Walls against heaven

On borders, and other eschatological fabulisms

Essay published in Popula, 14 November, 2018

In the middle of the ninth century, the Abbasid caliph al-Wathiq had a bad dream. He saw a breach open in a great wall set between mountains, a vision which immediately rang alarm bells for this ruler of a vast empire stretching from India to Sicily. A prophecy in the Koran—inherited from Jewish and Syriac, Coptic and other Christian traditions in the Middle East—had claimed that the world would end after the collapse of a wall built by Alexander the Great, a wall that fenced off the barbaric hordes of “Gog and Magog” from the realms of men. When the wall crumbled, Gog and Magog’s wild creatures would “rustle down from every height,” drink all the rivers and lakes dry, eat the flesh of both men and animals, and shoot arrows upwards at the heavens until the missiles fell back to earth tipped with the blood of angels.

Al-Wathiq wouldn’t sit idly on such ominous portents. Like Persian and Roman emperors before them, caliphs wore the mantle of universal kingship, nominal sovereignty over the whole world; the apocalypse was a rather direct and final rebuke of their temporal power. As the historian and geographer Ibn Khordadbeh records in the Book of Routes and Kingdoms, al-Wathiq dispatched a man named Sallam the Translator, who could speak thirty languages, to go off in search of Alexander’s wall with fifty men and two hundred mules. Sallam would return to the caliph’s court in Samarra in Iraq over two years later with only fourteen men and twenty-three mules, but he had acquired reassuring news: the wall at the edge of the world, separating mankind from its doom, still stood.

It was made from iron and copper, he said, striped like a tiger with bands of black and shining gold. The metal was so perfectly fused to the flanking mountains that air couldn’t penetrate from the other side. According to Sallam, there was only one blemish in the wall: a crack “as wide as a thin thread.” He scraped a little iron from the crack into his handkerchief and brought these morsels to the caliph, the proof the world wasn’t about to end.

Read the rest of the essay on Popula

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