Nishapur was a city in northeastern Iran that once supplied all the known world with turquoise. As such, it was major trading stop on the Silk Road and one of the greatest cities during the Middle Ages. However, nothing remains of it today as the Mongols rolled over it during the invasion of Asia Minor and committed a legendary war crime. Subsequently, earthquakes destroyed what was left of the once great city. How exactly did I end up there? Okay, let’s take a few steps back—
Like the start of a lot of my stories, I met this girl, let’s call her Alice, out a few weeks ago. I think we were two of the only people who genuinely did not want to be out. Misery love company, and as such, we squirreled away at a table in the corner and ended up playing Sherlock and trying to figure out the life stories of the various patrons, most of them we figured had sordid and mysterious pasts. If our imaginations were actually anywhere near the truth, the night would’ve been much more interesting. As such, the vast majority of said customers were finance bros, just the most boring people in the world.
After she saved me from what would’ve been a painfully boring night, we made plans to go to the Met. She’d just recently moved to New York a few months ago and had just been getting settled in. If you know me at all, you know that going to any museum with me can be a torturous experience with me wandering with no rhyme or reason and rattling off random facts. It’s basically a great litmus test for whether or not we’ll be friends for any longer than a month. She brought a friend and we all grabbed brunch, then headed to the museum.
It turns out her friend is a wanderer as well, and since Alice had broken her phone and was left without a way to communicate with her friend, I was her designated buddy so we could meet up once we all decided to head out. So, Alice and I started in the Egyptian Wing. I showed her the Temple of Dendur, worked our way through the American Wing, and then she dragged me under protest to where the Contemporary Art was housed. When you talk about art, you learn not only about someone’s perspective, but also their experiences. You learn how their life has colored their view of beauty, of what has meaning, and what moves them. And so, in those hours where we wound our way through the cavernous labyrinth that is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we learned things about each other that I think very few people are privy to.
As we started to head back toward the entrance, we found ourselves walking through the Near East Asian Wing, focusing mostly on the beautiful Islamic art and architecture on display. It was there and then that we both went into depth about our recent heartbreaks. There’s something about heartache that resonates in us, it binds us together for just a moment in time. We didn’t mean to pry it out of each other, but we just happened upon it. The crazy thing is, the more that we found out about what each other were going through, the more it seemed like we were opposite sides of the same coin. The timeline for our heartbreaks were remarkably similar, same with the circumstances, the fine details. It was as if our storylines were running in parallel, with one stark difference; she did the breaking up, I was the one broken up with. Alice didn’t get on the plane, I was the one waiting at the station.
After we found that out, there was a moment or two of silence. We kept listing about in the Islamic art wing. We finally found ourselves in a room underneath a cupola and enormous Persian rugs on hung on every wall. Amongst daggers made of Damascus steel, ancient gilded pages of the Qu’ran, and beautiful turquoise figurines, we talked to each other about what we felt, and what we were going through. It was an uncanny experience, as if we somehow were destined to be in that room, with just that slight difference in circumstance to understand how the other party felt. It was then that I read the plaque on the display case and things took a turn for the surreal. It turns out that the artifacts displayed in that room were from a museum expedition to the ruined city of Nishapur.
Nishapur once served as the eastern capital of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages. The mines of Nishapur was the source of turquoise for nearly two thousand years. The riches gained from the Silk Road made Nishapur a cultural center with incredible works of art and architecture, particularly with ceramics. That was until the Mongols came.
As Genghis Khan swept through Asia, the Persian Empire fell before his horsemen, and as such, so did Nishapur. However, the city made the mistake of rising up against her conquerors. During the fighting, a Nishapurian archer killed Toquchar, Genghis Khan’s favored son-in-law. In her despair, the Khan’s daughter asked her father to destroy the city and kill every last one of its inhabitants for slaying her beloved. The Khan granted her request and sent his youngest son Tolui to put the city to the sword. No one was spared, every man, woman, and child was executed by the Mongols. Nishapur was one of the ten largest cities in the world during the Middle Ages, extinguished for all of time, but for the want of a broken heart.
And that’s where Alice and I stood, in what little remained of Nishapur, as we examined our own lovelives. In that moment, I felt this connection, knowing that I wasn’t the first person, nor will I be the last to feel this way. Then right after that, a feeling of immediate shame, knowing that the same sort of grief left unchecked led to the deaths of over a million innocent people. I know that it was some sort of cosmic coincidence that led Alice and me to that room. The odds of two people leading parallel romances, and discovering that in the Met, in what remains of Nishapur has to be one of a near incalculable number of possibilities. And yet, there we were.
As we left the wing and waited in the grand concourse, things were different for me. I still felt heartbroken, I still wasn’t completely myself, but I knew that there was someone else going through the same thing, in a nearly identical setting. And I think that’s what we all need, to know that we’re not completely alone in feeling something, someone to share the burden with. For whatever reason, even though it’s the same burden, it feels lighter than it should be.
That’s how I felt when I left the museum that day. I wasn’t any better, but I could see the path going forward. I’d like to think that Alice and I both found some solace in seeing a little of what the other side was going through. Maybe we left some of our troubles in the room that housed what was left of Nishapur, that tragic monument to heartbreak run amok. Either way, the only way out is forward, and so we go—
(Oh and Alice, Contemporary Art is still 85% garbage. That piece was literally three lines. THREE. DAMN. LINES. I stand by my critique of ‘hot garbage’.)