The Nomad (Part 2)
Chapter 2 "Customs"
Chapter 2 "Customs"
The journey down the Euphrates passed quickly, their destination the city of Ur, namesake of his hometown in the north was at the southern end of the Chaldean basin, to the North the more famous Babylon dominated; Abram detested Babylon and all it stood for, they were the ones that started the last rebellion against God and sworn enemies of all of the true faith. Hating them was one thing, but as a businessman he couldn’t let that get in the way, he still had to make a living.
Abram’s family lineage went back as far as Shem who had come down this way not long after the great act of pride and stupidity in building the huge tower to the worship of man and the heavens in Babylon and the division that God had brought as a result. The last eyewitness of the great flood, yet they’d driven him far away and the tribe had moved to where they live now.
Bab-el literally meant ‘Door of God’ and that’s what they’d intended with the tower, a gateway through which man would become his own ‘god’ but instead it came to mean confusion.
The checkpoint was a half a day from the city, just where they needed to slow down and take more care as the river widened out. The river may have widened but with the same volume of water it meant it was shallower.
“Suppose we’d better take the thieving scum aboard” the Captain spat the words out, he hated the officials they were waiting for, and “the biggest thieves alive” was the common belief about the Babylonian officials who collected revenue from the traders.
“We protect you from the scourge of Pirates on the river” was the official reason but no one ever remembered there being pirates that weren’t from Babylon and wearing the uniform of that city. All the traders saw was officials getting richer and boats being confiscated along with throats slit for the smallest infraction.
“Better not give them any excuse!” Abram shrugged at the two others he was standing with, the helmsman held the rudder and the captain stood just in front by the rail. There was nothing either to do but ‘pay the piper’, running the blockade would likely end in disaster at the other end when they tried to leave Babylonian territory.
Leaning against the rail the captain, Abdul a large man with bright red hair and a temper to match shouted at the men in the bow of the ship. ‘Heave to lads’ as the helmsman turned for shore. Gliding in the helmsman held his course right until it looked as if the ship would ram the banks, at the last moment he heaved the huge rudder in the opposite direction, the ship gently glided alongside the wharf, three of the men jumped ashore with the huge guy rope, quickly securing the bow of the ship to the mooring, then sprinting to the stern they caught the mooring rope in mid stride and finished securing alongside, as soon as the two mooring ropes were secure the crew started throwing the smaller ones ashore, the three of them took a matter of seconds to secure each one.
As soon as the last of the four mooring ropes were secured Abdul gave orders for the gangplank to be lowered.
“Now we wait” Abram almost spat the words, addressing no one in particular, but then turning to Abul. “Make sure that the crew stays onboard tonight, I don’t want any trouble with the authorities” he looked around the ship. He wasn’t going ashore either, but it needed to be said. No one wanted trouble they were brutal here and besides Abram had taken care of their liquid needs, there was plenty of cheaper wine for the crew, and even some beer.
“Yes sir” the captain replied, the only people to hate the Babylonian tax authorities more than a trader were the sailors. They earned an honest days wages on the boats only to have the thieves called tax collectors take a cut for nothing
A horn blew announcing the arrival of an official. “Here come the thieves” even Jared who wasn’t known for hating anyone couldn’t stop himself from hating the officials here, maybe the fact that he was from a long line of river traders who all hated the new system of raising revenue on the river had colored his thinking. The fact that he was technically a slave and it wasn’t his wealth never entered his head.
There were three ways you became a slave, (1) you were born into it. (2) You were taken in battle and sold into slavery or (3) you got into debt and couldn’t pay, that’s what happened to Jared’s family, debt had come knocking and soon they were rounded up by the local ruler and sold to pay his debts. That was ten years before and his first master had been a harsh Babylonian, his gift with figures hadn’t gone unnoticed but that Babylonian had wanted men for his fields so as soon as a trader came along who could use a good head for figures he was sold at an exorbitant price to Abram, they’d been friends ever since.
Looking out over the crowd they could see the official being carried in a large chair, four slaves were holding the chair at shoulder height while a fifth was stood on a platform behind the chair and holding what looked like a palm frond shading the occupier from the sun.
The chair was stopped just as it got level with the gangplank, ‘Pity’ they all thought but no one dared say, ‘Might have been amusing to see him go over’
The slaves slowly lowered the seat and the official leaned forward and pushed himself out of the chair. A small frame with a large midsection and bald on top, he almost looked efficient.
“I am Abuk, humble servant and official of the Great King of Babylon whose realm you are travelling through. You are travelling through the Kingdom of the great King of Babylon” the official seemed to be reading the words from an invisible tablet, his eyes were little more than slits, but he wasn’t missing a thing. “On the river that is guarded and patrolled day and night to protect it from Bandits and thieves, therefore it is only right that you pay a portion to the upkeep of the forces that keep you safe” he looked around as if to make clear who was in charge.
Abram stepped forward and bowed a sweeping bow, ‘Thank you for the great privilege, oh servant of the Great King” sounding like he believed it, but really they all knew the truth and who the bandits were. “Please, shall we retire to discuss matters” he reached for the curtain of the cabin and pulled it back, exposing the soft cushions and the cool air in the tent.
The official began to move towards the tent, not quite a walk but more like a waddle from side to side as he moved forward.
As soon as they were sat a servant appeared with the beaker of cold water for each of them, as custom dictates Abram let the official choose the first, the guest gets the choice because they can choose the coldest drink.
As soon as the water was drunk another, not quite so cool drink was brought, on Abram’s orders a jar of wine was opened and poured, the negotiations always went better when the guest thought he was appreciated.
“This wine’s a good one!” Abuk stated. “No doubt it’s come from Egypt, is that right?”
“Canaan, eminence” Abram tried a little flattery; after all, with most officials it goes a long way. “The trader I purchased it from said it was the finest that the Sea peoples produce, but I bought it in Damascus”
“And the copper ingots, no doubt they are from the mines in the desert between Egypt and Canaan?” he sounded very businesslike; Abram could see the eyes calculating how much he would pocket from this venture. “You must have paid a high price for so much”
“The cities of the plains have a growing thirst for metals with which to make tools eminence” he countered. “I try to supply what I can!”
“And weapons” Abuk continued almost without a break, “we all know the problems further along the river. That’s why we patrol our river, to protect those who use it” he leaned forward to put the beaker down, a servant stepped forward and re-filled it; he waived his hand telling the servant when to stop. “But such protection comes at a high price”
“Many have paid with their lives to keep our river free of pirates and bandits.”
“But we must honor those who have made that sacrifice, we must be vigilant against the pirate, and supply those entrusted with our protection with the tools to do the job, don’t you agree?’ the official leaned forward giving a conspiratorial nod, as if they were plotting a major endeavor from which all mankind would benefit.
Abram knew the rules, he would either pay the ‘contribution’ or lose his cargo and possibly his life, all he could hope to do was negotiate a fair price. “But how to put a price on the ultimate sacrifice” was his reply. They all knew that not one penny would go to the families of those who had been killed to make the river safe; most of it would go to the official and the captain of the guard with about a third going to the King.
It took most of the morning, but eventually they agreed to a price. Five gold coins would be paid into the treasury and five were to be given to Abuk for ‘safekeeping’
The rest of the business was finished by mid afternoon, but it was decided not to sail until the following morning.
Normal crews were half ‘freedmen’ (ex slaves who had earned their freedom) and slaves. This crew was different; there were no slaves on the ship. Abdul owned the ship, and he knew he had the right to keep slaves if he wanted, he even used to, but Abram’s family was his main customer and he was told categorically, “No slaves on ships carrying our goods!” He didn’t argue, besides he’d realized that slave or free, he paid the same as even slaves needed to eat, this way he got eager workers who’d look after themselves and save the money needed for beer instead of him having to provide!
Abdul took charge of making sure that the ship and it’s cargo were well protected, he drew straws to find eight from the crew who would guard the cargo. They would work in four shifts, two starting with sunset, then at the third hour, sixth and the ninth. That way each would also get a good rest. The rest got a good night’s sleep (after a little wine).
First light saw everyone back on board and the ship ready for the final leg of the journey. Abdul in charge, but Abram was stood right next to him, listening and learning everything he could about sailing and the river, he had a thirst for knowledge that never seemed to be satiated, always questioning why things were done one way when there might be another way of doing it.
“Stand by to cast off forward” Abdul bellowed to the men on the docks at the front, he needed to get it right or the current would smash them into the wharf, “Cast off forward!” the three of them lifted the huge vine-like rope and hurled it back onto the ship. Running to the aft they got ready to take the aft rope off. “Cast off aft” Abdul’s voice rang out, though it wasn’t really needed as they knew what to do. As soon as the role was loose they threw it and jumped on board and began winding the ropes up for stowage.
As soon as both ropes were on board Abdul swung the tiller and started to bring the ship into the middle of the river, the nose gracefully swinging out until the wind as soon as they were mid-river Abdul pushed the opposite way lining up in the water catching the current but straight in the water. They all felt the gentle and re-assuring movement as the ship gained speed. As soon as they were mid-river the oars were deployed.
Long slow strokes were kept in time with the beat of a drum made of deer hide stretched taut over a wooden frame, there was a rhythm to the beat that the men could easily keep and talk at the same time. Along with this two boys ran up and down the deck with skins of water for any man who wanted a drink, there were no slaves on this ship and everyone was given the same attention as the next, that was the rule..
“I’ll be glad to be out of here” Abram returned his look. “It’ll be good to Catch up with Dirwan.”
“Any chance of a bride this time?” Abdul knew that Abram wasn’t yet married; he was getting close to the age when people began to wonder if he ever would marry! Everyone knew that Dirham and Abram’s family did so much business together cementing it with a marriage was the best way to secure the long term.
Marriage wasn’t something that young people were entrusted with working out, far too much depended on it for it to be the sole preserve of one young person to make the mind up on. Especially when there was a family with wealth to think about! Marriage for the son of the leader of the clan was something for the whole clan to be involved in the planning of; after all it was their lives and safety that depended on it!
Terah and Dirham’s families weren’t just wealthy; they had great wealth that rivaled that of the greatest of the kings! A future wife had not only to look after her husband, but she had to have great wisdom to help her future husband make the right decisions for his family and clan.
Terah had more than one wife, most of them lived with the clan, but a couple of them he’d married on his trading trips in order to cement good trading relationships, those wives were his and he was responsible for their keep, but they were under the protection of the clans with whom he traded. All Abram knew was that she would come from one of those clans. He didn’t even know if she would be a relative as she could also be a political marriage, though knowing his father he doubted it would be totally true, Terah was the kind of man who always wanted to do the best for his family and somehow he just knew that the one Terah chose would be one he would really like, and who knows, maybe one day there would be love.
“All this day dreaming isn’t going to get us there any sooner is it?” Jared smiled poking fun, enjoying his master’s discomfort, not something a servant would normally get away with.
“Neither is it going to hinder us Good Jared” Abram turned facing him with his own smile; he enjoyed the friendship with Jared, in many ways they were kindred spirits. “The ship can’t go faster than with the current from Elohim, even when the men’s oars try to give a hand”
“Elohim” the ever living and self existent one, the source of all creation and the sustainer of all, this was the God that Abram believed in, he wasn’t one to accept the many deities that had sprung up since the great deluge that had almost wiped out men, in a vain effort to try to explain all the things that man has no understanding of he invented beings with greater powers but human failings to try and understand and eventually control.
Some of the statues were hideous to him, he often wanted to smash them just to challenge the powers behind them and show that they were just empty pieces of stone or wood, but that was for another time and a quicker boat.
The crew began to settle in to the routine. The sail was unfurled as soon as the wind was strong enough and a slow easy stroke was so that the crew could go for distance and stamina over speed, they would out of Babylonian territory by mid morning.
“When will we make Ur?” Jared asked.
“If your God is with us” Abdul replied as he made a small adjustment on the tiller. He was a seaman, he accepted all the ‘gods’ as long as they didn’t hinder his ship, though he only truly believed in one. “We should be there by nightfall”
That sounded good to all. It wasn’t wishful thinking either as only a day’s journey by camel separated the two great cities, though with the differences in culture and status it they might be at opposite sides of the world.
Ur was the trading centre, a place built on the wealth of the merchants that plied their trade with each other, it was a central meeting place where the spices and linens from the east encountered the coppersmiths and metalworkers from the west, not to mention the gold and precious stones that come from lands far to the south, even across a large and dangerous sea that no one has ever found the south shore to! Strange creatures and woods from the North, it is even said that some places will happily sell you a relic of the mythical Ark that protected men long ago when the gods were angry and sent a flood.
Babylon was the military force in the region, for many years they had kept Babylon at bay gaining from any technology learned by the merchants and artisans of Ur. But with the fall of Sumer Babylon had risen to take over the void whether they wanted it or not.
Having the political capital strong enough to force it’s own will on the area hadn’t gone well and deep divisions had begun to take place as Babylon tried slowly at first to take more and more power away from the other cities.
The last two standing were Ur and Lagash, Ur had done so because of technology they’d been able to keep from Babylon, so their technology gave redress to Babylon’s numbers, Lagash had been able to withstand because of it’s remoteness, and the fact that it was on the banks of the great Tigris river thus anyone wanting to attack from Babylon had either to go past Ur or march through a desert which few could cross, let alone a whole army!
By mid morning the forts on the Babylonian side were sighted, ships met them mid river to check that they’d paid their customs dues, soon they were out of Babylon and in the land that was nominally under Ur’s control, orders were given to place the weapons back on deck with easy access for every crew member, Ur gave the right of defense to every ship owner, if they didn’t want to lose their cargo then it was up to them to defend it as Ur didn’t maintain an army or navy to do that.
What are your thoughts?
This is chapter 2 in my experiment of whether I can write a novel on the life of Abram. Granted a lot of the details are purely the figment of my imagination but I'd like to get your thoughts on the novel so far (A good way to learn is get feedback) so please leave a comment.
If this is the first hub of mine you've come across there is a 'Part 1' to have a look at as well.
'Part 3' to follow soon