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MANUFACTURING THE WHITE EUNUCHS OF AL-ANDALUS

A Historical Survey
(Fall 2014)
Esteban am aben-Serrano,
Comparative Historian of Diasporan Judaic and Near Eastern Societies in the Iberian Peninsula

I.
CONTEXT

Remnant perceptions of Western Orientalism, a period in painting, design, and


literature spanning from the late 18th century to its culmination in the 1860s with the rise
of Indo-Saracenic Revival Architecture in Europe, e.g., the Royal Pavilion in Brighton,
England, have largely obfuscated the well-documented political and cultural nature of
Arab expansion into the Iberian Peninsula (Contemporary geopolitics vis--vis Arab and
Western relations have also influenced, if not wholly suppressed any propagandistic
precursors to an analysis of resources and acts of witness dating to the Early Medieval
Period do not sufficiently correlate to current circumstances in the pan-Islamic ethos
an understanding of Islamic-period Iberia and its sociohistorical foundations),
beginning in the 710 CE. These overtones hyperbolize the sensual ferocity of a
caricatured Arab invader thrusting a Saracenic acculturation upon the European
populace. The expansion is representative, rather, of advanced Arab and Jewish
industry and bureaucracy, the degree to which Spain and Portugal had not seen since
the Roman Period. In particular, an organizational analysis per the manufacture of
white Teutonic and Italian eunuchs for use A) in the cultivation of arable land and B) as
guards in the great arems of the alfas, or successors, and those of wealthy Arab and
Jewish landowners throughout the region will give credence to the expansion as a
civilizing albeit, impassive force within Christian Spanish and Portuguese societies.

Even the term Saracen, having a wide-ranging usage throughout the Medieval Period
for any Near Eastern subgroup, whether strictly Arabic, Persian, or North African
(Berber), stems from the Greco-Roman cognate, Sarakenoi, military opponents of the
emperor Diocletian from the Upper Sinai whose horsemen blocked Roman entry to
Phoenicia during his campaigns in the Syrian desert. The expansion of Islamic
civilization into Europe by way of the Transductine Promontories (Transductinis
promonturiis) of the Ro Guadalete a civil war between Roderic, likely a dux, or duke,
of Baetica (the former Roman province of Southern Spain) and Achila II, a ruler in
Northeastern Spain termed roughly Tarraconensis, resulted in the weakening of the
European stronghold of Toledo, Roderics capital indeed, shows signs of some
military strife. European resistance, however, to the presence of the first Arabo-Berber
generals and the subsequent arrival of Syrian and Lamidian governors and
administrators from Ifriqyya, their Islamic colony in North Africa, was coupled with a
zeal for the connectivity with the East and for Eastern riches, both material and
intellectual, introduced through long-distance trade and literary scholarship.
The Iberian Peninsula, once a lush outpost of the Roman industrial landscape, had
fallen into a state of decay, a hinterland slowly, between the 5th to the 8th centuries
ruled by German kings. These Visigoths, a sophisticated, yet isolated set of barbarian
merchants, first practiced Arian Christianity until the Catholic Church eradicated this
religious inclination by forming thirty synods held in Toledo. Beginning in 400, these
synods had first suppressed Priscillianism, an ascetic philosophy espoused by
Priscillian, a wealthy Iberian bishop who taught the writings of a Manichean Egyptian
named Marcus. These teachings held a dualistic view of spiritual good in a state of
constant destruction by material evil; the Church viewed this as essentially a holdover
of Mesopotamian religions. The Church deposed these and Arian practices through
legal writs and decrees (David Abulafia, et al., The New Cambridge Medieval History,
Volume 1 c. 500 c. 700, p. 165-370).
With the Visigoths vying for independence from the Roman Church, leading to internal
conflicts between the regions dispersed, provincial kings, the indigenous Suebi (ProtoNordic), Astures (Celtiberian highlanders), and Basque tribes, et al., of the former
Romanized Spain at times fractured the tablissement of their Gothic overlords. By the
late 7th century, the national character of these Romanized Iberian tribes and the
Visigoths, however, had blurred into a singular Iberian identity, marked most distinctly
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by the abolition of the separation of two Roman and Visigothic sets of laws in 654 under
a new code of law, the Liber Ludiciorum.
This code, a compromise of Visigothic and Catholic laws, remained in effect during the
expansion of Islamic civilization into the Iberian Peninsula, as was concerned the
Arabized Christians, thereafter referred to as Mozarabes. The significance of this legal
autonomy contrasts starkly with the supposition that the Arab leadership was
intolerant or oppressive toward Christian authority. On the contrary, the bulk of the
population very likely perceived Islamic influence as a means of stabilizing this new
legal status quo, in the wake of the brinksmanship between ever-plotting Barbarian
oligarchs and the Catholic clergy (Chronicle of 754, Anonymous Mozarab Chronicler,
from Histoire mdival de la Pninsule ibrique, Rucquoi, Adle, 1993).
Though the Mozarabes eventually came to serve the role of a modest underclass, their
ability to live under their own legal bodies for the price of a tribute to their local Arab
administrator relinquished them from exclusively bearing in any way the onus of
slavery, a universal staple in many medieval societies. Instead, foreigners enslaved in
distant lands to the North and in Italy primarily fulfilled this rle, ranging from 500 to
5,000 per landowner (al-abar).

II.
ARAB SLAVE RAIDS

al-Andalus, as the conglomerate of Arabized Iberian provinces ('ifas) came to be


named over the centuries, was densely forested:
1) in the Algarve al-arb (the West) region of Southern Portugal;
2) along the Levantine coast; and
3) in the Balearic islands;
where the timber industry soon prevailed upon these forests (these areas, in turn, saw
the rise of slave markets).

Though the wood supplied the Arab world as a whole with material for charcoal, fuel,
structures and other wares, much of the Andalusian pine remained in Iberia for the
purposes of ship-building, itself a thriving industry. A prevalent type of ship was the
ow, a large vessel with triangular sails that was dexterous at the helm and ideal for
landing on difficult shoreline. al-Idrs, an Arab cartographer of Sicily, described the
port of Tortosa in the 1150s as hurried with markets, buildings, ateliers, and an
industry for building large ships from the timber of the surrounding hillsides. This pine
is unlike any other, in terms of length and toughness. It is taken to make masts and
yards [and] had no equal in the known world for excellence of reputation, strength and
length. It is transported to all regions of the world, far and near. The coastal cities were
thusly marked by a mercantile triumvirate of timber, ships, and slaves (Olivia Remie
Constable, Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain, p. 196-237).
Though slave raids, or, in Arabic, razzias, occurred in some cases by land in France,
Germany and Slavic lands, Muslims and Sephardic Jews from Iberia also captured
white European slaves through maritime piracy on Northern European coasts as far as
Iceland, the British Isles, the Low Countries, and Mediterranean shorelines of the
Apennine Peninsula. European ships themselves were targets of these raids, subdued in
the open sea.
Within the Iberian Peninsula, most Christian European communities were spared from
the razzias. In certain undeveloped outskirts of Portugal, however, where neither the
hand of Roman or Visigothic cultivation had played much part in fortifying the
townships, raids caught the inhabitants off guard and decayed Mozarabic stability
(some minor revolts of both slaves and free Mozarabes aimed for improved treatment,
nutrition, and security). Lisbon itself was raided in 1189 by the Almoad alfa, Ab
Ysuf al-Mansur, who gathered 3,000 women and children. Later, in 1191, a governor of
Crdoba attacked Silves, on the Southern coast of Portugal, with a horde of captives
again numbering around 3,000, giving some sense of the scale and persistency of what
can be definitively deemed the Andalusian institution of slavery. Indeed, these slaves
were not soldiers or townspeople savagely captured after lost battles or rampages
though, prisoners of war, too, were often enslaved, as the Orientalist or modern
Western perception typically suggests, but were rather organized, mercantile endeavors
circumscribed by religious law and a keen governmental power-structure.

al-Andalus not only had an internal market for white slaves but also served as a transit
for sorting these captives for sale in Arab lands, India, and China. al-Maqqari, a Muslim
historian, died 1632, purports that, in the reign of the powerful alfa Abd-ar-Ramn
III, which ended in 961, a census was taken of the Saqliba, a subgroup of slaves from
Slavic territories, totaling 13,750.

III.
JEWISH TRADE ROUTES

Arab leaders and their tribesmen lead the institution of white slavery in al-Andalus
from a strategic standpoint and in terms of operational labor, while Sephardic Jews
functioned as surgeons, couriers and wholesalers in the trade of captives. Male captives
were in some cases castrated by these Sfaradies, renowned for their medical practices
throughout the medieval world.
al-Muqadass, an Arab geographer (circa 945 1,000 CE), gives the following account
told to him by an Andalusian witness of the manufacture of white eunuchs. This twostage gelding procedure was common in a region beyond Bajjna (Pechina),
considered by the French scholar of Islamic-period Iberia, variste Lvi-Provenal
(1894-1956), to be a town in the modern-day Almera province:
There was disagreement among my informants about how the castration
was done. According to some, the penis and scrotum are cut off at the
same time. Others asserted that the scrotum is cut and the testicles
removed, after which a stick is inserted under the penis which is then cut
off at the base. [] When the castration is done, a little pencil of lead is
placed in the urinary opening; this is removed during urination and
[replaced] until the wound heals, so that the hole will not close.
These surgeries were performed by some Jews, although Norman Roth (Medieval
Iberian Peninsula : Texts and Studies, Vol 10, p. 154) finds some discrepancies in
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accounts associating Jews with both the castration of captives and the slave trade in
general. ibn-awqal, an Arab chronicler, in his rat al-Ar, or The Face of the Earth
(977), expressly states:
A well-known article of export [from al-Andalus] is slaves; boys and girls
who have been taken from France and Galicia, as well as Slavic eunuchs.
All of the Slavic eunuchs found on the face of the earth come from Spain.
They suffer castration in that country; the operation is done by Jewish
merchants.
Roth purports that ibn-awqal may have deliberately misunderstood a witness
account or that the account may have been hearsay. al-Muqadasss account is the most
reliable of the two, as it is based on direct conversations. The full extent of alMuqadasss account, according to Roth, explains that the custom of castration was
borrowed from Byzantine monasteries and that the town near Bajjna (Pechina) where
Slavic captives were castrated simply was inhabited by Jews, not stating outright as to
their involvement in the procedure. al-Maqqari does mention Muslims as also partaking
in the procedure; Roths two other contemporary sources, al-imyar and al-cUr, make
no biased distinction between Jewish or Muslim involvement. All in all, one must
consider the overall likelihood that, due to their fame as physicians reaching a far as
England, learned Jews were at least consulted in the foremost surgical practices in the
academies of cosmopolitan centers like Crdoba, even if their religious law prohibited
them from indeed performing the castration procedure themselves.
While Talmudic law also prohibited Jews from participation in the slave trade, there are
significant records indicating that a wide-spread network of Iberian Jews, collectively
called al-Rdhniyya the etymology of this term is still open to speculation, but may
refer to the Land of Rdhn, a district in Mesopotamia cited in contemporary Hebrew
and Arabic texts (Moshe Gil, "The Radhanite Merchants and the Land of Radhan" from
the 1976 Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 17:3, p.299328),
were nevertheless active if not monopolists in the transport and trade of white
eunuchs abroad. The Persian geographer, ibn-urradb gives us a detailed account of
their routes in Qitb al-Masliq wal-Mamliq, or The Book of Roads and Kingdoms (circa
870):

These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Rm (Latin), the Frank, Andalus


(Spanish), and the Slavic languages. They journey from Marib (West) to
Mashriq (East), from Mashriq (East) to Marib (West), partly on land,
partly by sea. They transport from the West adam (eunuchs), jawr
(female concubines), ilmn (virgin boys), brocade, castor, beaver pelts,
marten and other furs, and swords. They take ship from Firanja (France),
on the Western Sea (Mediterranean), and make for al-Faram (Pelusium
and Egypt). There they load their goods on camel-back and go by land to
al-Qolzum (Suez), a distance of twenty-five farsas. They embark in the
East Sea and sail from al-Qolzum to al-Jar and al-Jeddah, then they go to
Sin, Hind (India), and China.
This privilege of unobstructed passage through these lands was afforded specifically to
Rdhn Jews. While Europeans were more often than not banned from entry to Arab
lands and Arabs from Christian lands, the Arabs thusly approached Jews, who
dominated the function of both azzan (wholesaler) and raqqad (long-distance trader) in
Arab society, to do their bidding in Christian Europe (Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman
and Donald N. Yates, The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales, p. 52). Roth
further supports this notion of Rdhn free agency during travel as intermediaries
between the East and the West, recounting that after the Christians, under the
leadership of the Count of Urgel, named Ermengaud, seized control of the Aragonese
city of Barbastro from the Muslims in 1064, a Muslim sent a Jew to the Count to ransom
one of his slaves usurped by the Count in battle. While the request was declined, the
account elucidates that:
1) Jews and Muslims maintained a symbiosis in their interactions with Christian
Europeans;
2) Christian nobles, too, held European slaves in spite of the aims of the Church
to prohibit them from owning and trading them; and,
3) Muslims chose Jewish negotiators over Muslims ones, as the former would
have been better received within Christian society.
The equivalent value of each slave in gold proved a considerable sum. Al-Iar, a
Persian geographer of the Bali school, writes that of the white slaves from al-Andalus
and highly valued slave girls[], an unskilled slave girls or man will fetch, according to
his or her appearance, 1,000 gold dinars or more. He attests that many sultans of the
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royal Arab tribe of Ban Abbs were born of the beautiful slave girls of Northern
Europe and further describes the male slaves of al-Rm (Europe) as young and
handsome (Adam Gaiser, Slaves and Silver Across the Straight of Gibraltar from
Spanning the Strait: Studies in Unity in the Western Mediterranean, p. 64-65).
Otherwise, the eunuchs were exchanged on the basis of barter. ibn-urradb goes on
to describe those goods for which Rdhn Jews most often exchanged their human
cargo once they reached the Far East:
On their return from China they carry back musk, aloes, camphor,
cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries to al-Qolzum and
bring them back to al-Faram (Pelusium and Egypt), where they again
embark on the Western Sea (Mediterranean). Some make sail for
Constantinople to sell their goods to the Romans; others go to the palace
of the King of the Franks to place their goods.
Alternative routes, according to ibn-urradb, allowed for the Rdhn Jews to make
stops in Mesopotamia, often frequenting the town of al-Hanaya:
Sometimes these Rdhn merchants, when embarking from the land of
the Franks, on the Western Sea (Mediterranean), make for Antioch (at the
head of the Orontes River); thence by land to al-Jabia (al-Hanaya on the
bank of the Euphrates), where they arrive after three days march. There
they embark on the Euphrates and reach Badad, whence they sail down
the Tigris, to al-Obolla. From al-Obolla they sail for Oman, Sin, Hind
(India), and China.
Though the shipbuilding industry was an important component of the trade of white
eunuchs to the East, ibn-urradb continues with accounts of transport by caravans of
dromedaries:
These different journeys can also be made by land. The merchants that
start from Spain or France go to Ss al-Aqs (the Atlantic coast of
Morocco) and then to Tangier, whence they walk to Qairouan and the
capital of Egypt. Thence they go to ar-Ramla, visit Damascus, al-Qufa,
Baghdad, and al-Basra, cross Ahvaz, Fars, Qerman, Sind, Hind (India),
and arrive in China.

The Turkic empires of Central Asia were also a common terminal for the slave trade
(ibn-urradb):
Sometimes, also, they take the route behind Rome and, passing through
the country of the Slavs, arrive at amlidj, the capital of the azars. They
embark on the Jorjan Sea (Caspian), arrive at Bal, betake themselves from
there across the Oxus, and continue their journey toward Yurt, Touzuz,
and from there to China.
As these Rdhn Jews often ended their journeys in China or India, two (2)
communities of Sephardic Jews formed in:
1) Kaifeng, China called Jiujiu Huihui; and,
2) the Kingdom of Cochin in South India, called Malabar Jews or Black Jews;
possibly as stable outposts incidentally, the later community later saw a second flux of
Sephardic Jewry, after the Alhambra Decree of 1492, called the Paradi Yehdan
(Paradesi Jews) or White Jews. In summary, the trade of white eunuchs from the
Carolingian Empire to China prompted the formation of a diaspora within a diaspora,
as Iberian Jews dispersed throughout Eastern lands in search of marketplaces.

IV.
LABOR AND AGONY

White eunuchs worked primarily as drainers in the marshes of Iberia and Mesopotamia,
the two most fertile areas within the Arab world at around the time of the Ban
Umayya, or Umayyad dynasty, which from 661 to 750 stretched approximately from
Samarqand in present-day Uzbekistan to Perpignan in Occitania (Southern France). alabar cited that 500-5000 white slaves worked as drainers in each landowners area of
marshland, including al-Baa, the Great Marsh of Mesopotamia, in addition to 15,000
in the fields of Awz. al-Isfahn reports that the Abbsid alfa al-Rashd owned 1,000

slaves and his wife, another 1,000. al-Mutawaqqil is said to have owned 4,000, and the
Cordovan alfa Abd-ar-Ramn III owned 6,000 in his arems alone.
In 14th century scholar ibn-aldn, in his Muqaddimah, or Prolegomenon (Introduction),
offers a precedent theory on importance of the division of labor in production:
The power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to
obtain (the food) he needs, and does not provide him with as much as he
requires to live. Even if we assume an absolute minimum of food...that
amount of food could be obtained only after much preparation...Thus, he
cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow
beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through
cooperation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than
their own number, can be satisfied.
Though religious law based both in the Quran (sharah) and the Talmud (halaah) both
proffered demarcations to the practice of slavery in the Arab world, the philosophical
landscape that allowed for this prurient institution cultivated significant Hellenism,
early forms of sociology (the study of which ibn-aldn is considered a father, as well
as an influence on later Keynesian economic theory), and a distinct theory of economic
hysteresis meaning, in terms of exports, fixed transport costs require an exhaustive
initial effort to commence a countrys export of goods and slaves, but as time passes,
this effort becomes easier to sustain.
Though not a wide-spread idea, the theory of evolution was also extant in Islamicperiod Iberia (ibn-aldn):
The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a
gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think
and to reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the
monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has
not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we
come to the first stage of man after (the world of monkeys).
One may presume that because of the lack of industrial development in Northern
Europe, which would not commence until the Late Medieval Period as communities
took on large building projects, and because most Northern Europeans were still
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undergoing Christianization, practicing their indigenous polytheism, e.g. Odinism, et


al., inhabiting wooden langhuizen (longhouses), Andalusians may have perceived them
to be behind their own ilk in the evolutionary process.
The preeminent Islamic Iberia scholar, Reinhart Dozy (1820-1883) in his 1861 Histoire des
Musselmans dEspagne, or A History of the Muslims in Spain describes the suppression
of Christianity among the slave population and the dismantling of a Cordovan church,
made into a mosque in the mid-8th century:
All the churches in that city had been destroyed except the cathedral,
dedicated to Saint Vincent, but the possession of this fane (church or
temple) had been guaranteed by treaty. For several years the treaty was
observed; but when the population of Crdoba was increased by the
arrival of Syrian Arabs, the mosques did not provide sufficient
accommodation for the newcomers, and the Syrians considered it would
be well for them to adopt the plan which had been carried out at
Damascus, Emesa (Homs), and other towns in their own country, of
appropriating half of the cathedral and using it as a mosque. The
Government having approved of the scheme, the Christians were
compelled to hand over half of the edifice. This was clearly an act of
spoliation, as well as an infraction of the treaty. Some years later, Abd-arRamn I requested the Christians to sell him the other half. This they
firmly refused to do, pointing out that if they did so they would not
possess a single place of worship. Abd-ar-Ramn I, however, insisted,
and a bargain was struck by which the Christians ceded their cathedral.
With no voice in government and no place of common identity or religious practice, the
Europeans of the city were so demoralized that there are no records of any rebellion
against the actions of the Muslim rulers throughout the rest of the 8 th century. Only
until around 850 did a handful of Christians under the leadership of a priest named
Eulogius rouse the inhabitants of Crdoba by encouraging Muslims to convert to
Christianity. The successive Cordovan alfa Abd-ar-Ramn II ordered the execution
of Christians throughout the city, accusing of them of conspiracy against his
government. Eulogius and approximately 50 other Christians were put to death
between 851 and 859 CE; their movement of Christian conversion gained little support

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from the European sector of the city and soon dissipated altogether (The white eunuchs
of al-Andalus would remain in bondage for another 500 years).
A later Cordovan alfa, Abd-ar-Ramn III, had been born of a European concubine
and was in all three-quarters Roman-Basque in descent. As a consequence of the
elevated status of Arabs, he was known to die his light hair and beard black to give the
appearance of a non-European (he was unable, however, to conceal the blueness of his
eyes). Andaluss often made alterations to their appearance to seem less European, the
cast of which was associated with the slave, with oppression, and with destitution: that
is, Andalus elites held certain prejudices against the physical characteristics of the white
eunuchs, uncomely as a result of small and infrequent food rations.
As he approached old age, Abd-ar-Ramn III ordered 10,000 slaves to the construction
of the palace-town of Madnat az-Zahr (in 936 or 940) on the outskirts of the city,
named for his favorite concubine. An enormous proportion of his governments surplus
was spent on the project, roughly one-third of its total revenue, marking a period of
decadence in Andalus bureaucracy (Dozy).
Upon completion of the massive complex, he fell into a state of lethargy in his lavish
arem, accommodating both male eunuchs and female concubines in separate baths
(Encyclopedia of Medieval Iberia, ed. Michael Gerli, 2003, p. 398399). He fell in love
with a 13-year-old ilmn (boy-slave) named Pelayo. The boy was from a Christian
kingdom in Northern Spain. Renowned for his beauty, he had been left to the care of
the alfa as a hostage at the age of ten by his uncle, who then maneuvered for the
release of a bishop named Hermoygius. Abd-ar-Ramn III reneged on the hostage
swap, keeping Pelayo captive for three years.
At the time of his sexual maturation, the alfa sodomized the boy. Refusing copulation,
Pelayo hit and insulted the sovereign. The enraged alfa stripped the boy naked,
tortured him, and dismembered his body over the course of six hours, before throwing
him off of a parapet (Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakl, The Age of Beloveds, 2005,
p.2).
The story of Pelayo is a composite for the suffering of white eunuchs and boy-slaves
throughout the principalities of Islamic Iberiapart cautionary Catholic polemic, part
Western corroboration of Muslim accounts. It fabulates the ignis fatuus of the eunuchs
resistance to slaverythe boyish ilmn, destined for mutilation: a symbol of male
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beauty lost and the European slaves virility vanquished. White eunuchs were the third
most traded Andalus commodity for nearly 900 years.
E.S.

WORKS CITED
Constable, Olivia Remie. Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial
Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900-1500 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life
and Thought: Fourth Series), 1996.
Dozy, Reinhart. Histoire des Musselmans dEspagne, 1861.
Lvi-Provenal, variste. Histoire de lEspagne Musulmane. 3 Volumes, 1950-1952/1967.
Roth, Norman. Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain: Cooperation and
Conflict (Medieval Iberian Peninsula : Texts and Studies, Vol 10), 1994.
PRIMARY SOURCES
al-Muqaddas, Muammad ibn Amad Shams al-Dn. Asan al-taqsim f marifat alaqlm, or The Best Divisions in the Knowledge of the Regions, p. 194 202.
ibn-awqal, Muammad Ab'l-Qsim. rat al-Ar, or The Face of the Earth, 977.
ibn-urradb, Ab'l-Qsim. Qitb al-Masliq wal-Mamliq, or The Book of Roads and
Kingdoms, 870.

(Copyright 2014)
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