Post-classical history

§ Usama’s Father as a Huntsman

[199] I have experienced so much hunting with these great men that time does not permit me to mention everything in detail. They were all quite capable hands at the hunting-expeditions they ventured upon and with hunting-gear and all that. But I have never seen anything like the hunting done by my father (may God have mercy upon him). Yet I don’t know whether I am viewing him through the eyes of one who loves him – ‘Everything the beloved does is beloved,’ as the poet said – or if my view of him is based on reality. But I will mention something of his experience at hunting, and those who come upon the work may judge for themselves.

My father (may God have mercy upon him) filled all his time with reciting the Qur’an, fasting, hunting during the day and copying the Book of God (may He be exalted) during the night. He had written out forty-six complete copies of the Qur’an in his own hand (may God have mercy upon him), two of which had the entire text of the Qur’an in gold ink. He would go hunting one day, then rest the next. And he fasted every day.

We had two hunting-grounds at Shayzar: one was for partridge and hare, in the hills south of town; the other was for waterfowl, francolin, hare and gazelle, in the cane-brakes along the river to the west of town.

My father used to spare no expense when he sent a group of his followers to other lands to purchase hawks, even dispatching men to Constantinople to bring hawks back for him. His attendants brought with them what they thought would be enough pigeons to feed the hawks that they brought back. But the sea changed on them and their voyage dragged on, with the result that they used up what food they had brought for the hawks. So they were forced to start feeding the hawks fish, which had a bad effect on their wings. It made their feathers brittle and prone to breaking. Shayzar certainly had some exceptional hawks once they returned! But there was [200] in the service of my father an austringer, called Ghana’im, with great experience in training and healing hawks. He imped the wings21 of the hawks and went hunting with them, and some of them moulted under his care.

On most occasions, my father would order hawks and buy them from the Valley of Ibn al-Ahmar22 at high prices. So he summoned a group of people from the mountains near Shayzar, folk from Bashila, Yasmalikh and Hillat ‘Ara, and talked with them about setting up traps for hawks in their own localities. He bestowed gifts and clothing upon them, so they went off and built trapping hides where they caught many hawks, including passagers, haggards and tiercels.23

They brought them to my father, saying, ‘My lord, we have given up our livelihood and our farming to serve you. We therefore request that you take all the birds we catch and decide upon a price for us which we will all know and which will not be the result of any individual bargaining.’

So my father fixed the price of a passager goshawk at fifteen dinars, the passager tiercel at half that, the haggard goshawk at ten dinars and the haggard tiercel at half of that.

Thus, a new way of making money was opened up for the mountain-folk that did not involve tiring them out. The trapper only has to provide a stone house for himself which is built according to his own height. He covers it with branches concealed under hay and grass, with an opening in it. He takes a pigeon, securing its feet to a perch, and displays it through the opening. He then wiggles the perch and the pigeon flaps its wings. The wild hawk sees the pigeon and swoops down to take it. When the trapper feels the hawk, he pulls the perch back through the opening, stretches out his hand and seizes the hawk’s legs, while it is still clutching the pigeon. He then brings it down and seels its eyes.24 The next morning, he brings the hawk to us and receives the fixed price for it, returning home two days later.

[201] As a result, the number of trappers increased, as did the number of hawks, to the point that at Shayzar hawks were as common as chickens. Some of them one could hunt with, others died on the perch because there were so many of them.

My father had in his service austringers, falconers and houndsmen. He also taught a group of his mamluks to train hawks, and they became experts at it. He used to go out on the hunt with us, his four male children, accompanying him. We were further accompanied by our attendants, our extra mounts and our weapons, since we never really felt safe given the proximity of the Franks to us. Many hawks would come out with us, around ten or more. And my father would also bring two falconers, two cheetah-trainers and two houndsmen, one of them leading the saluki-hounds, the other leading zagharis.25

On the day when he went forth to the mountain to hunt partridge, while he was on the way there yet still distant from it, he would tell us, ‘Go, split up. Any of you who still hasn’t done his recitation should now go and do it.’ For we, his children, had memorized the Qur’an. And so we would then disperse and recite the Qur’an until he arrived at the hunting spot and ordered someone to summon us. He would then ask each of us how much we had recited. Once we had informed him, he would say, ‘Me, I’ve recited one hundred verses,’ or something close. My father (may God have mercy upon him) could recite the Qur’an just like it was when it was first revealed.

Once we arrived at the hunting-grounds, he would order the attendants to disperse, some of them accompanying the austringers. In whichever direction the partridge took flight, there would be a goshawk ready to be slipped on it. My father was accompanied also by forty horsemen from his mamluks and companions, quite experienced at the chase. No bird could take to the air, no hare or gazelle could be roused, that they could not bag. We would end up hunting on the mountain until the late afternoon, then we would return having gorged the hawks and set them loose to drink and bathe in the little pools on the mountain. We would generally return to town after nightfall.

But when we rode out in pursuit of waterfowl and francolin, that was a day of real amusement. We would start off [202] for the hunt from the town gate. Then we would reach the cane-brakes. The cheetahs and sakers would stay outside the cane-brakes, while we would go in with the goshawks. If a francolin flies up, the hawk will take it. If a hare is roused, we slip one of the hawks on it. If she takes it, splendid. If not, then the hare will just run out towards the cheetahs, which will be slipped after it. Likewise, if a gazelle is roused, it leaves the cane-brakes in the direction of the cheetahs, which are slipped after it. If a cheetah takes it, splendid. If not, they would slip the sakers after it. Thus, hardly any game escaped us, except by some twist of fate.

In the cane-brakes there were large numbers of wild boar that would come out. We would gallop after them and kill them, and our joy in killing these beasts would be greater than our joy at hunting other game.26

My father had a certain way of organizing the hunt as though he were faced with organizing a military campaign or some grave affair. No one was to busy themselves with chatting with his companion – they were to have no concern other than scanning the ground to spot any hares or birds that might be in their nests.

§ Al-Yahshur: A Very Special Hawk

A special relationship of friendship and letter-exchanging existed between my father and the sons of Rupen – Thoros and Leon – who were the Armenian lords of al-Massisa, Tarsus, Adana and the Passes,27 largely because of his desire to acquire hawks. Every year, they would send to my father ten or so hawks in the care of Armenian austringers, as well as zaghari-hounds. In return, my father would send them horses, perfumes and Egyptian garments. In this way, we used to get the finest hawks of rare quality from them. In a certain year, we had acquired numerous hawks from the Passes, including a passager as big as an eagle, and other smaller hawks.

[203] From the mountains came a number of other hawks, including a young hawk that was so broad in the chest it looked like a falcon, though it could not keep up with the other hawks in flight. Yet the austringer Ghana’im used to say, ‘Out of all our hawks, there is not a single one like this goshawk, al-Yahshur. There is nothing it will pass up to hunt.’

We did not believe him. But later he trained that hawk, and it turned out just as he had thought it would – one of the strongest, quickest and most cunning of hawks. It moulted while in our care and emerged from the moulting even finer than it was before. That hawk lived a long time with us and moulted over a period of thirteen years. Al-Yahshur became like a member of our household: hunting to fulfil its service to us, unlike the habit of other birds, who hunt only for their own sake.

Al-Yahshur’s roost was with my father (may God have mercy upon him), who would not leave it in the care of the austringer because the latter would always carry the hawk around at night and starve it to get better hunting out of it. But al-Yahshur would see to its own needs and still do whatever was asked of it. We would often go out hunting partridge, bringing a number of hawks with us, but my father would hand al-Yahshur to one of the austringers, saying, ‘Take him away, and don’t slip him with the other birds. Go hide somewhere on the mountain.’

As soon as they had removed themselves, if a partridge was seen perched up in a tree and if it was reported to my father, he would say, ‘Give me al-Yahshur!’

The moment my father would raise his arm, al-Yahshur would fly from the wrist of the austringer and perch on my father’s wrist, without any other call. Then it would stretch its neck and head proudly. Upon nearing the sleeping partridge, my father would throw a stick that he was holding, flushing it. Al-Yahshur would now be slipped on the partridge, which it could seize anywhere within a range of ten cubits. The austringer would then come down, slay the quarry that the hawk held in its claws and take al-Yahshur up on his wrist. My father would then again say, ‘Take him away.’

Whenever they saw another partridge perched in a tree, he would do the same thing again, until five or six partridges had been caught, al-Yahshur taking them all within a range of ten cubits.

My father would then say to the austringer, ‘Gorge the hawk.’

‘But, my lord,’ the austringer would reply, ‘why don’t you let it be, so that we can get better hunting out of it?’

‘My boy,’ my father would respond, ‘we have ten other hawks which can still give us some good hunting. This one has done his part. If he kept going like this, it would shorten his life.’ And so the austringer would gorge the hawk, and take it away.

[204] When we were done hunting, we would gorge the hawks, and put them on the water to drink and bathe, while al-Yahshur rested on the wrist of the austringer. As we approached town on our return from the mountains, my father would say, ‘Give me al-Yahshur!’

He would then carry the hawk on his wrist and continue home. If a partridge should be flushed out before him, then he would slip al-Yahshur on it to catch it, the hawk flying ten or more courses along the way, depending upon how many partridges took to flight. And, having earlier been gorged, it would never touch its beak to a partridge’s throat or taste its blood.

When we entered the house, my father would say, ‘Go and get me a bowl of water.’

After they brought him a bowl with water in it, my father (may God have mercy upon him) would present it to al-Yahshur as it sat on his wrist and the hawk would drink from it. If it wanted to bathe, the hawk would stir its beak in the water, making it known that it wished to bathe. My father would then command that a large basin with water in it be brought out and he would bring the hawk to it. So the hawk would fly up and descend into the middle of the basin and flap its wings about in the water until it was satisfied with its bathing. Then it would climb out. My father would then put it on a large perch of wood that he had had built for the hawk and place a brazier of hot coals up close to it. After the hawk was combed and rubbed with oil until it was dry, my father would put a folded scrap of fur by it and it would hop down and go to sleep. The hawk would remain with us on that scrap of fur sleeping until quite late in the night, when my father would want to retire to his private apartments, at which he would say to one of us, ‘Carry him.’ And so the hawk would be carried as it slept on its bit of fur until it was put down alongside the bed of my father (may God have mercy upon him).

Of the wondrous qualities of the hawk – and it had many such qualities – I shall only relate those that my memory can bring forth, for a long time has passed and my years have made me forget many of its ways. In my father’s house there were pigeons, green waterfowl and their hens, and ‘white-birds’28 of the kind that live among the cattle and keep flies from the house. My father would go into the courtyard with al-Yahshur on his wrist and sit down on a bench there, the hawk on its perch alongside him. But the hawk would not seek after any of those other birds there, nor would it pounce on them, as if it was simply not its custom to hunt such birds.

In winter, water would flood the lands around Shayzar such that swamps would form outside its walls, [205] like pools of water, in which birds would congregate. My father would then order the austringer and an attendant to go out and approach those birds. He himself would take al-Yahshur on his wrist and, standing with it on the citadel, he would indicate the birds to the hawk. He would be standing to the east of the town and the birds would be to its west. As soon as the hawk saw the birds, my father would cast it off on them and it would descend and leave the town behind it, heading out until it reached the birds. The austringer would then beat the drum to flush out the birds, and al-Yahshur would catch some of them, even though the distance between there and the place where it was cast off was significant.

We used to go out to hunt waterfowl and francolin, returning after dusk. If we heard the sounds of birds in any of the big streams near town, my father would say, ‘Give me al-Yahshur.’ He would then take the hawk, which had already been gorged, and advance on the birds, the drum beating until the birds took to flight. Then he would slip al-Yahshur on them. If it caught anything, it would come to ground in our midst; the austringer would then go down and slay the quarry still caught in the hawk’s talons, and then lift it back up on his wrist. If it did not catch anything, it would come to ground on some flank of the river such that we could not see it or guess where it had come down. So we would just leave it alone and go back into town. The following morning, the austringer would go back out at dawn to find al-Yahshur and return it to my father (may God have mercy upon him) in the citadel. On one such instance, the austringer said, ‘My lord, this hoar-frost has so burnished the back of the hawk’s head it’d turn a razor! So let’s go out and see what it’ll get up to today!’

No variety of game could escape this hawk, from quail to ‘salamander goose’29 and hare. The austringer was always keen to use it to hunt crane and argala,30 but my father would not let him, saying, ‘Argala and crane [206] should be hunted with sakers.’

However, one year, this hawk seemed to have fallen short of its usual abilities in the hunt, such that whenever it was slipped on its quarry and missed it, it would not respond to the lure. It became frail and would not bathe, and we did not know what was wrong with it. But then it finally recovered from its weakness and went hunting again. One day, after it had bathed, the austringer lifted it from the water, and its feathers on one side were parted because of being so wet. As a result, the austringer spied there on its side a boil the size of an almond.

The austringer accordingly brought the hawk before my father and said, ‘My lord, this is what caused the hawk to weaken and nearly killed it.’ He then held the hawk firmly and squeezed the boil, which popped off like a dry almond. The spot where the boil had been closed up and al-Yahshur returned to executing birds with sword and mat.31

Mahmud ibn Qaraja, the lord of Hama in those days, used to send someone every year to request that the hawk al-Yahshur be sent to him with an austringer, to stay with him for twenty days so that he could use it in his hunting. The austringer would take the hawk there and return with it. Eventually the hawk died in Shayzar.

Now, it happened that I was paying a visit to Mahmud in Hama just then. One morning, while I was there in Hama, I woke up to find that the Qur’an-reciters and the men who chant ‘God is great!’ and a great crowd of townspeople had assembled. So I asked, ‘Who has died?’

‘A daughter of Mahmud ibn Qaraja,’ they told me.

Naturally, I wanted to go out and walk in the funeral procession, but Mahmud argued with me and dissuaded me from doing so. The procession continued outside the town and interred the dead body in Tall Saqrun.32

When they returned, Mahmud said to me, ‘Do you know whose that dead body was?’

‘They told me it was one of your children’s,’ I replied.

‘No, by God,’ he said, ‘it was al-Yahshur’s! I heard that it had died, so I sent a man to get it, and I fashioned a coffin for it, arranged a funeral procession and interred it. For surely it deserved that much.’

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