Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Making of the Hand of Justice

Mausoleum of Shajar al'Dur
The title is meant as a joke, of course. However, there are points about writing a story like this one which you may find interesting. The biggest difficulty with this type of fiction is seamlessly mixing fiction and actual history.

So what are the fictional parts, and which ones are actually true?

Let's start with the medieval period. The main characters, Shajar al'Durr, Sultan Aybak, and Baibars were, of course, real people. Shajar's story is mostly accurate, as regards becoming the first Sultana of Egypt, struggling to retain power after being forced to take Aybak as her consort, having him killed when her authority was challenged, and her death at the hands of bondmaids on behalf of the murdered sultan's son (from another wife). Her love story with Baibars, on the other hand, is a colorful fabrication. She did indeed have her tomb built on what is known today as Shari'a al-Khalifa (Queen Street) which, I hope, we managed to describe correctly. We found no pictures of the chamber inside, so we had to rely on textual material available online.

Baibars and his court

Qutuz was indeed Aybak's second-in-command, and suspected of having a hand in assassinating the leader of the Bahri Mameluke faction at the behest of his liege. After seizing power at the expense of Aybak's son, Qutuz defeated the Mongols and, when he broke a promise he'd made to Baibars before the battle, the latter killed him. Baibars had been a supporter of Shajar's first husband, the Sultan as'Salih Ayyub, and at the latter's death after Saint Louis's arrival in Damietta, of Shajar. Linking all this together led us to pick the two as the star-crossed lovers, which amplified motivations for their actions.

Heraklion, Crete, faces northward.
Maysa, Saleema, and Anbar are totally fictitious. The reason for their presence is to tie Baibars's love letter to Bayt al'Kritliyya, the house described as Najeeb's residence. Kandiye is the Turkish name for Candia, which is what Venetians called Crete a few centuries ago, and in particular its main city, Heraklion. The city's twenty-year siege and much of what transpired in the story regarding conflicts in Crete are true. Why did we pick Crete? Bayt al'Kritliyya actually means House of the Cretan Woman in Arabic. It is a real place, adjacent to the ibn-Tulun Mosque, less than half a mile from the mausoleum of Shajar al'Durr. It became what is known today as the Gayer-Anderson Museum. Lots of pictures and floorplans are actually available online.

District of Cairo.  The Saladin Citadel and al'Qarafa lie less than a mile eastward.

The part about the scepter of Saint Louis is, of course, entirely fictitious. Whether the Mamelukes took it from Saint Louis after his disastrous crusade into Egypt is anyone's guess. It is however a neat plot element further tying Baibars, Shajar al'Durr, her ghost, Aybak's descendant, and Percival St. Croix to the whole political cosmos of 1915 Egypt and WW1.

Before writing the story, while piecing the original outline together, we went in search of places in Cairo (alas, solely via published sources or the internet), where the various scenes could take place. The big problem was that either the ideal settings no longer exist, or they have been altered so much during passing centuries to be nearly irrelevant. One example of this is the old Saladin Citadel that dominates Cairo's east side. What everybody sees today are views of the citadel's great mosque and later fortifications, which date back only to the last few centuries.

The newer side of the Saladin Citadel
The actual layout of the 13th century part remains anyone's guess, save for the surrounding walls and towers. The description of the garden was a convenient invention to get around that problem. That fortress was also used by the Brits during their long occupation of Egypt, who turned its internal structures into barracks, stores, brigs, etc. We're still hoping to get hold of reproductions of maps depicting the British facilities there, which are preserved at the National Archives, outside London.

The Nilometer
An internet buddy of ours, Mark, very kindly went there on our behalf and attempted to take pictures of a 1910 street map of Cairo. It turned out this map was so big it came as a very large roll of sheets glued together that could not be copied with a hand-held camera in just a few shots (and without flash, pretty please). Obviously, we could not purchase a copy online from the archive services. How well Mark's pictures turned out is still a mystery. We're crossing our fingers!

Inside the Nilometer
Another interesting place in Cairo is the Nilometer, which is as we described and still stands today on Roda Island (or Rawda Island). Most of that structure predates the 13th century. It had been a part of the Bahri Citadel (thus possibly where Baibars stayed while in Cairo), which also included the palace of Sultan as'Salih Ayyub (Shajar's husband). Sultan Aybak eventually had it demolished after moving his palace to the Saladin Citadel. So, it would be conceivable that Shajar had access to the Nilometer at some point. Fortunately, there's plenty of information readily available about that building.

Example of Mihrab

The city cemetery, al'Qarafa, is another fascinating area of Cairo. It is immense and actually provides residences to many people, especially after an earthquake hit Cairo in 1992. The description of “Eagle-Face's” mausoleum is inspired from a tomb belonging to another sultan. Most of these old tombs have the same layout: square, three doors, and a mihrab on the end facing Mecca (a prayer alcove). Shajar's tomb looks like that as well.

Shepheard's Hotel
Part of the story was deleted since it didn't advance the plot, but it yielded interesting bits. The Brits owned huge barracks on the banks of the Nile, kitty-corner from the famous Egyptian Museum. They were called Kasr al'Nil (Fort of the Nile). Percival was supposed to have been interrogated there by military police after being picked up at the cemetery. It turned out the headquarters of the British military police weren't there, but not far from the old Shepheard's Hotel instead (near Cairo's main train station today). It was known as the Bab el'Hadid barracks. The Shepheard's was destroyed in a fire in the 1950's The old MP headquarters probably made way for something else, just like Kasr al'Nil extensive facilities were replaced with modern hotels.

In researching MP headquarters (and the history of British military police in general) a story about 1915 riots in Cairo's red light district came up, which happened to be in the vicinity of the Shepheard's Hotel. The fight involved local residents and ANZAC troops disgruntled about price gouging, unhealthy prostitutes, and diluted booze. Headquarters for New Zealand's troops were in fact located at the Shepheard. Military police had a lot of trouble imposing order.

Savoy Hotel
Other intriguing places were General Headquarters for the EEF and the Arab Bureau at the Savoy Hotel, not far from the Egyptian Museum. That one was also replaced in the 20's. The Savoy Hotel and the Shepheard's are connected with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), supposedly an old friend of Percival St. Croix from their time at Jesus College, Oxford.

The question came up as to where the last encounter was going to take place. Eventually, we settled for the British Embassy, known as Kasr al'Lourd by the locals (Castle of the Lord). It's still in use today, except it includes additional buildings to the south, but it lost its direct access to the banks of Nile in the 1950's, which are now used for the Cairo Corniche, an avenue facilitating car traffic along the river.

Sir Arthur Henry McMahon
Percival meets at the embassy with the High Commissioner and Prince Kamel al'Din Hussein. These were real people. Kamel (not to be confused with his father, Sultan Hussein Kamel) was in fact an explorer and a collector of oriental antiquities, which fits perfectly in this story. The prince refused the throne when the sultan died in 1917, preferring instead his more adventurous life (hint, hint). Monsieur de la Haye, Najeeb, and the whole bit about the Templars are absolutely fictitious.

Prince Hussein
In retrospect, especially for readers who aren't knowledgeable about WW1 Egypt, it may be hard to tell what is fact and what isn't. In any case, it lends the story more credibility. By the way, if you run across something in our stories that isn't accurate, please do let us know! Hopefully, it can be fixed. Researching historical backgrounds isn't foolproof. There remains a fair amount of guesswork to fill the cracks and an awful lot of time to get the facts. Research takes at least as much time as the actual plotting of the story and its writing.

Janet and I hope that you enjoyed the ride. These short stories are meant as prequels to the full size novels. With your support, they may one day see print. If you're interested, forward the blog's link to others you think will enjoy these stories. With time, we'll be able to attract the attention of a publisher or an agent. Failing that, we may instead self-publish electronically. The options are open. But one thing remains certain, nothing will happen unless you show your interest in Percival St. Croix. Part of this story therefore lies in your hands.

Thank you!

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