Wildlife & Biodiversity

World Lion Day 2023: The big cat once roamed Arabia and left an indelible mark on Arab culture

It is said that there are nearly 700 names or terms used for the lion in Arabic dialects and literature  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 10 August 2023
Illustration: Tarun Sehgal / CSE

We today associate lions with the savannas of east and southern Africa. Or the dry, deciduous forest of the Gir forest of Kathiawar. But lions were once also found in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Yes. You heard that right. There is evidence that the lion was found in various corners of the world’s largest peninsula — from Oman to Yemen. Though the animal is extinct in the region now, it has left an everlasting impact on the culture of the Arabs.

In her 2011 paper Past and present distribution of the North African-Asian lion subgroup: A review, Annik Emma Schnitzler explains:

The continuous zone of occupation by lions that dispersed outside Central Africa may have been relatively large and biogeographically diverse, including both temperate and tropical latitudes of Eurasia, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, between latitudes as far south as 15°N (Yemen) to 18°N (Mali; Chad), as far north as 45-48°N (Bulgaria, Ukraine, Hungary), and longitudes as far east as 84°E (India).

She adds that lions lived in a variety of environments, including deserts (Sinai, Sahara, Yemen), steppes (Iraq and Anatolia) and maritime coasts (North Africa, Levant and Greece).

The Regional red list status of carnivores in the Arabian Peninsula compiled by David Mallon and Kevin Budd (2011) cites Schnitzler as having listed Neolithic rock engravings of lions in Saudi Arabia and Oman in her 2011 paper.

There are other sources that attest to the fact that lions did indeed live on the Arabian Peninsula.

One of the earliest works to document leonine presence in Arabia is Greek historian and geographer from the second century Before Common Era, Agatharchides or Agatharchus of Cnidus.

In Agatharchides of Cnidus On the Erythraean Sea, edited by Hellenistic historian Stanley Mayer Burstein (2010), Agatharchides notes:

The lions in Arabia are less hairy and bolder. They are uniform in colour just as are those in Babylonia. The sheen of their mane is such that the hair on the back of their necks gleams like gold.

Lions continued to be an important part of the Arabian landscape in the centuries and millennia after the Neolithic Period.

“No data are available for Saudi Arabia, but lions may have been relatively numerous in Yemen (de Planhol 2004). The scientist Hamdani (who died in AD 945) mentioned lions in the Tilhama Plain. From 1422-36, lions were offered to Chinese emperors from Aden and the Mecque,” writes Schnitzler.

Norman Boyd Kinnear, a Scotsman, was curator of the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society and assistant editor of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.

In an essay titled The past and present distribution of the lion in south eastern Asia that was published in Volume XXVII of the Journal in 1920, Kinnear notes:

We may take it then that during the 12th century, the lion roamed over parts of Syria, along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris, parts of Arabia, the south western corner of Persia and northern India, through the Punjab, Sind, as far east as Palamau and south to the Nerbudda (Narmada).

The cultural impact of the lion on the Arab psyche was immense, especially after the advent of Islam. Important figures in early Islamic history like the kinsmen of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib and Hamza ibn Abdul Muttalib, are given leonine epithets for their courage and bravery.

"It is said that there are nearly 700 names or terms used for the lion in Arabic dialects and literature,” Alfred E Pease writes in his Book of the lion (1913).

“Asad, Hamza, Haider, Abbas, Osama and Laith — what do they all have in common? Yes, they are Arabic names, and they also happen to all mean “lion” in Arabic. There are many words because each conveys a distinct leonine nuance: leaping lion, young lion or frowning lion, for example,” Justin Thomas noted in a column for The National newspaper in 2011.

But ultimately, the lion began to disappear from the peninsula. Schnitzler notes that the timing of the extinction may have been “the 12-13th century in the Near East, Arabian Peninsula”.

“Times of extinction were delayed in regions dominated by nomadism (Maghreb, extreme south of Asia, Arabian Peninsula, Near East) …” she says.

By 1920, Kinnear states: “There is no evidence of the lion being found in Afghanistan or Baluchistan nor have I been able to find any record of its occurrence in southern Arabia.”

Mallon and Budd write: “Harrison (1972) speculated that lions may have ranged farther into Arabia during the wetter climatic conditions of the Pleistocene but there are no confirmed records from the Arabian Peninsula in recent times.”

The lion, then, had lost a part of its realm. But it stays on in the collective consciousness and memory of the inhabitants of the region. That, perhaps, is its most lasting legacy.

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