Post-classical history

Usāma ibn Munqidh (1095-1188)

Usāma ibn Munqidh was a remarkably long-lived warrior, political adventurer, and poet, who wrote the Kitāb al-Ītībār (Book of Examples), a memoir that drew on incidents in his action-packed life in order to provide moral guidance for his descendants.

Usāma was born on 25 June 1095. His father, a member of the Banū Munqidh clan who ruled over the city of Shaizar (mod. Shayzar, Syria), renounced his inheritance in favor of his youngest brother. Most of Usāma’s kinsmen were killed in an earthquake that struck Shaizar in 1157 at the time of a circumcision feast. Successively Usāma sought service with Muyin al-Din Unur in Damascus, with Ibn Salār in Egypt, and with Nûr al-Dīn in Damascus. In the 1160s he spent time in Hisn Kayfâ before retiring to Damascus, where he died on 6 November 1188 at the age of ninety-three. Usāma’s account of his political intrigues is somewhat disingenuous and elliptical. He finally ended up in Damascus as a pensionary of Saladin, who is reported to have been a great admirer of Usāma’s poetry. During his early career in Unur’s Damascus, Usāma went on frequent embassies to the kingdom of Jerusalem, and it emerges from the various vivid anecdotes in the I‘tibār that he fraternized with the Frankish aristocracy, hunting with them, and enjoying their hospitality. It is clear that he found much to ridicule as well as much to admire in such matters as Frankish medicine and justice. Together with Ibn Jubayr’s account of his journey through Palestine, Usāma’s Ītībār provides the most vivid and revealing account of the Latin kingdom seen through Muslim eyes. However, Usāma wrote a great many other books, and in his own lifetime he was chiefly famous as a poet. Some of his writings, such as his books on women and on dreams, have not survived, but historians still have not paid sufficient attention to the historical materials to be found in such texts as the Kitāb al-Asā, his anthology of stories about sticks.

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