Nasir-i Khusraw

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[pp. 232-237]


(about 1050 A.D.)

Abū Mu'īn Hamiduddīn Nāṣir-i-Khusraw, a Persian Ismaili poet and traveller.

Sefernameh (in Persian), describes the author's journeys between 1042 and 1052 A.D.

EI (s.v.)

Ed.: and French transl.: Ch. Schefer, Publ.Ec. des Lang. Viv., II, s. 1, Paris 1881. Arabic transl. by Yahyā al-Khashshāb, Cairo 1945.

Exc.: Al-Maktaba as-sūdāniyya al-'arabiyya 115-120.

T.: Schefer; MC 720; Cairo A:1

[p. 233] The river Nile, coming from a south-western direction, flows through Egypt and ends in the Mediterranean Sea (baḥr ar-rūm). The length (tūl)[1] of the Nile during the flood season is twice the river Jinūn[2] at Tirmiz. The Nile flows first through Nubia, then into Egypt. Nubia is a mountainous country; when the river enters the plain it is already in Egypt. The first town it touches [in Egypt] is called Aswan; the distance of this town from Miṣr is three hundred farsakh.[3] (Schefer, p. 38; MC 720 r.).

...The boats cannot pass on the Nile beyond Aswan, because the water there passes through the cataracts (shalālāt) and rushes precipitously.

The country of the Nūba stretches south of Aswān and has its own king. The natives are a people of black complexion and are Christians. Merchants go there and sell beads (kharaz), combs (amshāt) and coral (al-marjān) and from there they import slaves (raqīq). The slaves in Egypt are either Nubians (nūb) or Greeks (rūm). I saw wheat and dhurra from Nubia, both of black colour.

If one travels from Egypt southwards and crosses the Nūba province (an-nūba) one arrives in the province (wilāya) of the Muṣamida, which is a vast country rich with pastures and domestic animals; its inhabitants are Blacks of a tall stature and strongly built; many soldiers in Egypt come from that people; they have ugly features, stocky bodies and for this they are called "Muṣamida" ("fighters"): they fight on foot, armed with sword and spear; they do not know the use of other weapons. (Schefer, p. 41).

[p. 234] ... Someone claims that nobody ever reached the sources of this Nile. I have been told that the Sultan of Egypt sent an expedition to travel along the Nile for one year to explore it, but nobody succeeded in finding out the true position; they only said that it comes from the south, from a mountain called Jabāl al-Qamar. (Schefer, p. 39; MC 720. r.).

... South of Aswan is a mountain rising out of the Nile. It is said that the boats cannot sail beyond that point because the water rushes through great cataracts (shalālāt). Four farsakhs from this town begins the country (wilāya) of Nubia, whose population is all Christian; for a long time their kings have sent gifts (hadāya) to the Sultan of Egypt. Between the two countries (baladayn) there exist treaties (ʾuhūd) and agreements (mawāthīq), so that no army of the Sultan invades their country, nor does that people cause any damage [to Egypt]. The town of Aswān is strongly fortified so as to repulse army attack from Nubia. A garrison is stationed there permanently to guard it. Opposite this town, in the middle of the Nile, there is an island like a garden, rich on palm and olive-trees and other trees and many vegetables, irrigated by sāqiyas. I stayed [at Aswān] alone for twenty-five days. We had to cross two hundred farsakhs of sheer desert before reaching the sea coast. It was the season of the return of the pilgrims; they arrived on camels, so we had to await them in order to hire the camels to go [to Mecca] in our turn. While I was at Aswān, I happened to make acquaintance with a pious good man who knew a little about philosophy (ʿilm al-mantiq); he helped me to hire the camels and to choose a companion and other things. I hired a camel for one-and-half dinar.

I left this town on the 5th of Rabī’ al-Awwal of the year 442 [28 July 1050 A.D.]. The route was going south-east. After we had marched eight farsakhs, we arrived at [p. 235] a station called Dayqa in a flat plain (wādī) in the desert. On both sides of it there stood two mountains like walls, one hundred cubit distant the one from the other. Numerous wells were dug, from which abundant water was drawn, but it was not tasty. After this station we walked a five days' journey through a waterless desert. Each one of us took a water-skin (qirba) full of water and we arrived at a station called al-Ḥawḍ which is a rocky mountain with two springs from which good water was gushing and flowing into a hole: there was no need for anyone to go up to the spring to fetch water for the camels. Our camels endured a seven days' journey without tasting any water or food, because there was no fodder left; they had rest only once in the twenty-four hours because in that season, when the sun heat is most fierce until the afternoon, we used to walk all the time and to make halt only at well-known stations, without stopping at other places as no fuel could be found to light a fire. But in the stations, travellers find camel dung, which they use as fuel to cook what they have. The camels themselves seemed to be aware that if they slowed down their speed they were to perish of thirst; therefore the riders had no need to drive them to go eastwards in those deserts where there is neither a footstep nor a sign-post showing the way. There are places where water can be found within a fifteen farsakhs' distance, but is was brackish, and other places where no water was found at ill within thirty of forty farsakhs.

On the 20th of Rabī' al-Awwal of the year 442 [12 August 1050 A.D.] we arrived at the town of 'Aydhāb, two hundred farsakhs precisely from Aswān; we covered that distance in fifteen days. This town of 'Aydhāb is built on the sea-shore; it has a mosque for the Friday prayer (Masjad jumʿa) and a population of five hundred. It belongs to the Sultan of Egypt. Here are levied the customs [p. 236] duties (mukūs) on goods brought by ships coming from al-Ḥabasha, Zanzibar (Zanjibār) and Yemen. Then the merchandise is carried on camels (ibil) to Aswan whence it is shipped to Miṣr by way of the Nile. On the right hand of ’Aydhāb, when looking towards the qibla there is a mountain behind which a great expanse extends with vast grazing plains; it is inhabited by a numerous people called al-buja. They have neither a religion (dīn), nor a [religious-social] organization (milla) nor a belief in any prophet (nabī), nor in any theocratic ruler (imām)[4]. This is because they live far from any inhabited country in a desert stretching over one thousand farsakhs in length and three hundred farsakhs in width, and in all this vast territory there are only two towns (madīna) the one being Baḥr an-Na’am, the other 'Aydhāb. This desert extends in the north-south direction from Egypt to Ḥabasha, and in the west-east direction from the Nile to the Red Sea. The Buja who live in this desert are not bad people, nor are they robbers. It is the Moslems and others who kidnap their children and take them to the towns of Islam where they sell them.

The Red Sea branches off from the Ocean near the country (wilāya) of Aden and extends northwards as far as the small town of Qulzum. It [the Red Sea] is named after each town that faces on it; so, here it is called [sea of] Qulzum, there [sea of] 'Aydhāb, elsewhere [sea of] Baḥr an-Na’am. It is said that in this sea there are more than three hundred islands from which ships arrive laden with oil and goats (kishk) mixed with sour milk. It is said that beyond it [Red Sea] there is a land rich on cattle and sheep; the population is Moslem, partly subject to Egypt and partly to Yemen.

[p. 237] In the small town of 'Aydhāb there is no [drinking] water except rain water; there are neither wells nor sources. If rains fail, the Buja bring water to sell. We stayed there three months and bought a qirba of water for one or two dirham. The reason for our staying there all that time was that the ship would not sail because of the wind blowing from the north, while, for our crossing we needed a wind from the south. When the inhabitants [of 'Aydhāb] saw me, they invited me to be their preacher (khatīb) although I did not ask them. I accepted and preached there until the day of our departure. The ship sailed northwards and we landed at Judda. It is said that the tawny dromedaries (al-jumāl an-najībiyya) are not found anywhere else than in this desert and they are exported to Egypt and Hejaz. (Schefer, pp. 71 - 73; MC 720).

... There was [in Cairo] also a troop of children of kings and princes of different countries of the world, who had come to Egypt. They were not considered as serving in the army. These princes were from Maghrib, Yemen, the country of the Rūm, the country of the Slavs, from Nubia and Ḥabasha. None of them received less than five hundred dinars as pension ... some received up to two thousand dinars maghrebi. (Jahyā al-Kashshab, p. 114).

  1. Obviously, the meaning is "width"
  2. A river in southern Turkey.
  3. A farsakh (parasang) is about 6 km.
  4. In the Isma’īlī shī’a the imam is believed to be the only theocratic authority on earth.