Viking 3: King’s Man, page 9
‘But I was told that protomaistor Trdat restored the Church of Holy Wisdom more than forty years ago.’
‘That would be my grandfather,’ the architect replied cheerfully. ‘And he did a very good job too. That’s why I’ve been picked for this commission. The Basileus hopes I can do as well as my grandfather. This is to be another restoration project.’
‘Perhaps you could tell me exactly what is involved so I could explain it to your escort when they arrive.’
‘I don’t want to bore you with the details, and I can hear by your accent that you are a northerner – don’t be offended, I’m Armenian by origin – so you may not even be a Christian. But the spot where the Christ died and was buried is one of the truly sacred places of our faith. A magnificent basilica was erected there not long after the blessed Augusta Helena discovered the True Cross and her people identified the cave where the Christ’s body was interred. For centuries the sanctity of the sepulchre was respected, even when it fell into the hands of the Muslims. Unfortunately times have changed. In my father’s day a Caliph, who justly earned the title of Murad the Mad, gave orders for both the basilica and the sepulchre to be destroyed. He told the local governor that no stone was to be left upon another. The governor was also ordered to close all the other Christian churches in the province and turn away Christian visitors. Since then we have had no reliable information as to how bad was the destruction of the sepulchre – the Anastasis or Resurrection, as it is known – nor what the ruins look like today. Murad the Mad went to meet his maker sixteen years ago. He was assassinated by a religious zealot – rather appropriate, don’t you think? – and our Basileus is currently negotiating with his successors for permission to rebuild the basilica and repair the sanctuary. That’s where I come in. I have been commissioned to assess the present condition of the buildings and make on-the-spot repairs. Those civil servants may be venal idlers, but they are good at keeping archives, and I’ve managed to locate the plans of the original basilica. But if the shrine is so badly wrecked that it cannot be restored, then I am to design an entirely new building worthy of the site.’
‘That’s quite a responsibility,’ I observed.
‘Yes, the emperor sets great store by the scheme. He believes it will show the depth and extent of his devotion, and he hopes he will be rewarded with an improvement in his health. I presume you are familiar with the problems he has been having in that regard. That’s also why he placed the imperial dromon at my disposal. It shows his level of concern.’
To my surprise Trdat had not bothered to lower his voice when he spoke of the state of Michael’s health.
He breezed on. ‘Perhaps you could pass word to your military friends that we will be ready to sail as soon as I’ve loaded the last of the paints and tesserae – those are the little cubes we use for making mosaics. It should be no later than the day after tomorrow. My own staff – the mosaicists, plasterworkers, painters and the rest – are already on standby. Though whether they will actually have any work to do when we get to the Holy Land remains to be seen.’
When I relayed all this information to Harald, he seemed pleased. I supposed he thought that the personal vessel of the Basileus was exactly the sort of transport that he merited. Certainly when Harald and his men, including Halldor, whom I was glad to see, arrived at the Bucephalon, the Norwegian prince walked up the gangplank as though he was the owner of the vessel, not just the escort commander for an architect.
‘Tell your Varangians that we’ll be making just one stop en route,’ Trdat said to me. ‘We need to put in to the island of Prokonnesos to pick up some marble in case we can patch up the place of resurrection.’
Already the dromon was moving out to sea under oars, every stroke closely supervised by the protokarabos, the officer responsible for the rowing. He was very conscious that people were watching from the windows of the Great Palace, and he wanted as smart a departure as possible.
It occurred to me that the protomaistor might well know something about the derelict statues in the Basilike, and I asked him if he had ever visited the place.
‘Of course,’ he answered. ‘My father and grandfather, while he was alive, put me through all the hoops. They made me study everything an architect needs to know and more – geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, physics, building construction, hydraulics, carpentry, metalwork, painting. There seemed no end to it. Luckily I enjoyed the work, particularly drawing. I still get satisfaction from preparing diagrams and elevations. They positively encouraged me to visit the old temple sites, took me round the Basilike, and never lost the chance to point out the remnants of the old statuary on display in Constantinople. It’s still there if you know what you are looking at. That tall bronze statue of a woman in the Forum of Constantine, for example. Everyone thinks it’s a former empress or perhaps a saint. In fact, it’s an early Greek goddess. And have you ever noticed the figure on top of the Anemodoulion?’
‘The monument near the Forum Tauri, the pyramid with a bronze figure of a woman at the top, which turns and points with the slightest breath of wind? We have similar wind vanes on our ships and houses in the north lands, but they are much smaller and simpler in design.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Trdat, ‘But how many people know that when they look up at the Anemodoulion to check the wind direction, they are actually consulting a bygone pagan goddess? But we’ll talk more about this during the voyage. I expect it will take us at least three weeks to reach the Holy Land, even aboard the fastest dromon in the fleet.’
Trdat’s company turned our trip into one of the most informative sea journeys I have ever undertaken. The Armenian loved to talk and he was free with his knowledge. He pointed out details about coastlines, described his upbringing in a family of famous architects, and introduced me to some of the techniques of his profession. He took me down into the hold to open up sacks of tesserae and showed me the little cubes of marble, terracotta, different-coloured glass and mother-of-pearl. He demonstrated how they would be stuck into a bed of soft mortar to make portraits or patterns on a wall or on the floor, and told me that a skilled mosaicist, working flat out, could complete in one day an area as wide as a man could spread his arms in each direction.
‘Imagine how long it took to decorate the inside of the apse in the church of the Holy Wisdom. Grandfather Trdat calculated that it required two and a half million tesserae.’
When we reached the marble island of Prokonnesos halfway across the Propontis Sea, he also invited me to go ashore with him as he visited the quarries where miners were cracking open the rock and splitting away sheets of marble ready to be sawn and carved to shape.
‘Prokonnesos marble is so widely used that I find it rather boring,’ he confessed. ‘You see it everywhere – the same white stone with blue-grey veining. But it’s readily available, and the supply seems inexhaustible.’
‘I thought that most of the new marblework was made from salvage.’
‘True. Yet many of those salvaged pieces came from Prokonnesos in the first place, and the quarry owners have been shrewd enough to pander to the builders’ laziness. They prepare the marble pieces here on the island, carving out the shapes and patterns, and have them ready and waiting on the quay. You simply pick up ready-made segments for columns, and capitals and pediments in stock designs, but it restricts an architect’s creative skill if he has to work with such stuff just because his client wants to save money. I know of at least nineteen different varieties of marble, yet if you were to walk around Constantinople you would think there was only one – Prokonessos. I love it when I have the chance to work with dark red porphyry from Egypt, serpentine from Sparta, green from Thessaly, or rose red from Syria. There’s even a black and white marble that can be brought from the far end of the Great Sea.’
In the end my new-found friend selected only a few plain slabs of the Prokonnesos marble which, as he put it, ‘were good enough to put down as paving around Christ’s tomb if the flooring has been ripped up
Harald, Halldor and the other Varangians kept to themselves throughout the trip, though I sensed they were itching to take the helm or adjust the dromon’s sails. Her captain was a palace appointee with no apparent seafaring skills, and he had the good sense to leave the running of the vessel to the protokarabos and his assistants. Navigation presented few challenges as they could set the course from one island to the next, watching for each new sea mark to come up over the horizon ahead even as the last island peak dropped out of sight behind us.
As we were steering toward the distant loom of an island, Trdat made a comment which caused a jolt of memory. Squinting at the high ground taking shape ahead, he remarked, ‘That must be the lame smith’s favourite haunt.’
His words brought back an image of my first tutor in the Old Ways, Tyrkyr the German. He had been heating and shaping iron in his forge when he told me how Volund the master metalworker had been deliberately crippled by the evil King Nidud and left on an island where he was forced to work for his captor.
‘A lame smith on that island. What was his name?’ I asked Trdat. ‘Hephestus the smith God,’ he replied. ‘That island over there is Lemnos. Legend says that it was the place where Hephestus resided. There’s a shrine to him there and a cult still flourishes, so I’m told, though it operates in secret.’
‘Why was Hephestus lame? Was he mutilated deliberately?’
‘No,’ Trdat replied. ‘As far as I know, he was born lame, and he was ugly enough as well. But he was a magnificent metalworker, the finest ever known. He could make anything. He even fashioned a metal net, which he hung over his bed when he suspected his wife of adultery with another God. He pretended to leave home, then crept back, and when his wife and her lover were in action, Hephestus dropped the net on them as they lay stark naked. Then he called the other Gods to visit him and have a laugh at their embarrassment. It’s said to have happened over on that island, inside a burning mountain.’
‘Strange,’ I said. ‘We also have the story of a lame metalworker who took his revenge on his enemy. Though it was by murdering his sons and making drinking cups of their skulls and jewels from their eyes and teeth, which he presented to their unknowing parents.’
Trdat grimaced. ‘Bloodthirsty lot, your Gods,’ he said.
‘I suppose so,’ I replied. ‘They could be cruel, but only when it was deserved. Like Loki, whom they punished for his endless deceit by tying him to a rock with the entrails of his own son. The earth shakes when Loki struggles to free himself. I saw Loki’s statue in the Basilike.’
Trdat laughed out loud. ‘That wasn’t Loki or whatever you call him. I remember that statue. It used to be in the Forum of Constantine until someone needed the space and it was taken away and dumped in the Basilike. It’s one of the earlier Gods – well, he was the son of what they called a Titan – by the name of Prometheus. He was a trickster who angered Zeus, the chief of the Gods, once too often. Zeus punished him by telling Hephestus to nail him to a rock. Then Zeus sent an eagle each day to eat Prometheus’s liver, which grew again during the night. So he was in endless torment.’
‘Sounds as if your old Gods were just as cruel as mine,’ I said.
‘Equally human, I would say,’ was Trdat’s response. ‘Or perhaps inhuman, if you want to put it that way. Depends how you look at it.’
‘Was I also mistaken in thinking that there’s a marble panel in the Basilike which shows the Norns?’
‘Never heard of them. Who are they?’
‘The women who decide our destiny when we are born,’ I said. ‘They know the past, present and future, and they weave the pattern of our lives.’
‘I can’t remember seeing that panel, but you must be talking about the three Fates,’ Trdat answered after a moment’s thought. ‘One spins the thread of a man’s life, another measures it and the third cuts it. Norns or Fates, the message is the same.’
We reached our destination, the port of Joppa on the coast of Palestine, to find that the local governor knew nothing about our mission. For three days we sweltered in the summer heat, confined aboard the dromon while the governor checked with his superiors in the capital at Ramla if we could be allowed to land.
Finally Harald, rather than the easy-going Trdat, took command of the situation. He stormed ashore and I went with him to the governor’s residence, where the anger of the towering northerner with his long moustaches and strange lopsided eyebrows cowed the governor into agreeing that a small advance party could go ahead to inspect the Anastasis while the majority of Trdat’s technicians and workmen stayed behind. As we left the governor’s office, we were surrounded by a clamouring crowd of elderly men, each offering to act as our guide. For years they had made their living by taking devout Christians up to see their holy places, but the prohibitions of Murad the Mad had destroyed their trade. Now they offered to hire us carts, tents, donkeys, and all at a special price. Brusquely Harald told me to inform them that he did not ride on carts and certainly not donkeys. The first person to come to the dockside with two dozen horses would be employed.
The horses that were brought were so small and scrawny that I thought for a moment Harald would take it as an insult. But their owner, as lean and malnourished-looking as his animals, assured me that the creatures were adequate to the task, and it was only two days’ easy ride to our destination. Yet when Harald got into the saddle, his feet almost touched the ground on either side, and the other Varangians looked equally out of proportion to their mounts. So it was an undignified cavalcade that rode out of the town, crossed a narrow, waterless, coastal plain, and began to climb into the rocky hills of what our guide enthusiastically called the Promised Land.
I have to admit that I had expected something better. The landscape was bleached and bare with an occasional small field scratched out of the hillside. The few settlements were meagre clusters of small, square, mud-walled houses, and the inn where we stayed that night was crumbling and badly run-down. It offered only a dirty courtyard where we could stable the horses, a dreary meal of pea soup and flat bread, and flea-infested bed mats. Yet if we were to believe our guide, who was very garrulous and spoke Latin and Greek with equal ease, the sere brown land we were crossing was fortunate beyond all others. He reeled off lists of the holy men or miraculous events associated with each spot we passed, beginning with Joppa, on whose beach, he claimed, a great fish had vomited up a prophet.
When I translated this yarn to Harald and the Varangians they looked utterly incredulous.
‘And the Christians revile us for believing that the Midgard serpent lies at the bottom of the World Ocean,’ was Halldor’s comment. ‘Thorgils, don’t waste your breath translating that old fool’s prattle unless he says something believable.’
In mid-afternoon on the second day we rode across a ridge and there, spreading up the slope of the next hill, was our goal: the holy city of the Christians, known to them as Jerusalem. No larger than a single suburb of Constantinople, the place was totally enclosed within a high city wall studded with at least a dozen watchtowers. What caught our attention was a huge dome. It dominated the skyline of the city. Built on rising ground, it dwarfed the buildings all around it. Most astonishing of all, it appeared to be of solid gold.
‘Is that the Anastasis, the place where the White Christ was buried?’ I asked our guide.
He was taken aback at my ignorance. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It is the Holy of Holies, sacred to the followers of Muhammad and those of the Jewish faith. The Anastasis is over there,’ and he pointed to the right. I looked in that direction, but saw nothing except a nondescript jumble of roofs.
We rode through the city gate, crossed a large open forum with a tall column in its centre and proceeded along a colonnaded avenue which led to the area the guide had indicated. Our exotic appearance drew curious and sometimes hostile glances from the crowds. They were an amazing mix – Saracen officials in loose white gowns and turbans, merchants dressed in black cloaks and brick
Midway along the avenue we came to a great gap in the line of buildings, and the guide announced, ‘Here is the place.’
Trdat looked aghast. The space ahead of us was a scene of utter devastation. Massive building blocks, broken and dislodged, marked the lines of former walls. Heaps of smashed tiles were all that remained of roofs. Charred beams showed where the destruction had been hastened by fire. Everywhere was rubble and filth. Without a word, Trdat leaned down and picked up a small stone from among the weeds that were growing over the rubbish. Sadly he turned it over in his fingers. It was a single tessera, dark blue. It must once have graced a mosaic in the basilica that had sheltered worshippers who came to this spot. Of the church itself, nothing remained.
Our guide hitched up his loose gown and scrambled over the heaps of rubbish, beckoning us to follow. Harald and the others stayed behind. Even the hardened Norsemen were silenced by the sight of so much destruction.
I joined Trdat and the guide, just as the latter was saying, ‘It was here,’ as he pointed downward towards marks on the bare rock. To me it looked like the ragged scars left on Prokonnesos when the marbleworkers had prised away what they needed, only the marks of the chisels and pickaxes were random, and the spoil – the stone they had broken – was tossed to one side in a haphazard pile.
‘What was here?’ asked Trdat in a hushed voice.
‘The tomb, the sepulchre itself. Murad’s people hacked it to pieces.’
Trdat seemed numb with shock as the guide led us back through the lanes to find an inn where we could stay. The protomaistor said nothing for several hours, except to ask me to send word back to Joppa that the craftsmen waiting on the dromon should stay where they were. There was no point in them coming inland. The splendid buildings which had once stood around the Anastasis were utterly beyond repair.
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