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The Arabian Oryx – The Mythical Unicorn

posted on: Jun 14, 2022

The Arabian Oryx – The Mythical Unicorn

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

A rare white middle-sized antelope, known in the West as the Arabian oryx or oryx leucoryx, has been often labelled, in past centuries as the mythical unicorn. On the other hand, in its original homeland, the Arabian Peninsula, it is known by its various Arab names:  al-bawsulah, al-mahā or al-waḍahī.  Before 1800, it was to be found in thousands in all the countries of what is now the eastern Arab world.  It roamed the Arabian Peninsula from its southern rim to its fertile crescent in the north.  However, with the introduction of 20th century transport and weapons this beautiful animal was, in the last few decades, hunted down until it was almost extinct.  The last few had retreated to the inaccessible barren sand of Rubc al-Khālī (the Empty Quarter).

Writers, in the early ages, often identified this most graceful antelope on earth as the mythical unicorn of song and legend.  In Greek mythology, which derived its facts from a Syriac tale according to Professor Leo Weiner in A History of Arabico-Gothic Culture, Vol. IC, the legendary unicorn had a horse’s body and a single long straight horn projecting from its forehead.  To the people in that epoch the legend was plausible since in these early centuries, Arabia was a land unknown.  Travellers often wrote about that Peninsula and its animals from mythology inherited from previous civilizations.  Perhaps, there is some merit in the confusion about that creature of fable.  When seen sideways from a distance, the Arabian oryx’s finely carved horns appear as the one spiral horn of the mythical unicorn.

In later centuries, the Syriac-Greek legend was incorporated into Arabic literature, then passed on to the Europeans.  In his book The Flight of the Unicorns, Anthony Sheppherd quotes the following from Le Besteare Divin de Garilllaume, clerk de Normandie written in the 13th century:

“The unicorn has but one horn in the middle of its forehead.  It is the only animal which ventures to attack the elephant, and so sharp is its nail of its foot, that with one blow it can rip the bellies of that beast.  Hungers can catch the unicorn only by placing a young virgin in its haunts.  No sooner does he see the damsel, then he runs toward her, and lies at her feet, and suffers himself to be captured by the hunter.”

The Arabian Oryx – The Mythical Unicorn

Almost word for word, this tale is the same story Professor Weiner cites as coming from Syriac, then through Arabic into western literature.

The Arabian oryx, not the beast of legend, is a white animal with dark legs and black patches on the nose and under its large eyes – famous as material for metaphors among the Bedouin poets.  It is approximately three and a half feet high with horns almost two feet long.  In the Arabian desert, where it thrived for thousands of years, there was no other animal which had evolved to fit so perfectly into the inhospitable environment of that barren land.  Its ability to survive without water is legendary.  It can go for years without drinking, its thirst satisfied by the morning dew which it licks off the leaves during the early morning hours.  However, if the rare rains fall, even many miles from an oryx herd, these animals can find the spot.  It appears there is no problem for the herd to detect rainfall over vast distances.  Some who study animals believe that their bodies have a built-in radar system.  For food, they thrive on the few weeds and shrubs which struggle to grow in the arid soil where they roam.  Since time immemorial they have been part of the Arabian desert scene.

In bygone ages it was almost impossible to hunt them in the empty spaces of the desert waste.  With sword and spear, and later the primitive rifle, the oryx had a fair chance against man.  The Bedouins considered that if a man captured an oryx he took on its virtues of strength, courage and endurance.  It was a rare event to take captive one of these animals.  In the trackless sands, without modern conveyances, it was almost an impossible task.  On the rare occasion when a hunter was lucky enough to fell an oryx, nothing was wasted.  Skin, horns, fat, blood and meat were all used.  Its flesh was much sought after, for it was believed that the meat had medical qualities.

The Arabs of the Arabian desert cherished and praised the oryx in their legends and poetry.  For hundreds of years their poets were inspired to write metaphoric verses comparing the graceful body and eyes of this white antelope to the charms and beauty of enticing women.  The Umayyad poet of love, cUmar ibn Abī Rabīcah wrote:  “Graceful as an oryx they brought her out, slowly waking between five budding beauties”; Ḥafṣah al-Rakūnīyah, a beautiful Andalusian poetess, compared the charms of the oryx to herself when she said:  “My eyes are more beautiful than those of the desert oryx and my neck is more graceful than that of a wild gazelle.”; Thaclabah ibn Ṣaghīr al-Māzinī in one of his poems reflected:  “Like the oryx, how many with the white forehead of youth entice the one who stares?”; Sharīf al-Rāḍī was thinking of the oryx when he mused:  “The eyes of the mahā between the Ruṣāfah and the Jisr brought love from where?  I know, but I still do not know.”; Ibn al-Fārīḍ, perhaps exaggerated when he asked: “Have you seen a lion hunted by the glance of an oryx or a gazelle.”; and Maḥmūd Sāmī al-Bārūdī metaphorically said:  “With pure liquor fill up the glass and give me a drink my mahā.”  These are only a few of the thousands of verses written by Arab poets in praise of this graceful desert beast.  Without question, there must be something which draws the men of verse to this mythical unicorn.  

In Saudi Arabia, through the effort of the late King Khālid Ibn cAbd al-cAzīz, the oryx was saved from extinction.  In the vast desert spaces of this land, it was in the last century to be found in large numbers.  However, in our times it almost disappeared.  Modern vehicles and weapons had, in a few years, almost eliminated these beautiful animals.  It was due to the enlightened foresight of the Late King Khālid that now they will once again roam the Arabian heartland.

The Arabian Oryx – The Mythical Unicorn

In Oman, the last wild herd of oryx was wiped out at Jaddat al-Harasis on the edge of the Empty Quarter in 1972.  However, before this had happened, conservationists, in both the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and the West, rescued a few and began to breed them in captivity.  In the zoos of Europe and the U.S.A., this desert east of poetry thrived and increased in numbers.  Soon after, it was decided to reintroduce the back into their homeland.  A few of these legendary animals, bred in captivity, were set free in Jaddat al-Harasis, their last wild habitat.  Today, a small protected herd roams the Galooni desert in Oman, thriving and increasing in numbers.

Although a few of these graceful animals are once again roaming free in the Arabian desert, they are also thriving in captivity in the zoos of both he Arab countries and the West.  In the late King Khālid’s farm at Tiyadh, and Bahrain’s Al-Areen park, the oryx is increasing in numbers; at the Al-cAin Zoo in the United Arab Emirates they are also multiplying and in Qatar the government has take a great interest in the breeding and protection of this rare animal.  On the farms of Al-Shahaniyah and Al-Zubarah in that country, the oryx is assured a bright future.

In all these Arab lands the mythical unicorn, whether in captivity or newly reintroduced to the wilds, is once again to be found in appreciable numbers.  This is as it should be, for n animal which has inspired so many poets through the centuries deserves to flourish.