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Saqaliba (Arabic: صقالبة, sg. Siqlabi) refers to the Eastern Europeans, often Slavic slaves, kidnapped from the coasts of Europe or in wars, as well as mercenaries in the medieval Arab world, in the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily and Al-Andalus. It is generally thought that the Arabic term is a Byzantine loanword: saqlab, siklab, saqlabi etc. is a corruption of Greek Sklavinoi meaning Slavs (from which the English word slave is also derived). The word is often misused to refer only to slaves from Central and Eastern Europe, but in fact it refers to all Eastern Europeans and others kidnapped by the Arab traders during the war or peace periods.
Ibn Fadlan referred to the ruler of the Volga Bulgaria, Almış, as "King of the Saqaliba". This may have been either because many Slavs, both slaves and ordinary settlers, lived in his domain at that time; or a lack of ethnographical knowledge.
The Persian chronicler Ibn al-Faqih wrote that there were two types of saqaliba: those with swarthy skin and dark hair that live by the sea and those with fair skin and light hair that live farther inland. Abu Zayd al-Balkhi described three main centers of the Saqaliba - Kuyaba, Slavia, and Artania.
Ibrahim ibn Yaqub placed the people of "Saqalib" in the mountainous regions of Central Balkans, west of the Bulgarians and east from the "other Slavs," thus somewhere around modern day Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. The Saqalib had the reputation of being "the most courageous and violent".
There were several major routes of the trade of Slav slaves into the Muslim world: through Central Asia (Mongols, Tatars, Khazars, etc.); through the Mediterranean (Byzantium); through Central and Western Europe to Al-Andalus. The Volga trade route and other European routes, according to Ibrahim ibn Jakub, were serviced by Radanite Jewish merchants. Theophanes mentions that the Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I settled a whole army of 5,000 Slavic mercenaries in Syria in the 660s.
In the Muslim world, Saqaliba served or were forced to serve in a multitude of ways: servants, harem girls, eunuchs, craftsmen, soldiers, and as Caliph's guards. In Iberia, Morocco, Damascus and Sicily, their role may be compared with that of mamluks in the Ottoman Empire. In Spain, Slavic eunuchs were so popular and widely spread that they became synonymous with Saqāliba. Some Saqāliba became rulers of taifas (principalities) in Iberia after the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba. For example, Muyahid ibn Yusuf ibn Ali organized the Saqaliba in Dénia to free themselves, seize control of the city and established the Taifa of Dénia which extended its reach as far as the island of Majorca.
- Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Univ Press
- Lewis. Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford Univ Press 1994
- Islam in the Balkans: religion and society between Europe and the Arab world, by H. T. Norris
- The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery: A-K ; Vol. II, L-Z, by Junius P. Rodriguez