Chapter 9 – Another Side of the City

There is a moment in every journey when our deepest dreams turn to possibilities, when life seems to offer us what we have glimpsed before only darkly and from a distance. But what the heart yearns for is not always what we think we desire. The smallness – and, yes, the pettiness – of our lives can invoke in us a war between our thoughts and actions, and our innermost spirit. Then, the damages we inflict on ourselves open wounds which draw from our life’s essence until all that is left is a yearning unfulfilled.

When I was young I dreamt of my destiny as a man lost in the desert thirsts for water. Those dreams were as real to me as the breath in my chest, as solid as the earth beneath my feet; what they lacked was a voice in the world, an expression, a clear path. But even when the way forward seems hidden and we fail to see what is obvious to others, still we find ourselves guided by forces unknown.

The morning was clear and warm with just the slightest breeze off the ocean. The treacherous currents and unseasonal winds had passed on to other shores and the hostelry was now busy beyond capacity. Having grown used to the calm of recent weeks this came as an unwelcome shock. Even taking refuge in the courtyard I could still hear the sound of raised voices, the continuous clamour of feet on wooden boards. The previous night, sailors, senseless from wine, stumbled in error into my room or collapsed in the hallway amidst storms of cursing and laughter. Finally, in the early hours and in a desperate state, I threw my belongings into my satchel and ran from the building into a street no less hectic or noisy. Even at that time of the morning – somewhere between darkness and daybreak – the city was frantic with activity. Travellers, laden with bags and boxes, made their way slowly towards the port. Traders were setting up their stalls, laying out provisions on sheets of cloth. A group of children attempted to steer a donkey through the busy street, one child berating the animal for its stubbornness and trying unsuccessfully to push it from behind. I stood in the midst of all this, breathing deeply and feeling what I had not felt for weeks: not just relief, but lightness, the possibility of something new and exciting. In that moment I wondered if the hostelry had been more a jail than a haven, reassuringly familiar but a jail nonetheless. Now, driven out into the city, I was reunited once more with the irresistible surge of life.

Of the many roads I could have followed, I took the path that led towards the harbour. Some might say I was drawn by the ocean, whose restlessness seemed to match my own. Others might argue that this road was the obvious choice for any traveller, promising passage to lands throughout the known world. The truth was simpler than this: I did not stop to think. My legs carried me without need of encouragement and the rest of my body followed. When I arrived, the harbour was awash with humanity. Merchants scurried to and fro, barking orders at the men charged with unloading their precious cargos. Traders bartered with passers-by, laughing and joking with anyone who stopped to listen. Small children darted between stalls, running errands for the price of a coin, while beggars crouched silently, downturned faces a picture of hopelessness.

On any other day I would have climbed the steep steps onto the fortified city wall. From there you could look down on the scenes below, undisturbed by hawkers, sharp elbows and the press of bodies. That morning, without knowing where I was heading, I found myself continuing through the busy crowds, eventually leaving the harbour behind. I still kept to the shadow of that enormous wall which, aside from the lighthouse, was the largest landmark for miles around.

I walked with a lightness of step, not really caring as to my direction but allowing myself to be steered by instinct alone. As streams of people flowed around me I began to notice clothes and faces, postures and attitudes, wondering as I often did how all these figures had come to be here. Who were they? What stories could they tell of fortune and loss, happiness and tragedy? It was in the middle of this daydream that I happened to see them: a tight cluster of men on the opposite side of the street, walking swiftly in the same direction as me. They were dressed in dark, formal cloaks that were so striking the figures immediately stood out from the crowds. They looked young, perhaps not much older than myself, with clothes that suggested a degree of comfort, if not wealth. Even the way they walked – in strong, purposeful strides – made them strangely foreign. Expressions and gestures were animated, passionate even, as though the men themselves inhabited some other world. Something about them intrigued me. Perhaps it was their air of confidence, or that they appeared unbothered by the many distractions around them. With nothing more urgent to occupy me, I began to follow them at a distance. In fact, I followed them for quite some while, always keeping to the opposite side of the street, slowing my pace whenever I got too close. I need not have worried, however, as each man seemed unaware of his surroundings, too absorbed in conversation to notice anything around him.

As we passed from the brash, noisy harbour district and into neighbouring streets, we moved from one atmosphere to another. Here were lush trees and gardens which had somehow been cultivated from the sandy, impoverished soil of the city. Exotic shrubs grew neatly, trimmed by unseen hands and, far from being neglected or left to its own purpose, nature seemed regular and orderly. There were fewer people which meant that, rather than having to battle through jostling arms and shoulders, it was possible to walk slowly, taking in the sights. I found I could breathe more deeply; it was then that I realised how tense I had become, how caught up in my own doubts and misgivings. As my attention shifted to my body – something it rarely did – I became aware of its hardness and lack of ease. I once heard a man say that we carry on our backs every joy and disappointment; that even as the joys lighten our step, the disappointments drag us closer to earth. As I remembered this I did not doubt its wisdom for a moment. As much as I had known joy on this journey, life in Alexandria was hard. You did not have to look too closely to see that hardship written into the faces and expressions all around you.

As we wound our way through one street after another I did not consider where I was being led, nor how far I would have to walk to satisfy my curiosity. I did not think at all, but instead kept my eyes fixed on the group ahead. Whenever the men halted, I halted. Whenever they gestured at some scene, my eyes immediately followed their gaze. If this was a game it lacked any strategy. If it was some idle pastime, I was in the thrall of each moment, pursuing something so insubstantial it might have been a ghost. The fact that I was now homeless did not concern me. My will had become as subtle as the wind, as rolling as the ocean. The only things that mattered were the rhythm of my footsteps and the sight of those mysterious figures on the road ahead.

Our journey continued and my surroundings became less and less familiar to me. This was surprising as I thought I had explored the city from top to bottom: its public squares and markets as well as its hidden corners no casual visitor would normally see. In Alexandria there were worlds within worlds, and a man might spend a lifetime here and never glimpse its shadow nor its true treasure. But I was no casual visitor. Since I arrived I had sought out the true spirit of the place, dismissing many of the more obvious attractions. I had visited the paupers’ graveyard, almost a town in itself, sprawled along the eastern boundary of the city within the shadow of the great wall. I had roamed further still: through the city gates into desolate villages, where women and children packed fruit into shipping crates, and half-starved animals gazed sullenly at the dirt.

My resources were modest and I had lived frugally, resisting temptations for which Alexandria was renowned: exotic perfumes and spices and rare delicacies from across the world. But I had received gifts so bountiful I would remember them my entire life, experiences that could not be bought with any amount of gold: a simple meal of bread and olives from a blind woman in a filthy shack, a game of stones with children who were doubtless beggars. As in Jerusalem, wealth kept its own company and the divisions between classes were reinforced by complex, unspoken rules. As a humble craftsman or servant you would not venture between worlds unless business called for it, and even then there were strict codes of behaviour. Every citizen knew his place and honoured its limitations. As an outsider, however, I knew no such limitations; I was free to wander wherever curiosity led me. If I was aware of those codes that governed the life of this city I chose to stand apart from them, not wholly ignorant perhaps but enjoying the freedoms of any traveller.

The men were setting quite a pace, and with my satchel slung over my shoulder I was beginning to tire from the heat and exertion. By now the sun had risen high over the horizon, its warmth a dusty haze in the air. Fortunately, the streets were much wider in this part of the city and tall palms grew by the roadside offering respite from the sun’s rays. There were fewer buildings too: a public baths surrounded by high walls and elegant stone gateways, large houses no doubt inhabited by families of the ruling elite. All were of such scale they blocked out entire streets, providing shade for those who lingered on steps or in doorways. It was not hard to admire the architects’ skills; everything was neat and orderly, quite different to the commercial district with its rambling maze of alleys, courtyards and houses packed so tightly they almost touched roofs across the street.

As the crowds thinned out it became harder to follow the men without drawing attention to myself. Several times they turned in my direction, but none seemed to see me. Just as I was wondering how I would find my way back we came upon an area of startling green. The houses were left behind and the sky suddenly expanded, offering views beyond the limits of the city. In the distance I could just make out the hills through which I had travelled with the caravan all those months ago. As I thought back to that journey it seemed so far away, almost a lifetime. I stopped to look around me; behind, the street led back to the harbour, to crowds and noise and a continuous swell like the roaring of the ocean breaking on the shore. Even the light was thick with the dust and dirt of the city. Ahead of me was open space and a greenness I remembered from the fields of unripened barley in my village, transferred to the Egyptian desert. The contrast was so striking I might as well have been comparing earth with water.

At exactly the point where one landscape met the other, an immense pair of iron gates marked the boundary. On either side, a stone wall ran in perfect straightness, forming an enclosure so vast I could not see its full extent. Beyond the gates well-tended paths meandered through carefully planted formal gardens, dissected here and there by a series of turquoise pools from which statues – Roman gods or emperors – arose.

Beyond the gardens, built on a rocky plateau, stood a building so gigantic it might have towered over the great Temple in Jerusalem which, until that moment, was the most magnificent building I had ever seen. Emerging from the rock face it made everything around it seem petty and insubstantial. From where I stood it resembled something like a fortress, a garrison housing the most formidable army ever assembled. Iron grey in the sunlight, its walls were of such a height they would surely have been unscalable even with the tallest ladders. No windows softened its formidable exterior; these would no doubt have appeared comical given the scale of the rest. Visible at each of the building’s four corners, slender towers arose like sentinels scouring the land for miles around, but tall as they were, they were neither the highest nor the most striking feature. That honour was bestowed upon a central roof which took the form of a dome, graceful where the towers were merely menacing, gleaming gold as the sunlight illuminated its curves.

The cloaked men were striding forwards, undeterred by the size of the building or its surroundings. In fact, they barely seemed to notice it or even pause in their conversation. I, on the other hand, felt as if I was rooted to the earth, transfixed by the sight of this goliath. In all my ramblings across the city nothing had prepared me for this. Something about its massive walls, and those towers like giants in the sky, turned my heart to glass and my feet to blocks of stone. I watched as the group continued through the iron gates and into the grounds of the building, realising with surprise that the gate was unlocked. For them, this was probably a normal day and nothing that awaited them held any trepidation. Back at the harbour, their dark cloaks had seemed out of place, but here in the shadow of this temple – or fortress, or garrison – the men looked perfectly at home. Clearly they were not soldiers. Nor were they priests or acolytes. But who were they? And what was the purpose of this great building? So many questions formed in my head that I could not even begin to formulate a plan. All I could do was stand there watching helplessly as the figures receded from view. In a few moments they would be gone, and this whole adventure would have been for nothing.

I realised I had to make a decision. I could turn back and abandon this strange journey, return to my old lodgings, plan the next stage of my quest. This seemed like a sensible course of action, and no doubt most men would have done the same. But even as that thought entered my head I knew it to be false. A dead end. A story with no resolution. The gates in front of me were open, and the path which would take me to the very foot of those immense grey walls beckoned. With my heart leaping wildly in my chest I began to walk forwards, passing over a boundary and into a future I could not yet imagine.