Atlantica

26 Feb

It was in the late summer of 969 A.D. that an obscure Galician scholar was invited to Cordoba by the caliph himself on a matter of great significance.

Hakan II had a deep personal interest in all areas of knowledge. Moslem, Christian, and Jewish savants were his intimate friends. He had heard of the ideas that the northerner, a teacher of geography and cartography, was presenting to pupils. The caliph wished to question him in person about his teachings.

“The earth we live on, then, must be a sphere, as the ancients taught,” grinned the potentate.

“Indeed,” answered Gil de Vigo. “That is what the most learned have always believed, Sire. All the maps based on the works of the Great Ptolemy are merely flat projections of the sphere we live on. If one proceeds to the east, he comes in time to the west. And the same is true in the opposite direction as well.”

The caliph in green robe and turban grew excited. “So, the Western Sea reaches to the eastern lands of great riches?”

‘Our ancient maps show the sea called the Atlantica as a dark, dangerous maelstrom. Yet the fishermen of Galicia venture far out into it to capture the best and biggest fish. They do not fear its violent storms because of their knowledge of how to navigate in deep waters. There are no better sailors or navigators than the Gallegos.”

Standing closely beside each other, the two studied a Ptolemaic map rolled out on a high table. The ruler became excited. “I see that islands are marked out in the Western Sea, opposite to Africa,” he said with enthusiasm.

“Yes, Sire. They are the Fortunatae Insulae, known to the most ancient Greeks as the Isles of th Blest. Centuries ago, visitors sailed out to them. Pliny the Elder named them the Canaria because of the many wild dogs abounding on them. Perpetual summer and astounding abundance are said to prevail there. Some sources tell of seven celestial cities situated on these Fortunate Islands.”

The dark almond eyes of the caliph burned with a fire of fascination.

“Could a sailing vessel of today make a voyage that far into the Mare Exterius to the west? Is that possible, my friend?”

Gil appeared stunned. His hazel eyes grew large as he stared at the ruler of Andalusia.

“The ocean is stormy and treacherous. But the right ship and crew could arrive on those islands, I believe. It was done in olden times. The voyage would have to begin at the right season, in late spring. Only Gallican sailors have the required sailing skills. Navigation would have to be perfect. Yes, I think it can be done.”

Hakan placed his right hand on the left arm of the other.

“Are you willing to command such an expedition, my son? I shall provide you the carrack for it. Such a voyage would greatly increase knowledge of the world we inhabit. Can you carry out such an exploration for me?”

Gil de Vigo, dressed in leather, realized that he had to accept. Refusal was impossible for him, a lover of geography and a born adventurer.

“Yes,” he beamed, “I will attempt such a journey into the Mare Occiduum.”

The northern Christian did not tell the caliph about the secret lodestone that the Gallego sailors used to navigate their fishing vessels. That was an instrument kept from all outsiders. But it would prevent the exploratory carrack from becoming lost at sea.

The secret apparatus was brought aboard the vessel the night before it was to set out. No one beyond the crew were to be told of its existence. But the caliph had decided on an additional, surprise passenger. He was an agent of the sovereign in white robe and turban of office. He presented himself to Gil de Vigo on the wharf at Cadiz.

The geographer recognized the man to be a Mozarab, a public convert to the faith of the Prophet who probably still practiced in private the Christian religion. Such individuals were the majority of the population of the Caliphate of Andalusia.

“I am Hanbal al-Abarcas, an officer of the Palace,” began the tall man in white. “Our caliph has assigned me to accompany this voyage. My chest of clothes will arrive shortly. I am to write a record of your exploration for our Sovereign Lord.

“This assignment came to me as a surprise, only days ago. I am fortunate to have reached Cadiz in time, before your carrack sailed away.”

“We leave this very morning,” muttered Gil. “Climb aboard with me. I shall assign you a place to sleep among my closest subordinates.”

He stared into the dark face and eyes of the spy dispatched to keep a watchful eye on the Christians from Galicia. How much is this Mozarab to be trusted? wondered de Vigo to himself. Only time could reveal that.

About noon, the carrack floated into Cadiz harbor, ready for the dangers of the open ocean.

Gil decided to put the caliph’s agent to a test.

As the vessel moved out of sight of land, he called the crew to the stern and addressed them.

“I wish to offer a prayer for the support of our enterprise,” began the geographer. “It will be one that is known to every Christian, the Lord’s Prayer.”

As he recited the words by heart, his hazel eyes watched the lanky man in white standing alone at a distance in one corner of he deck.

Hanbal reverently bowed his turbaned head and seemed to pray along with the crew.

He still had his ties to the old faith and had not become a fanatical Moslem. But neither was this man a professed Christian. What exactly was he?

Finishing the familiar prayer, Gil breathed a sigh as a decision formed in his mind. They would soon have to set their course with his lodestone, the secret adamant. That could not be long concealed from the stranger in their midst. The risk of revealing the apparatus had to be taken. There was no alternative.

Gil found the agent and took him aside where they could talk in private.

“You are about to witness something that must never be written down in your account of the journey. Can you keep a secret that the crew shares with me?”

Hanbal’s face took on an expression of profound surprise and startlement.

“Everyone aboard this ship is a Christian, that I have confirmed. Let me pledge my word on the Holy Cross that I shall never write anything but what is approved by you, my dear Captain. Nothing beyond that shall be put down by me.”

“Good,” grinned the leader of the expedition. “Now, the adamant by which we will navigate can be set up on the deck and utilized.”

Two of the sailors placed a low table near the bow. A copper bowl full of water was brought forward and carefully put on it. Then, Gil led the caliph’s man to the front of the water-filled metal bowl.

“A reed, floating upon the liquid, will hold my adamant stone,” announced the geographer.

From another pocket, Gil took a tiny wooden box, opened it, and lifted out what looked like a black needle. He took his time placing the compass piece on the floating reed in the water.

When he was done, he stepped back and whispered to the astonished Mozarab.

“As you can see, the adamant spins about for a short time. But it finds what it is seeking and comes to a rest. The aphron end of the needle is pointing to the north, and the zoron end seeks the south. There are small markings on the edge of the bowl that indicate the degrees of direction. The entire circle forms what is called the alhidade of the earth. It includes all angles of possible navigation.”

Gil signaled to a sailor, who brought forth the Ptolemaic maps and charts that showed the remembered location of the Fortunate Islands.

“We shall point the carrack toward this destination,” commanded Gil. “Our prayer to God is that He guides our way to the Isles of the Blest, with clear skies and smooth sea.”

Gil and the tall man writing the record of the voyage stood alone at the prowl, watching the sun set. The Atlantica had been placid all day, as if welcoming them to its aquatic kingdom.

“Our present bearing will take the vessel directly to the Fortunates,” said the Gallego. “It is now only a matter of time and patience. What do you think we will find there, my friend?”

“That remains to be seen. We must be prepared for whatever God places before us.” Hanbal smiled broadly. “Yes, I remain a faithful Christian, despite what I wear and the language I used back in Andalusia. Many people have changed under the caliphs of Cordoba. But I keep my old identity as it was before the coming of the present rulers.”

“But most of our former powers and liberties are lost, I understand. Church activity is restricted. No public displays or celebrations are permitted in Andalusia.”

For a while, the Mozarab was silent.

“We have been fortunate that our conquerors at first showed a high degree of toleration. Hakan II has been an enlightened monarch. His thirst for knowledge is the reason for this expedition of ours. As to what will come later, only God knows for certain.”

Twelve busy years passed as if in a flash. Exploration consumed every moment, leaving no time for contemplation. Hanbal wrote down the main events. How the natives of the Fortunates appeared on the shore and befriended the visitors. With their aid, the expedition went on to survey all seven of the islands in the group. There were forests to cross and mountains to climb. Gil, with the aid of Hanbal, mapped and described in detail all that they saw and studied. The native language was mastered. The islanders appeared to resemble the Berbers of North Africa, but they had no memory of where they originated.

Gil was ready to return to Cadiz when something unexpected happened.

Natives told him of another group of islands. They lay to the north and west. A decision was immediately made to sail to what were described as the Purple Islands. “It is our duty to travel there and see what they hold in store,” advised Hanbal, who had become an extremely adventurous searcher for the novel and unknown.

These Purple Islands proved to be uninhabited, but rich in the variety of trees and plants. Gil and Hanbal both turned into naturalists with curiosity about the wild flora and fauna of an environment that never changed and was uncontaminated by man.

Returning to the Fortunates after a year away, Gil made plans to sail back to Iberia, but something new intervened.

A native legend was discovered which told of still another group of isles in the ocean, the Western Islands.

“We must press on into the Atlantica again,” Hanbal advised the geographer. “Who can say what we might find there?”

Gil nodded yes. “I agree. Another voyage even further westward is necessary.”

A second series of islands, many days to the west at an enormous distance, was mapped out and the native tribes there studied.

:We are still in the Mare Externis,” speculated the Gallego. “But I believe that Sinae and Chipangu must be very near.”

“Yes, our voyages have taken us close toward the eastern continental mainland,” agreed the historian of the expedition. “Some day, other vessels will see the port cities of those mighty empires. But we have delayed our return home for years. Is it not time to go back to Cordoba and inform the caliph of all these discoveries of unknown peoples and islands?”

“Twelve years have been enough,” said Gil. “Everyone longs to return home.”

In the late summer of 981 A.D., the carrack believed lost at sea entered the harbor of Cadiz. The people of the port were stunned by the return of the vessel. Ghosts from the past seemed to disembark. The harbor master had the survivors taken to the best inn in town to eat and rest. Everyone marveled at the tale the voyagers told.

Gil de Vigo asked for horses for an immediate journey to Cordoba. There was no time to lose, for Caliph Hakan must hear their story of discoveries. Speed was of the essence.

“But Hakan is dead five years,” announced the harbor chief. “Andalusia is governed by his former first minister, al-Mansur. Everything has changed since you departed. Nothing is the same in the land. Everything is altered.”

Himself a Christian Mozarab, the head official proceeded to relate a tale of misfortune for his people under the new regime.

Mansur, a lawyer in Cordoba, had ingratiated himself with the former caliph, obtaining a high position in the court of Hakan II.

His rapid rise had occurred with the support of Subh, the favorite wife of the caliph.

Mansur, in time, became the chief minister. But he had to share his power with Subh and his own father-in-law, Ghalib. The latter was known as the protector of the rights of the Christian population of Andalusia. A brutal rivalry for supreme power ensued when Hakan died, Mansur against Ghalib.

Ghalib enjoyed the support of the Mozarabs, for he would have continued the religious toleration of Caliph Hakan. But in a final armed battle, victory fell to Mansur, who depended on Berber mercenaries, fierce and fiery fanatics for their Faith.

“The Christian communities today tremble in fear,” muttered the harbor master of Cadiz.

“What is going to happen next?” asked Hanbal with concern.

“The Berbers around Mansur hate the Mozarabs, calling them infidel devils. There are theologians in their party who call for immediate mass conversion, using force to accomplish it. A terrible threat hangs over all the Christians of Andalusia like a sword.”

A shadow fell over the face of the port official.

Gil suddenly sprang to his feet, turning his face to Hanbal.

“What shall we do now?” he demanded.

“Proceed to Cordoba at once,” thoughtfully said the other. “We must report in person to the man who has become the new caliph. That is our moral duty.”

The towering dome of the Great Mosque gleamed with an almost celestial golden color. It dominated the landscape of the capital of Andalusia, where an unknown but threatening fate hung over all Christians.

Gil and Hanbal found quarters in the Mozarabic section of Cordoba and waited to be summoned by the new caliph to inform him about their years of exploration of Atlantica.

Both men spent hours in silent brooding. Both of them had a sense of impending catastrophe, for the long period of peace and tolerance had come to an end. Pain and desolation for the Christians seemed inevitable. The former balance could not survive Mansur and his Berber fanatics. The future appeared to promise nothing but ruin.

Hanbal had been meditating on the cruelty of fate all one afternoon, when Gil entered after a short walk outside through the empty city streets.

“It is deadly quiet out there,” groaned the geographer. “The city was never so silent in the past that I remember. The old life of Cordoba no longer exists. A cloak of fear, a fatal poison falls over everything and everyone. The people sense the approach of a stormy event that cannot be averted. The shadow of terror is everywhere in the city. There is no escape from it.”

Hanbal looked up at him. “The situation looks hopeless, like when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt. But there is no Moses to lead our Christian brothers and sisters to a promised land, is there?”

A sudden fiery flame seemed to blaze in front of the hazel eyes of the Gallego. “Perhaps…perhaps…there is a refuge…a sanctuary…” he said in a stuttering voice.

Hanbal stared at him in amazement. “What are you thinking, dear friend?”

The two of them hesitated, wrestling with difficult thoughts. They both realized that they were dealing with the identical idea. The same means of salvation rose in the minds of the two men.

“To the islands of the Atlantica?” guessed the Mozarab.

Gil moved close to the table at which the other was sitting. “With enough vessels, we could take many,” he whispered. “Perhaps not everyone, but those who wish to flee the threat of conversion by force.

“Those who sail with us can never come back. They will never see Andalusia again.”

Gil’s face became a cold, solid mask. “It may turn out to be too difficult to convince Mansur to permit a migration from his realm. He may not see and accept reason. The benefit to himself may not be evident to such a zealot. Who can predict what his reaction will be?”

“The clergy,” said Hanbal, “they most of all must be saved. And there are thousands of believers who might be willing to risk the sea for the sake of their religion.

“But first, we must make our plea before the caliph,” frowned the geographer.

“Yes, all depends upon convincing him that it will be in his interest.”

Hanbal did not reply, understanding that the burden would fall mainly on himself.

Days passed without a summons from the palace. Both Gil and Hanbal made visits to the Christian quarter of the city, testing popular opinion through conversation with strangers. It was Hanbal who picked up an important fact that could be important for what they planned to accomplish.

“The mother of Mansur happens to be a Christian who was concubine to a high Arab official. She now lives here in Cordoba, a secluded widow. If I could only speak to her! She might help convince her son to accept our plan for an Exodus to Atlantica. That could become the decisive factor in all of this.”

“There must be a way of finding and approaching her,” said Gil. “Perhaps we could write her a letter.”

A better means is needed,” opined the Mozarab. “I will inquire among the Christian clergy and leaders whether anyone has access to this woman. There must be some avenue of communication. But time is short for us. At any hour we could be called to the palace.”

“Yes, we will have to act quickly,” mused Gil.

Hanbal hurried off, his hopes pinned on locating the mother of the caliph.

The command came one early morning, when least expected.

An escort of elite guards accompanied the pair to the audience chamber of the sovereign of Andalusia.

Mansur, seated on a magnificent jeweled throne, was a light-complected athlete with penetrating yellowish-brown eyes. His hair was blonder than that of all but a handful of his subjects. His robe was a sparkling bright red, while his large turban was deep purple.

After formal greetings, the caliph asked Hanbal to summarize their twelve years of exploration of the Atlantica.

“Using the ancient knowledge of Pliny and Ptolemy, our geographer guided our ship over the depths to unknown islands. His calculations proved correct. In less than three weeks, we landed in the Fortunate Islands.”

He went on to describe each of the separate isles of the group, then proceeded to the voyage to the Purple Islands. Then, following legends heard from natives of the Fortunates, the ship sailed far into the Atlantica, to the Western Islands, where no human beings lived.

“We left a carved rock claiming all these places for the caliphate. They all lay at your feet, Sire. When your subjects become established permanently on them, these new lands will add greatly to the wealth of your throne. In consultation with Captain de Vigo, we have devised a plan for future settlement…”

“Future settlement!” burst out the caliph in anger. “What are you talking about? What do you mean with such words?”

A tense silence fell over the audience room.

Gil decided to risk exposing the truth of their migration plan.

“It will be achievable, Sire. If I had a squadron of carracks, I could transport large numbers of settlers to these isles in the Atlantica. They could feed and cloth themselves there with ease. The soil is rich and crops are abundant. I foresee taking herds of sheep there to be grazed. Great wealth can be produced and then shipped back to Andalusia.

“May I suggest that people of the formerly Christian, now Mozarab community should be willing to send young recruits to do the hard work necessary to build towns with houses on the empty land. The present Christian population here will decline as more of their members move to the Atlantica settlements. Andalusia can then become a genuine Moslem paradise.”

Mansur turned to Hanbal with a strange gleam in his eyes. “Is it your idea I hear from the Gallego? What is the real purpose of this fantastic scheme?”

Hanbal answered slowly and carefully.

“We hear of rising religious strife and conflict everywhere. No blot must ever be permitted on the fame and glory of Andalusia. Our reputation for honor must be maintained as it came down to us from the past. It is wise to avert future trouble through timely migration of the Christian and Mozarab groups. The Christian clergy and their most fervent followers can be thinned out through movement to the new lands that will still remain under your authority and laws. Your realm will span the waters of the Atlantica.”

All of a sudden, the caliph looked confused. “I must think on this,” he muttered.

From a recessed, almost invisible doorway behind the throne, came an old, ghostly voice.

“I shall help you sort all of this out, my son. You must think deeply about what you have heard. I shall work with you to reach a wise decision on this question. This is a most important matter, for it will determine the future destiny of beloved Andalusia and all of Iberia.”

A short, bent woman in dark clothing stepped forward, stopping at the side of the startled Mansur.

“Mother, what are you doing here?” asked the caliph. “I am surprised to see you present. You are most welcome here, of course.”

He rubbed his blond beard, then turned to the two petitioners before him.

“I have to consider all aspects of what you have said today. It is a hard, complicated decision to make. The Koranic scholars of the Grand Mosque and its school must be asked their opinion.” He turned to the old woman who had stepped forward as if out of nowhere. “We will discuss this idea together, Mother.”

He nodded to the two explorers in front of him, abruptly dismissing them.

In the years to come, Mansur led fifty victorious invasions into the Christian kingdoms to the north. In 997 A.D., he devastated the shrine of St. James of Compostela, and went on to take Lem, Pamplona, and Barcelona.

His death in 1002 A.D. saw the entire peninsula overrun with religious persecution and violence.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Christians and Mozarabs found a haven on the distant islands of the Atlantica.

The successors to Gil de Vigo and Hanbal al-Abarcas continued the explorations westward, where two new continents were in time discovered, but that is another story.

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