“Yeshu’a!” This time the voice seemed to come from a distance.
“Who speaks my name?” asked Yeshu’a, looking around him as he rose to his feet and stumbled further and further into the darkness. Still no reply came, but he sensed it was his inner voice.
He could just about make out the shapes of those sleeping by the dying embers of fires nearby. “Answer me. Who speaks?”
Again, receiving no reply, he began to doubt himself. He sank to his knees and thought of his father, Joseph, whom he had admired greatly. He recalled being told of the flight Murree - then in her ‘teens, and Joseph in his mid forties - had made to this land twelve years previous. They had settled in the Egyptian coastal town of Canopus, in a house close to the temple of Serapis, a Roman deity.
Yeshu’a fingered the small wooden carving of a sheep, hanging around his neck by a leather thong. It had hung there since he received it from his father when he was aged two. His father, while being a carpenter by trade, was particularly skilled at wood carvings. His fame spread, not for the quality of the household furniture he made, but for the exquisite polished carvings of exotic birds and animals. These graced the homes of the wealthy and many other examples held pride of place in the temples of the major cities along the North African coast, including the temples in the Royal city of Alexandria.
Yeshu’a called the little sheep carving, ‘Baa-Baa’, to the delight of his mother. “Be a good shepherd to him now, Yeshu’a,” she would say, with a tender smile.
“Baa-Baa,” he would say sweetly to it, as he lovingly stroked the carving.
He recalled when he was of four years old being enrolled into the school of the Essenes, a esoteric Judean brotherhood, whose members embraced non-violence, enjoying a high moral reputation, and who were opposed to the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The monastery was in Mataria, many miles distant from his home, so to be near Yeshu’a, Murree and Joseph departed with the family from Canopus, and settled near the monastery, where Joseph resumed his work under the shadow of a mountain where Romans had built a temple dedicated to their god Jupiter.
Mataria, which lies just six miles from Cairo on the right bank of the Nile, near Heliopolis, was sheltered by rows of balsam trees which were reputed to have been planted by Cleopatra many years previous, from cuttings taken from Jericho and tended by Judean gardeners brought from Judaea for the purpose. When Joseph arrived there, he felt kinship in the community of his fellow-countrymen, all, like him, exiles from their homeland.
This area was known far and wide for its herbs and balms used in healing; balsam from Mataria formed the basis of the ingredient in the elaborate holy oil, prepared by the Essenes, for healing and comforting the sick. The Essenes also created a communal social structure which involved sharing their grain harvest, which was kept in a common stock treasury.
This structure within the Essene Order was, generally speaking, monastic and was divided into four degrees, or levels. The lowest level was often made-up of adopted children, since Essenes rarely married. Neither did they speak to each other upon rising before sunrise, but met for prayers prior to their breakfast. After working day-long in the fields they would wash feet and hands, before dining together and change into white robes which they never discarded until they were thoroughly worn out! This Brotherhood was widely spread throughout Egypt and the Middle East.
Yeshu’a felt an emptiness within as he contemplated all this, knowing he may never return to this haven of peace. The dry sand that flowed now through his fingers as he sat in the dawning light of the desert, gently fingering ‘Baa-Baa’, made him long all the more, for the rich earth of the Nile basin, and the sweet smelling herbs from which the sacred myrrh ointment, the special pink spice, was made. This exquisite and expensive oil, eagerly sought by the rich, was important to the ceremonies in temples throughout the Mediterranean area, and was also used for embalming, (-the symbolic gift of death). While it was highly prized it was equally highly complicated in its preparation. The herbs and spices, including lilies and cassia, mixed with balsam from Mataria, were steeped in fresh water for a full day, while on the following day eight pounds of pure olive oil is being poured over the herbs to boil all day over a fire lit with olive wood. While it continues to boil, other aromatic herbs, rose petals, and white sandal-wood, are added and boiled, for three days, four days, and on the fifth day, having had many more herbs and spices added, the mixture is allowed to cool, then strained through a linen cloth and the chrism becomes ready for consecration; at this stage being worth a king’s ransom, it is said.
The sands surrounding Yeshu’a, now began to glow with the golden light of a new day. Standing up and throwing the folded blanket over his shoulders, he headed back to the family group without discovering the source of the voice that called his name. A black raven, which was perched nearby, took flight at the sound of on-coming riders.
“Haar! Haar!” cried two young riders to their camels, as they came close to Yeshu’a. They stopped in a swirl of sand dust some distance from him, and as one of them walked his camel up close to Yeshu’a, saying, “Salaam. Are you the one known as Yeshu’a? I am Yusuf, son of A’bel. I heard my father speak of you to others last evening.”
“Blessings upon you, Yusuf,” relied Yeshu’a.
“You have been spoken of as doing wondrous things.”
“Others have done far greater things in the past than I, and others will do more in the days to come.”
Yusuf’s companion, Sabaat by name, chose not to dismount. He looked contemptuously towards Yeshu’a, but slowly drew closer. He was fifteen years, and of an age to Yusuf though with a rougher manner and dress. He wore no head-dress. His wiry curly black hair and thin beard, gave him a sinister and aggressive appearance. He called out, “Water my camel, Judean!” as if speaking to his servant. At which point James and Simon rose and walked slowly over to stand behind Yeshu’a, in a challenging pose.
“Sabaat!” Yusuf called to his friend, “One does not ask such things of a holy one.”
However, Yeshu’a replied with withering humour, “Your animal is amply watered and will carry you much further. But when you choose to carry the camel upon your own back, then I will be honoured to water you,” he said, bowing sarcastically.
The reply angered Sabaat, who saw Yeshu’a as no better than the dry sands of Sinai. Yusuf stifled a laugh, as Sabaat wheeled his camel angrily and galloped back to his place in the front of the caravan.
“You must excuse my friend, Sabaat,” Yusuf said. “He does not mean harm. He is my cousin and quick to temper.”
“Step down and eat with us before the journey.”
Yusuf tapped the front leg of the camel with his whip, the animal lowered itself to the sitting position allowing Yusuf to step off. His black and gold embroidered robes bellowed in the light morning breeze as he joined Yeshu’a and his family to a light meal of goat’s milk and figs.
“Where do you journey to,” asked Yusuf, as he bowed to Murree.
“To my sister Elizabeth’s home in Judea, and then to Jerusalem,” replied Murree, as her younger daughters inspected Yusuf’s rich robes.
“Judea is a beautiful place of peace, surrounded by hills,” Yusuf announced, as he described the fields of wheat, and gardens of date palms, figs and pomegranates. “I have been there many times, as we took the old Roman Military road through to my beloved Damascus.”
“It is many years since we journeyed to Egypt. It was during the reign of Herod,” Murree recalled, with sadness. “My husband is Joseph, the carpenter of Mataria.”
“Indeed, I have heard his name as one who created many rich carvings, much admired for their grace and beauty. He is admired by all lovers of beautiful things.”
Yusuf knew of Herod of Idumaea, called the Great, who ruled the land of Judea, as tetrarch, from 37 BC. He had built many fine buildings, he recalled, and was remembered for beautifying the temples in the area.
Murree bowed her head as she recalled a harsher King Herod in a different time. She gestured to Yusuf to eat. Just then the sun darkened and all saw the evidence of a forthcoming sand storm. Camels began their hoarse roar as the wind whipped up suddenly and whirled the cutting sands about them.
“You must cover yourselves quickly,” Yusuf shouted above the noise of the wind and flapping clothing. “Do you not have a tent?”
“No, just our blankets,” replied Murree, as she assisted the younger children under their blankets. They burrowed into the sand, with only the covering of the blankets for protection. It wasn’t long before they felt the weight of sand over them, reducing the sound of the wind’s ferocity. The fine sand seemed to shift beneath them; it was in their eyes, mouths and ears, making them cough and gasp for clean air.
No sooner had the storm started, that the swirling sands slowly settled down, and its swishing noise cease, just as suddenly as it commenced.
Heads started to pop up out of the desert, one after the other, from the security of their burrows. Yeshu’a helped his mother and sisters, as they shook their blankets, and their matted hair, free of sand.
Looking about they observed that the storm had altered completely the topography of the landscape surrounding them. They busied themselves retrieving their scattered possessions that were now strewn about for some distance. James and Simon went in search of their much valued goat.
“I had better return to my father,” voiced Yusuf, as he hastily sought his camel. “With your permission I will call upon you again, Yeshu’a. I will take you to the caves on the mountain yonder.”
“I look forward to our meeting again, my friend,” replied Yeshu’a, as he watched the light coloured camel return its rider to the front of the caravan at an ungainly trot. These camels strutted with their noses in the air displaying a sense of self-importance, knowing they were superior to the darker coloured pack camels!
The unpacking and packing for the umpteenth time during the course of the journey, was completed in a routinely, absent-minded fashion. Thus began another day of survival in the unrelenting heat of the Sinai desert. Never a cloud to be seen in the sky to break the heavenly blue. Not that anyone bothered to look upwards into the glare, preferring to keep their eyes lowered, and sometimes even closed as they trudged their way following the route Moses took during the Exodus in the wilderness, many decades before.
It was some days later, in the mid-afternoon, when they came upon the Oasis of el-Lejah; a large pool of fresh clear water surrounded by palm trees, making it a most inviting and picturesque setting within a harsh, arid, desert landscape. Nearby stood single-storey whitewashed buildings, once used by sheep grazers but were now standing empty. This oasis was to be the travellers’ resting stage for two days, so tents were set up adjacent to the water’s edge, while others, like Murree and her family sheltered in the buildings which offered protection from the heat.
“Soldiers!” cried Murree’s eleven-year-old daughter Fatima, as she rushed into the sanctuary the family had made for themselves. “There are soldiers coming!”
The word ‘soldiers’ always sent waves of fear and unwelcome excitement through the travellers, just as much as the cry ‘bandits!’ did. This party of ‘maniples’, a small company of about 120 Roman soldiers, were on patrol along the main caravan routes. Neither Arab nor Judean had any love for them. Their presence in this land was much resented, and in particular their heavy taxes levied upon every household, to maintain their garrisons.
The soldiers approached the oasis and halted. Their metal armoury flashed in the sunlight, and perspiration rolled down their faces from under their bronze pot helmets. Each man carried a ‘T’ shaped pole, called a kite pole, upon which were attached a hide water bag, mess tins, and their personal gear. Over their shoulders they carried two javelins, a shield called scutum, and the gladius - the twenty inch long sword originally used by Roman gladiators who gave it its name - was sheathed at the waist. Two mules carried the troop’s supplies took up the rear, minded by the velites, a few poorish recruits used by the army for light duties. Their Captain, riding in front on horseback, surveyed the scene on the opposite bank, checking for a possible ambush. They chose to camp on the far side of the pool, opposite the caravan party. Just then A’bel rose, and, in the company of his three guards, strolled over to the Roman camp, where for several minutes, he conversed with the officer in charge, Captain Corsini. The soldiers, and the Arab guards, eyed each other suspiciously but kept their distance.
The warm orange glow of the setting sun lit up the sky as it descended behind the distant hills. A’bel and his guards returned to the caravan with the assurance that all was well. The Roman party would be moving on the following morning, when they had replenished their water supply, and A’bel promised to supply them with fresh meat for their journey.
Tension began to relax on both sides and singing could be heard from the Romans as they sat around their fire eating and drinking.
“Nobody is to get drunk this night,” commanded the Roman officer, to his men. “We have an early start.”
Captain Corsini rolled himself in his cloak for warmth against the cold air of the night and drew closer to the fire. He thought of his mother and father, and of his own wife and children on their estate in the country of Romeles, also known as the land of Romulus, or Rome.
The grapes would be ready for picking now, he thought, as he sipped red wine from his silver goblet. “The most beautiful place in the world,” he murmured, “Not like this devil’s hole.” Why did he have to end up here, of all places, he wondered. After all, his uncle was a Roman Senator, and could have done much to advance his military career. Gazing up at the gem-like stars strewn across the black night sky, his eyelids grew heavy and the cup slipped easily from his hand as he drifted into a deep sleep, exhausted from the heat of the day and the long march.
Those in the caravan and the military party, eventually settled down for the night, but it seemed no length at all when a loud scream rent the cold night air. The soldiers were instantly alert and on their feet, fearing attack. Forming a phalanx formation and looking deep into the moonlight for the source of the scream, peering across to the travellers’ camp, where they also were now equally alert, fearful of what might be. Both sides were frozen into silence and eyed each other suspiciously at a distance. Eventually, the tall black shape of A’bel holding aloft a flaming torch, could be detected, strolling quickly towards the Roman camp, calling out to Captain Corsini that one of his guards caught a Roman soldier sneaking into the caravan camp.
“What was that scream?” asked Corsini, now fully awake.
“My guard challenged your soldier, who made a run to escape,” came the reply. “He struck out with his sword and cut your man’s hand off.”
“What! I’ll go and see,” said the horrified Captain, addressing his men. “The rest of you stay here…and stay alert!”
A’bel escorted Corsini to the caravan’s camp, where they found the soldier writhing in pain, blood gushing from the arm stump, cleanly cut just above the wrist. The bloody hand lay on the sand nearby. By now the entire camp was gathering in a semi-circle around the unfortunate scene.
Corsini knelt beside the soldier, “In the name of Jupiter what were you doing here, man?” he hissed through his teeth.
“I wanted to visit a girl I had seen earlier around the camp…I meant no harm, Captain.”
“You young fool. You could have had others killed by your action,” came the Captain’s sharp retort. “I’ll get some of the men to carry you back to the camp.”
Yeshu’a, standing close by, observed the scene in the company of his mother and brothers, as the young soldier slumped into unconsciousness on to the blood-soaked sand.
“The poor man,” Murree whispered to Yeshu’a. “A soldier is of no worth with one arm.”
Without a word Yeshu’a quietly went across to where the hand lay, half buried in the sand, and picking it up, he took it to the water’s edge and washed it clean of sand.
“You! What are you doing with that hand,” barked Corsini. The gathered spectators ceased whispering in the background, as Yeshu’a went over to the young soldier who was moaning in pain. Captain Corsini reached out to grab the severed hand from Yeshu’a, only to be stopped by A’bel. “Let the boy be. He’s a holy one.”
“I have no interest in such things,” Corsini hissed through his teeth. “I will take my man and his hand back to our camp. Now stand aside.”
Yeshu’a, ignoring the Captain, proceeded to place the hand against the severed wrist and pressed them together, mumbling a prayer as he did so. Almost instantly the blood ceased to flow and the fingers began to move gently into a clinched fist.
A gasp went up from the witnessing crowd, “Another miracle!” they exclaimed excitedly. Corsini could only look on, shaking his head with incredulity, wondering if he was still asleep and dreaming.
The soldier, now weak from loss of blood, raised himself to a sitting position, and stared at his hand as he clinched his fist and quickly moving his fingers in disbelief.
“Look Captain! Look! It moves! My hand moves!”
“Black magic, that’s it,” declared Corsini, roughly. “I’ve seen it before.”
“I don’t mind what it is, Captain,” the soldier screamed hysterically. “I’ve got my hand back, thanks to this young man. Let me reward him with something,” he added, struggling to untie his coin pouch.
Yeshu’a turned his back and walked away without a word, as many eyes watched and wondered who it was they had in their midst.