The author of the Kitāb al-Masālik wa-l-mamālik (or Book of Highways and Kingdoms), Abu ‘Ubayd ‘Abd Allāh al-Bakrī (d. 487/1094), was born in the early eleventh century (or fifth century according to the Hijri, or Islamic Calendar) in southern Iberia, possibly in the town of Saltés, where his father ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ‘Izz al-Dawla was ruler of the independent Muslim principality (or Taifa) of Huelva and Saltés between 403/1012 and 443/1051. Later in life, al-Bakrī lived in Seville, Almería and Córdoba (where he died), studying with various renowned Muslim scholars, including the historian Ibn Hayyān and geographer al-‘Udhrī. Best known as a geographer, he also wrote on theology, botany and philology. Like many other Arab geographers, he compiled his texts from other sources rather than first hand observations, and he never travelled outside of Iberia, to Africa, for instance. Recent scholarship has also shown that he borrowed sections of text from earlier authors, sometimes almost verbatim, including sections of the seven-book, fifth century Historiae adversus paganos (History against the Pagans) by the Christian author Paulus Orosius extracted from a later Arabic translation. However, although none of the information al-Bakrī provides in the Kitīb al-Masālik wa-l-mamālik is from first-hand observations, the section describing northern Africa is still a valuable historical resource that provides important information concerning the organisation of the Trans-Saharan trade in the Medieval period, with descriptions of several of the main trading hubs including Tangier, Fez, Kairouan, and Sidjilmessa that often contain references to enslaved individuals, where they were traded, and how they were valued. Al-Bakrī’s Kitāb also includes a useful early account of the Empire of Ghana and some of the towns, including Gao, to the south of the Sahara, and their inhabitants.

Of the various trading hubs forming part of the Trans-Saharan trade network during the Medieval era mentioned by al-Bakrī, one of these is the town of Zuwīla, in the Fazzan oasis in what is today southwestern Libya. In an earlier source, written around 889–90, al-Yaʿqūbī mentions the town was an important staging post for Muslim pilgrims drawn from across the Sahara and western Sūdān, and had a flourishing agricultural economy based on irrigation allowing the cultivation of dates, sorghum and other grain crops. He also records that enslaved Africans were traded here, supplied by some of the kingdoms further south. Another important trade commodity at the time were animal skins that became known as al-zawīliyya.

In his 1068 account, al-Bakrī mentions the presence of markets, a bathhouse and a congregational mosque, and intriguingly, in view of the archaeological evidence to the contrary, describes Zuwīla as ‘a town without walls’. At the time al-Bakrī was writing, the town had been a prominent trading centre for Ibadi Muslim merchants, who controlled the slave trade with Ifrīqiya to the north. From the tenth to twelfth century it served as the capital of the Central Saharan kingdom of the Banu Khaṭṭāb Ibadite dynasty, and the construction of town fortifications and elaborate tombs may have been intended as material expressions of their new power and authority in this part of the Fazzān.

Introduction contributed by Paul J. Lane. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Text translated from the Arabic and published in Nehemia Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 63-64. Copyright © University of Ghana, International Academic Union, Cambridge University Press 1981. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

Al-Bakrī, The Book of Highways and Kingdoms

Zawīla is like the town of Ajdābiya. It is a town without walls and situated in the midst of the desert. It is the first point of the land of the Sūdān. It has a cathedral mosque, a bath, and markets. Caravans meet there from all directions and from there the ways of those setting out radiate. There are palm groves and cultivated areas which are irrigated by means of camels.

When ʿAmr conquered Barqa he sent ʿUqba b. Nāfiʿ who marched until he arrived at Zawīla, and thus all the country between Barqa and Zawīla came under the sway of the Muslims.[1] In Zawīla is the tomb of Diʿbil b. ʿAlī al-Khuzāʿi, the poet. Bakr b. Ḥammād says about him:

Death betrayed Diʿbil in Zawīla
And Aḥmad b. Khaṣīb in the land of Barqa.

Between Zawīla and the town of Ajdābiya there are fourteen stages. The inhabitants of Zawīla use a very ingenious method of guarding their town. He whose turn it is to stand watch takes a beast of burden (dābba) and ties to it a large faggot of palm-fronds so that their ends trail on the ground, and then goes round the town. The next morning the watchman, accompanied by his subordinates, goes on a saddle-camel around the town. If they see footprints coming out of the town they follow them until they overtake whomever has made them, in whatever direction he has gone, whether thief, runaway slave or slave-woman, or camel.

Zawīla lies between the maghrib and the qibla from Aṭrābulus.[2] From there slaves are exported to Ifrīqiya and other neighbouring regions. They are bought for short pieces of red cloth (thiyāb qiṣār ḥumr). Between Zawīla and the region of the Kānim[3] is 40 stages. The Kānimīs live beyond the desert of Zawīla and scarcely anyone reaches them. They are pagan Sūdān.[4] Some assert that there is a people there descended from the Banū Umayya[5], who found their way there during their persecution by the Abbasids. They still preserve the dress and customs of the Arabs.

[1] This detail is borrowed from an account of the Islamic conquests written by the Egyptian scholar Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam in the ninth century. According to Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam, the town of Zawīla did not exist at time of the conquest by ʿUqba ibn Nāfiʿ in the seventh century but did exist in Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam’s own time in the ninth century.

[2] The qibla is southeast from Tripoli and the maghrib is west. Zawīla is actually south-southeast of Tripoli.

[3] Kānim or Kanem was located in central Africa in the region of Lake Chad.

[4] Literally translated, Sūdān means Blacks. It was used in medieval Arabic as a generic term for dark-skinned Africans.

[5] A reference to the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs that governed the Islamic world 660-750 C.E.

Related Primary Sources