Excerpt for Zengi by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


This story, which is complete in itself,

is a taster extract from the novel CRUSADER

Bard of Burgh Conan

Copyright © 2017 Christopher Webster

aka Bard of Burgh Conan

All rights reserved.



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six



Historical Note

About the Author


ZENGI is a 'taster' extract from my novel, CRUSADER, which relates the adventures of William de Warenne and his squire on the Second Crusade. Most of the novel is written from the crusader point of view, but in this section I attempted to present things from the Muslim point of view as seen though the eyes of Zengi's (fictional) court poet, Fadel.

CRUSADER covers the main events of the Second Crusade. It begins with that period known as The Anarchy in King Stephen's reign, and goes on to describe the Fall of Edessa, the Battle of Lisbon, and the Battle of Mount Cadmus. It is available here here and here. Another taster extract is available, entitled CYRA THE BYZANTINE SIREN. This extract tells the story of how the crusader, William de Warenne, is distracted from his high religious aims by a dancing girl in Constantinople.


Fadel sighed with satisfaction and took another sip of wine. It was cool on the roof terrace. The sun was well past its zenith and was sinking behind the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, a perfect setting to listen to Aaliyah, his concubine, read to him. She was wearing a long, ivory coloured abaya of finest silk, and a hijab of a delicate rose colour, pushed well back from her face to make the most of her beautiful domed forehead. She was sitting on a low diwan and leaning back on a heap of brilliantly coloured silk cushions. Her voice was low, caressing, though it was actually a battle poem that she was reading, an ancient masterpiece by A’sha Maimun, describing before the battle of Dhu Kar:

Had all Arabia joined our ranks

there were honours for all who saw Dhu Kar.

The Persians came as if led by the night

sweeping dark across the land;

nobles, their sons, and men of rank

wearing rings of gold in their ears,

and pearls—close-sheltered once by the sea

in the oyster’s lap untouched by the clay.”

Read the last two lines again, O fair one,” said Fadel musingly.

He took another sip of wine while he listened, then with a sigh, he said, more to himself that to Aaliyah, “What wonderful idea!—to describe the beauty of the pearl and the oyster before going on to describe the horrors of war. Go on.”

Aaliyah turned the leaf of the beautifully decorated book and continued:

Forward we faced, no glance aside,

no flinch as we drove our lances home

again and again in relentless charge

as the hawk picks off the birds of the marsh.”

Ah! The hawk; the bird of prey—what a superb image! I wish I could write like that!”

And I’d rather you didn’t write at all!” said a stern voice from behind him. It was his father, a tall, spare man whose face had been tanned by relentless desert suns until it looked like a wrinkled piece of old leather.

Fadel jumped to his feet and gave a respectful bow, following which his father placed his hands on his head in blessing. Meanwhile Aaliyah had prostrated herself before him, but he only said, “Leave us.”

When I was your age I had five camels,” his father said, sitting down on the diwan. “I took glass, knotted rugs, cotton cloth along the Silk Road to China and brought back silk for fancy dresses, paper, furs, lacquerwork, porcelain, and jade. I faced white-hot sand dunes in the desert, forbidding mountains, brutal winds, poisonous insects, and reptiles, not to mention bandits and pirates, but bit by bit my wealth grew.”

You are indeed worthy of honour, oh father, but...”

And I used it to send you to the House of Wisdom that you might be trained for an honourable profession.”

Indeed, father, you sacrificed everything for me and I am grateful.”

Above all, you should be grateful to Allah for his goodness, for is it not written that the deed most beloved of Allah is prayers performed on time?”

He frowned and looked around him as if unsure how to continue. Perhaps the book which Aaliyah had left gave him an idea.

I hoped you would take up an honourable profession and add to the family honour and your own honour. The military is such a one. Why do you not petition the atabeg for a position in his army? I am not without influence and I have no doubt that I could persuade our lord, Zengi, to admit you as a captain—though it might cost me a few bolts of watered silk.”

Please, father. I can think of nothing worse.”

What about law? You have studied the Maliki school of Islamic law, I believe.”

Yes, father.”

Then why don’t you practice it? I will set up with a in the in the souq-market and buy slaves to be your clerks.”

But... I have decided on my profession. I wish to be... a poet.”

His father could contain himself no longer. He jumped to his feet, and stamped up and down while de delivered the following diatribe:

A poet! You are no poet! You are a dreamer at best, and a waster at worst. I come here to speak to my son about his profession, and what do I find—he is sitting with a concubine, drinking wine, and listening to poetry.”

But they are not all haram, father,” protested Fadel, mildly and in a respectful tone.

Concubines are for men who have established themselves. You should take a wife first, as I did when I was your age. As for wine, did not the prophet—may peace be upon him—say: ‘Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?’”

Indeed, father, you are right, and I will abstain if it will please you...”

Not me, but Allah,” his father reminded him.

And I will even send Aaliyah away—but please do not ask me to give up poetry.”

His father heaved a deep sigh as though he knew he was wasting his time but felt he had no choice but to try.

Does not the Holy Book say, ‘only those who are lost in error follow the poets’, and elsewhere: ‘we have not taught the Prophet poetry, nor would he ever have been a poet’?”

Father, your knowledge of the Holy Book is exemplary, you are indeed an hafiz. In that case, you also know that poetry is not haram. The Quran also refers to those poets ‘who believe, do good deeds, and remember God often’.”

Far from being annoyed that his son was arguing with him, he smiled with pleasure.

My son, it makes me proud that you too are an hafiz, and that you can debate the Holy Book like the best of Islamic scholars.”

Then I may be a poet?”

What, and write rubbish like this?” said his father picking up the book and throwing it down again.

Read it first, father. This is the poem I was reading. It is a battle poem, so it might interest you.”

His father read the part of the poem silently, then, as he warmed to it, began to read aloud:

As they bent to fling their arrow storm

we rushed them, man to man, with our swords,

and our horse incessantly battered the field

till the sun stood high and the Persians broke.”

He put the book down and looked thoughtfully across the rooftops of Aleppo to the setting sun, but said nothing.

Well?” said Fadel.

The old man turned to Fadel, and said with a pained expression, “It is a fine poem, but it is jahiliyya.”

It is indeed, pre-Islamic, as you say, father. But is it not a fine poem?”

How can it be fine if it is jahiliyya?”

Fadel wanted to scream and shout, but he remembered that, second to Allah, a Muslim must revere his parents.

But,” his father continued, though grudgingly. “If you could write a poem as fine as that about our noble leader, Zengi, and his jihad against the Infidel, I could almost excuse you the wine and the concubine.”

He was still wearing a sad expression when he left the terrace for this was only the latest of several conversations on the same subject, all which had achieved nothing.

A moment later, Aaliyah appeared as if from nowhere and threw her arms around Fadel, but he made no response. All he said was, “No—and take that wine away,” for his father’s words had struck him like a bolt of lightening, and he could now see his way clearly. He walked slowly to the carved balustrade and, leaning on it, gazed at the Great Mosque glowing in the halo of the setting sun, and thought, “Yes, that is what I shall do. I shall write like A’sha Maimun, but in praise of Imad ad-Din Zengi!”


Fadel rose early next morning, determined to put his plan into action. While the rest of the household were still sleeping he slipped out through a side door and made his way towards the Citadel. His idea was to find out as much as he could about the hero of his projected poem.

The Citadel at Aleppo is situated on a large mound about 160 feet high. A huge outer gate stands at ground level, and an even larger gate about halfway up. That gate is so high that its battlements are level with the wall of the Citadal’s highest level. It is an impressive sight, and to Fadel, spoke volumes about the power and vision of his subject—for had not Zengi himself caused these imposing fortifications to be built?

Two guards were stood in front of the outer gate. They were dressed in typical Saracen fashion: a conical helmet with forehead plate and nasal, a leather neck-guard, and lamellar cuisse made up of rectangular plates laced into horizontal rows. A sword belt encompassed the waist, and from it hung a straight-bladed sword. A Zengid touch was the glimpse of scarlet bantaloon between the cuisse and the brown leather gaiters, matched by a scarlet tassel dangling from the sword hilt. Fadel went up to the least fearsome of the two and said, “Salaam. Peace be with you. May I enter?”

The guard looked at him with a stony-faced expression, and answered without the customary response, saying instead, in a stern tone: “State your business.”

Fadel hesitated. Now that it came to the point, it seemed a foolish thing to say, but he said it anyway:

I wish to find out more about our honoured atabeg, the lord Zengi.”

The guard eyed him suspiciously.

Are you a spy?”

For a moment, Fadel was cowed, but then the ridiculousness of the accusation struck him, and he laughed out loud.

If I were a spy, would I ask such a thing? No, I am a poet, and I plan to write a qasida about our honoured atabeg.”

It was the guard’s turn to laugh, but ever mindful of his master’s strictness, he bit his lips and said nothing. Fortunately, the other guard, the fiercer-looking one, turned out to be the most helpful.

We can’t let you in without a pass, lad, but if you want to find out more about our honoured atebeg, try the Albali—you’ll find it in Al-Madina Souq.”

With those words, he resumed his formal stance and would say no more.

Fadel had never heard of the Albali, but he knew the Al-Madina Souq very well, and made his way there as fast as his legs would carry him—with due regard of course, for the rising heat, for the sun was now well above the horizon and beginning to beat down mercilessly on the white limestone buildings of the city. The Al-Madina Souq was the central market place of Aleppo. It was a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from rugs and spices to leather goods and love-potions, and already it was bustling with early shoppers. Fadel went to the first stall and said, “Salaam. Peace be with you. Would you be so kind as to tell me the way to the Albali?”

The merchant gave him a disgusted look for wasting his time with idle questions instead of buying his wares—oil lamps of the kind that Al ad-Din liked to rub—but, as is expected in Islam, gave a polite response: “And peace to you also. Go ahead twenty paces and it is on your left.”

The Albali turned out to be a wine shop, and the name suddenly made sense. For ‘Albali’ means ‘swallower’, and it is the name of a constellation which the Infidel call Aquarius. He pulled aside the curtain that hung over the door and went into a dark room smelling of alcohol. He saw at a glance why the guard had sent him there, for it was full of off-duty soldiers; not that they were sitting there in full armour, but the occasional scarlet bantaloon and pair of brown leather gaiters made it plain enough.

Wine shops were tolerated in Aleppo, though every now and then there was a purge, usually after a drought, famine or other natural disaster, which was taken as a sign of Allah’s disapproval.

Most of the men ignored him, but there were some curious stares. They were obviously wondering what a wealthy rich lad was doing ‘slumming it’ among the ne’er-do-wells of the Zengian Guard.

Fadel, the sensitive poet, almost turned and fled, but his burning ambition overcame his natural shyness, and he said to the serving man, “Salaam. A skin of wine for house!”

A ragged cheer ran round the room. This was the kind of guest they appreciated. At a table not far away, an old soldier, judging from the grey in his beard, signalled for Fadel to join him.

Salaam,” he said. “What brings you here, lad?”

This time, Fadel was more cautious, and tried a more indirect approach to getting the information he wanted.

I have heard of the exploits of the Zengian Guard, and want to know more about them.”

Well, you are talking to the right man,” said another soldier. “Bazzu, here, has been in hundreds of battles.”

Come now, Ahmed, you know it was only five,” said Bazzu, “but it was enough. Look!”

He lifted his tunic to show a great scar across his chest.

An Infidel did that with his great sword; cut straight through my cuisse, though it was only a leather one. Zengi equips us better!”

Here, take wine,” said Ahmed.

I forswore it, yesterday,” said Fadel awkwardly.

Allah will reward you,” said the man, “and I hope he will show mercy on us. But after a day on the burning parade ground we are as dry as the desert!”

But Fadel was not listening. He had his lead in the mention of his hero’s name, and he didn’t want to miss it.

Is he a good leader?”

Bazzu took a deep draught of his wine, then began a panegyric in praise of his master.

Listen, and I’ll tell you, lad, the story of a real soldier. Even as a youth he prepared himself for a life on the battlefield. Despite his father’s riches, he lived simply, ate simple food, and avoided strong drink...”

Aye, that’s the way,” put in the other. “Perhaps I would have risen to captain if it had not been for the devil I put in my mouth!”

...he spent his time on furusiyya: horsemanship, archery, charging with the lance, and swordsmanship...”

Don’t forget chess,” put in Ahmed.

Yes. It teaches tactics and strategy.”

Or hunting.”

That teaches horsemanship, and our lord, Zengi is the finest horseman in Aleppo. Why, when but a youth of fourteen years he led his father’s cavalry. He was a magnificent sight, riding out in all weathers, winter and summer. I tell you he was predestined by fate to champion Islam against the Franks!”

I bet he never dreamed he’d have a drunkard like you riding behind him,” laughed Ahmed.

Bazzu shook his head. “Drunk on duty? Me? Never—well not after what happened to Abdul.”

Ahmed shook his head too, and they both looked thoughtfully into their cups as though wondering if they should not stop drinking there and then.

What happened?” prompted Fadel.

Bazzu took a deep breath and told him.

He arrived in the parade ground so drunk that he couldn’t march straight. Our lord, Zengi, was furious: ‘We have the devil outside our walls—he was referring to the Infidel—and now we have the devil within. So I will make an example—crucify him!’”

And he did,” continued Ahmed. “He had him crucified there and then on the parade ground and left him there till he died, and for many months after, so that his rotting corpse would be a reminder.”

Then he closed all the wine shops—but they reopened after a while as they always do.”

There was silence for a while, and it seemed that the wine had lost its savour. Fadel reflected on this darker side of his hero’s character. It must be hard to discipline an army of independent-minded Bedouin tribesmen, but crucifixion! The thought made him uneasy until he decided that it had no bearing on his great project—he would simply ignore it. He rose to leave.

Aye, lad, that’s the idea. I think I’ll come with you,” said Bazzu.

Ahmed rose too.

Outside, in the brilliant sunlight, Bazzu blinked and shaded his eyes.

Masalaam, goodbye,” he said, “and come and see me again if you want to hear about my battles.”

Fadel thanked them both and hurried back to his father’s house to do battle with the jinn. He climbed to several flights of stairs to the roof terrace, not forgetting to pick up writing materials on the way.

His first sight was the Great Mosque glittering white in the harsh midday sunlight and he remembered that Zengi had built that, too—the same man who had built the citadel and meted out such harsh punishment. Yet, was it not written: “Allah is severe in punishment”, and was it not right, therefore, that a leader of his jihad should also be severe?

Fadel turned away from the mosque to concentrate on his poem. His subject for today was Zengi’s childhood, and somehow he had to find a way to begin a qasida using the information he had gathered.

He paced up and down the terrace trying different ideas in his head, sometimes speaking them aloud.

Zengi trained hard when he was just a boy,

He preferred a spear to a child’s toy...”

Fadel sighed. It was no good! That was just doggerel. He would have to try harder if he was to match the magic of A’sha Maimun.

Zengi practised with sword and spear,

When he was young he knew no fear...”

That was worse. He continued to pace, faster and faster as his frustration increased. Perhaps he was no good after all. Perhaps his father was right, and he should take up the law—and why not? It was not such a bad profession, and he would still be working with words. But not yet—he would have another try. He racked his brain. What was it that made A’sha Maimun’s poetry so good? Authenticity—that was it. Somehow, it was real in a way that his attempts were not. How could he compose a qasida that was real?

Fadel stopped in his tracks. He had reached the end of the terrace at the opposite end to the Great Mosque and was looking out over the Citadel. He was reminded of Bazzu and remembered his words: “Listen, and I’ll tell you, lad, the story of a real soldier. Even as a youth he prepared himself for a life on the battlefield...” They were authentic. The words of real soldier in praise of his leader. Why not just cast them into verse and see what happened:

Listen! and I will tell you, lad,

The story of a soldier true.”

That was it! It had that authentic tone he was looking for, and their was a pleasing tension between the informality of the soldier’s voice, and the formal structure of the qasida. He decided to continue, and racked his brains for rhymes:

No abler chief for combat clad,

Nor better brand in danger drew...”

Good! But it was only a start. The pacing and the poeticising continued throughout the afternoon until the red sun was sinking behind the Great Mosque. Then Fadel stopped suddenly, sat down, picked up his reed pen, dipped it in ink and began to write:

Listen! and I will tell you, lad,

The story of a soldier true.

No abler chief for combat clad,

Nor better brand in danger drew;

When but a youth of fourteen years

Sages revered his comely form.

He led his father’s cavaliers

In summer calm and winter storm;

His early days foretold renown,

Predestined by the hand of fate,

Princes upheld his youthful crown

Until he grew to man’s estate.

He waited a moment for the ink to dry, then picked up the linen paper and read over his work. He was satisfied, though he knew well enough that he had a long way to go before he approached A’sha Maimun. The authenticity was there, without a doubt, but imagery and vivid description were lacking. Nevertheless, he went to bed happy. Happier, in fact, than if he had spent the day caressing Aaliyah, carousing and merely dreaming of poetry.

After Friday Prayers the following day, Fadel lingered in the Great Mosque and found an opportunity to speak with the Imam.

Salaam, most honoured Imam. I heard that our lord, Zengi, built this mosque,” he said. “Can you tell me more about it?”

Indeed I can, my son. It was not built by our honoured atabeg, but by Umayyad Caliph Suleyman in the year 98AH. But lord Zengi restored it, and most of what you see today is his work.”

I have heard he has done many more things for the glory of Allah.”

He has, my son. He will forever be remembered as the one who raised jihad against the Infidel. Before he rose to power, the Emirs were divided amongst themselves. They even opposed him...”

Opposed him? Why did they not unite against the Infidel?”

The Imam sighed, “Because the Emirs were only interested in their own aggrandisement.”

So how did he get to the position he has today?”

By diplomacy and warfare. He fought battle after battle, sometimes against those Emirs, and sometimes against the Infidel, at last, a few years ago, he achieved his first significant victory when he attacked the Infidels in their fortress at Baalbek.”

Fadel listened eagerly and all the while, the jinn was working. He hurried home, trying out lines of poetry as he walked, and by the time he got to his terrace, he had composed the following lines:

It was a time of bitter strife,

Of broiling day and night alarms,

Murder and plunder both were rife,

And every Emir slept in arms;

crusaders from the ferrine west,

Imbued with mad religious hate;

Were rushing in fanatic zest,

The Muslim to annihilate.

He said them through again, made a few minor changes, then wrote them down. He was pleased with result. There were a few vivid touches of description such as “the broiling day”, and some powerful diction. He was particularly pleased with “ferrine”, a rare word, which meant “behaving like a wild animal”. “Fanatic” was telling, too, and “annihilate”, though strong, was the plain truth, though a truth that many Muslims would not face up to, despite Zengi’s efforts.

Every day for the next week Fadel went out in to the town and found people to ask about Zengi: the merchants in the Al-Madina Souq, the scholars in the House of Wisdom, and, of course, Bazzu in The Albali. He learned how Zengi had besieged Homs, and how Mu’in ad-Din successfully defended it, and how, in response, Damascus allied with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem against him. But Zengi laid siege to the Crusader fortress of Baarin and quickly crushed the army of Jerusalem. He also learned how Zengi, realizing that an expedition against Damascus was bound to fail, came to an agreement with Damascus and married Zumurrud, the mother of the ruler, Mahmud. There was more, much more, and Fadel found it difficult to weave so much detail into his qasida without in becoming a mere verse chronicle. He solved this problem by focusing on a few major achievements and elaborating them with his finest flights of poetic fancy.

At last the great day came when he read his masterpiece to his father. He settled him on the diwan that had once been Aaliyah’s favourite place, and, holding his manuscript with a trembling hand, read from beginning to end. It was a long poem, now, which contained many fine passages such as this:

With daring heart Antar, the brave,

Against him sped in proud array,

To break in pieces, wave on wave,

The finest swords of Araby.

I seem to see him once again

Breasting the billows of that sea,

Beneath him dead and dying men;

The Arab’s choicest chivalry;

Before the Sultan’s eye that hour,

Of gentle deed and courtly grace,

The foremost on the run for power,

Leading the veterans in the race.

His father listened with rapt attention, and when the poem was finished, he jumped up and embraced his son.

Praise be to Allah!” he cried. “You have done it! You have written the finest poem about our honoured atabeg that I have ever heard. It is a masterpiece! It is, in its way, a swordstroke of jihad!”

Father, I know now where my talent comes from. To describe a poem as ‘a swordstroke of jihad’ is poetry in itself.”

But that is what it is!” insisted his father. “Our lord, Zengi, must hear it—and he shall! I am not without connections at the Citadel. I will hire a scribe to make a copy of your qasida in the most venerated style of calligraphy, and a fine rawi to read it to him.”

And that’s how it happened that, a week later, Fadel found himself being ushered into the great man’s presence by the Visier, along with his father and the rawi.

Zengi’s audience chamber had none of the finery with which many oriental potentates like to surround themselves. There was a great, arched window in the Umayyad style to the left, its shape echoed by blank arches to the right and to the rear. The bank arches were painted in pale blue and covered with texts from the Quran in fine calligraphy. At the base of the rear arch was a bench where Zengi was sitting with some of his ministers and his two eldest sons, Saif ad-Din Ghazi and Nur ad-Din. To one side was a low table, on which a scribe, sitting cross-legged on a silk cushion was writing at the dictation of one of the ministers.

Zengi was wore the leather gaiters and scarlet bantaloon of his soldiers, though with fine bisht of dark brown with a gold border instead of a cuisse. The fabled ‘Sword of Zengi’ hung by his side. It was an ancestral blade of finest Damascus steel that had been passed on in his family for generations. He was a tall, swarthy man in late middle age, with a beard, but no moustache. But the most surprising thing about him, after all that Fadel had heard, was that he had a pleasant appearance, enhanced by beautiful melting eyes. Was this the man who slaughtered six monks at a Templar castle? Was this the man who had trounced the finest swords in Araby? Perhaps he wore a different expression on the battlefield. However, it was most certainly the man that had achieved such triumphs of diplomacy.

At a nod from his master, the Visier spoke:

My lord, I bring before you a poet who has written a qasida in your honour and wishes you to hear it.”

Zengi made a gracious gesture, signalling that he was ready to listen, and the minister stopped his dictation.

The rawi stepped forward and began the recitation from memory. As he spoke the lines, Fadel tried to read the expression on Zengi’s face, hoping to detect signs of approval. But there was no reaction at all.

When the last line had been read, and was echoing around the high, vaulted chamber, Zengi, said something to a minister, who signalled to the Visier to come over. A moment later, the Visier returned, and said to Fadel.

The lord Zengi likes your poem. He wishes to appoint you as his court poet. That being the case, you will present yourself to me tomorrow morning and I will make the necessary arrangements.”

Fadel looked at the great atabeg, but already he had turned to other business, and the minster had resumed his dictation. He had hoped for a word of praise from the great man himself, in particular, some indication of which passages he had liked the best; something to guide him in his future struggles with the jinnbut there was nothing to do but leave.

Allah is most gracious!” exclaimed his father as soon as they were out of the audience chamber. “You are a great man, now, my son! You are Zengi’s court poet. He will prosecute the jihad, and you will sing of it, and together, you will be remembered by the posterity of Islam.”

Thank you, father,” said Fadel, somewhat absently, for he was still puzzling over the contradiction between his hero’s outward appearance and his acts of violence and cruelty. It was something he would like to write about—but how?


Next morning, Fadel presented himself at the outer gate as instructed. They were the same guards who he had questioned before, and looked at him suspiciously. However, he said nothing, and showed the pass that the Visier had given him. Word was passed and the Visier met him at the inner gate and showed him to his quarters.

You will be sharing with our lord’s other poet, Faaiq,” said the Visier, as he led the way into a long, low chamber with two small arched windows at the far end.

Under the window was a diwan on which a young man was reclining. His smooth features and short, sleek beard suggested that he was in his middle twenties. He had a far away look in his eyes—the look of a poet whose dreams have taken him to “faery lands forlorn”—or perhaps of an opium addict. The latter was suggested by a short, thin opium pipe called a sepses on the table beside him, and a heavy flowery aroma hanging in the air.

Salaam; peace be with you,” said Faaiq.

And peace to you also,” said Fadel.

So you are the new poet?”

I have that honour,” said Fadel curtly, for he was somewhat put out to find another poet in residence. He had imagined that he was going to be the court poet, rather than just one of them.

Faaiq read his thoughts.

It is always so,” he said. “A great man has many wives and many concubines; he has many servants and many slaves—why should he not also have many poets?”

Fadel was horrified.

You mean, there are others?”

Faaiq laughed. “No, just you and I, and perhaps I am feeling a little like you, for was I not the one and only court poet before your arrival?”

Fadel now saw the situation from a different angle.

I see what you mean. I hope we can be friends.”

The concubines are friends—well, when they are not falling out, so why should not we be friends, too? I would call for wine, but it is not permitted in the Citadel, and our master is strict. But I have a spare pipe.”

Fadel shook his head. “I have foresworn all intoxicants—concubines too. Of course, alcohol is haramas for the others, I found that they were distractions from my art.”

Faaiq picked up his pipe.

On the contrary, I find that my best poetry comes in opium dreams—this, for example:

A pretty Nautch girl with an oud

in a vision once I saw,

she was an Abyssinian maid,

and on her five-stringed oud she played

singing of Mount Abora...”

...I forget the rest because the Visier broke the spell.”

Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?” said Fadel.

Perhaps,” said Faaiq unconcernedly. “I read the old poets as you can see...” He waved his hands to indicate the books scattered around the room, “...and their poetry gets mixed up with mine. It doesn’t matter. Zengi has had no education to speak of and wouldn’t know the difference.”

Fadel was shocked to hear his fellow poet speak of their master so casually.

But do you not want to give your best work in service of our lord and of jihad?”

Jihad is a dream—or perhaps I should say, a nightmare, for it can only be achieved by suffering. My dreams are better. In those dreams I am the greatest poet of Islam. All the Emirs pay me homage. They shower me with gold and jewels. They give me a palace to live in. An army of slaves attends to my every need, and all I have to do is smoke this.”

He touched his pipe.

But I will leave you to arrange your things. That door there leads to my sleeping quarters, and the other leads to yours. The Visier will send you a slave, but until he comes, mine will help you. Wadeed!”

At Faaiq’s call, a young boy appeared from somewhere in the vestibule.

I am here to attend to your every desire, master,” said the boy.

Wadeed, this is Fadel, the new poet. Show him to his sleeping quarters and help him to arrange his things. You will find a bundle in the passageway.”

I hear and obey, master,” said Wadeed and hurried off to fetch the bundle.

A handsome young lad, is he not?” said Faaiq. “I hope you will be so lucky in your slave.”

He is a good worker, then?”

He is good at everything.”

You mean...?”

Ah, but I remember that you have foresworn all pleasure.”

For now, but when I have achieved something I will marry, for did the Prophet—may peace be upon him—teach us that it is nikah?”

Indeed, and one day I shall do the same, but between the opium and the slave boys I seem to have lost my way.”

Have no fear, for is it not written: ‘Ah! Verily, the help of Allah is always near!’”

“‘I made dua to Allah, but I had no answer.”

In the hadeeth it is written: ‘There is no man who prays to Allah and makes dua to Him, and does not receive a response’.”

I see you are an Islamic scholar.”

I studied the Maliki school of Islamic law at the House of Wisdom. I was meant for a lawyer, but the jinn got the better of me.”

Faaiq laughed, “I was meant for a soldier—can you imagine it?”

Next morning, before it was hardly light, Fadel was awoken by a tugging on his feet. It was Wadeed trying to wake him gently.

Master, hurry!” he said in a harsh whisper. “The Emier is waiting!”

Fadel rolled out of bed, pulled his kameez around him, and went out to see what the fuss was. There was no sign of the Emier, but Faaiq was standing there in full military attire.

In the name of Allah! What is going on!” exclaimed Fadel.

I forgot to tell you that we have to report to the parade ground at dawn.”

The parade ground?”

Our lord has commanded that we train with his troops for two hours each day, so that we understand the rigours of warfare. Also, we are expected to accompany him into battle so that we may witness his glorious achievements.”

Fadel did not object to the principle; indeed, he thought it was a good idea for a poet to be at the heart of the action, but he was angry with Faaiq for failing to warn him, and couldn’t help wondering if he had done it on purpose.

Well, I must go,” said Faaiq. “I daren’t be late. Our lord, Zengi, is very strict about such matters.”

He turned to go.

But where am I to get armour?” said Fadel.

In the armoury. Wadeed will show you. But hurry. It would be a pity to lose our new poet so soon.”

Luckily for Fadel, there were several other new recruits, and there was a delay in finding arms and armour that fitted, so he was able to march out to the parade ground with the others.

He found himself in a contingent of twenty new recruits, who were being taught the very basics. How to hold an assegai, how to march in line, how to respond to the word of command.

At first it was not too bad, as the morning was cool, and the buildings around the parade ground cast a long shadow. But as the sun rose, the sweat began to stream down his back under his cuisse, and down his forehead from the padded mental helmet. The bright light dazzled his eyes, and the dust choked his lungs. His assegai seemed to get heavier and heavier, but if he let it droop he received a sharp rebuke from theSarjukhe. Every bone of his poet’s body protested, yet every part of his poet’s soul rejoiced. He word find words for it, and his poetry would be real, authentic; the poetry of a man who had been and seen, not the poetry of a man who paced up and down on a luxurious terrace.

There was a break after two hours, and the Sarjukhe told him he was free to go. The other poor recruits would be kept at it, on and off, for most of the day.

When he got back to his quarters, he was surprised to find Faaiq already there, lounging on his diwan and already halfway through his first opium pipe.

How did you...?”

How does one do anything in Aleppo? A bribe. I put on my uniform, present myself for duty, slip the Sarjukhe a silver dirham, and away I go. You should do the same.”

As it happens, I think the training is a good idea. It helps us to see things from the soldier’s point of view.”

Faaiq laughed. “I thought that was what imagination was for—and this.”

He took a deep draught of his sepses, held the smoke in his lungs as long as he could, then, leaning back, exhaled it slowly. His eyes rolled back in his head and the lids drooped until only a narrow glimpse of the whites could be seen—he had escaped to his opium fantasy land.

Fadel decided that a visit to the hammam would be better. The hammam in Citadal was available for all officials of the court. It consisted of three interconnected rooms: the hot room; the warm room and the cool room. His slave, Rabar, would give him a massage in the warm room, after which he would enjoy a cooling drink of sharbat, and a nap in one of the private cubicles.

As the days went by, Fadel found—much to his own surprise—that he was enjoying the military training more than the hours spent with his fellow poet. He was weak and clumsy at first, but his strength and endurance grew steadily.

One day, when he was marching out of the Citadel on a excercise, he passed his old friend Bazzu who was marching in. There was no time to talk, but Bazzu said as they passed, “Welcome to the real world, lad.”

When the Sarjukhe was satisfied with his parade ground drill, he was promoted to the cavalry school. Here, he had to learn all over again how to ride a horse, and then how to control it with just his knees so that his hands were free to use a bow. He had no illusions that he would be any use in a battle, but he imagined the pounding rhythm of his horse’ hooves being echoed in the eight poetic feet of his lines.


News of the death of Emperor John Comnenus provided the opportunity that Zengi had been waiting for. The Emperor had been his most dangerous enemy, but now, without his help, neither the Damascenes, nor the Kingdom of Jerusalem would dare to attack him. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

As a result, Fadel and Faaiq found themselves in the rearguard of the Zengid army as it marched to do battle with Kara Arslan, the Ortoquid prince of Diarbekir.

Though in the rearguard, Fadel was alarmed to see a real enemy ranged in front of him for the first time: rank upon rank of men with glittering helmets and spear points that seemed to stretch from one side of the valley to the other. He was even more alarmed to see a huge cloud of dust in the distance which seemed to be reinforcements of some kind.

The Edessan army under Joscelin, Count of Edessa,” said Faaiq. “He has an alliance with Arslan.”

Fadel never failed to be amazed at the scope of Joscelin’s knowledge of Mesopotamian politics. He seemed to do nothing but smoke opium and avoid his duty, but he did read a lot, and not all of it was poetry.

May Allah protect us!” said Fadel. “Two armies!”

Never fear,” said Faaiq. “It is said that our lord, Zengi, never lost a game of chess. He is a master of strategy.”

Fadel looked up suddenly. Faaiq never failed to surprise him. That was a masterly analogy which could be developed into a fine poem. Perhaps those hours of smoking and dreaming were worth it after all.

He is playing the game now—knight to king’s rook 3. It is a feint, an attempt to lure an opponent into a false move, and Joscelin has fallen for it.”

What do you mean?”

His has moved his queen across the board and his king is undefended.”

I don’t understand you—he is the king, well, the Count, and he has two armies to defend him.”

Mere pawns!”

Look, Zengi’s next move will be check.”

Faaiq pointed to a flurry of movement behind the front lines, but in front of the rearguard.

Fadel’s heart began to beat faster. Sweat poured from his brow. He wanted to run away.

I don’t understand. We are facing two armies, and our master sends part of his away.”

Faaiq laughed. “Don’t you see! He has outmanouvred Joscelin. He has lured him out of his stronghold, and Edessa is now undefended.”

But—the armies!”


buq sounded, and a detachment of horse archers galloped forward in a cloud of dust, and discharged their arrows at the enemy. Arslan sent his own horse archers to meet them, a fatal mistake, for they were shot down as soon as they were in the open. Another wave of Zengid horse archers followed, and another, and another, like mighty waves battering a tottering cliff. Joscelin tried an outflanking movement with his own horse archers, but Zengi made no attempt to cut them off. Instead, a rank of spearmen knelt before them with spears at an angle to protect the crowsbowmen who came up behind. A man on a horse is a large target, and many of them fell. As the battle rolled on, the discipline and training of Zengi’s men began to tell, and the armies of Arslan and Joscelin began to fall back.

Fadel witnessed all this from the safety of the rearguard who were never called upon to go into action. Nevetherless, he was deeply affected. He had read about battles, he had written about battles, he had talked to soldiers about their experiences in battles, he had even trained as a soldier—but he had never been in one before, and it affected him strangely. He was horrified at the shouts, screams, blood, spilling guts, horrific wounds, mutilated bodies; terrified when the battle seemed to swing his way, and when arrows whooshed overhead, but he also felt an exultation he had never felt before when the enemy began to retreat. He saw now, why some men, especially the leaders of men, are in love with battle. It is the ultimate human experience—the ultimate gamble: lose all, win all, and the more there is to lose the greater the sense of victory when you win.

By nightfall, the enemy armies had retreated. Zengi could have pursued them and finished them off, but he had other plans—the next move in the game of chess.

He will march on Edessa tomorrow, and if his advance guard has been successful, we will walk in through open gates. I hope so. I’ve had enough of fighting!” said Faaiq.

But we didn’t do any,” said Fadel.

Watching it was nerve-racking enough. I wish I had brought my pipe.”

I just want to sleep.”

Good idea. If I know our master it will be a hard day tomorrow. Up before dawn, and a long march.”

Fadel lay down on the mat and was asleep in a moment, not that he slept well. He had a terrible nightmare in which he was exposed to a relentless hail of arrows from Joscelin’s horse archers. The arrows slammed into him one after another until he looked like a pin cushion. He was covered in blood and felt terrible agony, but he couldn’t die. He jerked awake, and found that he was covered in sweat instead of blood, but it took a few moments before he could shake it off.

As he gradually recovered his senses, he became aware that a lamp was burning, and that Faaiq was already up. He was wrapping a bandage around his left arm.

What are you doing?”

I’m not coming to Edessa. I’m going back with the wounded.”

But you’re not wounded.”

Faaiq squeezed some red Tassle berries onto the bandage.

I am now,” he said.

But how can you write your poem if you are not there to see what happens?”

Faaiq laughed.

I know what will happen. Zengi will win and the people of Edessa will be slaughtered.”

But the details—it is all in the details!”

Faaiq laughed again.

My friend, you are a promising poet, but you have a lot to learn. A poet needs a zawia, and angle, on his subject, otherwise he is a mere chronicler. We have historians at the House of Wisdom write those.”

Do you have a zawia?”

Yes—I thought of it yesterday when we were conversing. Don’t you remember? Zengi as the master chess player: the feint with the rook inviting the false move with the queen, then check and checkmate! Chess as jihadjihad as chess with human pieces and Zengi clearing the board.”

Fadel said nothing but his expression revealed his admiration. It was a brilliant idea—an inspiration from the jinn, in fact. He felt a moment of envy, but was quick to remember the surah which says: “Beware of envy because envy destroys good deeds in the same manner as fire destroys wood.” Instead, he would take it as a lesson learned. He would continue with his quest for authenticity but would also look for a zawia.

But the gates of Edessa weren’t open as Faaiq had expected. It seemed that Zengi’s captain, Yaghi-Siyani, had lost his way in the dark, rainy night, and arrived no sooner than the main army. By this time the Edessenes had been warned and the defences had been manned. Despite that, the army was in high spirits, for word was passed that Joscelin had taken all the leading soldiers, and only a churchman, Archbishop Hugh was available to lead the defence. Better still, numbers were being swelled by Kurds and Turcomans—Zengi’s allies from the Upper Tigris.

As always, Zengi had planned his attack well, and he had good siege engines, and an expert team of miners. He began with a frontal attack on the walls, but this was only diversionary, as he knew that his best chance of getting inside such a well fortified city was to undermine the walls. When the defenders realised this, they made a sally, but Zengi had expected it, and had horse archers waiting to head them off. They were struck down, mercilessly, and not one made it back into the city. It soon became apparent that the clerics and merchants who made up the remainder of the garrison were inexpert at warfare, and that, despite the mighty walls of the city, and the even more imposing fortifications of the citadel, they would not be able to hold out for long.

Fadel played little part in this. Throughout the four weeks of the siege, all he could do was look on. Twice, the rearguard were marched forward to cover a retreat before a counter-attack, but on both occasions the attack was repelled before the rearguard came into action. Fadel had felt his guts turn to water with fear, and could only imagine what it would be like to be in the heat of the action.

At the end of each day he would think about what he had seen and try and put it into verse, he also continued to rack his brains for a zawia, an angle, that would transform mere description into poetry.

The breakthrough came on a bitterly cold evening at the time of year the Infidel call Christmas Eve. The mining had been going well, and the counter-attacks had failed to prevent them, with the result that a wall collapsed near the Gate of Hours. All at once, Zengi’s entire army was on the move, including the rearguard. They surged through the gap and gave themselves to unrestrained slaughter, taking out the frustration of four weeks of waiting on the unfortunate inhabitants. Men, women, children, Christians, Muslims, priests and ministers—all were slain in an orgy of vindictiveness. Was Fadel the only who was sickened? No. He saw in the eyes of many of the young recruits that they felt the same. It is one thing to see the blood of a soldier, but the blood of an innocent child is a very hard sight to bear.

The slaughter was made worse by the folly of the Archbishop, who refused to open the gates of the Citadel, because he wanted the populace to continue to defend the city. Thousands were trampled to death by the horse archers, and the foot soldiers slaughtered many more, including the bishop.

At last, Zengi himself rode up and ordered the massacre to cease. All the Franks were executed and their women and children sold into slavery, but as a sign of his mercy, the native Christians were spared. Zengi appointed one of his captains, Zayn ad-Din Ali Kutchuk, as governer, and returned to Aleppo.

Thus it was that the capital of the Crusader County of Edessa fell to Zengi. The bastion of the Crusader States was no more, and the Holy City was wide open to attack.


Fadel was happy to turn his back on war, and happy that he had much valuable material for his poem. However, he still lacked an angle. He was puzzling about this when he heard a familiar voice behind him.

Salaam. Peace be with you, lad.”

Fadel turned and saw that it was Bazzu.

I see that you got out in once piece, lad.”

Thanks be to Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.”

And to the Sword of Zengi,” said Bazzu.

For once, Fadel forgot the surah that enjoins politeness, for the jinn was upon him. Bazzu’s words had given him his zawia, his angle, and with so with an abrupt excuse, he rode on in order to be alone to think it through.

Yes—that was his zawia: he would write his qasida in the voice of a an old soldier telling a young boy about Zengi, and he would begin with his fabled sword.

He ran the lines through his head as they travelled, and by the time they got to Aleppo, it was ready to be written down:

The sword you gaze upon my child,

Thine eyes with eager passion scan;

Has flashed amid the tempest wild,

Where Zengi led the Muslim van;

The jewelled hilt whose rays of fire

Might scorn the glory of the sun,

The tempered blade whose touch of ire

Made streams of deepest crimson run;

Unmatched on many a field of fight,

But dimmed in many a battle won;

It made and unmade many a knight,

For it was Zengi’s own, my son.

As soon as he was back in his quarters, he reached for pen and paper and started writing. Faaiq, hearing the noise of an arrival, came out of his sleeping quarters with Wadeed, half naked, at his heels.

Salaam. Peace be with you. You have been a long time coming.”

And peace to you also. A long time, yes, but we won a great victory.”

In the name of Allah, I am glad to hear it—and you also won a victory yourself, I see.”

Fadel looked up eagerly.

You are right. I wrestled with the jinn all the way home, but I have it, I have it—and it is just as you advised; a zawia that turns a chronicle into a poem...”

Was that a look of envy that flitted across Faaiq’s face?

And what of your poem, your chess zawia?”

Faaiq shook his head.

I couldn’t make it work out.”

So you have nothing for Zengi?”

Ah, as for that, I want to keep my place. What place could be better? Ten Dirhams a month and nothing to do.”

You did write something then?”


Would you read it to me?”

Faaiq hesitated for moment, then went to his writing table and picked up a sheet of linen paper. Hesitantly, he began to read:

Had all Arabia joined our ranks

there were honours for all who saw Zengi.

Joscelin came as if led by the night

sweeping dark across the land;

nobles, their sons, and men of rank

wearing rings of gold in their ears,

and pearls—close-sheltered once by the sea

in the oyster’s lap untouched by the clay.”

Fadel nearly blurted out, as he had done at their first meeting, “Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?” for he recognised straight away the work of his favourite poet, A’sha Maimun—but he stopped himself just in time. It was pitiful, pathetic, for Faaiq had done nothing more than change the names, so pitiful, in fact, that he hesitated to embarrass his friend. Instead, he said, “That chess analogy was a masterstroke, you should have worked at it. Listen, Faaiq, once you gave advice to me, and it hurt, for I knew you had seen something my poetry lacked. It took me four weeks to find what I was looking for, but, thanks to you, I got there in the end. Now, if I may, I will give you some advice...”

But Faaiq responded with a scornful laugh.

Save your breath. My adviser is over there in that pipe. I don’t want to hear the usual sermons about discipline and hard work. My poem is a masterpiece—can’t you see that—the pearls, the oysters, the ‘close-sheltered sea’?”

Fadel was only trying to help and felt hurt by Faaiq’s defensive tone. He almost named the poet whose work he had stolen, but feared it would result in a row. Instead, he sighed resignedly and said, “it is, indeed, a masterpiece.”

Faaiq looked at him as if expecting more, then said, “Now it is your turn, read out what you have written.”

I have only just started to write it down. But it is in my head, and I can recite it to you.”

Go on then.”

It is fortunate that Fadel did not pay much attention to his friend’s expression as he recited his poem, for he was too busy trying to remember it. If he had, he would have noticed Faaiq’s handsome features express first interest, then astonishment, then envy, then anxiety and finally anger, but by the time he had finished and looked up, Faaiq had schooled his features into a neutral expression.

It is a fine poem—another masterpiece.”

The words were said begrudgingly, though he tried to sound as though he meant it.

You know that our poems are to be recited at the celebration feast on al-khamis?”

But that is only two days away.”

Well, if you leave it to me I will arrange for our poems to be copied in fine calligraphy and will present them myself to Zengi’s rawi.”

Fadel was glad, now, that he had not accused his friend of stealing the great master’s work. At least there would be friendship between them. If his friend chose to smoke opium and steal from other poets, that was his business.

Thank you, Faaiq. I will work as fast as I can. It is not just a matter of writing it down. There are some passages that I not happy with., and I must make a few changes. When do want it?”

By noon tomorrow. Don’t forget that the calligrapher has to write out the poems, and the rawi has to practice them.”

It will be ready. Are you looking forward to the feast?”

I always look forward to our lord’s feasts. The prohibition on wine will be relaxed to please the visiting potentates—though I admit that I do not like to hear my work read aloud.”

In case he gets found out, thought Fadel.


The feast was the greatest that had ever been held in the Citadel of Aleppo. All Zengi’s allies were there at the high table: Emir Timurtash Shihab ad-Din Mahmud, and even the Caliph of Baghdad. On either side of Zengi sat his sons, Saif ad-Din Ghazi and Nur ad-Din (he sat them thus to ensure that they didn’t quarrel during the feast). On the table below him were his captains, among them Kutchuk and, Yaghi-Siyani. The rest of the hall was filled with officers and officials.

The meal began with a delicious badinjan muhassa, a dish which is made with eggplant and ground and toasted walnut. The main course consisted of tabâ hajah, chicken, cooked in oil, and topped with chopped greens, with a marinade based on murri. They were served two drinks in addition to water: sekanjabin and a lemon drink—both were delicious and refreshing, but Faaiq’s expectation of wine was disappointed.

After the food came entertainment. Two groups of soldiers in brightly-coloured ceremonial uniforms, acted out scenes from the battle, and they were followed by a troop of young women performing the Raqs Beledi. They had been specially selected for their adaptation to the art, and each had an ample belly, the wobbles of which almost made Fadel renounce his vow of abstinence.

At last, the great moment came. Zengi himself would make a speech and then their poems would be read out. Zengi stood, and the hall was instantly silent.

He spoke in a quiet, calm voice that nevertheless seemed to reach to every corner of the room:

Allahu Akbar. Is it not written: ‘Fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out.’ Do jihad in the cause of God, incite the believers and be patient in the face of this hardship. If you knew about the reward and dignity in this world and the hereafter through jihad, then none of you would delay in doing it. Even now, those who died in the jihad against Edessa are wedded to 72 houris in Jannah. But the jihad has just begun. Next we must drive the Infidel out of the Holy City.”

Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-64 show above.)