Unknown to Herodotus, slighted by Ptolemy, and dismissed by subsequent writers as a freak, since women held the reins of power, Ipsilla is the capital and major city of the province, or as they prefer to say, the sovereign land of Gynoecia. No date is known for the city’s foundation. It may have begun as a village that grew through trade on the Silk Route. For defense, inhabitants may have erected a palisade. The city wall arose in the medieval era. Preserved to the height of ten meters, and equipped with towers and fortress gates, it is still a striking feature of the urban landscape, now ringed by tasteful suburbs and villas in the surrounding hills.

Though technically under the autocratic sway of the Ottoman Sultan, Gynoecia heard his feeble commands and did as she pleased. His troops remained discreetly absent from this patch of steppe. The Russian Czar and the Persian Shah pretended to ignore what they dismissed as an insignificant border state, and Gynoecia returned the favor. Shadowy characters, intelligence gatherers, soldiers of fortune, and desperate men disguised as peddlers tried to creep in from imperial Britain, France, and Germany, without success. The railroad reached it in the twentieth century. Before, the approach was on foot or by camel, a caravan journey of up to a week.

In Ipsilla today, women still run the show. They control the government and all institutions, make all important decisions, lead all state enterprises, and manage the majority of private businesses. Women command as army generals. They are heads of trading companies, provosts of colleges, presidents of banks, and chairpersons of professional guilds. Their authority is firm, and their word is final. It has always been so, and they see no reason to change.

By way of explanation of this unconventional state of affairs, inheritance in Gynoecia runs in the female line. They cite the myth of the Amazons, and tradition extols the legendary queens Penthesilea, Hippolyta, and Antianeira. Archaeological excavation offers enigmatic proof that invites interpretation. The Ethnographic Museum displays burial goods such as swords, armor, and military trappings, all fitted to the female form. Graves have been found of the sunken chamber type for high-status women. They include horses as well as objects of ivory, gold, and precious stones. Male burials, by contrast, are shallow and poor, furnished at most by a broken pot.

In the warfare practiced in antiquity, women may have evened the odds by conducting raids on horseback. Like the Greek goddess Artemis, they may have been deadly with bow and arrow. Archery and riding are popular sports today, with school competitions and numerous clubs. Every young girl leans to manage a horse and aim a shaft, and middle-aged women keep in practice. Equine exercise is much in favor among these ladies, almost a mania.

Whatever the Amazon legacy may be, certainly in historical times only women could own land and bequeath it to their daughters. Women took husbands for form’s sake, often more than one. By marriage custom, the man left his home to live with the woman’s clan. Clans were ruled by wise old women who wore their wrinkles with haughty pride, and let their gray hair stream to the waist. They traced their lineage through mothers only. Fathers were incidental.

A queen ruled the city with an aristocratic council, the clan mothers. A list of queens reaches back in time to fascinating figures who are difficult to verify. The council gradually took the reins of government and elbowed aside the head of state. The last Queen of Ipsilla was Domina V, who relinquished the crown in a general reform. Today a Prime Matriarch presides over an elected Council of Dames.

Before the modern era, only women were free citizens of Ipsilla. They bought and sold their mates like chattel, and they prized male bodies solely for their fitness and skill in performing the sexual act. A harem filled with spoiled boy-toys and gossiping musclebound beaux is known to have loitered in the royal palace. No consort king was ever crowned. Boys were trained, not taught, and few learned to read.

The birth of a daughter was an occasion for rejoicing. The eldest daughter took pride of place, and much was expected of her. As a future head of the household and leader, she was educated in mind and body. To judge from portraits and people seen in the street today, Ipsillan women are tall and well-formed, with excellent posture and a keen intelligence. They conduct their lives with the easy assurance of those born to rule. They disdain cosmetics, fancy hairstyles, frivolous fashions, idle chatter, and the vain pursuits of well-to-do women in America and Europe. Their beauty resides in good health and good humor, sensible habits of dress and diet, and an air of frankness. They know their own worth.

The historical record is female, as women shaped events and memorialized them as they saw fit. Foreign notions of gender roles and equality of the sexes arrive through the modern press, but traditions govern daily life. In politics, a movement to grant the vote to men has barely taken its first baby steps. For a man to aspire to political office is unthinkable. Few men can expect to become more than a menial laborer or a middling staffer. To rise through the ranks and achieve a position in the world is rare, given the web of connections at the top, the “old girls club.” These powerful dames promote their favorites. They groom young women to advance their ideals. In public they disparage the foolishness of men and praise the valor and intelligence of women.

According to received opinion in Ipsilla, men are by nature homemakers, child-raisers, cooks and launderers, while women are capable of all tasks and roles. For the man of ambition, for whom house and home fail to provide a suitable stage, who is not content to cower in the shadow of his wife, the outlet is to travel. The city incites her restless sons to feats of exploration, long-distance trade, extra-territorial war, and labor abroad. Women encourage their husbands to be absent for long periods of time, even years at a stretch. A man ought to return laden with gold and gains ill-gotten or otherwise, to lay at the feet of his mistress.

The climate is variable, with hot summers and cold winters. Rain is seasonal, mainly in winter, when snow falls in the forested mountains. The site of the city is a wide valley open to the south and sun. It speaks of shelter and bounded horizons, of contentment and peace, of life in rhythm with nature. A river meanders through the city and dissipates in marshes where it meets the inland sea.

The architecture of Ipsilla, designed by women, is notable for curves instead of straight lines, for rounded corners instead of sharp angles, for low profiles instead of towers. Buildings hug the contours of the land, with deep foundations and roofs that spread like wings. In the dense urban core, there is no competition for height and prominence, no spiky silhouette, but a massive assemblage of bulk and floor space. There are cellars for storage and roof terrace gardens. The overall effect is to merge and accommodate, so the built environment is one with nature.

Ipsillan structures employ the arch, the vault, the rotunda, and the dome, images of fullness, stability and rest. Convex and concave are the dominant spatial forms. Like the Roman temple of Vesta, or the Greek basilicas of Constantinople, interiors swell and billow from the center. An architectural critic writes of this aesthetic:

As in the case of circular squares, the hollow space of the round interior signifies the force of the occupant, namely woman. Vectors issue radially and fill the emptiness with her presence. Concavities of cupolas acquire their shape by yielding to her. One thinks of a bird who shapes her nest by pressing her body against the walls.

To distinguish themselves, major buildings use color and texture: red and yellow earth tones in brick and tile, unpainted wood left to weather gray, rough-hewn stone and smooth ashlar, and the undulating surface of shingles. There are plenty of windows to admit sunlight. In the dense city, however, the windows often have no view, placed high in a wall or off-center. Sun exposure is controlled, and patterns of fenestration are subtle. Expanses of glass other than for shops and greenhouses are forbidden, as are grand gestures and overt displays.

The city has no straight streets, no grand avenues, no boulevards with rows of trees, no axial vistas to a distant prospect. The principal thoroughfares bend and flex, rush in a torrent and slow to a trickle, ascend a grade and gently subside. They intersect in vague carrefours and irregular polygons. Ipsilla shuns the obvious. The shortest route from one point to another is never the one that appears on a map. You are advised to skirt the built-up center, where narrow alleys and twisting paths thread the city like a maze or bazaar. More than once, you will stop and ask for directions. Houses are not numbered, they front on two or more streets, and streets change names mid-course without warning. To find an address requires diligence. Forget about shortcuts and saving minutes in a taxi. Delivery vans, with their young male drivers, can wander for days.

Ipsillans of both sexes consider their city to be female and holy. In a sense, the city and the goddess are one. The cult of Ipsilla resembles that of Roma, the ancient personification of Rome, with an echo of Demeter, the great earth mother. One often hears the phrase “the mother city.” Priests of this urban cult are all mothers of healthy girls. Men are barred from the hierarchy, and even from witnessing the holiest rites. The very idea of a man in priestly robes is ridiculous. To imagine his hands on the sacred bridle sends shivers down the spine. Everyone knows that the principle of evil is male—the adversary, devil, Satan, or the stallion—while the mare of Ipsilla, the totem of her cult, is wholly good.

Living in the city is much like getting around it. A great deal of time is devoted to planning, arranging, checking in with friends, lining up allies, and manipulating those who might share an agenda. Cooperation is key to getting things done. Emotional investment outweighs the financial. Politics can be hard to follow, as decisions proceed not from facts and figures but consensus and sympathy. A web of relationships, hidden alliances, and deep-seated preferences, expressed in committees that talk for hours on subjects unconnected to the matter at hand—this is the genius that animates Ipsilla.

 

Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.

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