A 10th century tale of a group of treasure hunters seeking out a castle. Here are the strange things they found.
A man from Cairo told this tale. He begins by explaining that he would study books about hidden treasures, and had figured out there was one such place that could be reached in three days journey. He and a fellow group of Egyptians gathered provisions and made the trip, going over mountains and deserts.
On the third day they found a castle. “We overlooked mighty walls which were cut in snow-white stone with black streaks like the patina one sees on walls,” the man explained. They walked around the castle, looking for a way in. At one spot they came across an inscription etched into the walls:
He who arrives at this place after me, let him marvel at my story and bewail my trials. I left, fleeing from poverty and straitened circumstances, but I lost my lucky hand and went astray in this land, and fate took me to this castle:
I wish I knew when hardship will be over
and my trials will come to an end.
I am displaced, cast out, devoid of solace,
far away from my home and distanced from my native land.
Wondering how such a man could have come to this place, the group carried on, and eventually found a gate, which had been nearly completely buried by dust and dirt. As the dug to open it, they found a huge lock made of gold. It bore this inscription:
We have built and we shall perish.
What we have built will only survive us for a while.
Nothing endures against time except God,
Whom we do not see, but who sees us.
The men were able to pick the lock and open the doors of the gates.
As we did so, we heard an enormous clamour and a terrifying uproar from inside the castle, and a buzz which threw us into confusion, so we stopped dead in our tracks. Then we realized that it was the work of demons.
Still the treasure hunters carried on, going into castle, where they found mighty buildings, some in ruins, as well as dangerous snakes. They continued on until they came to a domed room, which was about 15 metres in diameter. In the centre of the room was a golden throne, over seven feet tall, with the body of a long dead man sitting upon. The golden treasures were next to him, but there was something else standing there:
In the middle of the dome a figure of copper was standing erect, of full height, with eyes that rolled in his head, hideous to look at and with movement in his limbs. When one saw him, one was sure he was alive. We realized that the clamour and uproar had come from him and this place. He had an unsheathed sword in his hand so perfect that we had never seen anything better, and his hand was raised, without him doing anything apart from moving his eyes and twisting his head as if he was on the alert.
But the moment that one of us put his foot on the floor of the dome, in any place whatsoever, he would whirl his hand as fast as a water mill turns and strike with the sword to the right and left, forwards and backwards, like someone juggling with a sword, beating faster than the wind, and utterly destroying and tearing to shreds anything that approached him from any side.
The group tried various tricks against the copper figure, such as throwing stones at him, but nothing worked. When night approached, the treasure hunters did not want to stay, as the feared the deadly snakes, and left the castle.
The man added that he could read an inscription on the copper figure’s chest, which said:
It is a long toil for him who covets the acquisition
of what you have come to gather. So day: do not covet.
Seek your daily bread from God, whose abode is elevated;
Leave off the search for treasures and be content.
The group returned back to Egypt, although not quite empty handed, as they took with them the golden lock. However, the man explained that he never went treasure hunting again.
This story was recorded in The Book of Strangers, a tenth-century work attributed to Abu’l-Faraj al-Isfahani, who died around the year 967. It is a collection of stories about graffiti left on walls. It was popular in the medieval Middle East for people to inscribe poems and other writings in places like taverns and gardens, mostly anonymously. The graffiti retold in this work often follows the theme of lost happiness, with people describing their homesickness, anxieties and misfortunes. For example, here is one inscription made on the walls of a monastery:
Though we are severed by a distance,
my heart is still with you and dwells among you.
I wish I knew whether we can be united again,
so that we can experience life when it is whole.
The Book of Strangers: Medieval Arabic Graffiti on the Theme of Nostalgia, translated by Patricia Crone and Shmuel Moreh, was published by Markus Wiener Publishers in 2000. Click here to buy it from Amazon.com
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