Could ever a person want to become a slave? A remarkable letter written over a thousand years ago reveals how a group of ten men were seriously considering doing just that, as they hoped to escape terrible prison conditions.
The letter, written in the late 9th or early 10th century, was uncovered by Jelle Bruning in the collections of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The unknown author was writing from a prison in Egypt, where he and nine of his companions were suffering under extremely harsh conditions. It leads him to make a desperate appeal:
You know—may God render you glorious—what we have had to endure because of (our) imprisonment and the distress we are in. We are still despoiled of our property and all our wealth has been taken. We have no one who attends to or remembers us. We needed you to remind Abū al-Ḍaḥḥāk—may God prolong his life—of our affair and to inform him of our condition. We are obedient servants, ten in number. Some of us are slaves, the others are freemen. We will make ourselves slaves so that he becomes desirous of owning them and you (two) hasten to deal with our affair so that we may be freed from the distress we are in. Nothing remains of the alms that we were given. We are still destitute, with no one to feed or clothe us.
The letter, which was written on papyrus, continues with another plea to send money as well as asking if the recipient had any news of a woman named Sutayt, who the writer describes as “my patroness” – perhaps so that this person could also be of assistance.
Bruning explains there is much we do not know from this letter: the names of the person who wrote this letter or the recipient, nor do we know what happened after this. The letter does read like a petition and is basically a plea for help. The recipient was supposed to communicate with someone named Abū al-Ḍaḥḥāk, who could help the men, but this had not yet happened. Perhaps this Abū al-Ḍaḥḥāk was also the men’s patron, or that they worked for him.
At this time Egypt was part of the Abbasid empire, and while Islamic law stipulated that prisoners should be treated well, this was not often the reality. Prisoners, apparently including these ones, had to find a way to feed and clothe themselves, despite having all their property taken away from them – they had to rely on someone on the outside to help them, or otherwise they might starve to death.
The prisoners’ distress would certainly be related to their general living conditions. Bruning notes
Historical sources indicate that a serious lack of hygiene, a lot of vermin, and intense promiscuity were common characteristics of collective cells. Graphically illustrating the unhygienic and possibly dangerous living conditions in a late third/ninth-century Egyptian prison, the History of the Patriarchs reports that a prisoner who wished to kill a severely injured inmate took ‘the prison’s filth and the grim which formed on its ceilings from the foul air’ and rubbed it into the man’s wounds.
The desperate tone of the letter reveals that the writer and his companions greatly feared that they would die in this prison and that no one would come to help them. They had been forgotten, and the only solution they had was to become enslaved. The idea would be that someone else would be able to release them from prison, but at the cost of their personal freedom.
Under Islamic law it was illegal for a free Muslim person to choose slavery, but Bruning does find other instances during the Middle Ages where this actually happened. When a terrible famine and plague struck Egypt between 1200 and 1202, there was a report of starving women and children willing to become slaves if it meant they could eat.
The letter serves as another example of how some medieval people would be pushed to extremes, forced to make a choice between enslavement or suffering a terrible death such as starvation. The writer was likely hoping that by suggesting the possibility of enslavement, his patrons would ultimately decide to help him and his companions.
Bruning finds that this letter offers some new insights into medieval enslavement, particularly during the Abbasid era. He writes:
By and large, most historical texts and works of adab (often translated as ‘belles-lettres’) present us with images of individuals owned by a relatively small class of urban elites, especially those serving them as entertainers, concubines, and soldiers. Even when these sources can be used to study particular forms or aspects of slavery associated with elite circles of Muslim society, they are almost completely silent about the reality of slavery as experienced by the vast majority of slaves in the Abbasid empire: the thousands of men, women, and children forced into serving affluent households as domestic slaves.
The article, “Voluntary enslavement in an Abbasid-era papyrus letter,” by Jelle Bruning, appears in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Click here to read it.
Jelle Bruning is a University Lecturer at Leiden University, where he specializes in the history of Egypt between the 7th and 10th centuries. Among his other articles, you can read his piece on “Slave trade dynamics in Abbasid Egypt: the papyrological evidence”.
Top Image: A medieval prison at the Kasbah of Chefchaouen in Morocco. Photo by Fraguando / Wikimedia Commons