Saqaliba – Slavs in the Arab World, Part 1
It is a widely accepted fact that Serbs and Croats came to the Balkans as Byzantine mercenaries who were to defend the Byzantine empire from the Avars, and since they came in quite a big number, they stayed in the area, formed political alliances and did not become assimilated. They formed strong states and survived to this day. But this is not a story about them. This is a story about Slavic mercenaries who went far from their homeland and who in time got assimilated into the local population. This is the story about Saqaliba, Slavs in the Muslim world.
In the upcoming series of articles, I will try to explain it as well as I can. First of all, much of Slavic history can be read in Muslim chronicles of Arab writers and historians. In most cases, Slavs would settle an area as mercenaries, conquer the place, become garrison troops and in time they would assimilate with the local population. With the help of genetics, I will try to tell you as precisely as I can how much of that Slavic DNA contributed to those areas. So let’s start.
The earliest Arabic-Slavic contacts can probably be traced all the way to the 500’s, and most likely occurred on or near the territory of the East Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. The earliest Arabic sources describe the Slavs as a people with pale skin, that turns “red” while under the sun, and blonde hair. The Arabs even referred to a certain kind of a white coloured bean as saqalibiya (Slavic), as we learn from the Kitab al-Filaha, a treatise on agriculture written by Ibn al-‘Avvam at the end of the 12th century; the bean’s color apparently reminded them of the color of the Slavs’ hair.The first confirmed instance of Slavs meeting the Arabs is mentioned by the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes, who wrote in the early 9th century. According to Theophanes, in 664 a group of 5,000 Slavic (Sklavinoi) mercenaries who were in the Byzantine service joined the victorious army of the Omayyad (Umayyad) Caliph Mu’avyi I (reigned 661-680), who was returning from a campaign in Asia Minor. The caliph settled these Slavs in an area near the city of Apamea in northern Syria.
The Arabic name for the Slavs, Saqaliba (or as-Saqaliba with the Arabic “the”), which later also acquired at least a few dialectical variations, is a Greco-Byzantine loanword; this word is the regular Arabic plural form of the word Saqlab, Siqlab, Saqlabi, which itself is a corruption of the word Sklav- or the Greek and Middle Latin singular form of the Sklavinoi mentioned by the Byzantines.
The first wave of Slavic settlement among the Arabs started in 664, one of the many more to come. In 692, another group of Slavic soldiers-settlers in the Byzantine service, under their Prince Nevulos, voluntarily went over to the Arabs. When the Arabs raided Asia Minor, the local Slavic soldiers-settlers whom the Byzantines intended to use against their enemies, joined the Arabs. Most of these were Macedonian Slavs, but also apparently included some Serbs, who were originally resettled in large numbers from Macedonia to Bithynia in 686 by the Byzantines, during the reign of Emperor Justinian II (reigned 685-695 and 705-711).
This second wave of Slavs also settled within the borders of the Caliphate: in northern Syria, near the cities of Antioch and Kyrrhos. Since the 8th century, new groups of Slavs have appeared on the territory of the Caliphate, settled by the last Omayyad Caliph Marvan ibn Muhammad (or Marvan II, reigned 744-750). These Slavs are also known to have been settled in northern Syria, Cilicia, Commagene, Armenia or northern Mesopotamia, and Georgia. But there were still some Slavs left on the Byzantine side of the border: Arabic writers mention a certain Hisn as-Saqaliba (Fortress of the Slavs) located on the road leading from Tarsus to the “Cilician Gates”.
Slavs in Sicily
Arabic sources also mention Slavic settlements in Arabic-ruled Sicily. One of those settlements, called Sclafani, is mentioned in 939. Another one is Harat as-Saqaliba (Slavic Quarter), a Slavic-inhabited district of Palermo located close to the city’s port, in the capital of the emirs of Sicily. The origin of these Slavs is disputed; according to conflicting claims, they either go back all the way to 535 AD when the Byzantine General Belisarius presumably left a Slavic garrison in the city, or to the 10th century when the Fatimids conquered Sicily and likewise left a Slavic garrison there.
The Italian historian Amari probably came up with the most plausible explanation for their origin – he points out that Abu’l Fida’y, an Arabic historian and geographer from the 1300’s, states that in 928/9, off the coast of Maghreb and Sicily, there appeared a Slavic piratical fleet of 30 ships, which, together with the Arabs, pillaged Calabria, Corsica, and Sardinia. After some time, those same Slavic pirates decided to permanently settle in a quarter of Palermo, which was named after them. These were most certainly South Slavic pirates from the Adriatic littoral who were quite active sea rovers during that period. We cannot be certain as to how many Slavs settled there, but judging from what Constantine Porphirogenetus estimated, a large ship (sagena) of the Southern (Balkan) Croats contained about 40 men, and using this number as a general reference, when multiplied by 30 ships should give us about 1,200 men. These Sicilian Slavs are mentioned by Ibn Hauqal, an Arabic geographer and traveller from the second half of the 10th century, as well as by Yaqut, who mentions a different quarter of Palermo whose name was “The Quarter of the Slavic Mosque”. It must also be added that the total number of Slavs who settled in Palermo was probably larger than the one calculated above, as we should also add the Slavs from “The Quarter of the Slavic Mosque” and also likely later arrivals to both quarters.
But the Slavic activity in this region did not end after Normans occupied Sicily. Later on, the outstanding Norman leader Duke Robert Guiscard had a bodyguard of 60 very loyal Slavic mercenaries.
Today there is quite a large number of blue-eyed people in Sicily compared to the other parts of Italian south. This has been attributed to the Normans, however, they did not rule as long as the Arabs did. Sicily was an Islamic state from 831 to 1072. Arabs invaded Sicily in 652, and during the Norman rule (the 1220s), most of the population was Muslim, which means that for about 6 centuries, the Arabs were sending people to live and rule Sicily, whereas the Norman rule of Sicily was only 103 years.
Another thing, North African DNA is found in surprisingly low levels considering the number of centuries that Sicily was under Saracen domination, which leads us to the fact that most of the population were in fact Slavic garrisons. Looking at DNA tests of modern Sicilians, 4% of them have Viking ancestry, while 7.5% have Slavic ancestry (Eupedia stats). Blue eyes and blonde hair in Sicily is mostly cause by Arabs having Slavs as garrisons and militia.
The next chapter will be about Slavic pirates in the Mediterranean area. We would like to thank Marek Kalisiński who has contributed to Slavic Chronicles by sharing his photos. Please check out his other work here.