The Voice from a Stone-Dead City

November 07, 2014

Stories from the Thousand and One Nights.
Vol. 16, pp. 100-107 of The Harvard Classics

Suddenly all the sinful city's inhabitants were turned to stone. When a beautiful woman from Bagdad came to the dead city, night overtook her there. Sleeping in the palace, she was awakened by a man's voice calling.

The Story of the First of the Three Ladies of Baghdad

O PRINCE OF THE FAITHFUL, my story is wonderful; for these two bitches are my sisters, born to my father, but of another mother; and I am the youngest of the three. After the death of our father, who left us five thousand pieces of gold, these my two sisters married, and when they had resided some time with their husbands, each of the latter prepared a stock of merchandise, and received from his wife a thousand pieces of gold, and they all set forth on a journey together, leaving me here; but after they had been absent four years, my sisters’ husbands lost all their property, and abandoned them in a strange land, and they returned to me in the garb of beggars. When I first saw them in this state, I knew them not; and, as soon as I recognized them, I exclaimed, How is it that ye are in this condition?—O our sister, they answered, thy inquiry now is of no use: the Pen hath written what God hath decreed.—I sent them, therefore, to the bath, and, having clad them in new apparel, said to them, O my sisters, ye are my elders, and I am young; so ye shall be to me in the places of my father and mother. The inheritance which I shared with you God hath blessed; partake then of its increase, for my affairs are prosperous; and I and ye shall fare alike.—I treated them with the utmost kindness, and during a whole year they remained with me, and enriched themselves by the money that I had given them; but after this period they said to me, It will be more agreeable to us to marry again, for we can no longer abstain from doing so.—O my sisters, I replied, ye have seen no happiness in marriage: a good husband in this age is rarely found, and ye have already had experience of the marriage-state. They, however, heeded not my words; but married against my consent: yet I gave them dowries from my own property, and continued to them my protection. They went to their husbands, and the latter, after they had resided with them a short time, defrauded them of all that they possessed, and, setting forth on a journey, left them destitute: so again they returned to me, and, in a state of nudity, implored my forgiveness, saying, Be not angry with us; for though thou art younger than we, thou hast more mature sense; and we promise thee that we will never again mention the subject of marriage. I replied, Ye are welcome, O my sisters; for I have no one dearer to me than yourselves:—and I received them, and treated them with every kindness, and we remained happily together for the space of a year.

  After this I resolved to fit out a vessel for a mercantile voyage: accordingly, I stocked a large ship with various goods and necessary provisions, and said to my sisters, Will ye rather stay at home during my voyage, or will ye go with me?—to which they answered, We will accompany thee during the voyage, for we cannot endure to be separated from thee. I therefore took them with me, and we set sail; but first I divided my property into two equal portions; one of which I took with me, and the other I concealed, saying within myself, Perhaps some evil accident may happen to the ship, and our lives may be prolonged; in which case, when we return we shall find that which will be of service to us.—We continued our voyage by day and night, till at length the vessel pursued a wrong course, and the captain knew not whither to steer. The ship had entered a different sea from that which we wished to cross, and for some time we knew it not; but for ten days we had a pleasant wind, and after this, a city loomed before us in the distance. We asked the captain what was the name of this city; and he answered, I know it not; I have never seen it till this day, nor have I ever before in the course of my life navigated this sea: but as we have come hither in safety, ye have nothing to do but to enter this city and land your goods, and, if ye find opportunity, sell or exchange there: if not, we will rest there two days, and take in fresh provisions. So we entered the port of the city, and the captain landed, and after a while returned to us, saying, Arise, and go up into the city, and wonder at that which God hath done unto his creatures, and pray to be preserved from his anger. And when we had entered the city, we found all its inhabitants converted into black stones. We were amazed at the sight, and as we walked through the market-streets, finding the merchandise and the gold and silver remaining in their original state, we rejoiced, and said, This must have been occasioned by some wonderful circumstance. We then separated in the streets, each of us attracted from his companions by the wealth and stuffs in the shops.

  As for myself, I ascended to the citadel, which I found to be a building of admirable construction; and, entering the King’s palace, I found all the vessels of gold and silver remaining in their places, and the King himself seated in the midst of his Chamberlains and Viceroys and Wezirs, and clad in apparel of astonishing richness. Drawing nearer to him, I perceived that he was sitting upon a throne adorned with pearls and jewels, every one of the pearls shining like a star: his dress was embroidered with gold, and around him stood fifty memluks, attired in silks of various descriptions, and having in their hands drawn swords. Stupefied at this spectacle, I proceeded, and entered the saloon of the Harim, upon the walls of which were hung silken curtains; and here I beheld the Queen, attired in a dress embroidered with fresh pearls, and having upon her head a diadem adorned with various jewels, and necklaces of different kinds on her neck. All her clothing and ornaments remained as they were at first, though she herself was converted into black stone. Here also I found an open door, and, entering it, I saw a flight of seven steps, by which I ascended to an apartment paved with marble, furnished with gold-embroidered carpets, and containing a couch of alabaster, ornamented with pearls and jewels; but my eyes were first attracted by a gleam of light, and when I approached the spot whence it proceeded, I found a brilliant jewel, of the size of an ostrich’s egg, placed upon a small stool, diffusing a light like that of a candle. The coverings of the couch above mentioned were of various kinds of silk, the richness of which would surprise every beholder; and I looked at them with wonder. In this apartment I likewise observed some lighted candles, and reflected that there must then have been some person there to light them. I passed thence to another part of the palace, and continued to explore the different apartments, forgetting myself in the amazement of my mind at all these strange circumstances, and immersed in thoughts respecting what I beheld, until the commencement of night, when I would have departed; but could not find the door; so I returned to the place in which were the lighted candles, and there I laid myself upon the couch, and, covering myself with a quilt, repeated some words of the Kur’an and endeavoured to compose myself to sleep; but I could not. I continued restless: and at midnight I heard a recitation of the Kur’an, performed by a melodious and soft voice; upon which I arose, and, looking about, saw a closet with an open door, and I entered it, and found that it was an oratory: lighted lamps were suspended in it, and upon a prayer carpet spread on the floor sat a young man of handsome aspect. Wondering that he had escaped the fate of the other inhabitants of the city, I saluted him; and he raised his eyes, and returned my salutation: and I then said to him, I conjure thee by the truth of that which thou art reading in the Book of God, that thou answer the question which I am about to ask thee:—whereupon he smiled, and replied, Do thou first acquaint me with the cause of thine entrance into this place, and then I will answer thy question: so I told him my story, and inquired of him the history of this city. Wait a little, said he;—and he closed the Kur’an, and, having put it in a bag of satin, seated me by his side. As I now beheld him, his countenance appeared like the full moon, and his whole person exhibited such perfect elegance and loveliness, that a single glance at him drew from me a thousand sighs, and kindled a fire in my heart. I repeated my request that he would give me an account of the city; and, replying, I hear and obey, he thus addressed me:—

  Know that this city belonged to my father and his family and subjects; and he is the King whom thou hast seen converted into stone; and the Queen whom thou hast seen is my mother. They were all Magians, worshipping fire in the place of the Almighty King; and they swore by the fire and the light, and the shade and the that, and the revolving orb. My father had no son, till, in his declining years, he was blest with me, whom he reared until I attained to manhood. But, happily for me, there was, in our family, an old woman, far advanced in age, who was a Muslimeh, believing in God and his Apostle in her heart, though she conformed with my family in outward observances; and my father confided in her, on account of the faithfulness and modesty that he had observed in her character, and shewed her great favour, firmly believing that she held the same faith as himself; therefore, when I had passed my infancy, he committed me to her care, saying, Take him, and rear him, and instruct him in the ordinances of our faith, and educate him and serve him in the best manner. The old woman accordingly received me, but took care to instruct me in the faith of El-Islam, teaching me the laws of purification, and the divine ordinances of ablution, together with the forms of prayer; after which she made me commit to memory the whole of the Kur’an. She then charged me to keep my faith a secret from my father, lest he should kill me; and I did so; and a few days after, the old woman died. The inhabitants of the city had now increased in their impiety and arrogance, and in their dereliction of the truth; and while they were in this state, they heard a crier proclaim with a voice like thunder, so as to be audible to both the near and the distant, O inhabitants of this city, abstain from the worship of fire, and worship the Almighty King!—The people were struck with consternation, and, flocking to my father, the King of the city, said to him, What is this alarming voice which hath astounded us by its terrible sound?—but he answered them, Let not the voice terrify you, nor let it turn you from your faith:—and their hearts inclined to his words; so they persevered in the worship of fire, and remained obstinate in their impiety during another year, until the return of the period at which they had heard the voice the first time. It was then heard a second time; and again, in the next year, they heard it a third time; but still they persisted in their evil ways, until, drawing down upon themselves the abhorrence and indignation of Heaven, one morning, shortly after daybreak, they were converted into black stones, together with their beasts and all their cattle. Not one of the inhabitants of the city escaped, excepting me; and from the day on which this catastrophe happened, I have continued occupied as thou seest, in prayer, and fasting, and reading the Kur’an: but I have become weary of this solitary state, having no one to cheer me with his company.

  On hearing these words, I said to him, Wilt thou go with me to the city of Baghdad, and visit its learned men and lawyers, and increase thy knowledge? If so, I will be thy handmaid, though I am the mistress of my family, and have authority over a household of men. I have here a ship laden with merchandise, and destiny hath driven us to this city, in order that we might become acquainted with these events: our meeting was predestined.—In this manner I continued to persuade him until he gave his consent. I slept that night at his feet, unconscious of my state through excessive joy; and in the morning we rose, and, entering the treasuries, took away a quantity of the lighter and most valuable of the articles that they contained, and descended from the citadel into the city, where we met the slaves and the captain, who were searching for me. They were rejoiced at seeing me, and, to their questions respecting my absence, I replied by informing them of all that I had seen, and related to them the history of the young man, and the cause of the transmutation of the people of the city, and of all that had befallen them, which filled them with wonder. But when my two sisters saw me with the young man, they envied me on his account, and malevolently plotted against me.

  We embarked again, and I experienced the utmost happiness, chiefly owing to the company of the young man; and after we had waited a while till the wind was favourable, we spread our sails, and departed. My sisters sat with me and the young man; and, in their conversation with me, said, O our sister, what dost thou purpose to do with this handsome youth? I answered, I desire to take him as my husband:—and, turning to him, and approaching him, I said, O, my master, I wish to make a proposal to thee, and do not thou oppose it. He replied, I hear and obey:—and I then looked towards my sisters, and said to them, This young man is all that I desire, and all the wealth that is here is yours.—Excellent, they replied, is thy determination:—yet still they designed evil against me.—We continued our voyage with a favourable wind, and, quitting the sea of peril, entered the sea of security, across which we proceeded for some days, until we drew near the city of El-Basrah, the buildings of which loomed before us at the approach of evening; but as soon as we had fallen asleep, my sisters took us up in our bed, both myself and the young man, and threw us into the sea. The youth, being unable to swim, was drowned; God recorded him among the company of the martyrs; while I was registered among those whose life was yet to be preserved: and, accordingly, as soon as I awoke and found myself in the sea, the providence of God supplied me with a piece of timber, upon which I placed myself, and the waves cast me upon the shore of an island.

  During the remainder of the night I walked along this island, and in the morning I saw a neck of land, bearing the marks of a man’s feet, and uniting with the main land. The sun having now risen, I dried my clothes in its rays, and proceeded along the path that I had discovered until I drew near to the shore upon which stands the city, when I beheld a snake approaching me, and followed by a serpent which was endeavouring to destroy it: the tongue of the snake was hanging from its mouth in consequence of excessive fatigue, and it excited my compassion; so I took up a stone, and threw it at the head of the serpent, which instantly died: the snake then extended a pair of wings, and soared aloft into the sky, leaving me in wonder at the sight. At the time of this occurrence I had become so fatigued, that I now laid myself down and slept; but I awoke after a little while, and found a damsel seated at my feet, and gently rubbing them with her hands; upon which I immediately sat up, feeling ashamed that she should perform this service for me, and said to her, Who art thou, and what dost thou want?—How soon hast thou forgotten me! she exclaimed: I am she to whom thou has just done a kindness, by killing my enemy; I am the snake whom thou savedst from the serpent; for I am a Jinniyeh, and the serpent was a Jinni at enmity with me; and none but thou delivered me from him: therefore, as soon as thou didst this, I flew to the ship from which thy sisters cast thee, and transported all that it contained to thy house; I then sunk it; but as to thy sisters, I transformed them by enchantment into two black bitches; for I knew all that they had done to thee: the young man, however, is drowned.—Having thus said, she took me up, and placed me with the two black bitches on the roof of my house: and I found all the treasures that the ship had contained collected in the midst of my house: nothing was lost. She then said to me, I swear by that which was engraved upon the seal of Suleyman, that, if thou do not inflict three hundred lashes upon each of these bitches every day, I will come and transform thee in the like manner:—so I replied, I hear and obey:—and have continued ever since to inflict upon them these stripes, though pitying then while I do so. The Khalifeh heard this story with astonishment, and then said to the second lady, And what occasioned the stripes of which thou bearest the marks? She answered as follows:—


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