, and the hard weeks of battle would be proudly exaggerated by warriors.

Absently, he threw the runes and moved his ships and wished for a cup of mead in his hand. The desire was almost overwhelming, and Ulf despaired that it would keep him from his rightful place when Jens was gone. More than once since taking the apprenticeship, he had neglected his duties in favor of a strong drink. He also desired the authority that Jens had promised, but not the responsibility, and in this way he was not like his father. Also unlike his father, he was unaware of the truth of his desires, and the character flaw infected even his dreams.

The dreams had been with him since childhood. Always a subordinate, never a leader, he was still clever. While his brothers excelled in war and in the administration of the family estates, Ulf excelled only in learning. He learned to read long before his brothers, spent his days in the family library, and by the time he was thirteen he had finished every book his father owned. His mother regretted allowing him to read so much, and one failed attempt at restricting it had damaged their relationship forever. Ulf was aware of the rift, but wrongly attributed it to his father’s interference.

The dream of Wisna was a constant reminder of Ulf’s second-citizen status. Watching his dream from the outside, one might think that Ulf was a trusted lieutenant or skillful advisor, and sometimes the dream started out that way. But eventually, and always, his status waned and as the day awoke he was pulling at the oars with the others as they entered the harbor. Wisna laughed at him and put a boot into his chest as she strode toward the bow, leapt over the side, and left her crew to beach the ship and unload.

“Fate,” said Thad as the runes toppled to the deck yet again. “Hagalaz, the hailstorm. Looks like you have to go back a space.”

“Stop gloating,” said Ulf. “My luck at games is terrible, but it is offset by the luck of my birth.”

“What luck? You think it lucky to be born a nobleman?” Thad chuckled deeply. “There are some who count as nothing the status given by birth, while others depend on nothing else. You seem to be of the latter sort, and yet your station in life gives you no pleasure. As for myself, I care not for my lineage and I am a happy man.”

“That’s because you have no lineage worth caring about.”

“As if you do? What did you have to do with it? Did you choose your parents? Did your father choose his? No. A true man makes his own way, highborn or not. Any man who says otherwise is a liar or a fool. Or a noble. That’s one which has escaped to Valhalla. Five to go.”

Directly below them, in the head, Ulf heard someone grunting with great effort. It took equal effort for him not to compare the activity to Thad’s ridiculous talk about nobility. He watched the other man’s huge hand move a piece off the board, out of the serpent’s reach, and wished he had the stones to call out the man’s stupidity. He took his turn instead.

Hagalaz was the only rune face up. “Fate,” said Thad.

“That’s it,” said Ulf. “I quit.” He stood up into the wind and stretched.

“You can’t quit now!” Thad said in frustration. “Who quits a game just because they are losing?”

“We’re approaching Travemunde. I’ll be needed on watch.” The Bay of Travemunde was visible and getting larger just off the starboard bow. In the distance, on the port side, the red brick of the lighthouse stood watch over the gateway to the Baltic.

“Not for another hour at least. We still need to drop off our pilot.”

Ulf let his irritation get the best of him. “I don’t care about the stupid game. I didn’t want to play it in the first place.” Before the idea of kicking the game overboard was fully formed, his foot lashed out and the pieces scattered.

Thad bellowed something unintelligible as the board disappeared over the side.

“I’m sorry!” shouted Ulf. “I didn’t mean …” But he didn’t have time to finish the sentence before Thad picked him off his feet and threw him into the river.

Helen’s Page

This entry is a departure from my regular headlong plunges into history. Many thanks to Helen’s Page and Instapundit for a nice bit of promotion, which more than tripled my readership over at WattPad.

The tagline over at Helen’s Page is “For Liberty-Minded People.” Freedom and Liberty are themes that run deep in my story. A couple years ago, I ran across a piece by Shelby Steele, and I’ve been referring to it ever since while finishing up my novel.

Speaking in 2011 at the conference “The Perils of Global Intolerance: The UN and Durban III,” Steele said that freedom is “a dicey thing to experience.”

When you come into freedom, you see yourself more accurately in the world. This is not unique to the Middle East. It was also the black American experience, when the Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964 and we came into much greater freedom. If you were a janitor in 1963 and you are still a janitor in 1965, you have all these freedoms and they are supported by the rule of law, then your actual experience of freedom is one of humiliation and one of shame. You see how far you have to go, how far behind you are, how little social capital you have with which to struggle forward. Even in freedom you see you are likely to be behind for a long time. In light of your inability to compete and your underdevelopment, freedom becomes something that you are very likely going to hate – because it carries this humiliation.

About the peoples of Asia Minor, Aristotle wrote, “They are miserable in freedom and comfortable in slavery.”

The two main characters in my novel, teenagers growing up in a violent world of theocratic empires, slavery, and war, must find their way to the truth: despite suffering real oppression, one can still learn to be free.

Almost four hundred years later, it’s a lesson that many have still not learned today. As Steele said in his speech, it’s a tragedy.

The irony and the tragedy of all this is that it keeps these groups in a bubble where they never encounter or deal with the truth. This becomes a second oppression for all these groups. They have been oppressed once, now they are free and yet they create a poetic truth that then oppresses them all over again.

To Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?

For the Greeks, Hell was a place called Tartarus, and its three most famous inhabitants were Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his rock up the hill, Ixion, strapped to a wheel for eternity, and Tantalus, forever unable to quench his thirst. For ancient Norsemen, the great abyss that formed the boundary of the ocean and the world, Ginnungagap, was derived from Tartarus and Chaos. Europeans whose lands bordered the mighty Ottoman Empire appropriated the word and used it to demonize their enemies, “The Monstrous Tartar.”

From the British Museum: "Part of a broadside ballad on the so-called horse-headed Tartar reputedly captured by Count Zrinyi in Hungary while fighting the Ottoman army; with a woodcut showing a man with a horse neck, mane and ears, holding in his left hand a bow and in his right an arrow; with letterpress title, text in one column and verses in two columns, and with a column of type ornaments. (n.p.: [1664])"

From the British Museum: “Part of a broadside ballad on the so-called horse-headed Tartar reputedly captured by Count Zrinyi in Hungary while fighting the Ottoman army; with a woodcut showing a man with a horse neck, mane and ears, holding in his left hand a bow and in his right an arrow; with letterpress title, text in one column and verses in two columns, and with a column of type ornaments. (n.p.: [1664])”

Aeschylus, Virgil, Aristophanes, and Homer before them, wrote eloquently about hell. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus writes, “Oh if only he had hurled me below the earth, yes beneath Hades, the entertainer of the dead, into impassable Tartarus, and had ruthlessly fastened me in fetters no hand can loose, so that neither god nor any other might have gloated over this agony I feel!”

In Birds, Aristophanes says, “At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence.”

In the Iliad, Homer writes of the saffron-robed dawn, and Zeus threatening to hurl into Tartarus anyone who dares oppose him.

Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over the face of all the earth, and Zeus that hurleth the thunderbolt made a gathering of the gods upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus, and himself addressed their gathering; and all the gods gave ear: “Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, that I may speak what the heart in my breast biddeth me. Let not any goddess nor yet any god essay this thing, to thwart my word, but do ye all alike assent thereto, that with all speed I may bring these deeds to pass. Whomsoever I shall mark minded apart from the gods to go and bear aid either to Trojans or Danaans, smitten in no seemly wise shall he come back to Olympus, or I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods.”

Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of the 13th century, wrote of Tartarus in The Danish History, saying that the vanquished King Harald would “outstrip those who shared his death in their journey to Tartarus.” The king who slew him, Ring, prayed that “Pluto, the lord of Orcus, [would] grant a calm abode there for friend and foe.”

Grammaticus also told of an expedition to a land of the dead by an Icelander named Thorkillus. Somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea, this place was known as Gandvik in the Norse, derived from a word meaning “magic.”

Icelanders used to tell incredible stories of enormous riches piled up there, but the way to this place was full of dangers and almost inaccessible to mortals. According to the experts of this route, one had to cross the Ocean that surrounds the Earth, leaving Sun and stars behind, traveling to the kingdom of chaos and finally moving into places without light, shrouded in perpetual darkness.

The place of the dead described by ancient Icelanders, somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea.

Thorkillus traveled to the place of the dead described by ancient Icelanders, somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea.

For those Europeans who suffered the geographical misfortune of living along the warpath of Ottoman Sultans, nothing but the most extreme depiction of their enemies would do.

The image above, from the British Museum, explains that Tartars were monsters, no doubt from the pit of hell. The word was first used in this sense in the 13th century, referring to the hordes of Ghengis Khan. “… from Medieval Latin Tartarus, from Persian Tatar, first used 13c. in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan (1202-1227), said to be ultimately from Tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. Form in European languages probably influenced by Latin Tartarus ‘hell.'”

The Online Etymology Dictionary also says that a phrase from the 1660s — “to catch a Tartar” — means “get hold of what cannot be controlled.”

My own purposes for the word Tartarus are more mundane. It only appears once, in what is now Chapter 7 of my novel. Mina and her protector Sa’d, are shopping in Galata for a map of Anatolia. Naturally, they visit the map-maker.

It looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Scrolls, paper, books, twine and dust lay everywhere, on tables and shelves in the front of the store, and Mina could only imagine what might be seen behind the heavy curtain at the back.

“What do you need?” Shouted the owner. “I have it!” He scuttled out from behind the curtain, a small man covered with an apron and bearing a most delicate knife.

“A map of the empire from here to the Caspian Sea,” Sa’d replied.

“Should that include the regions toward Egypt, or the other direction toward the Tsar and his beastly hordes?”

“The beastly hordes.” To Mina, he said, grinning, “You knew there would be beastly hordes, right?”

“Yes, I suppose so, although I hadn’t considered it directly. Are they as bad as they sound?”

“Worse!” said the proprietor. “Their knives are a thousand times the size of this.” He raised the sharp little knife and slashed the air dramatically. “But I use mine to greater effect. I can slice the world in half, while they are limited to slaughtering a few hundred men a day. Where are you going? As far as Astrakhan? Up the Volga River? Even to Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?”

“Not as far as that, cartographer.” Sa’d smiled, clearly enjoying the man’s histrionics. “Just the Caspian. A merchant’s route, if you have one.”

I’ve done a fair bit of research on ancient maps, but I don’t know what kind travelers might have actually carried with them. In my mind, Mina acquires something simpler than the map of Natolia produced by Joan Blaeu in 1635, seen below, and Tartarus is (of course) not depicted.

The Atlas Maior or Great Atlas was produced by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) between 1660 and 1663. It was with no doubt one of the most expensive cartographical productions of the 17th century. It contained 600 maps and 3000 pages with text in Latin. Later editions appeared also with French or German text.

“The Atlas Maior or Great Atlas was produced by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) between 1660 and 1663. It was with no doubt one of the most expensive cartographical productions of the 17th century. It contained 600 maps and 3000 pages with text in Latin. Later editions appeared also with French or German text.” From the Facsimile Edition of the Atlas Blaeu.

Finally, a shameless plug. If you’d like to read the first two chapters of my novel, head over to WattPad. Criticism encouraged!

APE, Benny Profane, and Me

APE: How to Publish a Book Following some advice from APE, I’ve posted the first two chapters of my novel on WattPad. The “artisanal publishing” experience gets more interesting all the time.

I picked up the Kindle version of the book a few days ago, and I’m about a third of the way through. Most of the mechanical advice is old hat — in former lives I’ve been a reporter, editor, managing editor, professional desktop publisher, photographer, corporate communicator, webmaster, and IT help-desk geek. But it’s all solid advice, and I’m especially enjoying the sections on social media and e-book publishing.

Despite my past experience, I’ve discovered that approaching these subjects as a novelist is strikingly different from consulting for other authors, or putting a newspaper to bed five nights a week — even though the required technical skills are very similar.

One huge difference is that … well, let me stop and consider.

[Stops and considers.]

When I was in college, one of my favorite books was Thomas Pynchon’s V. It was published in 1961, the year I was born. It begins like this:

Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he’d look in on the Sailor’s Grave, his old tin can’s tavern on East Main Street. … Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn’t work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he’d care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about. East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night’s dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship’s propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP’s caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.

I feel like Benny. I’ve been working the district for years, honing my technical chops, telling others how it’s done. Now I’m out of the business, so to speak, coming back to it from a different direction, and it’s all lit up with strange mercury-vapor lamps.

I’m leery of streets like this.

Which is but one reason that APE is such a good resource. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, you can’t go wrong with it. Just ignore the part about buying a MacBook Air.

Lake Gokcha and the Black Monastery

The Black Monastery sits on a peninsula at the northeast end of Lake Sevan in Armenia. Up and down the lakeshore, remains of ancient towns encrust the landscape. Fifteen miles to the southeast, 900 cross-stones — the largest number of khatchkars in the country — rise out of the harsh soil at the Noratus cemetery.

Brady Kiesling describes the region and the monastery in Rediscovering Armenia: An Archaeological/Touristic Gazetteer and Map Set for the Historical Monuments of Armenia.

The Sevan basin is windswept, treeless and austere, but with stunning skies, an ever-changing lake surface, and a rich history.  All around the lake are the tumbled stone remains of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and towns, and little boulder clumps marking vast fields of prehistoric burials with superb burnished pottery. …

Continuing straight past the Sevan city turn-off, passing various hostels, one crosses the Hrazdan river and, about 2 km later, reaches a wide parking area with the road (right) leading to the Sevan peninsula.  Ignoring the red “no entry” signs and bearing right, one comes to the parking area and restaurants at the foot of the steps to Sevanavank* (once also known as Sevank, “Black Monastery”).  Here on the then island, Princess Mariam Bagratuni sponsored construction of a monastery, first post-Arab example of an important religious/architectural regional school, under the spiritual guidance of the future katholikos Mashtots.  As the 13th c. Bishop/historian Stepanos Orbelian describes it,

“In that time, the venerable Mashtots shone for his amazing virtue on the island of Sevan. … He received the order in a vision to build a church in the name of the twelve apostles and to set up a religious community there.  In his trance, he saw 12 figures walking toward him on the sea, who showed him the place for the church.  After this vision and a warning from on high, the great queen Mariam, wife of Vasak of Syunik, came to St. Mashtots and, having persuaded him, built a richly ornamented church called the Twelve Apostles, next a second called the Mother of God. She furnished them abundantly, and made them the house of God and the refuge of pious men, in the year 323/AD 874.”

The monastery fell on harder times, and there is a terrible tale that, in the mid-18th century, the monks were ashamed lest the visiting katholikos see their collection of ragged and water-damaged manuscripts, and so secretly dumped them in the lake.

In ages past, Sevan was called Lake Gokcha. Ancient routes through the region were known to Arab geographers, but according to The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade, by H.A. Manandian, they sometimes got the distances wrong. “The Arabs, being plain dwellers covered their distances more rapidly than in the more mountainous regions of the Caucuses where the distances could indeed seem much greater than they actually were. The Arabs rarely had recourse to other means of measuring distances.”

The book is available online, along with an excellent selection of other ancient works, at Robert Bedrosian’s History Workshop. Here is the page which contains a map of old roads around Lake Sevan.

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

In my novel, one chapter takes place around Lake Sevan, then named Lake Gokcha. A small group of Armenian traders are leaving Erivan Fortress, having received approval from the conquering Murad IV, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

They stopped briefly at the edge of town while the Turks asked questions. Mina heard raised voices asking about the firearms, Khatcheres responding belligerently about the Sultan’s approval, and finally they were waved on. The road rose slowly northeast all day through farmlands and small towns, and what Khatcheres said about pushing hard proved to be true. They ate as they walked, and the snow-covered peaks that were due east in the morning were almost due south as Gokcha Lake came into view.

The word came back from the front. “We stop for the night in Ordaklu!” Mina was glad to hear it. She knew she’d traveled further this day than on any day with the caravan, and the wound sent a pulsing ache through her whole body.

“What’s in Ordaklu?” she asked Vartan, trying to divert her attention from the pain.

“Not much. I’ve only been there once, when I was small. My father worked for the mint in Erivan, and was sent up here on business. He brought me, and I remember playing in the cemetery and the ruins of the fort.”

“Where is your father now?”

“He was executed by the last Ottoman governor of Erivan, just before the Persians took the fort. They accused him of helping to plan the invasion.”

“You said your sister was murdered by the Persians.”

“Yes. Interesting, isn’t it?”

“Interesting!” Mina felt outrage at Vartan’s callousness. “That’s what you call it?” A thousand other threatening words filled her mind, but the look of sorrow in Vartan’s eyes stopped her from speaking.

“That’s what happened. I’ve tried to avoid following my father’s example.” He whistled and urged his beast forward, leaving Mina to fall back into line.

The contrast of beauty and horrible sorrow struck Mina once again. The blue waters of the lake, the rich red dirt of the road, the verdant green hills, and the capes of snow and frost that flowed down from the high mountains. The road was curving back to the south, and the lake was visible view past a trio of hills that marked the border of a small valley. She knew that their way in the morning would take them forty miles in the opposite direction they’d been traveling all day.

The history around Lake Sevan is also rich, beautiful and horrible. Ethnic cleansing has featured prominently in Armenia’s past. But, as Brady Kiesling writes:

But there is another Armenia, a subtly green, richly textured landscape, every corner of which has been sculpted by millennia of human triumphs and tragedies.  There is a gifted and generous population, now mostly cut off from outside stimuli but still desperately eager to demonstrate to foreign visitors its traditional hospitality and pride at its survival.  There is nature, exotic, sometimes heart-rendingly beautiful, now mostly unvisited but far from inaccessible.  And of course there is the basic human truth, that enjoyment of a place or activity is directly dependent on the investment made.  Armenia is still difficult to explore unaided, but the rewards of doing so are commensurately great.

(Updated Feb. 10, 2013 – AGW)

Siege Mentality

Wallenstein Besieges Stralsund, by CA Dahlstrom

Wallenstein parleys with the defenders of Stralsund. Engraving by CA Dahlstrom.

The year is 1628. The war has been dragging on for ten years and Ferdinand II — Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia, Archduke of Austria — is scheming against Protestant rulers. In less than a year he will force them to restore more than 500 bishoprics, monasteries, abbeys, and other ecclesiastical properties that had been secularized since 1552. And now the Emperor’s undefeated army is at the gates of Stralsund, Germany, a key strategic port city on the Baltic Sea.

The war had officially begun in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague, when a crowd of Protestants threw two members of the Catholic government and their secretary out the castle window. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that rumblings preceded hostilities.

The underlying cause for the outbreak of a war that would last 30 years was thus the pathological fear of a Catholic conspiracy among the Protestants and the equally entrenched suspicion of a Protestant conspiracy among the Catholics. As a Bohemian noblewoman, Polyxena Lobkovic, perceptively observed from the vantage point of Prague: “Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the papists.”

Ferdinand is 50 years old in 1628, older, wiser, emboldened by successful policies in his homeland of Styria and determined to carry them out in Germany. C.V. Wedgwood describes him in her seminal work, The Thirty Years War.

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Ferdinand’s policy combined cunning with boldness; he undermined the Protestants by civil disabilities, seduced the younger generation by education and propaganda, and gradually tightened the screws until the Protestants realized too late that they no longer had the means to resist. …

[He was] a cheerful, friendly, red-faced little man with a reassuring smile for everyone. Frank good nature beamed from his freckled countenance and shortsighted, prominent, light blue eyes. Sandy-haired, stout and bustling, he presented a wholly unimpressive figure …

General and private opinion flattered the archduke’s virtues but not his ability. Kindly contemptuous, the greater number of his contemporaries wrote him off as a good-natured simpleton wholly under the control of his chief minister Ulrich von Eggenberg. Yet Ferdinand’s apparent lack of personal initiative may have been a pose; as a young man he had been taught by the Jesuits to cast the onus of political decisions on to others in order to spare his own conscience. …

Repeatedly in the course of his life he twisted disaster into advantage, wrenched unexpected safety out of overwhelming danger, snatched victory from defeat. His contemporaries, unimpressed, commented on his astonishing luck. If it was luck, it was certainly astonishing.

The Emperor’s general, Albrecht von Wallenstein, says of Stralsund, “The town shall yield,  though it were bound with chains to Heaven.”

It is not to be. A spirited defense is raised by Scots, Danes, Swedes, and native Stralsunders themselves. Wedgwood writes, “The show of violence fluttered the Hanseatic League but still had not the desired effect, for, instead of accepting imperial friendship, the deputies of the Hanse merely offered Wallenstein eight thousand talers to withdraw. He proved incorruptible and on July 6 1628 arrived in person before Stralsund.

An article about the siege by the English Civil War Society of America (which staged a reenactment in 2005) describes the situation.

Imperial General Von Arnim had had provocation enough. He commenced his attack in early May. By day, he subjected the city to artillery bombardment, by night he sent parties to attempt to surprise the garrison. The Stralsunders sent pleas for help to the Northern Kings, and help arrived with surprising speed.

The first help came from the Danes. On the 28th of May (Old Calendar) British troops of MacKay’s regiment under Lt.-Colonel Seaton and Major Robert Monroe made a hazardous sea landing at Stralsund. While approaching the harbor, they came under heavy fire from the culverins (large cannon) in von Arnim’s land batteries. Monroe’s ship had its main mast shot off, and almost grounded in the channel. Despite these dangers the Scots landed safely in Stralsund, accompanied by Hatzfeld’s “Deutch” Regiment . The commander of the relief expedition was Colonel Heinrick Holke, and he became the de facto, if not de jure, Governor of Stralsund.

While Arnim kept up his bombardment and harassing attacks. Wallenstein arrived in mid June, and immediately reconnoitered the city’s defenses. He determined that the defenses before the Frankendore Gate was the best spot for an assault, and prepared several thousand men to attack the outworks.

"Belagerung Stralsunds durch Wallenstein 1628, Kupferstich auf einem zeitgenössischen Flugblatt." - Artist Unknown

“Belagerung Stralsunds durch Wallenstein 1628, Kupferstich auf einem zeitgenössischen Flugblatt.” – Artist Unknown

My own novel is not about the war, but one of the main characters, a boy named James, lives through the siege. He is young, and finds himself on the street with another boy, scrambling to find shelter. St. James Church, near one of the main gates into the city, is close by.

They emerged into a single cavernous room on the third floor, morning light streaming in through twelve very tall, very narrow windows on the eastern wall. The western wall was still standing, but James could not see how. Every window had been shattered completely, and a massive hole in the center of the wall gave an unobstructed view of the besieging army of the Holy Roman Empire.

“Don’t fall through.”

“Yeah,” said James. “What’s your name? I can’t remember.”

“Georg. I’m not surprised. You’re lucky to be alive after that shell hit your house. Anyway, come on! We’re missing the action!”

Georg pulled James to the pile of rubble under the hole in the wall, and they scrambled toward the edge. James pushed a few sharp-edged bricks from under his body and felt a gusty north breeze on his face. He breathed deeply and looked out.

The three western gates were under assault. From behind a shield of thick smoke, moving slowly with the wind across the battlefield, columns of men swarmed across two narrow bridges toward the outer walls. Greater masses of men streamed down the gentle slope and waded across the shallow lagoons. The dead were everywhere, some identifiable only by flashes of color in the churned earth, others in heaps where they had fallen attacking the outer bastions. From the Knipes Gate in the north, to the Tribsee Gate in the south by St. Mary’s, the voices of ten thousand attackers urged one another to victory. Inside the walls, musketeers returned fire, and from every part of town men ran toward the gates.

From the defensive hornworks in the lagoons, musket fire decimated ranks of attacking soldiers. As rows of men fell in the shallow water, those behind stepped on their bodies and continued the charge. The new front row was cut down with the next volley, but it looked to James like an endless supply of men would eventually overwhelm the city walls.

A thousand yards from the city, near the top of the rise, artillery targeted the fortifications between the gates. Some cannonballs bounced off the sloping walls, exploding in the air and raining shrapnel onto defenders and attackers alike. Others detonated inside the walls, throwing dust, bricks and body parts a hundred feet into the air.

Inside the cocoon of his concussion, James was terrified. He wanted to run and hide, but the terror couldn’t find its way outward to his body, and so he lay next to Georg and watched. The other boy had an exultant grin plastered to his face, and every so often James could hear him shout over the terrible sounds of the battle. Time was passing, but he couldn’t tell how long he’d been laying in the rubble. The shadows of the church towers were getting shorter, and the wind had changed direction. The smell of gunpowder dominated the breeze, but underneath it he could taste something dank, moist and almost sweet. From the back of his dazzled mind an image of the local slaughterhouse emerged – he and his friends running, trying in vain to catch the slippery eyeballs of dead cows – and he finally recognized the smell. Fresh blood.

Stralsund in 1652, by Mattheaus Merian

Stralsund in 1652, by Mattheaus Merian

The Crash of the Sun

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa.

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa. Source: Tina Gill.

You won’t find much if you search the Web for “the crash of the sun.”

Some of what you do find is less than palatable, unless you’re into the ambient/electronica/experimental music of the Italian band SBPS2. Down at the tail end of the nine Google results, you’ll find a link to Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore.

Estonia is a curious country. Snuggled up against Russia — if one can place such a cuddly word so near to that totalitarian nightmare —  with a frozen coastline on the Gulf of Finland, the country has been fought over by Poland, Germany, Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden. In the 1400’s it was part of Livonia, and despite the Christianization of the pagans the country still has its own curious identity.

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

In 1639, the characters from my novel travel by ship from Reval (present-day Tallinn) to Riga, and are forced to land on the island of Saaremaa to make repairs.

Ulf looked around at the crew members sleeping on the dry sand around him. Others had been sent for construction materials, food and water. From the west, borne on the soft wind, he could hear the bark of seals and the cries of birds. Master Jens turned the carcass of the dead bird over the open fire and continued the telling — the endless telling — of yet another boring story from the dying past.

“The island settlements to the east are ancient, and the place was known to the vikings as Eysysla. Eirik – a bastard son of the Norsk King Haakon Sigurdsson – invaded here 600 years ago, killing everyone he found and taking Danish ships as his own. But today it is a haven for healers. They say massive stones fall here from the sky, trailing fire and bringing magic elements. Don’t be surprised if witches appear to you out of thin air. And whatever they ask of you, don’t do it.”

Ulf wished the old man would just shut up.

As you can see, I am not Ulf. The story of the meteorite is real, and it fascinates me — as do the other stories that Master Jens tells. Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore tells what really happened.

The Kaali meteorite crash is the kind of unique and astounding event that must have become a topic of storytelling and singing for many generations afterward. As mentioned above, it evidently occurred around 2000 BC, on Saaremaa Island in the Baltic Sea. As recent scientific studies have established (Tiirmaa 1994), a meteorite of iron streaked from east to west over the Estonian mainland, broke  apart as a result of atmospheric friction, and hit the island in at least 9 places, leaving craters that can be seen to this day.

Tiirmaa (1994: 63) likens the event to a small nuclear explosion (minus radioactivity). … the amount of energy needed to form the main crater was equivalent to 1-4 kilotons (1–4 million kg or 2–8 million pounds) of TNT explosive. The largest fragment hit the ground and exploded with enough energy to create a crater 110 m in diameter, 22 m deep, with a rim 4–7 m above the ground.

It is hard to imagine what went on in the minds of the humans who saw flaming chunks of the sky fall to earth, heard the sonic boom of the streaking fragments and the ear-splitting crash, felt the ground shudder beneath their feet, and were engulfed by a great cloud of dust and ash. Trees, animals, and dwellings within a radius of 2–5 km from the site would have been destroyed, a forest fire would have been ignited, and the survivors would have had to run for their lives to avoid asphyxiation from the vaporized and pulverized matter and gases. This may have been the greatest meteorite impact ever in a populated area. It was truly a fearsome and spectacular event, more than enough to alter existing world-views and to inspire new tales and songs.

The long-tailed fireball would have been brighter than the sun, visible not just on Saaremaa but as far as 700 km (450 miles) away (Meri 1984: 55; Tiirmaa 1994: 65). Included in the area of direct observability are much of southern Finland and Karelia, the Novgorod area of Russia, the Polish coast, and lower Sweden.

At the end of the dissertation comes a song. The Kaali Meteorite Song. “Each song line is to be sung first by the lead singer [storyteller], and repeated by the chorus [listeners].”

Narrator: The night was dark. The sky-god Ukko decided to shed more light on earth.

Ukko struck to make a fire,
Struck a white-hot lightning fire.
From his flaming sword he struck it,
As the sparks did fly and sputter;
Fire hit against his fingers,
Sputtered sparks from sacred fingers,
High above aloft in heaven,
On the starry plains of heaven.

Narrator: He entrusted the care of the fire to the maid of air, for her to form and shape.

Into a new moon to form it,
Into a new day to shape it.

Narrator: But this did not turn out well.

Imbi rocked the baby fire,
Back and forth the little white one.
On her hands she held the fire,
Put the spark up on her fingers:
Fire fell from butterfingers
From the fingers of the guardian.

Narrator: The catastrophe followed

Heaven torn and lacerated,
Skyvault became perforated;
Fire tore through sky like blizzard,
Sped and crashed along the cloudline,
Through nine heavens it descended,
Through six spangled vaults of heaven.
Evil deeds it then accomplished,
Cruel deeds it perpetrated:
Burning up the daughters’ bosoms,
Tearing at the breasts of maidens,
And the knees of boys destroying,
And the master’s beard consuming.
And of all its deeds most evil:
Burned the baby in his cradle.
Went on burning many uplands,
Many uplands, many boglands,
Crashed at last into the water,
In the waves of Lake Alue:
And the fire rose up flaming,
And the sparks a rose all crackling.
Three times in a night of summer,
Nine times in a night of autumn,
Roared up to the height of spruce trees,
Sprang up high against the shorebanks
With the strength of furious fire,
With the might of angry white heat.
Even threw the fish on dry land,
Heaved the perch across the beaches.

Mass grave from 1632 begins to reveal soldiers’ secrets

History comes to life in this article from Der Spiegel. I’ve been researching the decades of the Thirty Years War for some time now, and I’m writing a chapter that takes place about 60 miles from Lutzen, Germany, as the crow flies. My novel has little to do with the war, but the conflict engulfed most of Northern Europe from 1618-1648, and no citizen was untouched by its horror.

Mass Grave in Lutzen

The morning of November 16, 1632 was foggy, so the mass killing could only begin after some delay. It wasn’t until midday that the mist cleared, finally allowing the Protestant army of Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf to attack the Roman Catholic Habsburg imperial army led by Albrecht von Wallenstein. The slaughter lasted for hours in the field at the Saxon town of Lützen.

“In this battle the only rule that applied was, ‘him or me,'” says Maik Reichel. “It was better to stab your opponent one extra time just to ensure there was no chance of him standing up again.” The historian and former German parliamentarian for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is standing at the edge of a field on the outskirts of Lützen. After the battles here, the ground was soaked with blood. “About 20,000 men fought on each side and between 6,000 and 9,000 were killed,” estimates Reichel, who heads the museum in the city castle.

The battle is important only because it resulted in the death of Sweden’s king. A hands-on leader, he fought with his men at the front. Known as the Lion of the North, it was said that “he thinks the ship cannot sink that carries him.” After his death, the war dragged on for another 16 years, the Swedish forces under various generals directed by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna.

The Catholic forces in 1632 were led by Albrecht Wallenstein, who was assassinated in 1634, after being charged with treason by the Holy Roman Emperor.

Gustavus_Adolphus_at_the_Battle_at_BreitenfeldGustavus Adolphus
Albrecht_WallensteinAlbrecht Wallenstein

The chapter in my novel occurs in 1639, after the first Battle of Frieburg was lost by Protestant forces under General Johan Baner.

Except for the frost, Uncle Heinrich’s face looked the same dead as it had alive.

“At least death has a sense of humor,” James said. The man’s body was grotesquely animated, much like his face had been during life. It was as if the laughing north wind had frozen him solid, pistol in upraised hand, legs churning toward victory, the moment the enemy musket ball pierced his chest. He’d known since last night that his uncle was dead. The corpse was mere proof.

“Do you want to bury him? It’ll take him awhile to thaw out,” said Conrad.

“Yes,” said James, shivering in the cold dawn air, “but don’t bother waiting. I think he’d rather be buried just as he is, going down fighting. Where are you digging the graves?”

“Grave. Over where we had the fire last night. The ground is too hard anywhere else. General Baner says to dig one big pit and throw them all in.”

“He’s a son of a bitch, but for once I agree with him.” James picked up the cold handles of the wheelbarrow and struggled to push it over the rugged earth.

Conrad grabbed Heinrich’s outstretched arm to steady the wheelbarrow, and laughed. “He always was one to lend a hand!”

James negotiated the rows of dead and their bearers. “Looks like about two hundred. How many more?”

“Five hundred total, or so they tell me. And we didn’t even take the town.”

“Son of a bitch.” He tipped his uncle into the dead regiment. Sweaty men swung picks and swore at the frozen earth. James used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his own forehead. “Has anyone told Baner how stupid that was?”

“Probably as stupid as trying to dig this pit.”

“So you’d rather just leave these men to rot where they lay?”

“And you’d prefer to complain about orders when the general’s wife is sick? If you thought the attack was futile …”

“Baner just killed five hundred of our men, including my uncle.” James spit the words into the freezing air and pulled the collar of his coat closer.

“He killed five thousand last month. Don’t compound your problems. No good will come of it. Say a prayer for Heinrich and let’s get back to the tent.”

Down the line, men were stripping the bodies of useful gear. James bent over Heinrich and tugged on the sleeve of the dead man’s overcoat. “Give me a hand.”

Conrad giggled, squatted down, and together they wrangled the coat from the contorted body. “Do you want the boots?”

“Yeah. We wear the same size.” James pulled one of the boots, but it wouldn’t budge. “Hold him steady. Damn thing is frozen on.” He pulled again and the boot came free with a cracking sound. The sock remained. He pulled the other one off and stood with it in his hand. The idea of stripping Heinrich to his bare frozen flesh was repulsive.

“That’s it. Leave the rest. ”

“Aren’t you going to say a prayer?” Conrad waited, greatcoat over his arm, the bloody hole staring at the world in condemnation.

“Okay. I suppose it’s what Heinrich would have wanted.” James considered his uncle’s wounds, so bright in life, livid blue-gray in death. He looked up, desiring to see the sky but confronted only by the carnal fog that had followed them since Chemnitz.

“Lord.” The first consonant stuck on his tongue, repulsing the wave of sounds that came after, then collapsing in submission. A rage of angels blew trumpets in his head and a prayer arrived with the attack. “Babylon, you are doomed! I pray the Lord’s blessings on anyone who punishes you for what you did to us. May the Lord bless everyone who beats your children against the rocks!”

James turned abruptly away, hating his shameful tears. The dead regiment lay at attention as a mounted officer rode into the clearing. “Leave the dead! We’re moving out!”

A cry of protest rose from the men.

“The ground is too hard!” the officer shouted. “We’ll bury them after the thaw! Now move out!”