16.09.34, Zimonyi, Muslim Sources on the Magyars in the Second Half of the 9th Century

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Michael Decker

The Medieval Review 16.90.34

Zimonyi, István. Muslim Sources on the Magyars in the Second Half of the 9th Century: The Magyar Chapter of the Jayhānī Tradition . East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, 35. Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. xiv, 432. ISBN: 978-90-04-21437-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Decker
University of South Florida

Those who wish to learn about the crucial era of Magyar history in the ninth century are limited by source availability and accessibility. Fortunately the appearance in English of István Zimonyi's work, which in various forms has appeared in Hungarian and German, will help medievalists better understand this crucial but often forgotten moment in eastern European history, thanks to Florin Curta's fine Brill series. Following an Introduction which briefly surveys the past century of Hungarian work on coverage of the European advent of the Magyars in the Arabic geographical literature, Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the tenth century Samanid geographer al-Jayhani, who wrote a geographical treatise in the first half of the tenth century, the Kitab al-masalik wa al-mamalik, which is now lost. Numerous authors, including al-Hamadhani, al-Maqdisi, al-Muqaddasi, al-Bakri and others used this work, and it is preserved in the writings of Ibn Rusta.

Chapter 3 comprises the remaining 319 pages of text. In twenty-five subsections Zimonyi surveys an array of information on the Magyars in light of the recovery of the Magyar Chapter of al-Jayhani. Here Zimonyi takes us through discussion of Arabic sources alongside their Persian and Turkish dependents, and surveys various European scholarly understandings of the early origins and movements of not only the Magyars but also the Pechenegs and, to a lesser extent, the Khazars. This is an especially complex chapter with significant digressions on medieval ethnography and geographical terminology that deal with issues regarding the medieval understanding of the ethnic name 'Turk'. Zimonyi argues that the name 'Turk' was applied to the Magyars by some based on Byzantine usage, and by others based on Muslim encounters with the Turk empire in the eighth century. Following the dissolution of the Turk empire in the ninth century, Muslim authors nonetheless continued to associate lands east of the Volga with a Turk landscape and believed that this region was the original homeland of the Magyars, hence the labelling of Magyars as 'Turks'. In Chapter 3, Zimonyi also addresses the various sources regarding the strength of the Magyar army, which the sources list as somewhere between 2,000 and 30,000 men. Zimonyi concurs that the Magyars could normally field two tumens, or about 20,000 troops in wartime. This section also includes an informative discussion of the possible numbers and types of soldiers in the Khazar army and some discussion of overall numbers of steppe confederations, the political organization of the early Magyars, including the well-known issue of diarchy or dual kingship. Dual kingship is discussed in light of what we know from the Khazars and other nomadic polities. There is a rather long section detailing nomad-state relationships and internal structures based on the examples of the Huns, Hsiung-nu, Khazars, Mongols, and Turks.

Housing and the nomadic way of life on the steppe are followed by a discussion of the extent and geography of Magyar lands. In the following section Zimonyi details the geographer's attempts to fix the Roman Sea, the Bahr al-Rum. Sometimes this meant the Mediterranean Sea and sometimes the Black Sea. Zimonyi examines how this came to be, and notes the difficulty Muslim geographers had in obtaining knowledge about the Black Sea and Sea of Azov in particular. Much of the material discussed here far exceeds the interests of those whose main concerns are steppe nomads or Hungarian history; indeed this reads like a separate study entirely and is certainly one worth reading, containing as it does a wealth of geographic and scholarly detail. Students of medieval history who do not read Arabic will find helpful the numerous block translations of Arabic sources that feature prominently in this section, as elsewhere in the work. Other notable sections of the work include examination of the Bulgars on the Danube, Moravia, the Characteristics of the Magyar Land, and Agriculture. Magyar foreign relations loosely joins the following sections with one another, dealing in turn with the Slavs, Magyar religion, trade with the Byzantines and dealings with the Khazars. It was under the suzerainty of the latter that the Magyar confederation rose to considerable prominence on the steppe, controlling most of the lands of the Eastern Slavs and dominating the trade routes along the Dnieper, from which they derived significant revenue and influence.

The physical appearance of the Magyars, their weapons and raids against the Slavs, derived mostly from material found in the Persian geographer Abu Sa'id Gardizi (d. 1061), who also relates the distances between the Slavs and Magyars. The latter portion of the text also, somewhat curiously, includes discussion of nomadic sexual customs. Following analysis of the eastern borders of Magyar territory, Zimonyi summarizes the work, first through a table comparing the parallel texts within the tradition.

This is a challenging work to follow, primarily because of the depth of detail but also due to the litany of scholars whose positions are expounded upon. The sheer volume of information can be somewhat overwhelming at times. Fortunately for those who wish to consult the work, there are helpful summaries at the end of most sections and a full summary at the conclusion of the book. In a sense Muslim Sources on the Magyars in the Second Half of the 9th Century is an encyclopedic work, whose author's range of learning and mastery of the subject is on full display. For scholars interested in the history of early medieval steppe nomad polities, Byzantine-nomad relations, the history of the south Russian steppe, and early medieval Muslim foreign relations, this work is essential reading. Moreover, Muslim Sources on the Magyars in the Second Half of the 9th Century contributes not only to East European medieval history, but to the study of medieval ethnography, historical geography, source transmission, and particularly the construction and reception of Arabic geographical knowledge in the classical period and beyond.

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