Their host recommended a place for dinner near the Great Mosque, but one of the bathhouse attendants said that another Christian owned a restaurant just a few blocks away, and he agreed to show the Christian emissaries the way. They would not have found it otherwise, since on the street there was no sign or other indication that the establishment existed. Instead, they were taken into a shop selling spices and led between the open sacks of saffron and nutmeg, cumin and cinnamon, to a door at the back with a curtain across it. Beyond the curtain it was so dark that Ibelin instinctively dropped his hand to his hilt, but a youth with a glass lantern bowed deeply and led them deeper into the house. They emerged in a small courtyard open to the stars where half a dozen low tables waited around a small, gurgling fountain. The largest table was vacant, and they were led straight to it and asked to sit down.
Sitting involved lowering themselves onto cushions spread on the cobbles of the courtyard—but except for the elderly Moulins, the Franks were used to that. They had hardly settled down before they were offered bowls of water to wash their hands and towels to dry them with. The proprietor emerged to welcome them heartily, bowing over and over as he expressed his honor to have them in his humble establishment. At last he inquired if they wanted wine, at once offering red wine from Armenia and rosé from Cyprus. After taking their drink orders, the proprietor offered a choice of lamb stewed with dates or cheese pasties, with rice or unleavened bread. They ordered and the proprietor withdrew, only to be replaced by a man in the long black-and-red robes and unique round black hat of a Jacobite priest.
“My lords,” he bowed deeply, “I have been told you are from Jerusalem; may God’s blessings be upon you.”
Ibelin started to get to his feet out of respect as he translated for his companions, but the Jacobite priest gestured for him to stay seated, instead pointing to a spare cushion and asking if he could join them. Moulins agreed at once, and told his turcopole to go after the landlord to order wine for the guest as well.
“It is a great honor to have you among us,” the priest continued as he settled himself. “You come to treat with the Sultan, it is said?” The question was directed at Moulins as the oldest member of the party, and Ibelin translated for him.
“Yes, that is our purpose,” Moulins agreed.
“Peace is sorely needed,” the priest confirmed, nodding seriously. “The rains failed here for the third year in a row. There is hunger among the poor, and some villagers”—he gestured vaguely—“have nothing left. They are selling their wives and daughters—even their sons—to the Bedouins and the harems of the rich.”
“Surely Christians do not do that!” Moulins protested indignantly after Ibelin had translated the Syrian priest’s remarks.
“No, I was not speaking of Christians. Christian families are smaller and Christian communities more urban—and we help each other as much as we can.” The priest smiled mildly, but his eyes remained sad. “And Jerusalem, is it suffering, too?” Rather than answer directly, Ibelin translated again for Moulins.
“Not so severely,” Moulins reported. “We favor peace to let our King grow up, but if the Sultan gives us war, we are united behind a strong Regent.” He was speaking on the assumption that the priest was one of the Sultan’s spies. Although Ibelin was not so sure, he faithfully repeated Moulins’ words in Arabic.
The priest nodded. “Will help come to you from the West?”
“There are always armed pilgrims from the West in Jerusalem, and my Order provides continuous support, as do the Templars,” Moulins answered steadily when Ibelin put the question to him in French.
“Yes; but once, when I was a boy, kings came from the West and nearly liberated us from the Turks.”
“I don’t expect any repeat of that in the foreseeable future,” Ibelin answered directly without translating for Moulins, glad that the arrival of the proprietor with their drinks provided a break in the conversation. Ibelin did not want to be confronted with pleas for assistance and support. The Frankish kingdoms were far too weak to go on the offensive—and yet he found himself feeling guilty for his defensive attitude when reminded of the plight of Christians here.
The priest seemed to understand him, for he gave Ibelin a sad but understanding look, and Ibelin changed the subject. “Tell us more about Yusuf ibn Ayyub, who is called Salah al-Din.”
“Who is pleased to call himself ‘Salah al-Din,’” the Syrian Christian corrected Ibelin with a cynical smile.
Ibelin raised his eyebrows. “You think his subjects do not see him as Righteousness of the Faith?”
“The Shiites most certainly do not view the suppression of the Fatimid Caliphate as righteous, but they do not count for much in Syria. As for the Syrians . . .” The priest shrugged.
“What are you talking about?” Moulins demanded, irritated that Ibelin was carrying on the conversation rather than translating for him.
“About the Sultan’s popularity among his people.”
“Ah, good. Carry on and tell me later,” Moulins conceded, leaning forward to focus on his food.
Ibelin asked the Syrian priest, “Surely the Syrians are impressed with the Sultan’s successes.”
The priest shrugged. “Impressed, yes, for with success comes the power to silence dissent, but do not mistake respect for admiration. The old elites despise the Kurds even more than the Turks, while the Turks resent the fact that he has beaten them at their own game—playing them off against one another, murdering where necessary, bribing where convenient. Yusuf ibn Ayyub has attained power—not popularity. He trusts no one but members of his own family and men like Imad ad-Din, who owes everything to him.”
“But you believe he is firmly in power?” Ibelin wanted to know.
“Absolutely—at least for the moment. You see, Yusuf ibn Ayyub’s greatest strength is his practicality: his ability to back down if the cost is too high, his willingness to postpone battles he cannot win. He is the consummate opportunist.”
That boded well for this mission, Ibelin thought, but he couldn’t resist asking, “Why do the ‘old elites’ despise him?”
“Because he is a Kurd, as I said.”
“And that’s all?” Ibelin found such an attitude bigoted.
“Among the Arab elites, both the Turks and Kurds are seen as barbarous peoples—like the Franks. People good at war, but little else. The Arab elites, remember, are no longer fighting men: they are Sufis and Qadis, who believe that knowledge of the Holy Koran is all a man needs. Nur ad-Din won their support by taking up their call for jihad and seeming to fulfill it—and, of course, by using some of his spoils to build new madrassas that preach this version of the Koran. Salah al-Din is doing the same thing.”
Ibelin did not like the sound of that. “That means that war against us is a vital component of his own legitimacy,” he summarized.
The Syrian priest shrugged. “Yes, that’s exactly what it means.”
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