MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Southern Erythraean Sea (present-day Red Sea) during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, 584 BC
The man with the braided beard lurched forward, his hands on his knees, panting hard. Even his breathing seemed cracked, desiccated, like the hard crust of salt on the foreshore around him, as if the skin of the earth were burning and peeling away with his own. The sun had nearly reached its zenith, and it was as hot as the very furnace of Ba’al Hammon in Carthage, at the place of sacriﬁce where he and his crew had made offerings a lifetime ago at the start of their voyage. For a moment he wondered whether he was back there still, whether the torment of the past weeks had been nothing more than a nightmare inﬂicted on him by the gods, a punishment for sailing to lands so far beyond the Pillars of Hercules that even the gods themselves held no sway.
He shut his eyes, feeling them smart with the dryness, seeing the white blotches of blindness that had begun to appear over the last few days. He opened them again, blinking hard against the light that reﬂected off the cracked mosaic of salt around his feet. This was no nightmare, but it was far beyond any reality he had ever experienced before. He turned around, staggering, and shielded his eyes with one hand against the glare, seeing the distant form of his ship where it had heeled over and held fast in the shallows, and in the other direction the hazy forms of his four companions, two of them struggling with their burden as they made their way across the salt ﬂats toward the mountains. The heat shimmer on the ﬂats had made him think of the mirages he had seen as a boy in the desert south of Carthage, and had given him a spark of hope that he might one day make it back there alive. He tried licking his lips, but his tongue was like sandstone. He had to reach the foothills and ﬁnd water soon, or die.
He staggered forward again, shouldering the sack that contained their meager remaining provisions: a few dried ﬁsh, handfuls of wild grain collected during their last foray ashore, some nuts and roots. The other ships of the ﬂeet seemed a distant memory now, ships full of grain and amphorae of olive oil and wine to stock the outposts they had established along the desert shore beyond the Pillars of Hercules, seeking the place the Greeks called Chrysesephon, the Land of Gold. They had found it, a beach where the native traders brought them nuggets of river gold as big as a man’s ﬁst, gold they were willing to trade for textiles dyed with the royal purple of Tire. But instead of turning back then, their coffers ﬁlled, he had ordered the remaining ships to carry on, past burning mountains crowned with rivers of red, past rivers teeming with ﬁsh with teeth like lions’, along a desolate sandy shore strewn with the skeletons of whales where the other three ships had all been driven to destruction in a terrible storm, sweeping the men shrieking and yelling into the pounding surf to join the rotting carcasses that lined the shore as far as the eye could see.
His was the only ship to make the southern cape, the very extremity of Africa, a stormy, rocky pinnacle pounded by the surf where they had erected a pillar with a bronze plaque dedicated to Ba’al Hammon before turning northeast and sailing up the far shore. He had wept there, thinking of his brother Himilco. Three years earlier they had stood together at the Pillars of Hercules, drinking wine and eating olives, planning the greatest trading expeditions ever undertaken. Himilco would sail north to the Cassiterides, the Tin Isles, with elephant ivory and textiles and olive oil. If he could ﬁnd the source of the tin the Greek middlemen brought to Massalia, then they could bypass the overland route through Gaul and ship it directly to the Mediterranean, monopolizing the trade. If he himself, Hanno, could sail south and ﬁnd Chrysesephon, they would be doubly blessed, and great fortune and fame would be theirs.
But then, as they had assembled their ships, from Gades, from Carthage, from their ancestral homeland in far-off Phoenicia, another mission had befallen them. The ships of Tire and Sidon in Phoenicia had brought news of the fall of the kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians, of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. And one of the ships had brought something else, something that had led him to this place at the edge of existence, an artifact whose form he could just see being carried ahead of him through the haze toward the mountains: the greatest treasure of the people of Judah, the box that contained the holy testament of their God, the golden shrine that they called the Ark of the Covenant.
He swallowed, wincing with the pain in his throat, and glanced back one last time at his ship. She was already settling into the ooze, the painted eyes on either side of her prow staring up at the mountains, her mast raked forward where they had laid it for the ﬁnal run ashore. She had served them well, her tightly caulked hull waterproof like skin, supple and strong, made from the cedar of Phoenicia that the shipwrights still preferred at Carthage, timber that kept away shipworm and would not rot like the others. No other ship had sailed this far from the Pillars of Hercules, had endured such winds and mighty seas, had kept true to the course when all else seemed against them. He had kissed her prow and wept as he left her, taking a fragment of wood from the hull to place inside the next ship he would construct at Carthage, if Ba’al Hammon willed that he should survive. His last act had been to scratch his name and that of his brother on an amphora sherd and toss it into the sea behind the ship, just as they had done together that day at the Pillars of Hercules, as the sign of their pact.
He hoped that Himilco had been as lucky with his ship, built at Gades by Iberian wrights in the Atlantic fashion, with a ﬂatter bottom so that she could rest upright on the foreshore when the tide was out. He had wondered about the shallow depth of her keel, whether she would hold course with a wind on her beam in the way that his own ship had. When he saw his brother again, when Himilco too had returned from his great voyage, they would use all their newly won experience to design the best ship to withstand the ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Then they would undertake the ultimate voyage they had dreamed of that day together, sailing at the head of a great ﬂeet for the fabled shore they knew lay far across the open ocean to the west.
He remembered the day of their departure from Carthage almost two years before, a morning of shimmering seas when the air was clear of dust from the desert and the sun glinted off the bronze on the temples, the marble blindingly bright. They had rowed their ships slowly through the landlocked harbor, past the crowded vessels of their Phoenician kinsmen from Tire and Sidon who had ﬂed the onslaught of the Babylonians. Carthage had suddenly seemed unassailable, the most powerful city in the Mediterranean. They had passed the assembled magistrates and the crowd who were there to cheer them on, showering the deck with ﬂowers and olive boughs for good luck. As the beams were pulled away from the harbor entrance they had heard the ﬁrst shriek from the great bronze mouth of Ba’al Hammon on the platform above, the ﬁrst belch of smoke and whiff of roasting ﬂesh. The priests had chosen Hanno’s own nephew to propitiate their departure, and he and Himilco had watched from their ships as the infant had been held aloft and then rolled down the maw of the god into the furnace below. The screams came out from the belly as if from a huge trumpet, echoing and rebounding off the harbor walls, and the priests had raised their arms to the mountain of Bou Kornine to the east, a sure sign that the sacriﬁce had worked. Ba’al Hammon had protected Hanno on his voyage, and he had prayed every day that the eye of the god had been on Himilco too, had kept him safe and well.
He thought again of those ships of Tire and Sidon, and of the cousin from one of the ships who had sought him out one night before the voyage. With him he had brought a robed man who had revealed himself as an Israelite named Ezekiel, a prophet who had ﬂed Jerusalem before the might of Nebuchadnezzar. The king and priests of Jerusalem had entrusted Ezekiel with a sacred treasure, and he and four companions had brought it in the cousin’s ship to Carthage. Ezekiel had known of Hanno and his impending voyage, word having spread among the shipmasters of Phoenicia, and he had come to him with a proposition. Forget the riches you might make in trade, in gold and tin and whatever else it is you seek, he had said. A far greater reward will be yours if you take on my cargo, if you deliver it to the appointed place. He had spread out the contents of the sack he had been carrying, gold coins from the kingdom of Lydia, gold chains and bars, gold amulets and scarabs and masks encrusted with dazzling jewels. All of this now, and twice this amount again when you return.
He had described the destination, and Hanno had agreed. It was on his course, on the far shore of Africa, not far south of Egypt. Ezekiel had told him what to look out for on the western horizon. He and the priests had chosen the circuitous sea route because the desert to the south of Jerusalem was fraught with danger, the Babylonians having overrun Egypt and the caravan trails infested with brigands. All Hanno had to do was to deliver the cargo to a mountain called the Chariot of Fire, to the followers of Ezekiel who would be waiting there and who would escort him south to another great mountain fastness, an impregnable plateau known only to those who had gone in secret to this place from Judaea to await the arrival of their sacred treasures. There, those who had met them would take the object to a place of concealment and then return with the animal skins that had covered it, giving them to him to take back to Carthage. The skins would be ﬂecked with gold on the inside from the gilding of the object, and would be afﬁrmation to Ezekiel that the deed had been done. Hanno was to set the skins up on poles outside the temple of Ba’al Hammon as if they were trophies from some exotic animals he had taken on the voyage, and then he would receive the remainder of his payment.
And Ezekiel had given Hanno a warning. The hanging animal skin was the Egyptian sign of the imiut, a curse-offering from the cult of the black dog Anubis, guardian of the dead. When the Israelites had ﬂed Egypt, they had stolen a portable shrine for their holy objects with a life-sized statue of Anubis on top, protecting the funerary goods that had once been inside. When the Israelite prophet Moses had been instructed by their god to create a receptacle for his commandments, it was this box he had chosen, calling it the Aron Habberit, the Ark of the Covenant. Ezekiel had told Hanno this because he had known of the superstitions of sailors, of those like Hanno who knew many gods. He had said that the power of Anubis was still there, the power of the one who shall not be seen, the one whom the Egyptians always kept shrouded. He had warned that anyone who dared lift the hides and cloths that covered the Ark would be instantly struck dead. Hanno had never once looked underneath, even when they had needed to replace the rotting leopard skins covering it with new hides they found in Africa, ﬂayed from the gorilla women his men had hunted on the west coast.
Anubis was not the only god who concerned Hanno. The Israelite god, the one the Phoenicians called the God of the Testament, whose words were said to be in the Ark, was surely as much a cousin of Ba’al Hammon as he and Himilco were cousins of their kinsmen from Phoenicia and Israel itself; with the world’s most perilous sea voyage ahead of him, he could not afford to let any god rain down his wrath upon him, Egyptian or Phoenician or Israelite. Like any good Phoenician, he respected the gods of everyone with whom he traded, and always hedged his bets.
He stared ahead, feeling faint. The gorilla skins on the Ark might take Ezekiel aback, but by now they would be imprinted with its shape; they would be all the proof that was needed that the Ark had been delivered. He took another heavy step forward, cracking the encrusted shore. There was something more powerful than fear of the gods that had kept him true to his word. Ezekiel’s gold had spoken. Hanno was a Phoenician ﬁrst and foremost, with trade in his blood. Ezekiel’s gold and jewels would make him the wealthiest man in Carthage: able to afford the bounty he had promised his sister for giving up her infant for sacriﬁce, able to dedicate a new temple at the harbor entrance where he would hang the trophies of his voyage, able to make sure his brother Himilco would want for nothing if his own voyage to the Cassiterides had failed to reap a proﬁt. And Ezekiel had also known something else—that the word of a Phoenician was his true word, his covenant, as binding as that between the Israelites and their god. Hanno would do everything in his power to see his cargo delivered, and to banish all thoughts of return until then.
For now, he needed to summon his remaining energy to cross this desolate wasteland, a place where even Ba’al Hammon seemed to have forsaken him. He staggered forward another few steps, his feet crunching through the salt rind, his ankles raw and bloody from pulling them out against the crust. He tried to remember details of their voyage to keep his mind from wandering. He remembered setting up the bronze plaque on the southern cape weeks before. When they had ﬁnished, they realized that the native people had emerged from the bush and were watching them, and Hanno had ﬂung himself on the ground as if worshipping the plaque, hoping that the natives would see its sanctity and leave it intact. Their interpreter from the land of the gorillae told the people that to damage the plaque would be to bring certain death, just as Ezekiel had told Hanno about the Ark. The people, called Lembana by the interpreter, had seemed suitably awed, and had brought offerings of fresh fruit and meat that Hanno’s men had gratefully devoured, caring little that the offerings had been meant to satisfy this unknown new deity rather than their own desperate hunger and thirst.
At the cape his crew had begun to die from a mysterious ailment that had swept through them after they had stopped for water at the mouth of a river a week before. He had taken on two of the native men to bolster the remaining crew, and to help forage ashore. He knew there was every chance that he and his precious cargo might disappear without a trace, and he had decided to leave evidence of their passing. If they succeeded in delivering the Ark, the two Lembana would be released from their bond and told to make their own way back to the cape, taking the memory of what they had seen with them. On the plaque, beneath the message in Phoenician, he had used a chisel to punch in the crude shape of a hieroglyph that Ezekiel had showed him, one that would leave little doubt to any hunting him that they were on the right trail, that he had at least made it that far. To do this had not been to break the pact of secrecy with Ezekiel. The only ones ever likely to follow him would be those sent to recover the Ark, and the hieroglyph was one that only they would understand.
After many weeks of sailing they had veered northeast, around a great promontory that the local ﬁshermen called the Horn, past desolate rocky islands and then northwest through a bay that narrowed to a strait before opening out again. Hanno knew they must have passed into the southern reaches of the Erythraean Sea, with the desert expanses of Arabia on their right and the southern border of Egypt not far ahead. By the time they had reached the beginning of the salt ﬂats, only two of his crew remained alive, barely enough to steer the ship and brail the big square sail. Hanno had pressed on despite their dwindling rations, knowing that if he stopped to forage, he would almost certainly be unable to induce his men to return to the ship, to yet more misery and pain. Every day as they sailed further north he had anxiously observed the sun with his wooden backstaff, waiting for it to reach the highest point in the sky. And then at dawn on this day he had seen it, a ripple of light reﬂecting off the mountains just as Ezekiel had described it, a burning chariot racing across the western horizon: the Chariot of Fire.
He had steered the ship ashore, and prepared to abandon her. He knew that they had reached a point not far south of the land the Egyptians called Punt, near the entrance to the Erythraean Sea. He had been there years before, on an expedition down the Nile with Himilco to ﬁnd the ﬁnest elephant ivory, and he knew that if they were lucky, he and the two surviving sailors might ﬁnd a caravan route and strike out across the desert toward North Africa and their homeland. The two sailors and the Lembana had heaved the Ark off the ship, strapping the gorillae hides tightly around it and departing ahead of Hanno, who had stayed back to ﬁll the sack with anything they could consume. Parched with thirst, the sailors had underestimated the challenge of crossing the salt rind in the scorching heat. Without the two Lembana, who had shifted the sailors out of the way and taken on the burden themselves, they would have made no more than a few hundred paces, not much farther than Hanno had reached now.
He caught a glimpse of something on the salt ﬂats to the north, and stopped struggling forward, swaying to and fro, staring. It was something glistening, something ﬂashing, a wavering in the haze. For a split second he thought he saw horses, perhaps camels. He closed his eyes, and then looked again, blinking hard. It was still there. His heart began to pound even faster than it was already, and he was jarred into action. Riders from the north might bring succor, might bring food and water, might be their salvation. But this was a brutal land, a land where men showed no mercy to interlopers, and more likely they would bring death. He stared back at the mountains, trying to judge the distance. He might be lucky. The riders might still be a long way off, the specter foreshortened by mirage. By marshalling all of his remaining energy he might just make the foothills in time. The others were nearly there already with their burden, barely visible against the mountain backdrop. They could conceal themselves among the ridges and canyons of the foothills, where pursuers would only be able to follow on foot and might quickly give up. Once there, he and his men might ﬁnd game to hunt, and they would surely ﬁnd water. They could still make it.
He had sailed farther around Africa from the Pillars of Hercules than any explorer had done before. He had been entrusted with a mission, a cargo to discharge, and as a Phoenician, he could never default on that trust. But he had another covenant, too. It was a covenant with his brother, a pact to return and gaze together once again over the great expanse of the ocean, to tell stories of what they had seen and where they had gone, to exult in their adventures. Himilco, he knew, might reach as far as Ultima Thule, a place where the sky itself was said to be frozen, rippling with blue like the sea ice; in return, he would expect no less of Hanno than the circumnavigation of Africa. They were traders, to be sure, but they were also explorers, driven by the quest to see what lay just beyond the horizon. Hanno would summon up every last drop of energy to push himself forward, to live for the day when he would see his brother again. His was a covenant with survival.
He began to hear a distant beating, like the drums on the walls of Carthage before a sacriﬁce. He was unsure whether it was coming from the riders or was the sound of the blood pounding in his own ears. Out of the haze from the direction of the riders a camel lurched past, its burden hunched forward, blood pulsing from a gaping wound that had stained his robe a vivid red. Hanno stared at him as he carried on south, watching the spray of salt dust each time the camel’s hooves pounded through the crust, then turned again to look at the man’s pursuers. One of them, with long dark hair, brandished a whip, and the others had blades that ﬂashed in the sun, their robes billowing behind them like one continuous sheet of white rippling along the seashore. For a moment he was caught between two intersecting worlds: one that would surely see his lifeblood spilled here beside his ship, the other that might offer hope, that might mean a chance of survival.
He dropped his sack and began to run.
Copyright © 2017 by David Gibbins