Rasulid polo players

By Daniel Martin Varisco

[In 2003 I attended a conference in Rome and gave a paper which was eventually published in Convegno Storia e Cultura dello Yemen in età Islamica, con particolare riferimento al periodo Rasûlide (Roma 30-31 ottobre 2003 (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, 27, pp. 161-174, 2006). As this publication is virtually inaccessible, I am reprinting the paper here (with page numbers to the original indicted in brackets).]


[p. 161] About seven and a half centuries ago the second Rasulid sultan, al-Malik al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf ibn ‘Alī, was thrust into power in his youth after his father’s murder, just about the time the Genoan Marco Polo was born. The overlap between the Italian merchant mercenary and mercenary descendant sultan is fraught with irony. Al-Muẓaffar, the untested state builder came to power just a decade before the overthrow of the Abbasid caliphate, which had blessed Rasulid rule as a buffer against the Zaydī imams of Yemen’s northern highlands, while the future Italian diplomat set out on his trek only a decade or so after the Mongols had destroyed Baghdad. Polo was destined to serve an aging Kublai Khan, returning to Italy in 1295, the very year that the seventy-year-old-plus Rasulid ruler died. When Polo referred to the immense wealth of the sultan of Aden, “arising from the imposts he lays” in the Indian Ocean trade, he meant al-Muẓaffar. Marco Polo and al-Malik al-Muẓaffar never met, except in print, but the world that they both embraced was centered on an important trade network linking the Mediterranean and Africa with Persia, India and ultimately the lands of the great Khan.

Fortunately for the Rasulids, the merciless Mongol warriors never reached Yemen, apart from a few individuals who later assisted a Yemeni sultan in compiling a “King’s Dictionary” also known as the “Rasulid Hexaglot.” (1) [p. 162] Yemen also escaped the incursions of crusading medieval knights, although the legacy of Saladin played a major role in defining its political fortunes until the arrival of the Ottoman garrisons and Portuguese galleons in the sixteenth century. My focus is on the zenith of the Rasulid era near the end of the long reign of al-Muẓaffar, the preeminent state-builder of the dynasty. By 1252 he consolidated his hold over the coastal zone (Tihāma), southern highlands and Aden, as well as achieving periodic control over Ṣan‘ā’, thus driving the Zaydī imams back to their firm base in Ṣa‘da. The sultan’s forces in the late 1270s took control, by land and by sea, of the important southern harbors at al-Shiḥr and Dhofar, two important sailing venues along the trade route to the Persian Gulf and India. In 682/1283, despite the Zaydī loyalties of many of the tribes, al-Muẓaffar was able to briefly take hold of Ṣa‘da, even striking coins there. Military success led to increased diplomatic recognition for the Rasulids; later delegations are described in the chronicles as arriving from Persia, Oman, India and China. Fortunately, al-Muẓaffar was an avid patron of architecture and learning, so that the material and written records of Rasulid activities are quite extensive. (2)

My paper is on the state of Yemeni agriculture near the end of al-Muẓaffar’s reign, when his son al-Malik al-Ashraf Yūsuf wrote a major agricultural treatise entitled Milḥ al-malāḥa and included a detailed agricultural almanac in his astronomical compendium, al-Tabṣira fī ‘ilm al-nujūm. (3) Perhaps the most valuable resource for the history of Yemen’s internal production and external trade at the close of the 7th/13th century is a compilation made for the court archives of al-Muẓaffar. This is probably best styled, in English, a register, a daftar which documents customs, taxes, duties, state finances and production data for the areas under Rasulid control, most notably the commerce through the port of Aden. In this sense, it is a Rasulid “Doomsday Book,” a record of mundane matters that provides a far better insight on the economics and administration of Yemen at the time than any of the surviving historical chronicles. Internal dates indicate most of the information is based on field reports from 1292-96. Yemeni historian Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Raḥīm Jāzm has recently edited and annotated this [p. 163] important text for the Centre français d’Archéologie et de Sciences Sociales de Sanaa.(4)

(1) This is a unique Rasulid hexaglot, compiled in the 1370s and published in P. GOLDEN 2000. The Mongol dialect entries are mostly from the Il-khânid era.
(2) A fuller account of the achievements of al-Muẓaffar is provided in VARISCO 1993a, pp. 14-23.
(3) For a detailed analysis of al-Ashraf’s agricultural almanac, see VARISCO 1994. See also VARISCO 2002, pp. 323-351.
(4) JĀZM 2003.

to be continued …

The references for the whole paper are indicated below:


Al-Akwa‘ Muḥammad
1971 al-Yaman al-khaḍrā’ mahd al-ḥaḍāra. Cairo: Ma†ba‘at al-Sa‘āda.

Gingrich, Andre and J. Heiss. 1986. Beiträge zur Ethnographie der Provinz Sa‘dah. (Nordjemen). Sitz. Öst. Akad. d. Wiss. Phil-hist. Kl, vol. 462, Vienna.

Golden, Peter
2000 The King’s Dictionary: The Rasûlid Hexaglot: Fourteenth Century Vocabularies in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongol. Leiden: Brill.

Ibn Baṭṭūṭa
1980. Riḥlat Ibn Baṭṭū†a. Beirut: Dār Bayrūt li-al-Ṭibā‘a wa-al-Nashr.

Ibn al-Mujāwir, Jamāl al-Dīn Abū al-Fatāḥ Yūsuf (died 690/1291)
1954 Ṣifat bilād al-Yaman wa-Makka wa-ba‘ḍ al-Ḥijāz al-musammāt ta’rīkh al-mustabṣir. 2 vols. Edited by Oscar Löfgren. Leiden: Brill.

Ibn Sīda, Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī
1965 al-Mukhaṣṣaṣ. 17 volumes. Beirut: al-Maktab al-Tijārī li-al-Ṭibā‘a wa-al-Tawāzi‘ wa-al-Nashr.

Ibn Waḥshīya
1993-95 Kitāb al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭīya. Edited by T. Fahd. Damascus: Institut Français de Damas.

al-Khazrajī, ‘Alī ibn al-Ḥasan (died 812/1410)
1906-18 The Pearl Strings: A History of the Resuliyy Dynasty of Yemen. Edited by J. Redhouse. 5 volumes. London: Luzac and Company.

Varisco, Daniel Martin
1993a The Agricultural Marker Stars in Yemeni Folklore. Asian Folklore Studies 52:120-142.
1993b Texts and Pretexts: The Unity of the Rasulid State under al-Malik al-Muẓaffar. Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée 67 (1993):14-23.
1994 Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science: The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
2002 Agriculture in Rasulid Zabīd. In J. F. Healey and V. Porter, editors, Studies on Arabia in Honour of Professor G. Rex Smith, 323-351. Oxford: Oxford University Press.