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1st August 1999

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Part III of Richard Boyle's account of the adventures of Sindbad the Sailor in Serendib

Taken to the elephants' graveyard

Continued from lastweek

One morning as I watched the coming of the elephants, I was surprised to see that instead of passing the tree I was in, as they usually did, they paused and completely surrounded it, trumpeting horribly and shaking the very ground with their heavy tread.

Sindbad relates that he met many cosmopolitan fellow travellers and merchants during his stay in "the city of Serendib". Often he was questioned about the affairs of his own country and about the renowned caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid.

"One day," Sindbad tells us, "the King himself asked me of the fashions and form of the government of my country, and I acquainted him with the circumstance of the Caliph's sway in Baghdad and the justice of his rule. The King marvelled at my account and said, 'The Caliph's ordinances are indeed wise. I have a mind to make him a gift and send it through you, Sindbad.'"

In the months that followed, the king made no further allusion to this gift or to Sindbad's role in its conveyance to Baghdad. The mention of his home city had filled Sindbad with nostalgia.

However, until he received the king's permission he was unable to leave Serendib without causing royal offence.

Then one day he heard that a company of merchants was fitting out a ship to sail to Al'Basrah, the port of Baghdad.

"I said to myself, 'I cannot do better than voyage with these men.' So I arose without delay and kissed the king's hand and acquainted him with my longing to set out with these merchants, for that I pined after my people and my own land."

On hearing this, the king summoned the merchants in question, commanded them to take care of Sindbad, and paid for his passage and freight. Then the king presented Sindbad with great riches and charged him with a magnificent gift for the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. Moreover, he gave Sindbad a letter for the Caliph written in ultramarine characters upon a rare parchment, of which the contents were as follows:

"'The King of Serendib, before whom walk a thousand elephants, who lives in a palace of which the roof blazes with a hundred thousand rubies, and whose treasure contains twenty thousand diamond crowns, to the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid sends greetings.

"Though the offering we present to you is unworthy of your notice, we pray you to accept it as a mark of the esteem and friendship which we cherish for you, and of which we gladly send you this token, and we ask of you a like regard if you deem us worthy of it. Adieu, brother.'"

The gift was anything but inadequate. It consisted of a fabulous goblet, or grail, carved from a huge ruby and filled with pearls of perfect shape and lustre.

Then there was a bed covered with an enormous snakeskin "of the serpent that swalloweth the elephant."

This snakeskin had scales as large as a sequin (the gold coin, not the decoration) and was supposed to "preserve from sickness" all those who slept on it. In addition, there were quantities of aloes wood, camphor and pistachio-nuts. Lastly, there was a beautiful slave girl, who "shone like the moon" and whose robes glittered with precious stones.

Apart from its alluring (though nowadays politically incorrect) human element, this gift is representative of the bounty of nature associated with Serendib in the past. The island has, of course, been renowned for fine pearls and rubies since the earliest times.

The enormous snakeskin with large spots was undoubtedly that of the pimbura or python, which can attain a length of 8 metres and which was known as "the snake that vanquished the elephant." And aloes wood from the island was considered to be of superior fragrance.

When all his merchandise and presents - as well as the gift for Haroun al-Rashid - were safely stowed aboard the merchants' ship, Sindbad bade a sad farewell to the king and the many friends he had made in "the city of Serendib".

On his return to Baghdad he went to the palace, closely followed by the beautiful slave and various members of his family bearing the goblet, the bed with its draped snakeskin, and bales of aloes and camphor wood.

Sindbad presented himself to Haroun al-Rashid and produced the letter and gift. The caliph read the letter and examined the gift with great interest, then turned to Sindbad and demanded to know whether the king of Serendib was really as rich and powerful as he claimed to be.

"'Commander of the Faithful,' Sindbad replied, 'I can assure your majesty that he has in no way exaggerated his wealth and grandeur. Nothing can equal the magnificence of his palace." He then went on to give a description of a royal pageant that is reminiscent of a latter-day perahera:

"When the king travels in his kingdom his throne is prepared on the back of an elephant, and on either side of him ride his ministers, his favourites, and courtiers. On his elephant's neck sits an officer, his golden lance in his hand, and behind him stands another bearing a pillar of gold, at the top of which is an emerald as long as my hand.

"A thousand men clad in gold brocade and silk, mounted upon richly caparisoned elephants, go before the king. As the procession moves onward, the officer who guides his elephant cries aloud, 'Behold the mighty monarch of great dignity, of high authority, whose palace is covered with a hundred thousand rubies, who possesses twenty thousand diamond crowns. Behold the monarch owning the crown, whose like Solomon, in all his glory, never possessed.'

Then the one who stands behind the throne answers, 'This king, so great and powerful, must die, must die!' And the first takes up the chant again, 'All praise to Him who lives for evermore.'

"Further my lord, in Serendib no judge is needed, for to the king himself his people come for justice.

"'From the king's letter,' said the caliph, 'I considered him a wise man. It seems that he is worthy of his people, and his people of him.'"

The caliph was well satisfied with this report of Serendib and its king, so he rewarded Sindbad and dismissed him. Sindbad was now at an age when he appreciated the quiet life and was determined that the voyage he had just completed would be his last.

One day, however, when he was entertaining some friends, the caliph summoned him and informed him that he had been chosen to deliver a letter and gift to the king of Serendib in return for his message of friendship.

The caliph's dictate "fell upon me like a thunderbolt", as Sindbad expresses it. "'Commander of the Faithful, I am ready to do all that your Majesty commands, but I humbly pray you to remember that I am utterly disheartened by the unheard of sufferings I have undergone,' he implored the caliph. 'Indeed, I have made a vow never again to leave Baghdad.'"

Having delivered this mild objection, Sindbad emphasised his point by providing the caliph with an extended account of some of his strangest adventures. After listening patiently, the caliph reminded Sindbad that he must nevertheless carry out his command: "'I admit that you have indeed had some extraordinary experiences, but I do not see why they should hinder you from doing as I desire. You have only to go straight to Serendib and give my message, then you are free to do as you wish. But go you must; my honour and dignity demand it.'

With this pronouncement Sindbad realised he had no choice in the matter and declared that he was willing to obey. The caliph, delighted to have got his own way, furnished his reluctant ambassador with a thousand sequins for the expenses of the voyage.

Sindbad made the necessary preparations and sailed quickly and safely to Serendib, where he was greeted with joy: "'Welcome Sindbad,' the king cried, 'I have thought of you often, and rejoice to see you once more.'

After thanking the king for the honour that he did him, Sindbad proceeded to display the caliph's gift. First there was a magnificent bed with hangings made from gold cloth, which cost a thousand sequins, and another like it of crimson material.

There followed fifty richly embroidered robes, and a hundred more made of the finest white linen from Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria. Then there was a sumptuous agate vase carved with the figure of an archer aiming an arrow at a lion.

Finally there was a table of incalculable value, which was reputed to have once belonged to King Solomon.

"The King of Serendib received with satisfaction the assurance of the caliph's friendliness toward him, and now my task being accomplished I was anxious to depart, but it was some time before the king would think of letting me go," Sindbad relates. "At last, however, he dismissed me with many presents, and I lost no time in going on board a ship, which sailed at once, and for four days all went well.

"On the fifth day we had the misfortune to fall in with pirates, who seized our vessel, killing all who resisted, and making prisoners those who were prudent enough to submit at once, of whom I was one. When they had despoiled us of all we possessed, they forced us to put on vile raiment, and sold us for slaves.

"I fell into the hands of a merchant, who took me home with him. He clothed and fed me well, and after some days sent for me and questioned me as to what I could do.

"I answered that I was a rich merchant who had been captured by pirates, and therefore I knew no trade.

"'Tell me,' he said, 'can you shoot with a bow?'

"I replied that this had been one of the pastimes of my youth, and that doubtless with practice my skill would come back to me. Upon this he provided me with a bow and many arrows, and we mounted upon his elephant and took the way to a vast forest that lay far from the town. When we had reached the wildest part we stopped, and my master said to me, 'the forest swarms with elephants.

"Hide yourself in this great tree, and shoot at all that pass you. When you have succeeded in killing one, come and tell me.'

"He gave me a supply of food and returned to the town, and I perched myself high up in the tree and kept watch. That night I saw nothing, but just after sunrise a large herd of elephants came crashing by. I lost no time in letting fly several arrows, and at last one of the great animals fell to the ground dead, and the others retreated, leaving me free to descend from my hiding place and run back to tell my master of my success.

Then we went back to the forest together and dug a mighty trench in which we buried the elephant, in order that when it became a skeleton my master might return and secure its tusks.

"For two months I hunted in this manner, and no day passed without my securing an elephant. Of course I did not always station myself in the same tree, but sometimes in one place, sometimes in another.

"One morning as I watched the coming of the elephants, I was surprised to see that instead of passing the tree I was in, as they usually did, they paused and completely surrounded it, trumpeting horribly and shaking the very ground with their heavy tread.

"When I saw that their eyes were fixed upon me I was terrified, and my arrows dropped from my trembling hand.

"I had good reason for my terror when, an instant later, the largest of the animals wound his trunk round the stem of my tree and with one mighty effort tore it up by the roots, bringing me to the ground entangled in its branches."

I thought that my last hour was surely come, but the huge creature picked me up gently enough and set me upon its back, where I clung more dead than alive. Followed by the whole herd, the elephant turned, trumpeted, and crashed off into the dense forest.

Last instalment next week

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