Post-classical history


[191] I put my trust in God, may He be exalted!1

§ Introduction

To God belongs one side of my life, I never forget it;

But the other side belongs to play and idleness.2

I have mentioned something of the varieties of warfare, and some examples of the battles, confrontations and dangerous feats that I have witnessed – at least those whose memory I could trace that Time and its passage did not efface. For my life presses on without conclusion and I have taken up a life of isolation and seclusion. After all, oblivion is a legacy passed down without cease from our father Adam (upon him be peace).

I shall now present a section devoted to episodes of hunting, the chase and the use of birds of prey that I witnessed or personally attended. Some of these are experiences I had at Shayzar in my formative years; others I had with the King of Amirs, the atabeg Zangi ibn Aq-Sunqur (may God have mercy upon him); others I had in Damascus with Shihab al-Din Mahmud ibn Buri (may God have mercy upon him); others I had in Egypt; still others I had with Nur al-Din, the son of the atabeg Zangi (may God have mercy upon him), or in Diyar Bakr with the amir Qara Arslan (may God have mercy upon him).

§ Usama’s Father

[192] As for my hunting at Shayzar, it was done with my father (may God have mercy upon him), who had a great passion for the hunt and all varieties of birds of prey, always talking about it, and, on account of his delight in it, he never considered what he spent on it to be too much. It was his favoured pastime, for, once he had finished attending to the needs of his companions, he had no other thing to occupy him besides warfare, jihad against the Franks and copying the Book of God (the Mighty, the Majestic). He (may God have mercy upon him) fasted every day and kept up his practice of reciting the Qur’an. For him, the hunt was as it is described in the old saying, ‘Air out your heart, and it will better retain the remembrance of God.’ I have truly never seen anything like his hunting and his ability to organize it.

§ Hunting with Zangi

I have observed the hunt with the King of Amirs, the atabeg Zangi (may God have mercy upon him), who had a large number of birds of prey. I would see him, as we proceeded along the river-banks, preceded by the austringers, who would cast off3 the goshawks at the waterfowl. The drums would be beaten following the usual custom and the hawks would hunt down what they could hunt, and miss what they missed. Behind them were the ‘mountain’ peregrines on the falconers’ fists. Once the goshawks had done their hunting (successful or not), they slipped the peregrines on those birds which had managed to fly far away, making a ‘desert run’,4 and they would take them and make a kill. They are also slipped on partridge, taking them and making their kill as the birds take off at the base of the mountain. For peregrines are characterized by a truly marvellous swiftness of flight.5

One day I observed Zangi while we were in the water-gorged plain in the environs of Mosul. We were crossing through eggplant fields. In front of the atabeg was an austringer with a female sparrow-hawk6 on his fist. A male francolin took to the air, so the austringer slipped the sparrow-hawk on it, [193] and it took the francolin and came down to earth. Once it reached the ground, the francolin escaped from its grasp and once again took to the air. When the francolin had got high up in the air, the hawk took off again and seized it and came back down to earth, clasping its quarry firmly.

I have also seen the atabeg many times engaged in hunting wild game. Once the hunting-party had drawn up in a circle, with the beasts corralled inside the circle, then no one could enter it. As soon as any of the beasts tried to leave the circle, we shot arrows at it. The atabeg was himself one of the best archers there. Whenever a gazelle would draw near, he would shoot it, but it looked to us as if it had merely stumbled. Then it would fall to the ground and be slaughtered. When I was with him, on every hunting expedition I attended, he would send the first gazelle he killed to me with one of his attendants.

I was present once when the circle had been formed while we were in the region of Nisibis7 on the banks of the Hirmas. They had already pitched our tents and the beasts came right up to our tents. The attendants came out with staves and poles and struck down quite a few of them. A wolf, corralled inside the circle, pounced upon a gazelle in the middle of the circle and, having caught it, crouched down upon it. It was killed while it sat upon its prey.

I was also with the atabeg one day while we were in Sinjar.8 One of his companions, a horseman, came and told him, ‘There’s a hyena bitch over here, sleeping!’ So the atabeg started off, and we with him, to a valley there where the hyena was asleep on a rock on one side of the valley. The atabeg dismounted and walked up to the hyena until he stood facing it. He then shot it with an arrow, which knocked the hyena down to the floor of the valley. His followers climbed down and brought it before him, dead.

I also saw the atabeg in the environs of Sinjar when his party had roused a hare from its form. He gave orders and the cavalry made a circuit around the hare. He then called for an attendant, who carried a caracal9 along behind him in the way one carries a cheetah. The attendant came forward and slipped the caracal on to the hare, which jumped in among the legs of the horses and so was unable to be caught. Before that, I had never seen a caracal used in a hunt.

§ Hunting in the Principality of Damascus

I had experience of hunting birds, gazelle, onager and roe-deer in Damascus in the days of Shihab al-Din Mahmud ibn Buri. I observed him one day as we went out [194] into the woods that surround Banias, where there was a thick carpet of grass. We hunted a large number of roe-deer and then pitched our tents in a circle and made camp. From the middle of the circle, a roe-deer that had been sleeping in the grass now stood up and it was taken there in the midst of the tents.

As we were returning, I observed a man who, spying a squirrel in the trees, informed Shihab al-Din about it. So Shihab al-Din came and stood under the squirrel and shot two or three arrows at it, without hitting it. He left and continued onward, somewhat annoyed at not having bagged the squirrel. Then I saw one of the Turks come up and shoot the squirrel. The arrow cut it in two; its forepaws just dangled there, but it remained hanging by its hind legs, the arrow having pinned it – they had to shake the tree before it fell off. If that arrow had struck a human being, he would have died on the spot. Glory be to the Creator of all creatures!

§ Hunting in Egypt

I have also seen hunting in Egypt. Al-Hafiz (may God have mercy upon him) had many birds of prey: goshawks, sakers and ‘overseas’ peregrines.10 These were all cared for by a master-falconer, who would take them out two days a week, most of them just on the fists of the falconers, who walked on foot. On the day they went out to hunt, I used to ride out to enjoy the sight of them hunting.

As a result, the master-falconer went to al-Hafiz and told him, ‘Your guest (calling me by name) goes out when we do,’ saying this to seek his opinion about it.

Al-Hafiz replied, ‘Go out with him and let him enjoy the sight of the birds.’

[195] So we went out one day and one of the austringers was carrying an intermewed goshawk with red irises.11 We saw some crane, so the master-falconer said to the austringer, ‘Go up ahead and cast off on them the goshawk with the red irises.’

So he went forward and cast off the hawk on the crane, which took to flight. The goshawk intercepted one of them in mid-air some distance away from us and brought it down. I said to one of my attendants who was riding a thoroughbred mount, ‘Push forward to the goshawk, dismount and shove the crane’s bill into the ground. Hold it down that way and keep its legs under yours until we can get to you.’

So he went and did as I had told him. The austringer then arrived and slaughtered the crane and then gorged12 the goshawk.

When the master-falconer returned, he told al-Hafiz what had happened and what I had said to my attendant, adding, ‘My lord, he talks the talk of a true huntsman.’

At this, al-Hafiz remarked, ‘What business does this fellow have besides fighting and hunting?’

They also had some sakers that they would slip against grey heron,13 while the latter were in flight. When the heron sees the saker, it climbs up in a spiral. The saker then does the same, a little apart, until it climbs up higher than the heron. Then it stoops14 on the heron and takes it.

In that land there are birds which they call al-bujj, similar to the flamingo,15 which they also hunt. The waterfowl are easy to hunt in the canals cut from the Nile. They have very few gazelles but there is in that land the ‘cow of the Children of Israel’.16 These are yellow cows with horns like the horns of normal cows. However, they are smaller than normal cows and can run at an incredible pace.

They also have an animal that comes from the Nile that they call the ‘river-horse’, which is like a small cow and has little eyes. [196] It is hairless, like a water-buffalo. In its lower jaw, it has long fangs, while in its upper jaw it has holes through which the points of its fangs can issue just below its eyes. It makes noises like the noises of a pig and is always to be found in a pool of water. It eats bread, grass and barley.17

§ Hunting in Frankish Acre

I had gone with the amir Mu’in al-Din (may God have mercy upon him) to Acre to visit the king of the Franks, Fulk, son of Fulk. We saw there a Genoese man who had just arrived from the land of the Franks and who brought with him a large intermewed goshawk that hunted crane. He also had a small bitch with him, which, when he cast off the goshawk at crane, would run below. When the hawk made its kill and came down to earth, the bitch took the crane in her mouth and it was unable to escape from her. The Genoese man said to us, ‘In our country, if the goshawk has thirteen feathers in its tail, then it can hunt crane.’

We counted the tail-feathers18 of that goshawk, and it was just so.

The amir Mu’in al-Din (may God have mercy upon him) asked the king to give him that hawk, so he took it from the Genoese, along with the bitch, and gave it to the amir, and it came back with us. On our way, I saw the hawk pounce on gazelle as if it were pouncing on pieces of meat. We arrived with it in Damascus, but its life there was not long, and it did not hunt anything before it died.

§ Hunting at Hisn Kayfa

I have also seen hunting at Hisn Kayfa with the amir Qara Arslan [197] (may God have mercy upon him). In that region, there are many partridges and see-sees19 as well as francolins. As for the waterfowl, they inhabit the river-bank, which is a wide open space, and so goshawks are unable to catch them. Most of their quarry are mountain goats, male or female. They make nets for them that they spread in the valleys. They then drive the mountain goats into them so that they are trapped. These mountain goats abound in their region and are very convenient to hunt. The hares are like that too.

§ Hunting with Nur al-Din

I also saw some hunting with Nur al-Din (may God have mercy upon him). I was in his company while we were in the territory of Hama, when the men roused a hare. Nur al-Din shot a chisel-headed arrow at it, but the hare just leapt up and beat us to its burrow and went in. We all galloped after it, and Nur al-Din stood waiting for it. Meanwhile, the Sharif al-Sayyid Baha’ al-Din (may God have mercy upon him) passed the hare’s leg to me, which the arrow had cut off above the tendon. The point of the arrowhead had sliced through its abdomen, causing the hare’s uterus to slip out. Yet after all that, it beat us all and went into its burrow. Nur al-Din gave the order to one of his bodyguards, who went down, took off his sandals and went in after the hare, but he could not get to it. I said to the man who had the hare’s uterus – which still had two leverets in it – ‘Cut it open and cover the leverets in soil.’ And so he did, and the animals kept moving and lived.

I was in Nur al-Din’s presence another day, when he had slipped a bitch on a fox while we were in the environs of Qara Hisar, in the territory of Aleppo. He and I both galloped along behind the bitch, which caught up with the fox and grabbed the fox’s tail. The fox then turned its head backwards and clamped down on the bitch’s snout. The bitch began yelping while Nur al-Din (may God have mercy upon him) just laughed. Then the fox let go and slid into its earth and we were unable to catch it.

[198] One day, as we were riding beneath the citadel of Aleppo to the north of the city, Nur al-Din was presented with a goshawk. So he said to the amir Najm al-Din20 (may God have mercy upon him), ‘Go tell so-and-so (meaning me) to take this hawk and amuse himself with it.’

So Najm al-Din told me, and I replied, ‘I don’t know how.’

At this, Nur al-Din said, ‘You, who are always engaged in hunting, don’t know how to train a goshawk?!’

‘My lord,’ I responded, ‘we don’t do our training ourselves. We have austringers and attendants who do that and who go ahead of us with them to hunt.’ I did not take the hawk.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!