Journey to Ecbatana
It was a monotonous, dusty, and hot journey and, because of my restraints and inability to guide my mule, far worse than the earlier trip north. Now we were heading east away from the empire, soon to cross the frontier. Though I was tormented by discomfort, hunger, and thirst, and an occasional jolt by Awud in front, I tried praying again. Not one of the twenty-six men seemed to cared a wit that I was drenched in sweat and delirious from the heat. I had all but given up on the Lord until we made our first stop at a roadside well. Breaking into my effort to pray, as he galloped up and climbed off his horse, was the one-eyed bandit leader, himself, who with the flash of his dagger and movement of his other hand, cut my bindings and removed the noose from my neck. My wrists were raw and bleeding. Several times in the last hour, Awud had playfully yanked rope, causing rope burns on my neck.
“Awud is a dog,” Hamid announced, reaching up to help me off my mule. “There’s no place for you to go in this inferno. He knows that. He just hates Romans. I do to, but you’re no longer a Roman; you are a slave. If you’re thinking about escaping, I assure you the stretch ahead of us is much worse than what we left behind. You would surely die of thirst and hunger, if one of my men didn’t bring you down first with an arrow or lance. I’ll have Akhmid or Eblah tend to your wounds. I don’t want you bleeding all over yourself before we find a buyer.” “Cheer up, lad.” His good eye winked. “You’re alive, while all those other men are dead. No one survives the Syrian desert without a horse, camel or mule, water, and food.”
“Thank you,” I muttered dully, as I was led at the point of Awud’s spear to the well.
“Drink your fill, you Roman pig,” Awud’s voice rumbled. “There’s no more wells when we cross the frontier.”
I was given a large bag of water that looked like the pelt of some unclean beast. This, he informed me crisply, must last until we reached Ecbatana. I didn’t care at that point about the law. I was so thirsty I would have drunk water from the trough of a pig. To extend my allotment, I did what the other men did and drank directly from the well’s bucket and ate a strip of dried bore meat, both unclean, and, following their barbaric custom, made water out in the open without qualms. Akhmid and Eblah both dabbed an evil smelling ointment on my wounds and, removing the sweat soaked turban from my head, replaced it with a clean one. There were palms surrounding us which looked inviting, and, perhaps for my benefit, the leader allowed us a short spell in the shade. All of the men grumbled at this delay, anxious to find more plunder up ahead. Hamid, the only one amongst them with a degree of decency offered me a handful of figs in his grimy had, which I gobbled down unflinchingly. It occurred to me, as I was led back to my mules, that it would take a major sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem to expiate my sins. But, of course, I thought grimly, I wasn’t returning home.… I was going to Ecbatana to be sold as a slave. With my mule below me, now my only friend, I fastened my bag of water to my saddle, clutched my reins, and scanned the terrain around me for an avenue of escape. The mule and flask were my moorings to this world. Everything else had become madness and folly, directed by blind destiny or the will of an inscrutable god.
Across the most desolate area of the northern desert we plodded. I was careful not to guzzle too much water. A full bladder was a handicap on the march. A scarf had been tied over my face to protect my delicate “Roman” skin, as Uthman quipped, and to keep the sand and dust from my eyes. My face, neck, and hands were already sun burnt. My crotch was sore from being in the saddle for so many days. I was growing increasingly apprehensive as we approached the distant pass promised by Hamid. After a short stop to relieve ourselves, we continued on beneath the bleak, cloudless sky until we saw a caravan coming in the opposite direction, silhouetted darkly as we moved around the bend in the road.
“All right men,” Hamid ordered succinctly, “you know what to do. Akhmid, you’re too fat to fight. You and young Fawad guard the horses, mules, and goods.”
I assumed he included me in the goods. Akhmid and Fawad were quite happy to be excluded from the raid and treated me well after we dismounted, sat on nearby rocks, and refreshed themselves with some candied fruit Akhmid had brought along and a flask of wine Fawad had stolen from the camp.”
“Let’s drink it up quickly,” he coaxed, “before they return.”
I didn’t expect to be included. That they let me sit near them and rest my bottom had been enough. I was surprised that some of the men began mellowing toward me. Without comment, Akhmid tossed me several of the candies, as he might a pet dog and, after he wiped its lip, Fawad offered me the flask. I gulped down several swallows then politely handed it back. Deprived of such gestures all these miles, I bowed silently, almost reverently, not wanting to break the spell. These men were unpredictable. Any moment, one of them might say something vulgar or insulting or flick me with his whip. Judging by Hamid and these two fellow’s reactions they reminded me of how capricious the Romans and auxilia often were. One moment, the Bedouins treated me almost tenderly, and the next moment I was a Roman pig. For the first time since I was captured, I introduced myself.
“My name’s Thaddeus.” I said, looking into Fawad’s black pupils.
“I don’t care,” he replied, raising the flask, “you’re a slave. When we find a merchant, I won’t see you again. You’re not a person, you’re property like these horses and mules.”
“Ah, ah, ah,” Akhmid clucked, wagging a finger, “he’s not a slave yet. He’s not someone’s property. Until he’s sold and branded, he’s free, just like you and me.”
“Branded?” I cried. “I’m going to be branded?”
“It’s not always a brand,” Fawad explained thoughtfully. “The Romans and Syrians mark people with a hot iron, but the Parthians often use a die that can’t be washed off the skin. They have a strange faith like the Jews, that offers justice even for slaves.”
Now there’s a thought, I told myself, stroking my chin. Did even Jesus know this fact? As I sat beside my guards, I found a glimmer of hope in this detail. Did this mean that I wouldn’t be turned into a eunuch and, as in Jewish tradition, be released from bondage after seven years? I looked out upon the desert those moments, my eyes and ears drawn by a commotion, my mind still focused upon what Fawad said. I hadn’t been paying much attention, but I knew what was happening. I had tried not to think about it. After all, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. Hamid, Uthman, and Akhmid had discussed making such a raid; it was what they did for a living. But the reality of it sunk in more deeply when, after only a few moments of slaughter, the raiders galloped back with several camels laden with goods. This time there with no survivors. The men’s’ faces and arms were splattered with their victims’ blood. From what I gathered listening to the heady exclamations of the warriors, the merchant, who was shot full of arrows, had only seven guards—all of whom were killed or wounded guarding his goods. The two guards badly cut were put out of their misery so they wouldn’t suffer on the hot dry sand. Hamid made it sound like a magnanimous deed. I listened to them extol the virtues of their banditry as I climbed shakily onto my mule. I was tipsy, and I found their duplicity humorous. Hamid and his men saw nothing wrong with killing and robbing the accursed Romans soldiers and greedy Syrian merchants who wandered into the desert. As far as they were concerned, the Romans and Syrians were the villains, not them. The Romans had allowed the Syrian provincials to take their land, leaving them only the foothills to plant wheat or raise sheep, forcing them into starvation unless they took back what was their own. When they went into the towns to buy supplies, the soldiers had treated them badly. The city magistrates forbade shopkeepers to sell to desert folk. Not long ago, several of their shepherds were killed by locals, their sheep stolen and wives and children driven from their camp. The rocky foothills were not fit for sheep or growing rows of wheat, so, as Hamid believed, there was nothing left to do but take up the sword.
“One day,” he vowed looking squarely at me as if I represented the Roman Empire, “we, the desert people, will unite and take it back and drive the foreigners from our land!”
The train of animals and people, with the addition of several stolen camels had begun to move, as I gathered up the courage to reply.
“I’m not a Roman,” I said, my eyes at half mast, “my names Thaddeus—er—I mean Judah bar Joseph...I’m a Jew.”
“Thaddeus or Jude, which is it?” Hamid turned in his saddle and trotted back to me, his good eye narrowing to a slit.
“Pay no mind to him, he’s drunk,” Akhmid said dismissively. “Fawad borrowed a flask from Saida. He drank almost half.”
“Ho-ho, a Jew soldier, very funny Thaddeus or whatever your name is.” Hamid rode along beside me, after taking my reins. “Listen to me lad. I know you’re frightened, but don’t repeat that story to anyone again. No one wants a Jewish slave. You should know that. They won’t work, they don’t eat pork, they’re always running away. They make terrible slaves! Being a Jew would make you much less valuable to me, do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” I answered with a burp. “I should not drink wine.” “The truth is,” I found myself lying, “I was not a very good soldier, and I consider the arena a death sentence. A Jew also makes a poor gladiator—”
“Enough!” Hamid held up his bejeweled hand. “I saw you fight. Do you want to lessen your worth in my eyes? Your best chance is convincing me how valuable you are. The truth is Thaddeus you’re not big enough nor strong enough to be a gladiator, but you have spirit. You almost gave your life to save those horses and mules. Don’t ruin it by pretending you’re a Jew or coward. It doesn’t make sense. I haven’t anything against Jews, but I hate cowards. You picked a good name for your lie. I remember Judah the Galilean’s revolt against Rome. I never knew him personally, but my father had great respect for the man. Recently the Romans crucified another batch of them. Nasty business. They’ve done the same thing to us. Trust me, Thaddeus, Jews aren’t cowards. You Romans have treated both the desert folk and the Jews badly. This was once our land before you city folk pushed us aside.”
I should have been moved by what he said about my people if I hadn’t seen these murderers in action. Judah was not admired for his foolishness at rebelling against the Romans, and yet he embodied, in an exaggerated way, the resentment many Galileans felt toward Rome. He was a patriot, who loved our stolen country, but he wasn’t a thief and murderer, who robbed and stole from innocent travelers when they entered their domain. I kept my mouth tightly shut, and didn’t crack a smile. Feeling fortunate that Hamid hadn’t believed the truth, I played the fool, which I was, after drinking all that wine. I could have gotten myself in serious trouble with these men, if they hadn’t thought it was just was too farfetched to believe. Because of my foolishness, my head would ring like a gong when the effects of the spirits began wearing off. The Bedouins now thought I was addled in the head for making such a claim, and Hamid, the bandit leader, would personally keep an eye on me for the rest of the trip.
When I considered how stupid my admission had been, I shuddered as if a cold wind had blown over me, which was strange in view of the rise in the desert’s heat. What if they had pulled down my pants to see if I was circumcised? My secret had almost been revealed when I was given a new set of clothes and stood there in front of Hamid, Uthman, and Saida with nothing but my loincloth. Fortunately for me the notion of a Jew being Roman soldier was laughable. What I said about not being a good soldier was also scoffed at, and yet it was also the truth. Perhaps, in allowing me to act the fool, God was, in fact, watching over me. If I heard the voice at that point, however, I would have wanted to ask him again why had I been abandoned to suffer such a fate?
After our caravan stopped at a small oasis just in time to avoid a dust storm blowing from the east, Hamid ordered his men to make camp within the refuge of the trees. Akhmid and Fawad would tend to the camels and mules, tethered not far from the camp. The nomads had been more enterprising than the Roman guards. Not only did they bring fodder for the animals, which was carried by the mules, several of the pack animals carried extra water for man and beast. Like the Roman contingent I had rode with, sentries were posted around the perimeter of the oasis, but there was no time to set up tents, dig latrines, or build a fire ring in the center of the camp, since we would be back on the road at first light. I was allowed to sleep beside my mount, a custom of desert nomads on the prowl. Like the Romans they bedded down near their weapons, but slept fully clothed with boots on and a dust scarf (keffiyeh) still wrapped around their face. Always ready for retribution, the bandits apparently did not have a normal campsite on the march. Though I didn’t have a sword, I clutched a cudgel-shaped board as I slept. The mule nuzzled my face affectionately with his wet snout as I fell asleep, an action that might have revolted a good Jew. Hamid stood over me a moment, laughing softly in his beard. Noting my fondness for my pet, he promised that he would give it to my buyer for free along with the purchase if I fetched a high price. He not only allowed me to sleep beside Gladius, he had given me permission beforehand to water and feed my mule.
I could not help but think of Caesarius after these acts of kindness. Caesarius like Hamid had once been a violent man. Hamid had killed Romans but Caesarius had killed my own people and, like the one-eyed bandit, his treatment of me contradicted his murderous actions in the past. These kind of men could be very cruel and yet act tenderly at times, one of the many peculiarities I had learned about Gentile soldiers and warriors, perhaps the most troubling of them all.
The journey to Ecbatana turned out to be a long, dusty, bumpy trip, much more uncomfortable than the terminated expedition to Antioch. I could count the ambush by Hamid and his men as both the end of my first journey and beginning of the second. Now, as we entered the sand blown and furnace-like pass promised by the bandit leader, we approached the last milestone of Rome in the east. I shuddered to think we were near the frontier. We would soon be in the land of Parthians, wild cousins of the Persians, who now ruled Persia, Babylon, and Ecbatana. According to Awud, who taunted me constantly, our biggest concern was running into King Arcases’ imperial forces, which might just commandeer all of our goods, including my precious mule and myself. That would mean, of course, he reminded me, I would become a palace eunuch and loose my balls.
Looking through the slit of my facial scarf, I could make out only shadowy figures as we negotiated the pass. Finally, at one point, a fort loomed up to our right, the last outpost of Roman authority, normally manned by a cohort of legionnaires but apparently shut up tightly because of the storm. To get out of the wind and dust, we found shelter against the walls and beneath the palms and acacias growing in the oasis surrounding the fort. All of us except the leader remained mounted, while the pack animals and stolen camels were tethered to trees. Because of its lack of sentries on the wooden parapets and any sign of life inside, I could scarcely believe that this was a Roman fort, especially after Hamid beat furiously on its gate.
“Those Roman pigs!” he screamed in rage.
“Roman?” I cried in disbelief. “This can’t be Roman!”
Trotting up to me on his horse, Akhmid motioned to an obelisk standing near the building with Latin inscriptions. “Yes,” he said croakily, “beyond that is Parthia. This is their last fortress in this armpit of a land.”
Awud turned to me as I contemplated what I might do. “If you’re thinking about calling for help Thaddeus,” he said, wagging his finger, “don’t. Hamid has a long-standing agreement with Hermus, the prefect in this hole. He allows us safe passage after we give him some of our loot. Often he gives us wine and food. Once we brought the wife of a tribune we had taken in a raid—a beautiful, yellow-haired wench. She made a terrible scene, but it only made matters worse. Hamid let this animal have her for the night then sold her to a fat wine dealer on the road. She was worth many camels, but not as much as you’ll bring.”
“Why am I more valuable?” I looked at him incredulously. “I’m small, not strong, and I’m not handsome. My brothers said I looked more like an Arab than a Jew.
“Yes,” he teased, “but you’ll make a fine eunuch. Eunuchs are the most valuable slaves!”
“That’s not true Thaddeus,” Hamid gave Awud a warning look. “Men servants are more highly valued than women. You might not be tall, but you’re not small nor, judging by the muscles on your arms, are you weak. Don’t forget: we saw you fight! You’re trying to under value yourself, but I know what sells. Because the Parthians breed like mice, pretty woman and strong men are common. This is not Rome where your people have adopted the disgusting Greek habit of using slaves for pleasure. Over there on the Parthian side, you’ll serve the same purpose as a beast of burden. It’s a matter of business. After so many years, if you save up your earnings you might buy your freedom. If you’re lucky and have the chance, you might even escape.” “But not yet.” He flicked me playfully with his whip. “When I make my money and leave peacefully after the sale, I don’t care what you do. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” I swallowed. “...So why don’t they open the gate?”
“Oh, they’ll let us in.” Hamid said, banging it a few more times. “They’d damn well better. I’m the only ally he has in this land. I think Rome has forgotten this flea trap. Wait until you see these poor fellows. Half of them are mad or diseased. Most of them were sent here as punishment. Many, in their despair, run away into the desert, winding up as bleached bones in the sand.”
I sensed that Hamid had said that for my benefit. I hoped he was exaggerating about the tribune’s wife and the conditions of the fort. When the gate finally opened, a raspy voice challenged Hamid: “Who goes there? State your business!”
“Open up, you Roman dog,” Hamid demanded, prying at the gate. “You know very well, who I am and what my business is.”
“We have the plague,” the man spoke indecisively. “You can’t come in. The prefect gave me orders. I’m sorry.”
“Let me talk to the prefect?” Hamid demanded.
“The prefect’s dead,” he replied in a deadpan voice.
Backing away from the gate as if it was foul thing, the bandit leader pivoted, stepped away, and raised his hands in a gesture of dismissal.
“Listen up men,” he barked, visibly shaken, “some of you may not have heard that: Hermus is dead. The compound is stricken with plague.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Uthman exhaled with relief.
“Me too,” Akhmid seconded. “Let’s move on. There’s another a rest stop on the Parthian side. I never trusted that man.”
“Yes, soon,” Hamid muttered, climbing onto his horse. “When the wind dies, we’ll get back on the road. We have water and food. We’ll move to the far side of the trees.”
“I think we should leave, period,” suggested Awud “What’s a little dirt. We’ve been in dust storms before.”
I didn’t believe Hamid’s depiction of Hermus. It was quite possible that he was corrupt as many frontier officers might be, but I think the bandit leader made up that story about the tribune’s wife. Regardless of his warning, I would have tried to communicate to Hermus about my predicament. Whatever chance I had of telling him, however, ended with that one dreaded word: plague.
One of the reasons for stopping had been to water the horses, camels, and mules. This might be accomplished at the next oasis as Akhmid and Awud pointed out, but Hamid insisted that we water them now. After we moved to the other side of the oasis, I witnessed a much more efficient way of watering the beasts. The Roman method of digging a trough had seemed clever to me, but the Bedouin had invented portable troughs made of sheep’s skin threaded together and staked in the ground so that several animals could line up for a drink. When they were finished, the troughs and stakes were quickly removed and packed on the camels and mules, the whole procedure taking much less time than the Roman method I had learned. Because I rode up front with Hamid’s inner circle of men, I could see the fear on their faces. Despite my disappointment at not alerting the prefect of my predicament, I shared my captors’ fear of infection, which was worse for me than being a slave. I hoped that Ecbatana didn’t have the plague. The men and animals behind us stirred with grumbles, neighs and camel honks, as we resumed our retreat from the fort.
“What if that Roman dog is lying?” Uthman asked, as we bundled up in our scarves and detoured back onto the road. “I don’t trust him. He just doesn’t want to barter with us. We could’ve used some extra wine.”
“It’s possible he’s running low on supplies,” suggested Hamid. “That would explain the excuse, but we don’t need him. It’s better this way.”
“It’s not better for poor Thaddeus,” Awud snickered.
“I was so looking forward to more candied dates,” Akhmid mumbled wistfully.
“You don’t need candied dates,” snorted Hamid, “your fat enough!”
Glancing protectively back at me, he included me in his final words before our caravan was swallowed up in the swirling dust.
“We have wine and plenty to eat,” he concluded with finality. “The most important reason for seeing the prefect is safe passage. We need his blessing to cross the border. With a fort full of dead Romans, we have that. This way, regardless of whether or not Hermus played a trick on us, we don’t have to trade our goods, and young Thaddeus won’t sound the alarm.”
This had been, I thought grimly as I squinted through my scarf, my last chance. Looking back on this incident, I’m convinced that the sentry at the fort had lied, which suited the one-eyed bandit leader just fine. Perhaps the prefect was fearful of further collaboration with one of Rome’s enemies. If he had really died, it seemed likely that Rome might one day send a replacement unwilling to tolerant desert bandits. Now, on my mule, as mere plunder in the bandits’ caravan, I followed behind Hamid, Uthman, Akhmid, and Awud with little chance for escape as we crossed the border, through the relentless heat and dust storms of the frontier into the land of the greatest enemies of the Roman empire: the Parthians.