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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 January 2014

Philippe Provençal*
Zoologisk Museum, Universitetsparken 15, 2100 København Ø, Denmark


The aim of this article is to present a medieval Arabic report regarding six animals from the Gulf of Aden, to provide a zoological identification of five of the animals in question, which may be identified, and to comment on the biological data provided by the report in the light of both contemporary and modern zoological knowledge and, thus, to evaluate the scientific standard of the report.


Le but de cet article est de présenter un rapport d'origine arabe médiévale concernant six animaux du Golfe d'Aden, de fournir une identification zoologique des cinq parmi ces animaux qui peuvent être identifiés, et d'analyser les informations biologiques fournies par ce rapport à la lumière des connaissances zoologiques à la fois contemporaines au rapport et modernes, afin d'évaluer ainsi le niveau scientifique de celui-ci.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Cf. Ed-Dimichqui, Nukhbat ad dahr fī adschâ'ib al barr wal bahr, Cosmographie, ed. Mehren, August (Leipzig, 1923), pp. VVIIGoogle Scholar.

2 Ibid., pp. V–VI. Mehren's edition is based on four manuscripts which were kept in Copenhagen, Paris, Leiden and St. Petersburg (see p. X).

3 See ibid., pp. 164–5.

4 Dunlop, Douglas M., “Al-Dimashḳī,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn (Leiden and London, 1965)Google Scholar, p. 291.

5 Eisenstein, Herbert, Einführung in die arabische Zoographie (Berlin, 1990), pp. 82–3Google Scholar.

6 Ullmann, Manfred, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam, Handbuch der Orientalistik (Leiden and Köln, 1972), pp. 34–5Google Scholar.

7 Dunlop, “Al-Dimashḳī”, p. 291.

8 Eisenstein, Einführung, pp. 82–3.

9 Khalilieh, Hassan S. and Boulos, Areen, “A glimpse of the uses of seaweeds in Islamic science and daily life during the classical period”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 16 (2006): 91101CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially note 2, p. 91.

10 Ed. Mehren, pp. 164–5, translated from Arabic by P. Provençal.

11 The earth frog in the text. According to Malouf, Amin, Muʿǧam al-ḥayawān. An Arabic Zoological Dictionary (Cairo, 1932)Google Scholar, p. 41, the toad is called the clay frog ḍifdaʿ al-ṭīn in Egypt.

12 Part of this section has been translated by Anwar Abdel Aleem, “Concepts of marine biology among Arab writers in the Middle Ages”, Premier Congrès International d'Histoire de l'Océanographie, Monaco 1966, 2 vols., Communications vol. 2, Bull. Inst. Océanogr. Monaco, Numéro Spécial 2 (1968): 359–67Google Scholar, where he writes p. 365: “‘rounded animal like green water melon; colour yellowish with dark spots; head and tail not distinguished. When captured in the fisherman's net and thrown on to the ground it blows up. Its flesh is not eaten because it is poisonous’. In the Leipzig edition of Dimiski's Mirabilia the following additions are made of this fish: ‘When captured in the fisherman's net it blows itself up, then deflates, then blows up again and so on until it is dead or returned to the water. The flesh of this animal is not eaten because it is poisonous’.” In relation to this, it should be noted that Mehren did not mention any manuscript in Leipzig, but he notes that the passage just cited is omitted from the manuscripts of St. Petersburg and Leiden (ed. Mehren 1923, p. 164).

13 For the use of azraq to denote light, whitish, shimmering colours cf. Fischer, Wolfdietrich, Farb- und Formbezeichnungen in der Sprache der altarabische Dichtung (Wiesbaden, 1965)Google Scholar, p. 252.

14 Usually meaning feather, the word rīš may also mean quill or bristle, here it obviously means scale.

15 This word is in the singular but must either be understood collectively or the author did not know the real number of escape openings (gill slits).

16 ǧumǧuma means scull, but it may also mean a bowl, cf. Edward W. Lane, Arabic- English Lexicon (London 1879; repr. Beirut, 1968) and Albin de Biberstein Kazimirski, Dictionnaire arabe-français (Paris, 1860). Here it is understood as designating the body disc of rays.

17 Part of this section has been translated by Aleem, “Concepts of marine biology”, where he writes p. 365: “An animal in the shape of a plate or shield; its colour is bluish green, with red spots and a long tail. This tail is white and black; at the end of the tail there is a sting, which can be deadly; its mouth is from below and its cloaca opens nearby; its belly measures one shibr by one [extended palm] and total breadth is 1–2 arms.”

18 The Hedgehog is usually denoted as qunfuḏ in modern Arabic (cf. Malouf, Muʿǧam), but in classical Arabic the Porcupine might also be denoted as qunfuḏ; cf. Kamāl al-Dīn al-Damīrī, Kitāb Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān al-kubrā (Cairo, 1954; repr. Beirut, n.d.), entry: Qunfuḏ.

19 Aṣfar, which denotes all shades of yellow in Classical Arabic, may also be used to whitish colours such as the white colour of ivory in the language of the old poetry, see Fischer, Farb- und Formbezeichnungen, p. 360.

20 Ed. Mehren (note 2) writes in his glossary to al-Dimašqī's book only “fish” under the entry qirš (p. LXV).

21 Compagno, Leonard J. V., “Systematics and body form”, in Hamlett, William C. (ed.), Sharks, Skates and Rays (Baltimore and London, 1999), pp. 142Google Scholar, on p. 29.

22 Compagno, “Systematics”, pp. 29–30 and illustrations p. 30.

23 Liem, Karel F. and Summers, Adam P., “Muscular system, gross anatomy and functional morphology of muscles”, in Hamlett (ed.), Sharks, Skates and Rays, pp. 93114Google Scholar, on p. 103.

24 Compagno, “Systematics”, p. 6.

25 Hinz, Walther, Islamische Masse und Gewichte umgerechnet ins metrische System (Leiden and Köln 1970)Google Scholar, pp. 54 and 61.

26 Kemp, Norman E., “Integumentary system and teeth”, in Hamlett, (ed.), Sharks, Skates and Rays, pp. 4363, on p. 48Google Scholar.

27 Cf. Kazimirski Dictionnaire; Malouf, Muʿǧam; Wehr, Hans, Arabic-English Lexicon (New York, 1976)Google Scholar, Oman, Giovanni, L'Ittionimia nei paesi arabi dei Mari Rosso, Arabico e del Golfo Persico (o Arabico) (Napoli, 1992)Google Scholar; Provençal, Philippe, “Animal names gathered by interviews with members of the Muzīn tribe in Sinai”, Acta Orientalia, 58 (1997): 3546Google Scholar, Ibn Sīnā uses the term salāsī for sharks in his zoology forming the 8th part of his Kitāb al-Šifāʾ, Sīnā, Ibn, al-Šifāʾ, La Physique, VIIIe – Les Animaux, ed. Madkour, Ibrahim (Cairo, 1970)Google Scholar. The term salāsī is a transcription of the Greek term selachia, cf. Brugman, Jan and Drossaart Lulofs, Hendrik J., Aristotle, Generation of Animals, the Arabic Translation Ascribed to Yaḥyā ibn al-Biṭrīq (Leiden, 1971)Google Scholar.

28 Nelson, Joseph S., Fishes of the World (New York, 1984), pp. 58–9Google Scholar and cf. illustration, ibid.

29 Aleem, “Concepts of marine biology”, p. 365, has already made this identification.

30 Randall, John E., Red Sea Reef Fishes (London, 1992)Google Scholar, p. 174.

31 Ibid., p. 174.

32 Ibid., p. 176.

33 Eichler, Dieter, Tropical Marine Life (London, 1996)Google Scholar, p. 200 and illustrations p. 201, and P. Provençal, personal observations in the Red Sea.

34 Point three is only found in the manuscript from Paris (ed. Mehren, p. 164, note b). This identification has already been made by Aleem, “Concepts of marine biology”, p. 365.

35 Lieske, Ewald and Myers, Robert, Coral Reef Fishes (London, 2001)Google Scholar, plate 4.

36 P. Provençal, personal observation on Taeniura lymma, cf. Lieske and Myers, Coral, plate 4.

37 Randall, Red Sea Reef Fishes, p. 23.

38 Ibid., p. 22.

39 Compagno, “Systematics”, p. 39.

40 Cf. Randall, Red Sea Reef Fishes, p. 14.

41 Cf. Lieske and Myers, Coral, plate 4.

42 Cf. Randall, Red Sea Reef Fishes, p. 14, Lieske and Myers, Coral, plate 4.

43 Cf. Randall, Red Sea Reef Fishes, p. 14.

44 Ibid., p. 177.

45 Lieske and Myers, Coral, plate 138.

46 Randall, Red Sea Reef Fishes, p. 177.

47 Author's personal observation on live specimens of species of Diodon, cf. too Eichler, Tropical Marine, text and illustrations pp. 202–3.

48 Jørgen Nielsen, Zoological Museum, Copenhagen, pers. information.

49 Cf. Eichler, Tropical Marine, p. 203; Lieske and Myers, Coral, plate 138; Randall, Red Sea Reef Fishes, p. 177.

50 The drawings p. 164 in Mehren's edition of the Nuḫbat al-dahr of two of the animals mentioned were obviously made by a person, who never himself saw the animals in question. The animal to the right is the porcupine fish. The head is drawn like the head of a real owl with a beak put on a fish body. The quills are drawn as brittles on the side of the scaled body and the tail fin is forked. None of these characteristics apply to Porcupine Fishes. Their tail fin is rounded, they have no scales and their head is as described in the biological comments to the Porcupine Fishes under point 4 (cf. Lieske and Myers, Coral, p. 138 and p. 175). The animal to the left is obviously a cephalopod. It has the rounded body of an octopus, tentacles and even a tentacle with the broadened tip like the long tentacles of squids and cuttlefishes. As octopi continuously draw water in and out of their mantle cavity in order to breathe, the illustrator obviously misunderstood the description of the puffer fish as applying to a cephalopod.

51 A. Mehren identifies the Bassa with a sea turtle in his glossary to his edition of al-Dimašqī's book (p. XXVI). This identification is impossible on account of the size alone. The biggest known sea turtle, the leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea, never exceeds 2,5 m in length, i.e. about five cubits of those presumably used here. None of the marine turtles bear live offspring, as they all are egg-laying animals. Furthermore sea turtles are described rather precisely by our author p. 165 in Mehren's edition of the Nuḫbat al-dahr in the chapter about the Red Sea.

52 Colman, Jeremy G., “A review of the biology and ecology of the Whale Shark”, Journal of Fish Biology, 51 (1997): 1219–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Compagno, Leonard, Dando, Marc, Fowler, Sarah, A Field Guide to the Sharks of the World (London, 2004)Google Scholar, p. 174, cf. further the illustration in Møller, Jørgen L., Nielsen, Allan G., “Danske Hajer”, Natur og Museum, 3 (2000): 136Google Scholar, p. 34.

54 Colman, “A review”, p. 1228.

55 Ibid., p. 1224.

56 Eichler, Tropical Marine, illustration p. 97.

57 Harald Blegvad, Fishes of the Iranian Gulf, reprint from Danish Scientific Investigations in Iran, part III (Copenhagen, 1944), p. 35.

58 Cf. Møller, “Danske Hajer”, p. 34.

59 The translation of Aristotle's zoology was taken as a main reference work by the classical Arabic culture (cf. Ullmann, Die Natur und Geheimwissenschaften, pp. 8–9).

60 Aristoteles, De generatione animalium (translated by Platt, Arthur), in The Works of Aristotle, Translated into English under the editorship of Smith, John A. and Ross, William D., vol. V (Oxford, 1912), 732a32732b1Google Scholar.

61 Ibid., 732b1–733a19.

62 Brugman and Drossaart Lulofs, Aristotle, Generation, pp. 52–3. In al-Jāḥiz, Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (established and annotated by ʿAbd al-Salām Muḥammad Hārūn, 8 vols. [Beirut, 1996]), this feature of the role of the ears being apparent or not in determining whether an animal is viviparous or oviparous is mentioned in vol. VI, p. 33.

63 Kamāl al-Dīn al-Damīrī, Kitāb Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān al-kubrā.

64 Cf. i.a. Lisān al-ʿArab, compiled by Ibn Manẓūr al-Ifrīqī al-Miṣrī, Abū al-Faḍl Jamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Mukarram (Beirut, 1955); al-Jāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, ed. Hārūn; al-Qazwīnī, Zakariyāʾ b. Muḥammad b. Maḥmūd, Kitāb ʿAǧāʾib al-maḫlūqāt wa-ġarāʾib al-mawǧūdāt – El Cazwini's Kosmographie, ed. Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, Genehmigter Neudruck des Ausgabe von 1848–49 des Verlages der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung (Wiesbaden, 1967).

65 Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon.

66 Descriptiones animalium – avium, amphibiorum, piscium, insectorum, vermium quae in itinere orientali observavit Petrus Forskål, post mortem auctoris edidit Carsten Niebuhr (Copenhagen, 1775); Malouf, Muʿǧam; Oman, L'Ittionimia; Provençal, “Animal names”.

67 Cf. Mehren (note 2) pp. V–VIII; Dunlop, “Al-Dimashḳī”.

68 Cf. i.a. Hobbs, Joseph J., Bedouin Life (Cairo, 1990)Google Scholar; Provençal, “Animal names”.

69 Cf. Khalilieh and Boulos, “A glimpse of the uses”, especially note 2, p. 91.

70 Cf. Aarab, Ahmed, Provençal, Philippe and Idaomar, Mohamed, “La méthodologie scientifique en matière zoologique de Jāḥiẓ dans la rédaction de son œuvre Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (Le Livre des Animaux)”, Anaquel de Estudios Arabes, 14 (2003): 519Google Scholar.

71 Aleem, “Concepts of marine biology”, p. 366.

72 Ibid., p. 361. Ed-Dimichqui, Nukhbat, p. 144.

73 Yāqūt al-Ḥamāwī, Jacuts Geographisher Wörterbuch, ed. Wüstenfeld, Ferdinand (Leipzig, 1866–70; repr. Teheran), vol. 1, pp. 884–5Google Scholar.

74 Al-Qazwīnī, Kitāb ʿAǧāʾib al-maḫlūqāt, ed. Wüstenfeld, pp. 117–20.

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