15 – Sarras
Resuming my Grail-Quest after a particularly hedonistic Edinburgh New Year (no wonder the Scots have the second off as well), we find ourselves with Sir Peredur & Sir Bors just about to set off in search of the grail. The 12th-13th century French romances tell us that they received the grail in Britain from a certain King Pelles & his son, Eliezer, at their court in Corbenic. What has happened here is a case of genflation, that is when an author receives into his hands two different names of the same personage, & places them together as kindred. In this instance, Pelles stands for Liberalis & Eliezer stands for Eleuther, the Latin & Greek versions of King Arthur’s son. Their castle, Corbenic, was expressly erected to hold the grail, which had previously been held at a nearby castle called Galafort. These two names appear together in a map of the Lothians just south of Edinburgh as Galla Law (bottom right) & Penicuik (middle left).
That Galla Law was Galafort is suggested by the presence of a very ancient church dedicated to St Mary at neighbouring Monklowden, which is mentioned as being present at Galafort in the romances. We have already seen how Liberalis/Eleuther was a man of the north, & his realms could well have encompassed the south Edinburgh area, especially when we hear of a certain ‘Liberton’ just a few miles north of Penicuik… & of course, Mount Agnet/Auchendinny is slam dunk right next to Penicuik. The tales tell us that Peredur & Bors took the grail from Britain to a place in the east called Sarras. This reconnects with Peredur & Bors being the Byzantine warriors Pharas the Herulian & Bouzes. That such a transliteration took place between medieval writers & Byzantine historians is confirmed through Big Geoff, whose Diatus & Sartuz of the Loge (a holy precinct in Constantinople) appear in Procopius.
On the present occasion, therefore, the Eruli who dwelt among the Romans, after the murder of their king had been perpetrated by them, sent some of their notables to the island of Thule to search out and bring back whomsoever they were able to find there of royal blood… and secured another man, Datius by name… since much time passed while they were absent on this journey, it occured to the Eruli in the neighbourhood of Singidunum [Beograd] that they were not consulting their own interests in importing a leader from Thule against the wishes of the Emperor Justinian. They therefor sent envoys to Byzantium, begging the emperor to send them a ruler of his own choice. And he straightaway sent them one of the Eruli who had on time been sojourning in Byzanteum, Suartuas by name.
That Bouzes, son of the great Gothic general Vitalian, was Bors is supported by Mallory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur,‘ which states that Bors died fighting the Turks in the Middle-East. This connects with Bouzes’ own disappearance from history, in 556, defending Nesus on the River Phasis, in ancient Armenia. He is first mentioned in 528, as joint dux of Phoenice Libanensis ( to the east of Mount Lebanon) together with his brother, Coutzes, & two years later he is placed directly alongside Pharas the Heruian at the Battle of Dara (530 AD).
The extremity of the left straight trench which joined the cross trench as far as the hill, which rises here, was held by Bouzes with a large force of horsemen and by Pharas the Herulian with three hundred of his nation… In the late afternoon a certain detachment of horsemen … came against the forces of Bouzes and Pharas. And the Romans retired a short distance to the rear. … and again Bouzes and Pharas stationed themselves in their own position.
Elsewhere, Procopius describes Pharas as, ‘energetic and thoroughly serious and upright in
every way, although he was an Erulian by birth. And for an Erulian not to give himself over to treachery and drunkenness, but to strive after uprightness, is no easy matter and merits abundant praise. But not only was it Pharas who maintained orderly conduct, but also all the
Erulians who followed him.’ This all sounds very much like one of the pious Knights of Arthur’s Round Table, such as Sir Percival!
So where was Sarras? The Estoire del Saint Graal places Sarras between Babylon and Salamandre, as in; ‘They left the wood and set out their way, traveling until they arrived at a city called Sarras, between Babylon and Salamander. From this city came the first Saracens.’ The Babylon of medieval texts generally refers to Cairo, which in this case is supported by the mention of a war in Egypt. Salamander is unknown, but the text does tell us that Sarras is the homelands of the Saracens, which according to Procopius were in the Sinai peninsular of Egypt; ‘As one sails into the sea from there [i.e., sailing Southwest, from Aqaba to the Red Sea], the Egyptian mountains lie on the right, extending toward the south; on the other side a country deserted by men extends northward to an indefinite distance… This coast immediately beyond the boundaries of Palestine is held by Saracens, who have been settled from of old in the Palm Groves. These groves are in the interior, extending over a great tract of land, and there absolutely nothing else grows except palm trees. The Emperor Justinian had received these palm groves as a present from Abochorabus, the ruler of the Saracens there, and he was appointed by the emperor captain over the Saracens in Palestine.‘
The romances tell us that the grail was taken to a hilltop castle in the middle of a wasteland, fitting in with the desert nature of the Sinai. The idea that sixth century warriors were taking a religious artefact to the area leads us to one place in particular – St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, the very place Moses received the Ten Commandments. It was built at some point during the reign of Justinian (527-565), with huge fortified walls & monastery buildings surrounding the Church of the Transfiguration.
Support for Sinai being Sarras comes from the tale’s description of the natives of Sarras having reverted to pagan ways; ‘Before the founding of the sect, the people of Sarras had no faith, but worshiped everything that pleased them, so that what they worshiped one day was not worshiped the next. But then they established the worship of the sun and the moon and the other planets.‘ This perfectly matches John, Bishop of Nikiu’s account of the peoples about Sinai (in the reign of Anastasius) as; -’Impious barbarians, who eat flesh & drank blood, arose in the quarter of Arabia & approaching the borders of the Red Sea, they seized the monks of Araite (Rhaithou), & they put them to the sword or led them away captive & plundered their possessions; for they hated saints, & were themselves like in their devices to idolators & the pagans…’
The main purpose of St Catherine’s monastery was as a repository for Christian icons – which could be copied by the monks for the rest of Christendom. In its unadulterated form, then, the grail-quest represents an Arthurian mission to transport a Christian icon from Britain to St Catherine’s, perhaps even ‘the image of St. Mary‘ which the Historia Brittonum says Arthur took with him to Britain from Jerusalem & helped him triumph at the battle of Guinnion/Stow-on-Wedale, beside the Gala water a few miles downstream from Galafort. Perhaps… but in my next post I shall show you how the grail was in fact based upon one of the most famous pieces of Christian icongraphy in the world, a long-lost piece of material which bore the face of Christ himself!