Al-'Umari

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[pp. 507-516]

AL-‘UMARĪ

(1300-1348 A.D.)

Abū-l-'Abbās 'Alī b. Yaḥyā Ibn Faḍlalla Shihāb ad-dīn al-'Umarī. First qāḍī in Cairo, then State Secretary; he died of the plague at Damascus.

Brockelmann 2, 141; EI (s.v.)

1.) Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, 20 vols., (The Ways of the Eyes in the Realms of the Great Cities; An encyclopaedia)

MSS: Paris, Bibl. Nat. MSS ar. 5S67 and 5866.

Ed.: partly: Aḥmed Zaki Pasha, Cairo 1924 (Geographical section only); and French transl.: G. Demombynes, L'Afrique moins l'Egypte, Paris 1927.

Exc.: MC 1236-1241 (from Paris MSS, Zaki Pasha and Demombynes); Mus'ad 241-246.

T.: MC, Mus'ad and Demombynes A: l

2.) At-ta'rīf li-l-muṣṭalaḥ ash-sharīf (A Handbook on Epistolography)

Ed.: Cairo 1884.

T.: Cairo A: 0


1.) From "Masālik al-abṣār"

Ch. VI - The first of the countries [of Islam, from east to west] is al-Hind and as-Sind...[1] Next comes the [whole of the] Islamic countries known as al-Ḥabasha. Al-Ḥabasha borders the territory of the Oases (al-wāhāt) and extends southwards to the Sea of the Ḥabasha [p. 508] on the east, the countries of the Christian and pagan Ḥabasha on the south, then the barren deserts on the west side and the Oases of the north. Next comes Kanem (al-Kanām), situated on the banks of the Nile at the same latitude as Dunqula. Next comes the country of Barqa, the country of Ifrīqiya which, on its southern frontiers, is contiguous with the country of the sūdān. (MS Paris 5868, fols. 2 r - 3 r; MC 1238 v).

The following information is from 'Abd ar-Raḥīm, a former chancellor in the region of the mines. He said that the distance between the mine and Qōs may be covered in eight days travelling at a moderate speed. The territory around the mine is inhabited by the Buja, who have the control of the mine and act as its guardians. The mine is situated on a mountain on the east bank of the Nile [looking] in the direction of the north. A large part of this mountain is known as Qarsanda. There is no other mountain in the vicinity. This mountain rises in an isolated plain, where no cultivation can be seen. Water is found at half-a-day's distance. This watering place is formed by the seasonal rains and is called Ghadīr A’yan and the water is more or less plentiful according to the rainfall. The mine lies in a long stretch of desert land, where a kind of white stone is found, from which the emerald is extracted. (MS 5868, fols. 166 v - 167 r; MC 1238 v).

Qōs ... is the first halting place for the trade caravans going to al-Hind, al-Ḥabasha, al-Yaman and al-Ḥijāz ... From Qōs one can proceed to Aswān and thence to the Nūba country. From Aswān a branch route turns eastwards across the desert and leads to 'Aydhāb, whence one sails to Judda. (Paris, MS 5868, fols. 201 r - 202 r; MC 1238 v).

[p. 509] Ch. VIII - Now we are going to give a general description of the countries of the Ḥabasha, both Moslems and infidels.

... It is said that on the eastern frontier turning a little towards the north, this country [Ḥabasha] begins from the Sea of al-Hind and Yemen. In this country the river Sayḥūn flows, the river with sweet water (an-nahr al-ḥilū) from which the Nile of Egypt parts... The extreme part of the eastern frontier is in a desert land called Wādī Baraka. It is said that this wādī leads to a region called Sahart, formerly called Tigrāy. Here there was the ancient capital of the kingdom, called Akshum (sic!) in one of their languages, or Zarfartā, which was another name for it. It was the residence of the earliest najāshī, who was the king of the entire country. Next is the territory (iqlīm) of Amḥara, where is the capital of the kingdom nowadays, called Mar'adī; next is the territory of Shāwa, Damūt, Sanū... (MS 5067, fol. 19 v; MC 1240 r-v).

Ch. IX — [Chapter Nine deals with the Moslem kingdoms of the Blacks (sūdān) who dwell along the Nile, It is divided into two sections, the one dealing with the Kanem (al-Kanām), the other with the Nūba.]

Section One: The Kanem. The king of the Kanem is a Muslim and is Independent. His country is at a great distance from Māllī. The capital of his kingdom la a place called Jīmī; his empire begins at a place called Zella (Zalla) on the frontier of Egypt, and ends at a place called Kākā, three months away from Jimi. His troops wear a muffler (lithām).

... Instead of coins, they make use of a locally woven cloth, called dandī. Each piece is 10 cubits long and is divided into smaller pieces, the least of which is half-a-cubit. In their transactions they make [p. 510] use also of cowries, glass-ware, fragments of copper and silver coins; but the value of these wares is calculated on the basis of the cloth. (Paris MS 5867, fol. 23 v; MC 1240 v).

Section Two: The Nūba (an-nūba). They dwell next to Egypt in the extreme south, on the banks of the Nile of Egypt. Their capital is Dunqula and their towns are more like villages and hamlets than towns, poor in resources (khayr) and agricultural products (khiṣb) and with a dry climate. The Ayyubids found it inhospitable at the time of Saladin, when his brother Tūrānshāh led an army to conquer it, but [later] directed it towards al-Yaman. They were afraid that Shahīd Nūraddīn Maḥmud ibn Zankī might attack them in Cairo and take their power away from them which they exercised. So they decided to occupy a country in their rear, which might become their refuge. That is why they went to Nubia. When they realized it was not a country suitable for such people as they were, they turned to Al-Yaman. The religion (adyān) of the population of this country is Christianity (dīn an-naṣrāniyya). Their king is a man like the others (ka'anna-hu wāḥid min al-'āmma).

The wise man Luqmān comes from their country... Also from Nubia came Dhū-l-Νūn, the Egyptian, and Abū-l-Fīḍ (Fayyiḍ) Tūbān (Thūbān) b. Ibrāhīm, whose father was a Nubian slave, freed by the Qurayshites. When any one discussed about asceticism in his presence [the Caliph] Ja'far al-Mutawakkil used to say: - 'Go and make yourself another Dhū-l-Nūn'. His name has been mentioned among the pious beggars. He was called "the Egyptian" because he lived in Egypt and his tomb can be seen at Qarāfa.

[p. 511]… The king of this country is at present a Muslim[2] of the family of Awlād Kanz ad-Dawla. These Awlād al-Kanz are descendants of a family about which we have already spoken. Nowadays, no king can reign there without the consent of the Sultanian Court of Cairo. The kings of Dunqula owe a certain tribute (ḥiml muqarrar) to the Sovereign of Egypt. This tribute (itāwa) does not consist of gold or silver, but of a certain number of slaves (ʿabīd), male and female, spears (ḥirāb) and wild animals of Nubia.

I was told by more than one person who had travelled in Nubia that Dunqula is a town on the bank of the Nile. Its inhabitants live a very hard life, yet they are more honest than many other sūdān. The town has a great mosque (masjad jāmiʿ), where travellers can stay. The messengers of the king come to invite them to the audience. When they are in his presence, he treats them as guests; both he and his emirs (umaraʾ) generously give them presents. The most prized present consists of a slave, male or female, but more often it consists of dakādīk, which are rough, thick tunics, generally of a black dye.

Meat, milk products and fish are plentiful in their country, but cereals are rare, except for dhurra. The most exquisite dish is that made with lūbiyā bean's soaked in a broth of meat (maraq); bread is soaked In the broth and is then dressed with meat and lūbiyā beans together with leaves and roots. They are strongly inclined to get drunk with wheat alcohol (mizr). They have also a strong inclination for singing (ṭarab). Aḥmad b. al-Mu'aẓẓamī, who visited that country and others beyond it several times while accompanying his father on expeditions [p. 512] (rasliyya), told me that the kings of the sūdān raise dogs and clothe them; such dogs spend the night at their masters' side, sitting on beds, and act as their bodyguard (kal-ḥurrās).

The Nūba wage war (la-hum qitāl) and show a great prowess among themselves, despite their physical weakness and their little strength. (Mus'ad, pp. 241 - 244).

From Masālik, Vol. I, Part II (Geography)

The First Climate (iqlīm), includes the countries and islands, known and inhabited, facing the Indian Sea or any of its branches, or any other branch of the ocean connected with it [the Indian Sea], whether in the east or in the west. Among these countries there are:

... The country of Kanem (bilād Kanām). One of their towns is Jīmī, a small town neighbouring the Nūba, and the town of Zaghāwa (madīna Z.); their capital is a town [called] Mānān (madīna Mānān) where their king has his residence.

... The country of the Tajūwīn. - The natives (qawm) are pagans (majūs) without any revealed religion (dīn).

... The country of the Nūba. - Their capital is Dunqula; one of their towns is Kūsha[3], the town of 'Alwa, the town of Bāliq (Bilāq ?), the country (bilād) of the Buja, the country of the Ḥabasha, whose chief town is Janbayta, a great town, densely populated but situated in a desert far from cultivation. This town is connected with the river which ends in the Nile flowing through the country of the Ḥabasha. On this river [p. 513] there is the town of Marrakata (Markaṭa) and the town of Mayjā'a. The sharīf [Idrīsī] claimed that this river flows north-west towards the land of the Nūba and flows into the Nile; its banks are cultivated in the land of the Ḥabasha. He also said that the majority of travellers were mistaken about this river as they identified it with the Nile of Egypt simply because they observed the occurrence of the flood and the decrease at the same time in both rivers. He also said that Ptolemy Claudius himself made this statement in his "Jughrāfiyā".

... The Red Sea Islands. - ... The island of Sawākin is not a great kingdom, nor has it any large commercial depot. All its natives are Muslims, who practice Islam. Sheep of high quality are exported from this island to Egypt, not for food or for breeding, but just for show.

The islands of Dahlak were mentioned in the time of Abū-s-Sadād Malik b. Abī-l-Fayyīḍ, who had some talent as a prose writer and a poet. He was mentioned by A'azz b. Qalāqis in one of his poems. The Lord of Sawākin is Sharīf Zayd b. Abī Namī al-Ḥasanī who is subject to Egypt. (Mus’ad, pp. 245 - 246).

The Ethiopian sheep are very similar to the sheep of 'Aydhāb and Yemen.

The Nile flows down from Jabal al-Qamar ... through ten streams, five of which flow into one lake and the other five into another. From the eastern lake a small river rises, flowing along the foot of the Qāqūlī Mountain. This river passes through some towns of that country and empties itself into the Hindi Sea. From these two lakes, six rivers rise, three from each lake, and end all in one lake.

... In the place where the six rivers end in one lake which someone called "The Swamp" (batīha) we notice a [p. 514] mountain (jabāl) protruding into the lake, thus dividing its waters into two streams. One half of the waters flow out from the west side of the lake and this [river] is called the Nile of the blacks (Nīl as-sūdān). It becomes a river completely independent and is [also] called "the river of the Damādim". It flows westwards between Samghara and Ghāna, passing south of Samghara and north of Ghāna. A branch turns south, touches the town of Barnīsa, flowing along the foot of a mountain (ya'khud taḥt jabāl), south of that town beyond the equator as far as Ruqayla. Then it forms a lake. The other branch continues flowing westwards through the countries of Māllī, Takrūr until it ends in the ocean, north of the town of Qalbatū.

The other stream leaves the lake from the northern aide, flows towards the town of Jīmī. Here a branch parts from the main watercourse flowing towards the town of Saharta, then it turns southwards and bends south-east again towards Saharta, then towards the town of Marka and ends [upstream] on the equator at Long. 65° - which is marked on the map with this figure "65". The main bed of the Nile, however, continues [to receive the aforementioned branch] near the town of Shīmī and turns towards the north passing through the country of the Ḥabasha; it traverses the country of the Sūdān flowing in a northerly direction, and then it touches the town of Dunqula, and thence it flows through the cataract. (Paris MS 5867, fol. 210 r; Demombynes, p. 69).

2.) From "At-Ta’rīf"

The protocol of the Lord of Dunqula (Ṣāḥib D.).

He is subject (ra'īyya) of the Lord of Egypt. He must bring every year a tribute (ḥiml) which was imposed on him. In his country the khutba is made in the name of [p. 515] the reigning Caliph and in the name of the Lord of Egypt. The protocol to be used in the official correspondence with him is the following:

This letter is addressed to the Great Throne (majlis), the Magnificent (ghāzī) Sultan, the unparalleled Fighter and Champion (mujāhid), the Protector of the Glory of Islam, the Ornament of Mankind, Glory of the Fighters, Column of the Kings and the Sultans. This is said if he is a Muslim. If he is not a Muslim, he is addressed with the same protocol in use for the King of Sīs, who is not called ‘Sultan’.[4]

The shaykh of the Ḥawāriba (Ḥadāriba) Samura b. Malik rules over innumerable people and has a considerable power (shawka). He carries out raids in al-Ḥabasha and among the peoples (umam) of Sūdān, and comes back with booty and prisoners. He plays a very good role. He once came on a visit to the Sultan and honoured the Sultan's Guest House with his presence. The Sultan, in turn, granted him a special banner (liwāʿ) and made him a noble (sharīf) and girded him with a sword. The Sultan wrote to all his walīs in Upper Egypt even the remotest ones, and to the ʿUrbān, ordering them to lend him (Samura) support and protection and to join him whenever he would go on a raid. Samura also received a decree (manshūr) stating that all the territories he conquered should become his own fief, and was proclaimed emir of the 'Urbān of Upper Egypt south of Qōs as far as the point where his banner is hoisted. In the official [p. 516] correspondence his protocol is: "The Excellent Emir", (as-sāmī al-amīr). (ibid., p. 77).

Miṣr is enclosed within four frontiers, i.e. the southern frontier beginning from the Red Sea at ‘Aydhāb, passes through the country of the Hadāriba and the Rūm of Nubia (ilā ar-rūm min bilād an-nūba), then stretches beyond the cataracts (janādil) which lie in the land where the Nile enters the mountains of the mines (ilā jibāl al-ma'dan), and further on to the desert of the Ḥabasha, etc. (ibid., p. 173).

From Qōs, the postal service (barīd) makes use of camels (hujun) as far as Aswān and 'Aydhāb and further on to Nubia and Sawākin, according to the circumstances. (ibid., pp. 187 - 189).

  1. Ibn Faḍlalla mentions first the Islamic territories in Asia, then Egypt, Syria and al-Ḥijāz – the last three being the bulwark and the heart of the Islamic world.
  2. Dr. Mus’ad says that the first member of the Kanz family who reigned in Dongola was Kanz-ad-Dawla b. Shujā’ ad-Dīn Naṣr Fakhr ad-Dīn Mālik b. al-Kanz, whom the Nubians proclaimed their king after the killing of ‘Abdalla Barshanbō, 717 H./1317 A.D..
  3. The original has “Karsha”, which the editor of Al-Maktaba corrected into “Kūsha”. Mus’ad, p. 127, mentions that O.G.S. Crawford, The Fung Kingdom of Sennar (p. 27, n. 29) proposed the identification of Kūsa (Kūsha) with Zankor (Zānkur) in Wādī al-Milk.
  4. The protocol of the King of Sīs: This letter is addressed to the Majesty of the Magnificent King, the Valiant Champion (baṭal), the Magnanimous as-Sargham, al-Ghafandar Lighon (Leo), son of Washīn, Glory of the Christian people (al-millat an-naṣrāniyya), Column of the Children of Baptism, Friend of Kings and Sultans. (ed. Cairo, p. 52). (Cairo, p. 29).