Source: Eunuchs in Ethiopia: Hadiya in al-ʿUmarī’s Geography
The author of this text, Aḥmad ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī (700/1301-749/1349), was a Mamluk administrative official. He was born in Damascus, the second most important Mamluk city. When his father was promoted from head of the chancery in Damascus to head of the chancery in Cairo, the Mamluk capital, in 1332-1333, al-ʿUmarī accompanied him as an assistant. But he quarreled with the Mamluk sultan, lost his chancery position to his brother ʿAlī, and was sent to prison in 1339. After his release, he was appointed head of the Damascus chancery, but lost his position again to another one of his brothers, Muḥammad. During his time in Cairo, al-ʿUmarī wrote a twenty-seven volume encyclopedia called Masālik al-abṣar fī mamālik al-amṣar (“The Routes towards Insight Concerning the Capital Kingdoms”). The translation below comes from a section listing and describing the kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa, their locations, and the customs of the people who lived there.
Eunuchs were elite slaves. They served in the households of the powerful, especially the courts of rulers, and their roles often involved mediation between public and private, male and female, or sacred and secular spheres. Though eunuchs were often well-educated and had access to wealth and political influence via their administrative positions, legally they remained slaves, and culturally they were often regarded with contempt as well as respect. At the court of the Mamluk sultan in Cairo, eunuchs served in positions such as head of the treasury, of the women’s household, of slaves in military training, and of enslaved wardrobe pages. Eunuchs also acted as guardians of the tombs of venerated figures, including the tombs of noble women in Cairo and the tomb of the Prophet Muḥammad in Medina. The presence of eunuchs was not limited to the Mamluk court or to the Islamic world; Byzantine and Chinese imperial courts, among others, made use of eunuchs too. Nevertheless, despite their willingness to purchase and use eunuchs, both medieval Muslims and Christians banned the castration of enslaved boys.
Translated from the French by Kimberly Peloquin and checked against the Arabic by Hannah Barker. In French: Ibn Faḍl Allah al-ʿUmarī, Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, vol. 1, L’Afrique, mois l’Eypte, edited by Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes (Paris: Libraire Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1927), 15-17. In Arabic: Ibn Faḍl Allah al-ʿUmarī, Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, ed. Fuat Sezgin (Frankfurt: Institut für Geschichte des Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften, 1988), 4:22-23.This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
The same sages told me that the ruler of Hadiya is more powerful than his brothers, the other kings of the seven kingdoms. He has the most cavaliers and foot soldiers; he is the strongest, even though his land is less vast than ʿAwfāt. His land is approximately eight days long and nine days wide. The king has an army of around forty thousand cavaliers, without counting his foot soldiers, who are an immense force, at least double the number of cavaliers. As for their customs, money, and products (such as grains, fruits, and vegetables), they are the same as those in ʿArabābni and Dawārō. Hadiya neighbors ʿArabābni.
It is to Hadiya that they import eunuchs [khuddām] from the countries of infidels. The merchant al-Ḥājj Faraj al-Fūnī told me the ruler of Amḥara outlawed the castration of slaves [ʿabīd]. As he disapproves of the act, he obstructs it. Instead, the brigands go to a town called Washlū. Its people are a rabble without religion, so they castrate the slaves there. Of all the inhabitants of the countries of Ethiopia [Ḥabasha], only the people there dare to perform the act. When merchants buy slaves, they leave with them and bring them to Washlū to be castrated there, as castration raises their price substantially. All the eunuchs are then brought to the city of Hadiya, where they undergo a second surgery to remove the pus to unblock their urinary canal. They are taken care of in Hadiya until they recover, as the people in Washlū do not know how to care for them. I asked al-Fūnī why Hadiya particularly was known for this, rather than one of the other kingdoms. He responded that Hadiya is closer to Washlū than the others, and its inhabitants developed a particular skill in caring for the eunuchs. Nevertheless, more of them died than survived, because it is dangerous to transport them from one place to another without any medical care. If they were cared for in the same place they were castrated, it would be healthier for them; yet, if they weren’t transported to a place where they could be cared for, God knows, none of them would survive. The population of Hadiya follows the Hanafi tradition.
 The jurist ʿAbd Allah al-Zeilāʿi and his companions, named in the section about ʿAwfāt.
 A Muslim region whose sultans were vassals of the Christian rulers of Ethiopia during the fourteenth century.
 The section on Dawārō describes a type of iron money called ḥakuna.
 That is, non-Muslims.
 His name might be al-Fuwwī, from the city of Fuwwah in the Nile delta. Different manuscripts have different spellings.
 A Christian region, the core territory of the Solomonic kingdom of Ethiopia in the fourteenth century.
 The Hanafi school, one of the four Sunni schools of religious law.
- According to al-ʿUmarī, how did slave traders in East Africa get around the ban on castration established by the ruler of Ethiopia? Why did slave traders decide that it was worthwhile to evade this law?
- How did al-ʿUmarī learn about the trade in eunuchs in Hadiya? What were the sources of his information?
- Why do you think that al-ʿUmarī did not interview African eunuchs at the Mamluk court about their origins?
Related Primary Sources
- The Guide Book for Obtaining Divine Favors and Avoiding Divine Punishment
- The Sabil-Kuttab of Yusuf Agha Dar al-Saʿadat in Cairo
- Al-ʿUmari on Enslavement in the Golden Horde
- Prokopios. Procopius: History of the Wars, Books VII and VIII, trans. H.B. Dewing. London: William Heinemann, 1928. [See especially p. 79-81 on the trade in eunuchs in 6th-century Abkhazia.]
Related Secondary Sources
- Hogendorn, Jan. “The Location of the ‘Manufacture’ of Eunuchs.” In Slave Elites in the Middle East and Africa: A Comparative Study, ed. Toru Miura and John Edward Philips, 41-70. London: Kegan Paul International, 2000.
- Kelly, Samantha, ed. A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea. Leiden: Brill, 2020.
- Marmon, Shaun. Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Tegegne, Habtamu. “The Edict of King Gälawdéwos Against the Illegal Slave Trade in Christians: Ethiopia, 1548.” The Medieval Globe 2, no. 2 (2016): 73-114.