The Lost City of Lebtit
‘Arabian Nights,’ “The Chamber of Statues” and ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ are some of the works in which this mysterious legend appears.
There is a desire among some archeologists and historians to find evidence of what lies behind myths and legends. They are seeking the real Jerusalem or Atlantis, or the original Utopia.
In Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec portrayed a character anxious to find the geographical origin of imaginary cities. His character, the French archeologist Beaumont, is certain he has found the original settlement of the mythical city of Lebtit. The legends regarding Lebtit do not coincide with its geographical location. Some say that it corresponds to the Roman Leptis Magna, on the coast of Libya. According to the story of the 272nd night of Arabian Nights, the city, which is called Lepta in the book, is in Andalusia. In “The Chamber of Statues,” Borges states that the location could be Ceuta or Jaén. Perec’s archeologist, however, is convinced that it is in Oviedo. His reasons for believing so are based on the legend told by Scheherezade. She says that in the city of Labtayt, in Roum, there was a locked tower. Each time that the king-in-turn died, the new king would add another lock to the door. One day a man who did not belong to the royal family decided to open all the locks, despite the fact that the wise men of the kingdom implored him not to do so. Inside he found hundreds of statues of the king on horseback and an inscription reading that when the doors were opened the kingdom would fall into ruin. In the tower, he also found marvelous treasures: hyacinths, pearls, manuals of poisons and jewelry, a map of the world, the emerald table of Soliman, dust that converted silver into gold, a mirror that showed the seven climates of the world, and a chamber so long that the best archer’s arrow would not reach the far end.
Borges rewrites the legend in his story “The Chamber of the Statues,” with a few modifications: the statues are facing west, one of the books has clear but incomprehensible text, the emerald table of Soliman is magical, and the mirror reflects the faces of all of the ancestors and descendants of whoever looks into it.
Perec’s archeologist knows the legend, and from the part where the arrow cannot reach the other end of the chamber, he deduces that the chamber must, therefore, be 600ft long. With that figure, he analyzes the archeological ruins and finds that neither Ceuta nor Jaén can be the original cities of the legend. He, therefore, opts for Oviedo and begins his excavations.
The archeologist is like the character in the legend, he needs to know what is beneath the ground as the other needs to know what is behind the door. There exists the possibility that he would have found nothing, that he would have found that Lebtit, like Utopia and Atlantis, does really exist but only in the human psyche. Or perhaps he found the ruins and in them found a curse like that in the legend because, according to Perec’s story, he committed suicide before completing the excavations.
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