Last updated: 27 may, 2011 - 14:21 GMT

The Magic Carpet Flight Manual

Painting by Viktor Vasnetnov of Russian folk character Ivan the Fool who captured the firebird with the help of a flying carpet.

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Web-dreaming one day, writer Cathy FitzGerald stumbled on a site belonging to a museum in Iran. It purported to tell the 'true history' of the flying carpet – how it was invented around the time of King Solomon and flourished with the rise of artisan makers in 11th century Baghdad.

The article detailed the carpet's many uses – military, as a means of aerial attack; commercial, as a vehicle for the transport of goods; and cultural, as a device to help readers in the library at Alexandria reach the high books – and explained how they were finally wiped out during the Mongol invasion of Central Asia.

The article appears across the web, rarely with any caveat or credit. Cathy tracks down its author, the writer Azhar Abidi, and together they separate carpet fiction from carpet fact.

She goes on to meet a Japanese astronaut who took a real carpet into space - and flew it, a Muslim whose prayer mat rises above the mundane and a physicist working on levitation in the quantum world.

Along the way, cultural historian Marina Warner explains the origins of the symbol in the Arabian Nights, and wonders whether we had to invent flying carpets in order to learn how to fly.

We dream of flying and often long to fly unaided - is that part of it?

Cathy FitzGerald explores the past, present, and very real future of the magic carpet and wonders what our desire to defy gravity tells us about ourselves.

First broadcast on 24 September 2010.

Some of the excerpts used in this documentary are from The Secret History of the Flying Carpet courtesy of Meanjin and the Southwest Review.

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Related BBC Links

  • Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata gets the chance to try flying on a "magic carpet".

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