Manuscript Review: The Book of Routes and Kingdoms, by Ibn Khordadbeh

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by N.A. Baloch

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[Ibn Khordadbeh] grew up to be a knowledgeable scholar, and during the reign of Caliph al-Mu`tamid (256-279 A.11/870-892) he was appointed as Director of Post and Information in the province of Jibal...

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Editor’s Note: The following is an extract from N.A Baloch’s ‘The Great Books of Islamic Civilisation’. This is a short summary of Ibn Khordadbeh​’s ‘The Book of Routes and Kingdoms.

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Not much is known about the biographical details of the author, Abu al-Qisim `Ubaydullah b. Ahmad (or Abdullah) b. Khurdadhbih. His father was governor of Tabaristan under Caliph Mamun (198-218 A.H/813-833), and Abu al-Qasim was probably born in Baghdad in 205 A.H./820 C.E. (or in 211/825) and died about 280 A.H./893 C.E. (or 300/911). He grew up in Baghdad, received good education and studied under eminent scholars, such as Ishaq al-Mawsili who was also a great musicologist.


Figure 2. Coin struck in the name of Abdallah ibn Khordadbeh, the governor of Tabaristan and father of Ibn Khordadbeh (Source)

Abu al-Qasim grew up to be a knowledgeable scholar, and during the reign of Caliph al-Mu`tamid (256-279 A.11/870-892) he was appointed as Director of Post and Information in the province of Jibal. Subsequently, he was promoted as Post Master General for all the provinces of the Caliphate, with his headquarters first in Baghdad and then in Samarra. He gained favour of al-Mu`tamid who made him his nadim, a personal confident and boon-companion. Under the impulse of a lighter side in court life, he wrote treatises on entertainment, music and revelry. But he also authored scholarly works such as “The Book of the Principal Persian Genealogies and of the Newly Settled Population”; a historical work, Kitab al- Tarikh, which according to al-Mas`udi was the best planned and most comprehensive work; and Kitab al-Anwa’ on traditional wisdom regarding seasons and atmospherics.

Ibn Khurdadhbih’s most outstanding contribution, based on his specialised knowledge and professional work as Post Master General, was his Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik, an official compendium on caravan and trade routes, the journey halts, stages in the different regions and the provinces of the Caliphate. Ibn Khurdadhbih probably did not travel himself; he relied mainly on official records and reports received from time to time. He published this work in two editions, the first one in the early thirties of the third century (c.232 A.H./846) and the second enlarged one four decades later (c.272 A.H./885). This is a pioneer work associated with postal services, and is also an important early source on the historical-cum-cultural geography of the Caliphate. The book opened up a new field of study and investigation, and works with comparable titles appeared soon thereafter.


Figure 3. Kitab al-Masalik wa’l-Mamalik of al-Istakhri (Source)

In the introductory part, he indicates the location of the different countries/regions/cities direction-wise with reference to the Ka`ba, its four walls representing the four main directions. In the next four sections, he describes the countries lying to the East, West, North and the South (of Baghdad) respectively along with the cities, caravan routes, and the journeying stages thereof.

This is followed by a short but important section on postal service: “There are” he says “nine hundred and thirty postal stations (Sikak al-Barid) in the State”. Indeed, safety of travel and facilities for halting stations on the highways had enabled not only the Muslims, but also non-Muslims to carry on international trade uninterrupted. Ibn Khurdadhbih specifically mentions the Jewish and the Russian traders who were then travelling and trading from East to West and West to East. In the last section, he has recorded the peculiarities and `wonders’ of the different regions.

As already observed, Ibn Khurdadhbih had prepared his book by bringing together information from official records and reports. He did not travel himself or follow the trade routes. This was done later by the great investigator al-Mas`udi who authored a book by the same name Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamlik which though now lost must have been an authentic work of great merit; Al-Bayruni has cited it (in his Kitab al-Jamahir) as an authority and also Ibn Abi `Usaybi`ah has mentioned it among al-Mas`udi’s works.