Nils Mattsson Kiöping on Yemen and a Floating Coffin

Here’s another chapter of my ongoing translation of Nils Mattsson Kiöping’s 1667 travelogue. I’ve introduced a paragraph division for legibility. It is illustrative of NMK’s credulity that he debunks the floating coffin in the present but seems to believe that it used to float until not long before he came to Yemen.


Chapter 13: Yemen

Rich Arabia is now also called Ajaman [Yemen], and everyone knows why it is called Rich or Stony. Here are many towns, of which the most prominent are Mecha, Aden, Maszkaleth and Zibith. And although the opinion of many is that this realm of Arabia would belong to the Grand Turk who lives in Constantinople or Stambolda, there is no truth to that, but as the Turkish Emperor is the defender of their religion they give him an annual gift of honour, consisting of a large sum of money, but they do not suffer anything to be taken from them by force.

This country is ruled by four lords, and the foremost of them always lives in Mecha, and for this reason these lords swap places once a year, so that they do not only alternate on the paramount position, as happens here in Sweden at the Academy of Uppsala, but also move one away from the other with their residences. When the one in Aden is to rise to the paramount power, then the one who leaves Mecha has to move to Zibith, and the one who has lived there moves to Maszkalet. Thus each yields to the other until the fourth comes to Adan.

Regarding Mecha you must note that there are two towns by that name in Arabia: this one is in Rich Arabia, next to the Red Sea’s inlet. The other one is called Medineska Mecha-Talnabi, which means a Prophet’s town, and is located in Stony Arabia where no Christian or Jew is allowed to approach any closer than twelve miles on pain of death or apostasy. Because Muhammad was not only born there but is also supposed to hang in the air in a church, enclosed in a steel coffin, and held up by a magnet, in which there is no actual truth. Because at the time when I was there, in 1653, I met an apostate named Johannes, who was born in Franckfurt an Meyn and told me as follows about Muhammad floating in the air.

To wit, that the steel coffin used to hang from a magnet, but a couple of years ago the temple was so devastated by a horrific lightning strike or thunder storm that both the steel coffin and the magnet fell down, upon which not only the magnet lost its power, but the coffin was also destroyed. Then its holy men or priests fastened the aforementioned steel coffin to four fine iron chains, and they hoisted it up under the vaulting in the same place where it used to hang. And to avoid anyone noticing that it hangs by chains, it is every morning smoked full of all kinds of incense, and the smoke is so thick under the vaulting that you cannot see anything but that this coffin hangs there floating by itself.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

6 thoughts on “Nils Mattsson Kiöping on Yemen and a Floating Coffin”

  1. F@#%ing magnets, how do they work? Not the way NMK seems to think they do. To hold up a steel coffin against gravity requires a rather large magnet. I don’t think magnets powerful enough to do the job were available before reliable electricity generation was developed. I think it’s more likely that a lightning strike destroyed a temple minaret, and the collapse of that structure caused the coffin and its supporting structures (whether they were magnets or some mechanical contrivance) to fall to the ground. If the magnet got hot enough it would lose its magnetization, but I don’t know how we (or NMK) can be sure of that after the fact.

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  2. Well, he is writing more than a hundred years before Priestly’s and Coloumb’s work on magnetics, I don’t think its fair to call someone credulous for using the models of his day, rather than the models of ours, to decide whether a story is plausible …

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  3. But we see again the extent to which NMK uses secondhand reports. At least this time he is explicit about it: he names his source as a Johannes from Frankfurt-am-Main (to use that city’s modern spelling). He explicitly accepts Johannes’s report about the then current status of the coffin, but does not seem to consider the possibility that the setup was similar prior to the putative lightning strike.

    The word “apostasy” is used in a way I would not have expected, in that it is prescribed as a possible punishment for any Christian or Jew who comes within twelve miles of Mecca. Are they deemed apostates of their own religion, apostates of Islam (which is still punishable by death in some countries, including Saudi Arabia), or what?

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  4. NMK means that you either convert to Islam on the spot or you die. (The only apostasy he recognises is when you renounce Christianity.) Elsewhere in the book he elaborates: you either agree to circumcision on the spot or you die.

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  5. Stories about amazing magnets have a long history in the Indian Ocean: there is one in the Thousand and One Nights, and supposedly another in Ptolemy’s Geography. Your Hakluyt Society contacts can give you the citations.

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