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The Sultan and the Sea

David Cowles

Jul 13, 2022

One of life’s great ironies is that people who live near water are not always very good swimmers, if they are swimmers at all. And this is how it was on this island.

(The events in this story happened a long time ago. We know about them only because the story has been passed down over the centuries by members of a religious group known as the Sufis.)

Once upon a time, a young but very wealthy Sultan lived in a luxurious palace. He lived alone, but he was well taken care of by the palace staff - the folks who took care of the palace and kept things humming - including the Sultan’s Trusted Assistant and best friend, a man who had cared for the Sultan since birth.

The Sultan’s life was lavish, but lonely…and, oh so boring! I mean, nothing ever happened. Nothing. No? Ok, did you ever see the movie, Groundhog Day? Well, that’s what life was like for this Sultan.

Each day was a nearly perfect copy of the day before. Things were so monotonous that the Sultan never knew whether it was Monday or Thursday, or even if today was still today and not yesterday…or tomorrow. “Who cares? What’s the difference anyway?” he thought.

Today would begin for the Sultan just like every day began. Oh, did I mention that today was the Sultan’s 25th birthday? No matter, birthday or not, nothing would change, nothing ever changed, no matter what day it was.

Sure enough, shortly after dawn, his assistant woke him up and poured a pitcher of warm water into a large basin so that the Sultan could wash his face and hands. Every day, the Sultan would immerse his face in the water for a few seconds; then his assistant would hand him a dry towel.

“Today, will be just like every other day,” the Sultan thought, sighing. Did he just think that? Or did he mumble it under his breath just loud enough for his assistant to overhear? We’ll probably never know for sure.

As expected, this day did begin just like every other day…until it didn’t! Something happened. Even though nothing ever happens in the Sultan’s world, something happened today!

The Sultan immersed his face in the water as he did every morning, but today, when he lifted his face out of the water, he realized that he was no longer in his palace… not by a long shot.

The Sultan found himself wet, naked, and gasping for breath on a deserted and unfamiliar beach. All alone – no Trusted Assistant to wipe his wet face. After laying there a while, trying to figure out what was going on and trying to gather his strength for whatever was to come, he spotted three young women walking up the beach towards him.

Would these women be friendly or hostile? Or even worse, would they just ignore him and walk on by, unconcerned?

But as it turns out, this might have been the Sultan’s lucky day after all. The women did stop, and they were friendly. One of them even-handed the Sultan her scarf so that he could tie it around his waist to cover his private parts.

Of course, the women were all questions and of course the Sultan told them his story and of course they didn’t believe him, not one word. I mean, would you? They whispered among themselves and concluded that he must have escaped from a prison transport vessel as it passed through near-by waters.

Even so, the women invited the Sultan to follow them home, and of course, he eagerly accepted. And what a home it was! It was a palace even grander than the Sultan’s own. Turns out, one of the women on the beach was a princess.

As a guest of the King, the Sultan was bathed, fed, and offered a place to rest from his incredible adventure. But if the Sultan thought that this was going to be his new home, he was sorely mistaken.

The King and the Princess had no idea their visitor was a fellow royal. Remember, they thought he was an escaped prisoner. He might have been a thief, a murderer even, or worse yet, a revolutionary…or God forbid, an anarchist. Yikes! Anyway, he was not welcome to stay for long in the King’s palace.

Instead, the Princess took him to a small cottage at the outskirts of town. There, the Sultan met a couple whose business was making and repairing the large nets used on the island for fishing. At the Princess’ urging, they agreed to take him in and teach him their trade. In exchange, the Sultan agreed to stay and work for them for 10 years.

Turns out, the Sultan was a good learner, and soon he was tying nets as proficiently as the other members of his newly adopted family. Thanks to the Sultan’s skill and hard work, his new family became quite prosperous.

10 years passed quickly, and the Sultan was finally ready to begin his new life. The net-makers were grateful to the Sultan for his hard work, and they gifted him a tidy sum upon his departure.

The Sultan and the net-makers said goodbye, but only after a long and tearful embrace. The Sultan thought to himself, “This is the way goodbyes should be. I wish I had had a chance to say goodbye like this to my Trusted Assistant, my friend.”

But there was no looking back for the Sultan. He hiked into town, rented a small room, and used the net-makers’ gift to open a small shop below it. The Sultan proved to be a gifted trader, as well as a skilled net-maker, and soon his shop was bustling; once again, the Sultan was prosperous.

One day, while he was puttering around the shop, a woman walked in who would later become his wife. She walked straight up to the Sultan and began to ask very intelligent questions about his merchandise. It was love at first sight…for the Sultan! Not so much for the bride-to-be.

But the Sultan had been through a lot. Though still young, he was beginning life from scratch, for the third time! He had finally found love, and he wasn’t about to give up on it now. Sure enough, his favorite customer soon became his fiancée.

Once married, she gave birth to 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls. The children grew, and eventually, they began having children of their own. Soon the Sultan was surrounded by a pride of children and grandchildren…and he loved every one of them with an intensity he never thought possible back in his Palace.

One day, his 75th birthday as it happens, the Sultan decided to do something he hadn’t done since he arrived; he decided to go for a swim. It was the Jubilee (50 year) anniversary of his unceremonious arrival on the island.

He invited his retinue of children and grandchildren to accompany his wife and himself as they retraced the Sultan’s first steps on the island.

Now, one of life’s great ironies is that people who live near water are not always very good swimmers, if they swim at all. And that is how it was on this island. The Sultan had not been back to that beach, or any beach, since the day he arrived.

Soon they were at the very beach where the Sultan had washed ashore 5 decades earlier. The Sultan walked slowly into the waves. Once the water was up to his waist, he dove in headfirst, but when he went to lift his head out of the water…

We have all had unexpected, and sometimes unwelcome, experiences in our lives. They startle us at first, but for the most part, we muddle, though. The Sultan had two such experiences.

The first occurred on his 25th birthday, when he put his face into the basin of water, only to find himself stranded on a foreign shore. I mean, has that ever happened to you?

The second is happening right now. On this 75th birthday, surrounded by his family, the Sultan dove headfirst into the sea; but when he pulled his head up out of the water, guess what, he found himself back in his old Palace, a full wash basin in front of him and his assistant standing by with a dry towel…as usual.

Suddenly, the Sultan caught a glimpse of his reflection on the surface of the water. What did he see?


Answer the five questions below and be entered in a drawing for a $100 gift card. (Hint: there are no right or wrong answers.) We will report the results in Issue #3 of AT Magazine (9/1/2022). The gift card drawing will occur on Labor Day 2022.

1. The Sultan disappeared from his Palace on the morning of his 25th birthday; he returned on his 75th. How old do you think the Sultan was when he got back to his Palace? (Choose one answer only.)

  • He was 25 when he put his face into the basin of water, so he must still be 25 when he lifts his face back out. _____

  • He lived on the island for 50 years. He was 75 when he dived into the waves, so he must still be 75 when he picks his head back out. _____

  • Other (please comment): ________________________________

2. How do you think the Sultan feels about what’s happened to him? (Check all the answers that you think are true.)

  • He’s happy to be home in his palace at long last. _____

  • He’s angry that his life was turned upside down like this. _____

  • He misses his wife and kids and his life on the island. _____

  • He is grateful for this chance to live two full lives. _____

3. What do you make of the Sultan’s Trusted Assistant? (Check all the answers that you think are true.)

  • He had nothing to do with the Sultan’s disappearance from the Palace. _____

  • He is responsible for the Sultan’s disappearance? _____

    • He did it because he was angry with the Sultan. _____

    • He did it to teach the Sultan a lesson. _____

    • It was his 25th birthday gift to the Sultan. _____

  • When the Sultan returns to the Palace after 50 years, how old is the Trusted Assistant?

    • He’s the same age he was when the Sultan was 25. _____

    • He’s 50 years older now than he was on the Sultan’s 25th birthday. _____

4. Now that the Sultan is back in his Palace, will his life be different from it was before his great adventure? (Check all the answers that you think are true.)

  • No, nothing will change; things will go back to being just as boring as they were before the Sultan disappeared. ____

  • Yes, he will leave his Palace every day to look for the family he left behind on the island. ____

  • Yes, he will leave his Palace every day, looking for new romance, hoping to start a new family? _____

  • Yes, will adopt orphans to live with him in the Palace. ____

  • Yes, he will learn a useful and productive trade. ____

  • Yes, he will move out of the Palace entirely and turn it into public housing for the homeless citizens of his realm. ____

  • Yes, he will turn the Palace into a $1,000/night luxury resort. ____

5. Our story occurs in two places: in the Sultan’s Palace and on the Island. Which is real and which isn’t? (Check one answer only)

  • Only the Sultan’s palace is real; the island is not: _____

  • Only the island is real; the Sultan’s Palace is not: _____

  • Both the island and the palace are real: ____

  • Neither the island nor the palace is real: _____

Please feel free to elaborate on any of your answers (optional):

Please submit your answers to Be sure to put Sultan and the Sea Challenge in the subject line and tell us who you are and how we can reach you (name, email address, and phone number) so that your name can be entered into the $100 gift card drawing to take place on Labor Day.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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