The Crustacean Returns: A possible context for Ibn Tulun’s observations

April 2018 saw the publication of a post on Ibn Ṭūlūn’s excursus on freshwater crustaceans indigenous to Syrian bodies of water. At the time, I could not give that much context on the meaning of this passage upon which I came in a biographical dictionary. Having recently ventured into some new literature for a course at Hamburg University, I will now try to give at least a bit more information as to the meaning of this zoological passage in a biographical work.

First, to recap, the text on the crustacean takes up most of a two-page biography (only five lines are concerned with the biographee as such). Ibn Ṭūlūn begins by giving common names for the animal (saraṭān, ‘water scorpion’, Abū Baḥr) followed by an alternation of observations about its anatomy, habitat, and behavior. Finally, the discourse turns to benefits it (or certain body parts of it) offers to humans from which Ibn Ṭūlūn concludes an inadmissibility of the crustacean’s consumption.

This discourse is the one that should be contextualized here. To summarize, use of dead parts of a crustacean could benefit a person’s internal health as well as their external fortune. First, let us look at the medicinal value it held:

the dead body of a crab could heal snake and scorpion poison, would function as an anaesthetic (“put the saraṭān on wounds when you remove an arrowhead”), could somehow serve as remedy against haemorrhoids. […]

“when you hang its head on a human who cannot sleep, [then you burn it and he can sleep, or something is burning and it stops the burning? – idhā kāna al-qarr(?) muḥtaraqan fa-anna kāna muḥtaraqan nāma]; if it burns and he has hemorrhoids [or it is filled with hemorrhoids?] how did they sting!; it is also beneficial for those with tuberculosis (maslūlīn)”

[…] Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions at the very end of the entry the existence of saraṭānāt in “the Chinese Sea” (baḥr al-ṣīn) and also how the local physicians extract antimony from them so they appear white.

Wollina, Torsten, “Biography of a Crustacian”, in Damascus Anecdotes, April 4, 2018,

As the human body was seen as a microcosmos subject to the same forces as the macrocosmos, the crustacean’s dead body also served as a powerful tool in the latter. It would safeguard trees and even larger areas:

If you bury it, “this spot is secured from celestial damages”. If you suspend it from trees, “they bear much more fruit” than before. Finally, “if you hang one of its feet on a lucrative tree its fruits will never be befallen by any illness”.

Wollina, Torsten, “Biography of a Crustacian”, in Damascus Anecdotes, April 4, 2018,

For this expansion on the subject, I would like to begin from a final quotation from that earlier post. This addresses the lack of context given in the account, which is—very unusual for the author—devoid of any references to other authorities or writings. At the time, I concluded and/or speculated the following:

It does seem unlikely that Ibn Ṭūlūn’s description of the medicinal use of crab can be considered as a normative or prescriptive statement. It seems out of the ordinary, to say the least. Perhaps these things can be found in Ancient zoological works as well? Or is it proof of rather recent development which has to do with the opening-up of new channels of information flow after the Ottoman expansion into the Indian Ocean?

Wollina, Torsten, “Biography of a Crustacian”, in Damascus Anecdotes, April 4, 2018,

Whereas I am still uncertain to which degree Ibn Ṭūlūn’s statements about the prohibition of consumption or the medicinal value of dead crustacean can be “considered as a normative or prescriptive statement”, I have found more clarity about the origins of these ideas. In fact, there is a strong connection to ancient works and their adherence to Aristotelian humor theory as well as to an Indian context. We now take a slight detour to illuminate this connection.

In her book chapter “Itineraries of materials and knowledge in the early modern world”, Pamela H. Smith discusses the production of vermilion, used as a red pigment “often employed by painters to depict deep red blood, […] especially associated with the redeeming blood of Christ”.((Smith, Pamela H. “Itineraries of Materials and Knowledge in the Early Modern World.” In The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World. Edited by Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello. London: Routledge, 2016, 31-61, here 38.)) From this, Smith explores the underlying meanings assigned to substances, colors, and even certain animals, and the connections established between them based on the system of humors. Thereby she discovers “a relational web of interlinked homologies among red, blood, gold, and lizards” which “gave access to the powers of nature, transformation, and generation.”((Smith, “Itineraries,” 40-41) Moreover, she shows convincingly that this “nexus” was not exclusive to Western Europe but its traces can be found across “the ‘Afro-Eurasian ecumene”(Smith, “Itineraries,”44)).

Most importantly, “a person’s individual constitution was viewed throughout Eurasia as influenced by the heavenly bodies, and many of the remedies […] were transported over very long distances”, and in conjunction with these long-distance exchanges, literatures on wonders both codified remedies and stimulated demand for them in distant places{1}. From among such works, Smith singles out the 10th-century work Kitāb ʿajāʾib al-Hind (see here for 1883 edition with french translation), which shows a certain obsession with the crayfish (saraṭān): “for example crayfish that fell into the Sea of Senf, turned into stones, and were ‘subsequently ‘carried into Iraq …and used in making an ointment to cure eye complaints.”((Smith, “Itineraries,” 48; incidentally the pigment astaxanthin contained in their shells is still considered as a cure for eyes today)). Does this not remind one of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s account of “saraṭānāt in ‘the Chinese Sea’ “?

My interest, however, was initially sparked by another passage, taken directly out of Albertus Magnus’ 13th-century Book of Minerals. Magnus attributes there to the red coral several qualities Ibn Ṭūlūn attributes to the crustacean:

It is good against any sort of bleeding. […] worn around the neck, it is good against epilepsy and the problems of menstruation, and against storms, lightning, and hail. And if it is powdered and sprinkled with water on herbs and trees, it is reported to multiply their fruits. They also say that is speeds the beginning and end of any business.

((Smith, “Itineraries,” 38))

Admittedly, Magnus’ and Ibn Ṭūlūn’s descriptions differ in several respects. However, they are in agreement at least as much. From the practice to wear the respective object around one’s neck to the warding effect against “celestial forces” to the multiplication of horticultural yields, the resemblance is uncanny. This is less surprising if we consider that Magnus incorporated Arabic alchemical theory into his Book of Minerals. Both accounts attest to the continuing relevance of what Smith calls “dense pathways of exchange that coursed across Afro-Eurasia” resulting in a shared “complex of ideas and practices”{2}.

At the same time, the differences between the accounts are equally relevant. At the very least, they point to possible “blockages, barriers and constraints to the movement of objects” (rather than technologies, in this case)((Smith, “Itineraries,” 49)). Moreover, Ibn Ṭūlūn’s account implies a certain adaptability of the overall system. Red corals could be substituted with a local substance to achieve similar results—from which we can deduce that those crustaceans are probably also red? Were the crustaceans thus also used to make red pigment in early modern Syria? It is difficult to say from a purely textual perspective (today the red pigment contained in their shells is used as a food colorant and dietary supplement).

The only—in modern eyes—practical use Ibn Ṭūlūn mentions is their consumption, despite his own prohibition. In the light of the afore-going his prohibition can be viewed from a different angle. Crayfish, much like lobsters, do not look red before they are cooked. Their shell contains astaxanthin: “Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment: absorbing blue light and appearing red, orange or yellow in color. While the crustaceans are alive, astaxanthin lies wrapped in the tight embrace of a protein called crustacyanin. The protein holds the pigment so tight, in fact, that it’s flattened and its light-absorption properties are changed.” 

Only with the cooking process would crayfish turn to red and thus fit into the system of knowledge discussed above. Was this at the heart of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s prohibition? Was it important that the red quality of the crayfish remained hidden? Was it regarded perhaps even stronger when it did not show? Or had the position of the crayfish simply changed by the 16th century when Ibn Ṭūlūn wrote about them?

While I cannot answer those questions, I find these continuing echoes of ancient and medieval knowledge systems well into the early modern period intriguing in and of themselves. And I wonder how many such traces can be found in (not only) Ibn Ṭūlūn’s other miscellaneous works on animals, plants, stones, and other substances, and how those works reconciled ultimately Aristotelean concepts with Prophetic Medicine, in which he was also engaged.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "The Crustacean Returns: A possible context for Ibn Tulun’s observations", in Damascus Anecdotes, August 25, 2019,
  1. Smith, “Itineraries,”48 []
  2. Smith, “Itineraries,” 49 []

One Reply to “The Crustacean Returns: A possible context for Ibn Tulun’s observations”

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