Of the Unicorns of the Temple of Mecca


Pomet Histoire genderal des drouges 1694 unicorn licorne

This account arrived to me through a circuitous route –  and it may be best to trace to the path of the account’s publication to contextualize the relation of how unicorns were held at Mecca in 1503.

Ludovico di Varthema (1470-1517) was an Italian who claimed to have traveled across parts of Africa and Asia including Somalia, Egypt, Yemen, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. He wrote about his travels and published them in 1510 in a book called The Itinerary of Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna (Itinerario de Ludouico de Varthema Bolognese). The book was reprinted several times and eventually translated into other languages.

A Spaniard named Peter Martyr d’Anghiera aka Peter Martyr collected travel narratives and accounts and published them over the course of several years. Eventually all of them were collected together and published as one large edition entitled De orbe novo decades. In 1555, Richard Eden translated and published Peter Martyr in a book entitled The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India. In 1577, Richard Willes reprinted Eden’s version of Decades and added some supplementary travel narratives and called the work The history of trauayle in the VVest and East Indies, and other countreys lying eyther way. It was in Willes’ 1577 book that I found the account of the unicorns of the Temple of Mecca.

Title Page of Richard Eden Richard Willes The History of Travel in the West and East Indies 1577

The account reads:
“Of the Vnicorns of the temple of Mecha whiche are not seene in any other place. Cap. 19.

“ON the other part of the temple are parkes or places inclosed, where are seene two Unicorns, named of the Greekes Monocerotae, and are there shewed to the people for a myracle, and not without good reason, for the seldomenesse and strange nature. The one of them, which is much hygher then the other, yet not muche vnlyke to a colte of thyrtye monethes of age, in the forehead groweth only one horne, in maner ryght foorth, of the length of three cubites. The other is much younger, of the age of one yeere, and lyke a young colte: the horne of this, is of the length of foure handfuls. This beast is of the coloure of a horse of weesell coloure, and hath the head lyke an Hart, but no long necke, a thynne mane hangyng onlye on the one syde: theyr legges are thyn and slender, lyke a fawne or hynde: the hoofes of the fore feete are diuided in two, much like the feete of a Goat, the outwarde part of the hynder feete is very full of heare. This beast doubtlesse seemeth wylde and fierce, yet tempereth that fiercenesse with a certaine comelinesse. These Unicornes one gaue to the Soltan of Mecha as a most precious and rare gyfte. They were sent hym out of Ethiope by a kyng of that countrey, who desired by that present to gratifie the Soltan of Mecha.”

My modern translation of the story:
On the other part of the temple are parks or places enclosed, where are seen two unicorns, named of the Greek monoceros, and are there shown to the people for a miracle, and not without good reason, for the seldomness and strange nature. The one of them, which is much higher than the other, yet not much unlike to a colt of thirty months of age, in the forehead grows only one horn, in manner right forth, of the length of three cubits. The other is much younger, of the age of one year, and like a young colt: the horn of this, is of the length of four handfuls. This beast is of the color of a horse of reddish-brown color, and has the head like a hart, but no long neck, a thin mane hanging only on the one side: their legs are thin and slender, like a fawn or hind; the hooves of the forefeet are divided in two, much like the feet of a goat, the outward part of the hind feet is very full of hair. This beast doubtlessly seems wild and fierce, yet tempers that fierceness with a certain comeliness. These unicorns one gave to the Sultan of Mecca as a most precious and rare gift. They were sent to him out of the Ethiopia by a king of that country, who desired by that present to gratify the Sultan of Mecca.

If we are to believe the account – in 1503, the Sultan of Mecca owned two unicorns that he received as gifts from an Ethiopian king. The blog strangehistory.net in this post has tried to identify the “real” animal that could have been described as an unicorn in 1503.




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