Ethiopians and Arabians: Nonnosos on Saracens and on a hairy people (sixth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Ethiopians and Arabians: Nonnosos on Saracens and on a hairy people (sixth century CE),' Last modified January 20, 2023,

Ancient authors: Nonnosos, History, as summarized by Photios (ninth century CE), Bibliotheke, or Collection of Books, codex 3 (link to Freese translation).

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): In this narrative, the ninth century Christian patriarch Photios summarizes the earlier account of Nonnosos, who was an ambassador for the Roman emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE). On his trip, Nonnosos offers a description of the peoples in the regions he visits (likely on either side of the Red Sea in what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea on the west, and Yemen and Saudi Arabia on the east). “Saracens” (or: “Sarakenians”) somewhat like “Scythians,” was not a self-designation for a specific group of people (though the term itself may have arisen in connection with Saraka / Saraca, a city in the Sinai desert). Rather, it was an outsider category devised in tandem with stereotypes of apparently nomadic peoples of a broad region, in this case, the Sinai desert and Arabia (Arabia Felix). One of the earliest mentions of Saracens occurs briefly in Ptolemy’s Geography (6.7.21; the region is also mentioned in 5.17.3), from the second century CE (for further uses of this designation by subsequent authors, go to this link). For Judeans and Christians, this was an outsider designation to follow still others, as the following comment by Eusebios (around 300 CE) clarifies: “Through his female slave Hagar, Abraham fathers Ishmael, from whom come the descent group of Ishmaelites, later called Hagarenes, and finally Saracens” (Eusebius, Chronicle GCS 47.24a; cf. Eucherius, Instructions 2 = CSEL 31.150-151 [fifth century CE]; cf. see Hilhorst 2010). The term becomes more common among Christian authors from the third century CE on.

By Photios’ time, “Saracen” becomes an alternative, derogatory designation for “Muslim,” one link in a long history of racializing Muslims. But throughout late antiquity, Saracens were described in Christian sources, including the Sinai martyr stories (link), as bandit peoples and barbarians who were violent towards Christians. These narrative descriptions were crafted, of course, to underline the hardships and virtues of Christians, and thus tell us nothing about the peoples themselves. In the summary of Nonnosos below, we again see the standard trope of monstrosity and wonders encountered in foreign lands, particularly in the five thousand elephants and the animalesque hairiness and nudity of the people. The author, however, hesitates to describe them as completely uncivilized. Nonossos leaves the reader with an impression of a kindly, if strange, subhuman creature.

Works consulted: A. Hilhorst, “Ishmaelites, Hagarenes, Saracens,” Abraham, the Nations, and the Hagarites, eds. M. Goodman, G.H. van Kooten, and J.T.A.G.M. van Ruiten (Leiden: Brill, 2010) 421-434.

Source of the translations: John Henry Freese, The Library of Photius: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 1920), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Introduction to Nonnosos’ ambassadorial experience to various eastern and southern peoples]

3 Read the History of Nonnosos (or: Nonnosus), containing a description of his embassy to the Ethiopians, Amerites [i.e. probably the Homerites / Himyarites in what is now Yemen], and Saracens, then the most powerful of peoples (ethnē), as well as to other eastern peoples. At this time Justinian was emperor [527-565 CE] of the Romans, and Kaisos was tribal leader (phylarchos) of the Saracens. This Kaisos was the grandson of Arethas, himself a tribal leader, to whom Nonnosos’s grandfather was sent as ambassador, during the reign of Anastasius [491-518 CE], to conclude a treaty of peace. Nonnosos’s father Abrames had in like manner been sent on an embassy to Alamundaros, tribal leader of the Saracens, during the reign of Justin [518-527 CE], and was successful in procuring the release of Timostratus and John, two Roman generals who were prisoners of war.

Kaisos, to whom Nonnosos was sent, was chief of two of the most illustrious Saracen descent groups (genē), the Chindenians and Maadenians. Before Nonnosos was appointed ambassador, his father had been sent to this same Kaisos by Justinian, and had concluded a treaty of peace, on condition that Kaisos’s son Mavias should be taken as a hostage to Byzantion [Constantinople / Istanbul, centre of the eastern Roman empire at this point]. After this, Nonnosos was entrusted with a threefold mission: to Kaisos, to induce him, if possible, to visit the emperor, to Elesbaas, king of the Axoumitians [inhabitants of Axoumis, modern Axum, Ethiopia], and to the Ameritians. Axoumis is a very large city, and may be considered the capital of Ethiopia. It lies more southeast than the Roman empire. Nonnosos, in spite of the treacherous attacks of the peoples, perils from wild beasts, and many difficulties and dangers on the journey, successfully accomplished his mission, and returned in safety to his native land.

He relates that Kaisos, after Abrames had been sent to him a second time, set out for Byzantion, having previously divided his tribal leadership between his brothers Ambros and Yezid. He brought a large number of his subjects with him, and was appointed administrator of Palestine by the emperor.

He tells us that the ancient name for what are now called sandalia (sandals) was arbylai, and that phakiolion (turban) was called phasōlis.

[Customs of the Saracens in the Red Sea area]

He tells us that most of the Saracens, those who live in Phoenikon as well as beyond it and the Taurenian mountains, have a sacred meeting-place consecrated to one of the gods, where they assemble twice a year. One of these meetings lasts a whole month, almost to the middle of spring, when the sun enters Taurus; the other lasts two months, and is held after the summer solstice. During these meetings complete peace prevails, not only amongst themselves, but also with all the natives. Even the animals are at peace both with themselves and with human beings. Other strange, more or less fabulous information is also given.

He tells us that Adoulis [perhaps Thula in Yemen] is fifteen days’ journey from Axoumis. On his way there, he and his companions saw a remarkable sight in the neighbourhood of Aue, midway between Axoumis and Adoulis. This was a large number of elephants, nearly five thousand. They were feeding in a large plain, and the inhabitants found it difficult to approach them or drive them from their pasture. This was what they saw on their journey.


We must also say something about the climatic contrarieties of summer and winter between Aue and Axoumis. When the sun enters Cancer, Leo, and Virgo, it is summer as far as Aue, as with us, and the atmosphere is extremely dry. But from Aue to Axoumis and the rest of Ethiopia, it is severe winter, not throughout the day, but beginning from midday, the sky being covered with clouds and the country flooded with violent rains. At that time also the Nile, spreading over Egypt, overflows and irrigates the land. But when the sun enters Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces, the atmosphere, conversely, floods the country of the Adoulitians as far as Aue, while it is summer from Aue to Axoumis and the rest of Ethiopia, and the fruits of the earth are ripe.

[Peoples near Pharsan, with physical description]

During his voyage from Pharsan, Nonnosos, on reaching the last of the islands, had a remarkable experience. He there saw certain creatures of human shape and form, very short, black-skinned, their bodies entirely covered with hair. The men were accompanied by women of the same appearance, and by boys still shorter. All were naked, women as well as men, except for a short apron of skin round their loins. There was nothing wild or savage about them. Their speech was human, but their language was unintelligible even to their neighbours, and still more so to Nonnosos and his companions. They live on shell-fish and fish cast up on the shore. According to Nonnosos, they were very timid, and when they saw him and his companions, they shrank from them as we do from monstrous wild beasts.

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