Reports of the Slavs From Muslim Lands Part I – Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub’s Account

Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub al-Israili, was a Jewish merchant from Tortosa (whether he was also a Muslim is debatable).  In the year A.D. 965, he traveled from Muslim-occupied Spain (the formerly Vandal, Al-Andalus) to Mainz and then to Magdeburg, the residence of German Emperor (as of 962) Otto I where, interestingly, he claimed to have been received by the Emperor (or was it puffery?).  Who was Ibrahim?  He was a merchant but beyond that we are not sure.  That he was given access to Otto suggests that he may have been an envoy and his account below suggests that either he also may have been a scout or a spy or that he was just naturally curious or, most likely, both.  If he was an envoy/spy then he was in the service of the Cordoban caliph Al Hakaman II (ruler between 961-976).

nottortosa

Ibrahim was thrilled to get new orders from the caliph and leave the sleepy Spanish Coast…

It is worthwhile to mention that we have briefly met his father Abd-ar-Rahman III already.  The father, also bears mentioning at this point, was a warrior who may have had a special Slavic guard of over thirteen thousand soldiers who helped him conquer portions of Spain and also North Africa (but maybe they were just slaves not Slavs…unclear).

The son, Al Hakhaman was a patron of the arts (his library contained something like 400,000 plus manuscripts) but was not a warrior.  What he was, however, was homosexual and was known to have kept a number of (male) harems.  Of course, a rich ruler gets bored easily and so his harems need replenishing.  Thus, it may well be that while his father kept Slav warrior slaves, the son was sending Ibrahim on a mission to get him some information and some male Slav sex slaves.  At the time the slave trade was booming and Slavs were the primary bounty (yes, we will have more on that later).  Prague was the center of this trade as of other trade as Ibrahim, himself, describes below.  Of course, we do not know Ibrahim’s mission for sure and, likely, will never know leaving the above in realm of speculation.

presussen2

…for a little nature get away

It was in the service of Abd-ar-Rahman III, the father, by the way, that Hasdai ibn Shaprut performed all his diplomatic miracles as mentioned here. Ibrahim, it is worth noting may well have known Hasdai since the latter did not pass away until the year 970 or so.  It is conceivable then that Ibrahim would have brought back to Hasdai the news of the defeat and final collapse (A.D. 965) of the Khazar Kingdom at the hands of the newly emergent Rus.

In any event, it appears that after visiting with Otto I in Magdeburg he went on to Prague (the year was 965 so the princess Dobrava was just heading out to see her new husband, still non-Christian, Mieszko) and also went to see the Obotrites in the North though the order of his travels is uncertain (his visits to the Czech capital and to the Obotrite capital are relatively clear from the distances given and a description of the approaches to those cities (another reason that suggests that he was more than a merchant).  As for Poland, the lands of Walitaba (Veleti), the Prussians or the Amazons, it seems that Ibrahim had not ventured to those and that his information comes second-hand from people he met in his travels.

Ibrahim’s original account did not survive but, as already mentioned, some of his writings are replicated in Abu ‘Ubayd al-Bakri’s (11th century) “Book of Roads and Kingdoms.”  Since this is a “classic” account containing some of the first mentions of the Bohemian (first mention of Prague), Polish (other than Widukind’s mention of 963, this seems the earliest mention of Polish lands) and West Slavic countries (and of Baltic Prussia – Burus), we transcribe it here in most of the relevant parts (skipping only the German, lengthy Bulgarian and “hearth & home” sections – the last one we will return to in part III of this series).

From Abu ‘Ubayd al-Bakri’s Book of Roads and Kingdoms

“The Saqaliba are descendants of Madhay, son of Yafith (Japheth) and they dwell in the north-west.” says al-Bakri, then switching to Ibrahim’s reporting:

Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub al-Israili says:

‘The country of Saqualiba extends from the eastern Mediterranean to the north Atlantic.  The tribes of the north dominate them and now live among them.  They are of many different kinds.  They were once united under a king named Makha, who was from a group of them called Walitaba.[1]  This group was of high status among them, but then their languages diverged, unity was broken and the people divided into factions, each of them ruled by their own king.”

[We note that a similar term appears in other Arabic writings, e.g., Majik of the Walitaba or Walinana – which, presumably, is a reference to the Volinians of Wolin (or Wollin) Island – who are the same as the Veleti or Walitaba – either way from the Veletian Union on Wolin (from Masudi on the Slavs from A.D. 943; of course, the same Masudi speaks of the majus when speaking of, apparently, Viking (but, maybe, Wendish pirates – more on that later when we discuss Britain) raiders hitting the coasts of Al-Andalus); same people aka the Wilzi in some sources]

“At the present time they have four kings: the king of the Bulqars; Boreslav [the Cruel], king of Prague (Faraga) and Cracow (Karaku); Mieszko (Mashaqu), king of the North; and Nakon (Naqun), who rules farthest west.”

On Nakon’s Country

[Duke of the Obodrites]

“The country of Nakon is bordered on the farthest west by the Saxons [Saksun] and some Norsemen [Murman].  His country has low prices and many horses, which are exported to other places.  They are well armed, with shields, helmets and swords.”

grossgross

A museum at Gross Raden

“From Burgh (Fargh [Magdeburg?]) to Mayliyah [?] is ten miles and from [there] to the bridge is fifty miles.  It is a wooden bridge, a mile long.  From the bridge to the fortress of Nakon is around 40 miles, and it is called Grad, which means a “large fort”  Facing Grad jus a fort built in a freshwater lake.  This is the kind of place where the Saqaliba build most of their forts, in swampy meadows with thick foliage.”

prussia

There be thick foliage

“They trace out a circular or square space the size they want their for to be, and then dig a trench along the perimeter and heap up the earth into a rampart, which they then reinforce with planks and logs, until the walls of the fort are the height they require.  They make a gate wherever they want and build a wooden bridge leading to it.  From the fort of Grad to the Surrounding Sea is eleven miles.  No army can penetrate the lands of Nakon without great difficult, because the country is all marshy, thickly forested and muddy.”

starogardreconstruction

Stargard (Oldenburg in Schleswig-Holstein) reconstruction

[we note here that Nakon died about 965-966, a fact that Ibrahim does not seem to know about suggesting he visited there immediately before those events – maybe a hit commissioned by Otto using a Cordoban “merchant” emissary – let your imagination roam]

On Boreslav’s Country

[Boleslav, Duke of the Czechs]

“As for the country of Boreslav, from the city of Prague to the city of Cracow is a journey of three weeks; its length is comparable to that of the country of the Turks.  The city of Prague is built of stone an dime.  It is the pinrcipal trading city.  The Rus and the Saqaliba go there from Cracow, to trade, and so do Muslim merchants from the lands of the Turks, as well as Turks and Jews, with [mathaquil al-marqatiyya [?] weights [?]].  They carry away slaves, tin and various kinds of furs [?].  Their country is the best in the north the richest in provender.  There a man can buy enough flour for a month for a qinshar.  In Prague are made saddles and griddles and the leather shields used in their countries.”

prahaska

Prague, a few hundred years after Ibrahim’s visit but before the tourists ruined it

“In Bohemia are made small lightly-woven kerchiefs like nets, embroidered with crescents, which have no practical use.  The value of ten of these kerchiefs is always equivalent to none qinshar.  They trade and exchange them, and have receptacles full of them.  They constitute wealth, and the most expensive things can be purchased with them, wheat, slaves, horses, gold and silver and everything else.  It is surprising that the people of Bohemia have brown or black hair; blonds are rare among them.”

“The road from Madhinburgh [Magdeburg?] to the country of Boleslav [to] and from it to the fort of Qaliwa is ten miles, and from it to Nub Grad is two miles.  It is a fort built of stone and lime, and it is on the Saale River [Slawah], into which falls the River Bode.  And from Nub Grad to Mallahat al-Yahud [Salzmunde?]  which is on the Saale River, is thirty miles.  From there to the fort of Burjin, which is on the River Mulde [Muldasah] … and from it to edge of the forest is twenty-five miles; from its beginning to its end is forty miles, through mountains and forests. for,, it to the wooden bridge over the mud is about two miles.  From the end of the forest the city of Prague is entered.”

On Mieszko’s Country

[Duke of the Poles]

“As for the country of Mieszko, it is the most extensive of their countries.  It abounds in food and meat and honey and cultivated fields.”

gnieznensi

Gniezno reconstruction; courtesy: the Museum of the Beginnings of the Polish State

“His taxes are levied in [mathalqil al-margatiyya [according to how much they weigh?]], and they are used to pay the monthly salaries of his men, each of whom receives a fixed number.  He has 3,000 shield-bearers.  One hundred of his soldiers are equal of 1,000.  The men are given clothing and horses and  weapons and everything they require.  If one of them has a child, he is immediately assigned an allowance, whether it is male or female.  When it grows up, if it is male, he provides for its marriage and gives a dowry to the father of the girl.  Dowries are very important to the Saqaliba, and their customs concerning them are like those of the Berbers.  If a woman has two or three daughters, they are considered a form of wealth.  If a man has two sons, it is a cause of poverty.”

On the Prussians

[that is the Baltic Prussians]

“Mieszko is bordered to the east by the Rus and to the north by Prussia.  The inhabitants of Prussia live on the shore of the Surrounding Sea.  They have their own language, and do not know the languages of their neighbors.”

masure

Old Prussians’ defenses were impregnable – at any temperature above 32 Fahrenheit

“They are famous for their courage.  If an army comes against them, not one of them waits until his comrade joins him, but each man charges on his own, striking with his sword until he is killed.  The Rus raid them in ships from the west [presumably Vikings from Sweden].”

On the City of Women 

“West of the Rus lies the City of Women [Magda/Mazovia?].  They have fields and slaves, and they bear children from their slaves.  If a woman has a male child, she kills it.  They ride horses and devote themselves to war; they are brave and fierce.”

ibrahim

In telling his Amazon story to Ibrahim, Otto (in the middle) relied heavily on visual aids

“Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub says: ‘The story of this city is true; Otto, the king of the Romans, told me so himself.'”

On the Walitaba Country

[Veleti]

“To the west of this city is a tribe of the Saqaliba called the nation of Walitaba.  It is in the scrbuands of the country of Mieszko to the north-west.”

coastline

Wollin coast – it was a lot woodier in the olden days

“They have a great city on the Surrounding Ocean [presumably Wolin].  It has twelve gates and a harbor, with a revetment of wooden pilings [?] [wa hum yasta maluna la-hi shuturan harlan].  They make war on Mieszko and are very courageous.  They have no king and trade with no one.  Their judges are their old men.”

[1] this name Walitaba refers to the Veleti.  Also known as Wilzi.

Shaettner Rickover & Borg Corporation – Copyright ©2015, All Rights Reserved

January 10, 2015

11 thoughts on “Reports of the Slavs From Muslim Lands Part I – Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub’s Account

  1. mark stasik

    Great stuff. So if I’m reading Ibn Jakub correctly…that is as his gay-prince’s cruising/boy-harem-recruiter, then what he is reporting is that there are no twinks to be had in Slavia. All his reporting is negative, especially if his prince is looking for pretty blonde boys. First of all the Obodrites have a well-armed cavalry, so they’ll be difficult to defeat. Next, Prague’s people are all black and brown haired (can get those in Spain, much closer to home). Mieszko’s people are well paid, and even their kids are on the dole, the Prus are suicidal berserkers, the Mazovians are gnarly women who kill all the young boys, and all the slavs have bad acne and hemmoroids, and they die in warm weather. Not pretty, butt troubles, not cut out for gay spa life in a hot climate. Pretty much a bad scouting report. Clearly Ibn Jakub didn’t want to have to come back up north, so he wrote a report that would disgust his boss. Also, the Slavic princes kept large harems for themselves, and guarded them very jealously, so there weren’t even women available, or worthwhile to take back to Spain. Hmm. Ibn Jakub seems like a slacker, who knew how to get out of work. Nothing in his report was encouraging reading for a guy looking to stock his boy-toy playgrounds. Pimples and hemmoroids? I wonder how he got that info? Hilarious.

    Reply
    1. torino Post author

      Of course we do not know why he was really up North. But if what you say is true perhaps he was a good guy trying to discourage the roving eye of Andalus

      Reply
  2. mark stasik

    Isn’t it interesting though that 10 years after Constantine Porphyrogenitus writes about “White Croatia” in southern Poland/western Ukraine that Ibn Jakub fails to mention them, or it? Had they left with Sviatoslav and not returned? Did they get wiped out with Sviatoslav? Did their world fall apart after the Sviatoslav expedition? Or did Boleslav the Cruel make hay and sell them into slavery while their military was away with Sviatoslav, maybe with Byzantine urging? Clearly, White Croatia did not exist anymore in Ibn Jakub’s time.

    Reply
  3. mark stasik

    Porphiro’s data is good, c’mon. He’s at the trade center of the universe, travelers and merchants cross-roading from every direction. He is as informed as anyone was possible to be in his time. He has his fingers in everyone’s pie, and is continuously pulling strings and scheming out of political and military necessity. His information is his power. For-warned is for-armed. I’ll bet he even paid Magyars and Boleslaw the Cruel to attack the rump of Great Croatia, in the same way as he paid the Pechenegs (or at least informed them of Sviatoslav hauling big bags of cash to the Dnieper rapids). Maybe Porphy didn’t send cash to the Czechs or the Magyars, maybe he just promised to buy all of the slaves they could capture from there? He had a problem on his hands with Sviatoslav and Svenald running amok, and that old trick of attacking your enemies at home while they were away attacking you worked for Byzantium over and over again, so it was on page 1 of their defense plan book. And I’ve read in several places how the Northern Croats were allied to Sviatoslav. Maybe they were even his largest auxiliary force, his cavalry, until the Bulgarians signed on?

    I know it’s alot of maybes, but no one has a good answer for how Great Chrobatia suddenly disappeared, at the same moment as Poland rises, Boleslaw the Cruel can afford to hire masons to build in stone (with linen scarves???? not likely), Kiev conquers westward, and while the Magyars are doing what? They eventually marry Mieszko’s sister? (pincer move on Chrobatia?)

    I’m just saying there seems to be a conspicuous black hole centered on southern Poland in this period, that Ibn Jacub makes conspicuous by his conspicuous lack of mention, other than to mention Rus bringing slaves to Prague (because the Pechenegs had closed the Dnieper rapids route to Constantinople after Sviatoslav became a drinking bowl).

    I’m trying to find a link that would combine “Chrobatia/Hrvat/Croat with Lyakh” as 2 names for the same people, and thereby help explain a possible Croat disbanding/diaspora scenario that scatters people to the Oka and the upper Elbe.

    Reply
  4. mark stasik

    Lastly, but probably should be firstly, I’ve never read about this “Makha” fellow. (Mecca?) Seems like some memory would survive in one of the annalist traditions of the various Slavic kingdoms, no?

    Makha. What is the thinking about who Makha was?? Popiel’s boss? Very interesting.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: On Veleda | In Nomine Jassa

  6. Pingback: Alfred’s Orosius & Its North European Geography | In Nomine Jassa

  7. Maciek P.

    “As for the country of Mieszko, it is the most extensive of their countries.” And: “At the present time they have four kings: the king of the Bulqars; Boreslav [the Cruel], king of Prague (Faraga) and Cracow (Karaku); Mieszko (Mashaqu), king of the North; and Nakon (Naqun), who rules farthest west.” It’s very interesting information, which are omitted in the description of the state of Mieszko I. Just look at a map of Europe from the middle. X century and deduce how great must have been this state. According to the “official” line of the State was to take approx. 250 thousand. km2. I recommend the book by Tadeusz Miller’s “3000 years of the Polish state.” This also corresponds with the information Kadłubek that Vandal river flowed through the center of Poland!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *