Uqbar is a fictional place in Jorge Luis Borges's 1940 short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". Uqbar in the story is doubly fictional: even within the world of the story it turns out to be a fictional place. The story turns on the narrator's discovery of a fictitious entry about Uqbar: that is, a false article in an otherwise legitimate reference work. Also, despite its overall fictional nature, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is loaded with references to real people and places and it playfully combines reality and fiction.
Consequently, on the one hand hoaxes about Uqbar abound, and on the other, many writers have claimed that Borges's Uqbar is entirely fictional. Nonetheless, there is at least one real place with the name Uqbar, in Algeria, as well as a town called Ukbara in Iraq, each of which seems to have at least some aspects in common with Borges's fictional Uqbar. These places may plausibly have inspired the name and some other aspects of the Borges's Uqbar, although Borges's description of its culture is fictional.
Borges' fictional Uqbar
The fictitious entry described in the story furnishes deliberately meager indications of Uqbar's location: "Of the fourteen names which figured in the geographical part, we only recognized three – Khorasan, Armenia, Erzerum – interpolated in the text in an ambiguous way." Armenia and Erzerum lie in the eastern highlands of Asia Minor (in and near modern Turkey), while Khorasan is in northeastern Iran. However, it was said to have cited an equally nonexistent book – Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien – whose title claims unambiguously that Uqbar was in Asia Minor.
The boundaries of Uqbar were described using equally nonexistent reference points; for instance, "the lowlands of Tsai Khaldun and the Axa Delta marked the southern frontier" (see Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius). This would suggest that the rivers of Borges' Uqbar should rise in highlands to the north; in fact, the mountainous highlands of eastern Turkey are where not one but two Zab Rivers rise, the Great Zab and the Lesser Zab. They run a couple of hundred miles south into the Tigris.
The only points of Uqbar's history mentioned relate to religion, literature, and craft. It was described as the home of a noted heresiarch, and the scene of religious persecutions directed against the orthodox in the thirteenth century; fleeing the latter, its orthodox believers built obelisks in their southerly place of exile, and made mirrors – seen by the heresiarch as abominable – of stone. Crucially for the story, Uqbar's "epics and legends never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön."
Ukbara, Iraq as a possible source
On the left bank of the Tigris between Samarra and Baghdad was the city of ‘Ukbarâ (عكبرا, q. v.), located along a river that flows southward out of Asia Minor, and the birthplace of at least two Jewish "heresiarchs", who led the "Okbarite" heretical movement within Karaism, itself a heresy in the eyes of orthodox Judaism. In another parallel, the thirteenth century was marked in Iraq by the invasion of the Mongols, who persecuted their Ismaili subjects. It was also the birthplace of a great Islamic scholar and grammarian, al-Ukbari, who – like Borges' father, and later Borges himself – was blind.
A possible source for Borges might have been[original research?] the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901–1906, whose entry for the town is simply a cross-reference to an article on one of its "heresiarchs", Meshwi al-Ukbari. Another – probably less readily available – might be[original research?] the Allgemeine Encyclopädie der Wissenschaften und Künste of 1818, specifically its article.
Uqbar, Algeria as a possible source
It appears that there is or was an ‘Uqbâr in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, the Fatimid ruler Ismâ‘îl al-Mansûr (died 953) pursued his Kharijite enemy Abu Yazid into "the massif of ‘Uḳbâr" [Brill's transliteration; others would equivalently use "‘Uqbâr"], the Djabal Ma‘âdid (popularly spelled 'Maadid'). The Djabal Ma‘âdid is in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, in the area where the following local dynasty had its citadel, the present ruin of Qal‘at Bani Hammad, a famous archaeological site that was excavated by the French early in the 20th century. The account of Ismâ‘îl al-Mansûr mentions his continued operations in the area of ‘Uqbâr until he "pacified the Zâb", the "fastnesses" (mountains) of which are mentioned several times in the account. This city, however, is notably more obscure, and is not mentioned in the standard medieval Arabic geographical texts, such as Ibn Khordadhbeh, al-Idrisi, or Yaqut al-Hamawi.
Borges may have found a reference to it in any number of places[original research?], one of the most likely being accounts of the excavations, of the Kharijites, or of the Ibadhis – considered by Sunnis, but not by themselves, to be Kharijite – who live in what is today called the M’zab, in the Pentapolis (five cities), some of the minarets of which look somewhat like obelisks with flattened tops. Borges's story makes reference to the "obelisks" of Uqbar.
The first edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam (1913–1936), the only one that would have been available to Borges, does not seem to have any references to Uqbar, or for that matter Ukbara. So it is unclear which source, if any, he could have used. The name could also conceivably have arisen from a misprint of the name of the better-known town of Sidi `Uqbah, or Sidi Okba, in the same area[original research?].
In popular culture
- British television's Lewis, broadcast in the UK by ITV and in the US (where it is known as "Inspector Lewis") by PBS as a part of Masterpiece Theater, used Uqbar as a clue in the episode "Allegory of Love." The word is scrawled in blood on a note found at a murder scene. The detectives get their information about it from an article on the subject on "Netipedia".
- The Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition, Vol. VI "Mahk-Mid" (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1991), pp. 790b-791a on Al-‘Ukbarî; Vol. X "T-U", page 435a for ‘Uqbâr in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria.
- Ibn Khordâdhbeh, edited and translated into French by M. J. de Goeje (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1889, in their series Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum) on the place ‘Ukbarâ.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia article "Okbara and Okbarites" is simply a cross reference to their article "Meshwi al-‘Ukbari".
- Isidore Singer and Isaac Broydé, Jewish Encyclopedia article on "Meshwi al-‘Ukbari"