Peregrine flight

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Did you ever hear tales of the splendid Córdoban palace of Abd-ar-Rahman III al-Nasir? Rahman was the fabulous Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba and constructed his palace, the Medina Azahara, between the years 912 and 961, in our common era.

I'm not surprised you haven't, I only encountered word of it on a trip to Andalusia and the story of the grand palace has been mostly forgotten.

Rahman was the son of Prince Muhammad and a Frankish slave. He had blue eyes and blonde hair which he dyed black so as not to be taken for a Goth. He succeeded his grandfather Abd Allah as emir in 912. He quickly built his empire, sacking Pamplona in 926 and the Moroccan town of Melilla in 927 as a bulwark to hold off the rival Fatamids.

The Medina Azahara was known as the "Shining City" and its splendor was spoken of far and wide. It knew no peer, in Iberia, the desert kingdoms, the Levant, the entire world. In far off Germany, the Saxon nun Hroswitha referred to the city as the ornament of the world. Córdoba was the capital of Islamic Spain and the only close rival of its day was Constantinople.

At the time the land we now know as España was thought of as the northernmost country of Africa. Córdoba was known far and wide as a high place of medicine and learning, it served as a home for all three religions, its slopes were defined by the lazy river called the Guadalquivir. In ancient Roman days it had been home to both Senecas, the Younger and Elder. Later the great scholar Maimonides ( موسى بن ميمون) walked its narrow streets.

Sadly, we can now only visit its broken ruins and imagine its past power, glory and might. Alas, the shining city of yore lays prostrate in the dirt, largely forgotten, sacked in the bitter year of 1010. The Vizier al-Mansur burned all the books in 976 and its sad fate was perhaps cast as payment for his evil deed.

Accounts remain that speak with incredulity and wonder at the magnificence of its ancient walls and parapets, its grand mosque whose arches mimicked the sweep of the date palm, its gardens that were surpassed by no other in the entire known world, the vast knowledge of its enlightened inhabitants, who took pride in their cities fame as a place of cultural advancement.

I read once, in an old book, unfortunately now long discarded, that the temples of the Christian were oriented to the concept of a hereafter, to look towards another day that would come to be in the afterlife.

The palaces of the Mohammedan however, were designed for another purpose, to celebrate the now, the immediate moment, and to do so with all possible intensity.  They worshipped the eternal present and the magic and laughter and beauty in those brief years have never seen their equal.

I read that the Azahara had its windows constructed of crystal so that rainbows would fall strategically though out the hall, chromatic lights glancing off the lustrous surface of the large pools of quicksilver.

The sunken Islamic garden was a jewel in itself, divided into four quadrants, peacocks proudly strolled at will and the residents were continually serenaded by the sweetest of songbird. Falcons stood on golden perches, tethered with stiff leather, awaiting their master's glove and sharp command. Tendrils of snake like sandalwood smoke wafted up from the braziers and gave the room a lovely scent and golden glow.

The Caliph was said to have named the Palace after his most prized concubine, her visage cast in stone over the keystone of the entrance to watch over the three terraces for eternity. Azahara. The place must have been one mad affair.

Jugglers vied with magicians, sword swallowers and contortionists plied their talents, black giants from Sheba performed unbelievable feats of strength, soft girls of the harem lingered seductively in the sheltered doorways. Mathematicians could be found arguing about questions of sums and geometry in the courtyard while the astronomers ruminated on the celestial heavens.

The sultan's library surpassed all save perhaps the one in Alexandria. A blind poet recited poems of forbidden love and desert winds, a misshapen minstrel played along seamlessly on his oud. Seers of all stripes cast runes and drew cards and divined the cracks of the desert tortoise.

Traders from Shem played games of chance with the Sultan's select and hand picked bodyguard from far off Ur. The larder was filled with the finest rations, pomegranates from Jaffa, oranges from Crete, dates from Fez and Riyadh, saffron from Tangiers, bacalao from Catalan, beef from Pamplona.

The Emir spared no expense on his palace. Cedar was delivered from Tyre and Sidon, steel from Damascus, cloth from far away on the Silk Road. The finest craftsmen from Toledo wrought the silver tazzas and tableware with heraldic figures, a task that took decades to complete. Life was at its highest possible apex.

Its richness was a thing of legend. From the New York Times:
Teeming with treasures that dazzled the most jaded traveler or world—weary aristocrat...Pools of mercury could be shaken to spray beams of reflected sunlight across marble walls and ceilings of gold... Doors carved of ivory and ebony led to sprawling gardens full of exotic animals and sculptures made of amber and pearls..."
It was said to be the most fantastic city in the world. Europe had nothing that could rival it. And then, in an instant, it was gone. A tale as old as life itself, a successor who could not hold the winnings of his father. A quick knife thrust, a coup, and a short civil war, the end came quickly. An architectural marvel like the world has never seen was no more.

Now it lies crumbled sadly into dust. Has there ever been a more wondrous and psychedelic place ever conceived and constructed, have we ever seen its match on this earth? And of course, to experience its joys today, one would need to time travel.


I had a strange dream when I came home from Utah. An early morning dream, one that I remembered vividly when I awoke and have thought about often the last few days.

I was in just such a place as I describe above, with old wooden coffers woven in the most magical intricate moroccan patterns on ceilings that rose a hundred feet in the air. The finest paintings, the most sumptuous silks.

Large bronze statues of the buddha and balinese dancers with knees and elbows akimbo mixed with wooden santos of Sts. Francis and George. Beautiful paintings of the missions adorned the walls.

Madras and velvet and ivory and oak. Gold and silver and frankincense and cedar. Mercury's twin snakes twined above a feathered heart on the mantle, the amber crystal heart made out of precious rutilated quartz.

Flowers adorned every table, lilies, delphinium and dahlias,  and the cavernous space was filled with the rich scent of tuberose, a smell that mixed nicely with the ever present bloom of orange blossoms.

There were new rooms of unmatched beauty and exquisite appointments to discover down each hall and passage and I swear they may have morphed into new shapes and colors in real time right before my very eyes.

And my tribe were all there, Lena and Lynn and Ricardo and Leslie and so many more of you. You know who you are.

All of the people that resonated on that one particular wave, that threw their lot together as friends and comrades so very long ago and never once broke their oaths of friendship. Who signed on to that particular ship through time and space that has curiously guided our movements like a veiled conductor on a passing train. Across the very centuries of time itself.

And the odd thing was that "our palace" in fact did exist outside of normal time, in an infinite now that would never age and always bloom in the advent of summer. Continually waxing, ripening, never ever going to seed.

And it was hard for me in this dream because I had one foot in this strange, mercurial place and one foot in the day to day world that we normally inhabit and well, it was like riding a gyroscope or trying not to fall off the mechanical bull, took a little bit of effort to keep it all straight. I could see that I would have to make a decision, a choice.

I believe that I was in fact undergoing some sort of initiation. I wish I could explain the process but it is now hidden in time, these things necessarily obscured by wise spell and gesture. But it was clear that there would be something gained but also something lost and it would be wise for me to spend a moment to consider the consequences of the trade and choice. A small price must always be paid when involved in these sorts of matters.

I woke up in somewhat pain at being forced to leave the wonderful place but I am planning on going back soon, in fact as soon as I can. I hope that you will consider joining me on this voyage. Leave a message at the usual place.


Mary Stowe said...

An initiation indeed, I suspect. Reminds me of some of my midnight travels. As usual, but especially this piece, your words are a veritable bacchanal for the mind palace. If someone could bottle "seven12", it would be the best selling fragrance in the world.

Patrick said...

Yes please Rob. Can I have a ticket?