The caliph’s monkey

I’ve been doing some work on exotic animals for an upcoming conference paper. Apparently the caliph Yazīd bin Mu‘āwiyah (reigned 680–3) had a pet monkey. Just for fun, here’s what two medieval historians had to say about Yazīd’s monkey. My translations, mistakes all mine, etc.


From al-Balādhurī (died ca. 892), a historian of Muslim politics and courtier at the Abbasid court:

Al-Madā’inī [d. ca. 843] and al-Haytham [b. ‘Adī, d. ca. 822] and others have said that Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiyah had a monkey that he kept with him. He called it Abū Qays. They say that it was an old man of the Israelites who had committed a sin and been metamorphosed. He gave it wine to drink and laughed at what it did. He made it ride on a donkey, on top of a cushion, and he sent it off with the horses, but then it outran them. So he was making it ride on it one day, and someone said:

Hold tight to its bridle, Abū Qays,
For if you fall, it won’t be the one held responsible.
A donkey has outrun all the people’s horses
And the Commander of the Believers’ horses.

An old man from among the Syrians told me that the reason for Yazīd’s death is that his monkey was riding on the donkey while he was drunk; then he ran up behind it and his neck was snapped or something broke in his torso.

Muḥammad b. Yazīd al-Rifā‘ī told me that his paternal uncle told him that [Abu Bakr] Ibn ‘Ayyāsh [d. 809?] said: Yazīd went out hunting in Ḥuwwārīn [Evaria, Syria], drunk. Alongside him rode a donkey with a cushion that he had placed a monkey on. He made the donkey run, and they said:

Keep your wits about you, Abū Khalaf,
For if you fall, it won’t be the one held responsible.

But it [he?] fell off and snapped its [his?] neck.

They say Yazīd planned to go on pilgrimage (ḥajj), then to the Yemen; so a man from Tanūkh said:

Yazīd the monkey’s friend grows tired of our area;
Yazīd yearns for the land of monkeys.
Damn the one who has become our caliph:
His closest friends are monkeys.

— Balādhurī, Ansāb al-Ashrāf (ed. Zakkār & Zarkalī, 1996), 5:300.


From al-Mas‘ūdī (died ca. 956), an obscure but omnivorous world-historian:

He [Yazīd] had a monkey called Abū Qays. He made it appear at his drinking parties and put down a cushion for it. It was a mean-spirited monkey. He mounted it on a cushion onto a donkey that had been tamed and trained for the purpose, with a saddle and bridle. On the race day he would outrun the horses on it. One day he came first: he held on to the rein and entered the paddock before the horses. He wore a wrap of red and yellow silk and a tall coxcomb hat of multicoloured silk. The donkey had a saddle of red silk overlain with sparkly multicolour. That day, one of the Syrian poets said:

Hold tight, Abū Qays, to its bridle,
For if you fall, it won’t be the one held responsible.
Behold the monkey that outruns, on a donkey,
The Commander of the Believers’ finest horses.

— Mas‘ūdī, Murūj al-Dhahab (ed. de Meynard & de Courteille, 1861–77), 5:157–8.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

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