The History of the Magical Flying Carpets
Magic carpets are a form of transportation most notably found in oriental tales. These carpets are known also as flying carpets, as they transport their owners from one place to another through the air. Whilst magic carpets are perhaps most commonly associated with the stories found in the Thousand and One Nights, magic carpets have also been mentioned in the writings of different civilizations at various points of time in history.
History of Flying Carpets
Interestingly, contrary to popular opinion, the magic carpet does not feature prominently in the Thousand and One Nights. For example, in the Galland manuscript, the oldest manuscript which contains the first 282 (out of 1001) stories, no mention is made of magic carpets.
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In the original version of ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’, the abduction of Princess Badroulbadour and her bridegroom on their wedding night happened not on a magic carpet, but on their marriage bed, which was carried through the air by the genie of the lamp. It has also been asserted that magic carpets make their first appearance in more modern versions of the tale, most visibly Walt Disney’s 1992 Aladdin.
A manuscript of the One Thousand and One Nights (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Still, the history of magic carpets may be traced back to an earlier point in time. It seems that King Solomon of Israel is the earliest known historical figure to be associated with magic carpets. There are at least two versions of the tale of King Solomon and his magic carpet. One of these is said to have been written by a 13 th century AD. Jewish scholar by the name of Isaac Ben Sherira. This story is claimed to have been compiled from two ancient works that have since been lost.
In Ben Sherira’s story, the legendary Queen of Sheba had a royal alchemist who managed to make a small brown rug hover above the ground. Years later, the alchemist perfected his skill, when he discovered that the trick lay in the carpet’s dying, rather than in its spinning process. When the queen heard this good news, she had a magic carpet made, and sent to King Solomon as a token of her love. This carpet is said to have been made of green silk which was embroidered with gold and silver, and studded with precious stones. The carpet is also said to have been so large that the king’s host could stand on it.
Queen of Sheba. (Public Domain)
When the carpet arrived, Solomon was busy with the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem. He could not receive the gift, and gave it to one of his courtiers instead. When news of this cold reception reached the Queen of Sheba, she was heart-broken, and decided not to have anything more to do with magic carpets. Without royal patronage, the alchemist (and his artisans) could no longer make magic carpets, and the knowledge is said to have been lost forever. Alternatively, it has been claimed that the artisans involved in the making of the magic carpet wandered around for years, before settling down somewhere in Mesopotamia.
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In another version of the Solomon story, the king received his magic carpet from God himself. This carpet is said to have been able to carry 40000 men in the air at any given time. Being in possession of this carpet, Solomon’s pride is said to have grown each day. Eventually, God decided to punish Solomon, and whilst the carpet was flying in mid-air, He shook it, thus causing the 40000 men on it to fall to their deaths.
Solomon at his throne, painting by Andreas Brugger, 1777. (Public Domain)
Apart from being a mode of transportation, magic carpets have also been depicted as a sort weapon that was used during wars. One of these stories relates to a late 2 nd century B.C. Parthian king by the name of Phraates II. In 130 B.C., the king is said to have been engaged in a war with Antiochus VII, the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. In the story, Phraates flew from the heights of the Zagros Mountains on a carpet or a piece of cloth to confront his enemy, which he destroyed with fire and lightning. Phraates was given a triumphant reception when he returned, and is said to have floated over the heads of his subjects on his magic carpet. In another story, the 3 rd century AD. Sassanian ruler, Shapur, is said to have had a magic carpet too. Using his carpet, Shapur sneaked into the camp of the Roman army one night, surprised the Emperor Valerian, who was asleep, and abducted him.
Top image: A 19 th century painting of a magic carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov. Photo source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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