William1's Reviews > Islam and the Crusades: The Writings of Usama ibn Munqidh

Islam and the Crusades by Usamah ibn Munqidh
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's review
Feb 14, 12

bookshelves: islam, 13-ce, translation, history, war
Read in February, 2012

This book is marketed as a Muslim perspective on the Frankish invasions of the 12 century (i.e. the Crusades). There is certainly much in it about specific battles against the Christian invaders, but it's very much an "on the ground" perspective. It's no survey text. If you've read Steven Runciman (or Christopher Tyerman) you can distinguish the various battles and periods of advance and retreat, and the writer's engagement with the major players of that time. But the book is much more than just a commentary on the Crusades.

Usama ibn Munqidh led this astonishing life as part of a rich Arab aristocracy. We get not only his view of the battles against the "Franks," as the invading westerners were known, but also the battles he was involved in against his Arab brothers. For this was an era of reigning municipalities reminiscent of the Greek poleis around the time of the Peloponnesian War, and there was frequent conflict.

There's an especially vivid sequence of hunting tales from his youth in and around his hometown Shayzar. I had trepidations when I noticed that the hunting stories were next, but they are in many ways the most fascinating stories in the book. He and his father hunted with hawk, peregrine falcon and cheetah. The tales are deeply moving. Munqidh's father would sleep with the cheetah in his room. That's how close he was to this animal. There are also episodes of lion hunting, or rather extermination, for such an animal close to populated areas was always a threat. There are also these incredibly moving reflections on old age.

Munqidh lived to be over 90. And there are 2 or 3 pages of thoughtful commentary on the loss of vitality and stamina at that age. The book has a non-linear timeline. In one vignette Usama is a lad on his pony following his father on the hunt. In another, in middle-age, he's marching in service to Nur al-Din, one of the great Arab military minds and long-time lord of Damascus. I highly recommend this astonishing book for all readers with an interest in the medieval Middle East (or Near East as it was once called). Like all good stories it holds one to the end.
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