On the shores of the bluest sea I had ever set eyes on, Alexandria was a city like no other. Positioned to gaze unwaveringly in the direction of Rome, its streets were filled with accents from halfway across the known world: from Syria, Babylon and Persia, India and Asia Minor, from Greece, and Rome itself. The effect was dazzling to the senses and left me feeling as though I had passed through gates to another world, one where people’s affairs were conducted at twice the normal speed and even time itself accelerated to keep pace.
Earlier in the day I bid farewell to my companions as they continued their own journey west. Over the preceding months I had grown accustomed to the routines and rigours of travel: to new lands and vistas and to the company of friends who had shared these experiences with me. When I left my home, life had shifted suddenly and dramatically, and I was transported out of the old and into the new. With the loss of the familiar came a growing excitement like the overturning of everything that had once kept me tied to the past. For the first time in my life I felt truly free, no longer pushing against the constraints of society or an authority that would control and shape my destiny, but living each day for what it would bring. My new companions had seemed to understand this; they too accepted the new without having to force it to conform to their expectations. Nor did they judge me or question my choices. We were simply travellers, bound by nothing more complicated than circumstance, friendship and the sharing of our journey together.
Though we had only just parted company I was feeling their absence like a hunger in my belly, which ached so much I almost wondered if I was sick. I left them beside the city’s great harbour, its famous lighthouse towering above the ocean, and drifted with the crowds in the direction of the town. As harbour traffic poured around me like an unstoppable river, I looked on in awe: there were merchants newly arrived from ports across the northern shores of the Mediterranean, noblemen and their servants, Roman soldiers returning to garrisons, and red-faced port officials whose task was to facilitate the various comings and goings. Surely there was something strange and wonderful about this seaport, a place where migrants, traders and pilgrims were blown by sea winds from halfway across the world.
I allowed myself to be carried by the tide through immense gateways in the fortified outer walls and into the city itself. In an enormous public square were row upon row of makeshift shelters where traders were selling goods and spices from who knows where. Each stall holder competed with his neighbours to see who could shout the loudest, while the boldest among them were guiding passers-by towards their pitch. Elderly men perched on stools surrounded by carved statues, fragrant perfumes and balsam ointments and a thousand other items laid out on blankets or tables. For a man used to the peace of the desert this was a strange experience indeed; the cries of traders, the clamour of livestock and the excitement of the crowds were almost unbearable and I had to resist the urge to cover my ears.
As the flow of traffic surged deeper into the city I managed to pull myself out of the throng. An old woman was selling freshly baked almond cakes from a table tucked in a doorway and the smell caused my stomach to groan with anticipation. As I approached the stall, a few coins clutched in my hand, I became distracted by the sight of a Roman soldier dressed in red woollen tunic, armour and helmet. Though he was no distance from me I could catch only glimpses of him amidst the bustle of the crowds. It was not unusual to see soldiers in a city; indeed, in Jerusalem it was commonplace. But what held my attention was the sight of him – a man in full military uniform standing at least a shoulder above me – harassing an elderly woman and young child. As more and more passers-by stopped to look, it became clear an argument had broken out. I edged closer and watched as the old woman began to shout and wave her arms wildly, attempting to shield the young boy from the soldier’s anger.
Perhaps it is too easy to look back at our actions and see how some other strategy might have served us better, but in the passion of the moment I felt I had little choice but to intervene. In my defence let me say I do not belong to the city. City ways are not those of the desert, where nature imposes her own order and people’s lives unfold with the slow inevitability of the seasons. Where I come from we take our direction from the earth and the sky, not from the letter of Rome, and we find it almost impossible to turn a blind eye to the abuse of power. Without a thought for my own safety I shoved the coins back in my purse and shouldered my way through the crowds.
The soldier was becoming increasingly intolerant of the old woman and her shouting, and the boy was being pulled between the two like a sack of grain, his hair dishevelled and his clothes practically hanging off him. The expression on his face is one I will not forget: it was the look of innocence grown weary with the world. If that look had a voice it would surely say, “Do what you will, for I have seen the ways of men and they are not for me.”
During my visits to Jerusalem for the holy festivals I had seen many beggars on the streets. Often they were young children like this boy – the same ragged clothes, the same sadness and resignation as if life had failed them at every turn. To look into their eyes was to confront the anguish of the world, and perhaps something of one’s own disappointments and sorrows.
Without pausing to consider the risks, I found myself stepping between the three of them, hands raised in a gesture of peace. The boy gazed up at me as though I had descended in a chariot from the sky, his eyes large and uncomprehending. The old woman continued to shout and wail as though the world were coming to an end. The soldier immediately pulled out the dagger sheathed in his belt; only then did I begin to fear the consequences of my actions. I raised my arms even higher to reassure this man that I was no threat to him or anyone else. “I mean no harm. I was concerned for the boy. I mean no harm.”
The soldier growled a response in Greek, a language widely used throughout those lands under the yoke of Rome: “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I am no one”, I replied. “A traveller, new to the city. I wanted to make sure the boy was in no danger.”
“The only danger here is for those that can’t keep their nose out of other people’s business.” There was no emotion on his face except the kind of cruelty which, on seeing an animal dying in a trap, can think of nothing better than to kick the creature to increase its suffering.
My heart was beating at such a rate it was an effort to even speak. “If the boy is in no danger, I’ll gladly be on my way.” I looked at the crowd which had gathered around us, at faces which displayed everything from idle curiosity and amusement to aggression and fear. I felt my legs begin to shake from the tension in my body. Although it was useless to run, a voice in my head urged me to escape before the situation worsened.
Sensing my panic the soldier leered at the crowd hoping to turn their sympathies against me. “As you are new to the city,” he began sarcastically, “I’ll let you into a secret.” He waved an arm in the direction of the crowd without removing his gaze from mine. “Look around you, my friend. Look at these faces. What do you see?”
I glanced around me with what must have seemed the air of a desperate man. I saw young faces and old. I saw rich and poor. I saw lives marked by hardship and the drudgery of existence. But I did not see sympathy for a young boy caught up in the power and politics of the city. As I turned away from the crowd I noticed the soldier’s bearded face smirking at me, daring me to take this one step further.
“These people don’t care what happens to him.” He jabbed a finger at the boy and sneered. He was beginning to enjoy this. Dressed in his uniform of authority and with weapons reassuringly close at hand, his position was secure. The power of Rome was evident in his every gesture and he was used to dealing with troublemakers: rebels, criminals, idealists and religious zealots. There was not a single man who would not crumble at the threat of violence or the weight of the law.
“I don’t care who you are or where you came from,” the soldier continued. “You could be King Midas for all I care; it makes no difference to me. You see this blade?” With one finger he tapped the sharp edge of his sword, the metal singing with the vibration.
I felt the slow trickle of sweat down the back of my neck and inside my arms. All my life I had avoided violence, choosing instead the role of peacemaker. Now violence was standing right in front of me and all I could do was wait, hoping that luck or fate would intervene.
The soldier stared at me so intensely I felt like an animal backed into a corner. If the earth had opened up at that moment I would gladly have jumped into the abyss. As I looked on helplessly he took a step towards me and leaned in. He was now so close I could almost feel his breath against my cheek. Pronouncing each word slowly and with satisfaction, he whispered, “This blade… this is justice. My advice to you is to leave well alone. What happens here is not your concern – you would do well to remember that, or I promise things will not go well for you in Alexandria.”