"When I found you at the hospital you were already delirious and talking...sometimes shouting. You mentioned different people by name, some of the names were rather odd. And you talked about the Hoshen. I knew I had to get you out of there.
It took a while for the arrangements to be made, so I got you a private room and I tried to keep contact with the staff to a minimum. And I have to admit, I was fascinated by the story that emerged from your, uh, ramblings.
Just before you left for the retreat I sent Arcy PGP encrypted email telling her what the situation was and asking for advice. She seemed a little confused, I don't think she knew all of the details herself, but she said she would talk to her people and get back to me as soon as possible. In half an hour your phone rang. It was Arcy and there was another nice British gentleman on the line who apologized for introducing himself only as a friend of yours. They asked me lots of questions and were very concerned about you. It seems like at the end of the conversation they were satisfied that you were in good hands.
What I didn't discuss with them was my growing resolve to find the Hoshen stone if it was still in Salonika. Maybe the reason I've always enjoyed puzzles and problem solving games is that they gave me the artificial sense that something in this life can be figured out. History, especially for someone from Salonika, is a frustrating enigma. The Greeks have had their labyrinths and the Turks their Oriental tales of treasure troves revealed by secret words. I never thought the Jews had any similar mysteries, but that was all about to change.
I'll spare you the detailed explanation of my research, but I found myself going as far back as the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic communities before the expulsion of 1492. There was a recurring reference to "Etz Chaim" or the Tree of Life. It was a popular name for Sephardic synagogues and there was later a Jewish relief organization by that name. I soon suspected that there was also a connection to what is known as Kabbalah. The word itself means "tradition" or "that which is received", and seems to refer to the oral transmitting of a school of Jewish mysticism that may go back to the Biblical patriarchs.
In Kabbalah, the "Tree of Life" is a model of the supra-sensible universe, the Ten Sephirot. They are considered the spiritual foundation of the physical world. I was sure that some of the historical references had other esoteric meanings, so I began to read everything I could find on the Kabbalah. I got bogged down in the Zohar
but I made better progress reading about the lives of the famous Kabbalists, like Moses Cordovero, Joseph Caro, and Isaac Luria. Through their histories and writings the concept of the Sephirot or Divine Attributes became clearer. The mystical practice of manipulating the Hebrew letters from Scripture or "tzeruf" had a lot of appeal for me and I promised myself I'd look into it further once all this was over.
By this point I was sure that references to Etz Chaim were significant. After the apostasy of Shabbetai Zevi, there was both a Talmudic backlash against Kabbalists, and a greater degree of secrecy and clannishness among the Kabbalists themselves. Soon a reference to Pardes Rimmonin or the Pomegranate Orchard began to crop up with greater frequency. This is a common Kabbalistic allegory, but it was almost certainly being used as a code word for something. Over the centuries there seemed to be a lineage of Kabbalist rabbis that whispered of a secret garden. But in the same span of time the Jews in Salonika prospered and among the old Sephardic families there arose an aristocracy. My Beneveniste ancestors were included, but first among equals were the Allatinis. Their flour mills were the source of their fortune. The family seems to have come to a historic crossroads after the 1876 war with Russia that had so many disastrous consequences for the Ottoman empire. Salonika was flooded with Jewish refugees. The "Etz Chaim" society in conjunction with the Sephardic congregations raised funds to support the refugees. But the bulk of the relief came from some of the new secular Jewish organizations like Il Avenir
and most prominently the Alliance Israelite committee. Dr Moise Allatini was the President. But other description of the title sound positively Masonic: "the minister and vizier, master cavalier Dr. Moshe Allatini"
This group seemed to initially have excellent relations with the religious community. I came across a letter of a Rabbi Kovo, praising Dr Allatini and the Alliance in terms that, if I wasn't sure were veiled Kabbalist credentials, would be absurdly sycophantic. He also goes on to mention the society reaching out to the "tree of life", meaning the religious relief organization. Most of the prominent rabbis were supporters of the Alliance including Chief Rabbi Avraham Gatinio. But when Rabbi Gatinio died, Rabbi Shmu'el Arditi was appointed. He become embroiled in a power struggle, with the Alliance and Dr Allatini, over a more democratic administration of the community. As this would greatly reduce the power of the rabbis, the Chief Rabbi opposed it bitterly. Allatini's progressive faction managed to get the Chief Rabbi fired, despite his popularity with the poor traditional Jews. The rabbis then appealed to rabbinical and imperial officials Constantinople who then got Rabbi Arditi re-instated. After more Machiavellian maneuvering on Allatini's part, Rabbi Arditi had to settle for keeping his post, but conceding everything else to Allatini's progressives. This caused a deep schism in the Jewish community between the wealthy progressive Jews, many of which, like Allatini were considered foreigners, and the poorer traditional Sephardic community. And it was the among these representatives of an older Salonika that believed that a higher authority was invoked in this dispute. For there had long been a traditional belief that whenever a wealthy man offended a rabbi, he would die within twelve months time. And before a year had passed, Dr Moishe Allatini, as well as fellow prominent progressives Dr Becher Frances and Shu'al Modiano had passed away. And while any record of the funeral arrangements would have been destroyed in the great Salonika fire years later, oral tradition says all three were eulogized quite movingly by Chief Rabbi Shmu'el Arditi.
This power struggle wouldn't have been important to my research if I didn't think that sometime in the honeymoon period between the more religious "Etz Chaim" group and the progressives, the Hoshen stone was transferred to the custody of Dr Allatini. During this time of warm relations the case wouldn't have been hard to make. The city was chaotic and often subject to the brigandry of first the janissaries and later Albanian irregulars, not to mention prone to apocalyptic fires. On the other hand the Allatini estate, with footman armed with both pistols and daggers, was considered so safe that when Pasha Hamid was deposed, he sought refuge there outside the city walls.
There is also the apparent lack of any references to the stone after Dr Allatini's death. This could be explained by the departure of the remaining Allatini's for Italy in 1911 and the great fire, but I could find nothing to suggest that Moise's descendants had inherited it, or that it had been returned to the rabbinical community. It just seems to have disappeared.
So I was left with nothing more than a hunch, and dove back into the Kabbala to look for a fresh clue to the jewel's whereabouts. Don't think that while all this was going on I had forgotten about you. Usually I'd visit at lunch and early evening. I even tried doing my research by your bedside, hoping that your delirious rambling would reveal some clue. But your subconscious was concerned with many other subjects, more than a few quite amusing if at times embarrassing. And no, I won't tell you what you said. In any case I gave up on those study sessions.
I knew I had a small window of opportunity to solve the puzzle. Your friends allowed me to use your phone to consult with Arcy and give them updates on your recovery. I went back to the old texts again to find the key that would unlock the secrets of Etz Chaim and the Alliance Israelite. I became like a Kabbalist scholar myself in my study habits. I alternated between the Kabbalistic works and the historical texts for the next break in the story.
It came from an unexpected source. A marginally related Google search turned up previously unpublished article from a little known French occultist named Guy Chabon. He had been a high degree Mason that followed some better known figures into a renegade lodge which emphasized the craft's roots in the mysteries of Hermes Trismigethus, the alchemy of Paracelsus, the ecstatic meditation of the Melevi dervishes and of course the Kabbala. He had apparently finagled his way into a ceremony held at the lavish estate of the Allatinis. Having studied the blueprints and visited the areas accessible to the public, I was fairly certain it was held in the room reserved for worship on the Sabbath. But in Chabon's description, the interior was entirely covered by gold leaf and the entrance was flanked by two brass columns. Chabon gave these an Masonic significance, but it was clearly first and foremost a replica of Solomon's temple. Both the columns and the gold have long since been removed.
The rest of the article was more Masonic propaganda that centered around further descriptions of the room. Not being a Hebrew speaker, he seemed to miss the the significance of the ceremony itself. But if his claim of the presence of a Bektashi sheik and an elderly monk from Athos among others is to be believed, then this would suggest it wasn't an ordinary Shabbos service. That's when I began to make arrangements, on the pretext of an imaginary grant proposal, to get unlimited access to the Villa Allatini.
But I still had no idea what I was looking for. At one particularly low point I was trying to grasp some of the practices around the Hebrew language. I was beating myself up for the thousandth time for not having a better working knowledge of Hebrew. I was studying a shivviti
, which was a graphic chart of designs composed of Hebrew writing that Kabbalah acolytes meditated on. At a few points I had a sense that I was on the verge of a breakthrough. A glimmer of understanding would surface and then the thought process would collapse under a burden of fatigue and frustration. Finally I just stared at the letters on the page until my eyes stung. I closed them and the large characters floated before my mind's eye, now searing white instead of black, shimmering like flame.
As I saw the burning letters it was like being suddenly confronted with a living thing. Although at that point I seemed to be free of my body and gravity, there was a sense of coursing power and something like the sound of wind.
Abruptly that all changed and I was enveloped in a memory. It was my school trip to the Villa Allatini. Although I've been there several times since, it was apparently the first and last time I really paid attention to the surroundings. We were in the garden outside I had been looking at a statue of a chariot that Mr Polymeris had explained was Apollo's. Here my awareness bifurcated. As I child I received and believed the information my principal was giving me, but in the present I had the realization that it was actually a representation of the Merkaba, or the chariot of fire that Ezekiel saw and Kabbalists meditated on. Then Kostas Liacopolis started teasing me about something silly I had said in class the day before and I started crying. Mr Polymeris yelled at him and told me to never mind. To distract me he led me by the hand to another part of the garden. Under a tree was a bronze plaque with a scene from the Garden of Eden. My older self noticed that the tree was a pomegranate. Mr Polymeris started quizzing me on the story of Genesis, which I was never taught at home and never paid much attention to the few times I had been to church. Consequently I answered almost none of his questions, but he didn't get cross. My older self found the figure of Adam strange. He stood somewhat stiffly within a vaguely defined circle, a bit like the famous Da Vinci picture but with the arms lowered and slightly extended away from the body. In contrast, Eve was in a much more natural if dramatic pose. The memory faded and I was again staring at the black letters on the page.
I went home for a quick nap, shower and cup of Turkish coffee to brace me for the appointment I had been dreading. After an excruciating meeting with the Prefect Governor punctuated with promises of political benefits I could never deliver on, he sent me to his Operations department to sign out a set of keys.
I went to my office to nap for the rest of the day on the old couch. There was a nagging sense that I was operating on instincts that I couldn't comprehend. Part of my rational mind was in a panic at the way I seemed to sleepwalk to the Villa and demanded to be briefed on the operational plans but there didn't seem to be any.
I checked in with the security guard inside who was quite upset at being distracted from his crossword puzzle, sports section, or whatever he was reading. I told him I would be out in the garden. The plaque wasn't hard to find, despite the fact that everything looked smaller and more compact than I remembered. I ran my hands over the patina crusted surface, trying to conceive of what I was supposed to do. I studied every detail hoping some clue would come to mind. I even tried remembering all the details of the Creation story, the exoteric version Mr Polymeris tried to teach me and the Kabbalistic exigences that I read recently. Suddenly I wanted to cry. Here I was in the same damn garden, being tormented, a helpless member of a tour I didn't understand. Why me? It was then I noticed that the expression of Eve seemed to reflect my agony. I saw that the reason she gave the impression of being aloof from the figure of Adam was both her expression of longing and frustration and her gaze that was directed at a small pomegranate that hung from a tree behind Adam. She was inclined to it but frozen in the beginning of a posture of reaching up. Reflexively I touched the tiny protuberance. With a grating pop the figure of Adam sprung out from the plaque, spraying out small chips of copper oxide. My heart was pounding and as I tugged desperately on it I became aware that I was crying in earnest. It wouldn't move! I tried to calm myself and tried turning it counter-clockwise to see if it would unscrew. I was rewarded with a click and ringing echo as it moved. Above Adam's head three Hebrew letters that spelled Keter were illuminated. I couldn't tell if they reflected light or somehow shone from within. I turned it again and the four letters for Hokmah appeared. I tried turning it back and this time I succeeded at moving it counter clockwise. Turning the figure revealed the names of all ten of the Sephirot in a particular order of descent and right to left with Malkut last and a neutral position at the top.
I stared at the device for a while trying to grasp what was at least at first like a combination lock. Clearly starting from the neutral position, I could ascend or descend depending one whether one choose to go clockwise or counterclockwise. And it was probably safe to say that returning to the neutral point was like a reset.
The first question you have to ask is how much a puzzle wants to be solved. Certainly there are cyphers that try to forbid all that don't know the code, locks that resist those who don't have the key. But these have inherent weaknesses that can actually make a puzzle comparatively more difficult to overcome, if only because of its ability to confound the hopeful with the promise of a solution. I can't really describe completely the approach I took, because it wasn't a linear process, but a series of them occurring in parallel. This faculty had operated before in both my studies and in my particular hobbies, but the study of Kabbala and particularly the experience of "tzeruf" or the permutation of the letters amplified this. I started with, in no specific order, a sense of awe at the design of the device and the mystery it represented, a growing panicked feeling that I was losing a race with time, and my familiar insatiable craving for the solution.
I choose to ascend based on the hint provided by the setting. The first of the Sephirot in ascending order was Shekinah but its symbol was often the Orchard or Garden. Picturing the Tree of Life the next step was a freebie, the only route was to Yesod. Yet that transition itself as a precursor to the next undecided move already opened two channels of thought. First how to determine choice of direction from the fixed circular sequence of the Sephirot. The Tree of Life allows a number of routes in the climb, but it wasn't apparent how to select a path using the device. Simultaneously there was an inner opening up and out and I had an awareness of transition from one interior state to another.
Here any attempt at narrative fails and the mind can't follow. I experienced what the Kabbala mystics described as their travels from one cosmic sphere of the Sephirot to another, and also the *mastin* or "witholders" that guarded each realm with terror distraction and a host of other weapons. Yet when vanquished, they offered clues to the direction of the ascent. It may be possible to produce the epic that would describe my ascent, but I came away with the firm conviction that to do so wouldn't be wise. And the goal of the ascent, the indescribable prize made the release of the device an shabby anticlimax.
Yet I didn't lose site of the temporal task, it was intimately connected with the metaphysical journey. Here my Greek legacy of grounded abstraction served well. The device was easily extracted. I had suspected that the jewel itself wasn't in the plaque, but that the whole locking assembly would now serve as a key. I wrapped it in a silk scarf to protect the complex array of rods and levers that were now exposed in the back of the device and hid it in my backpack. I hurried to the villa.
After startling the guard again I made my way to the temple room in the basement. I had also bought a small but powerful halogen worklight which I set up as close as the cord would allow to where I believed the tabernacle to have been. Again, I was working on a hunch, but my instincts were becoming increasingly more accurate. I soon found a circular feature that corresponded to the rough size of the device. It seemed to be capped electrical or gas fixture at about the level of my shoulders about the tabernacle that had been painted over. I scoured around its circumference with a small utility knife then tried prying it away with a screwdriver. After taking the skin off a few of my knuckles I finally realized that the bump in the center was the head of a fastening bolt, which I was able to remove after more hacking chipping and donating of epidermis. When it finally fell away it revealed a surprising clean interface for the device, which I wasted no time in inserting. It seated itself with a satisfying click and part of the face of the device inside his stance retracted to reveal something like a grating. Here all inspiration and intuition failed me. I found to my further dismay that the device didn't turn as it had previously done.
In my frustration I was muttering to myself that I was sure the first stage in the descent would start with Binah, or understanding for a number of reasons when the letters for that attribute began to show not steadily as it did before, but flashing on and off. I then tried pronouncing Hokmah to test if it was triggered by sound, but the flickering continued. After much trial and error I realized I was stuck and began to ponder what need to happen before I could move on. And I did discover the means for moving on. I'll say that it did involve the spoken word and the practice of "tzeruf" but knowing what I know now, the rest isn't knowledge to be divulged lightly, so I'll leave it at that. I will say that once the proper recitation was completed for each level, the letters for that level would shine steadily andthe next in the sequence began to flash, so there was no need to guess at the next step. The challenge occurred within the each Sephirot and everytime it was a great and unique labor. And each had a *mastin* but their aspect in descent was different from the ascent.
When the final syllable of the recitation of Shekinah was uttered, a panel sprung from the wall and with a shriek of metal and cracking of paint. That's when the man with the gun stood up from his hiding place."