Remember Abbas ibn Firnas? Here’s what might have happened if his glider had worked.
“He flew faster than the phoenix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture.”—Mu’min ibn Said
The earliest known use for the kite was suggested by ibn Firnas himself: courier. Kitings are reported from as early as the 880’s, mostly between Qurtuba itself and outlying settlements. Following the rise of Abd-ar-Rahman III and the consolidation of the Caliphate of Qurtuba, this practice became more common and ambitious, culminating in a notable (and notably unsuccessful) attempted kiting from al-Yazirat across the straits of Gibraltar in 912.
“He carried a missive to the fishes.”—An Unnamed Fisherman, quoted by Said Al-Andalusi in the Compendious History of Nations
The reasons for the use of early kites in religion and politics rather than in the military or economic spheres should be obvious when one considers the numerous disadvantages early kite designs presented to the would-be practical kiter. Limited in altitude, range, and cargo-capacity, pre-Mongol kites could only be relied upon to deliver religious and juridical documents in short hops between one mosque and another, often along special routes lined with way towers. Most records from this time of bonfires or burning houses used to create updrafts are apocryphal.
“I am come to you bearing new orders from Allah Most High. Listen ye attentively”—attributed to Mohammad Ibn Zenati, founder of the Almustwad Caliphate
The adaptation of the kite by the Berbers for purely religious purposes should therefore be no surprise. Of course, courier-kiters and water-finders were likely as common around the Sahara then as they are today, but whatever might have been written about them was lost in revolts inspired by the “Winged Preacher” Ibn Zenati.
“Princess, there is a means of escape from this siege.” —Loyal Jafar, from the Song of Al Syd
There has been some speculation as to the role of the kite in tying together the taifa states of post-Umayyad Spain and the post-Almustwad Africa until their eventual annexation by the Karamans. Certainly, the historical record of the 12th and 13th centuries is full of kiting couriers and preachers, but it is difficult to say for certain how large a role they played in the fractured development of these small republics. Certainly the Owl Assassins were rather less fearsome in real life than in stories.
“Beware the silent wings.” —Berber saying
Ironically, the one place air travel made a real practical distance was at sea. Sailors, usually young boys, would scale the rigging, assemble their wings, and glide the short distance to the deck of another ship. On warm days, one of these “Little Gulls” might catch an updraft and fly higher than the masthead, spying land, weather features, or ships otherwise beyond sight. Records of women Gulls, if truthful, would push back this breakthrough nearly two hundred years before their famous use by the Mongols.
“No Gulls may fly within the city walls,” —proclamation issued in the name of Erik Christoffersen, King of Denmark
“…as their excrement stains our statues.”—marginalia by anonymous clerk
It is this maritime use of kiting that spread furthest. By the 13th century, kites were in use in the harbors, if not the fortresses or cathedrals of most of Christendom, as well as the Muslim port cities of North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Somewhere in the latter region, this technology finally fell into the hands of someone who could use it in war.
“The wind in our wings is the song of your doom.”—attributed to Guyuk Khan
The Mongols were great innovators. In addition to their superior cavalry tactics and archery, they made great use of conquered Chinese, Persian, and Arab artisans to perfect siege equipment, firearms, and of course kites. Their “Eagle Daughters,” young women kiters armed with bows and launched into the air by catapult, proved devastating siege-breakers, raining burning oil, crude incendiaries, and disease-carrying offal down upon their enemies.
Although stopped by the Mamelukes and their Owls in Egypt, the Eagles were likely instrumental in the conquest of Eastern Europe and Constantinople. In the end, only the Black Plague broke the Byzantine Horde, leaving the Khan City cut off and vulnerable to the even more advanced Karamans and their rocket-powered “Falcon Corps.”
“Set a light to his fuse and he’ll run faster.” —Falcon drinking song
Thus, the age of sword and horse gave way to the age of kite and rocket, while shattered principalities of Christendom struggling to unite against them, the Karamans swallowed the taifas in Morocco and Iberia and stretched their influence around the Mediterranean.
The use of women kiters declared anathema by the Pope, Christian armies were generally weak in the air, but their navies could make use of Gulls to great effect. Although shrewd business practices no doubt played their role, it is likely their kites that kept the Italian states independent.
“The wind from a burning village carried me here.”—inscription on memorial pole erected in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Certainly, it is the kite that allowed the Pomors to dominate Northern Europe and the British Isles, and let them so quickly explore the North Atlantic. Without the kites, the discovery of the Western Continents and their fabulous wealth might have been delayed for centuries. As it was, by the 16th century, Pomorian colonies in what are today Nowaziemia and Męczicia had already set the stage for the modern distribution of global power between Muslim Eastern and Christian Western Continents.
“We found gold. Send more ships.” —dispatch from Wladislaw Ierowic to king Karolinas II of Scańsko-Pomoria.
“The Goose’s Wing,” is available now in the Tales from Alternate History 2 anthology.