Islam’s Medieval Underworld
2013 07 27

By Mike Dash | Past Imperfect



The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.

We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld. This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods.


An Arab city of the early medieval period. Urban centers in the Middle East were of a size and wealth all but unknown in the Christian west during this period, encouraging the development of a large and diverse fraternity of criminals. From a contemporary manuscript.


According to Clifford Bosworth, a British historian who has made a special study of the Banu Sasan, this motley collection of burglars’ tools had some very precise uses:
The thieves who work by tunneling into houses and by murderous assaults are much tougher eggs, quite ready to kill or be killed in the course of their criminal activities. They necessarily use quite complex equipment… [The iron spike and an iron hand with claws] are used for the work of breaking through walls, and the crowbar for forcing open doors; then, once a breach is made, the burglar pokes a stick with a cloth on the end into the hole, because if he pokes his own head through the gap, [it] might well be the target for the staff, club or sword of the houseowner lurking on the other side.

The tortoise is employed thus. The burglar has with him a flint-stone and a candle about as big as a little finger. He lights the candle and sticks it on the tortoise’s back. The tortoise is then introduced through the breach into the house, and it crawls slowly around, thereby illuminating the house and its contents. The bag of sand is used by the burglar when he has made his breach in the wall. From this bag, he throws out handfuls of sand at intervals, and if no-one stirs within the house, he then enters it and steals from it; apparently the object of the sand is either to waken anyone within the house when it is thrown down, or else to make a tell-tale crushing noise should any of the occupants stir within it.

[...]

Read the full article at: smithsonianmag.com



Related Articles
The Mediaeval Islamic Underworld: The Banu Sasan in Arabic Society and Literature


Latest News from our Front Page

The Aeon of Horus is Ending and the Elites are Nervous as their Icons are Dying
2014 04 18
I predict there is going to be a huge resurgence of interest in European indigenous spiritual traditions from Norse to Celtic/Gaelic to Slavic and so on. Millions of Europeans are going to realise that we are the victims of Christianity and New Age garbage. Their bastardised Kabbalah, the psychic force used by Crowley and the elites to cement his Aeon ...
Easter - Christian or Pagan?
2014 04 18
From: truthbeknown.com Contrary to popular belief, Easter does not represent the "historical" crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In reality, the gospel tale reflects the annual "crossification" of the sun through the vernal equinox (Spring), at which time the sun is "resurrected," as the day begins to become longer than the night. Rather than being a "Christian" holiday, Easter celebrations date back ...
Man-Made Blood Might Be Used in Transfusions by 2016
2014 04 18
Researchers in the U.K. have created the first man-made red blood cells of high enough quality to be introduced into the human body The premise of the HBO show and book series True Blood revolves around a technological breakthrough: scientists figure out how to synthesize artificial human blood, which, as an ample new source of non-human food, allows vampires to "come ...
The Trials of the Cherokee Were Reflected In Their Skulls
2014 04 18
Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee have found that environmental stressors – from the Trail of Tears to the Civil War – led to significant changes in the shape of skulls in the eastern and western bands of the Cherokee people. The findings highlight the role of environmental factors in shaping our physical characteristics. ...
Our Fears May Be Shaped by Ancestral Trauma
2014 04 18
Last December, an unsettling Nature Neuroscience study found that mice who were taught to associate the smell of cherry blossoms with pain produced offspring who feared the smell of cherry blossoms, even if they had never been exposed to it before. We knew that the process was epigenetic—that it was not hard-wired in the permanent genetic structure of the mouse—but ...
More News »