1889 • Alexandria, Egypt
Only three types of buyers entered the Attarine --- the foolish, the fraudulent, and the forewarned. The foolish, who acted on whim instead of wisdom and expected to fleece an ignorant Egyptian native; the fraudulent, expert in identifying wellcrafted forgeries, anxious to pass them on for great profit; and the forewarned, who searched for treasure but were wise enough to employ someone who knew the ways, and the merchants, of the seductive but evil-ridden Attarine.
Spurgeon knew the risk. But treasures awaited in the twisting, narrow stone streets snaking away from the Attarine Mosque.
He had Mohammad, he had a gun, he had money --- and he had God.
Peering down the darkened alley, Spurgeon worried that, maybe, he didn’t
Mohammad entered the alley and disappeared from view. The alley was gray-on-gray, denied sunlight by overhanging, second-floor balconies adorning almost every building, their shuttered windows barely an arm’s length from each other. Joining with the dark was a riot of refuse; crazed, cadaver-like dogs; and powerfully pungent, unknown odors.
The Attarine District was home to the greatest concentration of antiquities dealers in Alexandria, both the illicit and the honorable. A person could buy almost any historical artifact along the ancient streets of the Attarine. Some were even genuine. And Charles Haddon Spurgeon was on a treasure hunt.
He held his breath; he held his heart; and he stepped into the dark.
At the first fork, Mohammed Isfahan was waiting. Spurgeon’s heart slowed its pounding pace. Mohammed confidently led the way, weaving in and out of the shoppers and the strollers who clogged the tight byways. It was early morning, before the sun began to scorch the stones, and Spurgeon was grateful for the moderate breeze off the Mediterranean. At his size, the heat sapped his strength and soaked his shirt within minutes. Though the morning was warm, Spurgeon hoped to get back into his hotel, under a fan in a shaded corner of the dining room, long before the withering heat began blowing from the Sahara. On one of his regular trips to the Middle East, Spurgeon was trolling for ancient biblical texts and Mohammed, recommended by the hotel’s concierge, promised he knew where to look.
Now fifty-six, he was England’s best-known preacher, and he grudgingly accepted the considerable influence and power he had earned as pastor of London’s famed New Park Street Church for the last thirty years. Spurgeon was the first to admit preaching was his passion.
But Spurgeon was also the first to admit that books were his weakness. He typically devoured six books per week and had written many of his own. Now, scuttling through the twilight of the dusty alley, Spurgeon sought to slake that hunger in the shops of the Attarine.
Rounding a curve in the street, Mohammed paused alongside a curtain covered doorway, pulled aside the curtain, and motioned for Spurgeon to enter. Inside the shop, not only was the atmosphere cooler, but it also carried the rich scent of old leather, soft and smooth like musty butter. Mohammed bowed reverentially as the proprietor emerged from the rear of the shop. He was a small man of an indeterminate age. What defined him were hawk-like, ebony eyes overflowing with wisdom, discerning of character, and surrounded by a brilliant white kaffiyeh. Mohammed spoke rapidly in Arabic, bowed again, and then stepped back as the proprietor approached Spurgeon.
“Salaam aleikum,” he said, bowing his head toward Spurgeon, who was startled when the man continued in perfectly cadenced English, “and peace be with you, my friend. It is an honor for my humble shop to welcome such a famous man under its roof. May I be permitted to share with you some tea and some of our little treasures?”
Wondering about the origin of the shopkeeper’s English, Spurgeon responded with a bow of his own. “Salaam aleikum, my brother. You honor me by using my language in your shop. But I must ask, how have you any knowledge of me?”
“Ah, the name of Spurgeon has found its way down many streets. I am Ibrahim El-Safti, and I am at your service. My friend, Mohammed, tells me you are interested in texts that refer to the stories of your Nazarene prophet, is that correct?”
“I would be honored to review any such texts as may be in your possession,” said Spurgeon. He took the chair and the tea that were offered by El-Safti and waited quietly as the shopkeeper sought and retrieved three books. While Spurgeon studied the books, one in Aramaic, one in Greek, and the last in an unknown language, Mohammed and the shopkeeper retired through the doorway, stepping
outside the curtain.
Spurgeon slipped into a scholar’s zone, focusing intently on the words before him. But the breeze turned, pushing aside the curtain in the door and carrying the words of Mohammed and El-Safti into the shop and up to Spurgeon’s ear --- one well-trained in Arabic, among many other languages.
“What of the scroll?” Spurgeon heard Mohammed ask.
“Do not speak of that scroll in front of this infidel,” El-Safti countered, his voice stronger and more virile than it had been earlier. “You know what our tradition holds; this scroll would be of great benefit to the infidels, both the Jews and the Christians. We are to hold it in trust and keep it out of their hands at all costs.”
“You speak like an imam,” Mohammed said. “No one knows what is on that scroll; no one has been able to translate its meaning. How do we know what it contains?”
Spurgeon forgot the books in his lap. He heard a more interesting story floating on the breeze.
“If it can’t be read, is there any difference in whose hands it rests? I believe the English preacher would pay handsomely for the privilege of owning something he doesn’t understand. Ibrahim,” said Mohammed, “look at me. It could pay for your daughter’s wedding.”
“Do not tempt me, Mohammed,” El-Safti said. “That scroll has remained here for two generations, and no one has ever requested to see it. Quiet, now, and let us see what may interest the Englishman.”
Spurgeon attempted to return his attention to the books, but his eyes were pulled back to the men as they entered through the curtain. El Safti reverted to his perfectly subservient composure as he stepped before Spurgeon. The only thing out of place was an amulet --- a Coptic cross with a lightning bolt flashing through on the diagonal --- that slipped from the neck of his robe as he came
through the doorway.
“Do these books meet with your interest?” El-Safti asked.
Spurgeon rose from the chair and handed the books back to El-Safti. “I am disappointed to tell you, my friend, that you may have been swindled. The book in Aramaic is a fraud, and a poor one at that. The Greek, I have two copies in my library. And the third is in a language I have not seen before, but does not appear to be Semitic. Tell me, do you not possess anything more authentic?”
A moment’s silence passed through the shop. El-Safti’s pitch black eyes flickered with offense.
“My humble apologies,” El-Safti said. “Your reputation as a scholar is well earned, Dr. Spurgeon. But perhaps I do have something that you would find interesting. It is very old, but of indeterminate age.” El-Safti walked to the back of the shop. “It is an infidel’s mezuzah, nicely etched, wrapped in a very colorful piece of Moroccan silk.”
Disappointed in the books, Spurgeon’s interest increased at the mention of silk. His niece’s birthday would be upon him when he returned to England. Perhaps there was a prize here, after all.
El-Safti slipped into a small closet at the rear corner of the shop and could be heard snapping the hasp on a lock and moving a chain. Silence, then a stream of Arabic epithets, as El-Safti recoiled from the closet.
“Forgive me,” he said, his wild eyes looking first at Spurgeon and then at Mohammed. “It is gone. The scroll, it is gone.”
First fear, then unbelief, fought for dominance in El-Safti’s weathered face. His hands trembled as he wrung them together.
“Allah has punished me for my greed,” El-Safti said, slipping back into Arabic. “Mohammad, remove this infidel. And hurry back. We must think. We must find the scroll. We must find it before it is lost forever.”
Excerpted from THE SACRED CIPHER © Copyright 2011 by Terry Brennan. Reprinted with permission by Kregel Publications. All rights reserved.