Biography of a Crustacian

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.


Biographical Dictionaries I: Ibn Ṭūlūn’s Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya

Biographical dictionaries are at once one of our central sources for prosopographical data – not only on the Mamluk era – and a genre that is often work-intensive to explore. The authors tried to arrange the masses of data they accumulated on several hundreds to even thousands of individuals from the past and their own times as good as they could. Most often, they are arranged either chronologically (by year of death) or alphabetically, or in a combination of the two (divided into generations – ṭabaqāt).
Yet, more often than not certain individuals escape the overarching order – especially the alphabetical order – and are thus difficult to find. This could happen either due to the later addition of more biographies, or a simple mishap, or even purposeful undermining of the arrangement to emphasize or diminish the position of a certain individual. Also, individuals can be found in unexpected places. For instance, Ibn Ayyūb dedicates the larger part of his biography on Sāra bt. al-Muzalliq to recount the building activities of the Mamluk governor of Damascus Tankiz (Rawḍ, ff. 136b-139a).
These digressions from the stated organizing imperatives and their underlying causes can easily elude during casual reading. Whereas indices help to a certain degree, often they omit the appearances of – especially minor – figures in other biographies. Machine readable texts offer a way out of this dilemma and new ways of cross-readings of these sometimes massive texts. In a raw state, however, they only help us as far as a ‘full name’ or distinguishable name (shuhra) is used. Encoding seems the way to go in these respects, for it would allow to share not only the narrative a scholar generates from his readings but also the refined text that they create in the process. This would ease the access to the networks realized in each of those texts and free more time for access to still unedited manuscripts.
On a much smaller scale, I have provided here a preliminary version of a machine readable index for Ibn Ṭūlūn’s still unedited biographical dictionary al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya fī tarājim al-mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya, which was compiled sometimes after 943. It is an exceptional source on the Mamluk-Ottoman transitional period as well as on the contemporaneous conceptions of the ḥanafī canon. Originally compiled in three volumes by the author, it survives in a one-volume copy by Ibn Ṭūlūn’s student – and perhaps collaborator – Akmal al-Dīn Ibn Mufliḥ (Istanbul, Süleymaniye Library, MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924) as well as partial autographs in Cairo (Dār al-Kutub, MS Taymūr Tārīkh 631) and London (Br. Mus., MS Or. 3046) and excerpts in a number of other manuscript copies (including some by Ibn Mufliḥ). The Istanbul Ms consists of 278 folios with more than 940 biographies of persons living between the 13th and 16th centuries, not being restricted exclusively to scholars.
The present index indicates chapter headings of the introduction and its chapters (fuṣūl) preceding the biographical section, which starts on folio 13a. The biographies themselves are organized by letter and sometimes also by ism (e.g. ذكر حسن). Each entry should give the full name, following Ibn Mufliḥ’s highlighting in blue letters. This is followed by life dates, if available, sometimes summarized information of their writings, and references to folios. I thank Boghos Barbouri from the Near Eastern School of Theology, Beirut, for his help with the execution of this list. The list is in Arabic.

A gunsmith in 15th-century Cairo

The Mamluks’ affinity to firearms, both handheld (muskets, rifles) and mounted (cannons) has been long debated in the field. Personally, I find Robert Irwin’s (2004) interpretation much more convincing than other studies, which presume a stubbornness on the Mamluks’ part against adopting this new kind of weapon.

As Irwin can indeed show, the Mamluks did see the potential of firearms of all sizes early on, as one would expect of professional soldiers. Yet, they also saw that they did not really suit their own established fighting style. 15th-century muskets were just not made to be used on horseback. Thus, the Mamluks would conscript other soldiers to carry them into battle or to man their cannons. One famous case are the ʿabīd, a regiment of African slaves raised by sultan Qānṣūh al-Ghawrī, but in the earlier campaigns on the Northern front, conscripts from among the rural and urban population of Syria seems to have played a more decisive role. They apparently kept these weapons – more often than not – after one war and would use them also against the Mamluks in internal strifes (Toru 2006).

Ibn Tulun showed himself astonished, in his chronicle, by the Ottoman display of firearms, in particular the wagons on or between which cannons were mounted (Wollina 2016). In his entries on the rebellious governor Jānbirdī al-Ghazālī’s siege of Aleppo in 926 AH, he even shows some advanced knowledge of different calibers of cannons and their ability to knock down gates or walls (Ibn Tulun: Iʿlām, 249). His interest in the technological aspects of firearms seems to go beyond their simple effect on event-based political history.

Still, it is somewhat surprising that Ibn Tulun brings up the same issue in his biographical dictionary al-Ghuraf al-ʿāliyya fī tarājim al-mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya. Perhaps, however, this may serve to demonstrate the fascination these weapons – the cannons in particular – held for him. The biography in question is on one Ibrāhīm b. Aḥmad al-Ḥalabī al-Ḥanafī, who later moved to Egypt and gained as well the nisba al-Miṣrī. There, he built a makḥala for sultan Khushqadam (reg. 1461-1467) “which could propel a missile of one Damascene qinṭar, i.e. four Egyptian qinṭār, over more than two postal mīl”. Yet, the sultan deemed his price to high; so he went bankrupt. His contraption finally only served the chief judge al-Dayrī to shoot sparrows.

The following is a transcript of the full biography. While it is based on the Istanbul MS of the text (MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, f. 14b), which is a copy, I have compared it as well to its counterpart in the partial Dār al-Kutub MS (MS Taymūr Tārīkh 631, p. 21). The one difference I found is in the spelling of the name of “al-Ḥajar”. I must admit that neither interpretation I have given here fully convinces me, based on the script. I presume that the copyist was facing similar problems and did his best to transcribe the signs from the original.

ابراهيم بن احمد الحلبي ثم المصري الحنفي كان عنده فضيلة و لازم الحجر بن الحفم/الشحنة(؟) وهو الذي عمل المكحلة للسلطان خشقدم التي ترمي بقنطار دمشقي وهو اربع قناطر بالمصري الي بعد نحو ميلين سدس بريد ورمي عليها لكن لم ينصفه السلطان فانه قيل انه انفق عليها نحو اربعماية دينار فاعطاه السلطان نصفها وهذا البعد العظيم يستفاد من طول عنق المحكلة و كان قاضي القضاة السعد بن الديري اخذ ذلك من الزبرطانة وهي عصا طويلة جدا مجوفة يوضع فيها بندقة وتنفخ فيبعد مداها ويصاد بها العصافير ونحوها من الطير وتوفي في المحرم سنة سبعين وثمانماية ودفن بالقرافة.


  • Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. Iʿlām al-warā bi-man waliya nāʾiban min al-Atrāk bi-Dimashq Aal-Shām al-kubrā. Edited by Muḥammad Aḥmad Duhmān. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1984.
  • Irwin, Robert. “Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Sultanate Reconsidered.” In The Mamluks in Egyptian and Syrian Politics and Society. Edited by Michael Winter and Amalia Levanoni. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden; Boston, MA: Brill, 2004, 117-139.
  • Toru, Miura. “Urban Society in Damascus As the Mamluk Era Was Ending.” Mamluk Studies Review 10, no. 1 (2006): 157-193.
  • Wollina, Torsten. “Sultan Selīm in Damascus: The Ottoman Appropriation of a Mamluk Metropolis (922-924/1516-1518).” In The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen. Göttingen: Bonn University Press 2016, 199-224.