Thursday, May 18, 2023

Let's Dig Into: The Sultanate of Zeif

Greyhawk was not the first campaign setting ever, but it was one of the first ever devised for Dungeons & Dragons. It was Gygax's own brainchild, originally created as just a dungeon under the titular castle to amuse his friends and family with. But as the early 1970s dungeon crawls played out, Gary expanded upon the world overhead until it became a sprawling, publishable setting in its own right.

He also decided that the alternate Earth it's set on, Oerth, should be pronounced Oith, like someone doing a very bad (or maybe extremely good?) Brooklyn accent.

That's the first of several sins I hold against the man, as you may see.

Instead of doing a tour of the entire combination racist-theme-park-and-right-libertarian-wet-dream that is Greyhawk, I want to zoom in on one part of the world that I find interesting: The Baklunish Sultanate of Zeif. It didn't feature very prominently in early Greyhawk except as the backdrop for part of a novel or two, but by the time 3rd edition rolled around it was major enough to be afforded a slice of the planet during the Living Greyhawk live campaign.

The way Living Greyhawk worked was each participating region on Earth had a corresponding section of Oerth in which all adventures would take place. Sometimes these regions included a few US states or a single Canadian province, sometimes they covered one or more countries. For instance, Italy got the Sea Barons, while Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee shared Yeomanry, and Ohio got Veluna all to itself.

Zeif was given to the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon Territory. Materials for Zeif were made available online for live play, both in English and French. Unfortunately these materials were not pirated or preserved the same way so many other D&D peripherals have been, and the websites they were originally hosted on have long since decayed. For a long time before I started this post, I thought that glimpse into early 2000s live D&D was lost forever.

Turns out, I just needed to find a super cool Albertan who happens to know one of the original writers. 

Thanks, elfman!

Anyway, back to the post.

The Sultanate of Zeif

The heraldic shield of Zeif,
as done by Anna B. Meyer

Every region in Greyhawk is either an explicit pastiche of a historical civilization and its peoples (Erypt, Nippon, etc), or an ambiguous hodgepodge of European fantasy names and ideas (The Kingdom of Keoland, The Yeomanry, etc). 

Zeif is in the former camp, being a gloss of the Ottoman Empire without all the gunpowder and tulips. Specifically, it is a Western fantasia of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle-East after the start of its slow territorial decline, when the loss of most of its holdings in Eastern Europe and the Balkans rendered it a foreign and exotic land of the Orient in the minds of many Europeans, rather than the immediate and cosmopolitan neighbor it had been for centuries prior.

The Sultanate occupies the western half of the Baklunish Basin, which used to be unified under a single empire, back in the days before some Suloise mages blew everything up- as they are wont to do. The Basin is located in the far northwest of the subcontinent of the Flanaess, which is where 90% of the action happens in Greyhawk. Compare it to the Forgotten Realms' Sword Coast. The basin is separated from most of the world by tall mountain ranges and the weirdly polar, ice-choked Dramidj Sea- I find it interesting that if not for some warm, supernatural water regulating temperatures close to the coast, Zeif would be a subarctic land more similar to someplace like the Khanate of Sibir than the historical Ottoman Empire.

I know I keep harping on about this, but Zeif is very Ottoman. The sultan (currently Murad the Proud) is head of state and is advised by a cabinet-style diwan, as well as a sultana who wields a lot of soft power from within a politically-active and well-educated harem (points for making it more than a licentious bathhouse full of pale, naked concubines like older Western depictions of hareems, I guess); the sultan ostensibly wields absolute temporal power, but in reality authority is decentralized somewhat across the empire's many different types of timar provinces, each with their own governors and major families; cavalry officers are called spahis; there is an elite slave-soldier bodyguard similar to the historical Janissaries (more on that later); the cities all have coffeehouses that act as the heart of news, politics, and culture; the locals literally just speak a mix of modern Turkish and Arabic (a handy appendix includes phrases like "hoş geldiniz!"); and the rugged interior is home to rustic nomads who do their best to resist the boot of empire.

The Basin straddles Central Oerik with its khanates and faux-Chinese Celestial Imperium. But that part of the world got next to zero development back when Greyhawk and Chainmail were actively being released, so we don't know much about it or how it interacted with Zeif. For what it's worth, Zeif stands upon Central Oerik's borders as the so-called "Rock of the West".

The Baklunish People

Zeif and its neighbors are inhabited by the Baklunish people, who act as Greyhawk's analogues to various West Asian, North African, and occasionally Central Asian peoples. In Zeif they are treated like the mix of Anatolian Turkic and Levantine peoples that made up the eastern Ottoman Empire, while in Zeif's next-door rival, the Caliphate of Ekbir they are closer to Arabs (both city-dwelling and Bedouin). The Tiger and Wolf Nomads of the north, despite being vaguely Mongol, are also of Baklunish extraction. Other Baklunish nations or city-states include Ket, Ull, and Tusmit.

Baklunish people worship a pantheon of gods that act as a curious mix of fantasy Islam and Chinese folk religion, of all things. On one hand they venerate the awkwardly named hero-god Al'Akbar who once went on a famous Hajj, and his worshipers are divided into two camps that seem to be modeled on the Sunni-Shi'a split within the Ummah. But on the other hand they also have deities of harmony and martial arts with names like Xan Yae and Zuoken. Maybe they came to them via cultural diffusion from the Celestial Imperium?

Perhaps even more central to the Baklunish way of life than their gods is their code of ethics. All of the Baklunish peoples adhere to a philosophy called the Four Feet of the Dragon, which consist of four principles that they are to strive for at all times and in all facets of life. The Four Feet are Honor, Generosity, Family, and Piety. These feet aren't very strictly defined, which leads to a wide range of interpretations as people navigate the messy and complicated realities of life.

At first glance the name of the philosophy makes it look like it will be modeled on the Five Pillars of Islam in some way, but fortunately the writers didn't try to make the parallels that explicit there. Instead, the Four Feet are broadly drawn and broadly applicable enough to offer a good deal of roleplaying opportunity without being hyper-local. The Four Feet also function as one of the few strong cultural connections between the sedentary Baklunish and their nomadic relatives.

Speaking of nomads!

The Nomad Tribes

You all knew this was coming.

The southern steppes and deserts of the Baklunish Basin are home to nomadic pastoralists known as the Paynims, which in real life is a corruption of the word "pagan" that was used in medieval and early modern Europe to describe non-Christians, but especially Muslims; in that respect it was a gloss similar to Moor. But here in Greyhawk it specifically refers to the Baklunish nomads of the basin.

The Paynims of Greyhawk are most heavily based on the Bedouin ethnic groups of Arabia and beyond, perhaps with a bit of Amazigh mixed in as well. Curiously, they seem to prefer the Turkic title of khan to Arabic terms like sheikh or emir. They are a proud people with strong equestrian and martial traditions, and they often figure as raiders and enemies in the histories of their settled neighbors. They are also waiting for the arrival of the Mahdi, an Islamic messianic figure that was often central to millennialist movements and revolutions in Muslim-majority states throughout history.

(I can't fault Gygax or his TSR and WotC successors in particular for including this element, because fiction writers in general seem to love the aesthetic of desert people waiting for a warrior-messiah to drive out the abusive foreigners. See also; the Fremen Mahdi from Frank Herbert's Dune, the Nerevarine from TES III: Morrowind, and the Keleshite Namzaruum from Pathfinder, more recently.)

Most sources don't actually go into great detail about it, but each Paynim tribe is fairly culturally distinct from its neighbors, making their plains a diverse tapestry of tribes and decentralized nations that the generic blanket exonyms used by sedentary folk can't do justice to. That might be the most verisimilitudinal bit in this whole book.

Paynim tribes tend to be more "pacified" now than in the past when they were a united threat to much of the Basin. They still resist the rule of the sultans, but the sultans have over the centuries used them to create a sort of buffer state for Zeif. Now, the tribes mostly keep to themselves while hashing out the occasional territorial dispute- both with other tribes, and with the orcs.

Speaking of orcs.

Zeifan Orcs

You all knew this was coming.

I neglected to mention until now that roughly 1/10th of the Zeifan population is orcish or at least half-orcish. Besides a smattering of halflings, dwarves, and elves, orcs represent the largest minority group in Zeif. They are descendants of the orc tribes who fought as mercenaries on behalf of the old Baklunish Empire against the Suel Imperium, those mages I mentioned who have a habit of blowing everything up.

The orcs were given a place to live in the Basin as payment, and ever since then they have had an ambivalent relationship with the Baklunish peoples. Sometimes the two lived together in relative peace, sometimes a sultan used the orcs as naked tyrannical muscle against his own people, and sometimes the orcs tried to strike out on their own again.

Gradually the orcs were "watered down" as the Player's Guide to Zeif put it. They lost their warlike nature due to the influence of human civilization, and most of them stopped worshiping their old gods and totems. In essence, they were culturally assimilated by a dominant non-orc power that instilled nonevil ideas in them, rather than the orcs having an opportunity to affect positive change in themselves.

(It was not the first instance of D&D orcs being made nonevil by means of paternalistic outside interference, and I plan to write a post griping about all of them at some point.)

Currently, orcs exist as an impoverished underclass in Zeif. Their life is itinerant rather than truly nomadic, with their means of livelihood being confined to working as miners, laborers and scavengers when they aren't moving around the dry plains of south-central Antal, jostling for resources with the Paynims. The name of the Antal region makes me wonder if the Zeifan orcs aren't some kind of very obfuscated reference to the semi-nomadic Yörük people of the Anatolian interior, but that might be too specific a reference for me to expect of anyone.

Orcs make up a large proportion of the population in southern cities like the eponymous Antalotol, but they benefit little from the trade wealth of that city. Additionally, they have virtually no representation in local government. The only consistent avenue for upward social mobility available to even a minority of orcs is the military: specifically, the Uruzary Corps.

The Corps

A few hundred years before present, Jehef Sultan brought an end to one of the last periods of orc rebellion by founding the Uruzary Corps, an elite infantry division comprised of orcish shock-troops. The first generation of Uruzaries were already battle-hardened warriors, but every generation after that was hand-selected during childhood to begin their training and indoctrination. Every Uruzary was made to be personally dependent upon and loyal to the sultan himself, so that he could have a private bodyguard and task force that was above corruption.

The Uruzary Corps is Zeif's answer to the elite slave-soldier trope, like the Ottoman Janissaries or the Mamluks of the, well, Mamluk Sultanate. All were drawn as children from a particular ethnic background to serve the sovereign, and in exchange they were granted considerable positions of power within the military. Unlike the Mamluks, the Uruzaries have never usurped their sultan to become a ruling dynasty. Unlike the Janissaries, they haven't yet devolved into a corrupt band of reactionary brigands shaking coffeeshop owners down for money using decorative axes.

Instead, the Uruzary Corps is austere, highly professional, and undyingly loyal to the will of the sultan. So much so, that they practice a philosophy called giribim, which is essentially the process of grokking the sultan's mindset so thoroughly that they can predict exactly what he would order them to do in any given situation, even in his absence. It's like a W.W.J.D. bracelet, except for battle tactics and covert political raids.

The Corps does have more mundane functions, too. Because of their proximity to the sultan, they are actually treated as members of his ojak, or household. Their officers hold the ranks of cook, waiter, gardener, and janitor, and sometimes they'll even perform those duties- amusingly, the janitors also serve as executioners. And they do all of this with solemn pride, because the cult of the Baklunish god of poverty and self-effacement, Daoud the Mendicant, is strong in the Corps.

New Uruzaries are selected by lieutenants who travel to meet all of the orc tribes every 4-to-6 years in an event known as the Fierce Harvest- which is just the most badass name it could possibly have. I know the subject matter is something straight out of a young adult dystopian fiction novel, but can you think of a name more metal than that?

Details on the workings of the Fierce Harvest are slim, but it is known that of all the children offered up for selection, less than half are ever found worthy. The tribes are paid for every child selected before they are shipped off for a 20-year term of service to the sultan. Considering how impoverished many of the orc tribes are, I can easily picture a system in which each tribe trains and prepares its children from a very young age, pushing them to excel in martial pursuits to ensure that as many pass muster as possible, so that the tribe can earn a bigger payout from Harvests while also having a few less mouths to feed.

In the Loyalty to the Sultan character option from Living Greyhawk, we're shown that orc clans will show off their "warriors" in the capital city of Zeir-i-Zeif during the festival of Sadakat, well in advance of the approaching Fierce Harvest in the hopes of drumming up the sultan's interest. They spar in public matches using exotic blades, and all the equipment they would be expected to master in the Uruzary Corps. No word on whether those blades are blunted or not.

Keep in mind that because of the rate at which orcs physically mature, these kids can't be older than 9 or 10.

The unspoken tragedy behind this gets me every time I think about it. What must it do to a kid's psyche to be in pretraining for military servitude from the time they can walk? How does a parent endure, knowing that the tribe might not make it another year if their child isn't taken away from them? How much of a brain drain on a community is it to have your best and brightest taken away for half their lives to serve a state that barely represents you? What does it say about a society when a young person's greatest aspiration and highest achievement is to be bought like a commodity?

Unsurprisingly, Greyhawk doesn't really raise or even touch on any of these questions.

It just sends the new Uruzaries off to work, and if they live to retirement age they get sent to the fortress of Dar-Zaribad atop the ruined city of Mukhazin in the Antal. Mukhazin was once the seat of an orc malik in the distant past, but he was overthrown and the city was torched. He was a rather nasty tyrant who fought on the side of an old pretender to the throne, but it's still pretty grim that the final destination for the greatest orcs in the sultanate is the devastated testament to a time when their people had real power- and they were crushed for it. There in Dar-Zaribad, the retirees abide in monastic exile from the world, burying their dead and quietly tolerating the army of restless orc ghosts that may or may not haunt the city.

Sultan Murad the Proud

The man currently in charge of the Uruzary Corps, as well as the entirety of Zeif, is Murad the Proud. He is the 25th sultan of Zeif, and a man of big ambitions. After centuries of territorial losses and political decline, Murad wants to return Zeif to its former glory and height of influence. As a result, the past few decades in Zeif have been tumultuous.

Murad's predecessor, Selim the Scoundrel, was a hedonist commonly blamed for most of the institutions in Zeif falling into decay while he pursued black market excesses within his palace. He acquired a reputation as a poor ruler who did not follow the Four Feet, which soured the public against him, which drove him deeper into hedonism in a self-fulfilling prophesy death-spiral that eventually killed him. The people of Zeif had even begun to doubt the ability of the institution of the sultan to lead them, when Murad ascended to the throne.

Murad's answer to this has been to try to restore public trust while aggressively cutting out the rot. Starting with the Ministry of the Treasury, Murad purged huge swaths of the central government and the administrations of cities like Ceshra. In each case he set up public trials in which any official suspected of corruption was investigated and the testimony of any and all aggrieved parties was taken, even from commoners.

Murad personally presided over these trials. When the defendant was found guilty, the punishment was swift and severe. Either they were executed, their family was sold into slavery to pay for damages, or both. This restored some faith in the general public, but has also caused the people to begin fearing Murad and wondering where he might direct his next purge.

He is not afraid to use a combination of spy networks, Uruzary wetwork squads, and even general military occupation of cities by the Spahis to reaffirm the central government's grip on its timars.

Kinda weird how there's no mention of him trying to implement institutional reforms to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the first place, whether or not the big guy in Peh'reen Palace is snorting lines of yuan-ti white resin off a half-ogre pirate's washboard abs.

Did I mention Murad's alignment is given as Lawful Good?

My gripes aside, this does leave Zeif in an interesting time that is ideal for adventuring.

Do you help the sultanate reestablish its hegemony? Build a new trade network to reconnect with the wider world? Find your fortune on the frontier, or in one of the sultanate's secessionist city-states? Plunder desert tombs leftover from the time of ancient Suel? Strike out across the plains and convince the Paynims and the Antal orcs that they have more in common with one another than with their overlords in Zeir-i-Zeif?

You decide.

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