Friday, March 22, 2002

Egwene, Leane and the Harbour Chains

By Old Salt

The purpose of this article is to explain what Egwene al’Vere did at the Tar Valon Northharbour, what she hoped to accomplish and to anticipate and answer any questions that might arise.

What is the purpose of a harbour chain? What do we know about this one?

To adequately explore this topic, we need to know how the harbour chains were set up at Tar Valon. Unfortunately, nowhere in the Wheel of Time series is the Tar Valon harbour chain setup described. However, Jordan has followed standard conventions of the 17th century in everything else that he has described, and there is no reason to assume that the harbour chains at Tar Valon would deviate markedly from standard construction of the period.

Generally speaking a very heavy chain would be suspended across a harbour mouth. The purpose of this chain would be to stop ships from entering the harbour. In the ‘open’ position the chain would be lowered so that the keels of the boats would sail over the chain with a fair degree of clearance. In the ‘closed’ position the chain would be raised so that it was at or slightly above the water surface, thereby prohibiting ships from entering the harbour. Large winch(es) would be used to raise and lower the chain.

Since no effort or expense was spared in the building of Tar Valon, it is likely that winches were used at both ends of the harbour chain; this was more expensive of course, but would allow for a quicker raising and lowering of the chain. The photo at right (by luckystewart posted on travel.webshots) shows the two ancient chain towers at Girne/Kyrenia Harbour in Cyprus between which a harbour chain was strung. Tar Valon has the chain towers integrated with the city walls, not as discrete units as in Kyrenia.

The Venetians took control of Kyrenia in the late 15th Century, and they also had a strong presence in Akka/Acre, Israel, which also had a harbour chain since at least the 9th century (see map left). Tar Valon has quite a few parallels with Venice: the city's location on an island, the Amyrlins and the Sitters of the Ajahs being equivalent to the Doges (elected for life) and the Doge's council, the aggressive foreign policy, the cosmopolitan flavour of the city, and the expansion and contraction of subject lands around the island.

When you look at a map of Tar Valon, (The Dragon Reborn, Tar Valon) you see that both the North and South Harbours are roughly semicircular in shape with piers extending out into the river. The winches would have been at the end of those piers, with a small blockhouse type tower built around them to protect them from the elements, attacks from the river, etc. The chain would have extended from the winch, through a hole in the blockhouse to an identical structure on the other side of the harbour. The blockhouses would anchor the city wall that completely surrounded the city, except for the gates at the bridges, and the occasional tiny watergate for maintenance access to curtain wall.

The chain itself was huge. The harbour mouth is approximately ½ mile (0.8 km) wide. To provide slack for the chain to sink sufficiently deep enough to clear the keels of the cargo ships I estimate that it had to be at least .6 mile (1 km) long. The chain was not only long but also massive:

The wide mouth of the man-made harbour was blocked by a massive iron chain, drawn taut a few feet above the water...One single pace-long link would have required two men to lift it.

-Crossroads of Twilight, The Subject of Negotiations

Egwene’s Plan

When Egwene asked Gareth Bryne how he planned to take Tar Valon, he replied:

"No one has asked me that, yet, Mother." She had only thought his voice was dry before; now it was dry...."I will lay siege. The hardest part will be finding ships, and sinking them to block Northharbour and Southharbour. The harbours are as much the key as holding the bridge towns, Mother. Tar Valon is larger than Cairhien and Caemlyn together. Once food stops going in..." He shrugged.

- A Crown of Swords, An Oath

Egwene's plan was evolved to do as Bryne suggested: block the harbours so the siege would be effective. Just before Egwene was captured she turned the Northharbour chain into cuendillar. Why did she do that? The answer is very simple. If two iron objects are touching one another when they are turned into cuendillar, they fuse together. We learn this from Crossroads of Twilight. Tiana, the Mistress of Novices, is speaking of Bode Cauthon:

Yesterday she and Althyn Conly tried two items at once, just to see what would happen, and the things fused together in a solid lump.

- Crossroads of Twilight, Secrets

The Northharbour chain at Tar Valon is now a very large chain shaped piece of cuendillar stretching across the harbour mouth. It cannot be lowered as it is of a piece, the links are now fused together and it is essentially a cuendillar bar. Note that the change would include that part of the chain wrapped on the winches. Since the chain was in the raised position, no ships can get into or out of Northharbour. The only thing that can get out now is a rowboat under the chain at Northharbour.

The Southharbour chain is nearly as bad. Leane managed to turn most of it into cuendillar before her work was discovered.

”As it was all we caught was a wilder and not before she turned half the harbour chain into cuendillar. ...We’ll see how clear it is in the morning,” she said slowly, “when they let down the half that still iron. The rest of it stands out stiff like, well, like a bar of cuendillar. Myself I doubt any but smaller vessels will be able to crosss.”

- Knife of Dreams Prologue

Further on we learn:

”Only riverships of the shallowest draft can enter” Tarna said, crossing the carpet to stand in front of the writing table. She might have been discussing the possibility of rain. Nothing fazed her. “But the rest are taking turns tying up to the part of the chain that is cuendillar so they can off-load into barges. The ship captains complain, and it takes considerably longer, yet for the time being we can make do.”

- Knife of Dreams, The Dark One’s Touch

Tarna is being somewhat optimistic here, we learn later on.

”Even cutting away the portion of the Southharbour chain that was still iron had proved not enough to allow sufficient ships in to feed Tar Valon.”

- Knife of Dreams, Attending Elaida

Re Opening Northharbour

Opening North (and South) Harbour will not be easy. Many have said that all that is needed is to use the One Power to move the cuendillar bar. Not so. Remember that the winches are in blockhouses that are part of the curtain wall surrounding the city. You will have to destroy at least one of those blockhouses, which will certainly weaken the curtain wall at that end. Moving the bar once the blockhouse has been destroyed will be no easy matter either. This bar will be tremendously heavy. Remember that just one link of the chain required two men to lift it. It’s possible that cuendillar is lighter than the iron it came from, but I doubt that it is significantly lighter than that iron. We have heard many times that lifting something heavy with the One Power is difficult, and this cuendillar bar is going to be very, very heavy. If you assume that each link weighs 150 lbs (68 kg) and there are "2 paces to the span, 1000 spans to the mile" then the total weight of the chain is over 186000 lbs! (over 84000 kg). There is no one Aes Sedai that can move such a weight, and I doubt that even a full circle with an angreal could do it.

In Knife of Dreams we learn that the blockhouses indeed need to be dismantled before the harbours can be cleared.

Elaida had ordered the chain towers dismantled so those huge pieces of cuendillar could be removed. Like the city walls, however the towers had been built and strengthened with the Power and only the Power could disassemble them. It was far from easy. The original builders had done good work, and those wards seemed not to have weakened a hair. “Reds are doing most of the work for the time being. Sisters from other Ajahs come now and then, but only a few. I expect that will change soon, though.”

- Knife of Dreams, Attending Elaida

Obviously it is turning out to be a very difficult job.

Why Egwene?

That was the plan, but why did Egwene have to carry it out? Surely this was too dangerous a thing for the Amyrlin to be doing herself? Well, it is, but Egwene had no choice. If you recall, there are not many women with the ability to create heartstone - only nine other sisters, two Accepted and two dozen novices have the skill needed to make the weave. The majority of these take a long time to create even small objects. Leane was just good enough to turn the entire chain to cuendillar, and Kairen Stang would be quick enough with practice. Nicola Treehill and Bode Cauthon were the best among the novices. The original plan was that Leane and Kairen would seal the South and North Harbours respectively. With Kairen's death and Nicola's disappearance, the responsibility fell to Bode. Egwene felt it was unfair to give her such a burden, especially since she was from Emond's Field, and so decided to do it herself. That decision turned out to be a bad one.


Egwene al’Vere’s plan to block the Tar Valon harbours was brilliant. It was quickly done. It risked only the channelers and those needed to operate the boats, and it will prove very difficult to undo. It is too bad that it was betrayed.


Written by Old Salt, February, 2006

Contributors: Linda, Moridin_2000

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