As I’m working on editing various texts for my anthology of ancient material used by fringe writers, I was writing commentary for material I will use from the Qur’an and the Arabian Nights to discuss the mysterious city of Iram of the Pillars, which was destroyed by the breath of God to chastise the ‘Adites for their hubris and sin (Qur’an 89:6-14 with Arabian Nights 276-279). This seems like as good a time as any to spare a few words for how H. P. Lovecraft inverted and parodied the Islamic legend of Iram in “The Nameless City” (1921), the story of a pre-human city of reptiles lost beneath the desert sands of Arabia.
Back in January-February 2008 Kenneth Hite discussed this in his Weird Tales article “Lost in Lovecraft,” and my comments will include material derived from his analysis, though I depart from his views in some places. In the interest of disclosure, I need to let you know that Hite worked on editing and indexing my Cthulhu in World Mythology. In addition to his Lovecraftian work and gaming work, Hite is also the author of The Nazi Occult, a book many readers will recall from a negative review in Skeptical Inquirer last year which criticized Hite for mixing fact and fiction without distinguishing between the two. I have not read that book, so I have no opinion on the matter.
H. P. Lovecraft was a huge fan of Islamic mythology, and in his youth he flirted with Islam. His writing betrays a close reading of the Arabian Nights, and it is from this source—rather than the brief and ambiguous reference to Iram in the Qur’an—that he transferred motifs from the destruction of the desert city to his own ruined Nameless City.
In Hite’s view, Lovecraft’s Nameless City is parallel to his Irem (an older spelling of Iram), and the events of Iram are given in reverse and inverse in “Nameless City.” In the Arabian Nights, Irem is destroyed when God shouts from heaven: “Then Allah sent down on him [Shaddad bin ‘Ad, the King of Iram] and on the stubborn unbelievers with him a mighty rushing sound from the Heavens of His power, which destroyed them all with its vehement clamor, and neither Shaddad nor any of his company set eyes on the city.” (All translations are from Burton’s version.) Only one man ever made it to the ruins of Iram, and that was a companion of Muhammad—one of the founding generation of Islam. In the “Nameless City,” only one man ever visited the Nameless City (excepting, of course, the narrator), a “pioneer” of Iram—one of the founding generation of Iram. (Another version of the fall of Iram says that the city was destroyed after the people rejected the prophet Hud, which can also be seen as parallel to the reptiles tearing the pioneer of Iram limb from limb.)
By contrast, the narrator of “The Nameless City” is attracted to the ruins of the pre-human city by a crash from below during a windstorm that recalls the breath of God: “from some remote depth there came a crash of musical metal…” And this heralds the appearance of the city from the blowing sands. The inversion of the Arabian Nights story is fairly clear.
Following the destruction of Iram, Allah buries the city and efface all roads to it: “Moreover, Allah blotted out the road which led to the city, and it stands in its stead unchanged until the Resurrection Day and the Hour of Judgment.” In Lovecraft, this is reversed, for the whirlwind—a sandstorm--reveals the path to the Nameless City and its ruins.
The rise and fall of the Nameless City also represent a seemingly atheist version of the fall of Iram. In the Arabian Nights, Shaddad reads ancient books and decides that he will build a city to mimic paradise itself: “Now he was fond of reading in antique books, and happening upon the description of the world to come and of Paradise, with its pavilions and pileries and trees and fruits and so forth, his soul move him to build the like thereof in this world, after the fashion aforesaid.” This hubris—daring to emulate the world of Allah himself—earns Shaddad his chastisement and death. In Lovecraft, an ancient text, the couplet of Alhazred (later said to be from the Necronomicon), suggests this fallen paradise to the narrator just as an ancient text inspired the paradise of Iram.
In “The Nameless City,” the reptile people similarly create a city, albeit underground, that approaches the perfection of paradise: “The paradisal scenes were almost too extravagant to be believed, portraying a hidden world of eternal day filled with glorious cities and ethereal hills and valleys.” But the reptile-people were not felled by their hubris, nor even by God; instead, they are starved and forced into a living death by the random forces of desertification. They did nothing wrong; the underground reptiles were undone by the random churning of the earth.
This, of course, is a recurring theme in Lovecraft, where events religion considers divine are nothing more than random chance—like the sinking of R’lyeh. “The Nameless City” itself, of course, served as the model for the much more developed and mature version of the same narrative in At the Mountains of Madness.
The Iram story appears again in “The Call of Cthulhu,” where the ruined city is identified with the center of the Cthulhu Cult: “Of the cult, he said that he thought the centre lay amid the pathless desert of Arabia, where Irem, the City of Pillars, dreams hidden and untouched.” (That this center is the Nameless City is implied.) There, Lovecraft was drawing an explicit parallel between Iram, lost beneath the sands, and R’lyeh, lost beneath the waves, the former serving as one of the models for the latter, its “lofty pillars” recalling the “monolith-crowned citadel” of R’lyeh.
It’s an interesting coda that the Nameless City has become confused with Iram in the minds of many ancient astronaut writers, who have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. In Extraterrestrial Visitation in Prehistoric Times, Jacques Bergier—Lovecraft’s French translator and publisher—mistakenly believed that Lovecraft had made up Iram but drew on facts in describing the Nameless City! “…there once existed a city in the desert, El Yafri, built of enormous cyclopean blocks […] and the city should not be confused with Irem, H. P. Lovecraft’s doomed city…” [...] It is not impossible that at least a part of Lovecraft’s myth may be verified when the Empty Quarter is opened to exploration.” In Secret Societies (2007) Philip Gardiner falsely asserts that the Necronomicon was real and Iram the center of an alien cult:
Amazingly, the infamous Necronomicon tells us about a “fabulous city of Irem.” Irem of the Pillars is part of Arabian magical lore and was built by the Jinn or angels and were possibly also Watch Towers—“towers of the Watchers.” The Hebrew Erim means to awaken.
The “magical lore” is modern, not ancient, from recent “magickal” texts that accept Lovecraft as one who channeled hidden truths from cosmic dimensions.
Ironically, Gardner strikes close to a hidden truth: The myth of Iram is connected to that of the Watchers—but not in the way he thinks. In Arab lore, the pillars of Iram seem to have become associated with the pillars of wisdom created by the Sethites and/or Watchers before the Flood (because the people of ‘Ad were believed to be Nephilim-Giants, as Mas‘udi reported). Because these pillars were also associated with the pyramids of Egypt, some versions of the Arab pyramid myth make Shaddad bin ‘Ad the builder of the pyramids. As Al-Maqrizi reported: “Ibn Afir said: Our old people of Egypt have always recognized that the pyramids had been built by Shaddad bin ‘Ad. It is also this king who dug caves where he buried treasures” (Al Khitat 1.40, my trans.).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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