One of history’s illusions is the border.
IN America’s southwest, the indigenous Pima tribe have a frightening phrase, oimmeddam or wandering sickness—the sickness that crosses all borders.
The Pima story goes like this:
“Where do you come from? an Indian asks a tall, black-hatted stranger.
I come from far way, the stranger replies, from…across the Eastern Ocean.
What do you bring? the Indian asks.
I bring death, the stranger answers. My breath causes children to wither and die like young plants in the spring snow. I bring destruction. No matter how beautiful a woman, once she has looked at me she becomes as ugly as death. And to men, I bring not death alone, but the destruction of their children and the blighting of their wives…”
The oimmeddam is probably as old as history, ever since mankind gathered together, travelled, crossed borders, traded, fought and socialized. The Pima story shows that Death is nothing new, but it is always foreign. The sickness that is so terrifying is not from just next door. It penetrates any barrier and takes thousands of souls.
People in Europe have records about the ‘Justinian Plague’ of the 6th century. At the time when Constantinople was under the rule of the Emperor Justinian, the plague wiped out 40 percent of the city’s citizens. Before it subsided in 750, half the population of Europe was dead.
In the 14th century, the second plague came, called the ‘Black Death’. The number of those who died almost equalled those who died in World War II.
John Kelly’s book, The Great Mortality, gives a fascinating and detailed—rather too detailed—account of this great plague.
It is commonly said that the epidemic began in Caffa on the Crimean Peninsula on the northern shore of the Black Sea. Today named Feodosiya, this small town is contested by the Ukraine and Russia. Towards the mid 14th century, a famous traveller from Morocco, Ibnu Batutah, visited Caffa and described it as a ‘handsome town’ on the shore, with a ‘worthy port’.
The Crimean Peninsula had been under Mongolian rule since 1230—yet another piece of the empire established by Genghis Khan that managed to penetrate Europe. Caffa obtained a different position: traders from Genoa got a concession to trade freely in that city. Caffa became an important international trading center, also a large slave market, inhabited by people from many countries. If we read the account of Ibnu Batutah—who met all kinds of different Sufi groups—in Caffa peace reigned between the inhabitants.
The majority of Mongols, who ruled in Crimea, had been Muslim since around 1200. Their sultan, Öz Beg, (titled ‘Khan’), adopted Islam when was a prince on the run following his father’s murder. When he managed to regain power, Öz Beg recommended that his people become Muslim. But he acted well towards the Christians. Pope John XXII sent him a letter of thanks. Öz Beg replied with a strong guarantee: he would sentence to death anyone who abused or wronged followers of Jesus.
But over and again it happens: religions cannot be separated from or separate themselves from the behavior of their followers. They live with borders and enmities. In 1343, the town of Tana was rocked by conflict between the Muslims and the Christian Genovese. A Muslim died.
Fearing revenge, the Genovese escaped to Caffa. When Khan Janiberg, who had replaced his father Öz Beg just the year before, sent a team to arrest the wrongdoers, the people of Caffa rebelled. Angry, Khan Janiberg ordered that the town be beseiged. Caffa fought back. From Italy came food, medicine and soldiers. Janiberg retreated.
When his troops beseiged Caffa again, he was defeated by a different force: the plague, which had moved slowly crossing the Don and Volga rivers, entering Crimea and wiping out towns and settlements. The Mongol army, at the ready in the hills above Caffa, was struck.
Khan Janiberg’s army collapsed. But the story does not stop there. The Italian notary Gabriel de Mussis described a spectacular event. Khan Janiberg ordered that the corpses of his soldiers who had died of plague be catapaulted over the Caffa walls.
“Soon rotting corpses tainted the air…poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one man in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army. ”
Was this really the first use of biological warfare in history?
The plague did indeed obliterate Caffa: the city became empty, and corpses rotted in every corner. But The Great Mortality mentions a different explanation. The Norwegian historian Ole Benedictow, known for his research on the ‘Black Death’, concluded that it was the rats—without Janiberg’s help—that “found their way through the crevices in the walls or between the gates and the gateways. ”
The plague spread from Caffa all over Europe, just as it had done when it began in Central Asia. Border markers were lost—also between rats and humans. But history always produces boundary lines as places of refuge. Right now, we do not yet know, all these centuries after the ‘Black Death’, whether world-wide disasters make humans more sympathetic, or more suspicious of each other.