The Sunday Knights

Al-Madeena allows its members to unleash their medieval fantasies.

On Sundays, especially nice ones, Gas Works Park is alive. There are families and there are dogs. There's green grass and water. There's beer and barbecue, people playing badminton, and kids with Frisbees. Then there's the swordfighting. In a meadow across the street from Urban Surf, a crowd is watching as two guys beat the hell out of each other. Dressed in full medieval regalia—helmets, armor, leg plates—the two wield ornately designed shields and wooden swords. One of those swords whistles through the air before arriving with a resounding pop on its adversary's shoulder plate—but the struck knight is unfazed. "I used to fight, but then I broke a rib," says Tayissa Azra. "It didn't matter when I was 20, but now I'm 34." Azra, a seamstress and a belly dancer in her non-medieval times, is the current leader of Al-Madeena, a Seattle-based branch of the Empire of Medieval Pursuits. The idea is not to hurt anyone, she says, but to best your opponent. They go until one person gives up; but like any sport, accidents— like Azra's broken rib—happen. While the fighting is the most visible part of the group's activities, it's a small part of Al-Madeena's overall community, says Azra. Although members come from all walks of life, they have one thing in common: an intense love of history. The Empire holds a handful of large festivals throughout the year, to which groups like Azra's are invited. (There are currently six Northwest groups affiliated with the Empire, she says.) The Empire's next event is called Ragnarok, scheduled for early June on Camano Island. Attendees are encouraged to dress in traditional medieval garb, and many sleep in yurts. There are musical performances and dancing, yoga and card-weaving, and overall merrymaking. Then, on Saturday, a melee. But the fight isn't just a free-for-all. Often, participants recreate a battle from history. Ragnarok, for example, is themed around a Viking myth. The rest of the year, Al-Madeena practices arms training on Sundays. And yes, Azra says, those new to the sport generally get worked over. "It takes time and dedication, just like any sport," she says. "[But] the Empire isn't just about fighting, dancing, or wearing cool costumes; it's about community, and striving to better ourselves by understanding the past."

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