In nineteenth-century Afghanistan, the world could seem like a very strange place indeed. Magic was, for many, close enough to touch. Tall tales of all descriptions ran riot.
And so it was that Din Mahomed Khan took up alchemy – and searched for the secret of turning all metals into gold, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He lived close to one of the main trade routes through Afghanistan, and – as one British traveler, Charles Masson, was to learn – took his research seriously:
‘Din Mahomed Khan [...] was a desperate alchemist; and I was amused to observe how courteously he would address every faquir, or jogi, he met with. The more unseemly the garb and appearance of the mendicant, the greater he thought the chance of his being in possession of the grand secret. [...] His attentions to me were, in part, owing to his idea that, being a Feringhi [foreigner], I was also an adept in the occult sciences.’
This alchemist’s recipes had been growing increasingly far-fetched: ‘a messenger had been dispatched to bring all the limes that could be procured; some bright idea had flashed across his mind that a decisive result could be obtained from lime-juice. At other times he was seeking for seven-years’-old vinegar.’
‘Din Mahomed,’ wrote Masson’ made two trifling demands of me – to provide him with a son, and to instruct him in the art of making gold.’
In the mountains of Afghanistan, several weeks’ journey from the nearest library, research became a different kind of enterprise: not a systematic and sober winnowing of books, but rather an attentiveness to the whispers of travelers, to the signs of a secret kept hidden – even to the significance of a gigantic bag of limes, slung from the saddle of a wealthy man…
Gold, unfortunately, proved elusive.