IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI
‘Abdallah ibn Ahmad ibn Salim, familiarly known to historians as Ibn Salim al-Aswani, lived in the latter half of the tenth century. Almost nothing is known of his life or his career, except that at some time between 969 and 973 he undertook a diplomatic mission to the Nubian kingdom of MAKOURIA. The account of his travels, preserved in extracts by al-MAQRIZI and al-Minufi, is the only surviving eyewitness description of medieval Nubia, other than the very brief account of IBN HAWQAL.
When the Fatimids took possession of Egypt in 969, one of their first concerns was to secure their southern frontier by normalizing relations with the kingdom of Makouria, which controlled the territory to the south of Aswan. Jawhar, the Fatimid governor, was well aware that the Nubians had previously resisted the advance of Islam, but he was apparently led to believe that they might accept the Shi‘ah version and join him in a campaign against the Abbasid dominions in the Levant. This was the background of Ibn Salim’s diplomatic mission. Presumably he was selected because, as a resident of Aswan, he had some previous familiarity with Nubia or at least with its people.
Ibn Salim evidently traveled with a considerable retinue. At one point he speaks of performing the ‘Id al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) with about sixty other Muslims, who must have been his own followers. When he arrived at the Nubian capital of DONGOLA, he was courteously received by the reigning King George of Makouria. Ibn Salim read to the king a letter from Jawhar, which invited him to embrace Islam and to forward the payment of slaves that was due under the BAQT. King George then summoned his principal ministers and, after consultation with them, drafted a reply to Jawhar.
Far from embracing Islam, he invited the Fatimid general to embrace Christianity. He asserted his complete willingness to continue the Baqt payment, as his father and grandfather had done, but at the same time hinted that Nubia was quite ready to withstand any military incursion from Egypt. There is no record of how the negotiations proceeded beyond this point, but Ibn Salim evidently remained in Dongola for a considerable further period of time and had several more audiences with the king.
He also accompanied the king on a visit to a neighboring province to the north of Dongola. Whatever agreement was ultimately reached, it seems to have laid the foundation for a period of exceptionally cordial relations between Fatimid Egypt and Christian Nubia. Nubians were recruited in large numbers into the Fatimid armies and were influential at court as well.
On his return from Nubia, Ibn Salim wrote an account of his travels which he titled Kitab Akhbar al-Nubah wa-al-Muqurrah wa ‘Alwa wa-al-Bujah wa-al-Nil (Reports on Nubia, Makouria, Alwa, Beja, and the Nile). This work must at one time have been fairly well known, for it is quoted directly by at least three later authors, and it evidently furnished information for others as well. Most of the Nubian information contained in the Churches and Monasteries of ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN evidently came from Ibn Salim.
All copies of the Kitab Akhbar al-Nubah have subsequently disappeared, but lengthy extracts are preserved in the Kitab al- Muqaffa (The Great Chronicle of Egypt) and the Kitab al-Mawa‘iz (The Book of Wisdom) of al-Maqrizi. Some passages are also preserved in the Kitab al- Fayd (The Book of Greatness) of Minufi. The only full English translation of Ibn Salim’s text, as reported by al-Maqrizi, is that made by J. L. Burckhardt more than 150 years ago. A French translation was made by G. Troupeau (1954).
Ibn Salim was a tolerant and sympathetic writer as well as a fairly observant one, and he has left a word picture of life in Nubia that is without parallel in ancient or medieval literature. In addition to describing the kingdom of Makouria, which he observed at first hand, he also gives much information about the more southerly kingdom of ‘ALWA. This information was evidently gained at second hand, since Ibn Salim had no official business with ‘Alwa, but it is almost the only descriptive information possessed about this little-known Christian kingdom of the central Sudan. Other passages, also based on hearsay information, deal with the sources of the Nile and with the BEJA TRIBES.
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 461-62. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
- Burckhardt, J. L. Travels in Nubia, pp. 493-530. London, 1819. Troupeau, G. “La ‘Description de la Nubie’ d’Al-Uswani.” Arabica 1 (1954):276-88.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 119-23, 132-38. Bologna, 1981.