Wednesday, April 7th, 2021 8:00 am

“Egypt is a land of wondrous monuments and strange stories.” So begins the seventh/thirteenth-century work A Physician on the Nile by ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī, edited and translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The work begins as a description of Egypt written for the Abbasid caliph al-Nāṣir before becoming a harrowing account of pestilence and famine; it is also one of the earliest works of ancient Egyptology. In this excerpt from the chapter on the animals of Egypt, the author describes the ferocious “river horse,” or hippopotamus.

…Another characteristic animal is the “river horse.” It is found in Lower Egypt, and particularly in the branch of the river at Damietta. It is a creature vast in form, mighty to behold, and highly aggressive. It goes after boats, sinks them, and kills any of the passengers it can get hold of. It is actually more like a buffalo than a horse, even though it lacks horns and emits a sort of grating sound that does in fact resemble the neighing of a horse or, rather, of a mule. It has a massive head, gaping jaws, sharp fangs, a broad chest, a great pot belly, and short legs. It attacks savagely and suddenly, charging with great force, and is terrifying in appearance and menacing in its destructiveness.

I was informed by a man who had hunted them several times and had cut open those he had killed, enabling him to see their interior and exterior parts, that they are large pigs: these interior and exterior parts, he said, are in no way different from those of pigs in appearance, or only in their inherently enormous size. I have seen in Anatoliusʼs book on animals a passage that corroborates this claim. To quote, “The ‘water pig’ is found in the river of Egypt. It is the size of an elephant. Its head resembles the head of a mule, and it has hoofs like a camel’s.” He also writes, “If a woman drinks the fat from its back, melted and stirred into gruel, it will cause her to put on weight to an exceptional degree.”

In the river at Damietta, one such animal had become so addicted to sinking boats that anyone traveling through the locality did so in peril of their lives. Elsewhere, another became addicted to killing buffaloes, cattle, and humans, and to ruining crops and livestock. The local people tried every stratagem to kill these two creatures: they set sturdy traps, deployed men armed with all sorts of weapons, and took various other measures, but to no avail. Eventually, an appeal was sent to a group of the Marīs, a race from the land of the Blacks: they claimed to be experts in hunting hippopotami, and said there were many in their home country. Armed with short spears, they made straight for the creatures, killed both of them in the shortest time and with the least effort, and brought them to Cairo.

I saw them with my own eyes. Their skin was black, hairless, and very thick. The animal’s length from head to tail is ten medium paces; its body is about three times broader than a buffalo’s, and so too are its neck and head. In the front part of its mouth it has twelve fangs, six above and six below, the outermost ones measuring half a cubit and more, and those between them a little less. Behind these fangs are four rows of other teeth, running the length of the mouth in straight lines, ten in each row, and looking like hens’ eggs lined up; two of the rows are in the upper jaw and two, opposite them, in the lower. Opened to its greatest extent, the mouth would be wide enough to take in a big sheep. The tail is half a cubit and more in length, broad at the base, but with a tip like a finger in size that is just skin and bone; it is similar to the tail of a varanus. The legs are short, about a cubit and a third long; they end in something like a camel’s hoof, except that the edges are split into four sections. These legs are exceedingly stocky, and the body as a whole is so enormous that it seems like the hull of a capsized boat.