The Quest for Mount Qaf
Zu’l Qarnain journeyed to Mount Qaf;
He saw it was formed of a bright emerald,
Forming as it were a ring round the world,
Whereat all people are filled with wonder.
He said, “Thou mighty hill, what are other hills?
Before thee they are mere playthings.”
Jalaluddin Rumi (13th century CE), Masnavi I Ma’navi IV:9
This particular passage, taken from one of the many writings of the great Sufi poet Jalal-ad-Din Mohammad Rumi, tells us of the mighty Alexander (Arabic: Zu’l Qarnain) travelling to Qaf on his eastern quest for the water of life and hoping to meet on its peak, the angel Israfil waiting to blow the trumpet on Judgment Day. A cross-over of all sorts, but this only impounds further on how the Eastern and Western cosmologies link up — the appearance of Alexander the Great and Mount Qaf in the same sentence is no coincidence. Further inspection and analysis will not only explain how this came to be but also what exactly IS the Mount Qaf.
Known as ‘Qaf-Kuh’, ‘Koh-e-qaf’ and/or ‘Jabal Qaf’ in both Arabic and Persian tradition; the Mount Qaf is described as the ‘farthest point of the Earth’, sometimes often said to be at the far end of the ocean (unnamed) encircling the Earth. It is also one of the only places where the mythological bird Roc is said to land.
Qāf is the 21st letter of the Arabic alphabet, representing a uvular stop consonant sound. Derived from the Phoenician letter Qoph, the word is supposed to mean the ‘nape of the neck’ or the ‘back’. The nape of the neck holds special significance for certain cultures, Japanese people consider an exposed nape as an arousing quality; African cultures refer to the nape as the ‘kitchen’ sometimes (perhaps employing domestic attributes); whereas the Egyptians consider slapping someone on the nape, to be a sign of humiliation.
Different cultures, different meanings; but none explain how the letter itself manifested into an all-encompassing, magical mountain that is Mount Qaf. One can only theorize that perhaps somewhere along the line, Qaf holds a figurative meaning for the centre of almost anything. A word so sacred, that there’s an entire chapter in the Quran based off it; the beginning of the chapter is the word itself (hint: it’s mentioned more than once in this entire article). The main theme of the Surah is the oneness of God and the doctrine of life after death. Qaf could mean anything, and it could mean nothing.
Physical descriptions of Qaf, describe it as having with a greenish-blue tint, mirroring the colour of the sky and at the same time, the green on its surface reflecting off to the sky itself. This blue-green hue could also be explained by diving into the Shi’a belief that the Hidden Imam waits for the Day of Reckoning atop a ‘green isle’, often thought to support the claims of the invisibility of the Mount. The idea of the Mount ‘encircling’ the Earth could also be explained by the Chinese belief that all the mountains have subterranean veins, connected to one ‘Mega’ mountain, which could be Qaf itself.
Muslims orient themselves towards the Kaaba when praying; Early Christians would pray facing eastwards; Jews pray facing the direction of the Jewish Temple. While almost all these Abrahamic faiths consider Jerusalem to be the centre of the universe; there is little dispute in the matter that besides the actual geographical centre of Earth being the tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe (approximately); general Islamic cosmology which is largely inspired by Indian and Persian beliefs, considers the mythical Mount Qaf as the earthly Axis Mundi (a perceived centre of the world, where Heaven and Earth are connected).
Coming back to Alexander’s excursion to the infamous mount, the Persian safarnameh (travel literature) “Makhdoom Jahanian Jahangasht” recounts that besides his meeting with angel Israfil; Alexander also dabbled (or rather was the cause) of the eschatological legend, of the imprisonment of Gog and Magog (Ya-juj and Ma-juj) on the Mount itself. As the translated version of the safarnameh goes:
“On Mount Qaf, the King of Kings Alexander constructed a wall of brass seventy leagues in length. Had he not built that wall, Gog and Magog would have broken free from its confines into the world and established tyranny, despotism and destruction on Earth, turning it to rubble and ruin. They still approach the wall daily and lick it with their tongues. At the end of the day when the wall becomes thin as cloth, they claim they will break it down on the morrow, and take the Earth by force of arms. By God’s will overnight the wall returns to its previous breadth, and it has continued thus since. Every day they lick it to the thinness of cloth, and the following morning it becomes thick as before.”
All the Abrahamic faiths confirm this lore within their texts but fail to prove where exactly the Mount is located. Alexander’s own epic journey spanned the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. It is difficult to pinpoint a certain location of an invisible mountain, which is said to be the birthplace of all the mythological creatures and folklore in within the Eastern belief-system, but what could be done is perhaps hinting at the possible ‘ground zero’ for Qaf.
It is generally understood by most scholars that Qaf was not always the name for the Mount. It is said to be an Arabic derivation (or rather, borrowing the word itself) from the pre-Zoroastrian scriptures which call this world-encircling, mythical mountain; Alburz.
Alburz is said to be a ‘range’ of mountains, travelling all the way from the Arabian lands into the Turkic regions; involving present-day mountain ranges like the Hindu Kush, the Caucasus and further spreading out into Syria and North Africa. These Pahlavi (pre-Zoroastrian texts) also affirm that ‘Alburz’ was indeed the centre of the world; the birthplace of myths; the land of heroes; an Eden for all. Some scholars attest that perhaps it is the Caucasus itself; Alexander having stayed in its ancient citadel of Derband (barrier, or front fortress; also known as the Gates of Gates), may have locked Gog and Magog somewhere within the range in itself.
The Caucasus is known for its mystical aura and all the local (and international) legends surrounding it. Most of the Levantine and European communities trace their origins back to the Caucasus. The region itself has been an arena for political, military, religious, and cultural rivalries and expansionism for centuries.
The word Qoph could be used to refer to the Caucasus; the Greek word for it is Kafkasos, Qafqoz in Azerbaijani and Qafqaz in Persian literature. Could it be then, that our search for Mount Qaf ends right here, within the very peaks of this range? Could it be that all the legends, the hidden Imam, the great bird Roc and Gog and Magog are all based here somewhere? Maybe and then again, maybe not. For now, the mountain remains shrouded in mystery, waiting to expel all her tenants and reveal herself at the End of Times. For now, we let her slumber in peace for aeons to come.