From Slave to Traveler to Writer: The Story of Yaqut al-Hamawi

By Adam Ali

Yaqut al-Hamawi is a celebrated medieval scholar, geographer, and traveler who lived in the Abbasid caliphate during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. He is famous for the books he composed and his travels throughout the Muslim world. Although most of the works attributed to him have been lost, those that survive show his vast knowledge in a variety of fields including Arabic grammar, geography, history, religion, and lexicography among others. Here we tell the story of his life, with a digression on the training and education of slaves.

Not much is known about Yaqut’s origins and early life. He was not a Muslim at birth nor was he born in the caliphate. In fact, he was born in the Byzantine Empire (probably in Anatolia – modern-day Turkey) in 1179 to non-Arab parents and was most likely of Greek ethnicity. At the age of five or six he was enslaved and taken to Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. There he was purchased by Askar ibn Ibrahim al-Hamawi (d. 1209), a semi-literate merchant from the city of Hama in Syria. He acquired his name, Yaqut al-Hamawi (or Yaqut of Hama), from his master. He is also often referred to as Yaqut al-Rumi. The term “Rum” (or Rome) was used by the Muslims to refer to the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. This latter name links him to the land of his birth and can be translated as “Yaqut the Roman.” He gives his full name is Shihab al-Din Abu Abdallah Yaqut ibn Abdallah al-Hamawi, later omitting “al-Rumi” to hide his former slave status after becoming free.


Yaqut’s master was a merchant with very little education. He could buy and sell goods, strike bargains, and make deals, but knew very little beyond that. He was not good at book-keeping and needed someone to maintain his records and look after his office. It was for this purpose that he invested in Yaqut’s education. Askar al-Hamawi did have children of his own, but there is no indication as to whether he sent them to school or not. Yaqut began his formal studies in Baghdad around 1184. By 1192 he was already travelling on his master’s behalf as his secretary and his business representative, which means that he no longer formally attended school after that year. However, assuming this role and working for his master did not mean that Yaqut’s education ended in 1192.

Due to his keen scholarly interest and desire to learn and expand his knowledge, Yaqut sought out teachers and men of learning at all the destinations that he visited to further his education and to expand his scholarly repertoire. He studied a number of fields including the Arabic language, grammar, prosody, literary prose, poetry, the Quran, Quranic exegesis, hadith (prophetic traditions), kalam (the science of discourse), law, geography, history, historiography, and astronomy. It appears that even though his master educated him to help him with bookkeeping, Yaqut gravitated towards literature and poetry rather than mathematics and numbers.


Yaqut had several teachers. He studied under Abu al-Murji‘ Salim ibn Ahmad ibn Salim al-Tamimi (d. 1219). He was also taught by al-Mubarak ibn al-Mubarak ibn Sa‘id al-Darir (d. 1219), who was a polymath and also the teacher of Abu al-Murji‘ Salim, Yaqut’s first teacher, and was popularly known as al-Wajih. Yaqut also lists Shumaim al-Hilli (d. 1204), Ibn al-Akhdar (d. 1215), and Muhibb al-Din Abdallahibn al-Husain al-Ukbari al-Hanbali (d. 1219) among his teachers and cites several other scholars whom he met or studied under (for varying durations of time) throughout his travels. He met these scholars and men of knowledge in places such as Damascus, Aleppo, Amid, and Egypt. He not only studied with teachers, but also busied himself with reading books in the libraries and private collections of scholars and rulers, sometimes copying sections of works and compiling vast amounts of knowledge and information.

Why slaves would be educated and trained

The educating and/or training of slaves by their masters was not uncommon in the medieval Muslim world. A small digression from Yaqut’s life story to discuss this topic is relevant here. The practice or training or educating slaves was referred to in Arabic as istina‘. It involved a financial investment over a period of time on the part of the master, but often yielded significant profit. This practice of educating/training slaves was very common in the upper echelons of society. The rulers and elites purchased and trained military slaves, who formed the social, political, and military elites of most Muslim polities from the 9th to the 19th centuries. These slaves received extensive religious and miliary training that produced some of the most skilled and highly trained professional soldiers and armies of the medieval period. Some of these military slaves rose to important positions in the various courts of the medieval and early modern Muslim world. Some of them became ministers and wazirs/viziers, others became high-ranking officers and generals in the army, while others became governors. In certain states such as the Ghaznavid Empire (977-1186), the Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1290), and the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517) slaves even became the rulers and sovereigns over their domains.

A 13th-century cup made in Syria, now at the Fitzwilliam Museum – photo by

Some female slaves who ended up in the harems of the elites were also educated in various areas. Some were taught to sing, dance, and play musical instruments, while others even received a more formal education in grammar, history, law, poetry, mathematics, and literature. The administrative position of the qahramana in the Abbasid court was held by one of the caliph’s female slaves. She was the stewardess of the royal household and the manager of its finances. She had an office manager, who also functioned as her secretary/assistant. The position of qahramana was an administrative one and was considered an official palace post. In the palace hierarchy, the qahramana was of equal rank to the caliph’s mother and the royal princes. In other words, she answered directly to the caliph and no one else and it was expected that government officials, such as the wazir/vizier address her according to the rules of court protocol.

The qahramana did not have a set “job description” and the women who held this position were tasked with fulfilling a variety of roles. For example, one qahramana, Zaydan, was put in charge of the safe holding the palace jewels. This was where rebels or court officials suspected of treason were also imprisoned, placing them in her custody. She held the keys, and thus access, to the safe and the caliph’s personal wealth. Another qahramana, Thamal, was authorized to interrogate the members of a conspiracy against the caliph. She was also appointed to the prestigious and sensitive position known as diwan al-mazalim (court of appeal). This position required training and expertise in jurisprudence and religious law and Thamal was able to fulfill her duties at the court in an exemplary manner. One of the caliphs gave Fatima, another qahramana, financial power. She had the authority to issue payments to government officials.


Eunuchs also fall into this category of slaves and often rose to high positions in the rulers’ courts. One example is that of Kafur, an Abyssinian eunuch who served Ahmad ibn Tughj, the founder of the Ikhshidid dynasty in Egypt. Kafur impressed his master so much that he sponsored his education and his rise to high political positions at court. After his master’s death, Kafur ruled Egypt first as the power behind his sons’ thrones and eventually as the sole ruler.

Despite being fascinating, the above-mentioned examples represent but a small proportion of slaves in the Muslim world. These were the slaves of the ruling elite and represent a small percentage of all the slaves in the caliphate and led far more privileged lives than the majority of slaves. However, istina‘ was practiced at all levels of society. Yaqut is an example of a slave who belonged to a merchant (not an amir, sultan, or caliph) who educated him. Slaves were owned by many people during the medieval and early modern periods.

However, unlike the rulers, most individuals could not afford to purchase and maintain large numbers of slaves and some slaves, such as military slaves, eunuchs, and highly trained/educated female slaves were practically off-limits to all but the ruling elite. For example, a blacksmith (or any other craftsman in the skilled trades), could have one or two slaves (or more, depending on his wealth) whom he trained in his trade. These slaves would then work in the smithy for their master paying him a fixed amount of their income and keeping the remainder for themselves.


Such arrangements existed in other societies during various eras such as ancient Greece and Rome. This type of slavery was possible in societies in which the main form of slavery was domestic or household slavery. In such societies, there was often a more personal relationship between slave and master. In the medieval Muslim world, masters often freed their slaves and these slaves continued to work for/with their former masters as freedmen (known in the early Islamic period as mawali). However, not all slaves received such training and/or education and it all depended on the purpose for which a slave was purchased. If a slave’s intended duties involved carrying water, cleaning the stables, and domestic chores, there was no need for such an education.

Likewise, plantation slaves were not educated. In fact, large-scale agricultural slavery, as exemplified by much of the slavery in the New World, was almost non-existent in the Muslim world. Most of the farming was done by free peasants (some of whom may have owned slaves). However, there are a couple of records of large-scale plantation slavery, the most significant case was in Southern Iraq during the 8th and 9th centuries. The slaves there, mostly Africans, were treated harshly and inhumanely and as a result they rose in rebellion, which resulted in a bloody and destructive fifteen-year war known as the Zanj Revolt.

It should be noted that the education of slaves was primarily done for the benefit of the master. Those slaves that received some sort of training of education did benefit and profit from it, but as a side effect. For example, a pretty slave girl who could sing, play musical instruments, dance, and read would most likely end up in a palace with more opportunities to gain wealth and influence than untrained/uneducated slave girls who most likely ended up doing domestic chores in a household. The slave trader who invested money and time into the education of his slave girls could sell them to a caliph or sultan for exorbitant prices. So, it should not be understood that slaves were educated for their welfare, but rather to maximize the profits for their masters. Once again, military slaves stand out in this regard because their relationship with their masters was a symbiotic one. The slaves protected their master and kept him on the throne, while he, in return, provided for them financially and materially.

Yaqut’s Travels, Scholarship, and Later Life

Yaqut began his travels as a merchant representing his master on business trips and carrying his goods to various regions in 1192. On his journeys he saw firsthand many of the places about which he would write in his famous book Mu‘djam al-Buldan (The Dictionary/Encyclopedia of Nations/Lands). Between 1192-1227 he visited Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus on multiple occasions. He also travelled to Kish, Oman, Tabriz, Egypt, Khurasan (primarily Balkh, Merv, Herat), Khwarazm, and Mosul. As mentioned earlier, in addition to conducting trade, he collected scholarly and literary information from the various libraries he visited and the scholars he met.


Yaqut was no more than a boy of about 12 or 13 when he began his travels and working for his master. Travelling in the medieval period was wrought with dangers and pitfalls. He was especially miserable during the sea voyages as a boy to Kish and Oman. Yaqut continued serving his master in this manner until 1199 when they had a disagreement. As a result of this falling out, Asker freed Yaqut and dismissed him as a punishment. Yaqut was now left to fend for himself, an unenviable position for a freedman. However, he was able to put his education to good use and made a living as a copyist transcribing books. This work not only allowed him to make a living but also to further expand his knowledge.

Askar and Yaqut eventually reconciled and Yaqut returned to his former master’s employ as a free man. Askar gave Yaqut some money and sent him on another mercantile journey. By the time Yaqut returned Askar had died. Yaqut paid his former master’s widow and children part of the profits of his journey and was even allowed to keep a portion, which was a share of his inheritance from his former master.

After Askar’s death, Yaqut settled down in Baghdad and took up the trade of a bookseller. In 1215 he was in Damascus but had to flee because he got into a public argument with a Shia and expressed anti-Alid opinions. The enraged crowd that witnessed the argument accused him of being a Kharijite and attacked him, and he almost got lynched, barely escaping with his life. It is at this point that he moved to Khurasan after having taken refuge in Aleppo for a few months. He made his way to Merv via Mosul and Irbil. He stayed there for two years before moving to Khwarazm in 1218. However, his sojourn there was interrupted by Genghis Khan’s invasion in 1220 and he had to flee ahead of the advancing Mongol armies, leaving all his belongings behind. To add to his difficulties, he had purchased a beautiful Turkish slave girl with whom he was in love, but from whom he had to separate. Yaqut arrived back in Mosul in 1220 and made his way to Aleppo in 1222, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Yaqut earned his living as a merchant, primarily a bookseller (after Askar’s death). However, he was also a prolific writer and authored many books of which only a few have survived. Among his surviving works are Kitab Irshad al-Arib ila ma‘rifat al-Adib or Mu‘djam Akhbar al-Udaba’ (The Dictionary/Encyclopedia of Learned Men), a biographical dictionary covering the lives of men of letters, grammarians, linguists, genealogists, famous readers (of the Quran), historians, and secretaries. Another surviving work by Yaqut is Al-Muqtadab min Kitab Jamharat al-Nasab (On the Genealogy of the Arabs). Some of his lost works include:

  • Kitab al-Mabda’ wa al-Ma’al fi al-Tarikh and Kitab al-Duwal (both on history).
  • Mu‘jam al–Shu‘ara’, a biographical dictionary of poets in forty–two volumes.
  • Kitab Akhbar al-Mutanabbi on the life of the poet, al-Mutanabbi.
  • ‘Unwan Kitab al-Aghani, which is probably an introduction to the famous Book of Songs by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (d. 967).

His most famous book, however, is Mu‘djam al-Buldan, which is a monumental geographical work. In it he names places (sometimes fixing errors in the names by other geographers), and gives their locations, borders, and coordinates. He also presents interesting facts on each location and anecdotes from his journey or those he had heard/gathered. The book discusses kingdoms, cities, mountains, deserts, seas, and islands. This book was to serve as a guide to these locales for the Muslim traveller. In addition to compiling such detailed information, Yaqut’s book also preserves several passages and parts of geographical works that have been lost. Yaqut not only used a variety of geographical, biographical, and historical sources to compile this book, but he also included his own observations and experiences from his travels making it more valuable and adding a flare of originality to it.

The Mu‘djam al-Buldan has been used as a reference by scholars in the Islamic world during the last seven centuries and by western orientalists and modern academics making it a source of great importance. Its author Yaqut, despite starting his career in the unenviable position of being a slave, etched out a place for himself in the intellectual history of the Muslim world. He was a celebrated traveller, a prolific writer, and an outstanding collector and transmitter of knowledge during the medieval period.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.