EBN ḴORDĀḎBEH, ABU’L-QĀSEM ʿOBAYD-ALLĀH

b. ʿAbd-Allāh (fl. 9th century), author of the earliest surviving Arabic book of administrative geography.

 

EBN ḴORDĀḎBEH (or Ḵorradāḏbeh), ABU’L-QĀSEM ʿOBAYD-ALLĀH b. ʿAbd-Allāh (fl. 3rd/9th century), author of the earliest surviving Arabic book of administrative geography. He was not, apparently, the first geographer to write in Arabic, but he is the first whose book has survived in anything like its original form. His grandfather Ḵorradāḏbeh was a Zoroastrian who converted to Islam at the urging of the Barmakids. His father ʿAbd-Allāh was by 201/816-17 al-Maʾmūn’s governor in Ṭabarestān, where he campaigned in the mountains and dislodged the local ruler Šahrīār b. Šarvīn (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1014-15; tr. XXXII, p. 64; cf. Rabino, p. 262). His son seems to have been born in Khorasan but grew up in Baghdad, receiving there the cultured education of an adīb and studying music with his father’s friend, the celebrated singer Esḥāq Mawṣelī, who kindled in him a lifelong interest in music. On reaching maturity, he became director of the caliphal barīd or postal and intelligence service in Jebāl, and then in Sāmarrāʾ and Baghdad. It was obviously the experience gained here which he utilized for his road-book, the Ketāb al-masālek wa’l-mamālek, put together in its first version when he was at Sāmarrāʾ in ca. 232/846. Much of his later life was spent as the boon-companion (nadīm) of the caliphs, and Masʿūdī (Morūj VIII, pp. 88-100; ed. Pellat, V, pp. 125-31) describes how he gave the caliph al-Moʿtamed a lengthy exposition of the lute (ʿūd) and its development, for which he received a robe of honor.

The Fehrest (ed. Tajaddod, p. 165, tr. Dodge, p. 326) lists eight works of his: geography (Ketāb al -masālek) and books on the etiquette of listening to music (Adab al-samāʿ), on the genealogy of the Persians and of “deported and transplanted peoples” (Ketāb jamharat ansāb al-fors wa’l-nawāqel), on cooking (Ketāb al-ṭabīkò), on drinks (Ketāb al-šarāb), on music and musical instruments (Ketāb al-lahw wa’l-malāhī, ed. I. A. Khalifa, Beirut, 1964), on the risings and settings of the stars (Ketāb al-anwāʾ), and on boon companions (Ketāb al nodamāʾ wa’l jolasāʾ). Masʿūdī (Morūj; ed. Pellat, I, p. 14) and Ṯaʿālebī (Ḡorar, p. 130) also mention his Ketāb al-kabīr fi’l-taʾrīḵ, which Masʿūdī praises for its careful composition and detailed information on the kings of Persia and other nations; unfortunately, all we know of this history comes from brief citations by later historians. Masʿūdī had a lower opinion of his geography; it was good on roads and distances but without information on rulers and their territories and, accordingly, only useful for couriers (Morūj II, pp. 70-71; ed., Pellat, I, p. 241).

Despite these strictures, the Ketāb al-masālek wa’l-mamālek has its importance in the development of the science of geography in the Islamic world. Ebn Ḵordāḏbeh provides very detailed information on the postal routes across the caliphate, the staging posts, and the distances between them, expressed in farsaḵs. He begins with the Sawād of Iraq and extends north and east through Persia to the land of the Turks, Farḡāna, and Sind, and then south and west to the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Armenia, the Byzantine marches, Egypt, and the Maghrib. He includes details of the tax yields of several of the provinces of the Islamic world, and he seems to have had a special concern with the titulature of various local rulers, their officials, and their commanders, including the Byzantines.

Masʿūdī, writing some two or three generations later, had to concede that it was, in his time, still the best work of its kind. It was extensively utilized by Ebn al-Faqīh and by the Samanid vizier Jayhānī for his lost roadbook. Ebn Ḥawqal always took a copy with him on his travels (p. 329, tr. Kramers, p. 322). Moqaddasī (p. 5), who asserted that Ebn Ḵordāḏbeh’s work was too compressed to be of value, shamelessly used its itineraries for his own book. In fact, Ebn Ḵordāḏbeh’s work is more than a catalogue of routes and stages, and includes much parahistorical material of an adab type—e.g., he is the first to give the narration of al-Wāṯeq’s envoy Sallām the Interpreter’s journey through Central Asia to the Wall of Gog and Magog (pp. 162-170), much repeated by later geographers from Ebn Rosta onwards, and also that of this same caliph’s despatch of the astronomer Moḥammad b. Mūsā Ḵᵛārazmī to investigate the cave of the Koranic Aṣḥāb-al-Kahf “Men of the cave” (pp. 106-07).

Ebn Ḵordāḏbeh’s value to the historian of Persia stems not only from his material on the historical geography of Persia and Transoxania in his own time, but also from material pertaining to earlier periods. Thus he gives figures for the tax yield of the Sawād going back to the Sasanian Qobād (Kavād I) (p. 14). He gives the titles of various vassal rulers, neighboring princes, and Iranian and Turkish potentates on the far eastern fringes of Persia in the time of Ardašīr Bābakān (pp. 17-18, 39-41). He lists administrative divisions of the Sasanian empire and its marzbāns (frontier provincial governors; p. 18). Of particular importance for ʿAbbasid financial history is the detailed breakdown, by town or district, of the tribute paid to the caliphs by the governor of the East, ʿAbd-Allāh b. Ṭāher (pp. 34-39).

As noted above, the first version of his geography was written in al-Wāṯeq’s reign (227-32/842-47), but Ebn Ḵordāḏbeh apparently made successive additions to it, until a second recension emerged in 272/885 or thereafter; the editor of the printed text, de Goeje (with Fr. tr., Leiden, 1889, 2nd ed., 1967), used an abridged version of the whole which seems to contain material from both (see his introduction).

 

Bibliography: (For cited works not given in detail, see “Short References.”)

His biography can only be pieced together from passing references in Masʿūdī’s Morūj al-ḏahab, Abu’l-Faraj Eṣfahānī’s Ketāb al-aḡānī, and Ebn al-Nadīm’s Fehrest. Barthold, Turkestan², p. 7.

C. E. Bosworth, The Reunification of the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate, Albany, 1987.

Brockel-mann, GAL I, pp. 257-58; S I, p. 404.

M. Hadj-Sadok, “Ibn Khurradādhbih” in EI ² III, pp. 839-40.

Justi, Namenbuch, p. 179.

I. Yu. Krachkovskiĭ, Arabskaya geograficheskaya literatura (Arabic geographical literature), Moscow and Leningrad, 1957, pp. 147-50.

S. Maqbul-Ahmad, “Djughrafiyā” in EI ² III, pp. 575-87.

A. Miquel, La géographie humaine du monde musulman jusqu’au milieu du 11ᵉ siècle I², Paris and The Hague, 1973, pp. xxi, 87-92.

H. L. Rabino, “Les préfets du Califat au Ṭabaristān ... d’après les chroniques locales,” JA 231, 1939.

ʿE. Reżā, “Ebn-e Ḵordādbeh” in DMBE III, pp. 409-14.

(C. Edmund Bosworth)

Originally Published: December 15, 1997

Last Updated: December 6, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 1, pp. 37-38