The 12th-century traveler, Abū Hāmid, in his Exposition of Some of the Wonders of the West, claimed that a bizarre structure could be found about 28 miles from the city of Khwārazm, located south of the Aral Sea in what is now Uzbekistan. Travelers on the roadway between Khwārazm and Saqsīn (a city on the northern side of the Caspian Sea) reportedly could see the odd building in a canyon along the route. The site allegedly featured an unnatural mound with a magnificent domed temple built atop it. The temple, which the Islamic travelers identified as a mosque, had four porticoes and four entrances, and was completely covered in gold, so that it shone like a beacon. Encircling the complex was a large moat, reportedly a hundred cubits wide (150 feet), but only about two cubits deep (3 feet). Although everyone in the region apparently wanted to visit the peculiar mosque to see it up close, to pray in the building, or even to pillage its riches, Abū Hāmid knew of only one person who reportedly entered the temple.
As the story goes, the golden mosque near Khwārazm was protected by magic and enchantments. The moat, in particular, was where most of these otherworldly protections were allegedly found. According to Abū Hāmid, “The surface [of the moat] 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”(Exposition of Some of the Wonders of the West, Penguin ed. pg. 90). Abū Hāmid went on to claim that Mahmūd of Ghazna (r. 998-1030) devoted great resources in an attempt to cross the moat. He allegedly had rowboats brought to the place, but as soon as the vessels were set on the water, they sank and disappeared below the pondweed. He similarly was said to have tried to build a causeway across the shallow moat with earth and rock, but no matter how much debris he poured into the water, the moat retained its consistent depth. Similarly, if a beast of burden fell into the water, it too would disappear—when the animal handlers hauled up their lead ropes from the moat, nothing was attached at the end of the line. In the end, Mahmūd of Gazna could not reach the mosque. All he could do was shoot arrows across the moat, which pinged enticingly against the building’s golden tiles.
According to Abū Hāmid, one man did reach and enter the enchanted mosque. The man was a peasant from Khwārazm whose name had been forgotten by the time Abū Hāmid wrote down the tale in the 12th century. This mysterious peasant was said to have appeared one day in the city market with a sizable bowl made of pure emerald. As the peasant was not a man of wealth, the local officials were immediately suspicious and interrogated him about the precious bowl. Under questioning, the peasant reportedly said he had gone out in search of treasure and—apparently without any effort—found a path up to a domed building. He entered the structure and found a tomb built for an unidentified man, who had been laid to rest in an emerald sarcophagus. Around the sarcophagus were vast riches and several emerald bowls. The peasant claimed that the bowl he possessed was the smallest of everything in the tomb, and that he left the rest behind because it was all too heavy to lift. According to the tale, the leader of Khwārazm was eager to loot the remaining wealth and had the peasant retrace his steps back toward the tomb. When they arrived, however, the temple and tomb had reportedly disappeared. As of today, archeologists have found nothing in the region that resembles Abū Hāmid’s enchanted mosque.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image from page 170 of “Stories from the Arabian nights” (1911), [Public Domain] via Flickr and Creative Commons).
- Exposition of Some of the Wonders of the West by Abū Hāmid, translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012.