Sometimes, I just wish I could follow all those leads that Ibn Ṭūlūn has dispersed amongst his many works… . Well, maybe in another project. I have pointed it out before that Early Modern Damascene biographers might secretly have been jokers or a little bit too fond of animal life. Wouldn’t it be enjoyable just to explore that in more detail? For those who plan to do so, definitely check out the Blog Colonizing Animals, and in particular its annotated Beastly Bibliography.
Ibn Ṭūlūn’s latest biographical dictionary, al-Dhakhāʾir al-Qaṣr, in particular often enough lets you forget that it is supposed to inform you about notable figures of the times. Instead, within many biographies it rather resembles George Stimpson’s 1946 Book about a Thousand Things, of which I bought a copy at some point. Ibn Ṭūlūn achieves this impression by taking a left-turn leading away from the respective subject of the biography and instead delving deep into his own vast knowledge.
If anyone else knows a work that does that to such a high and varied degree, please let me know, for in my opinion this stretches the limits of the genre quite far. Moreover, these excursuses are not restricted to obvious areas such as hadith, jurisprudence, poetry, or history. In fact, they are quite often about animals, yet without any obvious overlaps with the works he dedicated to such topics.
One of those instances occurs in the biography of one Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Qādir b. ʿAlī al-ʿŪshī al-Shāfiʿī. As Ibn Ṭūlūn elaborates, the nisba al-ʿŪshī refers to Maʿūsh, which I understand as the nowadays Lebanese village Majdal Maʿūsh. The biography covers roughly two pages in the Gotha manuscript of the work. Yet, only five lines are actually describing the man’s biography.
The remaining page and a half outline different subjects of exchange between him and Ibn Ṭūlūn. The largest section is what gives this blog entry its name: a written excursus on the crayfish or freshwater crab (saraṭān). From his description and based on what I could find about current populations in Syria, the translation ‘crab’ seems more fitting. An illustration can be found here (you probably have to scroll up one page).
The discourse moves constantly between what I regard as results of sound observations and weirder, sometimes outright cute things. It starts out with an attempt at defining the animal as a ‘water scorpion’, which goes also by the kunya ‘Abū al-Baḥr’. This was probably the more common name in practice. I recently learned that the vegetable Qalqās is known in Northern Lebanon as Abū Shujja, Shujja referring to a hairdo which resembles a pineapple. I reckon that 16th-century Damascenes also preferred to call the crab Abu al-Baḥr.
Then, Ibn Ṭūlūn alternates between descriptions of the crab’s habitat (both in water and on land, can still breathe when it leaves the water) and its anatomy:
“it carries [fakīn/fakayn?] and claws and very sharp talons, the points are hard on the top/backside; who sees it, sees an animal without a head or tail; its eyes are in its [kafy – shell?], its mouth is in its chest; its lower mandibles on both sides; it has eight legs and walks on one side.”
Ibn Ṭūlūn also mentions that the crab sheds its skin four times a year (molting), during which period it would somewhat change its behavior:
it occupies a stone (with) two entrances, one is way to the water and the other to the dry land; when it sheds its skin it blocks up the way to the water out of fear from the fish; it leaves the way to the dry land open so the air gets to it and dries out its dampness so its skin hardens; when it is hard again, it reopens the way to the water and seeks food.
And finally, Ibn Ṭūlūn comes to talk about the medicinal value of the crab. He says it later but in my opinion it needs to be stated immediately that he considers it forbidden to eat the crab, presumably because of its medicinal benefits. Nonetheless, he seems to have been somewhat isolated in this opinion, since, as he remarks, “I have seen that in al-Rabwa they are thrown into oil and the people stand closely packed to buy them”. This is the first mentioning of crab consumption from Damascus I have ever come across.
Consumption of the flesh, however, would probably deny people the other benefits this animal offered. Ibn Ṭūlūn claims 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. I must admit that I did not understand all of what he says in this regard. I will give my rendition of it anyway, even if it is flawed and appears at points incoherent:
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)
Anyway, the prescribed cure for… some illness to do with a burning pain seems to have been to suspend the head of a crab (an animal that was earlier described as having no head?) from one’s neck, I guess? I do not claim to understand it and at this point the writing in the manuscript is not entirely clear either. Let’s move on.
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? I cannot say. But 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.
Now that we have established that the – always dead – crab could help as a remedy for humans, this was not the only way in which its dead body could be used. 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”. After hearing this long list of benefits, who would still want to eat this animal?
What is exceptional, is the total absence of references to other sources. Not only are the usual materials from hadith or historiography missing, and the prohibition of the crab’s consumption is not based on legal rulings but this whole discourse is entirely void of intertextual connections.
In any case, the freshwater crab seems to be much the subject of this biography than Muḥammad al-ʿŪshī, about whose habits we do not learn as much. In consequence, this really is the biography of a crustacean.