The Empire of Gran Zembar is a vast nation covering much of northern Axuma, with its heartland lying in the valley of the great Nuba River. The empire covers a wide range of terrain from desert and savanna to grassy marshes and jungle, and is inhabited by many different tribes all united under the banner of the Zembari kings, who are of the Ziyarid tribe. The Zembari are a wealthy, erudite and artistic people, whose culture is a grand fusion of many Axuman tribes plus influences from Palmaria; in fact the Zembari language is written using a Palmarian script.
The kings, or Mandas, of Gran Zembar are famous for their incredible wealth and opulent lifestyle: many tales speak of the pilgrimages made by former kings to holy sites in Palmaria, where they scattered so much gold that the value of the metal plummeted, of royal retinues numbering two thousand or more, of feasts where the king gave away a hundred dishes to the poor on platters of gilded ebony and mother of pearl.
Zembari traders are also very wealthy compared to traders in other lands, even in Palmaria, partly because the Axuman trade routes are so lucrative, and partly because the Mandas shrewdly apportion trade monopolies to various regions of the empire among the merchant families. Gran Zembar produces gold, iron, copper, tin, ivory, cotton, dyes, diamonds, spices, grain, groundnuts, and a strong, aromatic coffee highly prized in Palmaria and Ferania.
Gran Zembar is at constant war with the necromancers’ kingdom of Taharqa to its southwest, and also must protect a very wide network of trade routes from bandits, rebel tribes and wild animals, so it fields one of the most powerful armies in Axuma. Slavery is illegal and considered repulsive in Gran Zembar, as it reminds them of the oppression they suffered under Kuthaan; up til now the Zembari army has a policy of pursuing any slavers crossing the realm and destroying them at any cost.
The Manda Dynasty
Zembari kings all take the first name Manda in honor of the kingdom’s founder, Manda Zemba the Great, and the land also is called Gran Zembar after him. Manda Zemba united the tribes to overthrow the oppressive kingdom of Kuthaan, which was ruled by Sekhmetian necromancer-priests.
Manda Zemba revolutionized Axuman warfare by introducing war elephants, and it is said the gods gave him a mount in the form of a gigantic four-tusked bull elephant, whose skull is now enshrined in the empire’s holiest temple.
The current king is Manda Sujata, son of Manda Ilyasu, son of Manda Jimma. However, there lives in the subsidiary kingdom of Geze’ir a family who claim descent from Manda Jimma’s first queen, a Geze’iran, and they insist they are the legitimate heirs to the Zembari throne.
Zembari Caste System
The Zayirid tribes, which make up the majority of the people of Gran Zembar, are organized into four castes for religious, taxation and military purposes.
The poor and landless are termed the Keepers of Goats, and are expected to provide slingers for the army. The landowning farmers are the Keepers of Cattle, and are expected to provide armored spearmen – the famed Ironshirt regiments. Large landowners and the three resident Merawid tribes living in the Khurra Badlands make up the Keepers of Horses, and provide cavalry armed in the Merawid fashion, with lances and swords. Lastly, the royalty and high nobility are the Keepers of Elephants, each family being expected to field at least one elephant rider and his steed at the king’s call.
Only the king can change a man’s caste, but it can be done if a suppliant gives the king a traditional gift of a hundred cattle. Some of Gran Zembar’s most prominent merchant families are descended from ancestors who made their way up from the bottom in just this way.
The Nuba River
The long, looping Nuba River is the longest river in Syrene, running from the Mountains of the Moon in Shakandaland, north around the Gondara Highlands, and then northeast through the plains of Gran Zembar and out through the Olavango Delta. It is the main highway for trade in Axuma, and from their capital of Jennaro near the estuary the Zembari control most of the inland trade routes through northern Axuma. The sheer variety of peoples, creatures and hazards found along this river route makes it difficult for travelers and explorers to follow it without the guidance of an experienced Zembari trader or boatman.
Jennaro, City of the Ivory Gates
The city of Jennaro is the greatest trade emporium in Axuma, for through it passes nearly two thirds of all the goods sold in Axuma to foreign traders. The city lies along the Nuba River, just above the Olavango Marshes – the perfect spot for mariners, rivermen, and caravaneers from the hinterlands to meet and trade. Just about anything can be bought or sold here, except slaves: Zembari law forbids slavery, and slave trading is punishable by death.
The city is famous for its unique mud-brick architecture, and is the site of several universities, grand temples and palaces. Among its most remarkable structures are the Kola Tower, which forms part of the prestigious Toure University, the Plaza of The Teeth, a square dotted with stelae commemorating the ancestral heroes of the war against Kuthaan, and the Ivory Gates, whose arch is made up of forty great elephant tusks.
This university, founded by the scholar-king Manda Toure II, is renowned throughout western and southern Syrene for the quality of its education in law, literature, astrology, and languages, including some extinct ones. Scholars flock here to learn tongues and scripts from all over the world, including Palmarian, Nusaradyan, Khamsaran, ancient High Axuman, Nimmurite – which is closely related to the script of Meranya, and is used to translate Meranyan texts, Zandracothan, and Merouenic, used by the ancestors of the Merawids.
The university’s library is housed in the great Kola Tower, so called because scholars studying the scripts here are infamous for their habit of chewing the stimulant kola nut. Manda Toure is supposed to have jested that with so many texts, he must fill half the tower with kola nuts to be able to read them all – and the name has stuck ever since. The tower’s true name, usually known only by the university’s students and teachers, is Astarre’s Tower of Celestial Wisdom, Astarre being an ancient Mekranite goddess revered by Palmarians and Zembari for teaching the art of writing.
Temple of the Tusks
The skull of N’gila, the four-tusked bull elephant that carried Manda Zemba the Great to victory, is enshrined in the Temple of the Tusks, a grand war memorial on a hill not far from Jennaro. The skull is said to be a powerful charm of luck for the Zembari people, blessed by Manda Zemba as a bringer of victory. Some say however that the original skull is missing, stolen by agents of the Taharqan Priest-King. To regain the favor of Manda Zemba’s spirit, the skull must be found and brought back, or a suitable substitute – another four-tusked elephant skull - found.
The Nuba River empties into the Sapphire Sea through the Olavango Marshes, a reed-choked labyrinth of channels and small islets rich in game, birds and fish. Only one channel is wide and deep enough for ships to sail up to Jennaro. The rest of the delta is inhabited by the Olavango pygmies, an Axuman race that make their living here as nomadic hunters and fishermen, and are famed for their use of poisoned arrows. The marshes are also notorious for harboring enormous crocodiles.
Fasilis, the Blue City
Fasilis, along the south bank of the Nuba River, is the center of Gran Zembar’s trade in indigo and indigo-dyed cotton, and is also rumored to harbor the largest crocodiles out of the sea. The city belongs to the M’fasi tribe, who hold the crocodile sacred and keep several extremely ancient ones in the stone-walled tank of a temple by the river. It is said that the Mandas punish the most heinous crimes by ordering the offenders fed to the temple crocodiles of Fasilis.
The city also marks the highest navigable point of the Lower Nuba, as upstream of it the river curves sharply south into the Gondara Highlands and becomes much faster and more rocky as it is constricted to a much narrower channel. The city is thus the jump-off point for caravans and travelers going into the Gondara Highlands, and cloth from here is carried by Zayirid merchants across the river to Meremma, whence it is taken to Elsayal. Only Zayirid merchants can do this, for the M’fasi of Fasilis have a long-standing enmity with the Afura people of Meremma.
Meremma, the City of the Brawling Herds
Meremma is a city at the confluence of the Nuba and Ouati Rivers, and is considered the horse, camel and cattle trading capital of Gran Zembar. It is held by the Afura tribe, who for centuries have held the grazing lands between the Upper Nuba and the Khurra hills to the north, bordering Elsayal. It is the jump-off point for caravans and travelers going north to the Khurra Badlands and Elsayal to the north.
The Afura have had a long-standing enmity with crocodiles, losing a heavy toll from their herds to the carnivores every year when they cross the Ouati River bringing cattle to Meremma to trade. Because the Afura kill crocodiles on sight, while the M’fasi across the river revere them as messengers of the gods, there has always been bad blood between the two tribes. Only the Zembari army can keep the peace between the two tribes, who used to clash in great naval battles on the river.