The silence and cold are each, in their own way, bracing. It is midnight in the Rub’ Al Khali, Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. I have journeyed here, first by Jeep, and then my camel and finally by foot. I am in the heart of the desert.
Far above me, the world is covered by a blanket of stars. They are familiar. What they illuminate is totally alien. Sand dunes a thousand feet tall tower over the gray gravel plane. With the winds, the world here is constantly shifting. During the day temperatures regularly hit 130 degrees farenheit. At night, it can freeze. Water is almost impossible to find. And packing is a very real challenge.
There are things that live here. Some plants, birds and insects. But little else. Everything that lives here is tough – able to endure one of the harshest ecosystems in the world. Even the Beduin do not venture here.
But there is, hidden in the wasteland, one most unusual species. For millennia, they have been only a rumor. They are the inhabitants of the buried city of Iram. The City of a Thousand Pillars.
It was once considered a great trading city – a nexus in the string of camel and sea routes that connected the East and the West. But, like Atlantis, it disappeared long ago. According to rumor, it was swallowed by the sands as a punishment from God.
I have discovered another truth.
This night, silent and cold, is the night that I confirm that the rumor is false. After almost 1500 years of total secrecy, I alone have been invited to visit. I don’t know why.
As I am to discover, the existence of this city is only one of its many secrets.
My guide met me in Riyadh. He was quiet. And despite coming from the desert, he seemed to lack the attitude of a nomad. Even in the cities of Saudi Arabia, people have the culture of nomads. But not this man. He was quiet and reserved – and seemed most unhappy to be travelling.
He took away my GPS and my phone and, my load thus lightened, we headed into the desert. A few people saw us drive by the edge of humanity and into the sea of sand. They saw the SUV, and they must have assumed we were going to spin around in the dunes. But we didn’t encroach on the sand and return. We just kept going. And then, at midnight of the second day, we stopped. There were camels waiting for us.
Again, my guide spoke little – and he seemed uncomfortable on the back of the camel. But we kept moving. And 24 hours later, we stopped, dismounted, and began to walk.
I asked him, in Arabic, “Why leave the camels?”
He answered, in a dialect I had never heard before, “They are unclean.”
Confused, I kept walking. The desert sea is flat aside from the dunes. But occasionally there are splits in the surface. Ruptures. I’d read about some of them – there had been an old oasis near one of them. The cracks revealed the long-absent presence of water. My guide leads us to one of these cracks and we descend.
We have no torch or other light. As we continue under the ground, it grows darker and darker. But even in the dark I can sense that my feet are walking a smooth trail and that the naturally formed walls of the crevice are giving way to something more regular. Something more human.
And then, out of nowhere, we come to a wooden door.
My guide knocks.
And then the door opens.
I can not make out the faces of the people inside. My guide goes through the door and I follow. Beyond there is a snaking path, hemmed in on all sides by smooth-stoned walls. Any invader would have to traverse this – and any advantage in might or men would be erased.
And then the path ends and opening up before me is the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen.
A thousand pillars, painted blue and red and green, wrapped in vines and lit by oil-burning lights, separate the desert floor above from the floor of a glorious city.
The smell of frankincense and myrrh – rich Eastern spices – is in the air. Throughout the city there are tiny canals routing water to trees and crops that are sprinkled amongst the pillars. Although they are not visible at night, the columns have mirrors and hollow-tubes within them. During the day, those not covered by sand bring the sun into the subterranean world – enabling the trees and crops to grow and the people to bask in a pale reflection of the harsh environment above.
But that is not the greatest surprise. For as soon as we enter the city proper, my guide melts away. And I am greeted by a woman.
She is dressed modestly, but she is not wearing an abaya or other enveloping clothing. More importantly, her very presence speaks of authority. Authority my guide clearly never had.
“Welcome,” she says, in that ancient-sounding Arabic dialect.
I want to ask if she was the daughter of some tribal elder, but she beats me to it.
“I am Mohammedah, Matriarch and Guide of the City of Iram.”
She is the ruler?
“I am Bob Howard,” I answer, feeling pathetic, “And curious.”
“Welcome to our city,” she says, again, “I will be happy to give you a tour.”
“I will be glad to accompany you,” I answer.
With that, we begin to walk. First we go to the reservoir and she explain, “The city is sustained by rare rainfall, a gift from God. We collect the water in the reservoir and preserve it for many years. There is also groundwater we can use in times of great drought, but we avoid it.”
We walk to the canals. “These have been designed,” she explains, “To preserve all the water that can be preserved. Every canal is covered and designed to deliver only the water that is absolutely necessary to our trees and crops.”
And then, as we head towards the market, I notice that there are no men – only women.
And so I ask, “Is this a woman’t quarter?”
She smiles back at me, “Here,” she says, “There is no other quarter. The men stay within our homes and feed the children and are forbidden, except in very unusual circumstances, from appearing in public. Women rule here.”
“In an Arab culture?” I ask, “That is unheard of.”
“Bob,” she says, the ancient Arabic rolling off her tongue, “The rest of the Muslim world has been betrayed.”
“How?” I ask.
“I will show you,” she answers. And with that, we begin walking towards the center of the city.
And in the center of the city, there is a mosque. And in the center of the mosque, on a pedestal of limestone, is a book.
She leads me to it.
When she opens the first page, I recognize the words. It is the Koran.
But the words are not quite the same.
“This,” says Mohammedah, “Is the original Koran. It was written before the version the rest of the world knows. And it contains a secret that the rest of the world does not know.”
“And that is?” I ask.
“That,” says Mohammedah, “Is that the Prophet Mohammed was a woman. Mohammedah.”
“That can’t be,” I answer.
“But it is true,” she replies, “Mohammed is the word Chamud, ‘desirable.’ Mohammedah was a woman of fine form and beautiful eyes. And she produced, like France’s Joan of Arc, many improbable military victories. And she led a small army of loyal women – powerful women. But they were betrayed by their men. And when those men led armies, in the name of Islam, to other lands, the Koran was changed and she was removed.”
“And then?” I ask, not actually believing a word she’s saying.
“And then,” she answers, “We came here. To Iram. A few attempts were made to overwhelm us – but the city’s defenses were strong. And so the city never disappeared, but it was the last holdout of the true followers of Mohammedah. Here, women rule and men submit. Here, men suffer for their betrayal against the Prophet, peace be upon her. In the Koran the world knows, our city has been eliminated. But, as you see, that is not true. We have only been isolated – cut off from the world to prevent them from knowing our secret.”
“Why invite me?” I ask. “Why, after all these years, would you reveal yourselves now.”
“Robert,” she answers, “We are a city hidden in the desert. We have a small population and we breed amongst ourselves. You have been invited, not to visit, but to stay.”
I don’t understand, and it shows on my face. I am here to stay? It takes a moment for my mind to grasp – but by the time the command ‘Run’ is passed to my body, it is too late.
I feel hands grabbing me from behind and shackles being placed on my arms.
“Bob,” continues Mohammedah, as she watches me being restrained, “We are are a city at constant risk of inbreeding. And so we regularly require new blood. You have been brought here to breed. You have been brought here to guarantee that the City of Iram, the City of a Thousand Pillars, can survive. To protect the city, you may never leave.”
I am screaming as I am dragged out of the mosque.
I am brought into a darkened building. And I am left inside. The door is closed and barred behind me.
As my eyes adjust I look around. And I see men. Men from around the world.
The shock has left their faces.
Instead, I see only resignation.
I see only my future.
And thus, I begin my life in the harem of Mohammedah, Matriarch and Ruler of the City of Iram – the City of a Thousand Pillars.