Cartographic Curiosities of the Hyborian Age, part 1
By Dale Rippke
This article originally appeared in REHUPA #191
Zamora, featuring my proposed placement of Howard's "City of Thieves"
A few weeks ago, I was approached by a fan of my HYBORIAN HERESIES book with an interesting challenge. He didn’t believe that the location shown for the Zamorian City of Thieves on any of the Hyborian world maps corresponded to the clues that author Robert E. Howard had provided in his tale “The Tower of the Elephant”. The challenge was that I was to attempt to provide a definitive location for the city.
The City of Thieves first appears under the name of Arenjun in the extreme southeastern corner of Zamora on the Lancer Book’s Hyborian map. Its name and placement came, not from Howard, but as a result of the pastiche writings of L. Sprague DeCamp, specifically, a story titled “The Bloodstained God”. This yarn was adapted by DeCamp from an unsold Howard story called “The Trail of the Blood-Stained God”, which was laid in modern-era Afghanistan. DeCamp decided, for whatever reasons, to place Arenjun along Zamora’s eastern frontier. Other pastiche authors have since added further baggage to the proceedings.
Now in practice, I am a Howard purist, so I won’t use the information provided in the pastiche stories to address to problem of the city’s location. I can only rely on the clues Howard provides us in “The Tower of the Elephant”. So how well does the pastiche information fit together with the clues found in Howard’s story? Actually, not too well…
There are two concrete facts that Howard provides us with in “The Tower of the Elephant” as to the location of its city. The first supports the DeCamp placement; the second does not.
The first is that the City of Thieves lies on the Zamorian frontier. Howard regales the reader with the exploits of a Kothian rogue who plans to deliver his kidnap victim across the border by dawn. It is fairly late at night when he states his plan, and it really isn’t possible to move that fast and far in the dark, especially if you plan for the night to conceal your activities. It is obvious to conclude that the city is laid very close to a border.
Zamora is shaped like a triangle; it has a southern border it shares with Koth and an eastern and western border that meet at a point in the far north of the nation. The eastern frontier faces Turan, while the western border is shared between Brythunia in the north and Corinthia in the south. The city could appear anywhere along one of those borders.
The second clue comes when Howard states that the kidnapper “came up from distant Koth”, which he then reiterates by pointing out that Koth “lay far to the south, on the borders of Shem”. This eliminates the southern border as a possible location and deals a real blow to the DeCamp placement, since all the maps I’ve seen places it in the southeast corner of the kingdom. It simply can’t be located near the border with Koth and remain true to Howard. I would go so far as to eliminate the southern third of the eastern and western borders of Zamora as well just to keep distant Koth far to the south of the City of Thieves.
One problem with placing the City of Thieves along Zamora’s border in the east has to do with Howard’s description of Koth laying to the south of the city. Khauran and the Eastern Desert of Shem lies directly to the south of Zamora’s eastern border. Koth as a whole would lie southwest of an eastern-located City of Thieves; it lies to the west-southwest of where DeCamp placed Arenjun on the map. Very little of Koth would actually lie to the south of a city located anywhere along that frontier. A western location wouldn’t encounter this problem.
Now we need to narrow down the possible locations available to the city and since Howard didn’t provide us with any other concrete evidence of its placement, we must attempt to use common sense in an effort to ascertain a location. Common sense can take us a long way toward resolving this dilemma.
The kidnapping of the daughter of a “better class” Brythunian and her planned removal to a caravan across the border can help in this regard. It appears that the kidnapper had wandered the Zamorian border cities for several weeks before he settled on his victim. Why would he do this? The most likely reason is because it would be easier to steal a foreign woman from Zamora than it would be to steal her from her home in Brythunia. The Zamorians certainly wouldn’t investigate her disappearance with the same diligence that the law in Brythunia would. Common sense would also imply that the best chance for finding a Brythunian woman in Zamora would be to wander the cities of the western Brythunian/ Corinthian border area, since such women should be more common in that area than in other parts of Zamora.
A kidnapper intent on eliminating his risk would try to arrange things so that it is limited on both ends of the deal. So it seems reasonable to assume that the caravan awaiting the kidnapped woman wouldn’t be waiting within the nation of Brythunia, since it would raise its risk dramatically if they were discovered with her. This alone would seem to reduce the chance of the Brythunian stretch of Zamora’s western border as a practical candidate for the location of the City of Thieves. The risk to a caravan waiting in Turan or Corinthia would be practically nonexistent by comparison.
Since the story implies that the caravan does not enter Zamora, the route that it would take to get to Ophir from an eastern border location would be problematic. It would literally have to travel around Zamora to get to its destination. This would be a huge waste of money unless the caravan has a number of places that it goes to before ending up in Ophir. The trip from a location along Zamora’s western border could be pretty much a straight shot through to Ophir. That makes it much more believable from a financial point of view.
And then there is the mystery of all the foreigners in “The Tower of the Elephant”. Have you ever noticed that with the exception of Yara that there really aren’t any Zamorians in the story? Practically all of the “atmosphere” people described in the yarn are outsiders to the City of Thieves. We are told about a Hyperborean renegade, a Shemitish counterfeiter, a Gunderman deserter, his Brythunian girlfriend, a Kothic kidnapper, a female Brythunian kidnap victim, a count of Ophir, and, of course, Taurus of Nemedia and his partner in crime, Conan of Cimmeria. The Zamorians are relegated to the outer edges of the story; as non-descript barflies, philosophers, and guardsmen. Compare this with “The God in the Bowl” where all the characters except Conan (and two off-stage Stygians) are Nemedians from Numalia. In “Rogues in the House” all of the characters are Corinthian with the exception of Conan (and his late Gunderman partner-in-crime). While this may ultimately mean nothing, it tends to make the City of Thieves feel like a very cosmopolitan burg. It also has the effect of placing the location of the city along Zamora’s western (Hyborian) border, since common sense would indicate that the foreigners of an eastern border city should be comprised mostly of Turanians and Hyrkanians. It should also be noted that there aren’t any of these eastern outsiders mentioned in the story.
Though the Zamorians take inordinate pride in their thieving abilities, I really feel that the unnamed city’s nickname is probably of Hyborian origin. The city does contain a heavier population of thieves than is usually normal, but Howard makes it clear that it is the entire race that is renowned for their thieving abilities, not just the city’s inhabitants. So “The City of Thieves” shouldn’t really be all that special a place to them. Combine that with the sheer number of unsavory Hyborian rogues listed above though, and one begins to see why the city bears its nickname. There is probably a prosaic reason why so many Hyborian outlaws and renegades end up there. The city’s nickname most likely draws them to it, plus Zamora is probably a safe-haven from Hyborian justice.
A big question then arises; if the City of Thieves contains such a huge criminal component, then why would anyone want to live in a place like that? Common sense would dictate that the answer would have to be liquidity; a great deal of wealth flows through the city.
One thing to consider is that Howard made a point in various Conan stories to paint the Zamorians as a wicked, decadent people with “exotic habits”. Easy access to that decadence could be a big draw to the people of Hyboria; tourism would make for one component of that wealth.
At this point, I also want to remind you that Howard had a caravan parked across the border from the city. Now a caravan waiting out in the middle of nowhere could possibly bring unwanted attention upon itself. But if The City of Thieves was a caravan city, then no one would think that there was anything unusual about it; it wouldn’t draw attention to itself. Thus it becomes fairly obvious that the city must lie on a caravan route. Since there are more thieves in this city than in normal Zamorian cities, it stands to reason that the City of Thieves has a huge amount of wealth pouring through it, attracting the thieves, as well as making it the preeminent Zamorian “Port of Entry” to the nations of the West.
In my opinion, the evidence shows that Zamora’s City of Thieves lies somewhere along the northern section of the border that it shares with Corinthia. It lies along the Road of Kings (Hyboria’s principle caravan route) and is the western point of entry into the nation of Zamora. Its location provides easy access to rogues and outlaws fleeing justice and to decadent Hyborians wishing to sample Zamora’s exotic habits. Its nickname could refer to its trading practices as well as its population of Hyborian and Zamorian thieves. You would do well to consider it the Hyborian Age version of Tijuana.
This isn’t really a weird claim to make…
In February of 1932, Howard took a vacation in southern Texas, wandering around the little border towns along the Rio Grande. He claims that he spent most of his time consuming tortillas, enchiladas, and Spanish wine. It was during this same trip that the conception of Conan grew up full-blown in his mind. It is interesting to speculate on how much influence the setting he found himself in at the time had on his fertile imagination.
Howard’s trip to the Mexican border didn’t really reflect itself in the first three Conan stories that he worked on. It does make a recognizable appearance in the fourth Conan tale, “The Tower of the Elephant”. That story’s bar scene between the Kothic kidnapper and Conan seems to draw on Howard’s border visit and as a result it resonates like a real place.
And the Mexican/Zamorian refection really isn’t just a bar scene. Howard’s Zamorian society, history, and motifs find a mirror across the Mexican border.
Howard describes the Zamorian race as “dark-skinned and dark-eyed”; a description that fits the average Mexican well.
Howard claims that there are more bold thieves in Zamora than anywhere else in the world. Racial prejudice during Howard’s time stereotyped the Mexican people in much the same light.
Howard claims in his essay “The Hyborian Age” that the Zamorian race is the result of the co-mingling of two separate peoples; one group descended from an ancient civilized empire, the other were an unclassified tribe of invaders. Modern-day Mexicans are also the result of two separate cultural groups combining; native people descended from several ancient Meso-American civilizations (Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayans) mixing with colonizing Spanish invaders.
Howard’s Zamora is “spider-haunted”. Mexico’s deserts are similarly haunted by spiders; a saucer-sized hairy arachnid called the tarantula.
Over the years, several theories have arisen among Howard scholars concerning the origin of the name “Zamora”. L. Sprague DeCamp believes that Howard got the name from the Spanish province of Zamora, and Patrice Louinet believes that Howard derived the name from Bullfinch’s Mythology, changing Zumara into Zamora. Both theories have merit, although neither has a Mexican connection.
I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and relate what I feel to be the most likely origin of the name “Zamora”. I mentioned earlier the spider connection between Zamora and Mexico. Well, the most well-known region of Mexico containing the tarantula spider is the desert of Sonora. I believe that Zamora is really just a homonymous derivation of the name Sonora. Speak both names aloud. They sound practically the same.
These are most of the reasons that I would place Howard’s City of Thieves were I did. If, however, I were hard pressed to come up with a name for the city, then I guess it would have to be Ciudad de Ladrones.
Ciudad de Ladrones essay Copyright 2005-2010 Dale E. Rippke
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