The Island of the Djinn (or genie, as these supernatural beings are commonly called in western literature) appears in the ancient Arabic story of Zein Ul Asnam and the King of the Jinn, in which the main character travels “days and nights in the foulest of deserts” before encountering a monstrous boatman, who brings him to an island that is covered with incense trees and ruled by a magical King of the Djinn.
This Island, which most experts think is in fact the archipelago of Socotra in the Arabian Sea, was populated by the progeny of a giant bird: the Rukh (or roc, as sometimes appears in modern stories). Similarly, the story of Sindbad the sailor fifth voyage, describe encountering terrible storms, and being washed up on an island where, to survive, the crew eats the giant egg of a rukh. Enraged, the rukh destroys the ship, leaving Sindbad as the lone survivor.
But mentions to this giant bird called rukh are not limited to tales or Arabic or Persian origin, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, recalls the tale of two captives who were sent as ritual scapegoats by Ethiopians south from Arabia across the Indian Ocean’s to an island of people as meek and lovely as Antilleans. According to Diodorus record, the islanders liked to test their infants’ courage by flying them on the back of giant birds, who he refers as the ocean-bird rukh of Persian and Arab fame.
So, the lineage of the rukh is an ancient one, with tales stretching back into ancient Egypt. However, there little has been written about the appearance of the rukh, probably because very few of those who saw it close enough to describe it, survived the event. There’s one common trend, though, the rukh is always described as a gigantic bird of prey, but what exactly that entails varies from recollection to recollection. The only indisputable feature is that it is enormous, but a rukh is as big as the tale needs it to be, a fact further complicated by the fact that the rukh never stops growing and can live for hundreds of years. Understandably, those attacked by a hatchling will tell of a bird as large as a house, but those who had the misfortune of facing a centenary rukh, will remember a beast with winds so large it can cover an island with them.
Rukhs are uncontested predators capable of feeding on the largest and most dangerous land animals. They have a particular fondness for giant serpents, elephants, and rhinoceroses. Rukhs also appear to have some degree of intelligence, using boulders to smash prey.
The best know accounts of rukh’s behavior are those contained in the Tales of Sindbad the Sailor, as they appear in the Middle Eastern folktales collection One Thousand and One Nights. Sinbad encountered the rukh twice. The first time around, Sindbad found himself alone on a deserted island after facing a terrible storm. Exploring his new surroundings, he discovered a strange white dome, some hundred paces in circumference. As he mused about what the structure could be, the sky darkened as a huge rukh appeared. The dome was none other than its egg. Fortunately for Sindbad, the bird showed no interest in him as it sat on the egg and dozed off. Now, thinking ahead, Sindbad tied himself to its leg with his turban hoping the bird would fly over more civilized lands. In time the rukh awoke, screeched, and took off, gifting Sinbad with the most terrifying ride of his life. When it finally landed he untied himself and ran for cover, while the rukh busied itself seizing a giant serpent in its talons and flying off with its prey.
As mentioned before, Sindbad’s fifth voyage was even more catastrophic. This time, Sindbad’s crew went ashore without him and found the white dome of a rukh’s egg. Despite Sindbad’s warnings, they broke the egg and as they butchered the chick inside, the rukh appeared. When the sailors tried to flee in their ship, the bird returned with enormous boulders in its talons. With angry calls louder than thunder, the rukh throw the rocks at their ship, sinking the vessel. All sailors on board died with the exception of Sindbad, who drifted off towards further adventures.
In the tale of Aladdin, the evil necromancer attempts to convince Aladdin to demand a rukh egg to hang from the ceiling, a request that infuriates the Jinn of the lamp who informed them that such a wicked request could only have come from evildoers.
Ancient records mention that Abd al-Rahman I, first Caliph of Damascus, obtained a rukh chick’s feather quill (capable of holding a goatskin’s worth of water) by cutting the chick out of its egg. The parent rukh flew after them and dropped rocks on their ship, but unlike Sindbad’s crew they successfully avoided them and went on their way. It is said that all those who had eaten the baby rukh’s flesh remained youthful and never grew old.
Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar who widely traveled the medieval world, saw once a rukh soaring over the China Seas that was sufficiently far away to be mistaken for a flying mountain.
Marco Polo’s Book, also mentions rukhs soaring over Madagascar. He believed them to be griffons, and specified that they were not half lion and half bird, but simply enormous eagles. It was later, after his accounts were published, that many came to the conclusion he had mistaken one beast for the other. The rukhs of Madagascar had wings 30 paces long with feathers 12 paces long, and would pick up elephants and carry them into the air, dropping them onto the ground from great heights and feeding on the pulverized remains. A rukh feather was brought as a gift to the Great Khan, who was greatly pleased with it.
However, the rukh bird must not to be confused with the persian’s camel-like urine-spouting animal of the same name, described by al-Mas’udi. This grounded rukh may also be related to the rook chess piece, but both are far removed from the giant raptor.
-Grant, G. 2005. Socotra: Hub of the Frankincense Trade. Explorations.
-Bianconi, G. G. 1862. Degli scritti di Marco Polo e dell’uccello ruc da lui menzionato. Tipi Gamberini e Parmeggiani, Bologna.
-Kruk, R. 2001. Of Rukhs and Rooks, Camels and Castles. Oriens, vol. 36, pp. 288-298.
-Payne, J. 1901. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, vol. V. Herat, London.