Post-classical history

§ An Exceptional Cheetah

My father also had a female cheetah that was to other cheetahs like al-Yahshur was to other hawks. [207] They captured this cheetah when it was still wild, one of the largest cheetahs ever. The cheetah-keeper took it, put a ring in its nose and trained it. It was content to ride out,33 but would not hunt. It would also have fits just like a madman would be taken by fits, frothing at the mouth. When a young deer was presented to it, it would not seek the game out nor show any interest except to sniff at it and mouth it. It went on like this for a long time, close to a year.

But one day we went out to the cane-brakes. The horsemen went in while I stood at the mouth of the cane-brakes, with the cheetah-keeper and the cheetah near me. A gazelle sprang up and came out towards me. I urged on the horse I was riding, a real thoroughbred, wishing to drive the gazelle back in the direction of the cheetah. But the horse was too quick for the gazelle and struck it in the chest, throwing it to the ground. The cheetah suddenly sprang upon it and caught it, as if it had been sleeping, had woken up and said, ‘Take what game you wish!’ It caught any gazelle that showed itself. Its keeper was unable to control it and it would drag him along, throwing him down. It did not stop as cheetahs usually do when hunting. On the contrary, every time the keeper said, ‘It’s stopped!’ it would run off again and take a gazelle.

We used to hunt idmi34 gazelle in Shayzar, which is a large variety of gazelle. Whenever we took this cheetah out to al-’Ala and the lands to the east where there are white gazelles,35 we would not let the cheetah-keeper run with it, so that it was not able to drag him along and throw him down. It would attack gazelles as if they appeared to be young ones because of the small size of the white gazelle.

This cheetah alone of all the other cheetahs was allowed in the home of my father (may God have mercy upon him). He had a special serving-girl who tended it. On one side of the courtyard, the cheetah had a folded-up blanket with dry grass underneath, and in the wall a metal spike had been driven. The cheetah-keeper would come in with it from the hunt and put it down at the entrance of the courtyard where it took its rest. The cheetah would then walk into the courtyard to the spot all made up for it, and it would go to sleep there. Then the serving-girl would come and chain it to the spike in the wall. Yet, by God, in that same house there were some twenty idmi and white gazelles, rams, goats and fawns [208] that had been born there. Yet the cheetah would neither seek them out nor frighten them. It would never stir from its place. Left by itself, it would just enter the courtyard without even turning to look at the gazelles.

I observed the serving-girl currying the cheetah’s coat with a comb, and the cheetah never resisted or tried to get away. One day after the cheetah had urinated on that blanket that was made up for it, I saw the serving-girl shake the cheetah and strike it for urinating on the blanket, and the cheetah never growled or struck back.

On another day, I saw the cheetah when two hares were started right before the cheetah-keeper. It caught up with one and grabbed it, biting it with its fangs. It then pursued the other one and, having caught up with it, began to maul it with its front paws, while its mouth was busy with the first hare. After giving it a few blows with its paws, the cheetah dropped it and the hare leapt away.

One of those who joined us on the hunt was the learned sheikh Abu ‘Abdallah al-Tulaytuli,36 the grammarian (may God have mercy upon him). In the field of grammar he was the Sibawayh of his age.37 I studied grammar under him for close on ten years. Prior to that, he was director of the House of Learning in Tripoli.38When the Franks captured Tripoli, my father and uncle (may God have mercy upon them both) sent a messenger and redeemed this sheikh Abu ‘Abdallah, and Yanis, the copyist.39 The latter was a member of that generation of calligraphers that was not too far removed from those of the school of Ibn al-Bawwab.40 He stayed with us in Shayzar for a period of time and copied for my father (may God have mercy upon him) two complete texts of the Qur’an. Then he moved to Egypt and died there.

I witnessed a wonderful thing with regard to the sheikh Abu ‘Abdallah. One day I entered his room in order to study with him [209] and I found piled before him many books of grammar: The Book of Sibawayh, The Peculiarities of Speech by Ibn Jinni, The Explanation by Abu ‘Ali al-Farisi, the Salient Features and the Sentences.41 So I said to him, ‘Master Abu ‘Abdallah, have you read all of these books?’

‘Read them?’ he replied. ‘Not just that! By God, I have written them all out on tablets and memorized them by heart. Do you want me to prove it to you? Take a volume, open it up and read out the first line from the top of the page.’

So I took up a volume, opened it and read out a line. He then recited the entire page from memory, and he could do the same with all those volumes. And so I saw in him a great phenomenon, beyond all human capacity.

This was just a parenthetical statement that has no real place in the course of this particular narrative.

The sheikh had joined us on the hunt with that cheetah, he on horseback with his feet covered in sores,42for the ground had many thistles, which had pricked at his feet and made them bleed. But he was absorbed watching the cheetah hunt and so he never felt the pain in his legs – preoccupied by watching the cheetah creep slowly towards the gazelles, jump after them and catch them.

§ Other Remarkable Birds of Prey

My father (may God have mercy upon him) was fortunate enough to have some rare and clever birds of prey. This was because he had so many of them that he could choose from them the most sharp-set43 and clever. One year, he had an intermewed goshawk with red eyes, which was one of the smartest hawks. Now, a letter arrived from Egypt from my uncle Taj al-Umara’ Muqallad (may God have mercy upon him) – he had gone to live there in the service of al-Amir.44It said, ‘In the audience-chamber of al-Afdal45[210] I heard someone mention the red-eyed hawk, and al-Afdal questioned the speaker about it and how it hunts.’

So my father (may God have mercy upon him) sent the hawk with an austringer to al-Afdal. When the austringer was admitted into al-Afdal’s presence, the latter asked him, ‘Is this the hawk with the red eyes?’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he replied.

‘And what does it hunt?’ asked al-Afdal.

‘It hunts quail, argala and other kinds of game in between,’ the austringer informed him.

And so that hawk remained in Egypt for a while, then it escaped and disappeared, staying for a year in the desert among the sycamore trees, where it moulted. Then they went back and captured it. A letter later came from my uncle (may God have mercy upon him) saying, ‘The red-eyed hawk got lost and moulted amidst the sycamores, but they went back and captured it and use it for hunting. A great calamity is once again loosed upon the birds!’

One day we were with my father (may God have mercy upon him) after one of the peasants of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man had come to him, bringing with him an intermewed goshawk, the size of a large eagle, whose wing- and tail-feathers were damaged. I had never seen such a hawk before.

The peasant said, ‘My lord, I was setting up a snare for wood-pigeons46 when this goshawk struck at a pigeon that was caught in the snare. I captured the hawk and have brought it to you.’

My father took it and gave generously to the man who had presented it. The austringer imped its feathers, brought it to the hunt and tried to train it. But the hawk was already an accustomed hunter that had moulted in the mews and had escaped from the Franks. It moulted again on the mountain of al-Ma’arra. It proved to be the most sharp-set and cleverest of my father’s birds of prey.

One day I witnessed the chase with my father (may God have mercy upon him) when a man came up to us from a distance, carrying something that we could not at first recognize. When he came close, it turned out to be a passager peregrine, of the largest and best kind. The bird had clawed his hand as he carried it, so he had let it hang, holding it by the jesses47 and feet. The peregrine was thus hanging upside-down with wings outstretched.

When we arrived, he said, ‘My lord, I caught this bird and have brought it for you.’

My father handed it over to the falconer, who treated it and imped all its broken feathers. But its bark proved to be worse than [211] its bite – the trapper had damaged it by what he had done to it. For the peregrine is a balance, which even the least thing will spoil or destroy.

This falconer had great skill in the handling of peregrines.48 We used to go out on the chase, leaving from the city-gates, taking with us all manner of hunting-gear, even nets, hatchets, shovels and hooks for whatever game went to earth. We would also take hunting-animals – hawks, sakers, peregrines, cheetahs and hounds. Once we had left the town, the falconer would let two peregrines circle around, and they would continue to circle above the hunting-party. If one of them should strike out on its own, the falconer would merely cough and point with his hand in the direction in which he wanted the falcon to go. And, by God, the peregrine would instantly turn back in that direction.

I once saw that falconer get a peregrine to wait on49 over a flock of pigeons that had come down in a meadow. When it had found its pitch, the drum was beaten to flush the pigeons. Out they flew and the peregrine stooped on them. It struck the head of one, cutting it off. It bound to the pigeon and descended to the ground. By God, we really turned the place over looking for that head, but we never found it. All indications were that it fell at some distance into the water, for we were close to the river.

One day, an attendant called Ahmad ibn Mujir – and this attendant was not among those who rode out with us on the chase – said to my father, ‘My lord, I am very eager to see a hunt.’

My father told someone, ‘Offer Ahmad a horse that he can ride out hunting with us.’

And so out we went to hunt francolin. A male francolin took to the air, fluttering its wings as is its habit. My father (may God have mercy upon him) had al-Yahshur on his wrist, so he cast it off on the francolin. Al-Yahshur flew close along the ground, the earth and grass striking its chest as it flew. Meanwhile, the francolin had risen to a great height. At this, Ahmad said to my father, ‘By your life, my lord, he is just toying with the francolin in order to catch him!’

§ Hunting-Dogs

[212] Zaghari-dogs would also be sent to my father from the lands of the Romans, good thoroughbreds, both hounds and bitches. They bred while in our possession, and the hunting of birds was instinctive to them. I saw a small bitch pup that went out following the hounds under the control of the houndsman. He slipped a goshawk after a francolin, which took cover in some long grass on the bank of the river. They loosed the hounds into the long grass to flush the francolin while this pup stood on the bank. When the francolin took to the air, the puppy leapt after it from the bank and fell into the river, despite the fact that she had no experience of hunting and had never hunted at all.

I once saw one of these zagharis when a partridge had taken cover in the mountains in an impenetrable thicket. That hound went right in but then seemed to be taking some time to come out. Then we heard a commotion from deep inside the thicket.

My father (may God have mercy upon him) said, ‘There’s a wild animal inside that thicket that’s killed the hound!’

But then, after a while, the hound came out, pulling a jackal by the leg. The jackal had been in the thicket too, but the hound had killed it and was dragging it out to us.

My father (may God have mercy upon him) once travelled to Isfahan,50 to the palace of the sultan Malikshah (may God have mercy upon him). He told me the following about it:

When I had finished my business [213] with the sultan and wished to travel, I wanted to take with me some hunting-bird with which I might entertain myself while on the road. So they brought me some hawks and a weasel51that was trained to flush birds out of thickets. However, I chose a saker that hunts hare and bustard,52 for I thought it would be difficult to handle goshawks on that long and difficult route.

My father (may God have mercy upon him) had salukis – hounds of the finest breeding. One day he slipped his sakers on a gazelle while the ground, swamped by rain, was heavy with mud. I, still a youngster, was with him on one of my nags. The horses of the rest of the hunting-party could not run in the mud, while my nag managed to overcome it because of my light weight. The sakers and the hounds had got the gazelle down, so my father said to me, ‘Usama, get over to the gazelle, dismount and hold on to its hind legs until we get there.’ I did this and my father arrived on the scene and slaughtered the gazelle. He had standing with him a fawn bitch of good breeding called Hamawiya, which had brought down the gazelle. All of a sudden, the herd of gazelles that we had already been hunting returned, passing by us. My father seized Hamawiya’s collar and set off running with her until she sighted the gazelles. He then slipped her at them and she took another gazelle.

Despite his heavy body and his old age and the fact that he was always fasting, my father (may God have mercy upon him) rode at a gallop all day long. He would never go on the hunt except upon a thoroughbred or a fine pack-horse. We, his four sons, would accompany him and get all worn out and tired, while he would never weaken or get tired and worn out. Nor could any servant, equerry or weapons-bearer fall behind in the chase after game.

I had an attendant named Yusuf who carried my spear and my shield and led my extra horse, but who did not join the chase or follow along. So my father upbraided him for it, time and again.

Eventually, the attendant said to him, ‘My lord, not one of the men present with you is as much help to you as this your son (and I seek refuge in God if it is not so). Let me then remain behind with his other horse and weapons. If you should ever need him, you will find him. Do not consider me part of the hunting-party at all.’

My father never once blamed him again or disapproved of his not chasing after the game.

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