Egypt: Khumaraweh


By James Aldridge

(Tales from Cairo, Biography of a City)

Ibn Tulun was one of the most famous rulers of Egypt during the early Islamic period, but it is his son, Khumaraweh, who was a most interesting character in Egyptian history. Like so many sons inheriting a strong father's wealth he was softer and able to indulge in eccentricities. He turned his father's big midan into a lovely and exotic garden, and planted its vast acreage with tropical trees, roses, jasmine, lilies, and shrubs. But Khumaraweh hated the unsightliness of the stalks of trees, so every tree had its trunk and branches coated in sheets of gilded copper which were lined with lead water pipes, so that every tree was not only a gilded lily but a pretty fountain running through the shady gardens. Not only were there exotic trees but exotic fruits, such as apricots grafted onto almonds, and a complicated and lovely pigeon house. The birds of Fustat-Katai were famous for their color and their noisy singing. Since he had used up his father's sports ground to build his garden, Khumaraweh built another midan even larger than his father's, but a little distance away. And since he was mad over horse racing, there were races almost all night and day.

Khumaraweh lined the walls of some of the rooms and passages of his palace (where the Hasan mosque now stands) with thin sheets of gold studded with lapis lazuli. In one suite called the House of Gold, which was entirely lined with gold, he set up wooden statues of himself and his wives, each statue dressed in cloth of gold. They were larger than life, and his own statue had golden trousers and his turban was encrusted with jewels. Every night Khumaraweh would sit on one of the terraces or in his golden room or in his garden listening to the poets reciting, or to his favorite slaves singing. He also built a magnificent zoo, and he was passionately fond of lions. There was a special house of lions (dar el assad), and every chamber of it housed a lion and a lioness. Each cage had a special door where the keeper could enter to feed them and clean out the place and sand the floor, and each one had running water. It was a really clean and spacious menagerie, and sometimes Khumaraweh would free all the lions into the courtyard of the zoo, and all Fustat would shake with the roars of the lions fighting and playing with each other all night. Every lion was trained to go back to his quarters when his keeper called him by name.

The most extraordinary of all these lions was one that Khumaraweh kept as his own pet and bodyguard called Zouraik (little blue) because it had blue eyes. Khumaraweh led him around by a collar of gold, and Zouraik slept near Khumaraweh, no matter where he was. Khumaraweh fed him chickens and goats and brushed his coat. But as well as lions Khumaraweh kept ponies, racehorses, camels, leopards, giraffes and elephants in his city. What is charming about Khumaraweh is that he could also be kind to human beings. Instead of turning them out on the street as often happened, he installed the mothers of all his prolific father's children in the harem, and he also looked after any of his own divorced wives who had presented him with children - a not illiberal gesture from a ruler as eccentric as this one.

But perhaps this isn't really the half of it, because Khumaraweh conceived what is probably the ultimate in sybaritic self-indulgence - something even Texas hasn't thought up yet. Khumaraweh was an insomniac, and his physicians told him that he ought to be rocked gently to sleep every night. To achieve this Khumaraweh dug out a lake thirteen hundred feet square in the garden of his palace. This lake was filled with mercury (as from thermometers) and he slept on the lake every night, rocked to sleep on an air mattress made of inflated skins. The mattress was tied to the edges of the lake with silken cords, and the movement of the mercury made small waves which moved it gently to and fro. In an alcove nearby, his favorite singers (four at the time) sang him sacred and profane songs and chanted his favorite verses from the Koran, and if he couldn't sleep on his lake Khumaraweh would get up and walk around his palace or sit in his gardens or entertain his lady friends.

Makrizi loved this sort of anecdote and he finds it difficult to tear himself away from lengthy descriptions of Khumaraweh's excesses. Fustat-Katai under Khumaraweh lived in a sort of permanent nonviolent Roman holiday, and as Lane Poole says: "So brave, so terrible and so gallant a figure was this superb prince that his subjects dared not speak, much less sneeze, as he passed by." It was also considered bad luck if they did speak or sneeze. But according to Makrizi (Casanova), he was never the same man after his favorite wife Bouran died. It was for Bouran that he had built his House of Gold, and after her death everything in life seems to have lost charm for him.

Khumaraweh was strangled in his bed in Damascus in 896 by his servants and his concubines. His lion Zouraik and his black bodyguard couldn't save him, and his murderers were crucified. His body was brought home to Fustat and buried near his father's, somewhere at the foot of Mukattam. Just as he was being put into his tomb the reciters of the Koran "happened to be chanting" the verse which says: "Seize him and hurl him into the fire of hell," which was probably a genuinely popular story and comment on what all this sumptuous self-indulgence meant to the people of Fustat-Katai - zoo, gardens, lions, and his personal bravery notwithstanding.

El Katai itself was destroyed by Khumaraweh's successor. The Tulunids had managed to keep Egypt for themselves as a private kingdom for thirty years, but Khumaraweh's sons were too weak to hold on to it.