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Chapter Nine

“Aram is some six day’s ride from here,” announced the camel train overseer, in answer to queries from a family travelling to a settlement near the town of Aram, which was no more than a rural village, situated about half-ways between Damascus and Babylon.

Yeshu’a and Yusuf arranged to joined this camel train which would take them through to Babylon, from whence Yusuf would finally leave Yeshu’a to continue his journey alone to Bharath.

They rested for several days at Yusuf’s home, on the outskirts of Damascus. A large house made of stone, uncommon in that area, and being well furnished with rich Persian carpets and colourful cushions and with an opulence befitting a successful, yet somewhat ruthless business man.

Abel, Yusuf’s father, made his fortune running camel caravan trains, all over the middle east, as well as trading with the many Roman forts, particularly in mountainous areas. He also traded in livestock, with dealings in far-distant places as Rome and the cities of Persia.

He was well aware of the disregard in which Romans held him; seeing him, and his fellow Bedouins, as being no better than the jerboas
- the rats one sees scurrying about in the desert in the evening light.

Yeshu’a was treated as an honoured guest by Abel, who expressed great interest in the long journey the young man was about to undertake. He seemed so young, they thought, and possessed so little in the way of clothing, for such an arduous journey, and declining all offers of clothing and money which were pressed upon him.

“When you reach Babylon, south of Ctesiphon, stay a while, you should find it of interest,” suggested Abel.

Abel appeared less fierce now than when Yeshu’a first met him on the train from Egypt; indeed he seemed almost fatherly and caring. The younger children gathered around to hear him relate the story he had told them so many times, of events that happened in Babylon, over 300 years previous.

“You may have heard of the great military leader, Alexander,” Abel stated. “It was in the swamps just south of Babylon, where he caught the fever which eventually killed him. He was thirty-three, and in only twelve years he created a new world; uniting the many tribes under his banner. He is a legend and still spoken of by peasants in Persia, Bharath, and in his own Macedonia. Few men achieve such greatness in one lifetime, let alone in such a short one as his. Had he lived, what he might have achieved!”

After a brief silence, Yeshu’a spoke, “The life of each person is written before birth. We come upon the stage of life to play our role, then leave when it’s concluded. We stay no longer than the role requires.”

The children looked to each other, not understanding what was said. Their father pondered on Yeshu’a’s remarks. This was new thinking which he had not considered previously. Perhaps we all have our chosen roles, he thought to himself. Why, even he could make his mark in this life, in some humble way. He was developing a respect for this young man.

“It is time for bed children,” their mother announced, clapping her hands. “These young men have to journey tomorrow.”

The dawn broke behind dark grey clouds, and the air was decidedly cooler. To have rain now would make the journey’s commencement uncomfortable, to say the least. While rain would be welcome by farmers, this would not be so of those in the caravan train. Sheltering under wet robes as camels plodded their way along muddy roads, was not a agreeably prospect.

The two young men left the hospitality of Yusuf’s home, and the city of Damascus, far behind them. Mountainous terrain and desert plains lay ahead for many days to come. Most of the travellers were, once again, merchants plying their trade, carrying an assortment of goods needed in the towns and cities beyond.

Conversation was brisk for the first day and evening, but this gradually subsided into long periods of silence, amongst the travellers, as they rocked back and forth upon their camels. They drifted deep into their own thoughts, and they welcomed this disconnection from the hardship of reality. It gave them the opportunity to dream; their businesses, family, home, all swam into their arid thoughts.

“I welcome these journeys,” said one merchant to another. “I’m better able to sort out problems while away from home. I need the space.”

“Space? You certainly have plenty of that out here!” came the reply, to roars of laughter, “And the leisure of time for your thoughts,” others joined in.

Young Arab boys rode by on the bare backs of their tawny donkeys, holding out their hands, to the merchants, in the hope of catching a coin tossed their way, more out of mischief than for any sense of need. Smiles would dance on their faces, showing white teeth offset against their brown skin. When no coin was forthcoming, abusive words were shouted back, but only when the boys were at a safe distance.

“What is this world coming to, that we should be subjected to such vulgar abuse,” a merchant voiced loudly, glaring after the ragamuffins. “There is no respect from young people any more.”

“We will camp for the night, by the water-hole yonder,” a booming voice called out, from the front of the train.

The flat, earthy-coloured, terrain made the journey undemanding. They could see, in the fast-receding light, the shape of a small village close to the water-hole where they would camp.

It was dark now. Torches were lit to prepare camp, as Yusuf and Yeshi’a unrolled their few possessions from their blankets, and drew water from the well in preparation for a meal.

They sat with others around one communal fire, to eat and rest after their journey. As a young Arab man plaid a haunting melody on a bamboo flute, a few hummed in accompaniment. Yeshu’a noticed that Jewish travellers sat apart from their Arab fellow-travellers, which made no sense to him, as both groups were merchants, travelling the same rough, dusty roads, and drinking water from the same wells. Both groups came from the same desert traditions. Indeed, they had so much more in common, than that which separated them, thought Yeshu’a. He prayed that they would some day find their common denominator, and share in the heritage of this great land.

The little town of Aram was the half-way point and they would stop- over there for two days before proceeding. The caravan train wend its way through the main street of stalls and rest-houses at a nomadic pace. With the animals finally corralled into pens for the duration of the stay, the travellers set about finding accommodation in the rest-houses or inns. But Yusuf did not wish to embarrass Yeshu’a, knowing his limited funding for the journey. He suggested instead bedding down the loft of the hay barn overlooking the animal pens. There it was warm, at least, from the cold of the night.

The following morning yielded to bright sunlight as the two young men bargained at the stalls alongside rich merchants from east and west. Persian merchants mingled with traders from Iraq and Syria, while Arab women sold live chickens in cages, and fish.

“Fish in the middle of the desert?” Yeshu’a commented to Yusuf, in surprise.

“It comes from near Babylon. The river Tigris. It’s not good fish, rather coarse, in fact,” replied Yusuf. “Also, its freshness would leave much to be desired.”

“I will settle for the dates and figs. I do not eat meats of any kind.”

Yusuf nodded in understanding, and joined him in purchasing fruit instead, for the final stage of their journey East together. They filled a small sack, sufficient to sustain them for the five remaining days.

“I shall be leaving you in Babylon,” Yusuf said, as they strolled casually through the market. “You could travel on to Ur, or you could take a boat down the river to the port of Charex, (Basra). From there you could board a dhow to Sindh. This would be an easier, quicker and safer journey than overland.”

“Then I will take the boat as you suggest. I thank you for your help, Yusuf. I will miss you, you have been a good friend.”

It was to the city of Babylon that many Jews had been taken into captivity, many centuries previous. Indeed, the Jews were not the only people taken into captivity in those days. It was common practise to deport whole populations and have the land settled by their own people. It is said that the Jews were deported in sections, over a period of sixteen years, while the longest period of captivity was about sixty years; amongst them was the prophet Ezekiel.

Yeshu’a felt that Ezekiel must have been aware that the Tribes of Israel would be scattered throughout distant lands; for as he put it, “…and (I) will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloud and dark day…” Yeshu’a’s journey was fired by the desire to find those ‘lost sheep’, and his journey was about to begin.

Shouts from a nearby stall attracted their attention. A small crowd had gathered in amusement, watching a black raven battling with a cat for a piece of fish-head, that had been discarded beside a fish stall. One would have imagined the bird would have been no match for the cat, but not so. Bets were made as to the outcome by the bystanders. The raven flapped his shiny black wings furiously and danced back-and-forth, till it finally outwitted the brindled cat, catching the fish-head in its beak and flying to the roof of a nearby building to the cheers of the winning onlookers, whereafter the usual commercial activities resumed once again.

The final journey to Babylon was generally uneventful, apart from the arrival of the caravan at the banks of the great Euphrates. This crossing point, had, for many centuries grown into a respectable sized town, with palm groves lining the river banks, and grassy areas that ran right up to the water’s edge. It was pleasant, with a cool breeze blowing across the broad water’s surface. The branches of the overhead palm trees seemed to gently fan those seated beneath them on the hot sands, while women carried clay pots on their shoulders to the water’s edge to refill and carry back to their homes, or vegetable plots. The Euphrates served its people, in this manner, since the beginning of time. As they sat beneath the shade, with dragon-flies coloured red, green and orange darted and quivered over the waters, Yeshu’a and his friend watched a strange contraption called a djird, the arm of which dipped a large leather bag into the river to be filled, while an ox, moving slowly, lifted the dripping bag ashore to empty itself into an irrigation channel. This was done with such hypnotic regularity, that the watcher might be tempted to drop-off asleep in the heat of the day.

It was then that Yeshu’a observed for the first time, the gufa; the unusual craft by which travellers were carried across to the opposite bank; a round basket-like coracle. Being large enough to carry as many as twenty people, the gufa was equally used to ferry animals. Paddled skilfully by the gufachi (ferry-man), with a single long oar, and from time-to-time, jumping into the shallows to tow it free of sand-bars, eventually the traveller would step ashore dry and in safety on the opposite bank.

Yeshu’a and Yusuf, in company with several other travellers, boarded the gufa, while their camels were tethered to the side of the craft and floated across with the camels’ long legs almost touching the river-bed, in places. On the opposite side the party collected themselves for the final couple of days journey to the city, only this time travelling through fertile and much busier countryside. It was now apparent that one was approaching a truly large city, with traffic of merchants and officials moving in and out of its precincts. This was the major city connecting not only the East to the West, but also the distant past, to the very present.

Babylon was large city, steeped in commerce, which was signified by the earliest roots in banking and mercantile transactions. It consisted of grand estates and elegant households on one hand, and slave trading on the other, but for young men of ambition, it opened up glorious opportunities and golden horizons for the prospect of wealth and positions of importance beyond their dreams. Nothing disturbed their way of life; not invasions, nor plagues. They merely picked themselves up and continued with ‘business-as-usual’.

No sooner had our young travellers set foot in this ancient city, that they were assailed from all sides with outstretched hands seeking alms. Most were ‘professional’ beggars as well as skilled pick-pockets, but as Yeshu’a had so little in the way of coinage, he was reluctant to part with even the smallest coin so early on his journey. His father always taught him to serve the poor by giving them food or clothing, but not by way of giving coin, which he believed perpetuated the poverty cycle. “Man should seek nobility through self effort, and not be always reliant on others,” he would say. Soon, those begging hands relented and went in pursuit of more affluent victims.

The city of Babylon, consisted of two separate communities. The rich merchants dwelled in white painted houses with ornate balconies, standing amidst green fringes of date-palms; while the less-well-off occupied the smaller houses that cluttered the narrow lanes and minor streets. It was obviously a divided city from the stand-point of wealth and business, on one side, and small shops and stalls on the other.

The narrow lane-ways became even narrower with merchant’s stalls erected on both sides. These stalls, piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, were the function of the womenfolk of the local families, while their menfolk smoked home-made cheroots and leaned against doorways viewing the passing scene. The general scene was colourful, but extremely noisy, with stall owners calling out their wares, water- carriers with large clay urns on their backs, offering cool water drinks, and Arab slave-owners, all competing for the attention of the rich purse.

Yusuf set about immediately booking of a passage for Yeshu’a on the next available boat, travelling to the Persian Gulf, from where the Arabian Sea beckoned, beyond the Strait of Hormuz.

Yusuf little realised his connection with the chain of events to which he was bound. He knew nothing of the true purpose of Yeshu’a’ journey, or of his being the instrument of the Spirit of the Essenes.

It was about then that Yeshu’a started to feel, for the first time, the apprehension of the task that lay ahead. He did not wish to voice his feelings to Yusuf, but Yusuf could sense of gnawing fear that Yeshu’a felt in the pit of his stomach, but he chose to keep silent.

“Oh, Lord! What lays ahead for me, now that I have commenced this journey?” Yeshu’a would ask of himself. “What fate will become of me?”

So little was known, then, of those distant countries that lay to the east, except from the garbled accounts from occasional travellers, or just hear-say. Yeshu’a, none-the-less, chose to placed all his trust in the God Whom he felt was directing his feet.

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