THE PAPAL PRIZE
Algiers - September 1580
The sun blazed down on the courtyard of the Kasbah, high above the bay and city of Algiers. There, a prisoner stood chained between two wooden posts as a whip stung his flesh with masterful precision.
His chilling shriek pierced the ears of the silent prisoners, many bearing scars from the same leather. Until this moment, the man, bound at his wrists and ankles, had not believed this could happen to him. He lunged forward in a hopeless effort to break free from the coarse bindings as a second strike tore into his flesh just above his right buttock. The thick straps, like the earth between the two heavy posts, were black with the blood of those who had been there before him. He knew this was only the beginning.
Shock and despair gripped the proud Alonso Quixote as he resigned himself to the whip. The irony made him grimace as scenes of home in La Mancha flashed through his mind. How many times had he ordered floggings for peasants on his own Spanish estate for the slightest offense?
Now it was he who was tied down, experiencing the searing strikes opening row after row of bleeding rivers on his back. For the first time in many years, he recited a prayer he remembered from his youth, and tensed for the next staggering blow.
The Kasbah’s majestic architectural design inspired respect and obedience from the people living below it. The imposing structure served as the administrative headquarters for the Pasha of Algiers and provided a prison for those unlucky captives deemed to have ransom value.
Hassan Pasha, a large man with a finely trimmed beard and a body that resembled a ripe pear, thought of himself as an enlightened viceroy. He treated his valuable ransom prisoners as his guests. He fed and clothed them humanely, and furnished medicines when they were ill. He also supplied them with writing materials so that they could correspond with their families across the Mediterranean. Communication with home was accomplished through a network of Christian missionaries, Trinitarian monks in particular, who carried letters throughout Europe for those imprisoned. Noted for their austerity, the Trinitarians also devoted one-third of their revenues to the liberation of Christian slaves.
The pasha was well aware that the families of his guests would pay ransoms as high as 1,000 gold ducats for their safe return. The guests in his honeycombed citadel included the sons of many of Europe’s most noble families; the majority from France, Italy, and Spain. Other unfortunates who became entangled in the corsairs’ Mediterranean webs included members of Europe’s powerful mercantile class who could afford to pay the pasha’s price. If a newly acquired prisoner was deemed to have little ransom value, he was either sold through a network of slave auctions that spanned the North African coast from Algiers to Cairo, or simply released to seek his own way home. A preponderance of those sorry souls commonly perished from starvation or disease.
As the region’s supreme administrator of Islamic law, Hassan Pasha enforced laws with varying degrees of severity, but at the top of his personal list was one rule that he enforced to the letter: do not insult my generous hospitality by attempting to escape. It would make him look foolish, and that he would not tolerate. A first offense would bring the bastinado, a painful beating with a stick, usually on the soles of the feet. A second offense would earn a public flogging, with salt poured into the lacerated wounds to increase the pain if the pasha were especially angered.
When Hassan Pasha assumed his post as the Turkish viceroy of Algiers in 1575, he inherited a difficult problem that his immediate predecessor had refused to address: Italian Jesuit missionary, Enrico Bassi.
After granting the Christian holy man an audience, he concluded that the strong-willed Italian was determined to trick or outwit him into granting far too many liberties for the small Christian minority of Algiers. Rather than slaughter thousands to make his point, he simply had the Jesuit seized and buried alive. All rumblings of discontent among the Christian population came to an abrupt end.
Conditions had softened since the Spanish had been driven from Algiers and the Barbary Coast in 1529 by the infamous Khayru d-Din, better known throughout Europe as the ruthless pirate Barbarossa. With Turkish financial and technical assistance, Barbarossa had overseen the construction of the Kasbah and positioned its 127 long-barreled cannons in such a precise manner that it was suicidal for any invasion fleet to attempt a landing at the city. For the past 51 years, the Spanish had not dared to test the cannons of the Kasbah that guarded the bay of Algiers.
Kareem Ben Ali took great pleasure in his work and smiled broadly as he drew back his whip for a second strike on the bound Quixote. He felt smug and proud to have been chosen by the pasha at the tournament held to select the most skilled in the use of whips.
Not bad, Kareem thought, for a bastard son of a drowned corsair and a mother whose short life had been spent on her back, dragging coins from faceless sailors. Orphaned at the age of ten, Kareem managed to survive the streets of Algiers for two years before he joined a band of street performers and learned to handle the whip, under the tutelage of a distant uncle that elevated him to a prized station in the household of the pasha.
There, in the middle of the main courtyard, Kareem — vain about his long, oiled mustache — looked upon himself as an artist as well as a dispenser of justice. He always performed before an audience. The pasha made certain that all his guests witnessed such punishments; sure it would discourage other escape attempts.
Kareem began at the prisoner’s upper buttocks and systematically worked up his back, with special care to hit the tight flesh of the rib cage. He had no sympathy for those who broke the laws of Allah, but always saved his best work for Christian prisoners. For them, he used a special whip with tiny shards of metal laced into its three tips; an ingenious innovation he was quite proud of. Kareem took great satisfaction in the placement of his strikes. Each would be precisely one inch apart and, by working from the bottom up, he could see each mark, unobscured by blood running from above. It delighted him to know that the designs he created on the flesh of his charges were indelible. Those who survived would never forget him.
Had the pasha known about the metal tips, he certainly would have one of his less dedicated floggers to lay a less artistic pattern on Kareem’s back. The pasha would not have wanted his valuable merchandise damaged beyond repair.
From a third-story cell overlooking the main courtyard, another prisoner - or guest, as the pasha preferred to have them called - peered through an iron-barred window. He could see the entire courtyard and the main gate that led directly to the docks nearly two miles away. He could smell the sea air and hear the song of the seagulls as they freely soared in all directions over the prison compound, his home for the past five years.
Though he had witnessed the brutal punishments many times, his eyes began to water as every muscle in his body grew tense. He well knew the agony in store for his compatriot at the whipping post, for on more than one occasion he had tasted the sting of Kareem’s whip. The scars on his back were proof of that.
Over the last five years, he had endured Kareem’s lash on three separate occasions. But every time he was released from his bindings and dragged back to his cell, he managed to give Kareem a wink and a smile of defiance. Kareem, for his part, returned the smile, acknowledging his victim’s bravado.
Now, by the mercy of God, this horrible nightmare seemed finally about to come to a conclusion. A ransom of 1,000 gold ducats, raised by his family, the Trinitarians, and an old comrade had finally been paid to the pasha. The comrade, who had only recently gotten word of his friend’s imprisonment, contributed the bulk of the ransom and virtually saved the man’s family from destitution.
As indifferent guards took the unconscious Alonso Quixote down from the whipping post and carried him away, the man in the cell reached over to his crude writing desk on which lay a tattered book. The journal, bound in worn leather, had been his salvation and only companion during his long confinement. Though most of the book was written in ink, he had used a special lemon juice solution to conceal the most sensitive entries from unwanted scrutiny. If the pasha knew the hidden secrets the journal contained, it would be the writer’s severed head, detached by the pasha’s own scimitar that would be returned to his family in Spain.
The man pressed the journal to his chest, treasuring the chronicle of events that seemed so far away, events that rocked the world and finally stopped the dreaded Turkish advance on Europe. Without the journal’s constant reminders of past glory, he surely would have perished into a world of madness. It would be the only thing of value he would take home with him.
On the cover of the journal, a treasured gift from a friend — that same friend who now had come to his aid — was inscribed the date and the name of its author: September 1570, Miguel de Cervantes.
He secured the journal under his nearly useless left arm. A gunshot wound received nine years earlier had permanently maimed his left hand, “to the greater glory,” he had written in his journal, “of the right.”
It seemed that, at last, he was, going home. Please, God, he prayed over and over, let this be true.
Hassan Pasha’s term as Ottoman magistrate had come to an end in Algiers, and he looked forward to the pleasures of his home and family in Constantinople. His share of ransom, after five years in Algiers, had earned him more than 27,000 gold ducats from the families of his European guests, a sum that would ensure a princely lifestyle for the rest of his life.
As was his custom, Hassan sent two armed guards to the departing prisoner’s quarters to bring him to the banquet room. Before his release, Cervantes would be the pasha’s guest one last time. After all, Hassan seemed to recall, the rules of hospitality as put forth in the holy Koran called for a gesture of kindness to an enemy whose family had paid such a great sum for his release. Even the Prophet himself had said: “Though the captive in your charge be an infidel, treat him with respect if his family meets your terms of release.” But Cervantes, long unwashed, must be bathed and given suitable clothing for their last meeting and for his journey home.
Cervantes was taken down into the deep bowels of the great fortress where the pasha’s baths were located. Countless centuries before, the Romans had discovered the caverns beneath the bluff overlooking the city of Algiers and had constructed a labyrinth of chambers to serve as their bathing facility. Arab hordes that had swept across North Africa in the eighth and ninth centuries had lent their influence to the baths, but it was the Turks who transformed the caverns into magnificently tiled chambers with an art form they inherited, copied, and added to from centuries of Byzantine refinements, as demonstrated in Constantinople and throughout Asia Minor.
The major bathing pool featured a miniature waterfall that drew water from a natural hot spring in an adjacent cavern. Surrounding the great underground cave were various steam and relaxation rooms. It was customary, after sitting in the purifying mineral steam, to submerge oneself into the cleansing mineral waters of the massive pool in the main chamber.
As he entered the subterranean baths, Cervantes was given a towel and a pair of leather sandals and told to disrobe. After quickly discarding his tattered garments and wrapping the towel around his waist, he followed an attendant into the next chamber. He had never experienced the rituals of the Turkish bath or hammamas, as the Turks referred to it.
As he entered through the arched entry, Cervantes glanced back in bewilderment at the two guards who had escorted him. Abdul and Ali smiled as Cervantes disappeared through the door. They were simple men who followed their orders, but they viewed Cervantes with unusual admiration because he had never stopped his attempts to escape, even though it meant torture and possible death. They respected his tenacious spirit, as did the viceroy, Hassan Pasha, who uncharacteristically had spared Cervantes’ life on three occasions.
Eight months earlier, Cervantes had plotted to secure a small coastal sailing ship in an attempt to escape and had been betrayed by another prisoner. Hassan Pasha, for a third time in his tenure as viceroy, had made an exception to his strict rule and refrained from taking Cervantes’ life. In doing this, he had declared that so long as he had the maimed Spaniard in safekeeping, his Christians, ships, and city were secured. Such was Cervantes heroic bearing in the eyes of his captors.
Cervantes entered a large room with beautiful multicolored tiles covering the floor, walls, and ceiling. In the center was a circular fire pit with bushel-sized granite stones piled up into a mound. Please, God, he prayed again, let me be really going home.
He was told to lie down and stretch out on the marble slab, called the belly stone, to work up a sweat. The attendant took a bucket of water and poured it onto the red-hot rocks, producing a tremendous cloud of steam.
Cervantes began to sweat in the moist heat, and felt an overwhelming sense of serenity as every muscle in his body relaxed and seemed to melt into the hard marble slab as he lay prone on a thick, soft towel. The steam cleansed every pore and he closed his eyes to enjoy the moment.
Maybe, he thought, it is possible that I will soon be a free man, reunited with my family and friends.
Cervantes wept. Questions raced through his mind in an uncontrolled torrent. So many questions with no apparent answers. Why had he been lost for the past five years? Why had God not answered his prayers sooner? These five years may have stripped away his dreams, but he was more determined than ever to survive. He had sworn on the memory of a sacred relic he had once held in his hands that he would not perish in this godforsaken land. The power of that relic had given him the strength to go on living.
As the heat in the chamber intensified, his mind began to doubt. What if this is a hoax? Is my desperation playing cruel games with my mind? Is this intense heat causing me to ramble and crash out of control? Is this a new form of torture? Will the heat become unbearable? Am I meant to die here?
Cervantes jumped up from his dream-like state, took a wooden ladle of water from a nearby bucket, and poured it over his head. As the cool water revived him, he remembered a favorite quotation from his school days, uttered by the great Roman statesman, Marcus Aurelius: “Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres.”
With renewed vitality, he repeated over and over, words that would give him comfort and strength: Calm yourself, Miguel. Have faith. You are going home. You are going home. Please, God....
He sat down on the hot wooden bench, placing the water bucket next to him for periodic splashes of water. He remembered the day, five years earlier, when his ship, El Sol, had been captured only nine days out of Naples by three Turkish galliots off the coast of France near Marseilles. Because of his role at the battle of Lepanto, he had received letters of commendation from the supreme commander at Lepanto, Don Juan of Austria, Pope Pius V, and the Spanish viceroy of Sicily. Finally, after four years of military service, Cervantes and his younger brother, Rodrigo, were returning home in glory and honor. The Turks had found the letters and believed him to be a person of great importance, worth a valuable ransom. His family in Spain had been able to raise only fifty gold ducats, which had been enough to ransom only Rodrigo. Thus had begun Cervantes’ five-year ordeal.
An attendant entered the steam room and gently tapped Cervantes on the shoulder. In Turkic he told Cervantes to follow him into the bathing pool area. After five years of captivity, Cervantes had become proficient in both Arabic and Turkish. He dove into the refreshing mineral waters of the great pool, and swam and rested in intervals for the next half hour. He had not experienced such physical joy in such a long time, and had almost forgotten what it felt like.
As he floated and played in the pool, he remembered his happy school days in Madrid — the scent of orange blossoms in the garden of his professor, Juan López de Hoyos, and poems he had written that had brought him to the attention of the respected Spanish author.
He remembered the day that de Hoyos appeared as a surprise guest lecturer to discuss the writings of Fernando de Rojas and his masterpiece novel, La Celestina. Cervantes was so enamored by de Hoyos’ presentation and so passionate about de Rojas’ work, that he followed the professor after his lecture to a small cafe where he boldly introduced himself. Not only did he engage the amiable professor on alternative aspects of de Rojas’ work, but took the opportunity to recite several of his own poems to the surprised but very impressed professor.
One poem in particular was later chosen by de Hoyos for publication. How proud Cervantes had been to see his work in print. Slowly, he voiced each word of his loved Maiden of the Sea, as if it were spoken for the first time from the lips of a child.
The Maiden of the Sea chafes under the weight of her anchor.
But behold, the chains of contrived dreams lay heavy on her shoulders.
As the desultory waves crash against the barren rocks, the maiden’s song resonates
through the depths.
The song purges the sea of its pungent solitude.
Hence, the sea becomes one with man and the maiden’s tribute is fulfilled.
How he longed to return to that heavenly environment. Even the face of his beloved Dulcinea ran through his mind — the lost love he had eliminated long ago from his memories because of its hopelessness. She was of noble birth and had been promised in marriage to the son of a prominent family while she was just a child. When Miguel accepted the fact that they could never marry, he had briefly thought of ending his life or entering a monastery, but finally decided to devote himself to the pursuit of knowledge through his studies. He would prove to Dulcinea’s family, when he became Spain’s leading poet and a court favorite throughout Europe, that they had made a serious error in shunning him.
An attendant motioned to Cervantes to get out of the pool and gave him a large, cotton towel. Cervantes was led to another chamber with a long wooden table at its center. Here, the attendant put several towels on the table to make a comfortable mattress, and gestured to Cervantes to lie face down on it.
The attendant applied lavender-scented oil to his scarred back. Another attendant, this time a lithe, strong woman, entered the chamber and moved silently toward Cervantes’ prone body. She proceeded to exert a series of high-pressure circular strokes to his back, arms, and legs. Painful at first, his muscles loosened within minutes and the discomfort faded away.
What glorious heaven was this, Cervantes thought. Let it be true. Though his eyes were shut, he sensed the feel and scent to be that of a woman. He had not felt the touch of a woman since he left Naples with Rodrigo. Quickly subtracting his departure date from Naples, to what he believed was roughly the present date, he came to a staggering total: one thousand seven hundred and forty-nine days. Dear God, he thought, for a Spaniard — or any man — this was indeed an eternity.
But as the woman’s small, powerful hands gently stroked his neck and back, he again entered a realm of unfettered relaxation. Even the scars from Kareem’s whip seemed to dissolve, as if they had never existed. Cervantes closed his eyes and drifted off into a world high in the clouds, gliding carelessly over a great sea. He saw his mother, Leonor, and his father, Rodrigo, at the familiar family table with his six brothers and sisters. Had it been ten years since he had last seen them? He felt like a modern day Odysseus, whose odyssey was finally coming to an end. Let it be true... The Penelope who would be greeting him would be his beloved family. How he had dreamt of that day from his cell in the pasha’s stronghold.
Images of his family faded and Cervantes envisioned four ships on a horizon of misty clouds. Three of them flew the flags of Spain and Philip II; the fourth flaunted the papal flag of Pius V, its white and gold colors emblazed with the miter and keys of St. Peter. What kind of dream is this? Cervantes asked himself. Have I been transported back in time ten years to begin my odyssey again?
Suddenly, Cervantes found himself on the main deck of the papal galley. Walking toward him with a smile was his beloved friend and brother in arms, Leonardo Radolowick. “Oh, my dear God!” he whispered in disbelief.