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Richard W. Bulliet
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Arab traveler, poet, and frequenter of the Buyid court (ca. mid-4th/10th century).

Arab traveler, poet, and frequenter of the Buyid court (ca. mid-4th/10th century).

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Volume I, Fascicle 3, pp. 271-272

ABŪ DOLAF AL-YANBŪʿĪ, MESʿAR B. MOHALHEL AL-ḴAZRAJĪ, Arab traveler, poet, and frequenter of the Buyid court (ca. mid-4th/10th century). Reliable details concerning Abū Dolaf’s life are few because of the questionable truthfulness of his two travel accounts. In these works he implies acquaintance with the Samanid court of Naṣr b. Aḥmad (d. 331/943) and mentions Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Layṯ as the ruler of Sīstān. A Saffarid amir with a similar name, Abū Jaʿfar Aḥmad b. Moḥammad b. Ḵalaf b. Layṯ, ruled Sīstān from 331/942 to 352/963. Abū Dolaf is not commonly mentioned in the works of other authors, Ebn al-Nadīm refers to him in the Fehrest (completed 377/983) as a personal acquaintance and relates geographical information from him; and Ṯaʿālebī places him in the circle of the Buyid vizier Ṣāḥeb b. al-ʿAbbād (d. 385/995) in Yatīmat al-dahr and at the Šīrāz court of the Buyid amir ʿAżod-al-dawla (d. 372/983) in Laṭāʾef al-maʿāref. In the latter reference he is depicted bantering with Abū ʿAlī Aḥmad al-Hāʾem al-Madāʾenī, a courtier who died in 380/990. It seems likely, therefore, that the travels of Abū Dolaf’s youth provided the anecdotes that he related for the entertainment of court society in his old age.

The first of Abū Dolaf’s two resālas, which purport to recount his personal travels and were extensively used as sources by Yāqūt, has frequently been studied. The consensus of those who have studied it is that the journey never occurred. The trip was allegedly made in the company of a delegation sent from Bokhara by the Samanid Naṣr b. Aḥmad to negotiate a marriage alliance which had been proposed by the ruler of China. The itinerary through Central Asia to the “Chinese” court at Sandābel, identified by Marquart with Kanchou, the capital of the western Uighur kingdom, consists of a series of brief and sometimes fanciful descriptions of Central Asian peoples in a quite unreasonable geographical order. After the Samanid delegation returned to Bokhara, Abū Dolaf claims to have stayed on in Sandābel and to have subsequently returned to Iran by way of China, Malaya, and India. Once again the itinerary is unbelievable, and the reported information doubtful. Several authors have observed that the information that Abū Dolaf strings together in this resāla could have been obtained without great difficulty in Bokhara or some other trading center.

The second resāla gives a much stronger impression of being an actual travel account. Minorsky has unraveled the itinerary in a careful study and has judged the entire account reliable. There is a distinct difference in this resāla, however, between the quality of information pertaining to western Iran and that pertaining to eastern Iran. The western Iranian material is not only more abundant, but it contains a great deal of archeological observation and legend about the pre-Islamic history of various places that bears the stamp of having been collected locally. East of Ray the sketchy itinerary takes in only Georgia and Khorasan as far as Herat, and the return trip from Nīšāpūr to Isfahan is made in one jump, in striking contrast to the detailed itinerary through Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. It is also noteworthy that while consistent and apparently expert mention is made of mineral deposits characteristic of different localities in western Iran, no mention is made of the famous turquoise mines near Nīšāpūr. Reference is made instead to a huge copper mine there which is not mentioned in other geographical sources. For these reasons it seems likely that Abū Dolaf supplemented a genuine account of his travels in western Iran with vague memories or bits and pieces of information he had picked up about eastern Iran.

The unnamed patrons to whom Abū Dolaf dedicated his resālas have not been identified, and question has been raised as to who would be likely to have been taken in by the obvious fabrication of the first account. No name can be suggested here, but there is some indication that political and religious differences led to a significant decrease in communications between Buyid western Iran and Samanid eastern Iran in the third quarter of the 4th/10th century (see R. Bulliet in JESHO 13, 1970, pp. 195-211). It seems likely, therefore, that the patrons with the greatest curiosity and least knowledge about Central Asia would be found in Buyid territories. Similarly, the local legends recounted in the second resāla would have held greatest interest for patrons in western Iran. Since Abū Dolaf is otherwise associated with different Buyid courts, it is likely that his patronage for the two resālas came from this source.

The third preserved work of Abū Dolaf is directly connected with the patronage of Ṣāḥeb b. ʿAbbād. It is a qaṣīda on the Arabic jargon of the Banū Sāsān, a term used to designate an underworld of rogues, confidence men, and tricksters whose activities are catalogued in the poem. This qaṣīda, together with an explanatory commentary by its author, has been preserved in Ṯaʿālebī’s Yatīmat al-dahr and has been studied in C. E. Bosworth, The Medieval Islamic Underworld, Leiden, 1976. The poet’s interest in adab and in providing entertainment for court patrons, as suggested in Ṯaʿālebī’s introduction to this poem and by an anecdote in his Laṭāʾef al-maʿāref in which Abū Dolaf gives a bravura display of his knowledge of geographical peculiarities, indicate that the intended purpose of his two resālas may have been entertainment and that the question of their actual accuracy may not have weighed heavily with his original patrons.


  • Ṯaʿālebī, Yatīma (Cairo) III, pp. 321-42.
  • Idem, Laṭāʾef al-maʿāref, ed. Ṣayrafī and Abyārī, Cairo, 1960, pp. 232-39.
  • F. Wüstenfeld, “Des Abu Dulaf … Bericht über die türkischen Horden,” in Zeitschrift für vergleichende Erdkunde 1842.
  • C. von Schlözer, Abu Dolef Misaris … de itinere Asiatico commentarius, Berlin, 1845.
  • V. V. Grigoryev, “Ob arabskom puteshestvennike Abu Dolefe,” Zhurnal Ministerstva Narodn. Prosveshcheniya 1872.
  • J. Marquart, Osteuropäische und ostasiatische Streifzüge, Leipzig, 1903, pp. 74-95, 500-502.
  • A. von Rohr-Sauer, Des Abū Dulaf Bericht über seine Reise nach Turkestan, China und Indien, Bonn, 1939.
  • V. Minorsky, Abū-Dulaf Misʿar ibn Muhalhil’s Travels in Iran, Cairo, 1955; Persian tr. of Minorsky by A. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Tehran, 1342 Š./1964.
  • P. G. Bulgakova and A. B. Khalidov, Vtoraya Zapiska Abū Dulafa, Moscow, 1960.
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