en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 21, Number 3May/June 1970

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Memories of a Muslim Prince

The story of Usamah, a warrior, a poet, a hunter and a diarist to rank with Pepys.

Written by Viola H. Winder
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

At the age of 90, a 12th-century lord from central Syria sat down at his desk, surrounded by books and memorabilia, to write his autobiography. This man, Usamah ibn Munqidh, the Emir of Shayzar, who had lived through nearly the entire first century of the Crusades in times of both fierce conflict and extended truce, recorded his exciting epic from a point of view quite unfamiliar to most western readers. Centuries later, working from a unique manuscript, the noted Middle East historian Philip K. Hitti of Princeton University brought the unusual record to life again in English as An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh (Kitab al-I'tibar), New York, Columbia University Press, 1929. His daughter, Viola H. Winder, consulting her father's published translation, prepared the following article.

Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian Desert, in central Syria, the Orontes River perversely wends its way northward along the flanks of the coastal mountain range, contrary to the southward flow of neighboring streams. Thus, the local populace calls it al-'Asi, the Rebel. Along the river's edge, the mellow murmur of the ancient Roman waterwheels magnifies the stillness as they lift clear, cold water to the thirsty soil.

On the high banks of the river, some 15 miles northwest of Hama, one of Syria's principal inland cities, stands what remains of the castle of Shayzar—silent witness to days long past. Its crumbling brown stones conjure the ghosts of crusading warriors and Muslim knights, sometimes at war, often at peace, who, clad in coats of mail, with banners flying and silver-tasseled horses a-gallop, rode the length and breadth of this same countryside.

The once-mighty citadel is perched on the very edge of a rock-strewn spur called 'Urf al-Dik, the Cock's Comb. Strategically situated on this promontory, which rises 40 yards and is washed on three sides by the winding river, Shayzar looks over the deep gorge of the Orontes and the plain beyond. Tumbled ruins of vast vaults, arches, capitals and bases of columns suggest a well-fortified bastion. The entrance, constructed of huge stone blocks, its projecting towers scarred by arrow slits, is reached by a drawbridge suspended over a precipitous ravine. Above a broken arch a long Arabic inscription, carved into the facing, reminds us of the glory that was once Shayzar. From the entrance towers, a dark underground passage leads across an immense open courtyard to a dungeon built with special care and more finished than the entrance chambers. Separated from the surrounding area by a deep moat cut into the rock, the dungeon once included two enormous shooting rooms whose sharply-pointed vaults rested on large columns. Now on chunks of the solid stone walls sleepy lizards lie basking peacefully in the sun.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Muslim princes of the Munqidh family made the castle of Shayzar their stronghold. From it they governed the Hama district. So well did they defend their fortress that the crusaders, with their outposts only a few miles west towards the sea, were never able to capture it. It was in this castle that Usamah ibn-Murshid ibn Munqidh was born on July 4, 1095.

Just three months before Usamah's birth, Pope Urban II had given a speech which, if judged by its results, was perhaps the most effective in history. For this oration struck the first spark of the Crusades, a war between West and East which was to last for two centuries.

Religious beliefs alone did not motivate this strange medieval military venture. Although European Christians of the Middle Ages did feel fervently that their religious honor demanded the wresting of the Holy Places from the hands of the "infidels," other factors—such as the oppression of the lower classes by feudal nobles, the lure of adventure in distant lands and severe famine—also contributed their influence.

Usamah's father, Murshid, scion of a distinguished family whose masters were referred to by Arab chroniclers as kings of Shayzar, was a man of great physical strength who loved fighting and hunting but was at the same time so devout that he dutifully copied the Koran 43 times each in black, red, and blue ink with gold initial letters. His life, as would that of his son later, exemplified Arab culture and the code of chivalry. Although he was a faithful Muslim, believing in the omniscient power of almighty Allah, he seriously studied the "science of the stars" and trusted in the efficacy of astrology in the affairs of man. Once in the midst of a fierce battle, he told his son, "It is not in my horoscope that I should feel fear."

Petty politics bored Murshid. Furthermore, he believed that power corrupts, and on the eve of taking over the rule of the Shayzar castle in 1098, this honorable emir wrote to his youngest brother, Izz-al-Din, "I shall not, by Allah, accept the lordship, for I would rather make my exit from this world in the same condition as I made my entrance into it." And so it happened that Usamah's uncle became the lord of Shayzar and thereafter assumed responsibility for the supervision of Usamah's education.

Because, as Usamah wrote in his memoirs, they "never felt secure on account of the Franks, whose territory was adjacent," this education stressed the arts of war. In his memoirs Usamah tells how he mastered the sword, lance, bow, and arrow—but not to the exclusion of the academic side. For 10 years he pursued formal learning under the best private tutors, at night by the light of a smoky clay oil lamp poring over manuscripts, memorizing the Koran, studying grammar, and reading poetry. With his teacher he sometimes rode along the edge of the Orontes—which he called the Shayzar River—the two singing together until they reached a large spreading oak tree where they dismounted and recited poetry by the hour. His love of literature lasted all his life.

Of Murshid's four sons, Usamah was the favorite, but the father never let himself become overly protective; rather, he urged Usamah to face peril bravely and overcome it, an attitude fostered by the medieval concept that God determined the length of a person's life, and that nothing in man's power could change it by one second. Usamah observed, "I never saw my father (may Allah's mercy rest upon his soul!) forbid my taking part in a combat or facing a danger, in spite of all the sympathy and preference he cherished towards me and of which I was cognizant." Once some Frankish and Armenian hostages, released from Shay-zar according to an agreement, ran into an ambush of Muslim brigands as soon as they left the castle. Hearing their cries for help, Murshid swiftly leapt on his horse and ordered those in the courtyard to ride at a full gallop to the rescue shouting to his son, "Pursue the marauders with thy men, hurl yourselves on them and deliver your hostages." The words "hurl yourselves" startled Usamah and kept popping into his mind. "I spent the rest of that hot dry day," he wrote, "racing my lathered and sweating horse over dusty roads before catching up with the hostages, freeing them, and capturing some of the brigands."

Murshid felt no hesitancy in allowing Usamah, even when he was still a mere lad, to accompany him to the battlefield where he saw the flowing blood and broken bones of the dying, and witnessed the harsh treatment often meted out to prisoners. The first time the young man saw actual fighting was at the end of a year's truce, when Tancred, the Norman leader of the First Crusade, advanced from Antioch at the head of an army. Seated on his chestnut mare near his father, Usamah noticed one of the men of Shayzar, Hasanun, a dashing young Kurd, galloping into battle. Suddenly a Frank drove his lance into the shoulder of Hasanun's charger. The horse stumbled and threw him—behind the Frankish lines. He was taken prisoner and tortured. The Christians were about to pluck out their prisoner's left eye when Tancred himself intervened and said, "Rather put out his right eye, so that when he carries his shield, his left eye will be covered, and he will be no longer able to see anything." This they did, and then demanded a ransom of 1,000 dinars as well as a black horse, which belonged to Usamah's father. The horse was the pride of Shayzar, but Usamah records that his father readily gave him in return for Hasanun.

The days of Usamah's youth were made up of more than the forays and skirmishes of battle. Hunting was a favorite sport in 12th-century Syria. In those days lions, panthers, jackals, and hyenas still roamed freely over the Syrian countryside. The Hama region was a hunter's paradise, Usamah wrote, and his father was an expert hunter. "As soon as my legs grew long enough to reach over the sides of a horse, he let me join the hunting parties." Hunting also gave the youth a chance to play with the hounds and their puppies which were bred and trained with such care at Shayzar. To obtain the finest breed of bird dog, his father used to send as far as the land of the Byzantines which at that time was overrun by Franks who had seized it from the Seljuk Turks.

For gazelle hunting, the most fun of all, swift lean salukis were bred. Once, after a long, pelting rain, Murshid rode out to the sugar fields on the banks of the river and set the salukis on the gazelles. Soon all the horses had sunk in above their fetlocks in the mud, but because of Usamah's lighter weight, his horse did not bog down. As a large tan blur streaked by, his father called to him to pursue the gazelle and hold it by its legs until the rest could get there. The young man raced as fast as he could, his hair blown straight back, his eyes barely open, until at last he caught up with the animal, jumped off his horse, struggled, and wrestled with the quarry until, exhausted and breathless, he forced it over on its back. "I could not have held it for another second," he admitted, "when my father leapt from his horse to tie the legs of the small graceful antelope. Dizzy with fatigue, I could hardly ride back to the castle; my father as usual seemed not the least bit weary."

The most elegant form of the chase, falconry, also involved the most skill. In search of the finest falcons, messengers traveled as far as Constantinople. Sometimes, on the homeward voyage, if rough seas delayed the ships, the falcons had to eat fish when their supply of pigeons ran out, a diet which made their feathers brittle. Luckily an expert falconer named Ghana'im lived in Shayzar, a man who knew everything about birds of prey and who could mend the broken parts of the wing so that soon the falcon would again be fit for hunting. Thanks to his efforts, Shayzar boasted the largest collection of falcons in all Syria.

In Usamah's mind, the strongest, swiftest and cleverest of all falcons was al-Yahshur, a bird who lived for 13 years arid became almost a member of their family. Unlike most birds of prey, which hunted for their own sakes, al-Yahshur always hunted for his master. Although it was customary for a falconer to starve his falcons all night to make them hunt better, al-Yahshur performed well even when fed. Perched on Usamah's father's gauntleted wrist, he would flush out five or six partridges, one after the other. "In return my father treated him like his own child," Usamah wrote. "When we entered the house, my father would say, 'Fetch me a bowl of water,' They would fetch him one and he would offer it to the falcon while it was still on his wrist (may Allah's mercy rest upon his soul!). The falcon would drink from it. In case it wanted a bath, it would shake its beak in the water ... My father would then order that a big basin full of water be brought and would offer it to the falcon ... It would then beat its wings in the water until it had a sufficient bath ... My father would put it on a large wooden perch especially made for it and would bring near it a brazier of live coal; and after it was combed and rubbed with oil until it was dry, a folded piece of fur would be placed by it. The falcon would go down to it and sleep ... And the falcon would be carried as it lay sleeping on the fur until it was placed near the bed of my father (may Allah's mercy rest upon his soul!)"

When Murshid organized a hunting party, no one dared talk. Everyone was supposed to concentrate on the chase, on scanning for a bird or a hare. Nets, hatchets, spears, all the needed gear, was packed in richly-decorated saddlebags and carried by mules. Forty of the most experienced hunters, two masters of the hounds, ten or more hooded falcons placed in wooden frames suspended from the shoulders of horsemen would all ride into the marshes tracking wild boars. Then they would hunt on, riding as far as the mountain top where they would feed the falcons and let them bathe in the mountain pools, returning to the castle at dusk.

Usamah's courage was put to the test almost every day. Once, riding wearily back from battle with a wounded retainer he spotted eight crusaders in their green and yellow silk tunics posted at a turn of the road before the castle. His retainer suggested an ambush, but Usamah answered, "That would not be fair. Rather we should make an open assault on them, thou and I." They did and were routing the knights when a small footman climbed up to a ledge and began shooting arrows down on them. They could do nothing except run as fast as the horses could go. Not until they had cantered wildly through the meadow, driving great herds of buffaloes, cows, and sheep before them, did they bring their horses to a walk. Then, shame-faced, they talked about the irony of defeating eight knights only to be chased by one footman.

In such an environment Usamah grew to manhood. The years of his long lifetime never tarnished his high standards of honor, honesty, courage, and kindness. He recorded in his autobiography that he felt a special responsibility for the more than a hundred persons domiciled in the castle. The same nanny who had cared for his father in his grandfather's house, and then in turn had raised him, held a particularly warm spot in his heart. As she grew older he gave her an apartment of her own and tried to visit her at least once a week. As long as she lived (and she lived almost a hundred years) he called her "Mother."

Usamah came to have the bearing, manners, and the sense of tact of a true aristocrat. Once in later life he became close friends with a European knight who had come to make the pilgrimage and stayed in Syria for several months. In the traditional way of the Arabs, they called each other "my brother". When the knight decided to set sail for his homeland, he asked to take Usamah's 14-year-old son to spend the summer with his family. Such a thought upset Usamah, who feared letting his son travel so far, and especially to the land of the Franks. But not wishing to hurt his friend's feelings, he answered diplomatically. "By thy life, this has exactly been my idea. But the only thing that prevents me from carrying it out is the fact that his grandmother, my mother, is so fond of him."

In time, after his youth of daring and adventure, the Emir of Shayzar came to be a scholar and a distinguished man of letters. In fact, Usamah's biographers knew him mostly through his collected poetry. Saladin is reported particularly to have appreciated his verse and to have treasured his own copy of it. A Damascene historian goes so far as to refer to Usamah as "the poet of the age." In all, 12 books written by him have been found, and his prose has as much style as his poetry. He valued his own library so highly that on one occasion when the Prankish prince of Acre—despite a promise of safe-conduct—ordered the pillaging of his ship coming from Egypt with 4,000 of his precious books on board, Usamah wrote, "Their loss has left a heartsore that will stay with me to the last day of my life."

Happily, before that last day of his adventuresome life, at the age of 90, the gallant gentleman wrote his autobiography —and inadvertantly recorded for posterity the day-to-day castle life of 12th-century Syria. In concluding his memoirs, Usamah reflected in poignant verse on his old age:

But now I have become like an idle maidwho lies

On stuffed cushions behind screens andcurtains.

I have almost become rotten from lying stillso long, just as

The sword of Indian steel becomes rustywhen kept long in its sheath.

After being dressed with coats of mail, I nowdress in robes

Of Dabiqi fabric.

This article appeared on pages 16-19 of the May/June 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1970 images.