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Medieval Tightrope Walking

Even in the Middle Ages one can find accounts of people doing death-defying stunts for our entertainment.

17th century tightrope walking – from Venice Mekhitarist V1028, f. 95

The following two stories of tightrope walking took place in Cairo around the year 1426. The historian Taqi al-din Ahmad Maqrizi recorded them in chronicle Manual of Instruction about Dynasties of Rulers. During one section he writes about the exploits of two tightrope walkers, which he seems to have witnessed himself:

Two men showed amazing acts. One of them, from the Frankish new Muslims who dress as soldiers, attached a rope at the top of the minaret of the Madrassa Nasiriyya Hasan near the Horse Market below the citadel, stretched it and fixed it to the top of the Ashrafiyya in the citadel. The distance was a bowshot or more, on a height of more than 100 cubits in the air. Then he appeared at the top of minaret, and walked over that rope until he reached the Ashrafiyya, and during the walk he showed different tricks. The sultan sat there to watch him; people from districts of the town were assembled there. This was one of the extraordinary things you don’t believe unless you witness them. The sultan bestowed a dress on him, and sent him to the emirs, there was no one who did not give him anything.

A Persian merchant attached a rope between the two minarets of Madrassa Hasan to perform the act that the aforementioned two men had done. He left the top of one of them and walked over the rope a number of steps, then returned to where he had started. He walked a second time on his feet to the other end, and showed wonderful things, he sat down on the rope and let his feet hang down, in that position he took a bow he had over his shoulder, took two arrows from his quiver and shot one after the other, then he rose and stepped, still standing on the rope, in a ring.

The history of tightrope walking, which can be traced back to Ancient Greece, also includes other references to people doing this trick during the Middle Ages. Click here to read the article An Abridged History of Funambulists from Atlas Obscura.

The text from al-Maqrizi was translated by Th. Marita Wijntjes as part of her article “Daily life, catastrophes and strange events in al-Maqrīzī’s Kitāb al-Sulūk li-Maʿrifat Duwal al-Mulūk,” which was published in Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras, VIII, edited by U. Vermeulen, K. D’Hulster, and J. Van Steenbergen, and published by Peeters in 2016.

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