THE CITY OF IREM.
It is related that Abdallah ben Abou Kilabeh went forth in quest of a camel that had strayed from him; and as he was wandering in the deserts of Yemen and Sebaa, he came upon a great city in whose midst was a vast citadel compassed about with pavilions, that rose high into the air. He made for the place, thinking to find there inhabitants, of whom he might enquire concerning his camel; but, when he reached it, he found it deserted, without a living soul in it. So (quoth Abdallah), 'I alighted and hobbling my she-camel, took courage and entered the city. When I came to the citadel, I found it had two vast gates, never in the world was seen their like for size and loftiness, inlaid with all manner jewels and jacinths, white and red and yellow and green. At this I marvelled greatly and entering the citadel, trembling and dazed with wonder and affright, found it long and wide, as it were a city (137) for bigness; and therein were lofty storied pavilions, builded of gold and silver and inlaid with many-coloured jewels and jacinths and chrysolites and pearls. The leaves of their doors were even as those of the citadel for beauty and their floors strewn with great pearls and balls, as they were hazel-nuts, of musk and ambergris and saffron. When I came within the city and saw no human being therein, I had nigh-well swooned and died for fear. Moreover, I looked down from the summit of the towers and balconies and saw rivers running under them; in the streets were fruit-laden trees and tall palms, and the manner of the building of the city was one brick of gold and one of silver. So I said to myself, "Doubtless this is the Paradise promised for the world to come." Then I took of the jewels of its gravel and the musk of its dust as much as I could bear and returned to my own country, where I told the folk what I had seen.
After awhile, the news reached Muawiyeh ben Abou Sufyan, who was then Khalif in the Hejaz; so he wrote to his lieutenant in Senaa of Yemen to send for the teller of the story and question him of the truth of the case. Accordingly the lieutenant sent for me and questioned me, and I told him what I had seen; whereupon he despatched me to Muawiyeh, to whom I repeated my story; but he would not credit it. So I brought out to him some of the pearls and balls of musk and ambergris and saffron, in which latter there was still some sweet smell; but the pearls were grown yellow and discoloured. The Khalif wondered at this and sending for Kaab el Ahbar, (138), said to him, "O Kaab el Ahbar, I have sent for thee to learn the truth of a certain matter and hope that thou wilt be able to certify me thereanent." "What is it, O Commander of the Faithful?" asked Kaab, and Muawiyeh said, "Wottest thou of a city builded of gold and silver, the pillars whereof are of rubies and chrysolites and its gravel pearls and balls of musk and ambergris and saffron?" "Yes, O Commander of the Faithful," answered Kaab. "It is 'Irem of the Columns, the like of which was never made in the lands,' (139) and it was Sheddad son of Aad the Great that built it." Quoth the Khalif, "Tell us of its history," and Kaab said, "Aad the Great had two sons, Shedid and Sheddad. When their father died, they ruled in his stead, and there was no king of the kings of the earth but was subject to them. After awhile Shedid died and his brother Sheddad reigned over the earth alone. Now he was fond of reading in old books, and happening upon the description of the world to come and of Paradise, with its pavilions and galleries and trees and fruits and so forth, his soul moved him to build the like thereof in this world, after the fashion aforesaid. (140) Now under his hand were a hundred thousand kings, each ruling over a hundred thousand captains, commanding each a hundred thousand warriors; so he called these all before him and said to them, 'I find in old books and histories a description of Paradise, as it is to be in the next world, and I desire to build its like in this world. Go ye forth therefore to the goodliest and most spacious tract in the world and build me there a city of gold and silver, whose gravel shall be rubies and chrysolites and pearls and the columns of its vaults beryl. Fill it with palaces, whereon ye shall set galleries and balconies, and plant its lanes and thoroughfares with all manner of trees bearing ripe fruits and make rivers to run through it in channels of gold and silver.' 'How can we avail to do this thing,' answered they, 'and whence shall we get the chrysolites and rubies and pearls whereof thou speakest?' Quoth he, 'Know ye not that all the kings of the word are under my hand and that none that is therein dare gainsay my commandment?' 'Yes,' answered they; 'we know that.' 'Get ye then,' rejoined he, 'to the mines of chrysolites and rubies and gold and silver and to the pearl-fisheries and gather together all that is in the world of jewels and metals of price and leave nought; and take also for me such of these things as be in men's hands and let nothing escape you: be diligent and beware of disobedience.'
Then he wrote letters to all the [chief] kings of the world (now the number of kings then reigning [in chief] over the earth was three hundred and threescore kings) and bade them gather together all of these things that were in their subjects' hands and get them to the mines of precious stones and metals and bring forth all that was therein, even from the abysses of the seas. This they accomplished in the space of twenty years, and Sheddad then assembled from all lands and countries builders and men of art and labourers and handicraftsmen, who dispersed over the world and explored all the wastes and deserts thereof, till they came to a vast and fair open plain, clear of hills and mountains, with springs welling and rivers running, and said, 'This is even such a place as the King commanded us to find.' So they busied themselves in building the city even as Sheddad, King of the whole earth in its length and breadth, had commanded them, laying the foundations and leading the rivers therethrough in channels after the prescribed fashion. Moreover, all the Kings of the earth sent thither jewels and precious stones and pearls large and small and cornelian and gold and silver upon camels by land and in great ships over the waters, and there came to the builders' hands of all these things so great a quantity as may neither be told or imagined. They laboured at the work three hundred years; and when they had wrought it to end, they went to King Sheddad and acquainted him therewith. Then said he, 'Depart and make thereto an impregnable citadel, rising high into the air, and round it a thousand pavilions, each builded on a thousand columns of chrysolite and ruby and vaulted with gold, that in each pavilion may dwell a Vizier.' So they returned and did this in other twenty years; after which they again presented themselves before the King and informed him of the accomplishment of his will. Then he commanded his Viziers, who were a thousand in number, and his chief officers and such of his troops and others as he put trust in, to prepare for departure and removal to Many-Columned Irem, at the stirrup of Sheddad son of Aad, king of the world; and he bade also such as he would of his women and of his female slaves and eunuchs make them ready for the journey. They spent twenty years preparing for departure, at the end of which time Sheddad set out with his host, rejoicing in the attainment of his wish, and fared forward till there remained but one day's journey between him and Item. Then God sent down on him and on the stubborn unbelievers with him a thunderblast from the heavens of His power, which destroyed them all with a mighty clamour, and neither he nor any of his company set eyes on the city. Moreover, God blotted out the road that led to the city, and it stands unchanged, in its stead, until the Resurrection Day."
Muawiyeh wondered greatly ad Kaab's story and said to him, "Hath any mortal ever made his way to the city?" "Yes," answered Kaab; "one of the companions of Mohammed (on whom be peace and salvation) reached it, doubtless after the same fashion as this man who sits here." And (quoth Es Shaabi) it is related, on the authority of learned men of Himyer of Yemen, that Sheddad was succeeded in his kingship by his son Sheddad the Less, whom he left his viceregent in Hezremout and Sebaa, when he set out for Irem. When he heard of his father's death on the road, he caused his body to be brought back to Hezremout and let hew him out a sepulchre in a cavern, where he laid the body on a throne of gold and threw over it threescore and ten robes of cloth of gold, embroidered with precious stones; and at his head he set up a tablet of gold, on which were graven the following verses:Take warning, thou that by long life Art duped and thinkst to live alway.
(Quoth Eth Thaalibi also) It chanced that two men once entered this cavern and found at its upper end a stair; so they descended and came to an underground chamber, a hundred cubits long by forth wide and a hundred high. In the midst stood a throne of gold, whereon lay a man of gigantic stature, filling the whole length and breadth of the throne. He was covered with jewelry and raiment gold and silver wrought, and at his head was a tablet of gold, bearing an inscription. So they took the tablet and bore it off, together with as many bars of gold and silver and so forth as they could away with.