Who was Nasir Khusraw? An 11th century Persian poet and traveller-pilgrim, various accounts of his life over the years have called him a king, a heretic, a cult leader and a magician who ate only once every 25 days (or one who could be sustained by the mere smell of food). Farid ud-din Attar, poet of the classic Mantiq at-Tayr (The Conference of Birds), once called him “a ruby in Badakhshan”. Khwandamir’s Habib al-Siyar refers to him as Amir Khusraw, but as modern scholars remind us, while it would be accurate of us to honour him as a hakim or khwaja, amir he was not.
A poet and da’i (missionary), Nasir Khusraw’s life took him from his birthplace in Greater Khorasan to travel eastwards, learning languages and sciences, and then to return to the Seljuk court of Tugrul Beg to become a finance official. From our distance, Iranian empires may seem to follow one another as a matter of tranquil predestination, sort of like the China of Zhang Yimou films. But medieval Persia in the time of Nasir Khusraw was a fractious place, both internally and within the borders of the larger Muslim world of West Asia and north Africa. As the Abbasids and Buyids tussled to the west of the Seljuks, the Fatimid empire of Cairo towered over all of them, intellectually and culturally.
History in art: A castle near Tripoli, Libya, on the river Kadesha, circa 1840(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Around 1037, Nasir Khusraw lit out for a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He spent the next seven years travelling around West Asia. Setting out from Marv in modern-day Turkmenistan, crossing Mesopotamia and southern Persia, he went to Syria and Palestine, where he stayed for four months, before leaving Jerusalem for Mecca, and then on to Egypt. All told, it would be seven years before he saw Marv again.
His Safarnama provides a meticulous account of his travels, reminding us of our own cultural familiarity with the historic Aleppo and Tripoli, Cairo and Basra. His narrative voice is low-pitched and even, but keenly interested in everything from water conservation in Jerusalem to the architecture of Tripoli. People may seem relatively sparse in its pages, but humanity is not at all absent from the Safarnama; this is only in comparison with the touchy-feely travel writing to which this column has devoted attention in the past.
The scholar Alice Hunsberger says that if Nasir Khusraw is today less known than Sa’adi, Khayyam, Rumi and Hafiz, even in Iran, it is because of the trials to which his Ismaili Shia faith was subjected during his lifetime, contra the state’s official Twelver (or Imami) Shi’ism and later Sunni hegemony. His religious verse was more easily set aside than the perfumed abandon of Persian love poetry. And when the Fatimid empire dissolved in 1171, Shias in Iran resorted to concealing their faith, and with it, works like Safarnama.
An illumination showing a mosque in medieval Jerusalem. (Photo by Western Illumination Artist).
Only a part of the travelogue, Nasir Khusraw’s diary of Syria and Palestine, translated to English in 1893 by Guy Le Strange of the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, is available to read online freely (http://bit.ly/o1qZJ6).
Nasir does Tripoli
They were, at the time of our arrival, extracting the juice of the sugar-cane. The town of Tripoli is so situated that three sides thereof are on the sea, and when the waves beat, the sea-water is thrown up onto the very city walls. The fourth side, which is towards the land, is protected by a mighty ditch, lying eastward of the wall, in which opens an iron gate, solidly built. The walls are all of hewn stone, and the battlements and embrasures are after the like work. Along the battlements are placed balistae (’arradah), for their fear is of the Greeks, who are wont to attempt the place in their ships. The city measures a thousand cubits long, by the like across. Its hostelries are four and five stories high, and there are even some that are of six. The private houses and bazaars are well built, and so clean that one might take each to be a palace for its splendour. Every kind of meat and fruit and eatable that ever I saw in all the land of Persia, is to be had here, and a hundred degrees better in quality. In the midst of the town is the great Friday Mosque, well kept, and finely adorned, and solidly constructed. In the Mosque court is a large dome, built over a marble tank, in the middle of which is set a brazen fountain. In the bazaar, too, they have made a watering place, where, at five spouts, is abundant water for the people to take from; and the overflow, going along the ground, runs into the sea. They say there are twenty thousand men in this city, and the place possesses many adjacent territories and villages.
Nasir examines the location of Hell
Lying between the mosque (in Jerusalem) and this plain of the Sahirah is a great and steep valley, and down in this valley, which is like unto a fosse, are many edifices, built after the fashion of ancient days. I saw here a dome cut out in the stone, and it is set upon the summit of a building. Nothing can be more curious than it is, and one asks how it came to be placed in its present position. In the mouths of the common people it goes by the appellation of Pharaoh’s House. The valley of which we are speaking is the Wadi Jahannum. I inquired how this name came to be applied to the place, and they told me that in the times of the Khalif Omar—may Allah receive him in grace!—the camp (of the Muslims, who had come up to besiege Jerusalem) was pitched here on the plain called Sahirah, and that when Omar looked down and saw this valley, he exclaimed, ‘Verily this is the Valley of Jahannum.’ The common people state that when you stand at the brink of the valley you may hear the cries of those in Hell which come up from below. I myself went there to listen, but heard nothing.
Nasir meets a badass in Ma’arrah
There, was living here (at this date) a certain personage called Abu’l Ala Ma’arri, who, though sightless, was the chief man of the city. He possessed great wealth, and slaves, and very numerous attendants; for it was as though all the inhabitants of the city were of his people. As for himself, he had adopted the way of the ascetics, being clothed in a rug (gilimi), sitting quiet in his house, and taking for his daily bread half a mann of barley bread, and beyond this eating nothing more...This personage, too, has attained such renown as poet and writer that the learned of Syria, Maghrib and Irak, all agree that no one of these days is his equal, nor can be. He has written a book under the name of Al Fusul wa-l Ghayat (The Divisions and Conclusions), wherein enigmatical words are employed, with such wonderful and eloquent conceits and similitudes that it is only a very small part thereof that one can understand, and that only when one may have perused the work under the author’s direction... there are continually with him some two hundred persons, come from all parts of the world...A certain one inquired of him why, since God—may He be praised and magnified!—had endowed him with all this wealth and goods, was it that he thus gave all to other men and used none for himself. The answer was, ‘No more than what I must eat, can I take.’