‘The East’, i.e. Asia, had the reputation of being vast, rich and full of marvels. The wealth and fertility of India was fabulous. William of Newburgh, discussing the situation of the Holy Land, mentions that the Bible asserts the special place of Palestine, but considers that this cannot mean it is the richest and most fertile part of the world, ‘unless what is recorded about India be false’. If God had wished the Chosen People to enjoy the most fertile land on earth, that would have been where he would have placed them … The East was also where Nature was most playful, producing oddities and wonders of all kinds … They include two-headed snakes, men with dogs’ heads, elephants, cannibals, centaurs, black men, unicorns, and parrots who can say ‘hallo’.
— Robert Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075–1225 (Oxford 2000)
Although the Western imagination tended to locate the strangest and most improbable marvels in India and points further east (‘The Cannibals that each other eat, The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders’, as Othello put it), the Arab lands provided enough of the marvellous and the strangeness for medieval European pilgrims, traders, adventurers and spies to be going on with. Francesco Suriano, a Franciscan pilgrim who was in Egypt and the Holy Land in the 1460s, wrote of the Muslims that he had encountered, ‘I conclude that, if they could, they would walk backwards just to be different from us’. He had prefaced this remark with a long list of the contrasts, including the following: the women only wore one dress, whereas the men wore three or four; Europeans took off their headgear in a sign of respect, but Muslims took off their shoes; Europeans liked dogs, they liked cats; Europeans wrote from left to right, they the reverse; Europeans despised imbeciles, Muslims reverenced them as saints; slaves in Europe were servants, with them lords. (Regarding the last remark, Suriano was commenting on the rule of Egypt and Syria by the Mamluk military white slave elite from c.1250 to 1517.)
Quite ordinary aspects of everyday life in Cairo struck visiting pilgrims as weird. In our globalised world we are, almost all of us, familiar with street food. This seems not to have been the case in medieval Christendom. Many pilgrims noted that the Arab townspeople never or rarely cooked at home. Indeed only a few had kitchens, but instead bought their cooked food from stalls in the street. If they needed baking done, they took the stuff to a bakery with a furnace. According to the fifteenth-century German pilgrim, Arnold Von Harff, the cooking and baking was done on camel dung, for such was the shortage of wood, and the baths were heated the same way. The fourteenth-century Franciscan pilgrim Niccolò da Poggibonsi remarked that ‘they eat at any and every hour and Saracens must have stomachs of iron’. The adventurer Lodovico di Varthema observed goatherds bringing the goats into people’s houses to be milked before the eyes of the purchasers of the milk. (More on Varthema shortly.) Felix Fabri found it remarkable that the Saracens cooked eggs in a frying pan. He also claimed that women never enter kitchens, ‘for Saracens loathe food cooked by women like poison’. (The fifteenth-century, pilgrimage-loving Dominican Felix Fabri has been described as ‘the Proust of pilgrim literature’. This is not because he was sensitive, subtle or gay, but simply because he was so prolix.)