Give me a Crowbar, a Candle, and a Tortoise and I Can Rob Any Building In Town


Today I wanted to share this really awesome post from the Smithsonian’s Past Imperfect blog:

The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.

We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld.

Head on over to the Smithsonian for the full story on why the tortoise was so essential to the toolkit of Medieval Islam’s brotherhood of thieves, the Banu Sasan.

I’d heard of the Banu Sasan before, but it’s little details like this that can really pop in a story and open all sorts of potential for speculative fiction. That one blog post is just brimming with inspiration for stories, and there’s all sorts of other resources at the Smithsonian and other museums, libraries, and historically-focused websites if you’re looking for ideas.

This is also an example of the importance for those of us in the West to look beyond the well-trod ground of our own culture’s history when we’re searching for ideas and inspiration. The Banu Sasan overlapped with the age of feudalism, but they would likely be overlooked in a conventional high fantasy novel whose author merely browsed popular histories of Medieval Europe.

So, read up on Islam’s Medieval Underworld and then tell me what you think. Are there any overlooked stories from history you think would make great fodder for F&SF fiction?


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