In some recent researches I have discovered one of the more interesting travelers and scholars of the medieval Islamic world. I have been encouraged to review what sources are available; and the more we learn, the more impressive his story becomes. His name is Yakut Al-Hamawi, and his career and achievements tell us much about the geographical and social mobility of the age in which he lived. His career also confirms the truth of the adage that a man of ability will always find a way to rise to the top, regardless of the obstacles placed in his path.
His full name was Yakut Al-Hamawi Al-Rumi (ياقوت الحموي الرومي) the “Rum” (“Rome”) was an epithet that derived from his Greek (i.e., “Roman Empire” to the Arabs) origins. The name Al-Hamawi refers to city of Hama, the place where he was manumitted by his master. He also was known by the moniker Shihab Al-Din (شهاب الدين), which means “flaming torch” or “shooting star” of religion. He was born in Constantinople in 1178, and his biographer Ibn Khallikan says that he was “carried off as a captive” as a youth and brought to Baghdad to be sold as a slave. We do not know his original Greek name; or if it is known, I have not been able to discover it. His master, one Askar Ibn Abi Nasr lbn Ibrahim Al-Hamawi, was a merchant who knew commerce, and only commerce; he needed someone to manage his accounts, keep his records, and perform other secretarial duties. Yakut’s master sent him to school, had him educated in a number of disciplines including literature, mathematics, and grammar, and encouraged his growth. He became entirely Arabized and lived in Baghdad for many years, married, and fathered several children.
His education gave him the ability to travel widely as a secretarial assistant to commercial expeditions. He acquired a familiarity with the Arabian Gulf and Oman and learned how to function on his own. As often happens in such situations, there was an inevitable break with the less-educated master; this occurred around 1200, and the two of them went their separate ways. To earn a living, Yakut secured work as a copyist, a profession that brought him into contact with many books, which his curiosity caused him to devour with enthusiasm. We are told he migrated to Damascus in 1216, and there was nearly killed in a dispute with a stranger over some points of religious doctrine. An arrest warrant was issued for him, but he escaped to Aleppo; from there he went to Karbala, Mosul, and Khorasan. From there he moved on to Merv, and then to the province of Khawarism, and decided to settle there; but Fortune had other plans for him.
The Tatars invaded Khawarism in 1219 and our unfortunate Greek barely escaped with his life. Ibn Khallikan says the following about this incident in Yakut’s life:
He [Yakut] fled as naked as when he shall be raised from the dust of the grave on the day of the resurrection, and arrived at Mosul, after suffering on the way such hardships and fatigue as would even tire a narrator before he could describe them all. Deprived of every resource, in want of even the vilest food and the coarsest clothing, he remained for some time at Mosul and then went to Sinjar.
Such are the ways of Fortune. But he survived, and continued. Yakut eventually settled in Aleppo and remained there, more or less, until his death in 1228. It was probably here that he put in final form his many literary works. The largest of these was the four-volume historical work Irshad al-Alibba ila marifa til-Udaba’ (Guide of the Intelligent to an Acquaintance with the Learned). Perhaps his most famous work was the Mua’jam Al-Buldan (Dictionary of Countries), a compendium of geographical information about the various regions and peoples Yakut had visited. He also composed lengthy works on the lives of poets and literary men, as well as chronicles and genealogies of various Arabian tribes. One of the most interesting pieces of his writing is this extract of a long letter he wrote to a vizier of the governor of Aleppo after he had escaped the Mongol invasion of Persia. The letter describes his experiences and anguish, in high literary language, at having witnessed the ravages of the Mongol invasion. It is a long letter, but so full of character and historicity that I cannot resist quoting it at length. It is also a masterpiece of philosophical reflection on the folly of vanity and the ultimate power of Fortune in controlling events:
Your mamluk [humble servant] Yakut lbn Abd Allah Al-Hamawi, wrote this letter from Mosul, in the year 617 [i.e., A. D. 1220-1], on his arrival from Khawarism whence he was driven by the Tartars, may God destroy them! He sent it to the presence of his sovereign lord…[This account] is addressed of what has passed in Khawarizm and of what has happened to this writer. It offers a slight indication of the manner in which he began and ended his career on taking leave of Your Excellency. He shrank from the idea of submitting it to your appreciation; such was his respect and veneration for your dignity and such his repugnance to offer you a document so unworthy of your exalted merit…I feel encouraged to present this notice to my honored master and to a judgment which will show how exalted it is by perusing it and treating its imperfections with indulgence. For I am not a professed writer. Every person who fingers dirhams should not be taken for a money-changer, neither is the man who acquires a pearl to be considered as a jeweler. Here follows my statement…
When your humble servant left your noble presence and departed from the abode of unsullied glory and exalted merit, he intended to conciliate frowning Fortune and draw milk from the udder of this age, wicked and unruly as it is…
For he was seduced by the idea that changing place brings grace, that passing into a foreign land brings wealth to hand, that dwelling with one’s friends disgrace and pain upon us sends, and that the lover of home who stirs not apace, is distanced in the race. Mounted on the steed of hope, your servant rode off to a distant land, and placed his foot in the stirrup of peregrination with every company that offered; he crossed the valleys and the hills till he nearly reached the Sudd; but perfidious Fortune did not befriend him, neither did the times, now run mad, treat him with kindness. I was like a mote in the eye of Fortune or a bone in her throat; so, to get rid of me, she deluded me in promising to fulfil my wishes and finished by casting me into the snares of death…
He stopped not long in any land before he set out for another; his person was with his fellow-travellers but his mind was far distant. One day, he was at Huzwa; another, at Al-Akik; another, at Al-Ozaib, and another, at Al-Khulaisa…The frowns of ill-luck drew smiles from cruel time, and I ceased not to blame Fortune and reproach her with her errors, till, instead of getting wealth, I was satisfied in reaching home. And, during all that, your humble servant tried to pass away those days and to get over them; deluding himself with the hopes of sustenance, covering his head with the veil of endurance and self-denial, arrayed in abstinence and in scanty fare, but not resigned to the wearing of such clothing.
The place where l stopped was called Marw Al-Shahjan, which latter word, according to the explanation given by them, means the soul of the sultan. I found there some works treating of the sciences and of literature, volumes composed by men of intelligence, and, whilst I studied them, I forgot family and country, and thought no longer of sincere friends nor of my home. Among them I discovered some stray volumes which I had long sought for, and some works which l had ardently desired. To them I applied with the avidity of a glutton and, having assigned to them a place from which they could not easily depart, l began to browse in these gardens, to admire the beauty of their form and of their contents, to let my eyes rove freely over these pasture grounds, to enjoy these detailed accounts, these compendiums, and to think that I should remain in that quarter till I became a neighbor of those who repose under the earth…
So things continued till the catastrophe arrived by which Khorasan was over whelmed with ruin, with evil all-destroying and with desolation. Now, I declare on my life and by Allah that it was a country beautiful in all its parts, charming in all its regions; a fertile garden enjoying an air pure and languishing mild, and in which the trees inclined their branches with delight at the singing of the birds. In it the rivulets shed tears whilst each flower smiled at the other; the breath of the zephyr was sweet and the temperature of the climate healthy. Never shall I forget those delightful arbors and those trees sinking under the weight of their foliage. The southern gales bore thither its wine-skins filled with the liquor of the clouds; the meadows drank the wine of the dew, and on the flowers were formed drops like pearls fallen from the string…It is, in a word, and without exaggeration, a copy of Paradise: there was to be found all the heart could wish for, all that could enchant the sight. Encircled with its noble endowments, it offered, throughout all its tracts, a profusion of rich products to the world. How numerous were its holy men preeminent for virtue! How many its doctors whose conduct had for motive the conservation of Islamism! The monuments of its science are inscribed on the rolls of time; the merits of its authors have redounded to the advantage of religion and of the world, and their productions have been carried into every country…
The people of infidelity and impiety [i.e., the Mongols] roamed through those abodes; that erring and contumacious race dominated over the inhabitants; so that these palaces were effaced off the earth as lines of writing are effaced from paper, and those abodes became a dwelling for the owl and the raven: in those places, the screech-owls answer each other’s old friends who enter there are filled with sadness; Iblis [the Devil] himself would bewail the great catastrophe… We belong to God and to God we shall return! It was an event sufficient to break the back, to destroy life, to fracture the arm, to weaken the strength, to redouble sadness, to turn grey the hair of children, to dishearten the brave, to blacken the heart, and to stupefy the intelligence. Then did your humble servant turn back and retrace his steps. Filled with grief, he sought a friendly retreat where his mind might repose in security.
It is an impressive letter, filled with the anguish of one who has barely escaped a conflagration. But history will remember him for his Dictionary of Countries, the rough draft of which was completed in 1224. He died without having had the chance to revise and polish the work; it nevertheless remains a masterpiece of geography and ethnography produced at a time when Europe was accomplishing nothing of importance in these disciplines. His biographer, Ibn Khallikan, closes his account of Yakut’s life with a sentence of understated but moving poignancy:
In the beginning of the month of Dhu Al-Kaada, 626 [September 1229], I arrived at Aleppo for the purpose of pursuing my studies. This was subsequent to Yakut’s death; and I found every one speaking in his praise, extolling his merit and his great literary acquirements. It was not therefore in my destiny to meet with him.
Ibn Khallikan had arrived in Aleppo too late to meet the great man; but the glory of his deeds was still to be heard on the lips of all. He learned of him through his accomplishments, and these have graced the halls of the Immortals.
Read more in On Moral Ends: