Ethnicity of Medieval Islamic People
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Medieval Islamic Ethnicity

man playing a harp while another person listens
Harpist and listener (Seljuk, Iran, ca. 1200 AD,
now in the Freer Gallery)

Some young Turkish, Mongol, Kurdish and Christian boys were bought from their families to be special slaves. They were raised in dormitories and well educated and trained in fighting. When they grew up, they became Mamluks or Janissaries - soldiers and advisors for the Muslim caliphs and sultans. Often these slaves became very powerful and famous. Some of them, like Saladin, even became rulers themselves.

seated man with black hair
From Cairo (Fatimid, ca. 1000 AD)

As this suggests, there were people of many different races and skin colors living in the Islamic Empire. Some Janissaries were Christian boys, from Eastern Europe, and pale-skinned. Many of the people living in West Asia were the descendants of the Mesopotamians and the Assyrians, and a little darker-skinned. The Jews, too, were mainly colored like Arabs today. Enslaved people, who had originally come from Africa, were black. Further south, in Egypt and North Africa, people were a little bit darker still, especially in southern Egypt and the Sahara. Across the Sahara, in West Africa and East Africa, people were really black.

Then in the eastern part of the Islamic Empire, in Iran, people were more Asiatic-looking. These were the Turks and the Kurds (the Mongols were Turkish). In India, at the eastern end of the Islamic empire, the people were more Indo-European looking, but again darker-skinned.

Learn by doing: playing polo
Families in the Islamic Empire

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Islamic people:

Women in medieval Islam
More about the Islamic Empire
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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