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(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: A major compiler of geographical, historical, and ethnographic information, Yaqut was the first Muslim scholar to use an encyclopedic organization for his material. His work gives modern scholars the most comprehensive insight on the state of knowledge in the thirteenth century Islamic world.

Early Life

Yaqut ibn ʿAbdallah was born of Greek parents. He is known by two different sobriquets indicative of uncertainty about his origins: al-Rumi (“the Roman” or “the Byzantine”) and al-Hamawi, in reference to his claimed place of birth in Hama, Syria. Yaqut’s early life was one of slavery in the service of a prominent merchant in Hama. (The name Yaqut means “ruby”; slaves often received names of gems or other precious objects.) Slavery in medieval Islam, however, did not necessarily imply the dire fate usually assumed by Western students. Yaqut’s master quickly recognized his servant’s scholarly inclinations and gave him a solid, practical education, whereupon he became the merchant’s personal secretary for several years.

Yaqut and his merchant master moved to Baghdad around 1199. According to some sources, Yaqut married in Baghdad and fathered several children. When Yaqut reached his majority, however, his master, rather than endowing him with property and a place in the family inheritance order—gestures expected in the middle-class culture of the time—released Yaqut from his service. Forced to make his own way in the world, Yaqut took to wandering, copying and selling manuscripts for a living.

Yaqut’s travels took him first to Oman and the island of Qeshm at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, where he appears to have attempted some merchant ventures. He was seen in Tabrīz, in northwestern Iran, in 1213. During the next two years, he traveled through Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. In 1215, in Damascus, Yaqut ran afoul of politics. At this time, he was a follower of the Kharijites, a fervently democratic, almost anarchist movement which violently rejected the idea of a caliphate based on descent from Muhammad. The Kharijites argued that the caliph could be anyone, even a non-Arab (which is to say, from among the great majority of Muslims), and that selection should be based strictly on merit.

Yaqut’s Kharijite views did not sit well in Damascus, and he became embroiled in a fierce public quarrel that forced him to flee the city with the police on his heels. He withdrew all the way to the important library center of Marw in northeastern Iran, where he spent the next two years combing libraries. By 1218, Yaqut had reached the city of Khiva in Khwarizm, south of the Aral Sea. There, hearing of the impending advance of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, he decided to beat a hasty retreat back to Iraq.

Life’s Work

The scholarly fame of Yaqut rests principally on two works, the better known of which is his geographical dictionary Kitab muʿjam al-buldan (1224, 1228; partial translation as The Introductory Chapters of Yaqut’s “Muʿjam al-buldan,” 1959). The manuscript comprises some four thousand pages, with an introductory section discussing various theories of the nature of the world, followed by more than fourteen thousand entries. The second work is a dictionary of learned scholars, Muʿjam al-udaba (Yaqut’s Dictionary of Learned Men, 1907-1913), which covers about twenty-seven hundred manuscript pages and includes about one thousand important biographical sketches.

Yaqut completed the first draft of Kitab muʿjam al-buldan in Mosul in 1224 and the final version in Aleppo in 1228. The work is of particular significance because Yaqut was one of the last scholars in medieval Islam to have access to libraries east of the Caspian Sea—many of which were in long-established intellectual centers—before the Mongol invasions of that region which resulted in the loss of large amounts of material. Yaqut acknowledges in his introductory remarks that it was the intellectual environment of Marw which inspired him to...

(The entire section is 1,373 words.)