This is an Arabic-language deed of sale of an enslaved female named Yumn. It is one of many thousands of documents, relating to all manner of social, religious and economic life, that have survived from early Islamic Egypt (7-10th century). Documents were produced typically on papyrus up until the early tenth century when it was replaced, as the main writing support, by paper, which had been introduced into the Middle East in the ninth century. Modern scholars have read, edited and translated many such documents, although the great majority remain still to be studied. The value of the documents is two-fold. First, they provide a window on the ordinary, daily affairs of one medieval Mediterranean society; and second, they act as a source of relatively unfiltered information very different than that contained in written sources (such as poetry, chronicles, works of geography, and legal texts). The written works were produced by and for elite social and intellectual Egyptian circles: they typically reflect the concerns and activities of the wealthy and powerful, and seldom concern themselves with society at large.

The deed of sale provided here dates to Jumādā II of the year 257 of the Islamic (Hijrī)calendar), that is, April-May 871 of the Common Era. In addition to Yumn – and it was typical for enslaved persons to be assigned a single name by their owners, a sign of their social deracination – the document also names the seller, a certain Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad, and the purchaser, `Abdallāh ibn Razīn, as well as three legal witnesses. Yumn’s price is stated as well: twelve and a half dinars (and change). The transaction may have taken place, although it is not stated, in the main slave market of al-Fusṭāṭ, the administrative center of Islamic Egypt, then governed by Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, the founder of the Tulunid dynasty, an autonomous regime of the third/ninth-century Abbasid Empire. Tulunid society, like Middle Eastern society in general over millennia, relied heavily on the labor and service of enslaved and freed persons.

The document speaks to a busy traffic in enslaved persons, of whom, in all likelihood, a majority were young women. An extensive, transregional slave trade connected the Middle East, from the ancient, pre-Islamic era through at least the pre-modern period, with most neighboring regions and polities. For the early and medieval Islamic period, sadly, a dearth of statistical and demographic information prevents us from measuring in full the scale of the trade in enslaved persons on which Middle Eastern society relied. But indications, in documentary and literary sources together, suggest that the labor and bodies of young women were very much in demand in at least three significant – and, importantly, overlapping – sectors of Middle Eastern economic and social life: household labor, sex work, and entertainment.

The numbering of the text refers to the lines of the original document. Missing language, indicated by the ellipses, reflects the damaged condition of most papyri documents. Sadly, in this document, a hole appears where, probably, Yumn’s ethnic or geographic origin would be stated (just after the Arabic term jāriya or “young slave woman”). In many such documents, including others edited by Yūsuf Rāġib in the same volume, such referents, either to skin color or geographic origin, typically followed the name of the enslaved person.

Translation from the French by Matthew Gordon. The original document was edited and translated from Arabic into French by Yūsuf Rāġib, Actes de vente d’esclaves et d’animaux d’Égypte médiévale, vol. I (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 2002), 3-5. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

(1) In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. (2) This is what ʿAbdallāh ibn Razīn al- […] has purchased [… from] Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-[…], (3) a slave woman (jāriya) […] named Yumn for twelve and half dinars, and two qīrāṭs.[1] (4) Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad has received the payment in toto, and ʿAbdallāh ibn Razīn (5) [received] the slave woman, who has been made over to him as his property. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad has guaranteed to [Ibn Razīn] that she is sane, (6) free of night-blindness;[2] that she is not given to escaping;[3] has no defects in her sexual organs or any mark thereupon that might require explanation; that she was not free nor stolen; (7) and that she does not have foul breath[4] nor is she pregnant. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad has declared himself exempt of responsibility for any weakened or trembling limbs or misshapen joints (on the slave’s part), burn marks,[5] (8) scars, and any other markings, save those mentioned explicitly in this (9) document. This was executed in Jumādā II in the year 257 [April-May 871]. (10) The totality of the content of this document was witnessed to by ʿAbdallāh ibn Rakhsh, (11) as indicated by his signature hereupon in Jumādā II in the year (12) 257; as it was by al-Ḥusayn ibn Aḥmad, who bears witness to the totality (13) of the content of this document. There is no god but God. (14) Jaʿfar ibn Aḥmad has also borne witness to the full content of this document, and his signature was provided (15) on his direction by al-Ḥusayn ibn Aḥmad.

[1] The fragment or part of a dinar or other object.

[2] Or simply “poor vision”?

[3] Or “has never attempted to escape”?

[4] Again, I follow Rāġib here, but an alternative reading would seem to be “abstain from eating.”

[5] That is, presumably, signs of cauterization.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what sense is the document a bill of sale (the record of a transaction)? In what sense is it a legal document (hence, for example, the use of three eyewitnesses)?
  2. What does the document suggest of the event of the sale transaction itself? Is it clear that Yumn, as the “commodity,” was subject to physical examination?
  3. What clues does the document offer as to the wider, life-long experience of enslavement for, in this case, a single young woman, in both the physical and emotional sense? Both questions (2 and 3) go to the terrible reality, lived by the enslaved person, of being simultaneously property and person.
  4. How might the document be used in discussing wider questions of gender, domestic organization, slavery as a commercial activity, and family law in medieval Middle Eastern society?

Related Primary Sources


Flight, Law, Medicine, Property, Trade, Women