Archives: Ancient Arabia

Mind Meld and Memories

candleI’m over at SFSignal today with a number of authors, Mind Melding about cities in science fiction and fantasy, and epic road trips. You can probably predict that I mentioned Amber, Lankhmar, and Baghdad.

On a more somber note, I’ve been mourning a childhood friend, dead now for 18 years. We hadn’t stayed in touch very well after high school, but I’m certain we would have reconnected in the years following. God alone knows exactly what artistic career he would have ended up choosing with his in-born talent and drive, but I’m certain he would have prospered. I like to think Jon and I would have joined forces and worked together on some projects.

The Wily Dalilah: Arabian Nights Feminist


In a work as varied as The Arabian Nights there are naturally some portions more popular than others, probably because some are more easily adapted into standalone tales of adventure. I think we in the West are more familiar with the Nights as a concept than a whole, and many of us have only read or watched adaptions of the most famous of the tales.

Don’t presume that means that the best of the stories have all been filmed and that there is no point reading the rest. There are plenty of excellent, lesser known yarns within, and surely part of the fun of reading the nights is watching the puzzle box interrelation of stories within stories within stories. Admittedly, there are some portions that I don’t like as well and don’t revisit, as with any short story anthology, and many people feel the same, although you’re likely to get a slightly different list of favorites from whomever you speak with.

Today I want to draw attention to one of my favorite sections, “The Wily Dalilah and Her Daughter Zaynab.” If you’ve ever read my musings, you might expect this to be a tale of swashbuckling adventure set in distant locales, swimming with magic rings and djinn and evil wizards. “The Wily Dalilah,” though, is set only in Baghdad, and there is no magic to speak of within the entire story. There are no daring princes with swords, or mysteries, only a clever old woman running a series of con games. Over the course of the narrative, Dalilah, with occasional aid from Zaynab, foments so much trouble in Baghdad that she draws down the attention of the caliph himself.

The Fantasy Adventures of Alexander the Great

alexanderI think my favorite parts of Alexander the Great’s life involve his fight with the dragon, and the time he climbed to a mountain summit and saw the angel of death. Not to mention his conversation with the speaking tree. After that, his meeting with the Emperor of China was almost superfluous.

I haven’t been dropping acid. I’ve been reading from the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, an epic poem and a national treasure of Iran, written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi over the course of many decades in the 9th century O.C.E. It purports to tell the history of Persia until the time of the Arab conquest, but what it mostly does is collect fabulous tales of adventure, betrayal, war, and love centered around Persian rulers. And because Alexander the Great came to rule Persia, there’s a long section devoted to him.

Alexander the Great from history and Sekander from the Shannameh have very different lives, and the version told by Ferdowsi reads an awful lot like an abbreviated fantasy epic.

Link Day

I need to hit the ground running today, so I’m going to hook you up with some nifty and eclectic links.

First, a post from my talented writer friend Alex Bledsoe that ought to be of interest to any fan of heroic fantasy fiction. This one’s all about a more and more dated term: “Heroine.” Drop by and take a look.

Then there’s a pretty neat essay on what pretty much amounts to a thieve’s guild of ancient Baghdad and the peculiar tools they used to work their crimes, including a tortoise!

Have you heard about the new concept super fast train that could get you from New York to LA in under an hour? We have the technology now to make it work! Check it out, here.

Lastly, I ran across some really excellent writing advice from another writer friend, Harry Connolly. All you writers out there ought to drop by and give it a read — it’s good stuff.


Authorial Voice, Scheduling, and a New Review

I wrote my most recent post about Guy le Strange’s book on ancient Baghdad in one long sustained burst, and upon revisiting just noticed that I use the phrase “by God” and “God alone knows.”

Those really aren’t regular parts of my speech pattern, but they are pretty common in most of my primary sources. Ibn Athir, for instance, seems to praise God every few sentences.  Apparently you really do begin to absorb the style of the books you read!

When I write Asim I strive to emulate the sound of these ancient writers, like ibn Jubayr and Usamah ibn Muquidh. But I don’t imitate them exactly. To the modern western ear so many mentions of religion distract from the narrative, and I would imagine that if I used them as often as Ibn Jubayr I might even be accused of trying to “force” the tone. Thus, while I mention God with some regularity in the Dabir and Asim stories, and  deliberately simulate the cadence and the fee of these ancient writers — adopting a slightly more formal sound — I keep away from precise duplication.

Ancient Baghdad’s Street Plan

When you’re researching you sometimes stumble onto books that seem to have been written just for you.

I’ve read a long shelf’s worth of interesting and sometimes wonderful texts about 8th century Arabia, both primary and secondary sources (and a whole lot of books about ancient history in the region). Yet one in particular was almost perfectly suited to what I was writing, and once I found it I had one of those Homer “doh” moments.

It had been mentioned in the bibliography of one of my early sources. I can only assume that I tried to look for it twelve or thirteen years ago and couldn’t find a copy, but it could be that I simply missed it.

The full title of the book is Baghdad During the Abbasid Caliphate from Contemporary Arabic and Persian Sources, and should tell you just how vital the book would be to anyone bringing a story to life in 8th century Baghdad. I wish that I’d had it at hand when I wrote The Desert of Souls. I assure you that I keep it close by as I draft The Maiden’s Eye, which takes place almost entirely within Baghdad itself over the course of a single week.

Music to Write of Arabia

I’ve held various career plans over the years, beginning with my ambition to be a double-nought spy, a starship captain, or another Beatle. I also wanted to be a writer from an early age, a goal that seemed just about as superheroically awesome as the others.

By the time I was in college I was still gigging around in local rock bands and writing, and I had it in my head I might be able to make a go of it as a composer. There’s only so much time in every day, and every life, though, and eventually writing won out over music, just as getting a film degree won out over a degree in music theory. These days I only sit down at the piano occasionally to amuse myself, but I do keep my hand in composing by drafting themes for my characters.Sometimes I sit down and play a character theme song before I start my writing day.

I’ve thought about subjecting the wider world to a recording of the Dabir and Asim theme song, but I think it would sound a lot better with all the orchestration I hear in my head rather than just having me pound it out on the piano, and besides, I’m busy, so it’s never been recorded.

But enough about me! Today I wanted to share the CD I listen to while driving around town and thinking about the ancient Middle-East.

The Map

Last week I announced I was busy behind the scenes with the writing of book 3 and promotion of book 2, and that remains the case. But I have emerged from my cloak of secrecy to reveal the map that will be printed within The Bones of the Old Ones.

Topography and icons were drawn by the brilliant S. Jones (my wife!) and lettering was done by the talented Omar Chapa.

The map is not meant to show all important places in the region, merely those places Asim himself would find of interest. For instance, he never once mentions Damascus over the course of his narrative, but Asim would surely think the city important because of its fame as a manufacturing center for wonderful swords.

Map follows the break. Incidentally, if it wasn’t already clear, my wife is wonderful.

Canals of Baghdad

A recent photo from Wilkinson showing the remnant of a Mesopotamian canal.

If you ever think about ancient Baghdad you’re likely to picture a sand-blasted landscape and a city growing alongside the river in a narrow band where the ground is rendered fertile by the water. A least, that’s how I used to imagine it, probably influenced by all the reading I’d done as a kid about ancient Egypt.

But 8th century Baghdad, while it surely was beside the river, didn’t rise up from a desert wasteland. At the time, the entire region was criss-cr0ssed by great canals. The Abbasid caliphate inherited a system that had been carefully managed by the Babylonians and the Persians and a whole slew of prior civilizations that had worked very hard to bring water to the land lying between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. That whole “fertile crescent” thing isn’t hyperbole.

On Historical Research

I received a note from a German writer/reader the other week asking me about how I research my historical fiction.

These days I’m pretty methodical about it, but then, at this point, I’ve got a handle on where to look and what my important historical sources are. Originally it was hit or miss because I was reading out of curiosity rather than because I planned to write a series of historical fantasy novels. As a result, I stumbled around a lot.

One of the earliest movies I remember seeing in the theater (I was 6) was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but I’d no more count that as research than a viewing of Aladdin, although the former is an occasional guilty pleasure. I certainly wouldn’t count the Sinbad movie as the thing that launched my interest in Arabian fantasy, though it surely ignited an interest in adventure movies, heroic swordplay, and the thwarting of evil villains.