Copper Cities and Glass Submarines

Sometimes we may read a history book and find ourselves thinking, “hang on, this doesn’t seem right”. Ibn Khaldūn, a 14th century historian born in what is now Tunisia, had similar thoughts when he evaluated mediaeval historical accounts. Historical works prior to Ibn Khaldūn were narrated through a process known as taqlīd, where reports were reproduced because the authors trusted the authority of the historians before them. Consequently, new historical works were mere repetitions, devoid of critical engagement with their sources.

In order to demonstrate the limitations of taqlīd, Ibn Khaldūn recalls the historian al-Mas’udi’s claim of a desert city gilded in copper. He reasons this would be impossible considering the metal’s scarcity would limit its usage to utensils and it would be unthinkable for copper to coat an entire settlement.[1]

Additionally, Al Mas’udi’s recounting of a 13th century retelling of Alexander the Great’s efforts to build Alexandria did not go unnoticed. When the city was under construction, monsters rose from the oceanic depths, causing a nuisance to the architects and builders. Alexander authorised a plan where he entered a glass box attached to a rope. With pen and papyrus in hand, the box containing Alexander was lowered to the bottom of the sea where he could accurately sketch the creatures. Using these illustrations as a blueprint, the king instructed the workers and magical jinn to build metallic replicas of the sea monsters. Acting as colossal scarecrows, these effigies scared off the sea monsters, making possible the establishment of Alexandria.

16th Century Islamic painting depicting Alexander the Great, lowered in a glass diving bell. OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); “Seas, Maps and Men”

Ibn Khaldūn  pointed out the absurdities of Al Mas’udi’s story asserting Alexander would most likely have suffocated in a submerged glass box. Additionally, Ibn Khaldūn contends:

“Now, rulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and (he would) be replaced by the people with someone else.”[2]

By evaluating these supposed retellings it is clear why critical reflection of sources was necessary. For Ibn Khaldūn, in order to accurately understand history, it is not sufficient to merely criticise the personality of the historical transmitter, but also to have knowledge of the true nature of civilisation. This raises a plethora of questions which I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming post.


Featured image: William H. Johnson, ‘Landscape with Mosques, Tunis’. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press. 37.

[2] Ibid., 36.

The Giraffe of Bengal

Presented as a gift to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, a giraffe represented the intensive fifteenth century connections between China and South Asia. Likely an accession gift to Bengal’s sultan from east African envoys of Malindi, the giraffe was re-gifted, finding its way to the Ming court in 1414.[1]

‘Tribute giraffe with attendent’, Shen Du (1357-1434)
The gift was presented to the emperor as a qilin, a mythical creature which represents benevolence. Qilin are said to have the body of a deer, equine hooves, fish scales and a horn. Matching their strange form was a diet which consisted of “unhusked rice, beans and flour-cakes”.[2] How such creatures managed to cook flour-cakes escapes me. The emperor himself was not too fussed about the creature declaring:

“If my ministers devote themselves to their work day and night, and exhaust all efforts to govern the empire and bring benefit to it, the empire will be at peace. Even without a qilin, there is nothing that hinders us from governing well.” [3]

Nonetheless the Ming emperor reciprocated by providing velvet and silk, thus establishing cordial ties between the two polities.[4] The ties were soon interrupted by Bengal’s internal turmoil. Raja Ganesh, a Hindu chieftain, had overthrown the Turkic Ilyas Shahi dynasty who had ruled the Bengal delta for seven decades. Incensed by Ganesh’s enthronement of his twelve year old son Jadu as the new sultan, the Sufi mystic Nur Qutub ‘Alam invited the neighbouring Jaunpur Sultanate to intervene. Attempting to legitimise his rule, Jadu converted to Islam and took the name Jalal-Uddin. This dispelled Nur Qutub ‘Alam’s apprehensions, but did little to dissuade Jaunpur, who viewed the succession struggle as an opportunity to weaken their neighbour.

For six years official records remained quiet about any envoys sent between Bengal and the Ming court.[5] It was in 1420, after Jalal-Uddin had consolidated his regime, that Bengal officially requested China’s assistance against border excursions. In response, the Ming emperor sent a military expedition, resulting in Jaunpur’s withdrawal from Bengal’s affairs.


[1] Duyvendak, Jan Julius Lodewijk. “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century.” T’oung Pao 34, no. 1 (1938): 348-354

[2] Church, Sally K. “The Giraffe of Bengal: a medieval encounter in Ming China.” The Medieval History Journal 7, no. 1 (2004): 22

[3] Ibid., 25

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 26

The Caliph’s Dream

Skeletons of giants, Viking long ship funerals and medieval statecraft – ‘Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness’ widens the eyes in many ways. Superbly translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, it recounts several Arab travellers’ experiences in modern day Russia, Central Asia and Hungary between the 9th and 14th centuries. What particularly drew my attention was Sallām the Interpreter’s voyage which followed Caliph al-Wāthiq’s dream of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj escaping their prison in 831 CE.  

Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj are beings featured in Islamic eschatology, transmitted from early Christian sources about Gog and Magog. This tribe were imprisoned in the far North underneath mountains and sealed behind a barrier built by the ‘two-horned one’, commonly associated with Alexander the Great. Every day this tribe tunnels from beneath the earth using their teeth, allowing them to penetrate just enough soil to glimpse the world above them. Before falling into torpor at night, Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj would promise to break through this hole once they awake. To this day they wake up to their work undone by the will of God – giving mankind reprieve from their pestilence. During the end of times, it is through God’s will that they will finally leave their subterranean prison to consume every living creature until there is nothing but themselves.[1]

One can see why, upon dreaming of the world’s end, the Caliph al-Wāthiq decided to commission Sallām the translator and fifty companions on an eighteen month journey to determine whether it was an imminent premonition. In the ninth century, Arab and Persian geographers divided the world into seven climes, beyond which was the domain of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj.[2] The region and people associated with this realm would change depending on historical realpolitik, with Mongols, Turkic tribes, and later Napoleon and the Soviets were equated to Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj .[3] In our ninth century travellers’ case, Sallām and his companions made their arduous expedition from Baghdad to outer China via Iran and Central Asia. Arriving at the fabled barrier, Sallām remarked of ‘a high mountain surrounded by fortifications’, a reference to the Great Wall of China.[4] Sallām returned to the Caliph to assure him that that the only damage to the barrier is the size of a thread. The consoled Caliph granted the fatigued travellers  gifts and provided alms as his fears were now allayed.  

Noted by Lunde and Stone, the interpreter’s odyssey is a vivid description of an interconnected world of caravansaries.[5] Both overland and maritime routes linked the worlds between Andalucía and the Far East. More importantly, these travels present the reader with an imagined world tamed by physical verification. To trek beyond the pale of human settlement, prior to air travel, in order to satiate a dream is itself an astonishing feat.


[1] Schmidt, Andrea B. and van Donzel, Emeri Johannes Andrea B. Schmidt. ‘Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest’, Brill (2010) pp. 95-97

[2] Ibid., 98

[3] Ibid., 4

[4] Lunde Paul and Stone, Caroline E.M., ‘Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North’, Penguin Classics (2011), p. 101

[5] Ibid., Xviii