A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Forty


Abu Nasr Isma’il ibn Hammad al-Jawari

Having been subject to a vicious and unwarranted attack by a relative of a recent nominee to our auspicious Hall of Fame, I have decided to play safe this time by proposing al-Jawari, the noted lexicographer who died around 1002 or 1008 CE.

Hailing from what is now Kazakhstan, Al-Jawari’s main claim to fame, although not why he receives this nomination, is his compilation of al-Sihah, a lexicon which contains some 40,000 entries. His light-bulb moment was to put the entries into an alphabetical order in which the last letter of a word’s root is the main criterion by which the order is established. Although it was incomplete at the time of his death – it is said that a student completed the magnum opus – it stood the test of time, becoming one of the main Arabic dictionaries in the medieval era and many of its entries becoming the basis for an Arabian to Turkish dictionary which was the first book to be published in the Ottoman empire on a printing press (in 1729).

The urge to fly must have been a primeval instinct amongst man. After all, the birds are so free and can travel great distances unhindered by the obstacles we find on land. The legend of Daedalus and Icarus testifies to the antiquity of the desire and, indeed, of its perils. We tend to think – or at least Occidentals do – that experimentation with flight is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Think again and consider the derring-do of Abbas ibn Firnas (810 – 887CE), a polymath based in Cordoba. Writing some seven centuries later, a Moroccan historian, al-Maqqari, comments that among Firnas’ curious experiments, was one where he covered his body with feathers, attached a couple of wings to his body, climber up high and launched himself into the air. According to what al-Maqqari considers to be trustworthy writers, he flew a considerable distance but “in alighting again at the place whence he started, his back was very much hurt” because he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail.

And then closer to home we have Eilmer, a Benedictine monk at Malmesbury Abbey at the turn of the 12th century. In Gesta Regum Anglorum, written by a fellow monk, William of Malmesbury around 1125, we learn that Eilmer fixed wings to his hands and feet and launched himself off the tower of Malmesbury Abbey. Remarkably, if William is to be believed, he flew more than a furlong before landing proved his undoing. “Agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of the air, as well as by awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after”. Eilmer, too, attributed his failure to forgetting about giving himself a tail.

Still, Firnas and Eilmer should count their blessings or give thanks to their respective Gods that they only suffered debilitating injuries as a result of their attempt to follow in the flapping wings of Daedalus and Icarus. As you might expect, what earns al-Jawari his place in our Hall of Fame over and above the strong claims of the other two is that his folly brought about his demise.

It is thought in an attempt to emulate Firnas and, presumably, to add a bit of spice to his otherwise dull but laudable work as a lexicographer, al-Jawari climbed on to the roof of a mosque in Nishapur wearing the obligatory wings – as for a tail my researches have failed me. Inevitably, too, after launching himself into the are, he plunged to the ground, killing himself in the process.

Al-Jawari, as the representative of the aviators of the first millennium you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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