Skip to main content

The Palace of Wonders

A Borgesian fable about the Caliph and the Koran.

Like “The Ones Who Walk Towards Acre”, “The Palace of Wonders” is both a short story and part of a larger story, Cloud Nine. “Acre” was based on a visual dream loosely inspired by a Le Guin story, but “Wonders” instead stemmed from a misremembering of lines in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story, “Ramadan”.

In the year 454 after the Hegira of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the Blessed Calif Rashid-ad-Din, Lion of the Faithful, Commander of the Guardians of the Flock, Protector of the Downtrodden, Expeller of Djinns, Expositor of the Dharma, Vicar of God and humble servant of Allah, whose glory he reflects like the Moon the Sun in the sky above:

Commissioned the scholars of renown, the sages of wisdom, the fakirs of faith, the ulama of rectitude, to:

Catalogue all the forms of the Created.

This endeavour was suggested to his Awesomeness by his Exalted Worthiness the Vizier. This Vizier whispered in the ear of the Caliph, whispered that Alla in the fullness of time had written two books:

“The first Book was the Mother of the Luminous Koran, which resides in Heaven and glimpses of which were vouchsafed to the Prophet when he was commanded by the Angel Gabriel ‘Recite!’”

“The second Book was the Book which lays unfolded all about; it was the Book of Creation. Just as Omar gained immortality and the eternal praise of the Faithful by collecting and binding the palm leaves of the one Book of the Holy Inerrant Quran, how much more so could a too mortal Kalif similarly gain merit by compiling all the Earth? A blessed mission—Was it not written ‘Surely We revealed the Reminder and We will most surely be its guardian.’”

And it was done thus, and thusly:

Entrepid scholars were despatched to the Four Corners, traders received rich rewards and were bribed with bulging bags of bahts to procure and bring forth curiosities, and extravagant mercies, immunities & rewards tempted those with unique artifacts and animals to exhibit them to the scribes and so the ten thousand under the heavens were all gathered in the House of Wisdom.

But one ill-starred day a traveler approached out of the mountains to the East and sought admission to the presence of the Emir and his scribes. Brought before them and abjured to display his possession, he bowed deeply and saith: “I have heard it said that you seek to encapsulate all which Allāh hath made. This shows many things; perhaps it will show you the error of your ways.”

Bowing his shaved head, he placed a large & perfectly round clear glass down onto the marble and left, the scribes in consternation. Look how it shifts, faster even than a man’s heart or quicksilver! said one. Now it shows the ceiling, now the throne, now me! Spoke another. What shall it be listed as? It is a Khalif, a Noble, a rose, a zahir. Their leader, a snowy-haired man approached the Throne.

“It is clear to me that this abomination must be destroyed, that it violates not only the Qur’an (did not Al-ʾilāh say ‘Thou shalt not make graven images’? And is it not written that He shall judge the artificers, commanding them to give life to their mockeries of the living, and failing, they shall abide with the flame?) but also all sanity, for something which will be anything must perforce become everything, and how could we exist apart from what is everything? It must be destroyed!”

And so it was done.

The coda to this is not known, for it was in those days that the Turks (or the Hsniung-nu, as the Chinese knew them), under the captaincy of the dire Tambur the Lame fell upon the world of light and Faith, in a holocaust never to be equaled until al-Lāh himself should stretch forth His arm on Judgment Day.

But there are texts, possibly apocryphal. The first ending holds that the monk actually left two mirrors. The Caliphe idly opposed them and was driven mad by his brief glimpse into the mind of the Most Merciful. And in the other, perhaps as recorded by the Soofees, he realizes the futility of his reign and his project and his books, and as the hoof beats echo in the distance, despairingly cries:

“Words! The Word of God!”

Similar Links

[Similar links by topic]