This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual meeting of the World History Association taking place June 21-23 in Milwaukee. It originally appeared on Silk Road Digressions, author Susan Whitfield’s blog on the geography, history, archaeology, artefacts and archives of the Silk Road. Visit the UC Press table to browse this book and more. 

By Susan Whitfield, author of Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture along the Silk Road

Slaves, like silks, were Silk Road goods, to be bought, used and sold for profit, and often transported long distances by land and sea to trade in foreign markets. While no slaves from this time survive to tell their story they have left traces in art, archaeology and texts. From these we can see that slavery was found throughout the Silk Road, not particular to any culture, place, or period. Its importance to the Silk Road economy probably rivalled that of the silk, horses or other goods. Yet slaves rarely have a central if any role in the Silk Road histories that are told today.

Slave girl resting on a camel 8th century, Hanshenzhai, Xian. Terracotta, 73 cm x 60 cm. Shaanxi Archaeological Institute, Xian, G大41.

In my book, Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road, I use these traces to tell something of the stories of slaves across the Silk Road. Like the other chapters it addresses the issues of how and why — although the when and where are hardly relevant since, as the Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery has noted: ‘With the exception of marriage, the family and religion, slavery is perhaps the most ubiquitous social institution in human history.’ (Finkelman and Miller 1998: viii)

Slave markets were found across the whole of the Silk Road, from Dublin on the shores of the Atlantic to Shandong on the Pacific. And while much of the trade was by private merchants, governments also profited by imposing taxes both on the movement and on the sale of slaves. As with many other ‘things’ traded along the Silk Road, there was both local and regional trade, as well as trade over longer distances.

Dublin, for example, probably the largest slave market in western Europe, was convenient for the Irish, Vikings, and others who had seized captives in raids and battles. Shandong, in eastern China, was specifically for selling on slaves captured from the Korean peninsula. But one of the most extensive trading networks, certainly by the ninth and tenth centuries, was that in Slavs, captured by the Rus in northern Europe and sold at the capital of the Bulgars, Bulgar, and the capital of the Khazars, Khamlij (Atil). Ibn Faḍlān visited Khamlij in 922 and wrote:

‘I saw the Rusiya, when they came hither on their trading voyages and had encamped by the river Itil. . . . With them, there are fair maidens who are destined for sale to the merchant, and they may have intercourse with their girl while their comrades look on.. . . . When their boats arrive come to this anchorage, each one of them goes ashore. . . and prostrates himself before [the great image], Then he says: “Oh my lord, I have come from a far country and have with me so many slave girls for such a price, and so many sable skins. . . .

I wish that thou shouldst provide me with a merchants who has many dinars and dirhams and who would buy from me at the price I desire.’ (Ibn Faḍlan 2005: 63–65)

Marek Jankowiak argues that by the ninth and tenth centuries there was another distinct system also dealing in Slav slaves. Jewish merchants bought slaves at the market in Prague for sale to the Spanish, making payment, he argues, in small pieces of cloth that had an exchange rate for silver. He cites the travelogue of Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub, a merchant from Tortosa, who noted the trade when he traveled to Prague in the 960s. He also cites Ibn Ḥawqal, who writes on Saqaliba—the land of the Slavs.

‘The country [of the Saqaliba] is long and wide. . . . Half of their country . . . is raided by the Khurasanis [Khorezm] who take prisoners from it, while its northern half is raided by the Andalusians who buy them in Galicia, in France, in Lombardy and in Calabria so as to make them eunuchs, and thereafter they ferry them over to Egypt and Africa. All the Saqaliba eunuchs in the world come from Andalusia. . . . They are castrated near this country. The operation is performed by Jewish merchants.'(Jankowiak 2012: n.1)

Ibn Khurradādhbih (ca. 820–912) records a wider network, extending from western Europe through to Africa, Arabia, India, and China, run by Jewish merchants whom he refers to as Radhanites. It is worth quoting in full as one of the few detailed and extant itineraries:

‘These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Frankish, Andalusian and Slavic. They journey from west to east, from east to west, traveling by land and by sea. From the west they export eunuchs, young girls and boys, brocade, beaver pelts, marten and other furs and also swords.

They set sail from Firanj [France] on the western sea and then head for Farama [Pelusium] in Egypt. There they transfer their merchandise to the backs of camels and travel to Qulzum [Clysma, Suez] on the Red Sea, a distance of 25 farsakhs. They sail down the Red Sea to al-Jar, the port of Medina, and to Jeddah, the port of Mecca.

Then they continue on to Sindh, India and China.

They return from China with musk, aloe wood, camphor, cinnamon and other eastern products, docking again at Qulzum, then proceed to Farama, from where they again set sail on the western sea. . . .

These different journeys can also be made by land. The merchants that start from Spain or France go to Sus al-Aksa [near Tangier] and then to Tangier, whence they walk to Kairouan and the capital of Egypt. Thence they go to ar-Ramiah, visit Damascus, al-Kufa, Baghdad, and al-Basra, cross Ahvez, Fars, Kerman, Sindh, Hind, and arrive in China.

Sometimes, also, they take the route behind Rome and, passing through the country of the Slavs, arrive at Khamlij, the capital of the Khazars. They embark on the Jorjan Sea [Caspian], arrive at Balkh, betake themselves from there across the Oxus, and continue their journey toward Yurt, Toghuzghuz [Turkic lands in Central Asia], and from there to China.’ (Adler 1987: 2–3)

Sogdian Contract for a 639, Tomb 135, Astana, Turfan. Ink on paper, 46.5 cm x 28.4 cm. Xinjiang Provincial Museum, Urumqi, XB9219

It was not only the merchants who profited from the slaves: the governments of the lands they passed through or ports of embarkation and the markets they sold at often imposed taxes or monopolies. For example, although there was a slave market at Constantinople—in the Valley of the Lamentations—several contemporary sources note that merchants often avoided it because of the high taxes and that ships docked instead at Antioch (Rotman and Todd 2009: 68–80). In eighth-century Khanfu (present-day Guangzhou in southern China), all goods coming into the port were controlled by the government office of ‘the commissioner for commercial argosies’, which purchased all imports desired by the government (Schafer 1963: 23).

Turkic male slaves for the caliphate’s army were taken from the borders of the steppe in Central Asia to Nishapur, which sent thousand of slaves westward to Baghdad each year (Starr 2013: 197). Male slaves could be transported across the Amu Darya only with a government-issued license, costing from seventy to one hundred dirhams (Barthold 1968: 239).