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O Ye Gentlemen: Arabic Studies on Science and Literary Culture, in Honor of Remke Kruk (Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science) (Multilingual Edition)

  • Book Title:
 O Ye Gentlemen
  • Book Author:
Arnoud Vrolijk
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O YE GENTLEMEN – Book Sample


Willem Pieter Gerritsen

Ludovico de Varthema (or Barthema), a native of Bologna, was one of the first Christians to visit Mecca. The year was probably 1504, possibly 1503. Disguised as a Mamluk soldier, he walked around in the town, observing the holy places and the dense throngs of pilgrims. Behind the great mosque, he chanced upon a grated enclosure in which he perceived two unicorns. This is how he described the animals in the account of his travels which was first published in 1510 and soon turned out to be a European bestseller.

They [the unicorns] were shown to the people as creatures astounding on account of their rarity and strange nature, and this not without reason. One of them, which is much higher than the other, is similar to a foal of thirty months of age. On its forehead grows a single horn, which is straight and four cubits long. The other animal is much younger, about a year of age, and like a young foal; this one’s horn being of a length of four hand-spans.

The colour of this animal is like that of a dark horse; its head resem-bles that of a stag, but it has no long neck, its thin mane hanging down on one side. Their legs are thin and slender, like that of deer. The hoofs of the fore-legs are cloven, like the feet of a goat.

 The back of their hind legs is thickly covered with hair. This animal certainly seems to be very wild and fierce, although its wildness is mitigated by a certain comeliness. These unicorns were presented to the Sultan of Mecca as a most precious and rare gift. They were sent to him from Ethiopia by a king of that country who wished to propitiate the Sultan towards him.1

Born in all probability in the early seventies of the fifteenth century, Ludovico de Varthema was the son of a Bolognese physician. According to his own account, he was trained as a builder of cannon, but in reality he may only have obtained some experience in the soldier’s craft. Around the year 1500, spurred by curiosity ‘to see the diversity of the realms of the Earth,’ he travelled via Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut and Aleppo to Damascus, which he described as a wonderful city of great wealth.

Here, he came in contact with a group of Mamluks. The Mamluks of that time were an elite consisting of former slaves who had been captured, usually at a tender age, in Turkey, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus or in Russia. After several years of rigorous indoctrination and military training they obtained their freedom and served henceforth as a military aristocracy. Among them were also numerous former Christians who had forsaken their faith.

Learning that a caravan was about to depart for the Hajj to Mecca, Varthema struck up friendship with the leader of the armed contingent of Mamluks which was to escort the pilgrims. In return for a handsome reward, this man, a renegade Christian, permitted him to join the escort, dressed up as a Mamluk. Setting out in April – he gives the year as 1503, but it was probably 1504 – the caravan reached Mecca towards the end of May, after a dangerous journey of about forty days.

Varthema describes the city and the throngs of pilgrims flocking in from all over the Muslim world. He watched the enormous crowds of pilgrims walking seven times round the Kaʿba and receiving the ritual ablutions.

 After the sacrificial slaughtering of sheep he took part in a festive meal, and recollects that he and his companions threw the rinds of melons they had eaten to the poor people waiting outside their tent. The ritual ‘stoning of the devil’ by throwing pebbles at a wall2 near the town of Minā was cut short by the menace of the caravan being attacked and plundered by a band of Bedouins.3

Back in Mecca, Varthema was struck by the vast numbers of pigeons flying unhindered everywhere in the city and were not prevented from soiling the monuments. He was told that killing the pigeons would entail the downfall of the state.

The next chapter of Varthema’s travel-story is his above-quoted description of the two unicorns he saw in an enclosure behind the city’s great mosque. Before discussing this chapter in greater detail, it will be useful to provide a short account of Varthema’s further adventures and the success of his book.

Instead of travelling back to Damascus, Varthema joined a caravan departing for India via Aden, which at that time was the main port for the maritime spice trade in the Islamic world. In Aden, however, he was recognized as a Christian and arrested. After an imprisonment of several months he succeeded in regaining his freedom, which he owed to the intercession of the Sultan’s wife who had taken a liking to him, whereupon he embarked on a ship bound for India by way of Persia.

Calling in at Muscat (in present-day Oman) and at Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, the ship reached the coastal city of Cambay (now in the Indian federal state of Gujarat). From there, they travelled south along the Malabar coast, visiting cities like Bidar (state of Karna-taka), Cannanore (state of Kerala) and Calicut (present-day Kozhikode on the Kerala coast). Here they entered the sphere of influence of the  Portuguese.

Vasco da Gama had reached Calicut in 1498 on his quest ‘for Chris-tians and spices’, but had been forced to set out on the return journey without gaining a firm foothold on the Indian subcontinent. Two years later, Pedro Álvares Cabral, commanding a squadron of thirteen ships with more than 1200 men, had been more successful.

On Cabral’s insis-tence, the rajah of Calicut had been forced to consent to the foundation of a Portuguese trading station. Likewise, the rajah of Cannanore had to accept a treaty with the Portuguese. After another two years of partly failed, partly successful attempts to eliminate the Muslim trade on India, King Manuel I of Portugal decided to institute an ‘Estado da Índia’ with the task of administrating the Portuguese possessions in the East Indies.

Francisco de Almeida was appointed as viceroy. When Varthema arrived in Cannanore, he decided to leave his companions and to defect to the Portuguese. He was taken to the Portuguese fort where Lourenço de Almeida, the viceroy’s son, received him with enthusiasm and sent him on to his father’s headquarters. After joining the Portuguese ranks, Var-thema took part in several battles, of which he gave a lively account. On the 4th of December 1507, the viceroy personally conferred a knight-hood upon him in reward of his dedication to the Portuguese cause.

Shortly afterwards, Varthema boarded a ship bound for Portugal via the Cape of Good Hope. After his arrival in Lisbon, in July of the next year, he was received by King Manuel. The king kept him at his palace for several days, listening with great interest to the story of his adventures in the Orient. King Manuel’s endorsement of the charter conferring a knighthood to Ludovico de Varthema is preserved in the Portuguese national archives. Back in his native Italy, Varthema lectured with great success about his experiences to a Venetian audience.

He composed, in Italian, a written account of his travels which he dedicated to the Duchess of Tagliacozzo. The Duchess’s daughter Vittoria was presented a copy written by the famous calligrapher Ludovico degli Arrighi. In November 1510 a first edition of Varthema’s account appeared in Rome, printed by Stephano Guillireti and Hercule de’ Nani.4 The next year, a Latin edition, in which Varthema’s name was latinised as Vartomannus, was published in Milan. This inaugurated the European success of the book. A German edition, illustrated with a series of 46 woodcuts by Jörg Breu the Elder, was printed at Augsburg in 1515, followed by editions in Spanish (1520), Dutch (1544), French (1556), and English (1576).

Until the middle of the seventeenth century, more than 30 editions of the book have been recorded. Moreover, Varthema’s text was included, in full or in extracts, in several of the great geographical collections of the time, like John Huttich’s Novus orbis regionum ac insularum veteri-bus incognitarum (Basel, 1532) and the Navigationi e viaggi compiled by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, first published at Venice, 1550. Several sixteenth-century cartographers took note of Varthema’s experiences. In a small engraving enlivening the right-hand bottom corner of a map of the world published in 1532, Hans Holbein the Younger depicted two scenes from Varthema’s book: we see the restless traveller roaming through the world with forceful footsteps and, while detained in Aden, playing the fool under the eyes of the Sultan’s wife (Plate 1).5

Not all that Varthema tells his readers, however, is necessarily true. As early as the second half of the sixteenth century doubts began to be expressed as to the credibility of some of his stories. Nowadays, the account of his travels in the interior of Persia (he even claims to have visited Samarkand) is thought to be largely fictitious, as well as what he tells about his travels to Ceylon, Burma and Indonesia.

 In all like-lihood, Varthema has never penetrated farther east than the western coast of the Indian subcontinent. Like most of his predecessors – Sir John de Mandeville and Marco Polo are notorious examples – he appar ently made no bones about embellishing his account with a variety of tall stories that circulated in eastern ports and trade centres. Nor did he have any scruples about appropriating what he heard from local infor-mants and presenting it as part of his own experiences.

 This is a literary device found in many medieval and early modern travel accounts. On the other hand, much of what he tells about his travels in Syria, Arabia and along the Malabar coast clearly rings true and undoubtedly rests on personal observation. Varthema was one of the very first Europeans to have visited the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca, and his detailed descriptions of these cities are for the most part in agreement with those of later travellers.

There is, in short, no reason to suspect that Varthema would have invented his report of having seen two unicorns in an enclosure behind the great mosque at Mecca.

What kind of animals did Varthema see? His description of them is sufficiently detailed and precise to enable us to visualize their build. It evokes the image of a dark-furred, straight-horned antelope-like animal, not unlike a kind of Oryx (Oryx gazella?) or a Thomson’s Gazelle (Gazella thomsoni). Varthema’s description is conspicuously at variance with the traditional representation of unicorns in medieval bestiaries and works of art, where they are usually portrayed as white-furred, horse-like ani-mals, whether or not with cloven hoofs. Some twenty years earlier, a unicorn had been sighted in the Sinai desert.

 This was recorded by Felix Fabri, a Swiss Dominican friar who travelled in 1483 with a large group of pilgrims to the monastery of St Catherine’s in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula. Once upon a day, the pilgrims perceived from afar a big animal standing on the summit of a mountain.6

They took it for a camel, but were assured by the dragoman and his colleagues that what they saw was indeed a unicorn. To the same group of pilgrims, of which the most important member was Bernhardt Breydenbach, a wealthy canon from Mainz, also belonged a Dutch artist and printer, Erhard Rewich of Utrecht, who in 1488 published in Mainz an account of the pilgrimage, illustrated with woodcuts of his own invention. One of these depicts the animals which the pilgrims had encountered during their voyage.7

Among these animals is a unicorn which resembles a horse with cloven hoofs and a very long straight, spiralled horn protruding from its brow. This vivid portrait, allegedly drawn from life, answers in every detail to the traditional description of the unicorn in medieval western art (Plate 2).

It is interesting to compare Rewich’s woodcut with the one by Jörg Breu the Elder, the illustrator of the German edition of Varthema’s work, printed at Augsburg in 1515. He situated the two animals Varthema had seen in Mecca in a cage with a tiled floor, surrounded by a strong fence.8 Onlookers are peering through the openings in the fence.

Having in all likelihood no more information about the ‘unicorns’ than what he could deduce from Varthema’s verbal description, Breu portrayed them in his woodcut as robust goats whose necks are covered with a thick mane. The top side of their slightly bowed frontal horn is notched like a saw and points more or less horizontally forward (Plate 3).

If we assume that Varthema did not invent the story of his visit to the Meccan unicorns and that his observation of the animals was on the whole correct, he must have seen two animals having a single horn protruding from the brow. Now modern zoology is adamant in its assur-ance that no mammal of that description exists or has ever existed in Nature. A way out of this apparent paradox, however, is provided by two important details in his report.

The first of these is that the animals were kept in captivity. This may imply that they were raised under human surveillance. The second point is Varthema’s statement that the unicorns were presented to the ruler of Mecca as a gift from an Ethiopian king.

Before further exploring these issues, it is not without interest to note that the unicorns Varthema saw at Mecca were not the only single-horned animals he encountered in the course of his travels. Having set out from Aden on its way to the Indian Ocean, his ship was driven off course by a gale and ended up in the port of Saylac (present-day Zeila) in northern Somalia, near Djibouti.

There he saw kinds of cattle he had never seen before. Among these were cows carrying antlers like stags, which the sultan of the city had received as a gift, but he also observed……

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