After Al-Balawi and his mount had disappeared into the sinkhole, his companions were still able to hear his cries. Eventually, they found a tiny spring through living rock, and a fist-sized opening through which the scholar’s voice could be heard.

Though the hole was far too small to allow a rescue or even to allow food and water to be passed to Al-Balawi, he was able to speak clearly and demanded that his companions take up parchment to record his experiences. Using the supplies which had fallen with him, as well as his dead camel, Al-Balawi undertook an investigation of the cave system in which he found himself. Every few hours he would return to describe what he had seen.

Al-Balawi told of a massive network of caverns, many shining with innumerable crystals by the light of his makeshift torch. He mentioned strange, eyeless creatures, almost like deer, that ran from his presence. Most stunningly, Al-Balawi described a series of ruins built into the subterranae that were covered with hieroglyphs that he laboriously described to his companions.

Over time, though, Al-Balawi’s food and water ran out, and the spring that was his lifeline ran salty and useless. After about a week, Al-Balawi announced that he was too weak to continue, bade his comrades abandon him, and wandered into the caverns to die. His followers dutifully brought the record of his death back to Baghdad and the Caliph, who ordered a search to retrieve his friend’s body.

Though no less than three expeditions were dispatched, Al-Balawi’s cave was never rediscovered and his body never found. A copy of his manuscript survives, though curiously the hieroglyphs he describes match no known Mesopotamian, Arabian, or even Egyptian script.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements