Saturday, June 9, 2012

Arab Travelers - ibn Munqidh and ibn Battuta

I've been chewing over the Legacy of the Bieth setting for a while, and am unhappy with the "traditional" feel that it manifested in its latest Philly incarnation. Therefore, I'm going to be shifting it around and making it far more North African/Middle Eastern in inspiration, rather than the Ren Faire Europe that it had earlier. 


Two of my main sources for this are going to be the work of Ibn Battuta and of Usama ibn Munqidh. Both of their works have several anecdotes which make for great RPG fodder, which I'll be trying to get down on  Ibn Battuta you've likely heard of - Berber traveller, qadi, and Dude Sticking It To Marco Polo. Usama ibn Munqidh? Well, he's somewhat less familiar, and the Wikipedia link doesn't do him justice. 


So, let me present a synopsis of the first few chapters of his work, "The Book of Contemplation," that I had written up a while back.



Ibn Munqidh was a Syrian knight around the time of the 2nd Crusade. I had heard of his memoirs before - they were mentioned in a few of the books on the period I had read while growing up, but I had never seen a copy. Then last week, I wound up finding one at the Last Word, and immediately snagged it. Ibn Munqidh had been described as a super-chivalrous knight in the sources I had seen, but so far, he doesn't seem to be living up to that. Instead, he seems to be slightly engaged in conspiracies - up to his eyeballs. Y'know, just a little bit. 

The book opens with the earliest remaining fragment, which has ibn Munqidh serving Zangi, the governor (atabeg) of a Syrian province. After internal treachery on the part of another commander, ibn Munqidh fled Zangi's service and went to Mu'in al-Din, the ruler of Damascus, who took him in and did not in fact turn him over to Zangi. 

Then ibn Munqidh says that "certain things came to pass that necessitated my relocation to Cairo." The footnote clarifies that the "certain things" ibn Munqidh alludes to were likely intrigue against Mu'in al-Din, explaining why he then had to flee. When Mu'in al-Din sent his scribe to ibn Munqidh with a message professing friendship, ibn Munqidh then writes a poem back explaining how he was still al-Din's loyal servant, and left only to prevent trouble from falling on al-Din. No other reason! None whatsoever. 

So ibn Munqidh flees to Cairo, where the Caliph takes him in. After some time (and a feud between some of the caliph's troops, including some royal bodyguards), the Caliph dies and his son Al-Zahir ascends, appointing a fellow named Ibn Masal as his vizier. This appointment causes an amir of Al-Zahir's, Ibn al-Sallar, to fear for his life and/or try and stage a coup against Ibn Masal (but not against the caliph). Several of Al-Zahir's other amirs work with al-Sallar (and his stepson 'Abbas) to help against ibn Masal. Ibn Munqidh throws his lot in with al-Sallar also, and they kill Ibn Masal. Al-Sallar then becomes the new vizier.

Now, the Caliph is not thrilled with this, and plots to kill Al-Sallar (during Ramadan!). He sends some assassins after Al-Sallar, but they fail. Some of them flee to ibn Munqidh, who hides them and saves them. 

Then Abbas's son Nasr (so al-Sallar's step-grandson, I guess) works with the Caliph to assassinate al-Sallar. He sneaks into his grandmother's palace, decapitates al-Sallar, and brings the head to the Caliph, causing him to rise greatly in the Caliph's favor. The translator suggests that Nasr and the Caliph may have become lovers after this(there's a "giving head" joke in there somewhere...). Abbas is appointed the vizier in the wake of his stepfather's death. 

Abbas distrusts Nasr after this, though apparently more from getting cozy with the Caliph than from his murder of 'Abbas's stepfather. At one point they get into a fight, and ibn Munqidh intervenes on Nasr's behalf, saying "What then has he done wrong? He has not mistreated any of your companions, nor has he frittered away any of your money, nor has he criticized your regime. Indeed, he has risked his life so that you might attain this position." At which point father and son reconcile.

The very next section then mentions how the Caliph starts sending Nasr lavish gifts and trying to get him to kill his dad. (There's a bit in there where ibn Munqidhmentions how "during this whole period, I was with Nasr all the time. He wouldn't permit me to be absent night or day; I used to sleep with my head at the end of his pillow." And all the ibn Munqidh shippers cried out with glee...)

Anyway, Caliph trying to get Nasr to kill his dad. But that's going a bit too far for ibn Munqidh, who suggests to Nasr that unlike killing al-Sallar, killing his dad will likely doom his soul forever and is generally a Bad Prize. At which point Nasr goes, tells his dad everything, and then they murder the Caliph and his brothers. 

So. This is ibn Munqidh, and why he's interesting. Admittedly, the book gets a bit tamer after this, but I haven't started touching upon the Weird Bits that show up. 

I'm looking forward to writing these things up; I hope y'all are interested in reading. 

3 comments:

  1. Cool. I look forward to reading more!

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  2. I always want more Islamic world in my games - it's like fantasy is perpetually stuck in a small rainy village in the dark ignoring the enormous bright metropolis next door.

    I've been meaning to read Hitti's translation for years. Your write-up has made me think I really, really should.

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