Saturday 27 June 2015

'The City of Lost Palaces' by Yasmin Khan

There’s no section marked out for this place on the shelves of bookshops. No chapter in any guidebook I’ve ever seen covers this land but follow me. Follow me.
            Look now. If you can see domed roofs stretching into the distance, then we shall begin. The delicate curves of the architecture can’t be mapped or phrased with a single sentence. There’s no printed record to tell which is which or who built what and when.
            I’ve given you the name of our destination in both languages. So, enter from the city side, pay your foreigner's fee at the gate and follow me up the wide sweep of the Elephant Steps.  Yes, the steady feet of elephants walked here after hunting trips, battle victories and festival nights.
We’ll start at the upper terrace. See how the gardens and fountains descend on three levels? Hear the call to prayer ring through this wasteland where once roomfuls of princesses lay swinging on beds in spaces built to trap the breeze. Night falls. These are the fragments of glory, let us see them at sunset.
The foundations of the royal chambers are etched in dust. This man will sell you an actual piece of the mirrored palace. That’s his son by his side chipping at walls that were once entirely covered in the reflective glass.
Marble steps lead us on to the middle terrace where royals walked with nobles.  Observe the gnarled stumps and dry earth and know that roses, peach trees, orange and grapefruit groves once grew.
Seven acres of almond trees were sown here outside the Nordic queen’s quarters. Her emperor husband longed to soothe her homesick heart with spring blossoms as bright as her own land’s snow.
If the symmetry of the waterways and fountains is pleasing to your eye, then see the arched recesses cut behind these waterfalls. Gold vases glinted here during the days, lit lanterns burned by night.
Stone steps lead us to the lower levels, originally the only area open to all.
The layout is simple and the flower beds fewer. The hydraulic work-houses for the camels that pulled water for the fountain displays sit either side of dry lawn.
We can’t see the windowless dungeons built underneath these pleasure gardens. Nor the cramped quarters for the women required to shine at night and live in darkness by day.
Now, as the sun finally drops I understand you don’t want to leave, but beggars, pickpockets and drug dealers roam outside these heavy gates. They’re joined these days by others who do worse, much worse.
Yet, now or then, this palace fort built into city walls may slow the blood and soothe the heart.  When asked of paradise, its emperor architect lay back and breathed, “It is this, it is this, it is this”.

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