Supposing that Sinbad had been not merely a resourceful trader but a sophisticated Graeco-Persian of the mid-fifth century BC; an orthodox Zoroastrian, an expert diplomat with an insatiable curiosity about alien civilizations and, in particular, about the origins of the universe; a man whose career had taken him over and beyond most of the then known world. Scheherazade would scarcely have needed the rest of the Arabian Nights in order to keep a drowsy emperor awake past execution time for the necessary years. In fact, it is dangerous to dip anywhere into this surging river of a book; the difficulty of climbing out of the current, and starting properly at the beginning, increases with every page.
Cyrus Spitama is a richer, more complex character than Vidal’s Julian the Apostate, whose authenticity was inevitably limiting. Cyrus is invented, and to excellent effect. A grandson of the monotheistic, fire-worshiping prophet Zoroaster, he witnessed his martyrdom by barbarian raiders, and heard his inspired last words. This confers on Cyrus from his boyhood up a special prestige at the Persian court; but though revering his grandfather’s sanctity, he feels no vocation for the priesthood. He remains, so to speak, a regular churchgoer; but the Greek half of his inheritance comes from his Ionian mother: practical, inventive, and at bottom profoundly skeptical. Not cynical however; like the pilgrims of Flecker’s caravan, he nurses a perennial hope that
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmer- ing sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can un- derstand
Why men were born….
But his golden road takes him much further than Samarkand.
As the book begins he is an old man blind with cataract, stranded most unwillingly as a Persian ambassador in Athens, dictating (on which more later) his memoirs to his great-nephew, a young man called Democritus who will later pioneer the atomic theory.
Cyrus’s youth is spent at the imperial court of Darius, whose chief wife Atossa, masterful daughter of Cyrus the Great, governs the harem, the immemorial seat of intrigue and power. Protocol of immense elaboration and dignity attends every appearance of the king. The court is the center of what looks, from Susa or Persepolis, like almost worldwide dominion. Darius, king of kings, must not admit even the existence of my comparable power. But Cyrus has talked with travelers and foreigners from the east, and east of the east. He knows there is a world elsewhere.
One day a letter arrives for Darius, written in gold leaf on red silk. It comes from an Indian rajah, proposing trade in iron and rubies and other desirable things. Darius already has a satrapy in northwest India; this letter comes from further east. In the ancient phrase of his nomad Aryan ancestors, he “dreams of cows,” meaning wealth, by trade and if possible by conquest. Cyrus eagerly accepts the mission, that of ambassador, trade envoy, and spy; perfect …