Post-classical history

§ Usama Receives a Gift-Horse

This discussion of horses has reminded me of something that happened to me with al-Yaghisiyani (may God have mercy upon him). It took place like this: the King of Amirs, the atabeg Zangi (may God have mercy upon him), encamped against Damascus in the year 530 (1135), in the territory of Darayya.176The lord of Baalbek, Jamal al-Din Muhammad (may God have mercy upon him), had sent a message to Zangi notifying him that he would join him, and so he left Baalbek intending to enter the service of the atabeg.177The atabeg was informed that the army of Damascus was marching out to capture Jamal al-Din, so he told al-Yaghisiyani that we were to ride out to meet up with Jamal al-Din and keep the Damascenes at bay. Al-Yaghisiyani’s messenger came to me during the night to say, ‘Saddle up!’ My tent was next to his, and he had already mounted and was positioned in front of his tent.

I mounted up that very instant, and he asked me, ‘Did you know already that I had saddled up?’

‘No, by God,’ I said.

At which he said, ‘But I just now sent the order to you and yet you were mounted and ready this very instant.’

‘My lord,’ I replied, ‘my horse always eats his barley and then my groom bridles him and sits at the door of my tent with the reins in his hand. Meanwhile, I put on my gear and strap on my sword and sleep. When your messenger came to me there was nothing to delay me.’

Al-Yaghisiyani remained in his place until a part of the army had assembled before him. He then said, ‘Put on your armour.’ Most of the men present did so while I stood by his side.

He then said, ‘How many times do I have to say “Put on your [100] armour”?’

‘My lord,’ I said, ‘you don’t mean me?’

‘Yes!’ he replied.

‘But, by God,’ I objected, ‘I can’t put on anything more! It is still the early part of the night, and my kazaghand has two layers of mail. When I see the enemy, I’ll put it on.’

Al-Yaghisiyani fell silent and we started out.

When morning broke, we were at Dumayr.178

So al-Yaghisiyani said to me, ‘Why don’t we dismount here and eat something? This staying up all night has made me hungry.’

‘It’s up to you,’ I replied. So we dismounted.

But no sooner had we set foot on the ground than he said, ‘Where’s your kazaghand-armour?’

At my order, my attendant brought it. I took it out of its leather bag and, pulling out my knife, I ripped open a bit at its chest and revealed the side with the two coats of mail. It had a Frankish coat of mail extending to its hem, with another above it extending as far as the middle. Both had all the linings, felt pads, rough silk and rabbit fur. Al-Yaghisiyani then turned to one of his attendants and said something to him in Turkish – I didn’t understand what he was saying. The servant presently brought before al-Yaghisiyani a horse that the atabeg had given him once upon a time, a dark chestnut charger looking like a block of granite quarried from the summit of some mountain. ‘This horse’, he said to his attendant, ‘befits that kazaghand. Deliver it to the attendant of this man.’ And so he delivered it to the attendant of yours truly.

§§ Digression: Testing Usama’s Presence of Mind

My uncle Sultan (may God have mercy upon him) used to make sure that I kept my presence of mind during battle and would put me to the test with questions. One day we were engaged in some war or another that had broken out between us and the lord of Hama, who had mustered and assembled troops, stationing them in one of the villages of Shayzar, burning and looting. So my uncle selected about sixty or seventy horsemen from the army and told me, ‘Take these men and set out against the enemy.’ We headed out at full gallop and soon encountered the vanguard of their cavalry. But we broke them, thrust our spears at them and dislodged them from the position that they had occupied.

I then dispatched [101] one of the horsemen in my company with a message for my uncle and father (may God have mercy upon them both), who had taken up position with the rest of the army, including numerous infantrymen. ‘Move out with the infantry,’ I said in my message to the two of them, ‘for I’ve broken the enemy.’ And so they marched out to me, and when they came near we charged together on the enemy and destroyed them. The enemy launched their horses into the Sharuf,179 which was in full spate, and swam across it. They went off and we returned home victorious. My uncle then asked me, ‘What was that message you sent to me?’

‘I sent a messenger to tell you, “Advance with the infantry, for I have broken the enemy”,’ I answered.

‘And whom did you send?’ he asked.

‘Rajab al-’Abd,’ I replied.

‘Correct,’ he said. ‘I see that you kept your presence of mind and didn’t get flustered by battle.’

On another occasion, we and the army of Hama were fighting one another, and Mahmud ibn Qaraja had secured the assistance of the army of his brother Khir-Khan ibn Qaraja,180 lord of Homs, against us. At the time, people had just started using compound spears,181 in which one spear was attached to part of another, thereby increasing its length to eighteen or twenty cubits. In position facing me was a detachment of their cavalry, while I was at the head of a band of about fifteen horsemen. Presently, ‘Alwan the Iraqi charged at us – he was one of their true cavaliers and braves. But when he got close to us and saw that we weren’t budging, he turned back, pointing his spear behind him. I noticed that it was like a rope dragging on the ground and that he wouldn’t be able to lift it back up. So I launched my charger upon him and thrust my spear into him, even though he had arrived back among his comrades. I turned around, the enemy banners fluttering above my head. But my comrades, among them my brother Baha’ al-Dawla Munqidh (may God have mercy upon him), confronted the enemy and repulsed them. When I struck that blow, half of my weapon snapped off in ‘Alwan’s kazaghand.

We happened to be alongside my uncle, who was observing me. So when the battle ceased, my uncle asked me, ‘Where did you strike ‘Alwan the Iraqi with your spear?’

[102] ‘I meant to hit him in the back,’ I replied, ‘but the wind pulled at my spear’s streamer and it landed on his side instead.’

‘Correct,’ he said. ‘I see that you kept your presence of mind that time.’

§§ Digression: Usama’s Father Encourages him

[103] I never knew my father (may God have mercy upon him) to forbid me from fighting or riding out into danger despite all the concern and preference he showed me. I observed this in him on one particular day. At the time, there were some hostages – some Frankish and Armenian knights – with us at Shayzar that Baldwin, king of the Franks, had offered as security for the terms of his own release that he had set with Timurtash182 (may God have mercy upon him). They paid the amount they owed, but while they were making ready to return to their territory, Khir-Khan, the lord of Homs, sent a body of cavalry to lie in ambush for them outside Shayzar. When the hostages set out, the cavalry fell on them, capturing them. The alarm was sounded, so my uncle and father (may God have mercy upon them both) rode out and took their position, sending off everyone who came to them to pursue the hostages. I myself arrived and my father said to me, ‘Follow them with whatever men you have with you – launch yourselves upon them and rescue your hostages!’

So I set off in pursuit and caught sight of them after galloping for the better part of the day. I rescued the hostages they had with them and even captured some of the cavalry of Homs. I was struck by my father’s words, ‘Launch yourselves upon them!’

One time I was with him (may God have mercy upon him) while he was standing in the courtyard of his home. A gigantic snake had stuck its head out on the frieze atop the arched portico that was in the courtyard, and my father was standing there looking at it. I went and carried over a ladder that was on one side of the courtyard, leaned it up just below the snake and climbed up to it – all the while my father watched me and never forbade me. I took out a little knife from my waist and poked it into the neck of the snake while it slept – with less than a cubit between it and [104] my face. I started cutting into its head but the snake slid out and wrapped itself around my wrist until I cut its head off and threw its body down to the courtyard, dead.

However, one time I did see my father (may God have mercy upon him) act differently. We had gone out one day to kill a lion that had appeared near the Bridge.183 When we arrived, the lion attacked us from the thicket it was in. It menaced the horses, then stopped while my brother Baha’ al-Dawla Mun-qidh (may God have mercy upon him) and I stood between the lion and the detachment of men that my father and uncle were in (may God have mercy upon them both), which also included a body of troops. The lion had by then gone and crouched along the edge of the river and was beating the ground with its chest and roaring. So I attacked it. My father (may God have mercy upon him) shouted at me, ‘You lunatic! Don’t go anywhere near it! It’ll get you!’ But I thrust my spear at it and no, by God, it didn’t budge from its place and it died on the spot. My father never forbade me to fight other than on that one day.

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