This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
[This is an excerpt from Robert Lebling's Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010 and Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint Press, 2011), reprinted with permission. Amazon.com carries a blurb about the book from the Times Literary Supplement: “Lebling’s exhaustive and very readable account of jinn lore and legends traces the fascinating history of these strange beings . . . Mortals interested in knowing more about these magical creatures must content themselves with Lebling’s absorbing study.”]
Jinn are often associated with crumbling castles, hidden treasure hoards and lost cities. They haunt old, abandoned buildings and serve as guardians for any treasures that lie concealed in their ruins. An ancient Arabian legend tells of jinn who guard an immense treasure hidden in the Hejaz region of present-day Saudi Arabia. British explorer Charles Doughty – reputed to be the first European to visit the Nabataean ruins of Medain Salih (Cities of Salih, a pre-Islamic prophet), also called al-Hijr (The Stony Place), in the Hejaz region in the late nineteenth century – referred specifically to this legend: Upon the landmark rock El-Howwara in the plain of Medain Salih lies a great treasure (in the opinion of the Moors of the Kella) sealed in a turret-like stone chamber, in the keeping of an Afrit (evil genius loci, a word spoken of the spirits of wicked men departed, which as flies to the dunghill haunt eternally about their places of burial). Fatal, they say, were the taking up of that treasure, ‘the kings of the world should strive together, the Aarab tribes should destroy one another. In that day a man will not spare his friend, nor his brother, the son of his father and his mother:’ thus Haj Nejm. I have looked upon the Howwara cliff from the Harra, and can affirm that the head of it is plain, a black platform of lava; the sandstone precipices all around are a hundred fathoms in height. Even the Prophet carefully avoided contact with the jinn who haunted the ruins of al-Hijr. In the words of Sir Richard Burton: ‘It is related that when the Apostle of Allah passed through the demonhaunted defile [of Medain Salih], he veiled his head, muffled his face, and hurried his pace on account of the Jinns and Ghúls which infest it, forbidding his followers to halt there either for food or drink.’ Another reason to hurry through this area: the ancient people of Medain Salih were punished by God for their impiety, and the tribes thought it best to avoid a locale thus stained with a history of sin. Al-Hijr is Saudi Arabia’s fi rst World Heritage site, so designated in 2008 by UNESCO. It was home to the Thamud people and the Nabataeans. According to the Qur’an, the people of al-Hijr rejected the message of God, as conveyed to them by the prophet Salih and other messengers, and as a result they were destroyed by a ‘Great Blast’ from heaven. Archaeologists say the
people of al-Hijr disappeared in about 400–600 AD. With the people gone, it was perhaps natural that the jinn would take over. Throughout pre-Islamic history, we hear of instances such as this, where arrogance and pride leads to destruction of a magnificent city, and the ruins subsequently revert to the custody of jinn. We shall see this time and again as our story unfolds. The Saudi government today encourages tourism at Medain Salih – the archaeological site, with its majestic rock-cut tombs and other structures, is the Saudi version of the more famous Nabataean ruins of Petra to the north in Jordan. Nevertheless, some Saudis still fear the ruins are jinn-haunted or cursed and will not visit the area. This is particularly true of farmers and villagers who have little contact with the outside world and feel the power of venerable local jinn traditions. Another legendary treasure trove was situated in the lost city of Ubar, or Iram of the Pillars, which belonged to the ancient tribe of Ad. An opulent city in a fertile oasis, Ubar and its inhabitants were destroyed by Allah in punishment for their sins. Early Arab histories said that jinn haunted the ruins of Ubar and protected its buried riches. But where the lost city might be found was seriously disputed. Some Arab chroniclers thought it would be found on the southwestern edge of the Empty Quarter, in or near Yemen. Others believed it was located close to Oman, in the eastern Rub’ al-Khali. A decade ago, Los Angeles filmmaker Nicholas Clapp told the world that he and a team of fellow explorers had discovered this lost city on the southeastern edge of the Empty Quarter. Clapp and his team did not actually discover Ubar – but they did find the ruins of an old caravanserai and fort near the village of Shisr on the fringes of the desert in Oman. They called it ‘Ubar’, but no treasures or signs of opulence were found, and so the search for the legendary city will doubtless continue. Ubar is one of many names for this ancient Arabian city, which is said to have vanished beneath the sands of the desert. The city was reputedly a major trading emporium at the intersection of trade routes in the Empty Quarter. It was said to have existed from about 3000 BC until the first century AD. Other names include ‘Ad, Wabar, Wibar, Wubar, Irem, Iram, and Iram dhat al‘Imad (Iram of the Pillars). This last name is explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an: ‘Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the ‘Ad (people) – of the (city of) Iram with lofty pillars, the like of which were not produced in (all) the land?’ (Qur’an 89:7). Early Arab chronicles said the city was built by a powerful king named Shaddad, son of ‘Ad. Modelling the city on his vision of Paradise, Shaddad ordered it constructed of gold and silver in place of stones. Its walls were studded with jewels. Ubar featured a hundred thousand palaces, supported by great pillars made of ruby and aquamarine. The city was filled with orchards and gardens, to complete the picture of Paradise.
Shaddad’s arrogance in trying to re-create Paradise was his undoing. On his way to inspect his new city, a great sandstorm overcame him and his entourage as well as the king and the new city were swallowed up by the sands, never to be inhabited or seen again. According to legend, the jinn took possession of the land where Ubar had stood. Strange jinn creatures called the nisnas (half-persons) roamed the land, beings with only half a head, one eye, one hand, and one leg. No man would dare enter this land, and the nisnas destroyed all the crops that had previously grown there. The nisnas were alternatively described as a special type of jinn or as the former inhabitants of Ubar who were punished by Allah by being transformed into monstrosities. Incidentally, the camels of the Mahra tribe of eastern Yemen and western Oman are said to have descended from the camels of the jinn who took possession of the ruins of Ubar. According to British Orientalist and Arabian Nights translator Edward Lane, nisnas were also found in the forests of Yemen. In the ninth century one was captured, he said, and brought alive to the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil in Baghdad; the nisnas was said to resemble a man in form, except that it had only half a face, which was embedded in its chest, and a tail like a sheep. Lane said the people of the Yemeni region of Hadramaut hunted and ate the nisnas, and they reported its flesh was sweet. The creature was said to be found only in that country. Lane tells of an unidentified man, probably British, who visited Yemen and affirmed that he personally saw a captured nisnas, ‘which cried out for mercy, conjuring him by God and by himself’. Strange stories still emerge from this region. Several years ago, a group of Saudi oil wildcatters were camping in the Rub’ al-Khali. There are no villages in this part of the vast sand desert, and Bedouins only rarely pass through it. One of the oil workers claimed that at twilight the team saw a woman moving alone along the crest of a nearby dune. She was draped in black, apparently wearing an abaya like many Saudi women, and was hopping along, appearing to have only one leg. She disappeared over the dune. Several of the team members went up the dune to find her, but she had vanished, seemingly into thin air. If no humans live in this part of the desert, one of the remotest and most inhospitable in the world, that may not apply to jinn. The location of Ubar/Iram remains a mystery. Early explorers of Arabia, such as T.E. Lawrence, H.St. John Philby and Bertram Thomas, became captivated by the legend of Ubar and all of them searched for the lost city during their journeys through the Arabian Peninsula. Philby reported that in 1917, south of Saih – the main town of the Aflaj oasis (on the northern edge of the Rub’ al-Khali) – he spotted the ruins of an ancient building that he thought could be associated with Ubar. His Bedouin companions told him that the structure was called Qusairat ‘Ad (Palace of ‘Ad), named after the legendary ‘Ad people who built Ubar under the leadership of King Shaddad. Philby gave the location of this site as 22° 10' north latitude, 46° 20' east longitude. He later wrote that Qusairat ‘Ad could not be as old as the fabled lost city and probably dated from the Middle Ages. His Bedouin guides said the capital of Ubar was actually located far to the south,
across the Rub’ al-Khali, near the frontier of Yemen’s Hadramaut region – where the nisnas were found. Philby travelled all over Arabia, and as he did so he kept his eye peeled for signs of the lost city. He never found them. (As we shall see later, Philby also heard reports of another lost city in the dunes called Jahura, but it is not known if he ever searched for it.) Bedouin guides for Bertram Thomas insisted that Ubar lay buried in the southeastern reaches of the Empty Quarter, in or near Oman. Said one, ‘It’s a great city, our fathers have told us, that existed of old; a city rich in treasure, with date gardens and a fort of red silver (Thomas wondered if this might be gold). It now lies buried beneath the sands in the Ramlat Shu’ait’ in northwestern Dhofar, Oman. One day his guides showed him well-worn tracks, about a hundred yards wide, cut into the plain. The path led to Ubar, Thomas was told. The tracks bore 325°, approximately 18° 45' north latitude, 52° 30' east longitude, on the edge of the sands – about where the borders of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman converge. T.E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – developed an interest in the lost city of Ubar in the 1930s, and it was he who first dubbed it ‘Atlantis of the Sands’, a name later adopted by Clapp and Fiennes for their books on the discovery. Lawrence considered launching an expedition to search for Ubar in the days before his fatal motorcycle accident in 1935. Some Saudis today claim that the ruins of Ubar lie beneath the sand in the area where the aptly named Wabar meteorite was discovered, in the north-central Rub’ al-Khali, some 550 kilometres by air southeast of Riyadh. The two-ton iron meteorite was found in an ancient impact crater field in the desert area known to the Arabs as al-Hadida (Piece of Iron). It was rescued from the sands by Aramco oil workers in 1966 and is now on display in Riyadh. The crater itself was long known to local Bedouins, but its later discovery was credited to Philby in 1937. Aramco World, a cultural periodical of the Saudi oil company, describes it as follows: For 14 years he [Philby] had ‘worked and waited’ for a chance to verify a strange Bedouin story he had heard in 1918 from his guide, Jabir ibn Farraj: that somewhere out in that forbidding desert lay a ruined city called Wabar. According to Bedouin legend, Wabar had been levelled by a destructive wind because its wicked and lustful ruler, ‘Ad, had ignored the warnings of his brother, Hud – generally identified with the biblical Heber. Legend also said that near this lost site lay a block of iron ‘as big as a camel’s hump’. Since tribesmen called the place ‘al-Hadida’, and since hadida in Arabic means a piece of iron, Philby presumed that there were iron artefacts in the city, perhaps of great value ... . For Philby, the first sight of Wabar was ... disappointing ... : instead of a find to match Petra or Tutankhamen’s tomb, he found himself gazing down, not at the ruins of a city, but into the mouth of what he took to be an extinct volcano with twin craters side by side. Surprised and deeply disappointed, he wrote in his diary: ‘I knew not whether to laugh or cry ... ’
Nevertheless, Philby was also fascinated by the scene. Rationalizing that the two great sand-filled craters, encircled by a rim, did bear an absurd resemblance to the tumbled remnants of man-made castles, he described a structure ‘whose black walls stood up gauntly above the encroaching sand like battlements and bastions of some great castles’. But all his hopes faded when, after four straight days of searching, he uncovered one ‘silly little fragment of iron about the size of a rabbit’, instead of the iron mass as big as a camel’s hump. The ‘camel’s hump’, then covered by sand, was finally revealed in 1966 as the Wabar meteorite. Philby’s extinct volcano with twin craters turned out to be two – perhaps three – astroblemes, impact craters of meteorite chunks that had entered the earth’s atmosphere. Despite the scientific explanations, some Bedouins in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province are still convinced that the lost city of Iram lies beneath the sands near al-Hadida. By one account told to me, the sands had shifted not long ago in that area, uncovering a glimpse of the buried ruins of buildings. But such claims are difficult to confirm. Al-Hadida is deep in the trackless desert, many hours by four-wheel-drive from the nearest town. Most importantly, what the sands reveal one day they may conceal the next.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?