Tuesday, 11 July 2017

A review of 'The Land of Darkness'

This is a dark and beautiful book pretty much designed for RPG enthusiasts. Its based around a series of fragmentary translations, themselves broken into fragments.



"One day, at the foot of the tree, I saw a creature like the lizard called izaya. It had two hands and two feet. You would think that God most high had brought it from Paradise. It seemed as if it were made of the purest red jacinth, so translucent that you could see through it, and pure polished gold, the like of which I have never seen in this world, as if it were crafted with the greatest art and skill. I was amazed when I saw it. My companions, mounted on their horses, surrounded it. It gazed at us with eyes that seemed to be weaving a spell and turned its head towards us, right and left, but it did not move and paid no attention to us whatsoever."


Its separated into the urbane, reasonable and human point of view of Ibn Fadlan and the somewhat more sketchy, fantastical, bullshit-ridden stories of a variety of other writers.

I should say something about Fadlan first. It's rare in texts of this kind for the people involved to come across quite as people in the modern sense. Fadlans account of his doomed mission  reads like a poetic documentary report.

Sent by the Caliph (if the book has a secondary theme its that sometimes the Caliph is going to ask you to do some crazy shit) to pick up some money from a ruler near the Volga that he hasn't seen for a while, then to take that money to the king of the Bulgars in the far north so he can build a castle to defend himself (and presumably the Caliph at a distance) from Jews, things go wrong quite quickly.

The guy who has the money doesn't want to give it up and the Caliph didn't give Fadlan an army to get it with. One straggler is tricked and imprisoned, the rest of the mission eventually give up and decide to go on without the cash.

"we saw a land which made us think a gate to the cold of hell had opened before us."

"The local people, with whom we were on friendly terms, urged us to be prudent as regards clothing and to take large quantities. They made it sound very frightening and serious. When we saw the reality with our own eyes, however, we realised that it was twice as bad as had been told."


"When the day came for us to set out, I said to them: 'O people! The kings ghulam is with you and he knows everything that is going on. You are carrying letters from the caliph and I am quite sure that they mention the 4,000 musayyabi dinars that are intended for him. You are going to a foreign king. He will demand this money.'

'Don't worry about that,' they said to me, 'he won't ask us for it.'

I warned them and said:

'I know that he will demand it.'

But they would not listen."


After many adventures, they finally reach the King of the Bulgars;

"And what has happened to the money mentioned in these two letters?'

'It was impossible to collect it' I answered. 'There was not enough time and for fear of missing the season for reaching your country, we left it to be brought later.'

'You all came together and my master [the caliph] paid all your expenses, and the only reason was so that you could bring me this money to have a fortress built to protect me from the Jews, who have tried to reduce me to slavery. As regards the presents, my ghulam could perfectly well have brought them.'

'That is quite true,' I said, 'but we did what we could.'

Then the king said to the interpreter:

'Tell him that I do not recognise these people. I only recognise you [i.e. ibn Fadlan], for these other people are not Arabs. if the caliph - may God aid him! - had thought that they could have obtained the same results as you could, he would not have sent you to protect my interests, read my letter and listen to my answer. I shall not demand one single dirham from anyone else but you. Hand over the money; it will be better for you.'

I left him and went out in consternation and much saddened. He was a good-looking man, stout and full bodied, who inspired respect. He was like a great barrel speaking.

I left his presence, gathered together my companions and told them what had passed between the king and myself.

'I warned you about this,' I told them."

Yes, and then you wrote an entire epic travel chronicle which lasted a millennia so even a thousand years later people in a nation you would never have imagined can turn to each other and say; "Wow, those guys with Ibn Fadlan, what a bunch of tools. He warned them."


As a view of a dark, alien, near-magical world through the eyes of  those strange to it, it has few comparisons. Ice bursts barrels and freezes rivers, dark forests are full of bees, apples and the bones of giants.

Always the fearful and useful Rus, raging in their boats, indefatigable, almost undefeatable, each able to battle three normal men.



The Rus take a Muslim-ruled city. All the Muslim men are forced into the Mosque and held captive.

"A Christian civil servant named Ibn Sam'un, who lived in the city, acted as negotiator between the two sides. He made an agreement with the Rus that each man should be ransomed for 20 dirhams. The more intelligent Muslims agreed to this arrangement, but the rest did not, maintaining that Ibn Sam'un was trying to imply that Muslims were of equal value to poll-tax paying Christians. Ibn Sam'un therefore broke off negotiations. The Rus put off their massacre, hoping to get at least this small amount. When it was not forthcoming, they put them to the sword and slew them to the last man."


The blades of the Rus are so valued that, after they leave the people of the city creep back, dig into the graves to gain access to the swords and sell them.

At the end of the world are a people are so shy and fearful that they won't trade directly, they leave trade goods lying out on the snow, you must place down your offer, then leave, if they accept, when you come back your offer will be gone and you can take what remains. But they won't trade for sliver, which they do not value, only for beads.

Imagine going to a place where the night is so short that you can't even boil water in the time it takes
and the sun wheels across the sky like a turning mill, crossing frozen rivers that have burst their banks, wearing so many clothes you can hardly move, and trading with people you can't see for the skin of an animal you have never seen before.


In more adventures from 'questionable things the Calpih has asked'. A different caliph has a dream that the apocalypse wall that Alexander the Great built to imprison the monster-giants of the people of Gog and Magog, is breaking.

So he tells his interpreter Salim; 'Hey, you know that giant apocalypse wall at the end of the world that everyone knows is there. Go and check on that for me would you. I just had a dream about it.'

According to Ibn Khurradadhibih, this is Salm's report. It reads exactly like an early D&D module, right down to the measurements.

"Next we reached a city named Ikah (Hami), which is ten farsaks in circumference and has gates of iron which are closed by lowering them. Within the confines of this city there are fields and windmills. It is in this city that Dhu al-Qarnayn [Alexander] camped with his army. It is three days march from there to the Barrier. Passing fortresses and small towns, on the third day one reaches the Barrier. The chain of mountains forms a circle. It is said that Gog and Magog are enclosed within. The people of Gog are taller than those of Magog; their heights vary between a cubit and a cubit and a half.

Then we reached the high mountain surrounded by fortifications. This is the Barrier of Gog Magog. There is a ravine 150 cubits wide through which these people used to sally forth to infest the earth, until it was sealed by Dhu al-Qarnayn. The Barrier was built in the following manner.

First the earth was excavated to the depth of 30 cubits and foundations were laid, built of brass and iron, up to the level of the ground. Then, two enormous piers were raised, 25 cubits wide and 50 cubits high; at the base a projection jutted out 10 cubits beyond the gate, one on each slope of the mountain, to the right and left of the ravine.

The whole construction is made of iron bricks sheathed in brass, each of which is 1 1/2 cubits long and 4 fingers thick. An iron lintel 120 cubits long and 5 wide rests on the two great piers, and its ends extend 10 cubits beyond them. This lintel supports masonry built of iron bricks sheathed in brass that rises out of sight to the summit of the mountain. I estimate the height to be roughly 60 cubits. It is crowned with thirty-seven iron crenellations, each armed with two horns that curve inward towards each other. Each crenel is 5 cubits long and 5 wide and 50 high and 5 thick. The uprights of the doors swivel on an axis that is in proportion to the lintel.

The whole structure is so solid that not a breath of wind is felt either through the door or from the mountainside, as if it had been made in a single piece. On the portal, 25 cubits from the ground, there is a bolt 7 cubits long and a fathom round, and 5 cubits above the bolt there is a keyhole, even longer than the bolt itself, and the two wards are each 2 cubits long. Above the lock hangs a key 1 1/2 cubits long and 4 spans in circumference, with twelve iron teeth, each the thickness of a pestle. The chain holding it is 8 cubits long and 4 spans round, and the ring by which it is attached to the door is like the rings on a piece of siege machinery.

The threshold of the door is 10 cubits wide and 100 cubits long, not including the part that runs under the pillars. The part that just out is 5 cubits wide. All these measurements are given in the cubits known as 'black cubits'.

Near the gate there are two forts, 200 cubits square. To the right and the left of their gates two trees have been planted and a stream of fresh water runs between the two forts. The instruments that were used in the building of the wall were preserved in one of the forts: enormous iron cauldrons, like those used for making soap, iron ladles and tripods, each of which can support four of these cauldrons. There are also the iron bricks left over from the construction of the wall, fused together by rust.

The responsibility for guarding this gate is hereditary, like the caliphate, and runs in the family of the commander of these fortresses. He rides out every Monday and Thursday in the early morning, followed by three men, each equipped with a hammer. One of them climbs a ladder, which is leaning against the door, and when he reaches the top step, he strikes the bolt with his hammer. Then, if one applies one's ear to the door, one hears a muted sound like a nest of wasps. Then everything falls silent again. Towards midday, a second blow is given and the same sound heard, but a little louder. In the afternoon, they strike the bolt again, with the same result. The commander only retires at sunset. The point of these blows is to tell those on the other side of the door that the guards are at their posts and the let them know that Gog and Magog have made no attempt against the door.

Near this place there is a large fortified area, 10 farsakhs wide and deep, in other words the area measured 100 farsakhs square.

Sallam said;

'Having accompanied the commander on one of these sorties, I asked whether the gate had ever suffered any kind of damage. I was told that there was only one small crack no bigger than a thread.

'Have you no fears concerning the door?'

'None,' they said. It is 5 Alexandrian cubits thick, each of which equals 1 1/2 'black cubits'.

I took the knife from my boot and began to scratch the crack, from which I obtained half a dram of dust, which I tied in a handkerchief so show Wathiq.

'On one of the panels of the door, there is an inscription in letters of iron, which gives the following words in the original language:

"When the promise of my Lord comes, He will make it powder, and the promise of my Lord is true."

'The general appearance of the building is strange, becasue the yellow layers of brass alternate with the black layers of iron, so that for the most part it is striped horizontally.

'It is still possible to see on the mountain the mould made for casting the doors; the place where the tin and the copper were melted together; the cauldrons, apparently made of brass, each with three handles, together with their chains and hooks for the purpose of hauling the brass up to the top of the Barrier.

'We asked the guardians of the gate whether they had ever seen anyone of the race of Gog and Magog. They told us that one day they had seen several of them on top of the mountain, but a violent wind had thrown them back to their side. Seen at a distance, their height did not appear to be more than a span and a half.

'Seen from the outside, the mountain has no plateau or downward slope; it has absolutely no vegetation; there are no trees or plants to be seen; it stretches into the far distance, steep, smooth and white in colour."


In more general news, the Ennie Awards are now open for voting. Click the image for a link;

I will probably do an actual full post about these in a day or two.


In the region of Khwarazm, on the road to Saqsin, some eight farsakhs from the city there is a marvel. There is a deep canyon in the mountains at the bottom of which is an artificial mound surmounted by a structure like a mosque, with a dome and four entrances with high porticoes. The mosque is covered with tiles of gold, clearly visible to anyone who stops to gaze at it. The mound is surrounded on all sides by stagnant water, fed by the rain or the snow in winter. Below the water, the bottom is clearly visible.

The water is roughly two cubits deep, judging it by the eye. The surface is covered with pondweed and it smells bad. No one dares enter the water, or dip in a hand or foot, since anything which touches the surface of that water disappears and vanishes, and no one can see where it goes. The width of the expanse of water, again  judging by eye, is about a hundred cubits.

Mahmud, the lord of Ghazna, who was a powerful and victorious king, came to this place and stayed there for some time. He had rowing boats brought, but when they were placed on that water, they disappeared. Then he ordered his troops to bring earth, canes, wood and stones, loading all the beasts of burden and the camels, and to throw it all into the water. But it all vanished. Then, he ordered them to inflate skins,animal hides and bladder of cows and sheep with air, but they too disappeared in the water without leaving a trace.

The king of Khwarazm, A'Ala al-Dawla Khwarazmshah - may god have mercy on him! - also made every possible effort to reach the treasure, but achieved nothing.

They say that if an animal falls into this water, it never emerges again; even though men tie ropes to it and try to haul it out, they never succeed and it vanishes. On the other hand, if a strong man looses a wooden arrow, it can hit the gold. There is so much gold that it can never be counted and it is in full view; all the people who come there from Khwarazm can see it, and so can travellers and infidels, when they go to that place. But there is no stratagem to get hold of it, unless God wishes to allow it. It is one of the marvels of the world.

A jurisconsult from Khwarazm told me how a certain peasant entered the city and in the marketplace took out a bowl of green emerald, the like of which had never been seen. taken into the presence of the Khwarazmshah, the latter asked him:

"Where did you find this?"

"I went to see the treasure', answered the peasant, 'and there I saw a great green dome, like this bowl. Under the dome, there was a tomb and the sarcophagus too was green, like this. Above the sarcophagus, there were great bowls, but I could not carry any of them, becasue of their size and weight, except for this one, which was the smallest I could find. I marked the door, laying some stones as a sign.'

The Khwarazmshah rode at once with his troops to the place the peasant had described, but he found nothing and said:

'These are the work of the Jinn!'

He gave the peasant some money, rewarded him and exempted him from taxes. That bowl was without price. only God knows the truth!"


  1. Thanks for this amazing spotlight.

  2. Neat, I've heard of this before but never actually read it. Gonna have to check it out. I like the idea that this guy wrote all this stuff down out of spite for no one ever taking his advice.

  3. I wonder if the "bowl of green emerald" could be the Chalice of Genoa?