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North of Riyadh, in a lush oasis on the Najd plateau, lies the abandoned city of Dir'iyya, a complex of mud-brick palaces and humbler dwellings dominated by the citadel of Turayf. Though founded in 1446, the city now stands as a shrine to a drastic ideal. Here, from 1745 until 1818, when it was sacked by the Egyptian forces of Ibrahim Pasha, fanatical Wahhabi Muslims dedicated a polity to the re-establishment of the "pure" Islam of the Prophet's time.

Dir'iyya has been preserved as a monument to that disastrous endeavour. Although little visited, it is revered as the birthplace of the Saudi state. To wander through its deserted lanes, as I did some years ago, climbing the eroded battlements, crossing public spaces where the markets once rang with haggling or trespassing on the vacant chambers of its private houses, is to undergo a spooky "Arabian Nights" experience: the formal reception rooms, the hidden women's quarters, even the windowless cubicles reserved for servants and slaves, once echoed with living voices.

Never mind that inside these austere precincts enterprising renovators have occasionally installed modern plumbing and electricity, the pipes and the switches pressed incongruously into the ancient mud. No one lives here now or would want to. But if Dir'iyya called up memories of The Arabian Nights, the sensation it inspired in me was anything but elegiac. It was painfully double-edged.

For the question is not only "where are they?" - that immemorial ubi sunt?, echoing through the hundreds of nights during which Shahrazad spins her yarns - but "what happened?" How did a narrow and primitive - and wholly fictitious - vision of Islam, hatched on a barren plateau, supplant, and presume to speak for, the rich and sophisticated culture which that faith had once brought forth? In The City of Brass, one of Shahrazad's most powerful tales, Musa and his fellow explorers come upon a gleaming, hermetically sealed city without visible gates. When they manage to scale its high walls, they find a metropolis of the dead within. In Malcolm C. Lyons magnificent new translation, we read:

The shops were open, with their scales hanging up and the copper pots arranged in orderly rows; the khans were filled with goods of all sorts, but the traders could be seen dead in their booths with their flesh desiccated and their bones crumbled away, a lesson for those who could learn.

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