Our story begins in the autumn of the 5426th year since the creation of the world, the year of our Lord 1666, the year 1115 according to the Armenians, and 1076 in the Islamic calendar of the Hijri era, when a galea bastarda sailed from the port city of Smyrna. It was an event that could easily have been overlooked if someone other than Sabbatai Zevi, resident of Smyrna who had proclaimed his messiahship to the world, had sailed on this galley to Istanbul. The years had come that the Jewish scribes and Christian theologians were peering into in order to understand what awaited this world. They were waiting for the coming of the Messiah and end times. Hence the quarrels in the synagogues couldn’t be quelled, for the scribes, following along with every letter of the Torah and licking their fingers, unfurled their scrolls of parchment to grasp the words first with their eyes and only then with their minds. The Christian theologians such as Yoanykii Galiatovsky were convinced that only Christians upheld the laws of Moses and would therefore be saved. Astronomers peered into the starry sky looking for divine signs so they could be the first to notice anything that might hint at some news of the end of the world. It was known that before the end times there would come false messiahs, wars, hunger, disease, and floods, and that great mayhem would reign over all peoples. In London, for example, the plague raged, brought by Dutch merchants. Chief Secretary to the Admiralty Samuel Pepys writes in his diary that after the crown’s order to put down all dogs and cats that the range of the plague expands. All summer the city’s rats spread the fatal disease, while the inhabitants of London carried corpses from their homes and piled them up in the streets because there were no carts to take them to the cemeteries. It was only at the start of September that the royal baker forgot to extinguish the oven he was baking bread in for the court and half the city burned down. Along with the buildings, the carriers of the disease also burned and everyone who’d evacuated London returned. There were some other events around the world that everyone has forgotten, so we cannot recall them here. But that Sabbatai Zevi, who divided the world into twenty-six parts (more on that later), offering them to his followers, was not in the least concerned that empires and kingdoms had long possessed what he was so easily giving away. The Ottoman and Roman Empires, Spain and Portugal, the tsardom in Moscow and Qing dynasty in China, Patriarch Nikon’s abdication, and Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, the Gunboat War between the English and the Kingdom of Denmark, and the first Armenian bible published in Amsterdam—everything that is connected by the invisible threads of history lived then in anticipation of the end times because the end times are always with us.
Thus, sometime that September, one day before the galley was set to depart from the port of Smyrna, Sabbatai Zevi went to visit Papadopoulos Reis. He found the captain in a port coffeehouse. Papadopoulos sat down to eat lunch—the reis was hungry and this conversation with the Jew could drag on. Sabbatai Zevi noticed his displeasure and felt some hostility directed at his person. Even the captain’s sharp look as he sized the Jew up, passing from Sabbatai’s head to his feet, didn’t portend a pleasant conversation.
The table before the reis was still empty and when he swallowed in anticipation, Sabbatai could feel the growling of Papadopoulos’s stomach.
But Sabbatai Zevi began anyway,
“I am Sabbatai Zevi,” the Jew spoke quickly, holding on tightly to every word like a weak swimmer on the reeds. He quickly gained confidence and had outlined the gist of the matter in a minute. Sabbatai behaved almost as though it was Papadopoulos asking him to board his galley and not the other way around.
As Papadopoulos listened to Sabbatai, he remembered the rumors about this Jew that coursed around Smyrna. At the very end Sabbatai assured the reis that he would pay generously for himself and his followers if he would agree to take them on board.
“How many are you?” Papadopoulos asked.
“Twelve,” Sabbatai proudly answered. “Eleven men and Sarah, my wife.”
Papadopoulos remembered that one of his caulkers had told him that a Jewish messiah had arrived in Smyrna; it seemed the messiah had just returned from Palestine bringing along his wife, Sarah, whose beauty outshone all the Smyrna belles. This was precisely what the Muslims, Christians, and Jewish households were blabbering on about in their conversations. They gossiped that the messiah walked the streets with a few of his followers singing psalms. He looked crazy, but he wasn’t. Someone else from Papadopoulos’s crew who was listening to this conversation added that the Smyrna rabbis didn’t accept this Sabbatai, but a few dozen Jews here in Smyrna indeed believed his words and were prepared to follow him to the end of the earth.
When the galley was loaded and the navigator had given the rowers the first command, a few dozen of Smyrna’s Jews and their children gathered at the port. Some of them cried, some shouted curses after the departing galea bastarda. “What are they shouting?” Papadopoulos Reis asked himself. His ears overgrown with black hairs were filled with the sea air, drowning out the weak voices of the Jews on the shore. The sails shortly filled with the breeze. The people at the port blended into the buildings. And the Jews who huddled together at the stern and whom Papadopoulos had agreed to transport to Istanbul stared ahead at the horizon. Whatever was happening back on shore seemed not to bother them. Only the dark-haired Sarah, who was among the passengers, looked back at the shore and smiled.
There were more than one hundred rowers seated at the dozen long oars on both sides of the galley. Most had been rounded up in Smyrna and the surrounding villages and the rest were brought from the slave markets. The navigator, his quartermaster, the slave overseer, the blacksmiths, caulkers, riggers, and carpenters formed a motley crew that could only be managed by Papadopoulos Reis, a Smyrna Greek whose ancestors had served under Hayreddin Barbarossa. This time the galley also carried the twelve passengers who had asked for passage to Istanbul the day before.
Papadopoulos’s galley usually transported wheat that was held in the warehouses of Smyrna’s port. The galley had two masts upon which satiny sails, tattered and torn by the strong puffs of the Mediterranean winds, hung like the sirwal pants on the captain’s crooked legs.
Often when crossing the sea, the galley was overtaken by the sirocco. This was why Papadopoulos was most afraid of the sirocco wind, which blew the fabric of the sails and shook the masts. If flooded by stormy waves, the flat-bottomed galley could be tossed on the shore. Even when the riggers lowered the sails in time and the slave oarsmen’s overseers, listening to the captain’s orders, maneuvered, not everyone survived. And Papadopoulos, along with the other survivors, had thrown the bodies of the hapless drowned men from the rocky shores of the island. They were found up and down the shore. The birds circled above them to drink up the eyes of the dead, and at night they could smell the scent of foxes nearby. Later, the caulkers spent a few days swapping out the ruined boards of the ship bottom and sides and the carpenters repaired the broken oars. When the galley and the remains of the crew were ready to continue sailing, Papadopoulos, getting his bearings by the starry sky as if he were in the Smyrna quarter he grew up in, searched among the stars for the place with the closest port.
But yesterday in Smyrna, when Papadopoulos was still waiting on his crew who was out wandering the city, those twelve Jews had asked for passage to Istanbul. The captain of the galea bastarda took a look at them and said that the galley would sail the next day and they could wait for morning in the wheat warehouse on the shore. Old Papadopoulos got a bit suspicious when the Jew who went by Sabbatai Zevi agreed to spend the night in the warehouse and even asked which building it was, explaining that they didn’t want to return home and risk being late. Papadopoulos led them along the rocky shore and unlocked the warehouse, letting them inside. The dry air hit Papadopoulos’s nostrils and he sneezed; Sabbatai Zevi and all his followers sneezed after him. The coastal cliffs where grapes were ripening were enshrouded in the fresh sea air. A dirty light quivered in some of the city buildings. Dogs howled. The neighing of hobbled horses could be heard on the cliffs. Somewhere very far away in the surrounding villages, sleepy roosters crowed their songs into the midnight quiet into which a detachment of janissaries headed out. The heavy clatter of horses mixed in with the rough voices that died down as they got farther away from the port and the din.
The building the Jews were sleeping in stood at a distance from the other port structure. Inside, Papadopoulos’s passengers made themselves comfortable for the night on the mounds of wheat.
The reis returned to the galley, but he couldn’t fall asleep. Sorting through the faces of the Jews in his memory, he was filled with interest and suspicion. Who were they? Why Istanbul? The one called Sabbatai Zevi seemed to Papadopoulos both crazy and a prophet. Sabbatai spoke to the captain as though to a void, to a hole in a rotten wooden board. The Jew stared, riddling the reis with holes. Sabbatai’s gaze charmed him like a serpent. The words he spoke were not of the earth, but of books. Only the nervous twitching of his neck and his lips, sometimes stretched thin, attested that speaking was enormous exertion for Sabbatai. And that exertion originated not in his body, but from somewhere up above like a downpour from a cloudy sky.
Papadopoulos stole away to the wheat warehouse and peeked in the gap between the boards of the door. He saw that the Jew by the name of Sabbatai Zevi was bent over a book covered in calf’s skin. The light of the moon silver like goat’s milk flooded the windows. The woman slept apart from the men. Papadopoulos didn’t know who she was. She tossed in her sleep and her calves shone white from under the cotton cover. When she turned onto her left side, the cover slid off, revealing her velvety back and buttocks.
Papadopoulos’s heart skipped a beat. He looked at Sabbatai Zevi again, but he had already put away his book and was praying.
When he had stepped away from the door, Papadopoulos was thinking about the dreaming woman and her white calves.
He sighed like a tired beast and returned to the galley and fell asleep with his head under a thick robe.
The silver light of the moon, cracked like an egg shell, dribbled away over the Smyrna bay.
Papadopoulos’s crew arrived on shore just before morning. The Greek was awakened by the creaking of a board that sagged under the stout bodies of his sailors as they boarded the galley. The slaves were brought on right at the end when everyone else had taken up their places on the galley.
The bay sparkled in the morning sun.
The tide started coming in and green waves rolled ashore.
Seagulls flew overhead. The first anglers were readying the nets on their boats so they could make it back with their catch before sunset.
Papadopoulos thundered at his sailors out of habit and set about waiting for the Jews to poke out from the building.
“The fishermen will take to the seas first,” he told his assistant, unsure if it was with reproach or just to have something to say.
When the coastline and port finally began to show signs of life, the door to the building opened. Papadopoulos noticed this, but no one emerged from the warehouse. Holding a book under his arm, Sabbatai Zevi was the first to show his face, followed by ten Jews and that same Jewess that Papadopoulos had devoured with his eyes that very night. All twelve of them hurried to board the ship. Just the day before, when making arrangements with Papadopoulos, Sabbatai Zevi—about whom all of Smyrna was abuzz—had attempted to explain to the Greek that they needed to leave immediately because he and his followers were being pursued by Smyrna’s rabbis. But what did this have to do with the owner of the ship and his unreliable crew? This is why they were leaving in the morning after the tide came in. “It’s nothing but trouble to go into the wind,” thought Papadopoulos.
So Sabbatai Zevi was in a hurry to get out of Smyrna. He whom the label “Mashiach” had been attached to, before whom in the Jewish quarters of Smyrna some fell on their knees, danced, and rejoiced, while others spat in the direction of the wind or human whisper that carried his name. But what of it? Papadopoulos’s ship, loaded with Smyrna’s goods, was going to Istanbul anyway. With the twelve or without them.
The day before yesterday Sabbatai Zevi had gone to the synagogue with a cradle that held a fish wrapped in a scroll of the Torah. He carried the cradle like a rundlet of wine, attracting the attention of passersby and the merchants whose shops lay along his way. Sarah walked behind him. She followed in his footsteps, keeping her eyes on the shadow that fell behind Sabbatai. A few of his disciples followed behind them. The procession stopped near the synagogue and Sabbatai turned to his followers, but of course the passersby, shopkeepers, and rabbi in the synagogue whose doors were open could hear them:
“I, Sabbatai Zevi, Mashiach of the people of Israel, say to you all that the time of Jewish liberation has come,” and he entered the synagogue.
The rabbi met Sabbatai practically at the threshold because the shouts outside had called his attention.
“Is it you who has dared pronounce the name of the Almighty, which the high priest is allowed to speak only once a year on Yom Kippur in the Temple of Jerusalem?” the old rabbi asked him.
“It is I,” answered Sabbatai Zevi, “I allow myself this, for I am the Mashiach.”
The rabbi lowered his eyes.
“And what have you brought to the synagogue?” he asked, gesturing toward the cradle Sabbatai had not let go of, holding it tight against his breast.
“A fish wrapped in a page of the Torah.”
“In a page of the Torah?” the old rabbi repeated with lips trembling.
Standing next to Sabbatai Zevi, Sarah saw the rabbi, who had served more than forty years at the synagogue, buckle at the knees.
It had been a few years since all the rabbis of Smyrna cursed Sabbatai Zevi and he disappeared from the city, showing up in Thessaloniki, whence he went on to Istanbul. Now Sabbatai Zevi had returned, showing up with a cradle on the steps of the synagogue surrounded by his students and disciples.
And when the ship set a course for Istanbul, having exited the Smyrna bay, some of the Jews, feeling the first gusts of sea wind, got out their tallitot and covered up with them. The satin sails fluttered above the heads of the travelers. The helmsman, holding on to the shaky rudder with both hands, shouted something at the crew who ran around the ship’s deck and tightened the sheets on the sails. Then eleven men and the woman by the name of Sarah entered the hold to take refuge from the wind.
The ship was seen off, as Papadopoulos would later tell the Sultan’s guards during his interrogation in Istanbul, by a few hundred of Smyrna’s Jews.
They were silent, not crying, feeling the salty sea air burn their eyes. And each of them wanted to stop the travelers. But when the ship had sailed beyond the horizon, they sighed, gathered up their children, and returned home with a burden on their hearts.
On board the galley that so confidently sailed toward Istanbul was Sabbatai Zevi, native of Smyrna, Messiah of the people of Israel, with his companions and Sarah, his wife. It was he, Sabbatai Zevi, who had paid the owner of the ship for the journey and ordered to sail to Istanbul. Sabbatai Zevi turned his face into the currents of sea wind and heard the luffing of the fabric. He turned around to look at Smyrna. The city in which he had been born forty years prior, shrank away with each mile the galley traveled; forever, thought Sabbatai Zevi. In his forty years he had traveled much, studied the Torah and Kabbalah, fled cities, argued with rabbis, and never stayed anywhere too long.
He could see the castle of Kadifekale on Mount Pagos, which towered above the city. This was the best place to look out on the gulf. When he was a child, Sabbatai Zevi had scrabbled through the shrubs and olive groves to get to the fortress mountain and studied every detail that lay before his eyes. He was most drawn to the green gulf, especially at night when the oil lamps glowed on the galleys and boats. Then, when the sea grew calm, Sabbatai returned home, afraid of dogs and janissaries. Climbing down from the hill, he felt the breath of the Creator. At home, Sabbatai Zevi encountered commotion as usual: Mom was shouting that the janissaries had cut the boy to ribbons or kidnapped him to sell him in Istanbul. When Sabbatai went over to his father, he placed his hand on the boy’s head and, leaning over, whispered something in Sabbatai’s ear. And the boy went to bed.
Feeling he was bidding Smyrna farewell, Sabbatai also saw how the spires of minarets grew from a solid wall of stone buildings near the mountain. And how the streets merged with the walls of the buildings. A turbid shroud of fog covered the mountain that dominated the city and the city itself.
The ship heaved and Sabbatai Zevi was almost knocked off his feet by a stout rigger who was running full speed to the main-mast. The Mashiach quickly went down into the hold where Sarah was with the ten witnesses to his messianism. Sarah was lying down covered in woolen garments, for seasickness had started to take hold of her. Sabbatai decided not to bother her. Instead, he sat among his associates and struck up a conversation with them.
They were all from Smyrna. Only Sarah, whom Sabbatai brought to his hometown from far away, was born in Podilia, but grew up in Cairo. That is where the young Sabbatai married her because, having heard about the Mashiach, Sarah, who suffered from neuroses and was often visited by prophets and her late father, cut in half by Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks, proclaimed herself the Mashiach’s affianced. Rumors of the beauty who believed she was betrothed to the Mashiach reached Cairo earlier than a caravan of camels could cross the lands of Palestine and enter Egypt. Sabbatai Zevi sent an envoy and Sarah was brought to Cairo. The wedding took place in the home of Raphael Joseph Çelebi, which Sabbatai Zevi took as the will of the Almighty.
The poor Abraham Rubio, whom the Mashiach had proclaimed just the day before a king and ruler of one twenty-sixth of the world, was the first to speak to Sabbatai Zevi. Sabbatai Zevi divided the world into twenty-six parts because yesterday he had been surrounded by twenty-six of his closest disciples. One was now owned by Abraham. In order to thank Sabbatai for such a high honor for which the wealthy of Smyrna would have to pay him, poor Abraham, enormous sums, he fulfilled the Mashiach’s every wish and was willing to follow him to the ends of the earth. So it was poor Abraham, king and ruler of a portion of the world, the name of which Sabbatai forgot to tell him, who began first.
“When the Mashiach enters the Sultan’s palace and removes the brocade turban from the Sultan’s head, when the people of Israel are proclaimed free and he leads all Jews to Jerusalem, we will have so many kilims that we’ll pave the way to Jerusalem with them,” Abraham said in a whisper.
All the others moved in closer, still wearing their tallitot on their heads.
The overseer, who had for some reason run into the passenger hold, initially thought someone had put up a big top, because the Jews the ship was conveying sat so close together in a circle that their foreheads practically touched. They spoke the language of the Torah so no one could understand them or suspect them of conspiracy.
Sarah moaned off to the side. She was nauseous and choking down her sobs like a woman in labor. She retched, wiping the stinking spittle with her sleeve.
“What if the Sultan doesn’t want to give up his authority and take off his turban?” the goldsmith, who just yesterday was sitting in his shop on a quiet Smyrna street, expressed his doubts.
Sabbatai Zevi started up, but he hit his head on the low wooden ceiling of the hold and sat back down again. A cry rang out and the galley heeled again; clearly this time a large wave had crashed into the starboard side and the circle of men scattered like wheat from a gunny sack.
Come morning the sea calmed.
Sabbatai Zevi fell asleep on a wooden bed with sheets of sackcloth.
Sarah slept, exhausted by the journey. And the Mashiach’s disciples snored in each other’s faces and beards to the squeaking of the ship’s masts.