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Antarah Shaddad Absee was the paragon of Arabian chivalry, a tribal lord, a masterful warrior, a talented poet, and, before his glorious days, just an unacknowledged son of a chieftain relegated to the same status as his mother, an Ethiopian slave, and tasked with herding livestock and other odd jobs across the lands that are now Saudi Arabia.
Like Alexander The Great before him, he had a famed horse carry him through his valorous feats, deeds which were executed by a sword as invincible as Arthur’s Excalibur.
As with all tales warped by the unfolding of time and embellished as they are passed across distances, Antarah’s legendary adventures are fused with a significant dose of mystique such that it becomes hard to know with certainty whether a man of such innumerable and successful exploits ever did exist, or is a pastiche composited from several heroes of the day.
According to one source, Antarah was born in 525 CE and joined his ancestors in 608 CE, though the year of death is also given as 615 according to other sources; regardless of the source, it is clear that Antarah lived in a pre-Islamic Arabia, and his tale spread far and wide on the wings of the faith that came shortly after his death (Prophet Muhammad’s Hijrah, the beginning of the Islamic Era, occurred in 622 CE).
Born in what is now Qassim Region, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under the house of Shedad, a chieftain/nobleman of the Banu Absee tribe then ruled by King Zoheir, Shedad’s father, Antarah’s story begins with an Abseean raiding party stealing into the domains of the Djezrila tribe. The plunder was bountiful, for the raiders made off with numerous camels, property and slaves.
Yet Shedad was so enamored of a black slave woman, described as a “woman of great beauty and fine proportions”, and took her and her two sons, Djaris and Shiboob, as his only claim from the loot. In time, Zebiba, as the woman was known, gave birth to a son, “as dark as an elephant, with eyes as black as night, and a head of shaggy hair.” He was named Antarah.
The child quickly revealed himself to be a prodigy, displaying courage and strength unexpected at his age, more so for a slave, for in the absence of an explicitly defined status for a child born from such diametrically opposed social classes, the child lived with his slave mother, working the fields and livestock.
So the chieftains of the Absee, wary of his rising star, connived to have the child’s status as a slave sealed by King Zoheir, but when he was presented to the king, the king was left in awe, and rewarded him with a chunk of meat.
Only that didn’t go as planned, for a dog in the tent intercepted the chunk and bolted off as the Romance of Antarah states,
“Rage gave Antar the fleetness of the wind. With mighty leaps he bounded after the dog. Swifter darted no eagle upon its prey than Antar pursued the rogue. With a mighty spring he caught it and seizing its jaws tore them asunder down to the beast’s shoulders, and in triumph he held the meat aloft.”
This presumably was before he was 10, for at that age, it is written that he slew a wolf that was threatening the livestock he was guarding, and presented to Zebiba the wolf’s severed head and limbs. Riding horses and perfecting his aim were his other occupations in his younger years, and matters may have remained dandy a while longer, but a fateful encounter with a prince’s slave raised him into prominence amongst the Absee.
The eldest son of King Zoheir, Prince Shas, owned a slave called Daji, a creature of immense proportions and a known bully, of whom is written, “there was not a slave but feared him and trembled before him.” Antarah was unfazed.
One day, Daji came by the watering hole and displaced all who had come to water their animals ahead of him, forcing them to wait as his herds quenched their thirst; while everyone complied, an old woman came up to him, beseeching him to let her water her paltry herd of cattle. He responded with abuses.
Another old woman, despite seeing the abuse meted to the first, meekly approached Daji, recounting to him the calamities she has endured thus far in life, and entreated Daji to let her water her sheep, her only means of survival.
His response was to physically assault the woman, and rip her clothes of her to further humiliate her in front of the masses that had been waiting for Daji to be gone with his livestock.
Antarah quickly became acquainted with this injustice and thus confronted Daji,
“What mean you by this disgusting action? Do you dare violate an Arab woman? May God destroy your limbs, and all that consented to this act!”
And it may have remained an altercation, but, Daji, feeling slighted that a slave would dare question him at all, never mind in front of a crowd, attempted to land a blow, missed, but received one that knocked him down. Daji stood up, grappled with Antarah, who hoisted him above his head and slammed him onto the hard ground.
That was the end of Daji.
Slaves that had hitherto watched from the sidelines now descended upon Antarah, for they didn’t want to be seen as complicit in the killing of Prince Shas’ slave, and Antarah, brave and hardy as he was, would have succumbed, were it not for the timely intervention of Prince Malik, son of King Zoheir. The matter was taken to the king, for the killing of any individual, slave or not, by a slave was a matter that often required expeditious punishment.
Yet the king extolled Antarah, for by his actions he had come to the defense of a defenseless woman, even if she were but an old slave; women and mothers thereafter hung around him, yearning to learn more of this magnanimous slave.
Two important things occurred shortly after; he dedicated his pursuits and toils to the service of women, and he met Ibla (Abla in other texts), the ever-burning motivation driving him on in increasingly dangerous tasks.
Ibla, whose father was (old) Malik, Shaddad’s brother, and thus Antarah’s cousin, was “as fair as the moon”, and Antarah stumbled into her tent while her mother was combing her hair. (Cousin marriage was normal then, btw).
“His heart beat wildly at the birth of a great passion and the hot blood burned his dark cheeks.”
But while this passion was coming to life, Ibla fled from his presence, living him transfixed, mesmerized by her beauty. It is said that over the next days, the winds spoke of love, and he saw Ibla’s face on pools, and weeds to him became the most beautiful of flowers.
For having the temerity to publicly declare his love for (the freeborn) Ibla in the numerous verses he spewed whenever an opportunity presented itself, Antarah made himself enemies, chief amongst them his father Shaddad and his uncle, Ibla’s father.
But with Antarah only excelling in exhibiting virtuous deeds, it was hard to punish him without just cause, even if he were a slave.
The opportunity presented itself when Antarah killed a slave who had besmirched his honor, for which Shaddad sent his unacknowledged son to watch the cattle, and while he was in the fields, Shaddad and old Malik connived to beat him up; yet as they approached to hand him his hiding, they found Antarah grappling with a lion that had threatened the herd, quickly dispatching it as they watched.
The two were mollified, and in the evening, Shaddad was given a seat at the dinner table, seated between his father and his uncle, a rarity for people not acknowledged as freeborn members of a household.
An Encounter with Cathans
That his standing had improved was made clear when, in the days after this, the Absee went on a plundering expedition against the tribe of the Temin, and the Abseean women (plus women and other slaves) were left under the care of Antarah.
Seeing as the men were away and the women were bored out of their minds, Semiah, Shaddad’s wife, organized a soiree of sorts by a local lake, where the women danced as the servants sang, and wine flowed freely amongst them.
The shrieks of delights soon became wails of grief, for about 70 horsemen from the Cathan tribe bore down on them, each grabbing a female. Ibla, who was present, was taken, spurring Antarah to fly towards his captor, or as it is written,
“Horse he had none but love and despair gave him the swiftness of a steed, the courage of a lion and the strength of the elephant. Across the plains he coursed as swiftly as the wind but the steeds were as swift as he. Clouds of dust choked him and hid him from view but double burdens on tired coursers could not continue the mad pace.”
He caught up with them, slaying a number such that the Cathans decided to give up the women and flee with their lives. They also left behind 25 horses, which Antarah added to Shaddad’s herds.
The Abseen horsemen came back victorious, and Shaddad went to see his herds only to find horses he didn’t recognize as his. Not wanting to reveal Semiah’s role in the whole debacle, Antarah claimed that he had taken them after Cathans left them behind. Calling him a robber, Shaddad proceeded to strike him violently, so much so that Semiah threw herself at Shaddad’s feet and narrated the true version of events, and Shaddad was taken aback by Antarah’s magnanimity.
Zoheir soon heard of this, and feted Antarah with robes of honor; with his growing prominence, machinations to see his downfall or death picked up pace, yet he somehow managed to get through all the conspiracies against him.
As he endeavored in the numerous tasks placed upon him, including rescuing his father and uncles, coming to the aid of the allied Mazin tribe, a young man, the son of a noble, a conceited dandy known as Amarah, makes advances at Ibla, and her father is very eager at the prospects of such a union.
However, on the day that Amarah was due to deliver dowry and other gifts, the Abseens who had gone to the rescue of the Mazin return, thus postponing this delivery. In the evening, Antarah learns of Ibla’s intended betrothal, and vows to kill Amarah; meanwhile, Prince Malik consults Shaddad, requesting him to ennoble his son so that his union with Ibla would be accepted without fuss in society. But there was no precedent on the ennoblement of a slave son, and Shaddad was unwilling to do so.
Antarah and Amarah crossed paths one unfortunate day, and the coxcomb was rude in his address to Antarah, which provoked Antarah into a fury that saw him grab Amarah and slam him to the ground. Antarah’s followers, and Prince Malik, calmed him down before he could grab Amarah once more.
He was presented to the king for attacking a noble and fortunately escaped death; but he was ordered to surrender his arms, and taken back to work the lands as a slave, and vowed “not to mount a horse or engage in battle” without Shaddad’s permission.
As it so happened, Antarah was tasked to tending the herd at a time when his skills as a fighter were most needed, for another warring tribe, the Tey [aka Tex] invaded the Abseens shortly after, beating the Abseens and taking off with their women, Ibla included. Fearing their annihilation, the Absee chieftains, including Shaddad and old Malik came to convince him to take part in the battle.
Shaddad promised to recognize him as his son, thus ennobling him, while old Malik promised to give Ibla to him, and
“Now the strength of Antarah was that of a hundred men and his courage that of a thousand and animated by his great burning passion and with the ardor of battle in his nostrils he fell upon the tribe of Tex. Redder sank never a sun than the plains blushed with the blood of men after that battle.”
Antarah Seeks Red Camels; Returns With Boundless Treasures
Antarah was finally recognized as the son of Shaddad, but there was a slight hitch in getting Ibla’s hand; old Malik demanded a thousand [red] Asafeer camels, which would only be found among the Shiban tribe, a vassal of the mighty Persian Empire, a far greater threat than the marauding tribes of Arabia.
The destination was al-Hirah (now a ruin to the south of al-Kufa, Iraq), and as old Malik had hoped, he was captured. His brother Shiboob, who regularly accompanied him, fled back to the Absee, where he reported the presumed death of Antarah.
However, Antarah was spared the executioner’s blade after offering to kill a lion that had rampaged through the area and was successful.
He was brought to the presence of Monzar, (other versions offer the name Nu’man ibn al-Mundhir, the Nestorian Christian Arab of the Lakhmids) who convinced Antarah as his fellow Arab, to help out with a Persian problem, as a satrap from the Empire was coming with an army to remind the Arab vassal of their place. This is how he describes himself to Monzar.
“One of its warriors, or one of its slaves?” inquired the King. “Nobility, my lord,” said Antar, “amongst liberal men, is the thrust of the spear, the blow of the sword, and patience beneath the battle-dust. I am the physician of the tribe of Abs when they are in sickness; their protector in disgrace; the defender of their wives when they are in trouble; and their horseman when they are in glory, and their sword when they rush to arms.”
The Arabs prevailed over the Persian, and Monzar took Antarah to the Persian capital, where he intended to declare war, but was counseled to wait awhile to gage how the empire was responding to the death of their satrap.
They came while the emperor was receiving tributes, but the vassal of Greece was being problematic; the Greek champion who was in charge of the tribute, Badhramoot, was indignant that he, a Christian, would have to surrender the tribute to a non-Christian, and had demanded combat to determine whether he would give the tribute or not.
The Persians accepted this challenge, and in 15 days of single combat, there wasn’t a Persian powerful enough to best Badhramoot. Antarah vows to defeat Badhramoot after seeing his combat with a warrior known as Bahram, a contest running into its second day.
Bahram is taken off the combat, and the next day, Antarah faces off with Badhramoot, whom he taunts in verse.
“Hear the words of an intrepid lion—resolute, undaunted, all-conquering: I am he of whom warriors can bear witness in the combat under the turbid battle-dust. My sword is my companion in the night-shades, as are also my Abjer and my lance and my spear in the conflicts. Night is my complexion, but Day is my emblem: the sun is unquestionably the mirror of my deeds. This day thou shalt feel the truth of what I have said; and I will prove that I am the Phœnix of the age!”
Ultimately, Antarah prevailed, making an enemy of Bahram and Rostam, a Persian wrestler, who like Bahram felt aggrieved and jealous of the honors being feted upon Antarah for defeating the Greek champion.
Antarah left the Persian capital with 1000 velvet robes and a likewise number of silk vest, 400 black male slaves, and a likewise number of white male slaves, all on horses and kitted in battle gear, and 1,600 slaves drawn from Georgia, Tibah, Persia, and Copts; these were on mules, each with two chests of silk. The tribute from Greece was also given to him, in addition to an imperial robe. Antarah’s convoy added the 1000 Asafeer camels that he had originally sought when he returned to al-Hirah, and with these boundless wealth, Antarah returned to the Absee, where he learnt to his dismay that his beloved, by whom he swore at every battle, no longer lived with the tribe, which became hostile to old Malik whom they accused of plotting to kill their hero.
After a few plots are unraveled, Antarah finally gets to marry Ibla, and the wedding is unique in that Antarah is spared the whipping that was often meted out to the groom as he made his way through two rows of men armed with stones and sticks as was customary. For ten years, Antarah and Ibla were married; they never had children, and the pressing conflict of this time was the war of Dahis and Ghubbra, which regularly features in the Top 10 list of wars started by idiotic things.
This war, which lasted forty years, started with a race between two horses named Dahis/Dahir, and Ghubbra. Dahir was of a prestigious pedigree, and believed to be the fastest of all horses in Arabia; like Antarah’s Abjer, he was acquired at the cost of restoring all the bounty that the Abseens had plundered; a prize King Cais, the successor of King Zoheir, readily acquiesced to.
Ghubbra’s lineage was uncertain, but he belonged to Hadifah, ruler of the Fazarah, who felt offended when a relative of King Cais boasted of Dahis prowess, and wagered that his horse would win a race between the two.
Ghubbra did win the race, but only because he sent a slave to intercept Dahis at a narrow col the horses had to pass through; that the slave did, hitting Dahis square on the head, startling and disorienting the horse.
100 camels had been wagered, but when it became known what Hadifah had orchestrated, war was declared between the two tribes.
Antarah was not felled in the course of battle; he fell by the poisoned arrow of an enemy he had blinded over a decade ago. But the poison didn’t immediately kill him, and fearing for the safety of Ibla, ordered his retinue to break camp and head to Abseen territory, as they were then camped by the Euphrates.
A band of 300 horsemen lay in wait, but upon recognizing the caravan as Antarah’s, fall back, for while Antarah lies in agony in Ibla’s carriage, Ibla was mounted upon Abjer, and bore Antarah’s armor.
The horsemen see through the ruse the next day, after Ibla lifts up the helmet’s visor to wipe sweat off her eyebrows, and the horsemen notice the whiteness of her face.
They charge towards Antarah’s caravan, and Antarah, though dying, issues forth his war-cry, which stops the horsemen dead in their tracks. Only 30 horsemen continue their pursuit.
Antarah thereafter decided to mount Abjer, and rode by Ibla’s side until they arrived at a narrow defile close to the Abseen domains in the evening. Here, he stayed back while his caravan passed, and when the caravan was well clear, he turned to face the horsemen.
He grips his spear, firmly planted to the ground, Abjer stays motionless, and he waits for his death; his stance unnerves the horsemen who halts their advance, uncertain of whether Antarah is dead as some suspect or waiting for them at the pass, where their numbers would count for nothing.
The night passes.
As the day breaks, the horsemen notice that Antarah hasn’t changed his stance a bit, and are increasingly convinced that Antarah is dead, but no one is willing to approach Antarah. Then one of them conceives an idea to confirm Antarah’s death; he gets of his horse, and sends it towards Antarah.
Abjer sets of in pursuit of this horse, a mare, and at his first movement, Antarah falls to a heap off his back.
The horsemen mill about the remains of Antarah, and are content to steal his arms; moreover, because his body stood guard by the valley, his retinue safely reached Abseen domain, and as such are out of the horsemen’s reach.
Abjer disappeared into the desert, for with the death of Antarah, there wasn’t a worthy rider in all of Arabia. So it is written.
There are no chivalrous romances preceding Antarah, who is thus believed to be, by way of the Muslim conquests into Spain about a century from his death (710 CE), the spring from whence European knighthood emerged.
Antarah’s poetic skills saw him recognized as one of the authors of the Mu’allaqat, a collection of seven poems deemed the best across all of Arabia, and were penned in gold and suspended/hanged on the Kabbah, a revered site even prior to Islam, so that all who visited Mecca would see the splendor of Arabian art.