The Slavs of al-Ṭabarī

Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (839 – 923) was a Persian scholar writing in Arabic. His History (History of the Prophets and Kings) is a multi-volume work which, in vol. 31 (“The War Between Brothers”) describing the events of 808 – 814 mentions Slavs.  The work is written in poetic form so the historical significance of these mentions appears debatable.  Nevertheless, the reference is to actual historical events – the battles between the succesors of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, his sons al-Amin (aka Muhammad ibn Harun al-Rashid) and al-Ma’mun (aka Abū Jaʿfar Abdullāh al-Maʾmūn ibn Hārūn al-Rashīd) as well as al-Qasim (aka Al-Qasim ibn Harun al-Rashid). Apparently, their father decided that al-Amin would succeed him but that al-Ma’mun would have sovereignty over Khurasan and, that, afterwards, al-Ma’mun would take over. Al-Ma’miun also got himself a large portion of the Baghdad army. Al-Qasim could not alter this.  After Al-Ma’mun it was to be al-Quasim although al-Ma’mun could replace him as successor. 

The below relates to events taking place after the death of al-Rashid in 809 when al-Amin was supposed to take over but soon fell out with al-Ma’mun who won their civil war in 813. Al-Amin was killed (head was placed on the Anbar Gate in Baghdad) and al-Qasim (who had already been arrested by al-Amin) was deposed (only?). 

The mention below is to al-Jaradiyyah – the Slav guards of al-Amin – and to Slavs. Note that there were apparently two guard units – the Slavic “white” one (named after locust or falcon species) and an Abyssynian “black” one (named after ravens – the al-Ghurabiyyah). 

Here are those mentions in the translation by Michael Fishbein (from the SUNY edition).  The notes are his and he is also the source of much of the background given above. 

The Byzantine embassy of John the Grammarian in 829 to al-Ma’mun (left) from the Emperor Theophilos (right)

Details and Results of the Siege of Baghdad (812 – 813)

“…At Zandaward and al-Yasiriyah,
      and on the two river banks, where the ferries have ceased,
At the mills and Upper al-Khayzuraniyyah,
whose bridges were lofty,
And at the Palace of ‘Abduyah, there is a lesson and guidance
      for every soul whose inner thoughts have become pure.
Where are their guards, and where is their guardian?
Where is he upon whom benefits were bestowed, and where is their bestower?
Where are their eunuchs and their servants?
Where are their inhabitants and their builder?
Where are the Slavic al-Jaradiyyah* guards gone,
and the Abyssinians, with their pendulous lips?
The army disperses from its parades;
its lean [horses] run there at random –
Carrying men from Sind and India, Slavs,
and Nubians with whom Berbers have been mixed –
Like birds in flights, they have been sent forth to no avail,

  their fair-skinned troops preceding their blacks.
Where are the virgin gazelles in the garden
      of the kingdom – the young ones who walked so gracefully?
Where are their comforts and their pleasures?”

*note – “The Jaradiyyah corps of guards may have been given this name in reference to the pale color of the locust (jarad) or to a species of falcon (saqr al-jarad or al-jaradi). See ed. Leiden, Glossarium, CLXII; also the explanation given below.”

Some Aspects of the Conduct and Mode of Life of the Deposed Muhammad bin Harun (813 – 814)

“According to Humayd bin Sa’id, who said: After he became ruler andter al-Ma’mun wrote to him and gave him his allegiance, Muhammad sought out eunuchs and purchased them, spending inordinately on them. He appointed them to [attend on] his private quarters by night and by day, his provisions of food and drink, and his decisions commanding or forbidding. Some he enrolled into a special unit [fard] that he named “al-Jaradiyyah,” and other, Abyssinians, he enrolled into a special unit which he name “al-Ghurabiyyah.”* He forsook both free women and slave girls, so that they were sent await. Concerning this, a certain poet said:

O you who stay long at your residence in Tus,
far from your family, who cannot be ransomed by [other] lives:
You have left behind a husband for the eunuchs –
someone who has endured the bad luck of Basus from them!
As for Nawfal, he is a person of importance.
What a companion Badr is!”

*note – “Cf. the reference to the two groups in the poem quoted above, where the Jaradiyyah are identified as Saqalib, or Slavs, and the accompanying note, explaining the possible origin of the name. “Ghurabiyyah” is derived from the word of raven, ghurab, with reference to their black skins. See Abbott, Two Queens of Baghdad, 210 – 211. On fard, troops not on the regular muster roll and paid contractually, see ed. Leiden, Glossarium, CDI; also Baladhuri, Futuh, glossarium, s.v.”

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December 11, 2017

One thought on “The Slavs of al-Ṭabarī

  1. Hjorvarth

    An excerpt from an interesting Polish publication which shows historical descriptions of the appearance of the early medieval Slavs, how it would also show that could be described as Goths as well as Slavs in medieval sources. A number of sources describe the ancient Slavs hair as being blond, black haired, light blonde/brown/russet haired and even red haired, at times even indistinguishable from the Goths who are likewise also described as having ruddy complexion. These are some of the earliest physical descriptions of ancient Slavic speaking peoples
    appearance ever recorded, and it gives some interesting insight regarding the first impressions by the foreign writers when they first saw them. (translated from Polish):

    Excerpt from “Phenotype of old Slavs, 6th to 10th centuries”, by Łukasz Maurycy Stanaszek. (Polish
    anthropologist and archaeologist, curator certified, head of the Laboratory of Anthropology at the
    National Archaeological Museum in Warsaw)

    I. Byzantine sources:

    1. Procopius of Caesarea (6th century):
    – “(…) Valerian chose one of the Sklaveni (Slavs) who are men of mighty stature. (…)”
    – “(…) Nay further, they do not differ at all from one another in appearance. For they are all exceptionally
    tall and stalwart men, while their bodies and hair are neither very fair or very blond, nor indeed do they
    incline entirely to the dark type, but they are slightly ruddy in color. (…)”
    (Tacitus when describing ancient Germanics also called them ruddy, using the same word as these later
    sources when describing Slavs, much like a “tawny” colour, reddish-yellow or brown-orange, the same
    or similar words were also used later by early sources describing hair of Slavic people)
    2. Theophilact Simokatta (describing events from year 595):
    “(…) The Emperor was with great curiosity listening to stories about this tribe, he has welcomed these
    newcomers from the land of barbarians, and after being amazed by their height and mighty stature, he
    sent these men to Heraclea. (…)”
    3. Theophanes the Confessor (describing the same event from year 595):
    “(…) The Emperor was admiring their beauty and their stalwart stature. (…)”
    4. Pseudo-Maurice (Strategikon) – late 6th century/early 7th century:
    “(…) Tribes of Sclaveni and Antes (…) are very resistant to hardships, they easily endure both heat and
    cold, rain and lack of garment. (…)”
    5. Pseudo-Caesarius of Nazianzus (6th century) when describing Slavs did not mention hair colour, only
    that “they are numerous and tall”. He confirms info given by Procopius and others who lived during the
    6th century, that Slavs were exceptionally tall.
    6. Constantine Porphyrogennetos (10th century Eastern Roman Emperor):
    About ancestors of Croats….
    “(…) their ancestors were Pagan Croats…known also as White Croats. *Great Croatia, called also White
    [Croatia], until today is still Pagan (…) [*correlating to modern day Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine,
    Belarus, Russia and Transcarpathia]
    “(…) But the Croats at that time were dwelling beyond Bavaria, where the Belocroats [White Croats] are
    now. From them split off a family of five brothers, Klukas and Lobelos and Kosentzis and Muhlo and
    Hrovatos, and two sisters, Tuga and Buga, who came with their folk to Dalmatia and found the Avars in
    possession of that land. After they had fought one another for some years, the Croats prevailed. (…)”

    II. Muslim and Sephardi Jewish sources:
    7. Al-Baladuri (late 7th century):
    “(…) Slavs are a tribe of ruddy complexion and fair hair. (…)”
    8. Ibn Qutajba (describing events from years 691 – 694):
    “(…) If only Prince wanted, outside of his doors would be negro [black] Sudanians or ruddy Slavs (…)”
    9. The same information is repeated also by Al-Baladuri (9th century).
    10. The earliest Arabic description of Slavic language speakers and contacts can be traced all the way
    to the 500’s, and most likely occurred on or near the territory of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire.The earliest Arabic sources from historians and geographers, who were also spies for Muslim Caliphs and leaders, describe the Slavs as a people with pale skin or pink, that turns “red” while under the sun,
    and blond hair.
    11. Al-Ahtal (late 7th century):
    “(…) Birds of the desert saw in those people a crowd of fair-haired Slavs. (…)”
    12. Jaqut (13th century, but using much older primary sources):
    “(…) Slavs are a tribe of ruddy complexion and fair hair. (…)”
    13. Ibn Al-Kalbi (late 8th century/early 9th century):
    “(…) Slavs are a numerous nation, fair-haired and of ruddy [pink] complexion. (…)”
    14. Al-Gahiz (early 9th century):
    “(…) Among Slavs, abominable, grotesque and ugly are their smoothness of hair [as opposed to
    curly/afro hair] and delicateness, as well as blond [or russet/fair?] colour of their hair and beards, and
    also whiteness [light colour] of their eyelashes (…)”
    “(…) Tell me friend, after how many generations a Zang became a negro [black], and a Slav became
    white? (…)”
    15. Abraham ben Jacob (years 965 – 966):
    “(…) What is peculiar [when it comes to Slavs], most of Bojema people [Bohemians/Czechs] are of
    swarthy complexion and dark hair, while fair colors are rare among them [compared to frequencies
    among other Slavs. (…)”
    Abraham ben Jacob:
    “(…) Slavic people are often haunted by two diseases (…) these are two types of rash: redness and
    abscess (…)” [sunburn? acne? blisters?]
    16. Ibn Al-Faqih (10th century Persian historian and geographer):
    “(…) There exist two kinds of Slavic people. First kind are people of swarthy complexion and darker hair.
    The other kind are fair people, who live inland. (…)”
    “(…) Inhabitants of Iraq are people (…) who are not born with hair colour intermediate between russet,
    blond, matt-white and white [bright blond], as it happens among children born from Slavic women. (…)People of Iraq are free from abominable russet hair colour of Slavs. (…)”
    17. Ahmad ibn Rustah (10th century Persian explorer and geographer in the chronicle Al-Djarmi/Book of
    Precious Records):
    Does not mention physical or hair but describes good hygiene customs. His impression of the Rus’:
    “(…) They carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their
    slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade. They have many
    towns. (…)”
    Of 10th century Croatian Kingdom he wrote:
    “(…) Their ruler is crowned … He dwells in the midst of the Slavs … He bears the title of ‘ruler of rulers’
    and is called ‘sacred king’. He is more powerful than the Zupan (viceroy), who is his deputy …There he
    wears beautiful, durable and precious chainmail. His capital is called Drzvab [Zagreb] where is held a
    fair of three days every month. (…)”
    18. Al-Masudi (10th century Arab historian and geographer)
    He writes that dominant complexion among Slavic people is fair, not dark.
    19. Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (10th century Eastern Roman Emperor):
    “(…) ‘Serbs’ in the tongue of the Romans is the word for ‘slaves’, whence the colloquial ‘serbula’ for
    menial shoes, and ‘tzerboulianoi’ for those who wear cheap, shoddy footgear. This name the Serbs
    acquired from their being slaves of the emperor of the Romans. (…)”
    III. German sources:
    20. Saint Bruno of Querfurt:
    He wrote that in Poland having a beard is a common custom among men.


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