Syrian Geographer, Historian, and Ethnographer
Yaqut is known primarily for two works, Kitab mu'jam al-budan and Mu'jam al-udaba'. The former is a summation of historical, geographical, and ethnographic information in the Arab world of his time, the latter a collection of biographical sketches concerning important men of the era. These, the first Muslim works organized encyclopedically, have provided scholars with invaluable insights concerning the Middle East and central Asia in the twilight years of the Abbasid Caliphate.
His full name was Yaqut ibn 'Abdallah, but because his parents were Greek he was often known as al-Rumi, "the Roman" or "the Byzantine." He was also called al-Hamawi, a reference to the fact that he came from the town of Hama in Syria. As for the name Yaqut, it means "ruby." Slaves, of whom Yaqut was one, were often given the names of gemstones.
The life of a slave in medieval Islam was not unremittingly harsh; indeed, Yaqut's master, recognizing his talents, arranged for him to be educated. In 1199, the master moved his household to Baghdad, then capital of the Muslim under Abbasid rule. In Baghdad, Yaqut reportedly married and fathered several children before his master released him.
Many slaves, upon their release, were granted property and a place of security, but Yaqut had only his freedom, and he spent many years wandering, making a living by copying and selling manuscripts. He traveled to far corners of the Muslim world, including Oman, northwestern Iran, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. His support for the radical Kharijite sect got him into trouble in Damascus in 1215, and he fled to the peaceful scholarly town of Marw in northeastern Iran. There Yaqut spent two years in libraries, absorbing much of the knowledge he would later put into his books.
By 1218 he was in the city of Khiva along the Aral Sea in what is now Uzbekistan. Hearing that the armies of Genghis Khan (1167-1227) were on their way, Yaqut rushed back to the safety of Iraq. The remaining years of his life found him either in Mosul, or in the Syrian city of Aleppo. During Yaqut's final decade, he composed the Kitab, later partially translated as "The Introductory Chapters of Yaqut's 'Mu'jam al-buldan,'" and the Mu'jam al-udaba', translated as "Yaqut's Dictionary of Learned Men."
The Kitab, the final draft of which he completed in 1228, is significant not only for its encyclopedic quality, but also for its synthesis of Greek and Arabic views on science and cosmology. In addition, Yaqut was one of the last scholars to gain access to the libraries east of the Caspian Sea, in what are today the former Soviet republics of Central Asia—libraries that would be, along with the lands and cities around them, devastated in the Mongol onslaught.
Indeed, Yaqut's contribution to learning is primarily that of a preserver and a synthesizer, rather than that of an original thinker. In his Dictionary of Learned Men, he provided priceless information on figures who might have been completely lost to history without his efforts at maintaining their memory.
It is said that at the end of his life, Yaqut had acquired enough wealth to provide assistance to the widow and orphans of his former master, who had fallen on hard times. This is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that unlike most scholars in medieval times, Yaqut had no patron.