Sporting with Cheetahs



Image: Gianni Dagli Orti.

This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract: 


On the Cheetah

Aristotle said: “A cheetah is a cross between a lion and a panthress, or a panther and a lioness.” It is said that if a cheetah has a difficult pregnancy, any male cheetah that sees her will take care of her and share the fruits of his hunt. When she is ready to give birth, she secludes herself in a place that she has prepared and remains there until she teaches her young how to hunt. The cheetah is proverbial for its sleepiness.

Al-Jahiz said, quoting Aristotle: “If a cheetah is afflicted with the disease known as cheetah-strangler, it may eat some dung and thereby be cured.” And they say that there is no animal the size of a cheetah that falls so heavily and shatteringly upon the back of its prey. The females are more refractory and bold than the males. Modesty is part of its nature, such that if a man runs his hand along the body of a female cheetah, she will remain calm until his hand approaches the vulva, at which point she will grow agitated and angry.

It is said that the first person to hunt with a cheetah was Kulayb Wail, or perhaps Hammam ibn Murra, a man of leisure and music. The first to carry a cheetah on a horse was Yazıd ibn Muawiya ibn Abı Sufyan. The one most famous for sporting with cheetahs was Abu Muslim al-Khurasani, the leader of the Abbasid Revolution. The first to establish the practice of the hunting circle was al-Mutadid bi-l-llah.

Cheetahs are found in the territories between the Hijaz and Yemen, the Hijaz and Iraq, and between India and Tibet. They are also found in Bariyyat Idhab, in the environs of Qus, in Egypt.

The poets and eloquent ones have excelled in their descriptions of cheetahs, both in poetry and prose. For example, this hunting epistle by Abu Ishaq al-Sabı:

“We had with us cheetahs darting like lightning, faster than arrows loosed at a deserter, more intelligent than lions, more cunning than foxes, stealthier than scorpions, lank-hipped and empty-bellied, dappled of frame. Red-cornered slits for eyes, open mouths, broad brows and wide necks, baring teeth like spear heads. The cheetah spies the gazelle at great distance, knows its sounds, tracks its droppings and resting places, scents its musk.”

Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Siraj described it thus:

Snarling mouth and paw possess
Cutting swords and slender spears
Night and day both claim a share of it
Cloaked in its pebble-printed garment
And the sun, ever since they nicknamed it the gazelle
Has risen over this watcher with dread.

Ibn al-Muʿtazz said:

It hunts but with a single bound
Flying on four outsized legs
Of all the wind’s offspring, it is the resplendent one
Trailing its tail on the ground

It clings to the neck of its prey

Like the embrace of a spurned lover
When its enemy sees it chasing behind
Its conscience whispers words of perdition into its ear


From The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri; edited and translated by Elias Muhanna, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation, abridgement, introduction, and notes copyright © 2016 by Elias Muhanna.

Translated from the Arabic by Elias Muhanna.