Excerpted from A Stone's Throw: The Enduring Nature of Myth, by Ross Laird
Martin Nordegg, the Jewish nomad who founded the mountain town in which my wife’s parents grew up, was led to the site by three birds, flying high on the horizon. This happened before he had designed the town in a radial plan that mimics the Mecca enclosure of the Kaaba.1
We head east toward the town of Nordegg – my wife and I, our children, my wife’s parents – along an old road that was first a mountain track and is now a quiet highway. The distance from our suburban home near Vancouver to the destination of our pilgrimage is almost exactly the distance from Mecca to Jerusalem. We’re going back to see the derelict homes, the mine of black rock long closed, the summit of the peak above the town. Along the way, we’ll unwind old tales from their careless burials, wiping the dust from their eyes. We’re returning, three generations of a family whose collective memory stretches back no more than a century. Our fables, like most fables aged with the patina of telling, are not very old. They don’t have to be. The kids listen, rapt and questioning and incredulous, while the old people talk.
On the first day of our pilgrimage, the verdant landscape of the coast gives way to mountain valleys and to glaciers swept clean by tumbling ice. We pass the road where my father, as a boy, ran beside his parents’ car as it crept into the canyon. We skirt the shore of a lake where a sacred mask is said to have emerged and led the people in a dance of the ancestors. On a hillside that winds toward a high saddle and a horned peak of polished basalt, ridges and valleys unfold before us like aged fingers laced together in prayer.
The mountains jostle downward, merging into a plateau that widens before us. We follow it, toward the desert we must cross. Clumps of scrubby pine and juniper flank the descending road. We see stands of white birch, trunks long and slender, bark bright as new parchment. Elizabeth and I sit in the front of the minivan; her parents sit behind us; the kids are in the back. As we travel, my in-laws talk about the land, pointing to where the river flooded, to the old ranch that almost became their home, to the sites of mishaps and discoveries and pleasures. They have traveled this road many times, and as they talk – arguing about details, splicing two or three tales into one, wandering off into detours and diversions that sometimes hook up again with the main tale but often dwindle away – I have the impression that the tales reside not only in my in-laws, in their memories, but in the landscape itself. The fables are evoked by our passing. They linger as ghosts in the wake of our departure, become quiet again but can never be lost. The road is suffused with stories. This road and every road.
They talk of the railway, of the spiral tunnels cut into the mountain, of the exacting tunnel engineer, afraid his calculations were off, who killed himself the night before the two construction crews, working toward each other from opposing sides, broke through the wall between them and found the tunnels matched to within an inch. The road follows the railway line, more or less, and my in-laws point out the new stretches of highway, the collapsed avalanche sheds we bypass, the hot springs where Elizabeth’s father once thought of opening a medical clinic.
They talk, and we listen. We have questions and seek clarifications. Their stories often conflict. It was like this; no, it happened another way. Kan ya ma kan. In the crash thirty years ago, when the car blew a tire and cartwheeled five or six times, when Elizabeth’s sister was thrown from the vehicle before it came to rest in a hay field, they could not find her because she lay unconscious in the field and shrouded by her flaxen hair. No – Elizabeth’s brother saw her; he did not see her but looked for and found her; he did not look for her but heard the whimpering of her small voice. And though his collarbone was broken, he carried her back to the wreck and waited while a passing motorist ran far down the field, to the homestead where he called for help. I’m surprised to learn that my mother-in-law still hears from that passing motorist; he calls every couple of years, as though he has stayed on the phone all this time, making sure everything is all right, waiting for the ambulance to come and gather up my mother-in-law’s shattered bones.
Elizabeth’s parents talk in their slow, laconic way of trips along this road, of days still fresh and laid out in their minds. My mother-in-law and her two sisters figure prominently in every tale: the eldest who is of fire, the youngest of water, and the middle one, she of earth, the grandmother of my children. Within the circle of Elizabeth’s extended family, these women are known by a simple epithet: the three sisters.
We travel far eastward, over the plain of the desert and into the mountains on the other side. Near the end of our first day of travel, we pass beneath a massif in the shadow of the dwindling day. It overlooks tumbled foothills and the prairie to the east. Three rough peaks, gray and solid, textured with cracks and fissures. The Three Sisters.
At the temple of the sisters in Mecca, along the desert track where Abraham once searched for water, Muhammad lay in repose at the close of evening. He gazed up at the clear indigo sky, wondered about the unfolding of ancient tales, and fell asleep. It was the end of the 27th day of the month of Rajab, in the 620th year of the Common Era. The Prophet was fifty years old.
In his dream (which was not a dream), Muhammad retraced the exile, the pilgrimage, of Abraham and of the Hebrew travelers who had departed the Holy Land centuries before. From the enclosure of the Kaaba, Muhammad journeyed backward, to Jerusalem, where the stone of foundation – of which the black stone of the Kaaba is a fragment – provided for him a place of ascension.
But wait – he is not traveling yet, he is still sleeping, and the companions of his night journey have not yet opened him up, nor shown him the vessel of wisdom, nor has he yet mounted the winged beast. He is sleeping.
We head north the next day, through hardscrabble towns on the edge of the prairie. The road descends, passing through an eroded landscape with exposed gullies and canyons. These are badlands, geological formations a hundred million years old. We pass hoodoos, spires of twisted sandstone that are said to be alive. Every tradition, it seems, renders its stones into animate shapes.
Along the stretch of road where the car crash occurred all those years ago – where Elizabeth remembers standing with her pet turtle, its shell clacking against the plastic jar as her hand shook, where they waited for the ambulance in the quiet corner of a golden field – we turn westward. I ask my mother-in-law if she can identify precisely where the car left the road. She used to know, she says, by the look of a particular pole standing at the roadside, by the slope of the terrain. But she no longer remembers: it could have been there, where a rusted tractor perches on an overgrown knoll; or farther on, before the pond but after the long hill. She cannot recall the precise location, but she remembers, will always remember, waking after being thrown from the car – her legs broken – waking as though she had been profoundly asleep.
She opened her eyes, saw a world bright and clear as she had never known it. There was a radiance in things – in the grass, in the slow spinning of a wheel on the upturned car, in the sky, in her children, alive, alive. The light rushed into her, opened her up. The world was new again, fresh and new.
Now there are no more junctures, no more exits; just a winding road west, into the mountains, back to the place in which fully half the mythology my children will inherit finds its origin. This is the track of their mother’s people. As we travel, they gaze at fields and barns on hills and distant peaks.
At midday, we glimpse for the first time the summit above the town: a flattened peak with cliffs and bastions around its perimeter, a softly sloping forest beneath. I consult the map, to get a sense of the landscape, and find that we are close to the Blackstone River and to Abraham Lake. The town site, now a national historic monument, is a small notation surrounded by emptiness. It’s been fifty years since the coal mine closed and the life of the town ended. Less than a century since its founder, a German Jew who changed his name from Cohn to Nordegg to escape anti-Semitism, left Canada during the First World War because his German heritage put him in danger. He never returned to the town that bears his adopted name, to the streets and buildings he designed, to the collieries that supplied fuel for the railway until diesel supplanted coal in the 1950s.
The families of Elizabeth’s parents lived in adjacent homes, their patriarchs working the tunnels and the tipple where the coal was screened and sorted. After the mine closed, in 1955, the town died. The families moved on, to Edmonton and Calgary, to other small places scratching the land for sustenance. Their myths went with them, spreading into the curves of roads and hollows of trees, layering the landscape with stories, half-remembered tales, ghosts.
Today the place is quiet, buried, as the Kaaba was when Abraham found it. Most of the buildings are gone. No one walks the streets. We park at the new museum in what was once the school. Above us, on the mountain slope, miles of honeycombed tunnels lie hidden beneath the forest.
The impulse to return to the old places can be a kind of restlessness, or an instinct that lies long dormant and is suddenly awakened by a gust of wind, a bit of careless storytelling, the scent of a green apple – anything will do. It doesn’t take much, after all, to evoke the desire to partake of one’s origin, to glimpse the beginning places of one’s family and culture. But such places are provisional stops; they point ever backward, to other foundations, stories, moments too remote to capture. We settle upon the most recent of them, taking the transience of memory as our compass of endurance. Everyone is a nomad, an exile waiting to return home. And home is any place we choose.
For Avery and Rowan, this abandoned town will embody much of their past. It will carry, for them, the weight of their beginnings. It occupies an authentic space they can visit, unlike many of the fragmented and mythological tales of my father’s people, which ramble far back but do not provide many signposts on the actual land of memory. Nordegg is firmly on the map of Alberta: west from Red Deer, through Sylvan Lake and the farm where Elizabeth’s grandmother lived, past Rocky Mountain House. Or east, from behind the Columbia ice field and across the White Goat Wilderness. Memory begins with the land, and here the territory is not quite at the threshold of erasure. Two or three generations hence, this place will be forgotten by our family. We will spread elsewhere, into terrain fresh with fable. At family gatherings people will reach for the odd name of that faraway place, perhaps snatching it for a moment from the well of tales before it descends again to lie with the ancestors. Our descendants will remember that their people came from the West Coast – where we now reside – as I remember mine coming from the east, and my wife remembers hers coming from a far-off shore. My grandmother remembered other places (whose names she heard from her mother) which are not now remembered. All that’s left, as the family chronicle relates, is the mnemonic of the stones: “The old house has been torn down, but its site is visible, and we took away several stones as souvenirs.”
Where the town site once unfurled up the slope from the valley, almost every house has been torn down. Where the forest has not reclaimed the terrain, high grasses slowly consume what remains: hewn fence posts black with age, iron gates crumbling, ancient tractors (the denizens of every forgotten place). A spruce tree marks the corner of the adjacent properties occupied by Elizabeth’s parents and their families. Beneath it there lies a small, empty, unremarkable field. The houses are gone. A shallow depression marks what might be the remains of the cellar, dug by hand from the hard soil, but no one is sure. Near where the property meets the curved gravel road, and small evergreens grow in the spruce’s shade, I find three flat stones, each about a foot wide, lying in the grass. I point them out to my father-in-law, who tells me they are the remnants of a walkway he laid down with his father-in-law almost sixty years ago. These flagstones, brought from a quarry nearby and set with care, are the only firm indication that Elizabeth’s family was ever here. The stones persist, all else fades.
This stubbornness of stone, its implacable endurance, explains its importance in the rituals of memory. Stones preserve our reveries of origin. Every pilgrim and returning exile seeks the solace of those reveries, especially in uncertain times. This is why Muhammad slept beside the Kaaba stone: to leverage his dreams into prophecy, into the horizon of myth. He was looking forward, to his remaining twelve years, during which he would be exiled to Medina, would wage war, would unify the Arabian Peninsula. He would first direct his people to pray toward Jerusalem with its foundation stone at the holy center, then redirect them to pray toward Mecca with its radiant stone, gift of the three sisters.2 There were many details to envision, many rewards to hope for, and he was already weary. So he slept within the enclosure of the past, which is the mirror of the future.
And the tale stretched out.3 From the indigo vault of the sky, three beings descended: Jibril, revealer of scriptures; Mika¸il, angel of sustenance; and Israfil, the trumpet bearer, who will stand (so says the prophecy) on the foundation stone in Jerusalem to announce the day of resurrection.4
The celestial trio flew in an arc of fire across the horizon, burning the dross of the stars. They wheeled and plummeted, tumbling like Daniel and his companions in the fire of Nebuchadnezzar. Below them the desert lay still and unsuspecting. Spiraling down, in the way they had learned from their forebears – the nomadic Shebtiw who had been called to the well of ancestors at the world’s inception – the angels came to rest by the waters of the spring, found by the child Ishmael in the days of Abraham. The Prophet lay nearby, restless, searching for wakefulness in sleep.
Jibril lifted Muhammad, softly, with care, and carried him to the waters. Then, with one finger of his terrible light, he touched Muhammad on the forehead and opened him to the light of creation.5 The Prophet awoke to a blinding clarity, to the shapes of things as though they had been touched for the first time by his sight: a sandstone wall fringed with tussocks of grass, an acacia tree on the edge of the plain, the scattered hue of wildflowers on the mountain to the north. He was awake to the rhythms of things, to the staccato of insect wings and the pulse of the earth beneath him. In the dark wall of the Kaaba enclosure, the radiant stone shone with fleeting forms. Muhammad looked at his own skin and saw fire tracing its way across him, its fine lines racing in the paths of his blood, its brilliance coursing through him.
Jibril reached into Muhammad’s body, fire into fire, laid his fingers like the blade of a broad knife upon Muhammad’s throat, and slashed downward, opening the Prophet’s body to the navel. No blood spilled forth; only light, exiled, migrating, returning, filling the desert with its revolutions. Muhammad saw all this, became this, was lofted beyond himself and into something he had not guessed before.
Jibril removed Muhammad’s heart and washed it in the waters of the well, cleansing the remnant darkness. Three times the angel washed: dipping, rinsing, cradling. He filled a golden vessel with water and emptied it into the Prophet’s chest, filling the cavity with hilm: wisdom, knowledge, impeccability. Then Jibril replaced the awakened heart, closed the wound, and touched Muhammad on the back, between the shoulder blades. The lines of fire upon the Prophet’s skin burned brighter, migrated toward the place where the angel held his hand, were drawn up into a single lens of radiance, luminous and glimmering along Muhammad’s spine. Jibril removed his hand. The whorl of light remained, the seal of prophethood.6
Muhammad sat up, stretched his joints, gazed at the three angels of fire. He saw that something lay behind the shrouds of fire. Faces and shifting forms and a sound that reminded him of swimming underwater: a high-pitched hum, distant and clear. And he saw that there was a fourth being among them, a winged steed with the body of a horse, neck of a lion, and features of a woman.7 This was Buraq, the lightning mount, who had come to carry Muhammad back along the path of Abraham, back to Jerusalem where the stone of origins lay. Buraq had carried Abraham, Enoch, Jacob, Noah – all the prophets – on similar night journeys to the seat of foundation. Every prophet returns there, so that the dreams of the people might be carried on strong winds into the bright skies.
These travelers – a man amazed, three angels trailing fire, an animal strange as the Sphinx – lifted off into the night sky and headed north. They passed the landmarks of the old trails: ashes of night fires left by exiles, worn paths flanking the slopes of mountains, a horizon of rising stars. Muhammad breathed the chill air as he soared between angels of fire. On his back, the spot touched by Jibril was hot. The company flew long into the night, stopping to pray at the sites they knew from old tales. And after each devotional, as they ascended into the dark, Muhammad was shown the secrets: of paradise, of desolation, of the soul unfolding in the rhythms of time. He saw the celestial book as a pearl hanging in the darkness; he saw Moses, praying among red sand hills; he saw the dark one, the Dajjal – the Islamic Antichrist – the adversary spoken of in the end-time prophecy. The Dajjal’s hair was wild, like the roots of a tree, and his left eye shone like a star. Muhammad arrowed past these and other sights, among them the Timekeeper, as old as the world, whose death will herald the demise of the current age. He saw Abraham, resting with Ishmael beneath a canopy of bright lanterns.
The companions journeyed far, coming at last to Jerusalem and the temple upon the mountain. They wheeled above it, gazed down upon the stone at its heart. The site was derelict, left fallow during centuries of conquest and religious war. Gone was the sanctuary rebuilt by exiles returning from Babylon. It lay tumbled beneath the scree of Greek and Roman occupations, beneath the stones of Herod’s temple that had fallen in 70 CE. The western wall was the only temple structure that remained. Above, on the broad summit where Noah and Jacob and Solomon had come, the stone of foundation was surrounded by debris.
Detritus is everywhere. Near the mine entrance, a boneyard is strewn with hulks of rusted metal. Springs and fastening plates and machinery cores. Tractors and truck frames swim in the rising grass. Black timbers. Bulldozers have been efficient with the town site, burying and carrying away the homes, but here on the hillside things are different. Crumbling structures lie scattered across the wide field; in their shade, machinery parts and underground vehicles punctuate the forgotten landscape.
We pause at a small, flat hillock of grass outlined by a wooden foundation, where my mother-in-law says her grandfather once cared for the horses. At many other mines, she tells us, the horses remained underground until they died; but at Nordegg they were well cared for and came out into the twilight with the miners at close of day.
At the entrance to the blacksmithing and carpentry sheds, I see a smattering of blue flowers in the grass. I cross the threshold into the old shops, devoid now of their tools and smoke and sounds. I walk past the stained forge, beneath an apparatus on the ceiling for lifting heavy parts, and make my way to the carpentry bench. There’s not much to see, just a long cabinet slumped in the corner and the remains of a ratcheted wooden vise. Someone has walked off with all the tools and attachments, and though the bench top is still secure, it is warped and degraded from decades of proximity to the broken windows. I wonder about the men who worked here, craftsmen from Italy and Yugoslavia and Scotland, long gone, their descendants now likely working in cubicles, at keyboards. The air in this shop is fresh from the alpine, clear with the tang of hemlock and spruce in the forest above.
Beyond the shops lies the storehouse, in which a few of the shelves and cubbyholes are still stocked with gear. Clumps of obsolete fasteners lie in bins labeled in fractions, the labels painted carefully in blue and white. I see old cans of paint, a cluster of ax handles, some rubber fittings cracked with age. Rowan and Avery run past me, looking into empty containers. They rush outside, toward the briquette plant, its tall structure stained with rust and repaired with corrugated steel. I look back, toward the entrance to the mine, and it’s not hard to envision the bustle fifty years ago. Crews and equipment moving beneath and across the landscape, bringing coal up from the earth, sorting it in the tipple. The sounds of ringing metal, of exertion, of loose machinery crackling and rambling along rails.
We head over to the tipple, where railcar-loads of coal were dumped into a series of sorting hoppers, dried, screened on shaker tables, and pressed into briquettes. The old works are rambling and huge and silent. An errant bird has made its way into the building. It flaps impatiently along the skeleton scaffolding that climbs several stories toward the ceiling. Steel stairs and catwalks thread themselves through the network of conveyors and tanks. We come across the press where the coal, mixed with creosote, was formed into briquettes under the immense pressure of two steel drums rolling upon each other.
One of the stories Elizabeth’s parents tell is of a boy, working his first year at the mine, who fell into the drums while lubricating their gears and was crushed by the machinery. The foreman shut off the power, but the drums kept turning under their own momentum for an hour or more. This story is frequently mixed up, by Elizabeth and me and the others of our generation, with the story of the other boy, the violin player who was the finest music pupil of Elizabeth’s grandfather. This other boy was killed with twenty-nine other men in the mine explosion of 1941. When they were carrying the bodies out, and the hands of the violin boy shuffled out from beneath the black sheet on the stretcher, Elizabeth’s grandfather saw those slender hands and knew who lay beneath. Soon after that, he took no more pupils.
I think of the violin boy as we climb toward the conveyor that once took the briquettes to the loading dock, and I remember that earlier we passed the graveyard of the miners killed in the explosion. It was a tidy enclosure beside the old school. Twenty-nine somber graves, one of which, that of the violin boy, had fresh flowers laid upon its stone.
We spend a couple of hours in the aboveground structures of the mine, looking around, listening to the remembered stories of my in-laws. It doesn’t matter that the grounds are derelict; they are like the old roads we have traveled on to arrive here, inhabited by tales that cannot be lost as long as there are tellers. The tales change as they pass on, and are not changed.
On our way down the hill, toward the fledgling museum at the foot of obliterated streets, we pass again the property where my in-laws grew up. It’s now twilight. On the far slopes of the mountain, shadows reach into the valley. We stop once more, and I get out of the car to look at the flagstone walkway, almost hidden in the grass. Overhead, a bird rustles in the spruce tree. I think of the stone in my shop, much like these underfoot: dark, striations of color twisting in the grain. Origin is everywhere.
Muhammad and the angels spiraled down, toward the desolate wreck of the Temple Mount. Buraq’s wings rushed in the dusty air; her hooves clattered upon the scattered stones. The Prophet dismounted. Jibril led him forward, through the debris, to where the stone of origin lay. The angel placed his finger upon the rock, pierced it with fire, and motioned Muhammad to tie the slender reins of Buraq through the hole.8
While the angels kept watch, illuminating the summit with their fire, Muhammad entered the fallen sanctuary of the stone. In the valley below, travelers wandering on vagrant paths gazed upward to see fire upon the mountain; and they remembered old stories, now mixed up and forgotten, confused with other tales, about a man wrestling an angel, a box of fire, a jewel that could crack stones, a bird circling above a flooded hilltop long ago.
The sanctuary was empty save for the flagstones underfoot. The debris surrounding the enclosure did not penetrate into the sanctuary, or it had been removed by someone who remembered the archaic tales. Muhammad walked in a wide circle through the dark, approached the stone sidelong, stole quick glances at it before approaching directly. The rock lay patient and mute.
The Prophet wandered at the fringe of the stone, heard the sounds of trickling water, peered down to where the ancestral well flowed up from the heart of the rock. The well of souls lay beneath him, and he thought he could hear voices in the tumbling of the waters.9 Muhammad kept moving, west along the edge of the enclosure. He saw the foundation trenches of Solomon’s temple, cut clean and true by the shamir, now eroded by almost two millennia of strife and neglect and weather. On the north side of the rock, he saw a rectangular area outlined by worn stone: the resting site of the Jewish ark, long vanished.10
A few impressions on a flattened summit, scorched by fire, surrounded by the mess of history. This was all that remained.
That night, Muhammad met with the ancestral spirits. The fabled and nomadic Shebtiw made their way back to the stone of origin.11 The well of ancestors grew bright, and the carriers of dreams ascended. Hardjedef, who had burned while unraveling the nested boxes of the magician Thoth, came from the west, walking along the spine of the mountain. They all came: Adam and Noah and Moses and Jacob and Daniel. Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Hagar. And the three sisters, the storm of their arrival wrapping the sanctuary. Singly and in groups, from wherever their errands had taken them, they returned.
And they spoke, gathered around the stone, quiet and raucous by turns, prophetic by way of remembering. Every archaic fable was taken up, passed among them, invigorated by the bellows of old voices. Muhammad’s dreams were forged, then carried into the night sky, toward the Unnameable whose abode is beyond the horizon of myth. And the Prophet was also carried aloft, buffeted by the turbulent air. He rose from the stone, traversed the heavens, and was gone.
On the long drive back from Nordegg, I think about the stone in my shop and the stubbornness of tales, through dereliction and neglect and intentional erasure. We stop for the night at the end of a long valley beneath gray mountains. I think of the ancestors I have adopted and of the family that sustains me. We walk to a viewpoint overlooking a lake of glacial water. The kids run ahead, down the path. They are my prophecy, as those ancestors are my memory. Together they lift me toward the Unnameable. I would be rootless, restless, without their solace, exiled and without homecoming. When I have drifted off, following my impulse for the strange, the secret, the esoteric, into my addiction to elsewhere, these touchstones redeem me from absence. Beyond the gales and empty stretches of my own horizon, my children and my family raise the wind of my greatest traveling and lead me home.
Late that night, crisp alpine air blows through the valley. Shadows and ghosts inhabit my dreams. Then, in the blink of my mind’s eye, I see a man walking over the terrain of my inner life. He moves, purposeful and direct, through an empty enclosure that resembles the rear of a church. I see pillars of pale marble and a floor patterned in lines of white and yellow stone. He is clothed in the colors of leaves burned by autumn. As he passes in front of my field of vision, he glances up at me, a quick and neutral glance, the way one notices but need not react to a broken branch hanging from a tree, or graffiti on a highway overpass. He continues on, and as he goes, toward a destination unseen, I recognize – finally, surely – that the traveling man is me.
My perspective shifts, from observer to participant, and I find myself in the old church. It is quiet. Sand covers many of the surfaces. I wander, rounding a corner to find a tomb of carved porphyry with a Mayan snake writhing upon its rim. Wet sand covers most of the tomb, and I dig it away. More carvings emerge: hieroglyphs, animal forms, shapes I do not recognize. And a box, on an elevated platform. I clear away the sand so that I might see the carvings more clearly. But I do not open the tomb, and I do not touch the box.
When Muhammad returned from his ascension, his light like a star above the plain, he spoke to the gathered assembly, prophesying to them: of the building of a shrine over the foundation stone where the Hebrew temple had once stood, of the intermingling of mythologies between Muslims and Jews and Christians, of the eventual forgetting of that ancestral and religious kinship.12 Myths would be claimed, he said, as history, and these myths would become the basis for war. This conflict would prevail until the old tales were both remembered and forgotten, their truths made flexible enough to hold the breadth of human vision.
The final prophecy of Muhammad concerned the stones. In a low voice, singsong with the cadences of Arabic, he told the prophets and sages of every age – gathered, as they sometimes do, to hear the music of the worlds – of the indications of redemption. On the morning of the day of peace, he said, the black stone of the Kaaba in Mecca will lift free of its moorings and return to its origin, to the foundation stone in Jerusalem of which it is a fragment. The stone of beginnings, the pillar of the world, anchored to the waters of the abyss and penetrating the airs of heaven, will awaken at the coming of the black stone. And the foundation stone will speak, saying, “Peace be to the Guest!”13
Peace seems a long way off by the time we arrive back home and I hear about further developments in the Palestinian uprising. I’ve been immersed in the positive qualities of stones and their mythology, the way they embody a particular psychological and spiritual distillation, and I’m disturbed by the fact that the intifada, planned since the failure of earlier peace talks, was ignited by the visit of Ariel Sharon, leader of Israel’s Likud Party, to the Temple Mount, home to the foundation stone. Sharon’s visit was an indication of many things: the assertion of Israeli sovereignty over a Muslim-controlled holy site, a deliberate provocation to an embittered Palestinian population, a declaration of a hard-line approach to the persistent question of who controls the temenos, the holy ground. His actions won him leadership of the country. He made his stand, as many have before him, upon the mountain of prophecy, wrestling with the angels and demons of history.
The news is full of omens. The debris pile of the World Trade Center is being winnowed away; chaos is spreading in Afghanistan. I discover that one of the September 11 hijackers, perhaps their ringleader, grew up in Giza, beside the monuments of the Kem where the benben stone was once revered. And I hear, with increasing frequency, of Osama bin Laden, whose family’s construction business renovated not only the Kaaba but also the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The political situation seems increasingly mythological. After all, the linchpin of the conflict in Israel involves ownership of an ancient rock. Diplomacy has consistently yielded positive results on every other political matter – land ownership, refugees, autonomy, military issues – but peace talks have always stalled over the question of what to do about the Temple Mount. Each side holds a deeply entrenched position – essentially saying that the other has to go – and each side is bolstered by religious myths of exclusion and propriety.
The terrorists, with their atavistic impulses, would have us reverse time, return to an age when the Book and the old stones in Mecca and Jerusalem would be proof enough of divine covenant. In the Middle East, stones are also a symbolic vernacular language for people: in scripture, in politics, in history. In this sense, the last prophecy of Muhammad, that of the stones, is apt: until the stones come together and recognize their own unity, there can be no peace.
I finish working the stone. Now that I’ve seen the old mine, the flagstones, the fallen debris of the past, I feel more fluid and easy in my body. My skin no longer burns, and I see the red traces only in fleeting moments. I polish, here and there, looking for symmetry in the dark rock, sensing the integration of the piece. I feel it in myself, too; the slow coming together of dualities, a synthesis that began with water and turned to fire and is now cooling within me. The ancestral face is nothing more than my own, and as I gaze at it, matching it eye to eye and lip to lip, my own divisions vanish. I am the ancient and the infant. The devotional and the rational both reside in me. They are not separate, and they need not contest each other.
There is an effort now to rebuild Nordegg, as there is to rebuild the World Trade Center, to forge new myths from the fractured ground of the old. This initiative requires both the devotional and the rational, together weaving the presence of the past. One eye sees forward, the other gazes back.
I’ve rebuilt my own relic, this black stone that has been my companion and goad during four seasons of awakening. Only one thing remains to complete the circle of unfolding.
As in every tradition, the hadith are repositories of wisdom and folly. A particularly vicious hadith, a favorite of Osama bin Laden, asserts that in the final battle between Jews and Muslims, when the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, the rocks and trees will call out, “Muslim, behind me is a Jew. Come and kill him” (Gorenberg, End of Days, p. vi). Another hadith describes the experience of divine revelation: sometimes as though a great bell were ringing, at other times in dreams like bright daylight, or in the form of a man, speaking simply from the fringe of the desert. There is considerable debate among contemporary Islamic scholars surrounding the question of what to preserve, and what to discard, of the hadith.
My version of Muhammad’s “night journey” is derived from various hadith (Alawi al-Maliki al-Hasani, Al-Anwar al-bahiyya). Originally the tale involved two distinct aspects: the actual night journey (called al-isra_¸) and the Prophet’s ascension to heaven (called al-mi˛raj_). But these were combined into a single fable early in Islamic history, and today they are taken as a single, continuous event.
Today the western edge of the al-Aqsa Mosque compound lies above the Western Wall (just south of the area used for Jewish prayers), on the Temple Mount (called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims). The wall itself is called the al-Buraq Wall by Muslims. By way of this deliberate, overlapping architecture of devotion, Jewish and Islamic mythologies contest ownership of the area. This contest, which has persisted for more than a thousand years, involves advocates on both sides (including Christian advocates, supporting sometimes one side and sometimes the other) discounting and negating the religious and mythological claims of the other. For example, some Muslim groups assert that Jews have no claim to the Western Wall, and that their devotions in front of it are the footholds of a Zionist plot to wrest the entire area from Muslims, tear down the mosques and the Dome of the Rock, and establish a new Jewish temple. (Some Jews – and some Christians – believe that such an act would herald the arrival of the Messiah.) Sovereignty-minded Jews, for their part, frequently insist that Islamic claims for the sanctity of the wall and the Noble Sanctuary above – based on the many elements of Muhammad’s night journey and on thirteen centuries of Islamic history – are simply modern political inventions aimed at foisting an Islamic presence onto a Jewish holy site, edging out the Jews, and eventually clearing Palestine of a Jewish presence. (Some Muslims believe that such actions would hasten the Day of Judgment.)
Many Muslims think of the entire Temple Mount as an extension of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Similarly, they consider the Western Wall – which is not on the Temple Mount but acts as one of its retaining structures – as the western foundation wall of the al-Aqsa Mosque. This architectural syncretism is faithful to the mythological reality: the Jewish tradition is the foundation of Islamic mythology.
With regard to documents concerning the Muslim-Jewish conflict over the Western Wall, it is surprisingly difficult to find accounts that are not freighted with religious hatred. Or, given the current situation in Israel/Palestine, perhaps it’s not so surprising. For a reasonably neutral approach, see the United Nations document entitled United Kingdom Commission Report on the Western Wall (1930). This report was commissioned after clashes at the wall in 1929, and was reissued in 1968 after further conflicts during the Six-Day War. The report, which chronicles a tribunal on religious mythology, offers an insightful glimpse into the differing modes of consciousness that have contributed to ongoing strife in Israel/Palestine.
The mythological designation of the site as a well of souls almost undoubtedly derives from the Kem tales of origin. Today the well is dry.
- Nordegg’s plan was inspired by Frederick Todd’s design for the town of Mount Royal, adjoining Montreal. Todd, in turn, was inspired by the plan of Washington, D.C., with its diagonal thoroughfares converging upon a central square. Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, a Mason, was the designer of Washington’s original plan. Masonic – and therefore Kem – influences permeate its design. Nordegg’s plan, with its curved avenues, is distinctively Masonic as well as Meccan. ↩︎
- One early concession made by Muhammad to win the allegiance of the Jewish populace of Medina (and to achieve status as a prophet within the Jewish tradition) involved the requirement that Muslims face Jerusalem while praying. This was changed in favor of Mecca, likely in early 624 CE, after conflict between Muslims and Jews increased on several fronts. The ancient and persistent animosity between the two groups, which is the source of the modern era’s most dangerous instability, began, as all such conflicts do, as a village squabble. ↩︎
- In the Islamic tradition, hadith – which means story or news (gospel also means news) – are the remembered and mythological events surrounding the life of Muhammad. They are not parts of the Qur¸an but oral traditions and teachings, eventually written down, that possess considerable authority. Al-Bukhari, an Islamic scholar who lived about two centuries after Muhammad, is generally regarded as the greatest hadith compiler. He gathered (it is said) six hundred thousand pieces of Islamic mythological history, then winnowed these down to about seven thousand “authentic traditions” which he published in ninety-seven books. Al-Bukhari, like the authors of the Christian gospels, was removed enough from the actual events he was describing that his tales are archetypal hybrids of fact and fable. They are ideal myths, entwining speculation with certainty. They reach back far enough to be true and false – the perfect mythic combination. ↩︎
- Israfil is the Arabic-Islamic version of the angel Raphael. Jibril and Mika¸il are the equivalents of the angels Gabriel and Michael in the Christian and Jewish faiths, though each tradition deals with them distinctly. In the Jewish cosmology, Gabriel is the angel of judgment, whereas Michael is the angel of mercy. In the Christian system the roles are reversed. ↩︎
- One hadith of many that describes these events says of Muhammad: “The roof of my house was opened and Jibril descended.” Alawi al-Maliki al-Hasani, Al-Anwar al-bahiyya, part III. ↩︎
- A radiant point of energy between the shoulder blades is a feature of numerous shamanic and esoteric myths. It signifies the luminous body, the lens of awareness, the great secret of perception. ↩︎
- Buraq, the winged steed, is a mythological synthesis of sphinx, centaur, and Pegasus. There exist many diverse descriptions of the animal. Some chroniclers have given it a peacock tail, a white coat, long ears, and a stature approximating that of a small mule. ↩︎
- The tying place of Buraq is more commonly described as having been somewhere on the Western Wall, though the hadith are by no means consistent on this point. Since as far back as the eleventh century, Islamic scholars have taken decidedly distinct points of view on the location of the hitching post. Proposed locations have included the foundation stone, the Mercy Gate, the Double Gate (also known as the Gate of Hulda the Prophetess), and a niche – with a ring, inside the al-Buraq Mosque – near the southern end of the Western Wall. ↩︎
- The Well of Souls, Bi¸r al-Arwah, was venerated by Jews, Muslims, and later by Christian Crusaders who believed it was the site of the annunciation of John the Baptist (Ritmeyer, Secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, p. 96). After Crusaders seized control of the site in 1099, the hole in the foundation stone was used as a chimney by Christian pilgrims who burned candles in the well below. The Crusaders also quarried fragments from the foundation stone itself, and sold these for their weight in gold. ↩︎
- This contested location, which is roughly four feet by two, is described in some detail in Ritmeyer, Secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. ↩︎
- The hadith concerning Muhammad’s night journey agree that the Prophet met and prayed with every sage of the world’s unfolding. Mythologically, this must include the Kem prophets and deities, especially as Islam accepts (in principle, anyway) the existence of other valid traditions. See Qur¸an 4:164: “And there were messengers of whom We told you before, and messengers of whom we have not told you” (translation by Thomas Cleary). ↩︎
- From 685 to 691 CE, Caliph ˛Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan initiated and organized the building of the Dome of the Rock, the Qubbat al-Sakhra. This site, in conjunction with the nearby al-Aqsa Mosque (completed by Marwan’s son in 705 CE), is the defining element of al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), the mythological location referred to in the Qur¸an as the “furthest mosque” to which Muhammad was taken on his night journey (though there was no actual mosque on the site during Muhammad’s lifetime). Technically, the Dome of the Rock is a shrine and not a mosque. The surrounding thirty-five-acre complex, called the Temple Mount by Jews and Christians, is perhaps the world’s holiest place. ↩︎
- Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem. ↩︎