Heart Of The World – Snippet 16



The merchant Gilbert d’Baalbeck, with five camels and four servants and a chest full of money, left the Il-Khan’s summer camp and went south and west, toward the Euphrates. The road was poor, but Gilbert saw no need to ride in company; the Mongols took their tolls but they kept the place free of bandits.

He had come into the country by another road, from the north, from Armenia, and so what he saw on the road west surprised him. The Mongol army had come that way, in the winter, to attack Baghdad, and they had left nothing behind them. It was midsummer, and the fields  on either side of the road should have been sprouting green, busy with the rise and fall of the shadufs and people stooping to pick weeds, but he rode through fallow lands. Empty. The houses he saw were burned out. He met a caravan coming the other way along the road, and once an arrow messenger galloped by, but nobody lived here anymore.

 For a while the road ran alongside a canal, dry as bone. The date palms that grew in clusters along the bank were already drooping, the fruits withered like the testicles of old men. 

That canal bed led to another, wider and deeper, in which, also, no water ran; but looking across he saw that the land on the far side was a lake,  reflecting the blue sky, a watery sheet studded with brush and low trees. His little caravan crossed the canal, and came up the western bank onto a marsh. Water covered everything, only a few inches deep.

It was still and flat, and a smell of rot rose from it. The faint buzzing of insects sounded around it.  It was like a desert, only of water. The road was invisible. The cursing drovers slid down from the camels, which grunted and backed up and flattened their ears. They hated getting their feet wet.  Gilbert stopped his horse. He knew what had happened, the Mongols had broken the levee to the north, and the waters of the canal had come through the breach and flooded all this land. He let the drovers argue a few moments while he peered around. Far ahead across the watery land he saw a thick dark stub poking out of the water. He called over the head drover and pointed this out to him — the next milestone on the road. The drover grunted, went back to his camel, and they all walked off sloshing through the muck. As they left the canal behind them, the water turned ever more shallow, until it was only a surface sheen, but the road was buried under silt.  

Silt also covered the milestones, the stalks of the abandoned gardens. They passed through a village, where the houses were falling apart, their roofs gone, the marks of the flood knee high on their walls.

The waterland fell behind. They crossed bare thorny scrub. Now, at last, he came to the main road, running east and west. This was the Diocletianus, an old road of the Romans, and he could see another caravan almost at once, far ahead of them; the drovers saw that also and called to each other, as if just seeing someone else meant they were less alone.  The road took them quickly on to Raqqa where they crossed the Euphrates.

On the north bank he paid the Mongol in charge of the ferry depot, and he paid the ferryman, and on the south bank he paid the Sultan’s agent in charge there. This left his money chest considerably lighter.

Now he looked for a larger group to travel with, but saw nothing.  Hurrying along the Roman road, he came at noon to the caravanserai at Resafa. He could have gone on another half day’s travel but he decided to stop. He would not reach Palmyra for days, and the desert ahead was a dangerous place. If he were patient he could pick up some traveling companions here.

Resafa had been a bigger city once. Now little of it was left but the caravanserai, which had taken over an ancient building inside the walls. This was a square stone fort, with no roof. Cloth awnings and wooden stalls lined all the inside walls; there was a well in the middle. Carved along the tops of the walls were scrolls of Roman work. The kitchen, he knew from long usage, was excellent.

The master of the place took his money and gave him a good corner. Gilbert’s men tethered the camels, and the master sent a boy over to haul water and hay and shovel away the dung. Gilbert walked up and down in the afternoon sun, stretching his legs.  He meant to reach Acre by midsummer day, when the Venetian fleet would arrive, and unless something happened bad in the next week or so he would do that easily. He fell to thinking of the silver in the chest, the little pouches of gold coins; even when he had paid off his men he would have a weight of money in his hands.

He thought of going back to Italy. Maybe it was time to go back to Italy.

The master of the caravanserai fell in beside him as he walked. He said, “You came from east of the River?”

“Several months now I have been in the bazaars of the Il-Khan,” Gilbert said, proudly. Most merchants he knew had refused to go east after the fall of Baghdad.

“Ah! And how did you find that?”

“I made a lot of money,” Gilbert said.

“They didn’t rob you?”

“They took their fees and taxes. They have other things to do.” He talked about the caravans he had seen, bringing the wealth of Baghdad and its treasure houses and bazaars into the camp of the Il-Khan.

“What do you think? Will they stay on that side of the river?”

Gilbert wanted to think so. He wanted to believe that in spite of everything nothing had really changed. The Mongols were only taking the place of the Caliph. Everything would be as it had always been. He thought uneasily of the ruined fields he had seen.  Without the canals working, it would be hard to bring that land back alive. He said, “I don’t know.”

“What they did to Baghdad –” They were strolling around the courtyard, and they passed the boy hauling a load of dung out toward the gate. The master’s voice fell to a murmur; with a jut of his chin he indicated the boy. “He survived it. Somebody found him on the road, half-dead.”

Gilbert gave the boy a quick glance. A scrawny Arab boy, eight or ten years old, bent against the weight of the hod he was dragging along. He got to the gate and stood a moment, breathing.

“What does he say about it?”

“Nothing. He won’t talk. Not a word. Whatever they did to him stopped his tongue.”

Gilbert said, “I saw them. They are not so bad. If you give them what they want, they let you alone.”

The boy suddenly snapped up straight, looking out, and turned toward the master. His face was bright. He shot the master a fierce look and threw out one arm, pointing.

The master said, “Someone is coming. We’ll talk later.” He got up and went to the gate.


The new arrival was Bohemund, the Prince of Antioch, one of the Crusader lords. Gilbert had marked him in the ordu of the Il-Khan, but Bohemund had never summoned him and Gilbert had seen no reason to invite himself. That was different now. He watched as Bohemund’s retinue, nearly forty men, horses, packs and squires, spilled into the caravanserai, taking the best places, noisy and demanding. The Arab boy ran among them, carrying water and hay. After a while Gilbert strolled up to the Prince of Antioch, who sat on a camp chair in the center of his space, with all the bustle around him. The master of the caravanserai himself was pouring the Prince a cup of wine.

Gilbert hovered, shuffling his feet, and Bohemund saw him and motioned to him. “Come up. Who are you — yes, Guillaume, is it not? You were in the bazaar at the Il-Khan’s camp.”

“Gilbert d’Baalbek,” Gilbert said, pleased. “I am, my lord, I am most elevated that my lord remembers me.”

 Bohemund drank deep of the wine. “There weren’t that many white faces. You’re an agent of the Venetians.”

Gilbert bowed. “I am a free merchant, my lord. I have a seat in the guild hall in Acre.”

Bohemund said, “Which belongs to Venice.” The cook servant brought in a platter of flat bread, the Arab boy on his heels carrying fruit in a wooden bowl. They set these down and rushed off again. Bohemund’s knights gathered around the table and the jug passed among them. Gilbert waited patiently for Bohemund to notice him again. He saw no purpose in expounding to Bohemund about the complexities of governance in Acre. The Prince sprawled in his chair, and Gilbert saw his chance and went around the table, took the ewer from the back table and filled Bohemund’s cup.