On a June morning in the year 1404, a party of Spaniards on horseback crossed the frontier between Armenia and Persia and headed for the nearby city of Khoy, in the Persian province of Azerbaijan. The group's leaders, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, Friar Alfonso Paez de Santa Maria, and Gomez de Salazar, were the ambassadors of King Henry III of Castile and Leon - an uncle of Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator and grandfather of Queen Isabella I, Columbus' patron.
These Spanish envoys, already so far from home, were on their way to distant Samarkand in Central Asia, where the conqueror Tamerlane - from the Persian Timur-i-Leng, meaning "Timur the Lame" - ruler of much of the Muslim world, had his court. The purpose of their embassy was to further relations between Henry and Tamerlane, who had exchanged ambassadors once previously. Hajji Muhammad, Tamerlane's envoy on that occasion, had come to Spain loaded down with luxurious gifts for the Castilian ruler, and now Henry was responding in turn, sending prize falcons, scarlet Florentine cloth and other fine presents to Tamerlane.
It was about midday when the walls of Khoy came into view. Perhaps, as they rode leisurely through the well-irrigated orchards and fields that surrounded the city, some of the Spaniards chatted about the marvelous sights they had seen since departing from the Atlantic port of Cadiz a little over a year ago. Just last week they had glimpsed the snow-capped summit of Mount Ararat, known as the landing place of Noah's Ark. They were unaware, however, that the most unusual spectacle of their entire journey was awaiting them in Khoy.
When the travelers reached the city they found encamped there another embassy bound for Samark and - one that had been sent by the young Mamluk sultan of Egypt, Faraj. According to Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, whose detailed and colorful account of the Spanish embassy to Tamerlane has survived, the Egyptian ambassador was accompanied by 20 horsemen and 15 camels. And like the Spaniards, the Egyptians carried valuable presents for Tamerlane - including a number of ostriches and a bizarre, incredibly long-necked animal that neither Gonzalez de Clavijo nor any of his compatriots had ever cast eyes on before: a giraffe.
Not unexpectedly, Gonzalez de Clavijo had been much impressed by the magnificent churches and holy relics of Constantinople-modern Istanbul-as well as by the lofty dignity of Ararat, but this strange beast - which he calls a jornufa - was something for which he had not bargained. It had the appearance of some fabulous hybrid, yet unlike the monstrous Chimera of Greek mythology, it was docile, surprisingly gentle. The following passage, drawn from Guy Le Strange's 1928 translation of Gonzalez de Clavijo's Spanish text, reveals the considerable awe felt by a man who has just gazed at a giraffe for the first time:
This animal has a body as big as a horse but with an extremely long neck. Its forelegs are very much longer than the hind legs, and its hoofs are divided like those of cattle.
The length of the foreleg from the shoulder down to the hoof measured, in this present beast, 16 palms, and from the breast thence up to the top of the head measured likewise 16 palms: and when the beast raised its head it was a wonder to see the length of the neck, which was very thin and the head somewhat like that of a deer. The hind legs in comparison with the forelegs were short, so that any one seeing the animal casually and for the first time would imagine it to be seated and not standing, and its haunches slope down like those of a buffalo.
The belly is white but the rest of the body is of yellow golden hue cross marked with broad white bands. The face, with the nose, resembles that of a deer, and in the upper part it projects somewhat acutely. The eyes are very large, being round, and the ears like those of a horse, while near its ears are seen two small round horns, the bases of which are covered with hair: these horns being like those of the deer when they first begin to grow. The animal reaches so high when it extends its neck that it can overtop any wall, even one with six or seven coping stones in the height, and when it wishes to eat it can stretch up to the branches of any high tree, and only of green leaves is its food. To one who never saw the jornufa before this beast is indeed a very wondrous sight to behold.
"A very wondrous sight to behold." There in a nutshell is the reason why Egyptian sovereigns, from as early as the 15th century B.C. on up to the 19th century A.D., sought African giraffes both for themselves and as imaginative gifts for their friends, allies, and would-be friends and allies.
It was in the 15th century B.C. that the naval expedition sent by Queen Hatshep-sut of the 18th Dynasty to the Land of Punt - possibly the Somali coast - returned to Egypt with gold, elephant ivory, ebony, myrrh, leopard skins, baboons, and a live giraffe. These same items - along with an ostrich, ostrich eggs and ostrich feathers - were also portrayed in a rock-carving depicting tribute received from Nubia by the Pharaoh Ramses II, in the 13th century B.C.
In the Middle Ages, various sultans of Egypt presented giraffes to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II; Frederick's son Manfred, King of Sicily; and Berke, Khan of the Golden Horde, the Islamized Mongol khanate in south Russia. The Mamluk historian al-Maqrizi notes that in 1292, a giraffe was born in captivity in Cairo. Sending a giraffe to Tamerlane, while a most noteworthy occurrence, was therefore far from unprecedented.
About that particular giraffe, Gonzalez de Clavijo tells us nothing more, nor does he even see fit to mention the name of the Mamluk ambassador. He does indicate that the Spanish and Egyptian embassies journeyed the rest of the way to Samarkand together. It is not known for certain how the Egyptians managed to transport their live cargo; however, the ostriches are likely to have been crated and carried on camelback. The poor giraffe, on the other hand, must have walked the full route from Cairo to Samarkand - a distance of over 3,000 miles!
That the giraffe and the ostriches did arrive safe and sound has been established. The Persian historian Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi, writing some 20 years after de Clavijo, records that a Mamluk ambassador named Manglay Bugay presented nine ostriches (de Clavijo says six) and a giraffe, among other gifts, to Tamerlane. We shall return to Sharaf al-Din's report, but let us first rejoin the Spanish and Egyptian embassies on the road to Samarkand.
Ambassadors and animals journeyed onward through Azerbaijan and prepared to make their way around the southern flank of the Caspian sea. In Sultaniyeh, on June 26, they met Tamerlane's son, Prince Miranshah. In Tehran, a local lord named Baba Shaikh gave a memorable feast for the distinguished visitors. A traditional delicacy of the Central Asian nomads was served. "Among the viands," writes Gonzalez de Clavijo, with admirable restraint, "was a horse, roasted whole including its head."
They reached Nishapur, in Khorasan, on July 26. There, Gomez de Salazar took ill and died, despite the ministrations of "physicians of reputation," as Gonzalez de Clavijo recounts, "of whom there was no lack." At Mashhad the party visited the tomb of Imam Reza, one of the most venerated Shi'i imams. Continuing through what is now Soviet Turkmenistan into northern Afghanistan, the envoys crossed the Oxus River - now the Amu Darya - on August 21. On August 28, they stopped at Tamerlane's birthplace, Kesh - modern Shakhrisyabz - where, de Clavijo later commented, the tile work of the palace "was so marvelously wrought that even the craftsmen of Paris, who are so noted for their skill, would hold that which is done here to be of very fine workmanship." Finally, on Sunday, the 31st of August 1404, they arrived at the outskirts of Samarkand.
As was customary, the Spanish and Egyptian embassies were politely detained for a few days before being admitted to Samarkand and granted an audience with Tamerlane. Then, on September 8, they were allowed to enter the city. Imagine for a moment the astonished stares that must have greeted those ambassadors, as they patiently escorted a giraffe through the crowded streets of that Central Asian metropolis. Yet if the ambassadors and their giraffe amazed Samarkand, it is equally true that Samarkand amazed the ambassadors, as de Clavijo's account makes abundantly clear.
Samarkand, he asserts, is larger than Seville, and he estimates its population to be 150,000. "Of the nations brought here together there were to be seen Turks, Arabs and Moors of diverse sects, with Christians who were Greeks and Armenians, Catholics, Jacobites and Nestorians, besides those folk who baptize with fire in the forehead, who are indeed Christians but of a faith that is peculiar to their nation." (He evidently came away with the odd notion that J Hindus were a type of Christians.)
The Spaniard corroborates numerous I other reports that Tamerlane had carried off to Samarkand the master craftsmen of each nation that he conquered. He notes the presence of silk-weavers, crossbow-makers, armorers, glass blowers and ceramists from Damascus; also gunsmiths, silversmiths, and masons from Turkey.
Gonzalez de Clavijo was enthralled with the endless variety of imported goods available in the bazaar stalls of Tamerlane's cosmopolitan capital:
The markets of Samarkand are amply stored with merchandise imported from distant and foreign countries. From Russia and Tartary come leathers and linens, from Cathay silk stuffs that are the finest in the whole world, and of these the best are those that are plain without embroideries. Thence too is brought musk which is found in no other land but Cathay [actually, Tibet was the source par excellence of musk], with balas rubies and diamonds which are more frequently to be met with in those parts than elsewhere, also pearls, lastly rhubarb with many other spiceries. From India there are brought to Samarkand the lesser spiceries, which indeed are the most costly of the kind, such as nutmegs and cloves and mace with cinnamon both in the flower and as bark, with ginger and manna; all these with many other kinds that are never to be found in the markets of Alexandria.
At last the envoys reached Tamerlane's palace, which lay outside the city limits. Before entering the palace, both the Spanish and Egyptian embassies were asked by officials to turn over whatever presents they were bringing for Tamerlane - including, we may assume, the giraffe and the ostriches. The undoubted purpose of this request was to enable the officials to carefully inspect any gifts before forwarding them to Tamerlane. The two remaining Spanish ambassadors, de Clavijo and Friar Alfonso, and the Egyptian ambassador, Manglay Bugay, were then ushered into Tamerlane's presence.
At this point the great conqueror was 68 years of age and ailing - and was to die only four months later, on January 19,1405. He was sitting on the ground, but upon a raised dais before which there was a fountain that threw up a column of water into the air backwards, and in the basin of the fountain there were floating red apples. His Highness had taken his place on what appeared to be small mattresses stuffed thick and covered with embroidered silk cloth, and he was leaning on his elbow against some round cushions that were heaped up behind him. He was dressed in a cloak of plain silk without any embroidery, and he wore on his head a tall white hat on the crown of which was displayed a balas ruby, the same being further ornamented with pearls and precious stones.
De Clavijo says little about the actual audience with Tamerlane. It is safe to assume that more than just perfunctory diplomatic pleasantries were involved - for instance, both Western Europe and Tamerlane regarded the Ottoman Turks as enemies, to cite one probable topic of discussion. (There was every reason to fear the Ottomans, who half a century later were to take Constantinople from the powerful Byzantines.) Nor do we know the exact means by which the Spaniards and the Central Asian conqueror conversed. De Clavijo and/or Friar Alfonso may well have known the Andalusian dialect of Arabic, and it would have been easy to find an interpreter who was able to put Arabic into Turkish or Persian, the two languages spoken by Tamerlane, a Turk of the Barlas clan. Perhaps the Mamluk envoy Manglay Bugay, probably of Turkish origin, interpreted for his Spanish traveling companions.
We do know, however, that Tamerlane instructed his attendants to provide Gonzalez de Clavijo and Friar Alfonso with seats situated above that of a Chinese ambassador who was present at court. Tamerlane, who was making plans to invade Ming China, further humiliated that country's representative by having one of his lords announce "that the ambassadors of the King of Spain, the good friend of Timur [Tamerlane] and his son, must indeed take place above him who was the envoy of a robber and bad man, the enemy of Timur [i.e., the reigning Ming emperor, Yung-lo] and that he his envoy must sit below us [Spaniards]... Thus it came about that later at all times during the feasts and festivities to which his Highness invited us, he always gave command that we should have the upper place."
One such royal feast followed the Spaniards' meeting with Tamerlane. Gonzales de Clavijo's graphic description of the featured culinary offerings leaves no doubt as to the easiest way to his heart. He tells of "a quantity of mutton, roast, boiled and in stews, also horse-meat roasted... knots of the horse-tripe in balls of the size of a fist, with a sheep's head all of a piece."
De Clavijo's recounting of the service at the banquet is picturesque and evocative: What they thus brought before us was laid out severally on very large circular dishes of leather, such as we in Spain call Guadameci, and these had handles whereby the attendants could move them from place to place. Thus when Timur had called for any particular dish, that leather dish would be dragged along the ground to him, for the attendants could not lift them, such was the quantity of meat with which each was charged. When therefore it had been carefully slipped along the ground and brought near his Highness, namely to within some 20 paces, the carvers would come to cut up the viands. These men would kneel down before the great dishes, and all wore aprons for that business with leather sleeves upon their forearms to keep themselves clean of the grease, and thus bestowed they set to work to carve. The slices of meat were next placed in large trencherlike basins, these some of gold and some of silver, while others were of vitrified earthenware, or else of what is known as porcelain, and these last are much esteemed and of very high price.
He adds that when these boiled and roast meats had been consumed, stews of mutton were brought in, as well as "balls of forced meat with many side dishes of diverse sorts." Dessert was an assortment of fresh fruit that included melons, peaches, and grapes, washed down with mare's milk sweetened with sugar and served in bowls and goblets of gold and silver. Gonzalez de Clavijo pronounces the latter concoction "an excellent beverage;" at no time, in fact, does he show a reluctance to sample the local cuisine, which was a combination of Middle Eastern cookery and typical Central Asian nomadic fare.
As noted, Gonzalez de Clavijo's account, fascinating though it is, barely mentions the giraffe. After the sumptuous royal feast, for example, he only says that gifts from Egypt were exhibited - without mentioning either the giraffe or the ostriches.
Nevertheless, it is beyond question that the giraffe and the ostriches successfully negotiated the long trip from Cairo to Samarkand. Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi - who also supplied the Egyptian ambassador's name - confirms this fact:
This Manglay was endowed with rare qualities. He knew the entire Koran by heart, and he possessed the highest degree of eloquence, as well as several other talents, which made him the most pleasant man to converse with.
He brought a number of unusual presents - minted silver, precious stones, rich fabrics, and costly gems. There were also, among other curiosities, a giraffe, which is one of the rarest animals on earth, and nine ostriches, of the largest of Africa. He had the honor of presenting the lot at the foot of the imperial throne during his audience with Timur.
Manglay Bugay, it is apparent, made an indelible impression on Tamerlane's retinue. And Tamerlane, whose omnivorous curiosity rivaled his storied ferocity in battle, must have taken especial delight in the giraffe. A giraffe in his day was as much of a zoological oddity as a giant panda is in ours.
Gonzalez de Clavijo and Friar Alfonso Paez de Santa Maria arrived back in Spain in March 1406. Shortly thereafter, de Clavijo wrote down his account of the embassy, evidently basing his narrative on copious notes taken during the 34-month journey. Many times, over the last six years of his life - for he died in 1412 - Gonzales de Clavijo must have been quizzed by acquaintances about his sojourn in Central Asia, and probably never tired of telling his eager listeners about the wonderful things he had seen: the colorful bazaars of Samarkand, the incomparably lavish palace banquets, the incident at court involving the Chinese ambassador, and of course, Manglay Bugay's wonderful giraffe for Tamerlane.
Barry Hoberman, a free-lance writer specializing in Islamic history, studied at Duke University, Harvard and the University of Indiana.