For most inhabitants of the Westlands, the towering mountain range known as the Spine of the World marks the end of civilisation. Beyond that colossal mountain chain lies only savages and desolate wilderness. Those who venture through the passes, however, know this is untrue, although at first glance this may not be immediately obvious. Beyond the Spine lies the warrior clanholds of the Aiel, a fierce and proud warrior people who discipline and honour (if of a rough and unusual sort) is impressive. They are a hard people surviving in a hard land.
The Aiel (“Dedicated” in the Old Tongue) were originally a race of pacifists known as the Da’shain Aiel (“People to Peace Dedicated”), in the Age of Legends. Eschewing violence and following the Way of the Leaf, an ideology of pure service and generosity, they served the Aes Sedai as helpers, mediators and advisors. They also worked closely with the Ogier and Nym in seed-singing, improving the efficiency of crop yields.
The Da’shain’s pacifism and idealism was held in high esteem during the Age of Legends, but as the War of the Shadow unfolded it was seen as a liability. The fact that some of the Da’shain had served those Aes Sedai who went over to the Shadow, becoming the Dreadlords and Forsaken, was also controversial, with them being called traitors or collaborators. The fact that the Da’shain had also been nicknamed the “People of the Dragon” for their service in Lews Therin Telamon’s bureaucracy also made them unpopular, as Lews Therin’s precipitous attack on Shayol Ghul was blamed by many for the Breaking. By the end of the war and the beginning of the Breaking of the World, the Da’shain had come to be held in contempt by many.
Early in the Breaking, many of the surviving Da’shain gathered in a vast caravan dedicated to preserving a cache of Aes Sedai artefacts from the chaos, looting and destruction consuming the world. The Da’shain escorted several Aes Sedai many thousands of miles, from a falling city (possibly Paaran Disen itself) through lands sinking into the ocean, onto lands newly-arisen from the depths of the sea, and beyond, through mountains and across plains. Many Da’shain died, but others remained steadfast. Some, however, began to question the Way of the Leaf. One Da’shain, Lewin, killed an attacker in self-defence. He took up the spear permanently, and many Da’shain followed him. They became known just as Aiel, whilst those who remained committed to the Way of the Leaf became known as the Jenn Aiel (“True Aiel”). Another group of Aiel, disillusioned with their mission but holding to the Way of the Leaf, split off in search of their long-lost ancestral Song, becoming the Tuatha’an or Travelling People (popularly called Tinkers today).
The Aiel continued escorting their Aes Sedai charges and their stash of angreal and ter’angreal. They faced hostility wherever they travelled, with the Aiel fighting off their attackers with growing ferocity. Eventually they reached the Spine of the World and were given shade and water by townsfolk who, some years later, would found the nation of Almoren (later Tova and, eventually, modern Cairhien). After this unexpected generosity – which the Aiel finally repaid to the Cairhienin some 3,000 years later – they crossed the Jangai Pass into the wastelands.
They found the Waste to be harsh, unforgiving, hostile and unpleasant. Water was hard to find, reduced to rare, tiny pools and rocky streams. Only within shaded valleys and inside large rock formations could water be found in enough quantities to sustain life. The Aiel continued to follow the Aes Sedai and the few remaining Jenn Aiel until they found a sheltered valley. There they built a city, Rhuidean, where their One Power artefacts could be protected and sustained. They also planted here a chora seed, the last one in the world, giving rise to Avendesora, the Tree of Life. Before they died, the Aes Sedai created powerful ter’angreal which contained the true history of the Aiel people, so they might never forget their past.
The Aiel slowly scattered across the Waste, seeking new homes within the rock formations they came to call holds. They became divided into twelve clans (thirteen including the Jenn) and continued to fight outlanders and, with increasing frequency, one another. All of their knowledge of the Way of the Leaf was lost, except for a refusal to wield swords and a disdain for the Tuatha’an. Only the Aiel clan chiefs and Wise Ones – channellers of the One Power- came to know the truth by visiting the ter’angreal in Rhuidean upon taking up their responsibilities.
During the Trolloc Wars (c. 1000-1350 AB) a large Shadowspawn army invaded the Waste but was defeated and driven back by the Aiel, acting in rare, unified concert. In FY 964 the High King, Artur Hawking, invaded the Aiel Waste in his most poorly-planned and under-resourced military adventure, the result of the murder of his wife and three of his children three years earlier driving Hawkwing into a period of bleakness and rage known as the Black Years. The Aiel showed wisdom in not meeting Hawkwing’s huge army in open battle, instead harrying his flanks and cutting his precarious supply lines across the Spine of the World. Unable to maintain his fighting force without an intimate knowledge of the landscape, Hawking retreated, his greatest personal military defeat.
In 509 NE the Aiel identified the Cairhienin as the descendants of the people who had given them water and shade on their way into the Aiel Waste. They gifted the Cairhienin with a sapling of Avendesora, the Tree of Life, and granted them the Gift of Passage across the Aiel Waste, allowing the Cairhienin to trade with Shara directly. Cairhien became immensely wealthy as a result of this trade, but in 976 NE King Laman Damodred decided to cut down Avendoraldera, the sapling of the Tree of Life, to create a throne of such beauty it could never be equalled. The Aiel responded in fury: four full clans made alliance and crossed the Dragonwall (as they called the Spine), bringing almost 80,000 troops into battle. Cairhien was ravaged, the capital city burned. Laman and his army managed to flee southwards into Tear, then west across the Erinin and north into Andor before, two years later, they finally made their stand outside Tar Valon. Laman convinced the other nations that the Aiel were mounting a general invasion, not seeking to punish him specifically. Aes Sedai mediators helped convince other rulers of the threat and the so-called Grand Alliance was called, 170,000 troops from eleven nations meeting the Aiel in the Battle of the Shining Walls. During the battle Laman was found and executed. Their job done, the Aiel withdrew back to the Waste.
Since the end of the Aiel War, the Aiel have closed the Silk Road to the Cairhienin, cutting off a lynchpin of the economy and throwing the nation into political uncertainty and chaos. The Aiel have continued to permit merchants and gleemen from other lands to enter the Waste, but seem much warier of outlanders than previously.
The Aiel Waste is located to the east of the Spine of the World, which the Aiel call the “Dragonwall”. Its northern borders are formed by the Mountains of Dhoom and in the east it is bordered by the Cliffs of the Dawn and the Great Rift, which separate it from the enigmatic lands of Shara.
The Waste measures approximately 2,800 miles from the south coast to the Mountains of Dhoom and approximately 1,800 miles across from west to east at its widest extent in the north and south. However, the Waste narrows quite a lot in the central region, where only around 1,100 miles separate the Cairhienin border town of Taien from the Cliffs of the Dawn. The Silk Road, the only highway in the Waste (although it’s more of a firm track, laid down by the passage of thousands of wagons along the route across millennia), is located in this relatively narrow area.
Most of the territory of the Aiel Waste is made up of badlands, arid plains and desolate wastelands, often interrupted by spectacular rock formations. Water is rare, consisting of mostly-dry river beds and the occasional dank pond or puddle. At night it can get quite cold. Moisture is trapped inside rock formations known as holds, which are the main type of habitation for the Aiel. A well-organised hold can sustain hundreds of people with supplies of water that first appear meagre. Food is also grown in terraces inside the holds.
The reasons for the Aiel Waste’s aridness are disputed, but a quirk of the Breaking means that all of the Spine of the World’s glaciers and snowcaps feed into valleys leading exclusively westwards rather than east. The Spine itself, which towers tens of thousands of feet into the sky, also forms an effective rain shadow, breaking up moisture-holding clouds off the Aryth Ocean and Sea of Storms before they can reach the Waste. Geography, in the form of the Cliffs and the Rift, also prevent any rivers entering the Waste from the east. Finally, the currents and prevailing winds in the Sea of Storms encourage storms to strike the land much further to the west, over Kabal Deep and Altara, rather than over the Waste.
Due to the aforementioned reasons and with a lack of the rock formations and valleys found further north, the south coast of the Aiel Waste is particularly dry, with no rain and no moisture at all falling on this region. This has led to the creation of the world’s only known true desert, a huge area measuring 1,200 miles from east to west by 600 miles north to south.
The Termool (“Waterless Sands”) is one of the most hostile places on Earth. The desert is made up of a vast sea of constantly shifting sands where the footing is treacherous. Dunes up to 300 feet can form and collapse in a day. There is no plant or animal life in the Termool, and no water (not even an isolated oasis) either. Although it is accounted as part of the Waste on maps, the Aiel do not travel or live within its confines, although they do skirt its north-western border when they travel to Stedding Shangtai to deal with the Ogier. The Termool and the Great Rift to the east effectively blocks all overland travel routes from Mayene to Shara, and has also discouraged the settling of any port or permanent settlement on the coast.
There is only one known city in the Aiel Waste: Rhuidean. Founded during the Breaking of the World, or almost immediately afterwards, the city predates even Tar Valon and may be the oldest city in the world. It is located in a valley south or south-east of the Jangai Pass. Tall mountains surround the valley and the solitary peak that rises in its midst, known as Chaendaer. Rhuidean is located in the shadow of the mountain, next to a depression which may be an ancient, dried-up lakebed. Although large, the city is smaller than the largest cities of the Westlands, including Tar Valon, Caemlyn and Tear.
When viewed from the surrounding mountainsides, the city is shrouded in a permanent, thick fog. The fog makes channelling difficult and prohibits entry to the city to anyone who has visited it before. Those entering the city are would-be Aiel Wise Ones and clan chiefs. Physically, the city consists of numerous large buildings and palaces surrounding plazas. Many of the buildings are unfinished and incomplete, and none are permanently inhabited. At the centre of the city is the largest plaza, at the centre of which grows Avendesora, the Tree of Life, the last surviving chora tree from the Age of Legends. Around the plaza are scattered dozens or hundreds of items from the Age of Legends, many of them angreal or ter’angreal. The most notable of these are a group of glass columns. Those who pass within the columns relive the history of the Aiel in detail, learning of their origins in the Age of Legends and the Way of the Leaf.
A day from Rhuidean to the north-east lies the small settlement of Imre Stand, where Aiel of the Taardad clan (who control the lands bordering Rhuidean) maintain a watering hole for those set on travelling to the city.
The Clans and Clanholds
There are twelve Aiel clans: the Chareen, Codarra, Daryne, Goshien, Miagoma, Nakai, Reyn, Shaarad, Shaido, Shiande, Taardad and Tomanelle. The Aiel occasionally mention the Jenn Aiel, the “clan that is not”, confusingly referring to them as if they are still extant. In reality, the Jenn Aiel were the last of the “true Aiel” who did not abandon the Way of the Leaf. They died out many centuries or even millennia ago.
Each clan is divided into many septs. The name suggests that perhaps each clan originally had seven sub-divisions, but the expanding Aiel population means that more have had to have been created. The Taardad have at least ten septs, for example. Each sept is centred on a hold, a secure stronghold where water and food can be found. The “capital” of each clan is known as the clanhold. Cold Rocks Hold, for example, is the hold of both the Nine Valleys sept and the clanhold of the Taardad Aiel as a whole. Septs jostle for primacy within a clan, but apparently through peaceful means. Clans struggle against one another through ritualised combat and less-ritualised open warfare, when clans are involved in blood feuds.
The Aiel do not hold to using maps (although they are familiar with them) to delineate their territories, instead nominating landscape features such as dry riverbeds, mountains or even small lakes (large, dank ponds by Westland standards) as borders. As such, a territorial map of the Aiel Waste is impossible to create (the map above has very, very loose borders for the clans). What is known is that the Taardad control the lands to the north and east of Rhuidean, with the Shaido and their clanhold (Comarda Hold) located further away in the same direction. The Chareen are also located close to Rhuidean but in a different direction, presumably to the south. The Goshien are located beyond Chareen territory. The Shaarad are located relatively close by, as they hold blood feud with the Goshien resulting from territorial clashes. The Nakai are located further away from Rhuidean still. The remaining clans, presumably are located further to the north.
Midway between the territory of many of the clans is the neutral meeting ground of Alcair Dal, the Golden Bowl. Shaped like a near-perfectly round bowl with excellent acoustics, it means that people standing on a certain protrusion of the bowl rim can be heard right around its edge. The Aiel clans often assemble here to debate matters of import that impact on all of the Aiel. The valley and the surrounding territory is designated neutral territory. Combat is not permitted in its environs.
The valley is located three to four days north of Cold Rocks Hold, about two weeks travel from Rhuidean.
Source Note: This instalment of the Atlas was inspired by the Thirteenth Depository’s very fine blog entry and map from 2009 on the same subject.