In the reign of Caliph Haroun Alrashid, or perhaps even later, there was a wealthy merchant in a city called Bagdad, or Balsora, or something of that kind. The merchant had become not by selling his own merchandise, but by advising all of the other merchants of the bazaar what to do with their gold; where to hide it, and how to spend it, and who would best look after it. And, as is often the fashion with men who advise wealthy men on how to spend their gold, he had plentiful gold himself.
Now this merchant had a home unbefitting newly acquired status; less a house than a mere shack, with rotten walls, unglazed windows, and an insubstantial roof which allowed in the rain. As a man of some substance, he would that his home was decorated to the same rich standard as his vestments, the caparison of his horse, and the cane with which he disported about the city. His home, he decided, must stand comparison with the finest homes in the country. He must be able to invite the visier Giafar there to dine without feeling shame for this reminder of his humble origins. So he cast about for a man who could transform his humble shack into a palace.
It happened that in a nearby town there was an architect of some repute who had taken a shack humbler even than the merchant's and had transformed it into a pagoda which made all the people of the town proud. But this town was humble, and stricken with great poverty. The merchant went to the town, and by offering more pieces of gold than the architect had ever seen, he persuaded him to return to the city and build him a palace. And this was the First Architect.
The First Architect knew that the job was too much for any man alone to contemplate, so he used a portion of the gold to acquire the services of a young man of the town as his assistant. And between them the First Architect and his assistant designed a palace which outstripped anything the First Architect had dreamt of creating. It had walls of stone, a flat roof of slate and cement, and four small minarets, one at each corner, which presented a beautiful aspect of the town. The First Architect presented this plan to the merchant, who saw that it was good, and handed the Architect all the gold he needed for the materials.
But, said the First Architect, I cannot turn this shack into this palace. It is not possible to build a palace like this by adding to the shack, piecemeal. I must first destroy the shack and clear the site before the palace can be built.
Of course, said the merchant, I understand; and he bought a tent, and slept in the tent for two whole years, while the Architect prepared him a great palace.
The merchant was most involved with the design of the palace, and he and the Architect spoke regularly; and often the Architect asked the merchant if he might have the honour of offering him hospitality, so as to relieve the merchant of the drudgery of sleeping beneath canvas. And the merchant was so humble as to accept. And so they became close friends.
Eventually, the palace was prepared, and the merchant was installed. He was pleased that the palace had been built, and built so quickly; and he held a great feast that night, and suffered the Architect and his assistant to attend, and to sit at table with the other merchants and wealthy folk of the town.
The merchant, all swollen with pride, asked the Architect if he had not truly built a palace equal even to that of the Caliph himself. It is true, said the Architect, that the palace I have built for you is very beautiful; but the Caliph lives in the finest palace in the nation, and sleeps in a bedroom whose curtains keep out all light but the light of the moon, that he may always dream the most beautiful dreams.
The merchant was covetous that he might dream like the Caliph himself, and demanded of the Architect that he order such curtains to be woven for him. Of course, said the Architect, I can have these curtains woven; but I will need the finest spun gossamer for this, and it will cost you ten thousand pieces of gold.
Although the merchant was uneasy that he should spend so great a sum on curtains for his bedroom, his desire to have the finest palace overtook him, and he ordered his slave that the Architect be given ten thousand pieces of gold, and ten thousand more to hire the finest weaver in the kingdom; and the Architect arranged for the curtains to be woven, and hung them himself later that month.
When the curtains had been placed across his window, the merchant saw that they did not keep lights other than that of the moon from his room; the lamps of the city could still plainly be seen. But he was desperate to believe that he lived in a state as fine as the Caliph, and he said nothing of this, rather asking the Architect whether now his palace was equal even unto that of the Caliph himself.
It is true, said the Architect, that your palace is fine; but of course the Caliph has no metalwork about his palace but gold, that he is not connected to the baser things of life; even the pipes and cisterns of the Caliph's palace are made of finest gold.
The merchant was covetous that he might be no less base than the Caliph himself, and demanded of the Architect that he order such plumbing to be installed for him. Of course, said the Architect, I can have this plumbing installed; but I will need freshly mined gold ingots for this, and it will cost you twenty thousand pieces of your own gold supply.
Although the merchant was uneasy that he should spend so great a sum on plumbing for his home, his desire to have the finest palace overtook him, and he ordered his slave that the Architect be given twenty thousand pieces of gold, and twenty thousand more to hire the finest plumber in the kingdom; and the Architect arranged for the pipes to be built, and oversaw their installation later that month.
When the plumbing had been laid beneath the boards of his floor, the merchant saw that they did not hold water as well as lead had; beneath his feet, and above his head, the paintwork darkened and began to spoil. But he was desperate to believe that he lived in a state as fine as the Caliph, and he said nothing of this, rather asking the Architect whether now his palace was equal even unto that of the Caliph himself.
It is true, said the Architect, that your palace is fine; but of course the Caliph has a fine harem, with a beautiful young slave girl for each day, that he may lie with another one every night for a whole year.
The merchant was covetous that he might be as well satisfied as the Caliph himself, and demanded of the Architect that he arrange for such an array of slave girls to live with him. Of course, said the Architect, I can have these slave girls brought to you; but I will need to barter with the chief slave-owner of the city, and it will cost you thirty thousand pieces of gold.
Although the merchant was uneasy that he should spend so great a sum on his own urges, his desire to have the finest palace overtook him, and he ordered his slave that the Architect be given thirty thousand pieces of gold, and thirty thousand more for diverse activities the Architect convinced him were essential; and the Architect arranged for the slave girls to be purchased, and brought them to the palace later that month.
When the slave girls had been brought into his harem, the merchant saw that not all of them were equally fair; and that they required bedding, and food, and entertainment, in order that they were minded to fulfil his desires. And he saw that the golden pipes were releasing such water that his ceilings were crumbling; and he knew that he could not sleep; and he understood that the more money the Architect had spent, the worse the results had been, and he brought the Architect to him and with great demonstrations of grief (for they were still close friends) he released the Architect.
I shall no longer give such sums of money to an architect who has never built such a palace before, vowed the merchant. I will entice an architect of great repute, who has built many fine palaces, and who I know can deliver me a home to rival that of the Caliph himself.
So the merchant went into the kingdom and saw the finest palaces in other cities. And he asked who had built them and, on being told, took a purse of gold and jewels from his treasury, and offered it to this architect that he might build him a palace of equal grandeur. And this was the Second Architect.
The Second Architect came to the merchant's home, and saw the harem that cost so much, and the golden pipes that leaked, and the curtains that did not allow the merchant to sleep, and he said, yes, I can make this palace more beautiful, but there is much work to do. I will need the First Architect's assistant and I will need time.
Of course, said the merchant. You may have his assistant and you may have time. But the first task I have for you is to make this palace beautiful. And he had a cart arrive from the jeweller's; and the cart contained sapphires, and diamonds, and garnets, and rubies, and a statue of the merchant himself made from finest gold, and told the Architect that his first task was to make the palace shine as the Caliph's did.
But, my lord, said the Architect, there is much to do before that in order that your palace is sound; for it drains your purse and it may collapse.
No, said the merchant; it must be beautiful, and it must shine like a million stars. I have purchased another home, away from the brigands and the Caliph's tax collectors, where I will live; this palace will be my second home and it must be decorated in the opulent fashion that I demand. This is what I pay you for; and if you do not fulfil the task then it is within my power to have you arrested and put to death.
Saying this, the merchant took the now unloaded cart and made for his new home.
The terrified Architect, with the help of his assistant, set to work. He was a fine Architect and knew that a palace which caused its master's money to be spent on a redundant harem, while water dripped down the walls, needed more than jewels; but in fear of his life he installed the statue, and began to emblazon the walls with jewels. Yet as he worked he felt the walls buckle under the weight of the fine jewels they had never been designed to bear; and he knew that the statue would spoil in the damp; and he became sure that he would be put to death whatever he did. So, in that first night, he fled the town and was never seen again.
His assistant awoke that morning to find that the palace was beginning to collapse upon itself. Having not personally been commissioned to install the jewellery, he went into the town and bought wood, and stone, and a mixture for cement, and began to set struts inside to prevent the collapse; and while these struts were not pleasing to the eye, they did keep the palace from collapsing. And so he became the Third Architect.
The Third Architect continued to repair the building for some time, but he had never designed a building alone but rather been a stalwart assistant, and without the merchant to guide him the palace became ugly, and less like the Caliph's palace than ever; together with which, he had no mind for figures, and the repairs he made to the ceiling were expensive, and he threw out the gossamer curtains for no financial return, and he allowed the harem to drain the treasury of the merchant.
And when the merchant returned from his other home to spend time in the city, he saw that his palace was less beautiful than ever, and that parts of it continued to decay, and that the statue of himself had become tarnished and spoilt. He did not credit the Third Architect for keeping the building standing, but cast him out of the city. And understanding that the greatest architects came from the Northern kingdoms, he made a pilgrimage North to find the next Architect, who could repair the damage and make his palace fit for entertaining rich and powerful men.
Arriving in the North, he asked the people who would be the finest architect for him. And each of them said, it should be this man, who is young, but already has a great reputation and will one day build the finest palace in the kingdom; you should see that he builds it for you. And the merchant met this man, and brought him back to the city, and made him the Fourth Architect.
He charged the Fourth Architect with repairing the damage his predecessors had made to the palace, and making it finer than ever; but he also told the Architect that the palace had become a drain on his treasury, and asked that the new palace be made so that it cost only one-twentieth as much to maintain. And with that he returned to his new home.
The Fourth Architect saw the damage that had been done by the ugly constructions of the Third Architect, and the unfinished follies of the Second Architect, and the expensive installations of the First Architect, and he quaked; but he was young, and he believed he could do as the merchant had instructed. So first he sent the slave women forth and disbanded the harem, to save the money spent every day on their upkeep. And he took the spoilt statue and he removed it to a far part of the town where none knew of the merchant, that it no longer be a centre-piece of the palace. And he removed the jewels from the unfinished walls. And he began to replace the golden pipes with iron pipes better suited to the transport of water.
But to remove the statue, and the pipes, and the jewels, meant tearing away the bricks and plaster of the palace. And the palace became cold, and let in rain, and insects began to make their homes in the exposed walls. The Fourth Architect knew that this need not be how the palace was forever. But when the merchant next returned from his other home to spend time in the city, he did not know that. He saw that his palace was less beautiful than ever; that there were no slave girls to pass the time with; that the walls had been stripped of jewels, and that gaping holes appeared in the walls. And he raged, and he sent the Fourth Architect back to the North, where he was welcomed by the people and began to build beautiful palaces once more.
The merchant decided that he would no longer employ young architects, as he blamed the Fourth Architect entirely for the state into which his palace had entered. And he took on the services of a more experienced architect, who looked at the crumbling palace and said, yes, this can be made good, and yes, you will never again have to give so much of your treasury away; I have done this before and I know how it must be done. But it will take time. Of course, said the merchant, I understand; and he returned to his new home, and this architect became the Fifth Architect.
At first, the Fifth Architect felt that by cementing the walls together, and turning the room which had held the harem to a new purpose, and plastering over the cracks in the foundations, the palace could be restored. But as he worked, it continued to collapse; and he would no sooner support one wall than another would sag to the ground; and he knew that it could not be done. He was too experienced to waste his time on this endeavour, and it was clear that the only palace this site could support would be a new one, built on fresh foundations with a single guiding intelligence behind it. So he employed local men to demolish the palace, and made a new plan for a beautiful palace that at last truly would rival that of the Caliph; and found that he could do it without depleting the treasury; and set to work upon the foundations.
And at this time the merchant returned to the city, and he was struck with horror to see what had become of the palace; and he called the Fifth Architect to him in a passion. You told me that you would build me another great palace, he raged, and yet I return to find that I am further from a palace than ever I was! You have failed more grievously than any other Architect, who at least built a home for me – now I must return to the tent which I felt sure I would never sleep in again. I dismiss you from my service, never return to this city.
And the Fifth Architect rolled up his plans and left the city.
And while the merchant began to put up his tent as though he were a beggar, he was approached by a cunning man from a nearby town; a man who had built homes for men of moderate income before, although he had never constructed a palace. I understand, said the cunning man, that you require a home upon that site? I have built homes before; and although, perhaps, that site could never support a palace, I am moved almost to tears to see a man like you, accustomed to finery, sleeping upon the earth because you have paid so many fraudulent architects. They have claimed that palaces can be built, but I say the home you have here must be limited by what is possible.
And, angry, tired and weary of spending money on the palace, the merchant employed this man as the Sixth Architect. And the Sixth Architect, who had not built a home for some years, constructed a shack – and it had rotten walls, and it had unglazed windows, and it had an insubstantial roof that let in the rain. And he said, my lord, move in here; for am I not the first to give you walls, and windows, and a roof. And the merchant accepted that the pragmatic Sixth Architect had at least provided him with a home in which he could live whilst in the city. And he moved in to the same shack that once had thought he had left behind; although he was older, and poorer, and apparently little the wiser for the experience.
And so we leave the merchant and his Sixth Architect. And as we move away we hear the Architect assuring the merchant that he can build him a palace on the site, if only he is given time – and ten thousand gold pieces for his expenses...