Once upon a cold Arabian night, Al-Hareth a King of the Sassanids, was informed about riots going wild in his kingdom and conspiracies to overthrow him by his trusted spy Saqer. He told him that all the tribe heads were meeting in secret in a nearby tent on the outskirts of Bosor in the Golan heights. They were on alert because of the Bedouin, merchants, and farmers’ uprising threatened to kill them if they didn’t overthrow the king for posing more taxes on them.
The news rang in the King’s ears like the whistle of an arrow swooshing through the air before it pierces the heart of an enemy who sped to his queen’s chambers to share the bleak news.
At the advice of his shrewd queen Naela daughter of Salih sultan of the Karak Mountains; Al-Hareth decided to quell his subjects with wisdom. Naela had advised Al-Hareth that as long as his subjects viewed him as one of them who the bears the crown, then he shall not have his way.
“I am King, and I have armies. My wishes must be obeyed. Any mutiny or objection to my wishes is treason and should be punished by death. No one’s opinion counts when I’ve spoken” said the King angrily.
“My Lord, like crowns that fall off Kings’ heads when they snooze and the thrones that topple under the bottoms of their kings’ when carpets are pulled from under them; all Kings must perish” said Naela in a warning tone.
“Do not forgot your place my sultana. You are my sultana, my reagent and my right. Choose your words carefully” demanded the King.
“My Lord and King, I seek your victory and to immortalize your reign as the absolute power on this land, but your sword can’t stay so long outside its sheath without needing to be sharpened, oiled, or cleaned. Age and energy conspire with animosity when time undresses humanity” said Naela
“I’ve always admired your wisdom and play on words Naela, but my patience is wearing thin. I am facing treason and betrayal from the tribes that have pledged their troops to me and my army. I don’t see how force can be set aside when I am being forced to defend my kingdom and legacy” stressed Al-Hareth.
“My King, as long as they see you as the son of the man who conquered them wearing the crown that they all want and think they can wear, you shall never rest. You need to make them bow to you not just out of fear but of reverence and absolute correctness. You must exult yourself above their demands and their essence if you wish to have your legacy etched into their wills like a stone engraved with a saga of a land sliding victory evicting an aggressor” said Naela.
“Now this I will entertain and consider from my most trusted advisor, my sultana. Go on” said the King.
“First we must not cut off the head of the snake. We must let it slough its own skin till its head falls off. Then we must let the people burn it to ashes and scatter them before your feet. We both know my lord that Shehbaz of Qadayans your trusted vizier and head of consultants is your enemies’ ringleader. But if you crush him with your troops, his allies will come to his aid. However, if you make him make a fool out of himself, then you have won”. said Naela.
“And how do you suggest would I be able to lure Shehbaz into making this fatal mistake? The man is a chameleon with the wits of a Jinn and the ears of a snake. I’ve tried planting spies to catch mistakes for him before, but nothing worked. He doesn’t trust his own shadow and has crushed every person who has tried to cross me. He is now my iron gauntlet” wondered the worried King.
“I know Shehbaz loves to act as patron of philosophy and arts because he finds in them room to recruit rebels and allies. We will strike him with his own ideas. We will let him sell himself out. I suggest that you call your counselors for an emergency meeting and challenge them to answer a riddle. The one that shall answer the riddle correctly shall become Emir of Palmyra but all those who fail to do so shall add their names into an urn. Now all those whose names are in the urn shall participate in the draw from the mojaljela’s urn. They will keep on drawing until one of them draws the paper that bears the arrow’s sign. The one who draws it must be the ringleader of the rebellion and thereby must have his eyes gauged, his tongue cut and nailed on the flag post of your court’s square and sit eventually on the Khazooq” said Naela.
“But how do I have them participate in this tournament and what is the riddle they must solve my sultana?” asked the King.
“First you call for the emergency meeting wherein you blame them for the failure to control the uprising of your subjects. Then you send out your heralds to let the people know that you have heard their cries and their leaders’ incompetence is the reason why you were misled into forcing new taxes and thereby the corrupt must pay and the good must be rewarded. You shall ask them to answer whether sanctity or influence is better and to prove their answer” said Naela.
The King left Naela’s chambers to the throne room and summoned Ghayyath, the head of the royal guard and ordered that all his ministers, consultants, and viziers are gathered for an emergency meeting at once.
Ghayyath rode to Bosor and with the help of his guards rounded up the tribes’ men and rode with them to the King’s palace. When they arrived, Al-Hareth noticed that all tribes’ men, consultants, and viziers were present except for the head vizier Shehbaz.
“Where is the Shehbaz? Ghayyath, go with Dari head of the knights in Hareer and bring me Shehbaz or his head” ordered the King.
The court that was bustling with whispers and side talks of the consultants, viziers and tribes’ men suddenly stopped upon hearing the King’s command. Aware of the fear in the eyes of his men, the king gestured for them to take their seats on their couches.
He cleared his throat and said:” You are all aware that the people are angry from the new taxes and our enemies have marched on our northern borders. I know I asked for utmost readiness and reinforcement of our border troops stationed there but we can not fight wars internally and externally. United we stand, fight and win; divided we get conquered. In this light and as king, those of you who were responsible for making the public angry shall be punished but those who have proven their loyalty shall be rewarded. I am firm but fair so I am not going to behead you all but will give you one last chance to prove your worthiness. This is why you will all participate in my tournament which I will announce as soon as Shehbaz is brought before me”. Said Al-Hareth.
Shortly after the King finished his speech, the King’s guards flung the poor vizier at the feet of the King who sat on his throne relishing the looks of the terrified vizier. The men held to the handles of their seats and gasped as the vizier’s turban dropped to the ground.
“My Lord, I am present at your service and your humble servant. What has angered my King? I was in my house. I have nothing to do with the tribes’ men meeting in Bosor. I swear” pleaded the vizier.
“Silence! You are as responsible as them – pointing at the men- now you must defend yourself and obey my command by joining the qualifying tournament” shouted the King.
“Starting from tonight you shall be guests in the Hirab Tower where you will all contemplate one mas-ala(riddle). My mas-ala shall be the criteria that will decide if you pass this tournament. If you pass you shall be awarded estates but if you fail your names shall be added to the miqsala(guillotine) urn. Each of you whose names are added to the urn shall draw a paper from the miqsala urn and the one that bears the arrow’s sign shall have his eyes gauged, his tongue cut and crucified on this court’s flag post and sit on the Khazooq to die. My Mas-ala is simple: which is more important sanctity or influence? You need to answer this mas-ala and prove your answer before the next full moon which is within 3 days.” stated the King.
The king gestured for the guards to take the men to the Bayada Tower and sent his heralds to announce that the tournament has begun to appease the people and that the taxes have been cancelled.
Two nights went by and each of the men gave his answer. Naturally, the king announced that each of their answers was wrong and had their names added to the miqsala urn and by that all their estates have been confiscated and their titles revoked. The King checked with Ghayyath if all the men’s answers have been entered. Ghayyath indicated that all have answered except for Shehbaz who hadn’t answered.
“Bring that weasel to me and bring Dari with his saber before me” demanded the King.
Once again, the vizier was flung at the King’s feet shaking in fear and spoke without looking into the eyes of the king:” My Lord your mas-ala is not easy, so I took my time to think and answer correctly. I can only give you an answer if you let me go with one of your guards to the market so that I can give you the answer you seek”.
The King fell silent for a bit before answering his vizier’s request and said: “Ghayyath, take Shehbaz back to the Bayada. I will think in my chambers about his request and give you an answer before midnight”.
“Thank you, my Lord. I know you are just and merciful. I won’t let you down. I am but your servant, your vizier your Shehbaz” begged the vizier.
The King turned his back flinging his cape behind him to scrape the dust from the throne room’s floor unto the face of the vizier as a sign of disgust and disdain as the guards escorted the vizier away.
Now Naela had heard all the answers of the men and the vizier’s request so she sat waiting in the King’s chambers. Surprised to find her there waiting not in her chambers, the King asked: “Naela, you know well, this part of the castle is forbidden for women. You are my sultana but not the chief advisor in this castle. Speak if you must but be quick. I have pressing matters to resolve”.
“My King, I am here to help you with the vizier’s sneaky request and provide you with the means to solidify your step and immortalize your name as the King of the Sassanids. We must lure Shehbaz into thinking he can be saved and break all the ties and allies he has formed with those men and their allies” said Naela.
“What do you suggest I do my sultana?” asked the King
“Sire, as the morning breaks, take Shehbaz in chains to the market and select a dervish and dress him and feed him. Then as you arrive in the court, declare him the head vizier replacing Shehbaz. Then in the afternoon, let the dervish ride a horse wearing the royal seal on his finger tagging and dragging Shehbaz by chains. Then have Dari ask the guards who that dervish is. And when they tell you he is their revered Shehbaz and head vizier; turn to Shehbaz and say, so you see my vizier, influence is more important than sanctity”. Said Naela.
“But if I do that Shehbaz will know my answer and think of a way to beat me in my game” said the King.
“My Lord, we want Shehbaz to think he can win and to get careless and discredit himself and his allies. There is no right answer for this question. It is a question for subjects to answer depending on their position and needs. You can not let slaves think they can decide because if they think they can think then they will realize they decide their fates” said Naela.
Pleased with his queen’s shrewd scheme, the king sent Dari to inform Shehbaz that the King shall grant his request tomorrow. Shehbaz was pleased knowing that this was his chance to be King and win the people and the men in the Bayada Tower. Both men knew that the market was a place to send and receive information and messages to inner and external allies and enemies.
The next morning, the King rode his horse dragging Shehbaz in chains and selected a dervish. He got down from his horse and took the seal from Shehbaz’s finger and placed it on the finger of the dervish. He faced his people and said:” Those who persevere in loyalty and austerity, Al-Hareth sees them and shall reward them estates. I hereby declare this dervish my Shehbaz and my head vizier to take over the estates of Shehbaz. So, you see Shehbaz, influence is more important than sanctity. What do you think Shehbaz? Do you have an answer to challenge mine?
Smug with the thought that he had won, Shehbaz said: “I do not challenge my King’s will, but I answer my King’s requests. As per your request and with your permission, I request that my slave Randala bring her donkey before thee my Lord” asked the sneaky vizier.
“Request granted vizier, bring the slave and the donkey. I am a fair king who honors his promises and his subjects’ requests for the public’s servant is their master” said the King.
The King gestured for the guards to release the Shehbaz from his chains so he can prove his point.
Once free, the Shehbaz began wiping the back of the donkey and loosened his saddle brushing his hide with his fingers and kissing his back. The people sighed in disgust and wonder.
“What are you doing? Have you gone mad? I give you one chance, and this is what you do, make fun of me? asked the king angrily
“My King, this donkey’s bloodline has carried on its back all the prophets of Kanaan and he has suffered from your taxes with hunger and forced labor. His bones are protruding, and his hooves have dissolved going and coming carrying weights of merchants loading goods to your castle. This is a blessed animal, a miracle sent to us by God and you have abused it” said Shehbaz.
Riot broke out and the people shouted angrily wondering how the king could abuse this animal knowing its noble origin and its purity. They surrounded the King and began shouting “let Shehbaz speak. Help us Shehbaz repent and save our land from war and famine”.
“My people, if you want salvation, you must honor God’s creation and serve his miracles’ bearer. Take from its tail hairs to bless your barren women and bring good fortune for your girls in marriage and your trades. Feed it and let roam freely in the land so that it spreads its blessing. My Lord, you see, influence like the turban and the seal you bestowed on the dervish fades, but sanctity is something you can’t remove or destroy. It lives and goes on in the hearts and minds of people. Sanctity is the salt of the land just like justice. So, you see my Lord, sanctity is more important than influence” said the Shehbaz.
Feeling defeated and backstabbed the King’s mouth shut tight and he took a deep breath and just before he could speak, an arrow whistled by the ear of the king and pierced the heart of the donkey and another slitting its throat from vein to vein leaving it lifeless on the ground.
The crowd fell to their knees in dismay and shouted” what is this? If he is sacred and a miracle he should’ve been protected against death. This donkey is not sacred. Long live the King. Long live the new Shehbaz”
The crowd divided into two groups making a path between them to allow the royal entourage to come through. Queen Naela had her quiver on her back and flung her cape’s hood backwards and said:
“Shehbaz, influence bestows sanctity. Reverence is sanctity’s manifestation. Influence moves masses to instill sanctity but without it all swords shall remain drawn to drown those who defy sanctity in influence’s hand. But sanctity in influence’s hand is eternal so long as influence is not dragged by a donkey claiming sanctity. Donkeys carry books to preach sanctity, but influence assembles their caravans. It is easy to become the donkey, but it is impossible to become the influence if you rely on just a donkey.
By sunset that day, all the emirs, consultants, viziers, and tribes’ men had drawn from the miqsala urn their papers and three papers with arrow signs had been drawn. One was drawn by Shehbaz, another by Anwar head of the consultants- Shehbaz’s ally, and the last one by Murad, head of Shehbaz’s tribe.
All three men were chained and dragged to the market square, where their eyes were gauged, their tongues crucified and were left to die on the Khazooq.
By morning, word reached the enemies at the borders that Shehbaz had fallen from his donkey for claiming sanctity. They turned their horses and said:” For our own sanity, let’s not forget influence herds the donkey but doesn’t bestow sanctity even if it carried books”.
Author’s Notes: Sassanid Fables on power and its influence on masses to stay in power are quite common in the Levant region. I hope you enjoyed my adaptation of this Sassanid fable.
Khazooq= wooden stake sharpened to go through the anus of the victim to impale them.
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