A Turkmen fairy tale

When you come visit the Sultan Sanjar’s mausoleum here in Merv, you will notice (assuming they do not block it up in the current efforts at renovation) the little hole in the roof (right at the top of the dome). Its purpose is mysterious, according to my tour guide. There are many hypotheses. This is my favourite.

I take responsibility for errors in transcription, but since you won’t be able to tell, what difference does it make?

So the Sultan (who was a fairly powerful individual and a pretty good catch for your average Turkmen woman) fell in love with a fairy. Why this happened was not clear. Perhaps he appreciated her long blonde hair. Anyway, he did.

And the Sultan, who, as we said, could have married any woman in the land (or probably any other land either), decided that he wanted to marry this fairy, and asked for her hand.

The fairy made the (apparently reasonable) objection that she was a fairy and he was a man, and that maybe he would prefer a match that was, while more pedestrian, also a little more likely to lead to lasting happiness.

The Sultan was not a man to take ‘no’ for an answer, and he continued to woo the fairy, until at last she consented, gracefully, to give her hand in marriage.

But she put three conditions on this consent.

‘First’, she said, ‘you must never watch me when I walk. Second, you can never watch me comb my hair. And thirdly, you must never touch me at all. For with so much as the caress of a single finger, our marriage will be at an end forthwith’.

The Sultan, of course, consented. I mean, who wouldn’t agree to such reasonable restraints on matrimonial bliss? Many couples have been far happier with far greater restrictions.

So time went by. You can see where this is going already, I bet. And the Sultan became consumed with curiousity. I mean, it could not hurt to watch his wife walking, could it?

So he did. And he discovered that her feet did not actually touch the ground. She floated an inch off the floor (science fiction fans may recall that Arthur Dent had a similar experience – perhaps there is is a connection?).

And you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, so the Sultan watched his wife combing her hair the very next morning. And he noticed that to do it, she took her head off and held it in her lap, the more easily to manipulate the comb (I can see that anyone with long hair will be trying this tomorrow morning).

And thirdly, that night, against his wife’s protestations, the Sultan tried to touch her. And he discovered, much to his surprise (but perhaps not to those who have had more to do with fairies) that she had no body at all and his fingers just went right through her.

The fairy turned to him and said ‘So now you know my secrets. But just because you are not inclined to keep your word does not mean that I am not. Farewell, husband’, and she disappeared.

So the Sultan searched for her, but no trace was found. He sent word to the farthest reaches of his empire, but his emissaries returned with no news. He sent his troops to the far ends of the earth and beyond (in those days the earth had ends), but they brought back nothing. His fairy was gone.

They say the Sultan died of a broken heart. But before he died, when he was giving orders for the construction of his mausoleum, he told the architects to put a hole in the ceiling so that one day, when his fairy wife returned, she would have a door to come and see him by.