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Flying carpet, magic carpet

Posted by ESC on January 20, 2001

In Reply to: Flying carpet posted by Yezniah on January 20, 2001

: Prior to Aladins Lamp...Reference made to flying carpets. Don't remember where. Religious or India Myths?? Please email me if you have something I can trail back to origin.

The Arabian Nights were a collection of Persian, Arabian and Indian folk tales handed down through several centuries. There are several translations including one by Sir Richard Francis Burton . an/a_index_commented.html


The History of the Nights

By John Crocker

The early history of the tales contained in the Nights is shrouded in the mists of time. The tales originated from Indian, Persian and Chinese travellers (mainly merchants like those depicted in James Elroy Flecker's classic poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand) who travelled the Chinese silk route, which extended from northern China to the Middle East and Egypt. These travellers would find respite and hospitality in caravanserais, where they would tell stories to entertain each other.

Did Carpets Really Fly?

If you know only two things about the Arabian Nights, there'll be the genii and the magic carpets, which are ordinary rugs until a magic spell turns them into the greatest method of escape. In fact (not myself having access to the complete Burton translation of the Arabian Nights) I only know of two stories that involve flying carpets and one ('Alá-ed-Deen Abu-sh-Shámát) that involves a slightly more comfortable flying couch! Contrary to popular contemporary myth, flying carpets play no part in the original version of the story of Aladdin. The following scene from the story of 'Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Pari Banou' is set in Bisnagar, the ancient Hindu capital city of southern India; and is from the Grub Street translation (1706-21).

"After Prince Houssain had run through that division, street by street, his thoughts fully employed on the riches he had seen, he was very much tired; which a merchant perceiving, civilly invited him to sit down in his shop, and he accepted of it; but had not been sat down long, before he saw a crier pass by with a piece of tapestry on his arm, about six foot square, and cried it at thirty purses. The prince called to the crier, and asked him to see the tapestry, which seemed to him to be valued at an exorbitant price, not only for the size of it, but for the meanness of the stuff. When he had examined it well, he told the crier, that he could not comprehend how so small a piece of tapestry, and of so indifferent appearance, could be set at so high a price. The crier, who took him for a merchant, replied, If this price seems so extravagant to you, your amazement will be greater, when I tell you I have orders to raise it to forty purses, and not to part with it under. Certainly, answered Prince Houssain, it must have something very extraordinary in it, which I know nothing of. You have guessed it, sir, replied the crier, and will own it, when you come to know, that whoever sits on this piece of tapestry may be transported in an instant where-ever he desires to be, without being stopped by any obstacle."

It has to be said that the description of the flying tapestry ride in that story is rather disappointing. The carpet is more of a dematerialising machine, like the famous Star Trek transporter device, than a flying experience.

Islamic tradition dictates that Solomon "had a carpet of green silk, on which his throne was placed, being of a prodigious length and breadth, and sufficient for all his forces to stand on, the men placing themselves on his right hand, and the spirits [or Jinn] on his left; and that when all were in order, the wind, at his command, took up the carpet, and transported it, with all that were upon it, wherever he pleased; the army of birds at the same time flying over their heads, and forming a kind of canopy, to shade them from the sun." This belief has clearly stemmed from several verses of the Koran referring to Solomon; for example Sura 38 verses 33-35:- "We also made a trial of Solomon, and placed a phantom on his throne: whereupon he returned to us (in penitence). He said, O my Lord! pardon me, and give me a dominion that may not be to any one beside me, for thou art the liberal giver. So we subjected the wind to him; it ran softly at his bidding, whithersoever he directed it."
In Sura 27 verses 38 to 40 Solomon asks the Jinn bring the throne of the Queen of Saba [Sheba] to him, which they promise to do in the twinkling of an eye - and verses 20 to 26 of Sura 27 show clear evidence of Solomon's relationship with the birds. In summary, although there is no mention of a flying carpet in the Koran, if Solomon had complete control of the wind, surely he could make it pick up a carpet for him whenever he wished? And, as if by magic, the adventures of Solomon in the story of 'The City of Brass' attest to just those powers over the wind:

[Solomon] sent to our king, saying to him: 'Behold, I have arrived: therefore submit thyself to my authority, and acknowledge my mission, and break thine idol, and worship the One, the Adored God, and marry to me thy daughter according to law, and say thou, and those who are with thee, I testify that there is no deity but God, and I testify that Solomon is the Prophet of God. If thou say that, peace and safety shall be thy lot. But if thou refuse, thy defending thyself from me in this island shall not prevent thee: for God hath commanded the wind to obey me, and I will order it to convey me unto thee on the carpet, and will make thee an example unto others.'

Magic carpets were also described in detail in the Egyptian and the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Hindu Samarangana Sutra-dhara of King Bhojarajas of Dhara. Many ancient cultures believed in flying machines as a reality - and many Hindu documents, including the Ramayana, tell of objects called vimanas (the celestial and aerial carriages that carry Ravan, Rama and Sita in my summary of the story). The Samarangana Sutra-dhara even tells the reader how to make one:-

"Strong and durable must the body of the Vimana be made, like a great flying bird of light material. Inside one must put the mercury engine with its iron heating apparatus underneath. By means of the power latent in the mercury which sets the driving whirlwind in motion, a man sitting inside may travel a great distance in the sky. The movements of the Vimana are such that it can vertically ascend, vertically descend, move slanting forwards and backwards. With the help of the machines human beings can fly in the air and heavenly beings can come down to earth."

With all the crackpot notions going round about flying machines that were built by the ancients; there was however a genuine reason for the ancients to write documents such as those mentioned here. The contemporary kings and gods had to be greater than mere human beings - and what better way to make them greater than to give them the power of flight; in report if not in fact. So the contemporary historians would have been called upon to create legends that their gods or masters had been airborne. And if you're going to give your king the power of flight; why not give him a machine in or on which to fly. After all, as far as the ordinary people were concerned (which included the original Arabian Nights audiences); as long as it was possible for the gods, kings and prophets to perform the feat of magical flight, then magical flight was a reality. Therefore, what was written about by the scribes became reality, and conversely, what was real was written about. In relatively recent times in Europe we can look at the eulogies that the court scribes or poets would write in honour of their monarch, at the threat of at least their salary or career if the monarch considered one word to be out of place; these being invariably accepted unquestioningly by the populace.

So that's the mythological reality, but what about the physical reality? Real flying carpets were made from layered paper glued with gelatin and dried in a kiln. Appearing in Tibet, magic carpets were linked to Tantric ritual (i.e. ritual of the Tantra sect of Tibetan Buddhism). The carpet and pilot would be suspended from a ravine and hopefully(!) dropped into a natural flight path. Any volunteers?

So, it seems incredible, but yes - carpets really did fly.