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  • Writer's pictureAysel K. Basci

The Legend of Betrayal: Şahmeran

Updated: May 16, 2022

A contemporary depiction of Şahmeran

This story is based on an ancient Mesopotamian legend widely known throughout the Middle East. A picture of Şahmeran hangs in many houses and businesses in Southeastern Anatolia, where it is believed her likeness provides protection against evil eyes. She is considered to be especially protective of young girls and their wedding dowries. More recently, Şahmeran has become an important symbol of the LGBT movement in Turkey, fueling renewed interest in the legend.

* * *

Danyal, a middle-aged man living in the Kingdom of Babil, was searching for immortality, but his pursuit was in vain. Like everyone else, he eventually died.

Before his death, Danyal gave his wife a notebook detailing his findings about immortality and asked her to give it to their unborn child, whom he believed would become a great man. His wife gave birth to a son, Camsab, and when he was old enough, she gave him the notebook. Camsab had no interest in acquiring knowledge and did not appear destined for greatness. In desperation, his mother bought him a mule and sent him to a nearby forest to collect firewood.

Now, Camsab at least had a job and he could earn a little money. One day, while collecting firewood in the forest with friends, a rainstorm forced the group to take refuge in a cave. As they waited for the rain to stop, Camsab was scratching the soil with a stick when he discovered a marble cover under the ground. Curious, he and his friends opened the cover, and saw beneath it a well full of honey.

Camsab and his friends went to the cave every day and filled their jars with honey. They sold the honey at the local village bazaar and made good money. When the honey was almost finished, Camsab’s friends appealed to him to retrieve the last of the succulent syrup. They tied a rope to Camsab’s waist and lowered him down.

Camsab gathered the remaining honey in jars, which his friends pulled up. But when all the honey had been collected, his friends refused to pull Camsab up. Instead, they closed the well tightly and left. His friends sold the honey at the market and gave a small fraction of their earnings to his mother, whom they told Camsab had been killed by wolves in the forest.

Meanwhile, Camsab desperately searched for a way out of the dark well. He scratched at the surface and noticed a faint light filtering through a small hole he had dug. Excited, he continued digging until the hole became large enough to squeeze through. Camsab found himself in a magnificent garden in which the air was suffused with the fragrance of mild jasmine, and he could hear the soft and relaxing music of an oud.

For a short while, Camsab wandered through this Garden of Eden until he realized he was surrounded by various snakes. A giant snake appeared. From the waist down the reptile had all the attributes of a huge snake, but from the waist up it had the appearance of a beautiful woman. This creature slithered toward an emerald throne in the garden.

“Welcome stranger,” she said. “My name is Şahmeran; I am the queen of snakes. Who are you, and how did you find us?”

Camsab explained how his friends had betrayed him.

Şahmeran listened calmly. Then she told Camsab that, to protect her subjects from human betrayal, she forbade him from leaving their realm. In the years that followed, despite Camsab’s continued pleas, Şahmeran did not let him go. To make his captivity more bearable, she told him stories about how she too had been betrayed by humans. The first story she told was about Belkıya:

“Yuşa had followed the Prophet Moses as the leader of the children of Israel and had dedicated himself completely to studying the Torah. One day, he read in the Torah that Moses was not the last prophet and that the last prophet would possess extraordinary abilities and unite all men under his leadership. This information startled Yuşa. He feared that, if his people learned of this prospect, he might not be able to continue ruling over them. He tore out those pages and hid them in a sealed chest in a room locked with chains to prevent anyone from reading it. As if these safeguards were not enough, Yuşa also had several nesting walls built in front of the door. In his mind, he was protecting his people and his position as their leader.

“A few years later, Yuşa died, and his son Belkıya became the leader of the children of Israel. Like his father, Belkıya was interested in reading and learning. One day while wandering in his palace, he noticed a door sealed off with several nested walls. He immediately had the door opened and found the hidden pages of the Torah in a chest. After reading the pages, he desired to find the last prophet. He became so obsessed with this pursuit that he passed his crown on to his brother Kahir while he searched.

“He first set off toward Damascus with a small army. When they reached Sleep Island, they stopped for a break. There, Belkıya lay under a shady tree and fell asleep. When he awoke, he found himself alone. That was the moment he became acutely aware of his destiny: travel this road alone. Belkıya would follow his pursuit all by himself.

“He left Sleep Island and, with the help of strong currents, arrived at Şahmeran’s island. Şahmeran was shocked to see a human being on her island. She first introduced herself and then asked Belkıya how he had found her island. She added that, until then, no human had ever stepped foot there. Belkıya told Şahmeran his story. After listening carefully, Şahmeran made it clear that it was impossible to allow any human who stepped on her island to leave because humans could not be trusted. Concerned, Belkıya pleaded with Şahmeran and, after promising to not reveal the location of her island, convinced her to let him go. Şahmeran chose to trust Belkıya and let him leave.

“Belkıya next traveled to Jerusalem. But his fame had arrived before him. Everyone had heard of how he left everything behind to search for the last prophet. By the time he arrived, his quest had become legendary. In Jerusalem, someone special was waiting for him: Ukap, a scholar dedicated to locating the Prophet Solomon’s long lost seal. Based on what he had read, Ukap was convinced that, if he found the seal, he would be able to rule the entire world. He also felt that any means that would help him find the seal was fair.

“The Prophet Solomon’s dead body lay far beyond the seas in a cave. There was only one way to reach this cave: eating a certain magical plant—recognizable only by Şahmeran—which would enable one to walk through the seas. It was said that Şahmeran had unique powers and, wherever she went, the plants, flowers, and trees talked to her, revealing their mysteries. For this reason, Ukap had to find Şahmeran first.

“While Belkıya told his story to a crowd circling him, Ukap listened carefully. He suspected that, during his travels, Belkıya might have come into contact with Şahmeran. So, he sneakily became friends with Belkıya and told him about his own search. Belkıya trusted Ukap, thinking he was like him. Soon Ukap had convinced Belkıya that finding Solomon’s seal would make him very powerful and he would help Belkıya find whomever he was searching for. After Belkıya revealed Şahmeran’s location to Ukap, the two set off toward Şahmeran’s island.”

At this point, Camsab interrupted Şahmeran and told her that, after Belkıya’s betrayal, she had every right to not trust humans. But he was not the same as Belkıya and, if he went back, he would never betray her. Şahmeran was resolute. She said she could not take such a risk, and she continued with Belkıya’s story:

“Ukap prepared a clever trap to catch Şahmeran. He placed a bowl of milk and a bowl of wine in an iron chest. Şahmeran could not resist. She got into the chest, drank the milk and the wine, and fell asleep. When she woke up, she found herself captive in the chest on the open seas. She immediately called out. Ukap explained to Şahmeran that they were not enemies; they just needed her help to identify a magic plant that would enable them to travel over the seas. Ukap also promised Şahmeran that if she helped them, they would return her safely back to her island.

“After spending forty days in the chest, the magical plant was located, and they let Şahmeran out of the chest. Sadly, neither Şahmeran nor Belkıya was the same anymore! Betrayal had changed both the betrayed and the betrayer. With a sore expression, Şahmeran pointed out the magical plant to them and, as promised, they took Şahmeran back to her island. Before parting, as a reward for keeping their word, Şahmeran offered them some advice. She urged them to give up their search for Solomon’s seal because no human had the necessary power to possess it. But Ukap was blinded by his ambition and determined to find the seal no matter what. Şahmeran added that, because of their blinding ambition, they had missed out on other great opportunities. Ukap became curious and asked Şahmeran to elaborate.

“Şahmeran explained that during their journey, everywhere they had passed, the plants had spoken to them, revealing their secrets. But the two were so blinded that they’d failed to hear anything. For example, one plant was able to turn anything it touched into gold. Another plant, if consumed, offered the capability to remain forever young. Yet another plant granted immortality to those who boiled it and drank its juice. At that moment, Ukap burned with regret. He begged Şahmeran to take them back to where those magical plants were. But Şahmeran was not interested; she refused.

“As they were leaving, Şahmeran warned Belkıya one last time. She told him to let Ukap enter Solomon's cave alone. Then, with the help of the magic plant identified by Şahmeran, Ukap and Belkıya set off. Şahmeran never saw Belkıya again, but from a diary kept by a vizier, she later learned what happened to him. Also, for safety reasons, she relocated her entire realm underground.

“After reaching the cave, Belkıya asked Ukap to go in alone. Drunk with ambition, Ukap went into the cave and immediately approached the Prophet Solomon’s remains. Just then, a dragon appeared out of nowhere and used its fire to burn Ukap into ashes in seconds.

“When Belkıya realized what had happened, he better appreciated Şahmeran’s warning. He set off once again. After traveling on the open seas for a while, he arrived at Djinn Island. The Djinn Sultan listened to Belkıya’s story and kept him there for a while as a guest. Then he placed him on a steed and sent him off to the border beyond which humans lived: the Great Wall. Finally, Belkıya was among humans again.”

Camsab interrupted Şahmeran again and begged her. “You see? Every being wants to be with its own kind. Even Belkıya who was a loner wanted to be among humans. Please let me go home.”

Şahmeran was undeterred. She told Camsab there was another story within the one she was telling and continued with Cihanşah’s story:

“Once inside the Great Wall, Belkıya walked alone for a long time. Eventually, he ran into Cihanşah in front of an imposing white building. Cihanşah greeted Belkıya kindly, invited him in, and listened to his story. After Belkıya finished, Cihanşah offered his own story.

“Cihanşah was the only son of Tekmur Şah, the Sultan of Gülistan, who, for a long time, could not have a child. Cihanşah’s birth was heralded by vizier Haccaş, who was an expert fortune reader. Cihanşah grew up and had nearly reached the age to take over his father’s crown. One day, while hunting in a forest, a deer completely enchanted him. He could not think about anything other than finding that deer. Galloping on their horses, Cihanşah and his companion soldiers followed the deer toward Deer Island until reaching the waters surrounding the island.

“The deer, fearing for its life, dove into the waters and swam across. Cihanşah and his soldiers tried crossing the waters too, but many of the horses could not make it. When Cihanşah arrived on the island with his remaining soldiers, he quickly found the deer and shot it. However, immediately afterwards, a terrible curse unfolded on the entire island. To escape, Cihanşah and his men built a boat and took to the waters. But the curse of killing the deer followed them. Most of Cihanşah’s soldiers died during that treacherous sea trip. Eventually, with just a few of his men, Cihanşah reached the shores of another island—another cursed island.

“This was Monkey Island, or Island of the Damned Humans, where degenerate humans were exiled after being transformed, as punishment, into monkeys. Cihanşah led these monkeys for a while, helping them win against the goblins, with whom they were frequently at war. He lost all of his men during those wars. Now, he was completely alone. Yet, Cihanşah knew his destiny was not there. He left the island and after traveling for many days he arrived in the city of Nehrevan.

“In Nehrevan, while wandering through a market, Cihanşah heard a paid promoter asking who was interested in a thousand liras worth of gold and a beautiful concubine. Intrigued, Cihanşah followed the promoter to his merchant employer. As promised, the merchant gave a beautiful concubine to Cihanşah that evening, but asked him to wait until the morning before giving Cihanşah the one thousand liras worth of gold. The next morning, Cihanşah and the merchant met and traveled together to the foothills of a mountain outside Nehrevan. There, the merchant killed and cut open the abdomen of one of the camels they were riding. Then, he asked Cihanşah to hide inside the camel’s belly and wait for the vultures that lived on top of the mountain to come and carry the carcass up to their nests. Once on top of the mountain, Cihanşah would exit the carcass and throw down the many precious stones, jewelry, and gems he would find near the vultures’ nests. Cihanşah did everything the merchant asked him to do. But when he finished throwing the treasure down, instead of helping Cihanşah come down, the merchant loaded the treasure on his camel and left. Cihanşah was betrayed—just like Camsab, just like Şahmeran.

“Cihanşah accepted his fate and began to walk again. He eventually arrived at the Birds’ Lodge—a sanctuary the Prophet Solomon had donated to birds. Upon his arrival, Şah Mürg—the Sultan of that land—welcomed Cihanşah and treated him with kindness and hospitality. One day, Şah Mürg gave Cihanşah the keys to 40 rooms in his palace so that he wouldn’t get bored. But, he forbade him from opening, under any circumstances, the 41st room, which had an iron door. The human soul is inclined toward what is forbidden, which is always desired by the self. That’s what happened with Cihanşah too. He opened the forbidden door and found a magnificent garden with a glamorous pool in the middle. Before Cihanşah could figure out what type of a dreamlike place this was, three white birds came and perched on the side of the pool. They removed their wings and transformed into three beautiful girls. Cihanşah instantly fell in love with the youngest of the girls. Spellbound with love, he fainted. After he came back to his senses and opened his eyes, Şah Mürg was by his side.

“Looking disappointed, Şah Mürg reproached Cihanşah, reminding him that he was not supposed to open that door. Cihanşah explained to Şah Mürg that he was in love with the youngest of the girls in the secret garden and could not live without her. Şah Mürg explained, ‘Those are the daughters of the Fairy Sultan. They live behind Kaf Mountain and come to bathe in this pool only once a year. So, to see your love again, you have to remain at Birds’ Lodge for a year.’ That’s what Cihanşah did; he waited for his love for an entire year.

“When that day arrived and the Fairy Sultan’s daughters began to bathe in the pool, Cihanşah stole and hid the wings of the youngest daughter. After bathing, the two older sisters put on their wings and flew back beyond Kaf Mountain, but the youngest sister could not fly and stayed behind. Cihanşah approached her and explained how he had seen her the year before and had genuinely fallen in love with her. The girl’s name was Gevherengin. She understood Cihanşah and fell in love with him too. Meanwhile, Şah Mürg advised Cihanşah to hide Gevherengin’s wings and not to give them back to her no matter what happened because she could escape and return home.

“Soon afterwards, Cihanşah and Gevherengin traveled to Gülistan together. Tekmur Şah had been looking forward to seeing his beloved son and was happy to see them. That evening, Cihanşah’s return was celebrated, and the two were married with huge festivities. The next morning, Cihanşah woke up and realized that Gevherengin was not there. She had put on her wings and flown to the roof of a nearby building. From there, she pleaded with Cihanşah: ‘I miss my home. It’s true that you fell in love with me, but you didn’t give me a choice. Our circumstances were not equal. I must find out whether I would still love you if I was not captive and lived at my own home. I am going back home and, if you truly love me, you will follow me there.’

“After Gevherengin left, for a long time, Cihanşah searched for a way to be reunited with her. Eventually, he realized that he must walk the same roads and go through the same experiences as before in order to reunite with Gevherengin. So, he began his long and difficult journey all over. He arrived at the town where he had encountered a merchant. He made the same deal with him and was carried to the top of the mountain by the vultures as he hid in a camel’s carcass. Then, once again, he reached the Birds’ Lodge. Şah Mürg was there, but the Fairy Sultan’s daughters had stopped coming to the lodge. Şah Mürg told Cihanşah, ‘The only one who knows Fairy Sultan’s land is a wise bird named the Phoenix.’

“The next time the Phoenix came to the lodge, Cihanşah talked to him about his love, his pain, and his dilemma. Being a wise bird, the Phoenix understood. He understood Cihanşah’s love and suffering. He immediately took Cihanşah on his wings and flew him to the Fairy Sultan’s land beyond Kaf Mountain. There, Cihanşah was presented to the Fairy Sultan, to whom he explained his love for Gevherengin. For months, Gevherengin had also been looking forward to Cihanşah’s arrival. The two were finally reunited and married for the second time in the Fairy land.

“After the wedding, Cihanşah and Gevherengin set out to return to Gülistan. Sadly, during that journey, they were attacked by a group of panthers, and Gevherengin was killed. At that very moment, Cihanşah’s soul died as well. He went back to the Fairy Sultan and begged him, ‘From now on I can never heal! Let me stay here and spend the rest of my life near Gevherengin’s grave.’ He built a beautiful, white mausoleum for her and has since been there, waiting by his love’s grave. He had no other place to go! Belkıya understood Cihanşah, his pain, and the emptiness within him. He knew there were no words to console Cihanşah, so he kept silent. But Cihanşah spoke, saying, ‘Wait here, soon the God-sent Ilyas will arrive. He can help you go back home.’ Indeed, as soon as Cihanşah finished those words, Ilyas appeared. He asked Belkıya to close his eyes. When Belkıya opened his eyes, he was back in his own land.”

Camsab spent years in Şahmeran’s secret, underground garden, listening to her stories, which he enjoyed. In time, Camsab grew into a handsome young man, and the two grew very fond of each other. However, Camsab was homesick and wanted to go back. Finally, Şahmeran agreed to let him go, with one condition. “Once you return, you will never go to a hamam (public bath) again!” Then, she explained: “Humans who come into contact with me can be easily identified. When the bottom half of their bodies gets wet, their skin develops temporary snake scales, which gives them away.”

Camsab agreed and returned home. For some time, he did not say anything about Şahmeran, but later, he was forced to betray her!

The king of Babil fell ill, and a cure could not be found. His wicked vizier suggested that eating Şahmeran’s meat would cure the king. In reality, the vizier had another reason for wanting to locate Şahmeran: He had heard that Şahmeran knew the secret to immortality and was hoping to learn it from her. Thus, a massive hunt for Şahmeran began, but she could not be found. Frustrated, the vizier ordered everyone in the kingdom to go to a hamam to be examined. Camsab didn’t have a choice; he went to a hamam, and his secret was revealed. At first, he refused to reveal Şahmeran’s location, but was tortured, and eventually revealed it.

Soon afterwards, the vizier’s men found Şahmeran and brought her to the king’s palace, where Camsab, remorseful, was sobbing. He apologized to Şahmeran, but she forgave him. Just before she was killed, she shared an important secret with Camsab: “After I die, give the first helping of the water in which I am boiled to the vizier and drink the second helping yourself. Then divide my body into 40 pieces. Give one piece each day to the king to eat. After 40 days, he will be healed.”

Camsab did everything Şahmeran asked. After drinking from the water, the vizier died; after eating a piece of Şahmeran’s meat every day for 40 days, the king healed; and after drinking the second helping from the water, Camsab inherited her wisdom and knowledge and became the great man his father had always hoped he would be. This was Şahmeran’s final gift to Camsab.

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