Chapter 17b




While the four had been exploring Edinburgh, Ali had been studying Malta.  Only an hour separated their times, now. 


The flight to Malta flew over the ancient site of Delphi.  An oracle there had in ancient times offered prophesies which were believed to have come from Apollo.  One prophesy was connected with one of the times the loathsome West had embarrassed the Near East.  The Athenians went to Delphi and said, “The Persians are attacking us.  They are better armed, better trained, better organized, and better led than we are.  They outnumber us overwhelmingly.  We are spending most of out time squabbling with each other.  Time is short.  What do we do?”


The oracle said, “Flee to the ends of the earth.” 


The Athenians said, “Nothing doing.  We don’t like your advice.  So either you give us a better prophesy or we are going to commit suicide right here on your door step.  That will make it unlucky, and nobody will ever come to your temple again.”


So the oracle said, “Well   in that case … wooden walls will save Athens.”


The delegation said, “All right.  We can live with that.”  They went home.  Some of the people of Athens built a wooden wall around the city which the Persians burned when they arrived and sacked the city.  Others decided that wooden walls meant ships and planned for their fleet to meet the much larger Persian fleet at a bay called Salamis.  After some arcane and duplicitous diplomacy, the Greek fleet waited in the bay and the Persian war ships came in through a narrow opening.


As the Persian fleet filled the bay, the Greeks retreated backward toward the beach on all sides.  Landing a galley stern first was the standard way to beach it so as to disembark.  To all appearances, the Greek navy was simply going to hit the beach and run away.


They timed it so that all of the Greek ships were reaching land just as the last Persian galley came into the bay.  Then the entire Greek fleet attacked together, closing a circle around the Persian fleet and ramming them through.  The military disaster for the Persians was the greatest the world had ever seen.  It was not matched again until the battle of Agincourt, and after that not until Leyte Gulf and then Desert Storm.  At least, Ali reflected, at Agincourt it was a Western power on both sides. 


The Greeks had done as they were told.  They did retreat to the edge of the land. 


The main harbor of Malta is guarded by fortifications built by Templars.  The ramparts are so imposing that it is hard to believe they were built more than four hundred years ago.  The Templars, despite their period of persecution, maintained an active presence here until the time of the French Revolution.  Since then, while they are no longer a military power, their support of hospitals continues.  


Such permanence did not impress Kamali, accustomed as he was to the long historical cadences of Islamic lands. 


Before the Templars, Malta had been dominated by Vikings.  In fact it would seem that every great power of Europe had come through at some time or other.


Ali reflected that he was slightly to the west of the great circle.  But he decided that there was no significance to the circle.  It was just a series of geographical accidents.  And if cities tended to line up along it, there was a reason for that.  Anyone who traveled repeatedly among a number of cities was faced with the problem of deciding in what order to visit them so as to take the shortest overall route.  And the cities needed those visits, whether it was by a shipper or a salesman or anyone else who might have things to offer.  If the cities were in a line, the solution was quite easy.  And any city in line with other cities benefited from its location.


A shipper will regularly carry cargo and have room to spare.  If the cargo is bound for any but the next city on his route, he can collect multiple consignments and drop them off as he goes.  It makes his work far more profitable and of a necessity cheaper for those who have him carry things.  So it was no mystery if cities, over any distance, fell into line to an extent greater than if they were sited purely on the basis of geography. 


It was not good to be superstitious about such things.


Having seen the fortifications, Ali hired an Italian guide who spoke English and set out to see the ancient ruins. 


The Traxein temple complex had been excavated something close to a hundred years before, but its building had started five thousand years earlier in megalithic times.  There were altars with spiral decorations reminiscent of the spirals at Newgrange in Ireland, built about the same time.  Rooms flanking the main passage had a semicircular floor plan.  At one time they had been domed like the vault at Newgrange, but while Newgrange was made of natural stones, these vaults had been made of stone dressed in the shape of bricks. 


The guide pointed out the remains of a stone representation of heavy female figure, a recurrent icon of the long Neolithic period, found over an enormous geographical range although very rare in Britain.  The very architecture was reminiscent of the female form.


“Didn’t these people think about anything but sex?” he asked his guide. 


“Ah,” said the guide, “In Italy we have the saying, ‘Amore, amore, sempre amore.’ ‘Love, love always falling in love.’  Nothing changes.”


Perhaps the guide was right.  There was no question but that the builders of the ancient stones had placed fertility right at the center of their concerns.


Nor did it seem that sex was really the issue.  There was no suggestion of intercourse.  There was only the long lasting worship of the fertile woman.


The guide pointed out altars where there was evidence that animals had been sacrificed.  If the sacrifice was meant to be consumed by people, then this was a public place.  Again sex did not seem to be the issue.  It was fertility.  It was the abiding frantic desire of humans to have babies to carry on their kind, their work, their gods, whatever they held dear. 


Ali reflected sadly that he did not need his son’s modern science to know that no fertility goddess ever once actually helped any woman become pregnant.  It was all for nothing.  It was all futile.  They did not understand.


The guide pointed out arrangements so that animals could be suspended from the monoliths and burnt.  “Cooked,” thought Ali.


The time the temples had been built had been the Neolithic going into the copper age.  It had been a time of peace, in sharp contrast with the Bronze Age Trojan War described by Homer.  So there had not always been war.  It was not the nature of the human.  It was something else. 


Ali had the guide drive him around to some more sites of similar age.  Then they went to the center of the island, to a small village where Ali sat for supper in an open air café on a parapet looking out at the surrounding fields.  He phoned his contact in Cairo. 


They exchanged blessings, inquired about friends and quietly checked to make sure that it was a good time for both of them to talk, free of eavesdroppers.  Dealing with the possibility that the telephone connection itself might be compromised was more difficult.  It was necessary to have a pre-arranged and innocent subject within which to couch questions.  It was simply another, and better, form of code.  An uninformed spy would have no idea any information of consequence was being exchanged.


However the information Ali received taxed the code system they had arranged.  He fought to keep from blurting the message out in the clear.  Then he changed the subject and managed to mention that the mind of the human is capable of the greatest good but also of evil beyond words.  The contact agreed and changed the subject back.  They blessed each other and disconnected.


Ali sat for a long time in the waning light whispering, “O Allah, the Kind, the Merciful.”  Then it was time for prayer. 


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