The Arab Homer, part 5


arab homer mAchilles takes an Arab shield

During the Middle Ages, the story of the Siege and the Fall of Troy and the dispersal of Trojan survivors following the siege of the city by the Achaeans served as the secular parallel to the Genesis creation narrative. Various dynasties or even entire nations claimed (and even went to extraordinary lengths to genealogically prove) Trojan origin, merely following a well-established Roman tradition which saw in Aeneas their ancestor.

Virgil’s Aeneid was, in an era when the European West almost forgot the Greek language, the most influential secular text, and countless medieval chroniclers adapted the story into vernacular poetry. These texts proved themselves immensely popular and circulated widely throughout Europe. Le Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, De bello Troiano by Joseph of Exeter, Historiae destructionis Troiae by Guido delle Colonne, Il filostrato by Boccaccio, or Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer are the most famous examples.

In the Arab world we can also find several versions of the Trojan legend, but mostly in prose. These stories were not taken from the Iliad, but possibly from a number of Medieval European legends or (more probably) from some short Hellenistic novel in Syriac translation. For example, there is a late 13th - early 14th-century anthology of military exploits Raqā’iq al-ḥilal fī daqā’iq al-ḥiyal (Cloaks of Fine Fabric in Subtle Ruses). This collection of short stories, mostly dealing with funny ruses, with angels and jinn, prophets, kings and caliphs, their viziers and governors, judges and mystics includes a version of Achilles’ wrath and the killing of Hector.[1] The story is presented in the sixth chapter - The ruses of caliphs, kings and sultans (Fī ḥiyal al-ḫalafa wa-l-mulūk wa-s-salāṭīn):

It is said that the King of the Greeks (malik ar-Rūm) launched an invasion of Ifriqiyya[2], but the population received the news of this, so he laid a siege of their city for a long time to no avail. They fought him on the city doors. Among the citizens, there was a man called Aqṭar (Hector) who possessed the utmost daring and courage. Anyone who tried to fight him was invariably killed. The news of this reached the King of the Greeks.

He also had a commander named Arsilāus (Achilles), unsurpassed for his bravery throughout the world. The King burst in anger, after which he [Arsilāus] refused to take any part in the war. The King had asked him to, but he did not obey him. The King then said: “Spread the rumour that our enemy Aqṭar has captured Arsilāus’ brother.”

When Arsilāus heard the news he was deeply distressed. He looked everywhere for his brother, but could not find him. Then he asked for his weapons and went out against Aqṭar. He fought him, took him prisoner, and brought him before the king of the Greeks, who put Aqṭar to death. The people of Ifriqiya and all their supporters were terror-stricken. The King of the Greeks, with Arsilāus, marched on the city, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and conquering the region.[3]

Of course, differences between this story and the original epic are enormous. Hector does not kill Achilles’ brother – in this version, this is only a rumour concocted by Agamemnon (nameless in the story) in order to bring the resentful warrior back to the fray. Also, Achilles doe does not kill Hector, but merely captures him, and it is Agamemnon who orders his execution. It would almost seem as if Agamemnon, not Achilles, is the real protagonist of the story.


The medieval Arabs did not translate Greek poetry, not even the poems written by Homer. Even if we take into consideration the scattered pieces of information mentioning specific translation projects (Stephanos, son of Basilios) this accounts for next to nothing. Such translations (if they indeed existed) circulated among a very narrow circle of Baghdadi intellectuals and never found their way to the general public. When it comes to Homer and the so-called “Homeric question”, the Arabs had only a vague idea about his life or the relative chronology of Greek poetry in general, sometimes mistaking him for a Hellenistic poet. They certainly did agree on one point. Through their study of Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric they were well aware of what Homer meant for the Greeks – the blind poet was the very foundation of Hellenic paideia. Not only this, some Muslim Arabs recognized in his works the kernel of Divine truth. Certain verses (albeit taken out of context) seemed to prove his monotheism – A multitude of lords is not a good thing, but one lord let there be (Β 204) apparently stood for one God, not one supreme commander in the Achaean camp. Some, like Al-Bīrūnī knew Greek and probably had access to the epics because they used their verbatim quotations. How the Homeric epics influenced Arabic literature will be the topic of my next study.

With all the information presented here, one thing becomes clear. Hellenism, that pinnacle of human creativity, is not a monopoly of the West. It had not lain dormant until Florentine Humanism awoke it from slumber. It was preserved in Baghdad and other major centers of Islamic civilization where Homer was a household name. As Dio Chrysostom said: Ὅμηρος δὲ καὶ πρῶτος καὶ μέσος καὶ ὕστατος, παντὶ παιδὶ καὶ ἀνδρὶ καὶ γέροντι τοσοῦτον ἀφ’ αὑτοῦ διδοὺς ὅσον ἕκαστος δύναται λαβεῖν.


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Al-Bīrūnī. Taḥqīq mā li-l-Hind min maqūla maqbūla fī al-ʻaql aw marḏūla Or Al-Biruni's India (Arabic Text): An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about 1030 A.D. Revised by the Bureau from the oldest extant MS. in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris [Schefer 6080]. Hyderabad, 1958.

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Raqā’iq al-ḥilal fī daqā’iq al-ḥiyal (manuscript). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Arabe 3548


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[1] The manuscript I consulted is kept in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Arabe 3548. The manuscript was written in 1061 AH (1651 CE), and can be accessed at

[2] Etman mentions a copy of this manuscript kept in Istanbul but misinterprets its setting - Ifriqiyya as Africa (Etman 2011, 75). It is more likely that it refers to Phrygia, not the Arab province, but the Roman province of Africa. He traces the source of the story to a Medieval European legend, but the differences being between the story and Dictys the Cretan or Dares the Phrygian are considerable, and the Arab version is significantly shorter. It is next to impossible to trace the original.

[3] Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Arabe 3548, fol. 80.