A woman sits cross legged on a bed laden with pillows made of the finest fabrics the Silk Road has to offer. She bows her head and cups her face in her henna painted hands, weeping uncontrollably. She knows that her days are numbered. She fears that soon she will run out of stories to tell, and the king will have her executed. There is a knock at the door and a richly attired man enters; his royal bearing is undeniable. He sits cross legged on a majlis before her leans forward, waiting for her to dam the river of sorrow and tell him another tale. She takes a deep breath, wipes her eyes and begins.
This scene played out night after night between Shaharizad and King Shahryar in 1001 Arabian Nights, the epic anthology of tales gathered from around the Arabic world and beyond. These are tales of adventure, loss, good fortune, and horror, every one of them packed with themes and metaphors that explore the intricacies of the human condition. Many famous stories such as Aladdin and the Lamp, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and all Sinbad the Sailor’s adventures are found between the pages of this exemplary collection. One of the more overlooked stories also packed with meaning is The City of Brass, a story which juxtaposes the beautiful with the hideous, the wealthy with the destitute, and the full with the empty.
Our story begins in Syria during the golden age of the Islamic empires. A king by the name of Abd-el-Melik ibn Marwan sits among the great men of his empire. Looking over them he waxes poetic about the gifts that Allah has bestowed upon the prophetic kings crowned before him. Among the stories shared among these men of high station is the story of twelve Jinn (spiritual creatures born of smoke) trapped in brass bottles by one of those kings and cast into the sea. These bottles were supposedly found and hidden somewhere deep in the desert. Eager to have a piece of history in his palace, the king sends his trusted emissary Talib to seek out the viceroys Abd-el-Aziz of Egypt and Emir Musa, an emissary of a province in the west of the empire. They were to be sent on an expedition to find these bottles and bring them back as a prize to their ruler. Upon receiving their king’s request, Abd-el-Aziz and Emir Musa jump at the opportunity to win their king’s favour. Emir Musa, knowing the dangers of this journey, requests the presence of the most knowledgeable man he can think of: Sheikh Abd-Es-Samad ibn ‘Abd-el-Kuddus El-Masmudi. Once the sheikh had agreed to come along, their epic journey began. In search of the brass bottles, they travelled far and wide, looking for clues on stone tablets, in ruined cities, and on the lips of nomads that roamed the shifting sands.
Eventually they come upon a tablet that gives them a clue as to the whereabouts of the bottles of Jinn they sought (see what I did there). To find the bottles, they must first speak to a creature that was chained in a cave by Allah as punishment for a great sin. They find the creature, terribly misshapen, its body comprised of random animal parts like lion paws and eagle wings. It lamented and prayed in the cave, begging for absolution on the day of judgement. They question the creature about the bottles and where they could be found. He points them to the City of Brass, but warns them of the dangers of their journey. They thank the creature for the information and continue on.
After a few more interesting encounters on their trek through the wild they come to the city. The walls and gates were so high and so strong that it was nearly impossible for any of them to enter. They constructed a ladder and sent men to climb over. The first of them to reach the top and look over the edge smiled and clapped with joy, then threw himself down to his death on the other side. They sent another man to look, and the same thing happened again. This was repeated twelve more times until finally the Sheikh Abd-Es-Samad ibn ‘Abd-el-Kuddus El-Masmudi (I really love this name) offered to look himself. With prayers on his lips he climbed up the ladder and looked over. When he looked over the edge he saw beautiful women beckoning him, and a pool of water at the base of the wall. They begged him to jump down into the water and be with them. The sheikh continued his prayers until the illusions melted away and he saw the broken corpses of the men that preceded him. The sheikh climbs over the wall and opens the city gates. When the men entered they were astounded at the wealth that lay in the open before them. There was, however, a rather serious problem. Everyone was dead. Not from a massacre, or apparent disease, they were just dead. Their corpses lay dry and fully clothed in the places where the worked. Guards were dead at their posts, merchants were dead in their kiosks, and the old were dead in their beds. They trekked through the city and found naught but the same, corpses mummified by the Arabian sun clad in the finest fabric and draped in jewels. They found the palace gates and entered. There they find the body of the queen of the City of Brass lying on a bed between two statues. Eager to get his hands on the wealth surrounding her corpse, one of Emir Musa’s men runs up to her, and is promptly beheaded by the apparently magical statues that stood guard. Upon closer examination they found a message left by the queen on a tablet.
Their city was once a hub of prosperity. They were so wrapped in the luxury they enjoyed that they neglected to pay Allah the homage He was due. Then they were struck with seven years of drought. Their desperation grew so great that when the food was gone, they ate their pets. So desperate for food and water were they that they packed all of their wealth onto caravans and sent men out to trade for food. There was one to be had and they returned with only the wealth they had brought with them to the wide world. Eventually, they resigned themselves to their fate, barred the doors, put their wealth on display and waited to die. She invited visitors to take whatever gold they wished save that which was on her person, as she was to forever remain a manifestation of the hollowness of man when his purse is full but his soul is empty.
The Emir weeps bitterly at the sorrow of their tale and bid his men take what riches they will from the city but to leave the queen alone. So they did and left, still without the bottles of Jinn (see I did it again). Later in their travels, they come upon a king in heart of Africa who happened to have the very bottles they were looking for. Emir Musa trades the king for them with some of the treasure that they found, and carried their prizes back to their king in Damascus.
In Damascus the band of explorers are well rewarded by their king, but Emir Musa still felt empty, the harrowing story from the golden tablet in the City of Brass still on his mind. Emir Musa decides to abdicate the seat of power in his province and spends the rest of his life living as a holy man in Jerusalem.
The City of Brass holds up a mirror and asks us to examine our priorities. Throughout the story we are presented with a series of contrasts: Freedom and imprisonment, the reality and illusion, wealth and poverty, life and death. The context of these contrasts begs the reader to question their materialism. It is the favour of his king and the promise of earthly glory that motivates Emir Musa to embark on his quest. When he returns, he washes his hands of the elitist life and spends the rest of his time on earth in humble piety. Musa is meant to represent us. We want great things for ourselves. We spend so much time feeding our egos by looking for promotions, popularity, more money, and recognition, that we do not feed our souls. We want to possess more and better things without making ourselves better people. It is only after we have seen the destruction that this kind of life can lead to that we make the changes we need in order to add more meaning to our lives.
The Sheikh is an interesting character. He represented reality, spiritual change, and understanding. His constant evocations of the divine expressed a need to look beyond the pleasures of the living world. The fact that he prayed his way into seeing past the apparitions in the form of beautiful women that beckoned him to jump over wall showed us the importance of looking past the glamour in front of our eyes. The most significant aspect of this character’s value is the literal opening of the door to change. When the sheikh opened the door to the city, he not only granted the men entry, he exposed them to the truth. Without opening the door to Emir Musa and his company, they would not have gone through the transformative experience of seeing this rich city that rotted from within. They would not have been able to see the physical result of seeking glamour over substance, or feeding the ego instead of the self.
The city itself, the queen included, gives us a glimpse of what it means to seek out the wrong things. In the queen’s letter, she reveals how absorbed by their wealth and success they had become. When they were struck by misfortune with no one to help them, they slowly died. Many of us have been unfortunate enough to know someone that is so obsessed with their image, their outward appearance, their own personal glamour, that they forget what really matters. They appear to be thriving and have all of the material and social success that they could ever want, but they are still unsatisfied. There is still a void within them somewhere that their outward success just cannot fill. In The City of Brass, literal starvation serves as the metaphor to express this. None of the gold, silks, or precious stones they had meant anything to them when the food and water ran out. All they did was rot in their finery.
It is not by accident that finding the bottles of the imprisoned Jinn is a hastily thrown in footnote used to bring the story to its conclusion. After the experience at the city, we are supposed to feel the same disinterest that Emir Musa feels when he finds them. The climax of the story happens well before its conclusion and this is for a good reason. The prestige of finding these coveted items does not matter anymore. What mattered was the lesson. The reader is asked to submit to the will of God and prepare for the afterlife or face spiritual starvation.
What lesson can we take from this story? We are so much more than the things we acquire, the titles we earn, and the popularity we gain when we seek the boons of the physical plain. There are deeper concerns that we must address in order to become whole people. Without feeding our souls, we become like the people of that city, dead from a lack of sustenance. Without feeding our souls, we will waste away until we are only shells of ourselves, gilded in our worldly decadence.
Be good to yourselves, and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
Abridged audio book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBinATe-oGM
Image Credit: http://www.scoop.it/t/orientalists/?tag=Arabian+Nights