The Eloquence of Ali Ibn Al-Athir

Ali Ibn Al-Athir (علي عز الدین بن الاثیر الجزري) was an Arabic historian, poet, and scholar who served for a time under Saladin.  Born in 1160 in the city of Jazeera Ibn Omar (the modern Turkish town of Cizre), he received his education there and in Mosul, Iraq.  From an early age, he showed an uncanny aptitude for literary work, composing verses and prose with fluent ease; he was soon able to master the essentials of grammar, philology, rhetoric, and law.

How he was able to accomplish this feat he explained in a poem called Al-Washi al-Markum (The Flowered Silken Tissue):  “I learned by heart an immense quantity of ancient and modern poetry…I committed to memory all the poetical works of [three important authors] and often studied them through during a number of years, till I obtained the faculty of expressing correctly my ideas and succeeded in acquiring such habits of application as became for me a second nature.”  Here is direct testament to the utility of memorizing passages of good literature.  To write well, we should make an effort to read and digest as much as possible from the best exemplars.

His writing abilities suggested a career as a government secretary; and in 1191 he boldly approached the court of Saladin to ask for an appointment.  After some time he left to work for the governor of Damascus, Al-Malik al-Afdal, and eventually rose to the rank of grand vizier.  He discovered, however, that political fortunes can shift quickly.  When a change of power took place in Damascus, Ibn Al-Athir was forced to leave on short notice; his biographer tells us that a friend hid him in a trunk which was smuggled out of the city.  He then relocated to Cairo to join his master.

He remained in the service of Al-Afdal until 1211, when he accepted a post with the governor of Aleppo.  This job did not work out, and he moved to Mosul, determined to stay there.  He was considered one of the greatest writers of letters and official correspondence of his era.  He composed a famous work in two volumes on the proper composition of letters called Al-mathal as-sair fi adab al-katib wa al-shair (The Current Proverb, Dealing With the Literary Information Needed for the Writer of Prose and Verse).  He is said to have read this work in public upon its completion.  Specimens of his poetry show him to have been a master of imagery.  Consider the following verses describing a moment of physical attraction:

Between the sands of Al-Jaza and the river of Al-Akik dwells a person whose charms her lover can never forget.

He gathered the plunder of the bee [honey] off the lips of that maiden whose motions are so graceful, and whose teeth so bright.

If her forehead were not a paradise, it would not have produced those charming curls.

How painfully cool the water of her lips!  I shall complain of its poignancy even to those who censure me.

Strange that in our mutual love, she who is my friend should act towards me like an enemy!

Let my life be the ransom of that gazelle whose slender waist works the same effect as the pliant lance.

[Trans. by M. de Slane, Biog. Dict. III.545]

Another one of his lines that I like very much is this one, which is a proverb in itself:

Three things give joy: a cup, a bowl and a goblet.

When the wine-skin is pierced for them, it is pierced for the dispelling of cares.

How much pleasure, indeed, can a cup, bowl, or goblet bring!  Here is a beautiful line he composed in Egypt to describe the life-giving River Nile:

Sweet in its waters, like the gatherings of the bee [i.e., honey];

Red in its face, so I knew it had slain sterility.

And here is a evocative line he wrote after seeing the stripped corpses of soldiers slain in battle:

They were stripped, but the blood, shining on their bodies with a scarlet hue,

Made them appear as if they were clothed.

Ibn Al-Athir also wrote an extensive history in eleven volumes called The Complete History (الكامل في التاريخ).  It is strange that his biographer Ibn Khallikan spends so little time discussing this work, preferring to describe Ibn Al-Athir’s poetical prowess.  But The Complete History is an important work of historiography, as it summarizes many earlier histories that are now lost.  It has also been cited as an important source for medieval Persian history.  He died in Mosul in 1233.

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