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Al-Hamdānī, Abū Muḥammad Al-Ḥasan Ibn Aḥmad Ibn Yaʿqūb

also known as Ibn al-Ḥāʾik, Ibn Dhi ’l-Dumayna, or Ibn Abī ’l-Dumayna

(b. Ṣanʿāʾ, Yemen, 893 [?]; d. after 951 [?])

geography, natural science.

Al-Hamdānī belonged to a well-known South Arabian tribe, Hamdān, and his family had for four generations lived in Ṣanʿāʾ.1 He traveled extensively, visiting Iraq and spending considerable time in Mecca. He corresponded with the intellectuals of his time, such as the Kūfa philologists Ibn al-Anbārī and Ghulām Thaʿlab and their student Ibn Khālawayh. Later he lived in the South Arabian cities of Rayda and Ṣaʿda. Involvement in political struggles led to his being jailed twice.

Al-Hamdānī passionately supported his kinsmen’s side in the incessant antagonism between the North and South Arabian tribes. He expressed this most clearly in his poem al-Dāmigha (“The Crusher”). Other of his poems also have a political content. His national pride may have been the source of his decision to create the two monuments to his country and to his people: the historical work al-lklīl (“The Crown”), written in 943, and the geographical work Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab (“Description of the Arabian Peninsula”).

Only four of the ten books of al-Iklīl have been preserved. Books I, II, and X contain genealogies of South Arabian tribes, and book VIII describes the old castles erected by the Ḥimyarites in Yemen. of the lost books, book III is said to have dealt with the merits of the South Arabian tribes, and books IV-VI with the history of South Arabia before Islam; book VII is said to have contained a criticism of false traditions, and book IX Ḥimyaritic inscriptions. It is said that scattered through the work were pieces on astronomy and physics as well as ancient conceptions of the world as being eternal or created.2

Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab is based primarily on al-Hamdānī’s own observations. In a few cases he uses information from other geographers, such as al-Jarmī, Abu’l-Hasan al-Khuzāʿī, Aḥmad ibn al-Ḥasan al-ʿĀdī al-Falajī, and Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Ismāʿīl al-Saksakī. In the introduction he cites Ptolemy’s Geography, Hermes Trismegistus, and Dioscorides.3 He also cites the Indian astronomical work Sindhind and its Arabian translator al-Fazārī, as well as Ṣanʿāʾ’s own astronomers.4 Aside from purely geographical information this work contains observations on fruits and vegetables, precious stones and metals, and linguistic matters. The work is often cited in the geographical lexicons of Yāqūt and al-Bakrī, the latter also containing many citations from al-Iklīl.

Before his geographical work al-Hamdānī wrote an astronomical one, Saraʾir al-ḥikma ʿilm an-nujūm (“The Secrets of Wisdom Concerning Astronomy”), of which only book X has been preserved. In it he quotes Dorotheus of Sidon and Ptolemy. Al-Hamdānī is also said to have compiled astronomical tables, but these have not survived. His medical work al-Quwā (“Powers”), also not extant, apparently was connected with his astronomical writings, for in it he demonstrated how the air temperature is influenced by the planets.5

From a trilogy concerned with property and consisting of al-Ḥarth wa’l-ḥīla (“Farming and Its Method”). al-Ibil (“The Camels”), and Kitāb al-Jawharatayn al-ʿatīqatayn (“The Two Precious Metals [gold and silver]”), only the last, written later than all of the other works mentioned, has been preserved. In it he is concerned with gold and silver in all possible aspects, including religious, literary, and linguistic. But chiefly the work is the first and most extensive Arabian account of the treatment of the metals: extraction, purification, the determination of the standard of fineness, gilding, soldering, and coinage—all built on al-Hamdānī’s own observations in the mints of Yemen and on information obtained from craftsmen who worked there. In the theoretical part on the origin of the metals, their use in medicine, and such, he cites Aristotle, Dorotheus of Sidon, Dioscorides, and Hippocrates. Some technical terms for weights and coins are of Greek origin.

Greek and Persian influences combined in this work. South Arabia had been a Persian satrapy until 628, and Persian immigration had continued into the following centuries. The Persian influence is especially noticeable in the terminology for chemical substances and tools. Al-Hamdānī’s work demonstrates a connected world picture, typical for his time, in which the influence of the heavenly bodies on the elements and qualities is decisive for the generation and characteristics of metals and other substances, for geography, for the conditions of mankind—and, consequently, is also a foundation for medicine.

Al-Hamdānī built first on his own observations of what is possible in fact and useful in practice. He did not use the elixir of the alchemists to transmute lower elements into gold or silver; according to him, gold was derived from gold ore and silver from silver ore, never from any other kind of metal. “The metals were purified by a carefully described chemicaltechnical process, without magic or ritual procedures. Al-Hamdānī was very precise in the details; some instruments can be completely reconstructed by following his description. He did not accept uncritically the theories of predecessors and he would disagree with Aristotle or Ptolemy.6 Contrary opinions on the same problem are compared: on linguistic questions the opinions of the philologists and those of laymen; the opinions of Greek philosophers and practical mining experts on problems concerning the origin of gold and silver; the opinions of Greek, Indian, and Chinese scholars on the extent of the inhabited world.7 Al-Hamdānī was thus a good representative of the union of Greek, Persian, and Arabian culture.


1. An account of al-Hamdānī’s descent is given by himself in al-lkīl, bk, X, 198 and preceding pages, and by al-Andalusī. 58, tr, 114 f.

2. Al-Andalusī, 58 f, tr. 115; al-Qiftī. I, 281.

3. Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab, index.

4. Ibid., 27.

5. Kitāb al-Jawharatayn, 72a.

6. Ibid., 15b; Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab, 29.

7. Kitāb al-Jawharatayn, 9b ff., 21a; Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArap, 27.


I. Orginal Works. of al-Hamdānī’s surviving works, the following are the principal editions and commentaries:

Al-Iklīl: bks. I-II, facs. ed. (Berlin. 1943); M. b. ʿAlī al-Akwaʿ al-Ḥiwālī, ed., 2 vols. (Cairo, 1963–1966). Bk. I. O. Löfgren. ed., 2 vols., vol, LVIII, no. 1 in Bibliotheca Ekmaniana (Uppsala, 1954–1965). An extract from bk. II is in Südarabisches Muštabih. O. Löfgren, ed., vol. LVII in Bibliotheca Ekmaniana (Uppsala, 1953). Bk. VIII: D. H. Müller. “Die Burgen und Schlösser Südarabiens nach dem Iklīl des Hamdānī.” in Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien.94 (1879), 335–423: ibid., 97 (1881), 955–1050; “Auszüge aus dem VIII. Buche des Iklīl,” in Südarabische Alterthümer im Kunsthistorischen Hofmuseum (Vienna, 1899), 80–95; A. M. al-Karmalī, ed. (Baghdad, 1931); translated by N. A. Faris as The Antiquities of South Arabia, Princeton Oriental Texts no. 3 (Princeton, 1938); and N. A. Faris, ed., Princeton Oriental Texts no. 7 (Princeton, 1940). Bk. X: M. al-D. al-Khaṭīb, ed. (Cairo, 1949).

Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArah: D. H. Müller, ed., Al-Hamdānī’s Geographie der arabischen Halbinsel 2 vols. (Leiden, 1884–1891: repr., Amsterdam, 1968); L. Forrer, Südarabien nach al-Hamdānī’s Beschreibung der arabisehen Halbinsel, vol. XXVII. no. 3 in Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes (Leipzig, 1942); C. Rabin, Ancient West-Arabia (London, 1951), pp. 43 ff. for a trans. of al-Hamdānī’s observations on the linguistic state of affairs of the Arabian peninsula (pp. 134–136 of Müller’s ed.); and M. b. ʿA. b. B. an-Najdī, ed. (Cairo, 1953).

Kitāb al-Jawharatayn al-ʿatīqatayn: edited and translated into German by Christopher Toll as Die beiden Edelmetalle Gold und Silber, Studia semitica upsaliensia no. I (Uppsala, 1968).

II. Secondary Literature. On al-Hamdānī and his work, see Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur. I (Weimar, 1898), 229; 2nd ed., I (Leiden, 1943), 263 ff., and suppl. I (Leiden, 1937), 409; Oscar Löfgren, Ein Hamdānī-Fund, no. 7 in Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift för 1935 (Uppsala, 1935); and “al-Hamdānī,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., III (Leiden-London, in press), 124 ff.

See also Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī, Ṭabaqāt al-umam, L. Cheikho, ed. (Beirut, 1912), 58, also translated by R. Blachère as Kitâb Ṭabaḳât al-umam (Paris, 1935), 114; al-Bakrī, Muʿjam mā ’staʿjam, F. Wüstenfeld, ed., 2 vols. (Göttingen-Paris, 1876–1877), and M. al-Saqqā, ed., 4 vols. (Cairo, 1945–1951); al-Qifṭī, Inbāh al-ruwāt ʿalā anbāh al-nuhāt, M. A. Ibrāhīm, ed.. I (Cairo, 1950). 279–284; Taʾrīkh al-ḥukamā J. Lippert, ed. (Leipzig, 1903), 163; and Yāqūt, Muʿjam al-buldān, F. Wüstenfeld, ed., 6 vols. (Leipzig, 1866–1870).

Christopher Toll