Al-Istakhri

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[pp. 111-115]

AL-IṢṬAKHRĪ

(932-950 A.D.)

Otherwise unknown author.

EI (s.v.)

K. al-masālik wa-l-mamālik (two editions)

Ed.: BGA I, Leiden 1873, 1927.

T.: BGA A: 0


Here we shall not mention such peoples of the Maghrib as the Blacks (Sūdān), the Buja and the Zanj, because, whereas the sound political organization is based on good morals, religion and permanent institutions, these peoples possess none of these. Only a few branches of the Blacks who dwell along the borders of the aforesaid empires [i.e. the Byzantine and the Moslem empires] possess some religious beliefs, moral and political institutions similar to [those of] the above mentioned empires. Such are the Nubians (an-Nūba) and the Ethiopians (Ḥabasha) because they are Christians and follow the customs of the Rūm. Before Islam, those peoples had some links with the empire of the Rūm because they were neighbours. In fact, the territory of the Nubians borders on Egypt and that of the Ethiopians (Ḥabasha) faces the Red Sea. Although the Ethiopians are separated from Egypt by a desert - where gold mines are found - they are in touch directly with Egypt and Syria (ash-Shām) through the Red Sea. (BGA I, pp. 4-5).

It takes about eight days to travel from Egypt to the borders of Nubia through a desert ... and beyond that desert there is an unknown country. (BGA I, p. 5).

One of the frontiers of Nubia is conterminal with Egypt, another borders the land of the Blacks (as-Sūdān) [p. 112] and Egypt, the third frontier touches the Buja territory and the deserts between this people and the Red Sea (Qulzum), and the fourth runs along the impassable desert. (ibid., p. 11).

If you leave Qulzum (= Suez) travelling along the west coast of the sea, you walk through deserts from Egypt up to the territory of the Buja where gold mines are found; then you arrive at the town of 'Aydhāb situated on the sea coast. Beyond this town, the sea widens all along the country of the Ḥabasha, which stretches opposite Mecca as far south as the territory opposite Aden. Beyond this point there are no more Ḥabasha. On their rearward side, [i.e. West] the Ḥabasha are neighbours to the Nūba, as far as the territory of the Zanj. These are the largest of the kingdoms extending along the frontier of all the Moslem countries, (ibid., pp. 28 - 29).

The [Nubians] are Christians and their country is larger than that of the Ḥabasha; they possess more towns and more cultivated lands than the latter. (ibid., pp. 35 - 36).

If you leave Qulzum and travel on the western side of this sea [Red Sea], you enter a wilderness where nothing is to be found until you reach the desert (bādiya) of the Beja. The Beja are a people who live under hair tents. Their complexion is like that of the Arabs and is darker than that of the Ḥabasha. They have neither villages nor towns, nor cultivation; all [the agricultural products] are imported from the towns of Ḥabasha, Yemen, Egypt and Nubia. Their territory lies between Ḥabasha, Nubia, and Egypt and ends in the region of the gold mines. [The mine region] is near Aswān of Egypt, about ten days journey from a fortress (ḥiṣn) on [p. 113] the west, called 'Aydhāb. Al-'Allāqi, a flat sandy plain, is the meeting place for all those who work in this mine. The products of this mine are shipped to Egypt, for this is a mine of pure gold, unmixed with silver.

The Beja worship idols and any other likeness they think useful to them.

The other frontier of the mine region is common with the Ḥabasha, who are Christians and have a complexion similar to the Arabs, between black and white. They live scattered on the coastal region opposite Aden. All frankincense (bakhūr), variegated skins (julūd mulamma'a) and most of the skins which are tanned to make shoes in Yemen, come from their country. They are friendly to Islam (ahl silm), therefore they are no part of the territory of the unbelievers (dār al-harb). On their coast there is a place called Zayla'[1], a port for embarkment to Hejaz and Yemen.

On another side, [the mine] also touches the desert (mafāza) of Nubia. The Nubians too, are Christians. Their territories are larger than the Ḥabasha's and have more towns and cultivations. The Nile of Egypt is flowing through their towns and villages. [Their homes extend] as far upstream, as a sandy place of the Zanj country and beyond it, up to the impassable deserts (barārī). Beyond this desert, the river ends in the land of the Zanj proper, which lies opposite Aden and extends down to the sea. The frontier of the Nūba borders that of the countries of Islam and, in some places, is contiguous to the countries of the Hind. The country of the Nūba is very large and includes an innumerable people. Someone told me that in the remotest lands of the Zanj [p. 114] there are cold regions inhabited by a Zanj people of white complexion. This side of the Zanj country [i.e. near the Nūba], however, is sun-burned (qashf), sparsely inhabited, poorly cultivated, except in the lands near the king's residence.

The countries of the Blacks (Sūdān) are very extensive, but all wasteland. All kinds of fruits common to the Islamic countries are found on the mountain sides, but the people do not eat them; they eat other fruits and vegetables unknown in the countries of Islam.

The slaves (khadam) who are sold in the countries of Islam come from there: they are neither Nubians, nor Zanj, nor Ḥabasha, nor Buja; they are from another race of Blacks, whose complexion is darker than any other.

It is said that no Climate is wider than the one inhabited by the black races such as the Ḥabasha, the Nūba, the Beja and others, for these peoples extend as far southwards as the Ocean, and northwards up to the desert contiguous to Egypt, behind the Oases, the Nubian desert and the Zanj desert. This land, except on the side of the Maghrib, has no road link with kingdoms or inhabited places; this is due to the difficulty of travelling from their country to other peoples, (ibid., pp.40).

Zawīlah is a country lying opposite the land of the Blacks. Most of the black slaves who are exported to Zawīlah[2] come from there. (ibid., p. 44).

The distances in Egypt are as follows: the distance between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (baḥr ar-Rūm), from where we have begun, to the country of the Nubians, passing behind the Oases (al-wāḥāt) is a twenty-five journey; along the frontier which the Nubians have in common with Egypt, it is eight days.

[p. 115] The place of the Nile head-waters is not known, because this river comes from an impassable desert beyond the land of the Zanj, then it enters the frontier of the Zanj, flows without interruption, through the land of the Nūba through deserts and cultivated lands until it enters Egypt (Miṣr). Uswān is a frontier fortress (thaghr) opposite the Nubians, who are, however, at peace [with Egypt]. (ibid., pp. 50 - 51).

On the left bank of the Nile, near al-Fusṭāṭ, there is a mountain called al-Maqaṭṭam. On and around it, is found the precious stone called "Khumāhan". This mountain extends [south] to the [land of the] Nūba.

The Oases were [once] inhabited regions with water, trees, and villages. Nowadays no one lives there. Until today one could see there many fruits (thimār) and sheep which have turned wild and multiply [freely]. The distance between the southernmost Oases and [the Nile in] Upper Egypt is about three days Journey across the desert. From the Oases one can Journey to Nubia across a desert which ends in the land of the Blacks (Sūdān). (ibid., pp. 51 - 52).

The gold mine is at fifteen days distance from Aswān. It does not lie within the Egyptian territory, but in the land of the Buja and it ends near 'Aydhāb. It is said that 'Aydhāb is not within the land of the Buja, but it is a town of the Ḥabasha.

The gold mine is in a flat plain, without mountains; it is sandy and stony ground. The place where all men [employed in gold mining] meet, is called al-'Allāqī. The Buja have neither villages (qurā) nor fertile lands (khisb) which normally would produce wealth; on the contrary, they are nomads, and own good-bred camels. It is said that no camel is more capable of travelling than theirs. Their slaves (raqīq) and their camels are exported to Egypt. (ibid., p. 54).

  1. Today Zeila, near Djibouti.
  2. In the Libyan desert.