At the Arabic Pasts conference this year, Hugh Kennedy and I presented a paper in the panel dedicated to the Invisible East programme, chaired by the programme’s PI Arezou Azad. The paper focused on a fragment from an as-yet-unknown Arabic historical text on the Samanid dynasty of the fourth/tenth century. The fragment is one of the manuscripts from the Bamiyan region of Afghanistan that were recently acquired by the National Library of Israel (the shelfmarks for the bifolios that make up the fragment are Heb. 8333.190=4 and Heb. 8333.191=4). This is among the very few literary texts in Arabic in this corpus; otherwise, it consists mostly of legal documents and letters in Persian. We plan to edit and publish this fragment in full, along with a translation and commentary.

The text is written in a book hand typical of the tenth or eleventh century CE, with certain features, most notably its inconsistent number of lines from page to page, that suggest it was a kind of draft. In several places, direct witnesses to the events described are cited, indicating that that the text’s author was not far removed from the events either, in time or space.

The fragment seems likely to come from a text that is otherwise no longer extant. We illustrated this point through an in-depth look at a passage in the fragment treating the succession dispute that followed the murder of the Samanid amir Ahmad b. Ismaʿil in 301/914 and a comparison with the treatment of these events in the other major sources on the Samanids. The passage in question includes a long speech by the (eventual) Samanid vizier Jayhani, as he exhorts Ahmad’s retinue of slave soldiers to rally behind Ahmad’s young son Nasr b. Ahmad. This Jayhani is also known for his geographical scholarship and for being a bit of a neat freak (relatable in these times). According to Ibn Zafir, writing in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century CE, ‘when he passed a veterinarian treating a dog, he became overwhelmed by disgust and pushed his hand out of his sleeve, keeping it in this position until he reached his home, where he poured pitcher after pitcher of water on it.’1 In the speech, Jayhani rebukes the men for caring too much about money and not enough about their duties to the son of their murdered lord, but deftly adds that they will also be remunerated very well indeed for their troubles. He tells them they will receive a special bonus, in addition to their regular salaries, when Nasr b. Ahmad formally succeeds his father.

Given the author’s familiarity with the city of Bukhara and his closeness to the events described, it seems possible that what we have comes from the original Arabic text of Narshakhi’s (d. unknown) History of Bukhara, which otherwise exists only in an abridged Persian translation from 522/1128, but more work is required to say for sure. In any event, we can be fairly sure that the text does not correspond to any known text in Arabic. The KITAB team ran a transcription of the manuscript (made by Kosar Mirrazi) through its text reuse software package and found no matches, which further supports our theory that this text has no surviving precedent.

A folio from MS Heb. 8333.191=4, housed at the National Library of Israel. The image is from the full catalogue entry, which can be accessed here.

  1. As translated by Luke Treadwell in ‘The Account of the Samanid Dynasty in Ibn Ẓāfir al-Azdī’s Akhbār al-Duwal al-Munqaṭiʿa’, Iran 43 (2005), 135–71, at  156.