Tales from the Crusades, Part 3, The Scholar by Jean-Christophe, Illustrated by Amalaric

[Click image to enlarge.]

Slavery doesn’t sit well on Malik’s whip-striped shoulders. He has been enslaved for three years; the chattel of his Franj owner, the Crusader knight, Philippe de Montaillou.

Malik had been a stripling of fifteen years when, in 1102, the Crusader army of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, Count of Toulouse had laid siege to the city of Tripoli. For the next two thousand days he, together with his fellow Tripolitanians, endured ever increasing hardship. Caught between the blockading Franks at her walls and a Genoese fleet anchored off her coast, Tripoli managed to withstand the siege for as long as she could. Vainly, the citizens of Tripoli waited for their squabbling co-religionists to put aside their political differences with one another and to mount a counter offensive against the Crusader army. When this didn’t eventuate their final hope rested on a fleet of war vessels dispatched from Fatimid Egypt to disperse the Genoese ships at sea and to engage the Franj on land.

The besieged citizens of Tripoli anxiously waited for the fleet’s arrival and, as each day passed without any sign of its sails on the horizon, their hopes sank a little lower. Finally, with all hope abandoned, the city fell to the unbelievers on 12 July, 1109. Eight hours later, the Fatimid fleet arrived too late to save them.

With its fall, Tripoli, the city of goldsmiths, scholars and libraries, became the fourth Christian colony in the Moslem world after Antioch, Edessa and Jerusalem.

The ascetic Malik had wept over the loss of Tripoli to the Crusaders. It, more than any other Moslem city, had stood as a beacon of beauty and knowledge. Tripoli, with her magnificent port, was described by one Arab chronicler as “the jewel on the Arab coast”.

Malik had been a scholar studying with the wisest teachers in the Dar Al ‘Ilm known throughout the Arab world as the “House of Knowledge”. Malik loved the Dar Al ‘Ilm as a second home and he was there as the city fell to the marauding Franks and their Genoese allies.

Caught unaware, Malik wasn’t able to return to his family and remained sheltering in the Dar Al ‘Ilm with the terrified teachers and his fellow students. Surely he thought, even the uncultured Franks would respect the library’s one hundred thousand books which were a unique repository of human knowledge and wisdom.

He wasn’t aware that the city was to be divided into three parts with one part given to the Genoese and the other two to the Franks. And it was the Genoese who invaded the Dar Al ‘Ilm!

The coarse Genoese sailors respected neither life nor property. The venerable teachers were quickly dispatched and the terrified students rounded up and made ready to be marched away into slavery.
As Malik was driven out of the library he wept to see the priceless books destroyed by the Genoese as “impious” and its other treasures looted or smashed.

The days following the fall of Tripoli were chaotic. From his hastily improvised prison, Malik could hear the sounds of raping and pillaging. He heard the vain pleadings for mercy from a traumatized citizenry and the agonized cries of those cruelly put to the sword. Despite his own fear, Malik anguished over the fate of his parents, his younger brother and his two sisters. Were they safe or had they too been killed? As he thought about their fates, he hoped that his sisters had been killed rather than raped. Better a quick death than the slow, lingering shame and stigma of rape.

In succeeding days, the city grew quieter as order was restored. The conquerors quickly divided up the spoils of war among them seizing both city homes and businesses while the aristocratic knights took the fertile farm lands just beyond the city’s walls. Over successive years, these farms would take on the characteristics of the feudal fiefdoms the knights had left behind in faraway Europe; the only difference being that in Outremer slaves replaced peasants.

Malik and his fellow students languished in their makeshift prison where the conditions were primitive and food and water scarce. As he existed on his meagre rations, Malik tried to keep track of time which proved to be a hopeless task. And he fretted about his future.

Then, one day, he and his fellow students were taken to the newly established, Genoese slave market and sold. Even after three years, the trauma of that day still haunts Malik where, within the closed confines of a courtyard, he was made to strip himself of his soiled clothes and to wash away the prison’s foulness from his naked body. Once cleansed, he was given a loincloth to wear and placed on display under the watchful eyes and whips of his Genoese captors.

Shortly after, Malik came face to face with his new master, Philippe de Montaillou who was shopping for slaves to work his newly acquired farm not far from the city’s outskirts. This was Malik’s first close, personal contact with a hated Franj warrior and what he saw frightened him. To Malik, Philippe de Montaillou was the personification of pure evil. Tall with blond hair and a thin, cruel mouth, his pitiless, blue eyes seemed to bore into Malik’s very soul and cowered him into submission. With his head bowed, he was aware that the Franj was scrutinizing his body assessing its strengths and its weaknesses.

Philippe spoke imperiously to a Genoese slaver in his incomprehensible language and to Malik’s distress the scanty loincloth was ripped from his hips exposing his nakedness to the other Franj buyers. Over the next few minutes, Malik was subjected to the demoralizing ritual of a slave inspection. There was no regard for his dignity and every part of his naked body was subjected to the minutest examination. Fear of his captors and their whips saw him stand passively as Philippe de Montaillou poked, prodded and pummeled his body gauging its strength and fitness.

Having passed this examination, Malik stood mute as Philippe de Montaillou haggled with the Genoese over a fair price for him. Slaves were fetching low prices in the days immediately following the fall of Tripoli. So many of Tripoli’s citizens had been enslaved that the slave-pens were overflowing and an able-bodied slave could be bought for less than a pair of leather shoes. Philippe de Montaillou took advantage of this glut and on that and subsequent days; he bought sixty strong, young slaves to labor on his farm. They were to form the vanguard of their new Master’s workforce and to lay the foundations for his future wealth.

Once a price had been agreed upon, Malik was roped into a coffle and made to wait as his new master bought more slaves. When Philippe de Montaillou made his final purchase of the day, twenty-seven of Tripoli’s finest sons were driven by the whips of his overseers to their new home on an abandoned sugarcane farm. And even before they’d left the city, Malik had felt the agonizing sting of an overseer’s whip urging him onwards. It was the first of many that have been laid across his naked back since that day.

Malik’s old life ended the day of his capture by the Genoese and his new life as a slave began with his purchase by Philippe de Montaillou. The day after his purchase, Malik and his fellow slaves were branded on their right breasts with Philippe’s coat-of-arms by his armorer/blacksmith and fitted with the shameful, iron collars of slavery. The memory of his branding still burns vividly in Malik’s consciousness and he occasionally feels the “phantom” pain of the iron searing itself into his flesh.

Malik recalls watching in horror as his fellow slaves were dragged one by one to the branding table and had the mark of their new owner placed on their bodies. He remembers his own futile struggling in the firm grip of two overseers as they dragged him to the branding table and how, like his fellow slaves before him, he pleaded for mercy as he was tied facing upwards for his branding.

Trembling with fear, Malik turn his head and watched wide-eyed as the blacksmith withdrew the branding iron from the orange-red coals and brought it to the table where Malik struggled uselessly in his bonds. With the approach of the red-hot branding iron, Malik began to weep and again begged not to be branded. Terrified, he waited as the branding iron was positioned over his heaving chest just above the right nipple. He didn’t feel the brand immediately; in the split second before he did feel its pain, he heard the sickening sizzle as the iron touched his body and smelt the charring of his tender flesh. His agonized scream reverberated around the closed confines of the blacksmith’s forge before subsiding into a soft weeping.

Mercifully, for Malik, this ordeal – the first of many – was over. However, the shameful memory of the branding stays with him as a constant reminder that he is both a slave and owned property.

The new slaves were put to work immediately in making their Master’s lands profitable. During the long siege the fields had become overgrown with weeds while the irrigation channels which carried precious water to the sugarcane became clogged with the detritus of neglect. Malik and his fellow slaves worked long and hard to restore the farm to its former condition and alternatively, he’d worked to clear the irrigation channels or was yoked to a plough preparing the fields for the planting of new sugar crops. Now, with the farm restored to a productive state, his work is seasonal and includes the planting of new sugar fields, the harvesting of the mature canes and the crushing and distillation of them in the plantation’s mill.

Over the three years of Malik’s servitude, his Master has prospered and he is now the County of Tripoli’s largest producer of “sweet salt”- the name given to sugar by the Franj. Each year, Philippe de Montaillou acquires more slaves from among the captives taken in the ongoing battles fought by the Crusaders and this allows him to increase his acreage under cultivation.

Today, Malik is working on a noria; one of the waterwheels which keeps water flowing through to the verdant green fields of sugar cane. Shackled to the noria, he walks in a never-ending circle of mindlessness impervious to all around him. He measures time by the number of rotations he completes in a day or by the number of steps it takes do one circuit.

Sometimes his mind wanders back to those happier days when he’d been a promising young scholar at the Dar Al ‘Ilm.  

However, these reveries are all too brief. Always, there is the agonizing bite of the lash to bring him back to the present and to refocus his mind on maintaining the speed of the noria’s seemingly endless rotations.

Malik no longer weeps for what he has lost; his tears have all dried up!

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