Monday, February 1, 2016

Gemstone Mountain (The Storyteller Does Her Homework)

(This is one of those posts where I reveal how the storytelling sausage is made)
(The sausage is bigger on the inside)

In two weeks' time, people will be telling Turkmen folktales at the Silk Road House in Berkeley, CA. Since I'll be in town for Epic Day, I volunteered to join in the fun.

It is not easy to find folktales from Turkmenistan. I have yet to locate a full book dedicated to them in either English, Spanish, or Hungarian. My initial search frustrated me to no end; I had to resort to cherry-picking Turkmen folktales from "Tales of the Soviet Union" type collections (well, that was a delightful trip down Retro Lane, bringing up memories of Russian children's books back home).

One of the few stories I kept coming across was a tale titled Gemstone Mountain (or, alternately, Mountain of Gems or Diamond Mountain).

I like shiny things.

The story was immediately familiar from the Second Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor. It tells of an inaccessible mountain range filled with gemstones, and people being wrapped in raw ox hides to trick giant birds into carrying them to their nest on the peak. People get rich from harvesting gems this way - but the brunt of the work is done by poor workers destined to die up on the mountain since they can never get down.
Or can they?...

All the versions of the Turkmen folktale I located were almost verbatim the same (both in English and in Hungarian). After frustrating myself for another day or so, I resorted to pursuing the Sindbad version instead.


Illustration by Nadir Quinto
The Valley of Diamonds is a true Silk Road story: It stretches from Greece to China, and spans several centuries from the 4th all the way to the 15th (AD). Apart from Sindbad, some versions feature Alexander the Great as the protagonist, and such prominent writers included it in their works as Marco Polo and Buzurg Ibn Shahriyar. We know it from Greek, Arabic, and Chinese sources, as well as from Armenia, Russia, and Persia.
And, of course, Turkmenistan.

In this most well-know type of the story, there is a hidden valley in the mountains, filled with gems, inaccessible (and often invisible) to humans, crawling with deadly snakes and/or scorching fire. People in the area devise a way to get the gems by throwing sheep carcasses into the valley, and waiting for birds of prey to bring them up to their nests. Then, chasing the birds away, people gather the gemstones that stuck to the carcass. This job is dangerous, so convicted criminals and slaves are often tasked with it.

Here are some useful things I discovered:

1. The two earliest (Greek and Arabic) sources locate the Valley in "Scythia" or in "Khorasan," both of which historic regions cover Turkmenistan. Other sources usually locate it in India.

2. The earliest known (Greek) source claims the gemstones in the valley are hyacinths (red-orange zircon), but it was later changed to diamonds.

3. Diamonds are actually lipophilic - they do stick to grease or greasy meat.

4. The mountains on the southern border of Turkmenistan - along which the southern route of the Silk Road traced - belong to the Alborz range, the legendary home of the giant Simurgh bird of Persian mythology. The Simurgh is not only a giant bird living on an inaccessible mountain peak, but it also builds its nest from ebony and sandalwood. In an alternate version of the Valley of Diamonds (recounted by Herodotus, III, 3), people actually harvest spices like cinnamon from the nest of a mythical bird in a very similar fashion, with the use of carcasses. The stories probably share the same roots.

5. The mountains on the southern border are also rich in minerals and gemstones. Khorasan as a region is famous for its jewelers.

All in all, this was a fun rabbit hole to get into. And the story itself is the better for it.

If you want to hear me tell this story, along with some other great Turkmen folktales, join us on Valentine's Day at the Silk Road House!


  1. Pretty cool, that kind of research sounds like a lot of fun. I've now got an image of diamond-studded meat in my head. ;)

    1. I am pretty sure there is a swanky restaurant somewhere that serves that...XD

  2. That sounds like a really interesting story. I don't believe I've ever heard of any Turkmen literature before this, folktale or otherwise.

  3. What a good blog, will continue to read with relish.