Travels With A King And A Knight




And opposed to this sentence, as I shut the porthole against the Azeris, I could hear my father quoting Tom Stevens, his tutor at Oxford: “There is nothing that you can allow yourself not to know.” The maritime empire centered on the Mediterranean Sea.
Azerbaijan

 

“Azerbaijan,” said Zaza. The police signaled us to stop by the side of the road. “They know that Georgians have money,” said Zaza as he slowed down and stopped beyond the police. A policeman wearing a Soviet peaked cap smiled with a mouth full of gold teeth. Zaza presented him the Russian passport and opened the trunk of the car with the pride of someone who has been robbed. The policeman rifles through the vodka bottles, the containers of gasoline, the glass items and the tea.

“Beggars,” snorted Zaza, taking out a packet of tea that drifted into the hands of the police.

“And one of these,” said the policeman, pulling one of the glass items out of the newspaper padded carton. “And who’s that?”

“We’re a Silk Road delegation. He is a researcher from England.”

“From which university?”

“Oxford,” I said. My father had studied there, if a university is something genetic. Double helixes. “Why are you stopping again?”

“He wants gasoline for his car.”

“And do you know where there’s a gas station?”

“He said another 20 kilometers. Beggars, mendicants,” growled Zaza angrily, as he smiled at the policemen and emptied one of our containers of gasoline into the tank of the policeman’s car.

“Not all of it,” I said.

“Don’t be stingy,” said the policeman, preventing Zaza from setting down the jerrycan while there were until the last drops of fuel had dripped into the gas tank of the Azeri Lada.

“Beggars. Something like this couldn’t have happened in Georgia. A few rubles instead of a fine for a traffic violation – that, yes, but not beggary like this.”

The villages resembled their neighbors in Georgia. Tin roofs, tall poplars, mulberry trees. Tobacco leaves drying on wires strung along the fences around the houses.

The filling station was closed. “No gas,” said the Azeri.

“There’s no gas in Azerbaijan? Strange,” said Zaza. “And where do they hide the oil from the Caspian Sea?” The day began to wane.

“Did you see a Chai-khana? We’ll fill up with gas first.” Zaza drove fast along the darkening road. A red light lingered on the brown, deserted hills. A long line of cars accumulated next to two large fuel tanks. Zaza turned to the cavalcade and ran to the cashier to pay. Cars tried to avoid the queue and green motorcycles with sidecars billowed bad fuel. We filled the extra containers.

“There’s a Chai-khana over there,” said Lado and Zaza turned and stopped in the yellow lamplight. Small wobbly tables and a few chairs under a pergola by the roadside. On the table stood a glass bowl, and in it were lumps of colored sugar. A young boy wearing a filthy apron set a porcelain Chainik and Turkish teacups down on the table. I stretched out in the creaking chair. The pleasure of the stop, the breath of summer air, the fading light through the red tea. I was back in Turkmenistan. “Besh,” said the Azeri. Glasses shaped like women, full of red tea. “Is there a spoon?”

“What does he need a spoon for?” asked the Azeri.

“To stir the sugar.”

The Azeri looked at me perplexed and brought a spoon from the filthy kitchen. Lado put some sugar under his tongue and sipped the tea between his teeth. By my third cup of tea, I had stopped stirring in the sugar and held it on my tongue, under my tongue, between my teeth, grinding it to bits and drinking the tea, like everyone else in Azerbaijan, when there is sugar.

Darkness fell on the road. The lights of the car were faint and inadequate and the windshield was filthy with dust and insects. No lines marked the margins of the road and there was no dividing line down the middle. The black of the road melded into the night. From time to time we would leap out of the dark into the backside of a car or a tractor with lights that did not work traveling slowly down the road, nearly invisible in the dark. Zaza would brake wildly and pass them honking. I shrank into the seat. I hate driving at night in places like this. We halted at roadblocks. Each time, our papers were checked, the trunk yawned open and packets of tea or a 10 or 50 ruble note would exchange hands between Zaza and the policemen.

“Do you know where you’re heading?”

“Lado has been here.” The utter darkness embraced the earth and the yellow lights twinkled faintly into the night. Onward and eastward. I looked in the atlas and I stuck my head out the window, trying to orient myself by the stars. One or two places were signposted.

“We have to turn in a little while,” said Lado.

“Have you got the strength to drive?” Zaza stopped. “If a policeman stops us, don’t get out of the car and don’t stop right next to him. Let me get out and do the talking.” I sat down on the beaded mat that filled the sunken driver’s seat. I stepped on the gas. There was no need to release the handbrake. It was torn. The motor pinged.

“Ach!” grumbled Zaza. “Bad gas! Did you hear that motor?”

I changed gear. I strained my eyes and drove slowly, many kilometers, less than 120 kilometers with Zaza navigating between the dim vehicles on the road. We crossed a dark junction and turned. I looked at the stars. We traveled north. Baku was supposed to be to the east. Or the southeast. “Stop and ask the policemen,” said Zaza.

“Do you want to ask the police?” Police are a plague in Azerbaijan. Trouble. Bribes.

“Yes, yes. Let’s ask.” The fear of the wide Asian spaces.

I stopped at a bridge where there was a barricade with a police hut. Zaza went out to the policemen to ask about the road to Baku.

“This is the old road. It’s not a good idea to take it. You should turn back and take the new road. Are you the driver?”

I got out of the car.

“He’s not from here,” said Zaza. “We are a delegation from the Shulki Viputs – the Silk Road.”

“Does he have a license?” I held out my passport. “And the license?” I pointed to the photograph. “Tell him that in my country the passport and the license are the same thing.”

“And where’s the visa?” I took out the visa papers. “It’s not written that he’s allowed to be here.”

“Baku –“ I pointed to the name.

“You’re allowed to be in Baku. Not here.” He took out the pen that was stuck in my shirt. I grabbed it and put it back. Sensitivity to the written word.

“Get into the car,” said Zaza, getting me away from the troubles. The policemen rifled through the trunk. Time passed. I got out again.

“How much longer will this take? The ferry is waiting for us,” I yelled in English. Zaza looked at me. The policeman smiled and Zaza broke into rapid speech. The policeman went over to the trunk and Zaza bestowed a thousand blessings. We slammed doors.

“How much did it cost?”

“A hundred rubles.” Zaza turned the key in the ignition and the car leapt forward. “Thieves and beggars. And two packets of tea. This is the most corrupt place in all of Asia. I’ve never seen anything like this in my whole life.”

I tried to calculate how many times we had been stopped by the police and how much money the trip had cost us until this point. Five. No, six times. A police car signaled us to stop by the roadside. I rolled a cigarette and waited for the end of the negotiations, gazing at the poplars and the stars.

“Turn here,” said Lado. Zaza turned onto the road. I hoped we were going in the right direction. I sat in the seat next to Zaza and Lado smoked and dozed in the back. “Are you awake?”

“Yes,” said Zaza. “You have nothing to worry about.” The road turned and began to climb the Caucasian ridge that separates Baku from northern Azerbaijan. The car twisted into the darkness and a thin mountain rain began to fall. Zaza slid down the slopes. From a distance, we could see the lights of Baku. Another 80 kilometers. I looked at my watch; 11:30. Zaza drove fast. We could see the lights getting closer. I lay back my head and dozed off.

I awoke suddenly when I heard the noise of metal hitting stone and glass breaking. My head hit the ceiling, the car hovered, wondering whether to turn over or not, and finally straightened out and landed heavily on its wheels. It stopped in a cloud of dust by the roadside.

“Are you alright?” asked Zaza.

“He got a knock on the head.”

“Those Azeris. There was a pile of sand in the middle of the road. We hit it. It was just luck that we didn’t turn over.”

“Did you fall asleep?”

“What do you mean fall asleep?” grumbled Zaza. He examined the car. I took the headlamp out of my knapsack. The car looked alright, except for the windshield which had fallen out when the car body was crushed by the blow. I looked at my watch. Half past midnight. By the western calendar, it was Friday the 13th. I’m not superstitious. There are combinations that one should be careful about and not travel on unmarked Azeri roads with closed eyes in a battered Lada with sunken seats, a pinging motor, worn tires and brakes that work. Sometimes.

Zaza headed east through the old city. Two teenagers directed us to the sea. We passed the Azeri parliament building. Large ships bobbed above the shore of the Caspian Sea. A smell of petroleum and caviar. The local hotel was full. Zaza drove to another hotel. “Full,” said the reception clerk. “Don’t worry,” said the doorman.

“How much?”

“150 rubles.”

“And there’ll be a room for the three of us?”

“Wait here.” We took our knapsacks out of the car and the doorman led us to the seventh floor of the hotel. Zaza counted bank notes into the doorman’s hand. I spread the thin mattress and the sleeping bag on the floor, leaving the beds for Zaza and Lado.

“Would you roll me a cigarette?” asked Zaza. “I like to smoke when I sit on the toilet.”



Baku


A gray morning hung over the large square beneath the hotel. From the high floor, the Caspian Sea stretched gray and flat. Flame-topped oil rigs to the south. Baku, on the tongue of land that sticks out into the sea fed by the Volga and the Kura and and hundreds of streams and rivers that flow down from the Caucasus and the Iranian ridge, curved at the old quarter. Opposite it was a park, and to the north, in the harbor, dozens of ferries and freighters lay at anchor. A train whistled. To the south, on the mountain, antennas and transmitters bristled. The mountains that ringed the sea were gray-brown and empty. Zaza lay on his back, limbs akimbo, and snored. Lado snuggled into the blankets.

I woke Zaza up. He awakened quickly, pulling on his filthy jeans and lighting a cigarette. His eyes were red. Lado kept on sleeping. “Let’s call the academy of sciences and then you’ll go over there and I’ll go see about getting the car fixed. Yesterday I asked the doorman where there’s a garage around here.” He went into the bathroom, showered and came out. “Do you have any toothpaste. I forgot mine.”

We went down to the third floor for breakfast. The scarcities of Moscow had not reached Baku. Black sturgeon eggs to the one side of the butter and red ones to the other. I buttered the bread and laid on the caviar with a spoon. Breakfast with the Georgian nobility. The waiter brought hard white cheese with yogurt poured over it, and omelets. He poured coffee into our cups. We stirred in sugar. Friday, September 13, started out just fine. “Three rubles,” said the waiter. Six for two.

We went down to the square. Zaza called the academy. “They’re waiting for you.” I shouldered my knapsack and got into a cab. I said the name of the street and the faculty. The cab climbed slowly through the Baku streets. The new city was built on the dry yellow hills. Up until the 1920s, the Russians were unsure of the fate of their Tsarist empire. The British who were in Persia invaded with their Indian regiments and took Baku. Ten local commissars were slaughtered by the Whites. Then, for reasons best known to London, the British decided not to conquer central Asia, leaving the Red Army to defeat the Whites and take control of Baku. The large cities of central Asia were centers of struggles. Baku, Tashkent. The new city was build high on the cliffs that adorn the gulf. From above, the ships on the quiet gray sea that stretched to the horizon were visible. A closed sea that looks like a lake on the maps. Its width, at its narrowest point between Baku and Krasnovotsk on the eastern shore, is 300 kilometers. I paid the driver when I got out, as is customary in Soviet cities. He smiled. I asked him where the history and archeology buildings were. “Here, here,” he pointed at a cluster of neoclassical buildings. The classical as a symbol of bad taste.

Trade routes passed through Baku and Azerbaijan, crossing through Afghanistan and Iran, coming up through Ardebil and Tibriz to the Kura River valley and from there to the mouth of the Fazis River to Poti on the shores of the Black Sea. Rice, pepper, cotton, cinnamon, spices, precious stones, perfumes, ebony, ivory, silk and dyes were transported along the trade routes to the markets of Europe and Asia Minor. Even when the other land routes closed down after the discovery of the sea route by Vasco da Gama in 1498, the city continued to flourish, because even the sea link around Africa could not compete with the land route to Baku and from there north to Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga on the way to the heart of the Russian Tsarist Empire at St. Petersburg. “The Martinoff Academy Bridge,” I said to the guard. He picked up the receiver of the heavy black telephone and dialed slowly.

I stood at the entrance to the Baku Historical Institute and waited. A young man came down the steps, greeted me and led me upstairs through the floors of the large, antiquated building to the professor’s office. A short, jovial-looking man stood up behind a desk and smiled and stretched out his arm for a handshake. Four others looked at me, smiling, from behind desks. They did not look busy.

“Ekspeditizia Shulki Vipots.” I had a letter.

He sent one of the desk sitters to summon an interpreter. One of the girls left the room and came back with a dish of fruit. Grapes, peaches, apples and pears. I pinched off a grape. A Chainik and cups. An older woman wearing a red dress entered the room smiling. She shook my hand and sat down opposite me.

“Akademi Ashurbili.” Martinoff made the introduction.

A young man in gray slacks and a white shirt entered the room. He had brown eyes, black hair and good English. A graying heavy-set man of about 50, wearing a faded brown suit, followed him in. We shook hands. “He is a professor of historical geography. I thought it would be good if he were here too, if you are interested in the Silk Road.” The geographer spread out a map. A dealer in ideas along the whole route.

“I would like to present you my book,” said Ashurbili, taking a purple bound volume from an old leather briefcase. She inscribed a dedication. “This is a book about trade links along the routes and about the Indian traders. There is a summary in English at the end of the book.”

“I will also give you my books, about Caucasian Albania,” said Martinoff, as he signed the inside covers of three volumes, and the geographer also pulled out a book of his own. “My book is about the feudal era in Caucasian Albania, the Christian era.”

“When did the Christian era begin here?”

“From the fifth to the seventh century, Albanian bishops built churches in Jerusalem. Salman ibn Rabia from Syria got here in 642 and conquered Azerbaijan. But up until the tenth century it was still a Christian country and there were Monophysites, Diophysites and Nestorians in Azerbaijan.”

In the seventh and eight centuries, there was a struggle for the control of the region between the Abbasids who linked central Asia and North Africa into a huge empire and the waning Byzantines. In 791, Zubeida, the wife of Haroun al Rashid, the legendary caliph of Baghdad, founded Tibriz and called it Harnina.

And Jews. “The sources talk about 3,000 Jewish families at Akuba, north of Baku. To the west, there were Zoroastrians. Before the Christian era, there were 20-26 Caucasian and Turkish tribes who were under Persian influence. In the sixth century BC the Scythians passed through here but did not conquer the region, although there is a theory that there was an independent kingdom here. In the fourth century, Alexander the Great destroyed Achaeminid Persia and the Albanian state was founded. Kabla, 250 kilometers west of Baku, was the capital. Alania then had links with the Greek-Hellenistic world and with Armenia, Georia and the nomads in Daghestan north of Baku. The name Albania was given by the Greeks – Herodotus, Strabo and Thalmes.”

“And where did the Silk Route pass through here?”

“One route came up from Afghanistan through Ardebil in Iran, and from there north to Astrakhan through Shibran, which was founded in the fourth century. There is a synagogue there from the ninth century with Jewish symbols. Did you know that there is a center for Azerbaijani Jewish studies in Leningrad? Another route went through Tibriz to the Nechevan, Yeravan and Tbilisi to the Black Sea and across the Caucasus to Russia. In the middle ages, the route went from Kazakhstan to the Volga, Dervan and Genja, a city that was founded in the ninth century north of the Caspain Sea that became a center for porcelain objects that came from China.”

“When did the Jews get to Azerbaijan?”

“Ah,” said Martinoff, “Persian speaking Jews came to the western side of the Caspian Sea in the fourth century. A peach?” He cut the peach into quarters. The fruit are beautiful in Baku. Who makes what – the people the route, or the route the people who live alongside it? Alexander set up cities everywhere, measuring with his eye where the routes would go.

“Two thousand kilometers of road passed through Turkish territory along which stations and fortifications were built in the 6th, 7th, 12th and 13th centuries,” said the geographer.

“Caravanseries from which the Arab settlements developed. In the 6th and 7th centuries, hundreds of churches were founded along the trade routes.” Like in Sinai. Like in Cappadocia and everywhere the regime wanted to established its military and political hold. In the name of God. In the name of the hapless struggle against the Abbasid empire that gained control of the sphere of influence and the trades of the Byzantines who had pushed the Nestorians to smuggle silk from China in the 5th century, with the silkworm cocoons hidden in the bamboo waling sticks they used on their march from the Middle Kingdom to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. “Baku was founded only in the 8th century.”

Al Muqadasi, the Arab geographer, described the trans-Caucasian cities famed for their silks, their fabrics and their carpets. Shamali adds wool and dyes produced from worms. When in the 11th and 12th centuries, before Genghis Khan and the Mongols who destroyed everything, he described Albania in terms of a “golden age.” Like Georgia, its neighbor to the west, here too there was a kingdom with nobles and a royal court, but because it lacked for silver, it minted coins of gold. The golden age ended with the Mongol conquest, which recreated reserves of paper money imported from China and the minting of gold money stopped.

The silk routes served as a source of wealth and were raided by the Mongol and Turkish tribes.

The huge wastelands of central Asia, the Turkmen Desert and the Mongolian steppes, were like a huge turbine that produced explosions which swept over Asia from end to end .The Mongolian nation of the Yuan dynasty. And the Timurids of Timur the Lame from Samarkand and Aqbar who fled in order to establish the Mogul empire in India. And Muhammad with the Arab tribes who moved westward and eastward more than any other power born in the desert.

“In Baku there were markets from books that came from China, Iran and western Europe. Ties between Russia, the Balkans, Italy, the Arabs and the Turks passed through here.”

“Did they cross the Caspian Sea in ships?”

“Thor Heyerdahl visited Baku and studied petroglyphs depicting ships. He said that the boats on the Caspian sea were very different from those on other seas, because in petroglyphs from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans the sun was in the center of the picture and the Caspian Sea the sun was in the north. This lead him to conclude that the stone paintings here are 15,000 years old,” said the geographer.

“Yes,” said Martinoff, “they have found hundreds of harbors from various periods along the Caspian Sea. Have some grapes. They’re excellent.”

Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta describe the ships that crossed the hundreds of kilometers between the Turkmen Desert and the Gulf of Baku and the other cities along the seashore.

“There were also ties between India and Azerbaijan,” said Akademi Ashurbili. “Indian merchants traded from ancient times through Afghanistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. That’s why a temple of fire was erected in the 17th century not far from the city.”

I took my leave of the University of Baku. Marinoff took out a hundred ruble note and ordered the Jewish interpreter, a student of Azeri history to go down to the street to catch me a cab to the museum. I inquired as to whether the Jews of Baku were worried by the collapse of the old regime. “I don’t sense any fear,” said the interpreter. “We don’t have any problems with the Azeris.” The cab twisted down the road, descending from the yellow clay cliffs and the apartment blocks, passing by the old city, dropping us at the museum. The museum was written in Azeri and Uzbek. I went out into the wide boulevard that runs along the edge of the park beyond which is the gray sea. I waved. The enchantment of cheap money. The cab dropped me at the entrance to the hotel. Zaza sat in the restaurant near the door reading a newspaper.

“Interesting?”

“I bought two newspapers. One Russian and one Azeri.” Both newspapers were of four pages. The paper was of low quality. In contrast to the quantity and quality of newspapers in America and Europe, the Soviet newspapers looked small and gray. Zaza signaled the waiter to bring tea and ice cream.

“What’s happening with the car?”

“I have to go get it at 4:00. He wants 700 rubles for the window.”

“And that’s alright?”

“I told you that in the Soviet Union everyone knows that Georgians have money so people are willing to do anything for them.”

“Where’s Lado?”

“Sleeping.”

“Since yesterday?”

“Lado can sleep a lot.”

Lado appeared at the entrance of the hotel, sporting sunglasses and the soft peaked cap and his short, stringy gray beard on his long face. He poured himself some tea from the Chainik and stirred in some sugar.

“Where are you going from here?”

“I’m going back to have a look around the old city.”

Lado blinked with sleep heavy eyes and stirred his coffee, mixing the sounds of the metal spoon on the sides of the pocelain cup with the wail of sirens.

“Shall we meet at six?”

“Yes,” said Zaza. “You don’t want to come to the garage with me and from there we’ll drive to the old city?”

“No. I’ll walk there.” It has never happened that a car has waited ready at a garage.

I crossed the parliament square. The walls of the old city stood grim in the waning day. The walls were built by the Khan of Baku in the 19th century. Azerbaijan, like Georgia, was a land between the two great blocs of the Byzantines and the Iranians. However, while Georgia remained Christian and feudal, in Baku, which was full of trade that came up from Iran, Shirvan Shah Halil Ola built his palace in the 15th century. Not a large palace, but a lovely one. Children sat on the doorsteps of the wooden houses and couples chatted at the entrance to the palace, between the upper courtyard where official ceremonies were held, and the houses where people lived. The minaret of the Ki Kubad mosque closed off the courtyard and below it stood the bath house, and next to it, the dome of the mausoleum of Sa’id Yihye Bakuwi , the dervish who was the court scientist. Like the Moguls who spread southward to India in that period, the Asian princes and rulers encouraged the sciences at their courts. The snobbishness of the regime. A small kisok stood by the gate. I looked for a map of Azerbaijan and Baku.

“You speak good English.”

“I’m an English teacher,” said the woman who was selling at the kiosk and who was in charge of the small museum inside the walls. “But I don’t have much opportunity to practice, so few tourists come here.”

“How much is the map?”

“Forty.”

“I took out 40 rubles and laid them on the counter.

“No, no!” she said with amazement. “Forty kopeks.” For a moment I forgot where I was.

“Ah,” I said, “how do I get to the Maiden’s Tower?”

“It’s down there, through the alleys, the children will take you.” She called to some children.

“Twenty rubles and we’ll take you!” said the children. I remembered. I went down the alleys to the Maiden’s Tower, the tower of strength above the Turkish baths. From the top of the tower, the domes of the caravansary stood out. Thousands of Indian merchants came to Baku, where they stayed at the caravansary and bathed at the nearby Turkish bath. It was they who established the temple of fire in the 18th century, which is today in the middle of the oil fields. Thus spake Zarasthustra. The Indian traders were the excuse for the British intervention at the beginning of the 20th century, because the Indians were citizens of the Raj. The diamond in the crown for which the great game was played throughout Asia between the British agents and the agents of the Tsarist empire and their Bolshevik heirs. The British conquered Baku with its Indian troops that came from Persia. During the 1920s, Britain was still the greatest imperial power of all. Had things fallen out just a bit differently, it could have conquered the Tsarist empire in central Asia.

Zaza was waiting for me at the restaurant. “How was it? Would you like some tea?”

“Very nice. Is the car okay?”

“Lado took it down to the port.”

“Where’s that?”

“Just over there. There’s a ferry today at 6:00 and tomorrow at 11:00. When do you want to go?”

“There are a few more places I want to see here.”

“Hurry, hurry!” Lado appeared. “Haven’t you packed yet? They’ve agreed to put us on the six o’clock ferry.”

“Do you want to leave now?”

“We’ll miss the ferry,” said Lado, as he was swallowed up in the door to the hotel.

“Is there anything else you want to see in Baku?”

“Let’s go,” I said, burying Zarasthustra’s temple. Things that you skip, you don’t catch up with later on. We loaded the bags into the Lada with its window welded in place and its body straightened. Lado zoomed into the traffic, headed towards the terminal, crossed iron tracks, wharves and jetties, and went up onto a wooden pier that led into the gaping backside of the ferry.

“Where to?” asked a man in a white uniform.

“To the ferry,” said Lado, pressing 30 rubles into his hand.

“Okay,” said the man and his official peaked cap turned towards the oily polluted water.

“How do you know how much to pay him?”

“Half of what Zaza would have given.”

“Is it all bribes?”

“The official price is just a few kopeks. But no one knows what the official price is. If you want to get onto the ferry, you have to pay.”

“Is that the ticket?”

“No. This is for using this pier.”

The huge ferry was jammed with cars and trucks. Lado drove cautiously, as the iron tracks that bring the train into the ferry passed between the wheels of the car. A large truck exhaled bad gasoline smoke ahead of us. The day waned and the sun went down behind the precipitous yellow hills of Baku. “Will there be room for us?”

“Yes, yes. The man in charge of loading saw that our license plate is from Georgia.” The truck ahead of us squeezed in and accelerated in behind him to the belly of the ferry, at the very edge. A truck laden with fruit stuck its tail in and unloaded crates of plums and apples. Zaza took a handful. We chewed black plums. cables were untied and gathered up. The ferry hooted and began to slip away from the dock. At the edge of the ferry, but the receding water a man stood and yelled at the loader.

“What’s all the yelling about?”

“He just came to take a tow hook. His truck hasn’t arrived; it got stuck on the way and then the ferry began to move.”

The loader refused to whisper into the walkie-talkie he held and stop the boat.

“What now?” I asked as the ferry stopped and began to go back.

“They’re bringing it back to shore.”

“The Soviet Union,” I whispered with a smile, as the ferry offered its back end to the dock and the man leapt on with the iron tow hook. We set off again.

“Let’s go up,” said Zaza. “You watch the car,” he said, leaving 10 rubles for the loader. “We’ll be right back to get the knapsacks.” We passed between the lines of cars and went up on deck. From the first deck to the second and from their to the cabins near the bridge. “Here,” said Zaza. The Azeri sailor opened the door. “Just let me take out my things. You have two keys here.” Pictures of naked girls and beds.

“How long is the trip?”

“Tomorrow at six in the morning we get to Krasnovotsk,” said the Azeri. “Do you have any clothes to sell? Shoes?”

“No,” said Zaza. “We don’t have any clothes to sell.” The Azeri stood in the doorway and looked at the knapsacks and bags.

“You got cigarettes maybe?”

“Sure, sure,” said Zaza, and offered a cigarette to the Azeri, closing the door and locking it.

“How much did you give them?”

“Two hundred and fifty rubles,” said Zaza. “Do you think that’s a lot?”

“I don’t know. It’s a nice suite.”

“Ha,” said Zaza, “I told you, we Georgians know how to get organized anywhere.”

The ferry slipped out to sea. We went out to the rear deck. Chainiks of tea stood on the filthy tables. Azeris, Turkmens and Uzbeks spread dinners on the tables and the lights of Baku, adorned with bursts of flame from the surplus gas of the oil rigs, receded westwards. Eastwards, across the sea to the Turkmen desert.

On one of the isles in the Caspian sea, bereft of all his property, hunted and ragged, languished Muhammad Ala a-Din, Allah’s shadow, who was the shah of the glorious Kuzari kingdom, the man who wanted to bring the Abassid governor of Baghdad Caliph Nasser to his knees, and went to war to conquer Persian Iraq. To his misfortune, Genghis Khan rose from the east, coming between him and the nations he ruled, burning cities with the help of flaming missiles designed for him by Chinese military experts. His small sturdy horses swept across the steppes without stopping, taking Bukhara, falling on Merv, razing Urgenj and Khiva. What sparked the war was the looting of a Mongolian caravan, contrary to peace treaty that had been signed between Muhammad and Genghis. With a demand to cut off the head of the governor of Merv, who had robbed the caravan, Muhammad Ala a-Din, insulted the ambassadors sent by Genghis. Genghis Khan, the Grand Kha-khan, went to war. Fifty years earlier, in 1187, the looting of a caravan by Prince Renauld de Chation of Karak, was the excuse for Salah a-Din to launch a war against the Crusader kingdom and defeat it at the battle of the Horns of Hattin. The Mongols pursued Muhammad through the length and breadth of his crumbling kingdom until they lost sight of him on the shores of the Caspian sea and he sailed for one of the islands where he dies a pauper and was buried in the clothes he was wearing. A king.

Lado lay down on the bed and read one of the books I had brought from the professors at the university. I opened the tins of sardines and cut up the onions.

“There are some interesting books here.” Zaza leafed through the book on Albania during the feudal era.

“They all gave me books.”

“Yeah. That’s how it is in the Soviet Union. There’s nothing to eat but books cost just a few kopeks. Or nothing at all. That’s why they gave you their books.” The friendliness of the people at the Azeri university. If kindness is a characteristic of the poor, I prefer the poor. Rejoice in thy poverty.

Zaza lay on the bed beneath Lado’s. I opened the porthole. “Watch out that no one sticks a hand in and takes clothes or anything else,” said Lado. “They have a lot of practice doing that here. They have sticks with hooks on them.” Knocks at the door. “Don’t open it. It’s the mechanics. They want cigarettes. I’ve already given them.”

“The books are alright, even though they’re written the Soviet way. They emphasize the contribution of Soviet scientists to a field that no one ever studies.” Zaza stubbed out a cigarette in a glass.

I read the introduction. Russian-Communist-nationalist pride. A crumbling empire.

“Ah,” said Zaza. “It’s not so bad that we didn’t go to the temple of Zarasthustra – you’re sorry we didn’t go there? Look, I see here in Ashurbili’s book that it isn’t even the temple of Zarasthustra. It’s an 18th century temple to the fire gods that was erected because of the petroleum on the site. Up until the 18th century, the Muslims didn’t let the Sikhs put up a temple at all there, and only then was it erected. You’re not sorry, right?”

The Azeris who sold their tea for the night knocked on the door. Cigarettes or clothes. I looked through the books on Caucasian Albania in the middle ages. Was Vakhtang the Albanian Vakhtang Gorgasali the Georgian who founded Tiblisi and fought the Sassanid Persians? I laid the book aside, my meagre knowledge of central Asia.

“Not just yours,” Danny had consoled me before I set out. “There is very little knowledge about central Asia. Maybe because Voltaire once said that he doesn’t care a fig about what some obscure governor in central Asia did in the 15th century, because it doesn’t have, and never had, any importance in the context of history.”

And opposed to this sentence, as I shut the porthole against the Azeris, I could hear my father quoting Tom Stevens, his tutor at Oxford: “There is nothing that you can allow yourself not to know.” The maritime empire centered on the Mediterranean Sea. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Italians, the English, the continental empire of central Asia. The Persians, the Parthians, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Timurids, the Moguls, the Russians. I slept wonderfully as the prow of the ferry split the shallow water between illuminated buoys that marked oil fields in the shallow sea with its water level that is 45 meters lower than in the open seas.