The Age of Exploration That Could Have Been: An Expedition to Discover the Wall of Gog and Magog

By Rasul Jafariyan | Translated by Sayyid Burair Abbas

Around the year 230 AH (845 CE), Wathiq Abbasid dispatched an exploratory group to discover the location of the barrier of Ya’juj and Ma’juj towards the Caucasus region. Simultaneously, under the supervision of Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi, another expedition was sent to Rome to locate the cave of the Seven Sleepers. This marked the first official effort to send a scientific group on a geographical exploration, but unfortunately not continued. The aim of presenting this historical text is to reflect on the epistemological methods of Muslims in geographical knowledge, which, like many sciences of that time, remained incomplete and speculative.

The source of geographical reports by Muslim scholars in the early Islamic centuries could include their own travels, accounts from merchants or political envoys, as well as travelogues written professionally by individuals engaged in the art of travel writing.

They were well aware that to obtain accurate information, they needed “observation” and the recording of reports gathered from travellers or inhabitants of those lands. This was commonplace for ordinary lands, but for sacred lands, areas mentioned in myths, and those described as wonders of the world, their sources could include news, traditions, texts from the People of the Book, and myths that existed among nations about these places.

Regarding some sources, a combination of these two sources was used. That is, geographers added a part from empirical sources and a part from religious, semi-religious, and mythological sources. For example, this was the case with Mount Damavand, or as the ancients called it, Denavand. Similar combined accounts existed for certain seas, rivers, or regions that held religious sanctity. Many such examples are well known to us.

When it comes to the observations of individuals and discerning how much of their reports are narrative or anecdotal versus factual and natural, we understand that these reports often blend local traditions with their own observations. Rarely do we find documented accounts with cited sources in ancient geographical works. However, some geographers, like al-Maqdisi, embarked on journeys themselves and directly recorded information. In such cases, notes derived from their own observations naturally hold the highest value.

Our discussion aims to evaluate the epistemological value of the information presented in geographical texts. Existing works are rich in significant knowledge that can reasonably demonstrate the geographical knowledge of Muslims. However, it’s important to recognize the blending of stories and observations as a common occurrence.

In this context, distinctions must be made between various works authored by different individuals. Some writers approached geography with professionalism and precision, employing geographical terminology and providing relative geographical concepts based on maps when discussing cities, roads, mountains, or seas. Yet, other works introduced into this field, akin to many local histories, often lacked a scientific understanding of geography but endeavoured, for example, to offer information about their own city from a biased perspective.

Many books extolling the virtues of cities contain data that may not be scientifically verifiable but should still be considered for their contextual use.

Wall of Gog and Magog and Their Connection with End-of-Time Matters

In this regard, information pertaining to places mentioned in the Quran or Hadith possesses a distinct quality. Gardens of Eden, the Sacred Land, the barrier of Ya’juj and Ma’juj, and many other places discussed in religious texts are of special interest to such writers.

Even professional geographers compile information and provide explanations in this field because their audience seeks such knowledge. This is where new sources emerge, sources that hold significant importance in satisfying the thirst of religious readers.

We understand that these geographical centers are somewhat related to eschatological events, and therefore, every Muslim is interested in understanding what will happen in those times and whether it relates to them and their place.

For example, knowing from which city Dajjal will emerge, such as Isfahan or another location, is somewhat related to geography. Similarly, discussions about signs of the Hour and events preceding the Day of Judgment also hold this importance regarding certain regions. Consider this narration:

“And know that Al-Bara’ bin ‘Azib and Hudhaifa bin al-Yamān(or Aseed) said: ‘We talked about the Hour one day in the presence of the Prophet (peace be upon him). He appeared and said, ‘What were you talking about?’ We said, ‘We were discussing the Hour.’ He said, ‘It will not come until you see ten signs before it: Smoke, Dajjal, the beast of the earth, a landslide in the east, a landslide in the west, a landslide in the Arabian Peninsula, the emergence of Ya’juj and Ma’juj (Gog and Magog),  fire that will emerge from the land of Aden, the descent of Jesus, and the rising of the sun from the west.'”[1]

This narration underscores the significance of geographical contexts in understanding and preparing for eschatological events according to Islamic teachings.

Another point in this issue was where is “Mutala’ al-Shams”? The discussion here was about the definition of East. In this context, and to clarify this interpretation, stories that were a kind of geographical report were included in the sources. Of course, not necessarily geographical sources, but sometimes interpretations and on the occasion of the fact that people were looking for interpretations for such interpretations. Here, a narration which is a kind of “geographical report” related to the concept of the east and the dam of Gog and Magog has been narrated, which is interesting:

And Amr bin Malik says that a man came to Samarqand and people gathered around him. He said: I was going to die in China. Then I asked about the news of that group when the sun would rise on them. They said: There is a day and night between you and them. I got paid to take me there, I saw a group of people who had made their own carpet and sat on it and wore other clothes instead of clothes, and my friend who was with me understood their language and told them: We have come to see that the sun was rising, and it was early in the morning when we reached there and we were in the door when we heard a noise, we left the hash and fell, when we returned to the hash, I saw them rubbing me with oil, where I saw that the sun appeared on the water, like a beauty that falls on the water. And the side of the sky was attached to that water like the side of a tent falls to the ground, then the sun inclined and rose to the top because the sun was attached to it, they took me and my friend in the cellar. They used to sow it and put it in the sun until it was cooked. When Dhu al-Qarnayn looked east, he wanted to see those people who are under the North Pole, near Gog and Magog”[2]

In some narrations, the story of the departure of Gog and Magog is considered to be the conditions of the Day of Resurrection: “Kalbi says that the dam is in the direction of Banat al-Na’sh.”[3] Then, after reciting Dhul-Qarnayn and the story of Gog and Magog, he remembered the time of the Resurrection because the emergence of Gog and Magog is one of the conditions of the Resurrection”[4]. Thus they are somewhere, say one of the heavens, to come back down to earth and cause trouble.

Of course, this is not the only interpretation of “East” in the Qur’an, which has been captured by wonderful interpretations and interpretations on the occasion of the story of Gog and Magog, but it is also the interpretation of “al-‘Ālamīn” in “Rab al-‘Ālamīn” which is the amazing geographical statement that in the order of “Travelling around the world” has been mentioned for it. For example: “A group of scholars have said that God Almighty has three hundred and sixty thousand worlds, including seven heavens, seven earths, and seven seas. And every world is such that there is no more left, and these are every generation of the worldly creatures, and these angels of every world are a group. After these three hundred and sixty thousand worlds for the first time, the greatest world is these seven heavens and what you see is the seven heavens, and what you see is the seven earths and what you see is the seven earths, and what you see is the seven seas and what you see is the seven seas. It is one of various wonders. And when you count all this and count it, it will come to three hundred and sixty thousand. And a group of scholars have said that these worlds are eighteen thousand worlds, and of these, four thousand five hundred worlds are near the east, four thousand five hundred worlds are near the west, and four thousand five hundred worlds are at the northern limit, and four thousand and Five hundred worlds are the limit of the south. This is eighteen thousand worlds. And Gog and Magog are among the eighteen thousand.[5]

The story of Gog and Magog is also related to “ascension”, even there it is “universal” and it is geographically vast and there are strange things in it. In this interpretation, it is as if these two have stayed there, i.e. the heavens, until they come at the time of resurrection: So Gabriel took me to Gog and Magog, and I presented my religion to them, and they did not accept it. And this Gog, Magog, Tars, Tafil, Maluk and Masukh are all from hell. And this Gog and Magog will come out at the time of resurrection. When the resurrection is near, they will come out.[6] There are also details about their appearance.

The story of resurrection, i.e. resurrection, is one aspect of the story, and the other aspect is the return of Jesus (AS) and Mahdi (AS), and these two people will return at a close distance at that time. In fact, all of these things are involved in the end of time sedition: “And they asked the messenger, peace be upon him, about Gog and Magog and their sedition. He said: They will come out at the end of time. And between Gog and Magog, the coming out of the Mahdi, and the descent of Jesus, peace be upon him, from the sky, there should be nothing between these four. And they will all come out within a few years, and they will all perish in a few years. And Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari says that: I saw into the book “Fitan”, that these four signs that we mentioned will be found at the end of time, all this when four hundred years have passed since the emigration, and they will be found everywhere. . As the Almighty said: And they are from the whole hump. Then the Mahdi will come out from behind them. And Mahdi is the caliph of Jesus. And Jesus will come from the sky to the earth, and the whole earth will be full of sedition from the Dajjal and from the hand of Gog and Magog. So make Mahdi the caliph, so that Mahdi will come and cleanse this world from sedition, from Dajjal and his followers, and Gog and Magog, and drown them in the sea. So, the world will return to righteousness. And that thing didn’t last long until the evil and resurrected faces appeared. And this hadith was taken out by Muhammad bin Jarir from the book “Fitan”.[7]

And elsewhere, he says: “In the book of Fitan, we found that there are four signs of the Resurrection, which will all appear close to one another: one is Gog and Magog who will come forth, the second is the Dajjal who will come forth, the third is the Mahdi who will come forth, and the fourth is Jesus, son of Mary, who will descend from the heavens.”[8]

Accordingly, there is an initial discussion about the location of Gog and Magog, which relates to the barrier of Alexander or Dhu al-Qarnayn and is presumably somewhere on this very earth. The next discussion is about their dwelling in a place from which they are expected to emerge before the appearance of Jesus or the Mahdi (peace be upon him) and shortly before the Resurrection.

In these statements, Gog and Magog are also connected to Jabalqā and Jabalṣā. Essentially, it seems the task of these two is to pierce the barrier of Dhu al-Qarnayn, thus they do not have a good reputation. They are inhabitants of hell, while the people of Jabalqā and Jabalṣā are inhabitants of paradise! (Translation of Tafsir al-Tabari: 1/198).

Our discussion is not about the nature of Gog and Magog themselves, nor about what kind of beings they are and how they lived. Rather, the discussion concerns the geography of the barriers associated with them, and indeed, there are many detailed accounts on this topic. However, our goal is not to determine this location but to understand the empirical perspective of Muslims in the field of geography and how much effort they put into discovering it.

In reality, most geographers have special explanations for the barrier of Gog and Magog and have attempted to provide explanations due to the attention Muslims pay to this issue based on the Quran. This area, like some other regions mentioned in the Quran, including the locations of some destroyed peoples, has not been precisely identified geographically. Given this need, some have tried to gather information from every possible “source.”

Our aim here is to explore what has been expressed with what kind of epistemological perspective about such a geographical region, one of the areas mentioned by the Quran from the ancient world, and what empirical efforts Muslims have made to understand it.

In fact, our story, from a knowledge perspective, relates to a travel report—a report that was purposefully undertaken to gain an understanding of the barrier. In other words, it was a purposeful endeavor by the government to understand the state of Dhu al-Qarnayn’s barrier, a task that was carried out by Wathiq Abbasi (227-232 AH). For this purpose, he chose a professional translator known as Sallam the Interpreter.

The story goes that Wathiq had a dream in which the barrier of Dhu al-Qarnayn had been breached and water, or rather a flood, was flowing. To alleviate his concerns, he decided to send a delegation to investigate the geographical location of the barrier. This delegation travelled a long distance and then wrote a report about the region where he believed the barrier of Dhu al-Qarnayn was located.

In terms of this discussion, what is important is that this journey, if it indeed took place, can be considered a research expedition. It would be one of the earliest research expeditions, although there may have been other forms of such journeys, possibly for espionage or peripheral purposes, such as those undertaken by a merchant. However, from the perspective of a research and geographical exploration journey, it is highly significant.

Sallam the Interpreter’s Exploratory Trip to Azerbaijan’s Darband During the Reign of Wathiq Abbasi

Sallam the Interpreter’s report describes the route from Samarra to Derband in Azerbaijan. It includes several pages of reporting on various issues and concludes with the return journey, which involves circling the Caspian Sea from the north, travelling to Samarqand, then returning to Nishapur, and finally to Samarra.

The first geographer to document this report was Ibn Khordadbeh, who wrote his book “Al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik” between around 280 and 300 AH. In fact, there is no mention of this event before him. He both heard the story orally from Sallam the Interpreter and compared it with the written report that Sallam had prepared. Thus, the account is natural, although many statements may be fanciful and based on the tales and stories of the inhabitants of those regions.

The first statement of Ibn Khordadbeh is this:

Description of the wall of Gog and Magog:

Sallam the interpreter narrated to me that when al-Wathiq Billah saw in his dream that the wall which Dhul-Qarnayn had built between us and Gog and Magog had a breach, he sought a man to go to the place and report back to him. Ashinas said that there was no one more suitable for the task than Sallam the interpreter, who spoke thirty languages. Al-Wathiq summoned me and said, “I want you to go to the wall, inspect it, and bring me a report.” He assigned fifty strong young men to accompany me, gave me five thousand dinars, and paid me a compensation of ten thousand dirhams. He also ordered that each of the fifty men be given a thousand dirhams and provisions for a year.

According to the full Persian report from Ibn Khordadbeh’s book: “He told me: Al-Wathiq Billah saw in his dream that the wall which Dhul-Qarnayn built between us and Gog and Magog had developed a crack. He wanted someone to go to the site and get information about it. Ashnas said: There is no one more suitable than Sallam the interpreter, who speaks thirty languages. Al-Wathiq summoned me and commanded me to visit the site and bring him a report. He assigned fifty strong young men to accompany me, gave me five thousand dinars, and paid me ten thousand dirhams as compensation. He also ordered that each of the fifty men be given a thousand dirhams and provisions for a year, and instructed to prepare cloaks for the men, have them wear leather coats, and provided them with fur garments and wooden saddles. He dispatched two hundred mules to carry provisions and water for the companions. We set out from Samarra with a letter from Al-Wathiq Billah addressed to Ishaq bin Ismail, the governor of Armenia, whose center was Tbilisi. The letter instructed him to assist us. Ishaq recommended us to the Sarir official, who wrote to the King of the Alans to aid us. The King of the Alans wrote to the King of the Khazars, and we stayed with the King of the Khazars for one day and night until five guides joined us. We traveled with them for twenty-six days until we reached a foul-smelling black land. We had brought vinegar to mitigate the stench of that land. We traveled for ten days in that land until we reached ruined cities. We then traveled for another twenty days. We inquired about the condition of those cities and were told that they had been visited and destroyed by Gog and Magog. We then reached fortresses near the mountain where part of the wall was located. The inhabitants of the fortresses spoke Arabic and Persian, were Muslims, recited the Quran, and had schools and mosques. They asked about our origin, and we informed them that we were the emissaries of the Commander of the Faithful. They looked at us in amazement and asked:

We said, “The Commander of the Faithful!” They asked, “Is he old or young?” We replied, “He is young.” Their astonishment increased, and they asked, “Where is he?” We answered, “In Iraq, in a city called Samarra.” They said, “We have never heard of this.”

The distance between each of those fortresses was one or two farsakhs, sometimes a little less or more. Then we reached a city called Aika, which had an area of ten farsakhs and iron gates that opened from the top. Inside the city, there were fields and stone mills. This was the city where Dhul-Qarnayn and his forces had stationed themselves. It was a three-day journey to the wall, and between it and the wall, there were many fortresses and villages. On the third day, we reached the wall, which was a circular mountain. It is said that Gog and Magog were two races; Gog was taller than Magog, and each of them ranged from one to one and a half cubits, sometimes a bit less or more.

Then we reached a high mountain with a fortress on it and the wall that Dhul-Qarnayn had built in a depression between two mountains. Its width was two hundred cubits and it blocked a path that led from the outside to the surrounding land. The base was dug thirty cubits deep and filled with iron and brass up to ground level. Then, two parallel arms extended from the mountain across the depression, each twenty-five cubits wide and fifty cubits thick. Apparently, ten cubits of it extended below the ground, and the entire structure was made of iron bricks covered with brass. Each brick was one and a half cubits in size and four fingers thick. Iron hooks, one hundred and twenty cubits long, were placed on both arms. Each hook was ten cubits wide and five cubits high, built with iron bricks and brass to the top of the mountain, reaching as far as the eye could see. The upper part of the wall had iron battlements with two horns on each side, each horn leaning toward the other. Each battlement was five cubits long, four cubits wide, and the wall had seventy-three battlements. A double-leaf iron gate hung from it; each leaf was fifty cubits wide, fifty-seven cubits high, and five cubits thick, secured with a latch as big as a hook. The wind did not blow through the door or the mountain; it seemed as if it was designed that way. On the door, there was a lock seven cubits long and one cubit in diameter, which two men could not lift. The lock was twenty-five cubits above the ground, and on it was a bolt five cubits long with a key hanging from it, one and a half cubits long with twelve teeth, each the size of a mortar handle, and four spans in diameter. The key was attached to a chain soldered to the door, eight cubits long and four spans thick. The ring holding the chain was like a catapult ring. The door pivot was ten cubits long and one hundred cubits wide, and what was below the two arms and visible was five cubits high. All these measurements were in black cubits.

By the door, there were two fortresses, each two hundred cubits by one hundred cubits, with two trees and a stream of fresh water flowing between them. One of the fortresses contained the building tools used to construct the wall, with iron cauldrons and iron plates. On each cauldron stand (tripod), there were four cauldrons like those used for making soap, and there were remnants of iron bricks fused together due to rust.

The chief of those fortresses would ride out every Monday and Thursday. Just as the caliphate is inherited, the guardianship of these gates was also inherited. He would ride out with three men, each wearing an iron collar around his neck. A ladder was placed by the gate, and he would climb to the top rung of the ladder. Early in the day, they would strike the lock, producing a sound like the buzzing of bees. Then it would become quiet until noon when they would strike it again, listening carefully to the sound. The noise was louder the second time. They would then remain silent until the afternoon when they would strike it again, this time producing a wailing and moaning sound. They would sit until sunset and then leave. The purpose of striking the lock was to inform those behind the gate that there were guards and protectors who would prevent any damage to the gate.

Near this location, there was a large fortress ten farsakhs wide and with an area of one hundred farsakhs. Sallam said: I asked the people of the fortress who were with me if any damage had ever occurred to this gate. They replied: No damage has ever been done to it except for this crack, which was as thin as a thread. I asked: Is there any danger from this crack? They said: No, the thickness of this gate is five cubits according to Alexander’s cubit, each cubit and a half being equal to one black cubit. He said: I approached the gate and scraped the crack with a knife, gathering a piece of iron the size of a dirham or more into a cloth to show Al-Wathiq Billah. On the right leaf of the gate, at the top, an inscription in iron read in the first Yemeni language: “When the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will make it into dust, and the promise of my Lord is true.”

When we returned, our guides directed us towards the region of Khorasan, ruled by a king named Lab. We then left that area and travelled to the kingdom of Tabanwin, which was subject to tribute. We stayed there for a few days before moving on. After eight months, we reached Samarqand, then Asbijab, crossed the Balkh River, and travelled to Shurisan, Bukhara, and Termez. We then reached Nishapur. During our journey, some of the men with us died, and others who survived fell ill; twenty-two men in total. Those who died were buried in their clothes, and those who became ill were left in some of the villages. During the return trip, fourteen more men died, so by the time we reached Nishapur, there were only fourteen of us left.

The people of the fortresses had provided us with sufficient provisions and other necessities. Then we went to Abdullah bin Tahir, who gave me eight thousand dinars and five hundred dirhams to each man who was with me, and five dirhams to the horsemen and three dirhams to the foot soldiers, for each day. Of the mules that accompanied us, only twenty-three remained healthy by the time we reached Samarra. I presented myself to Al-Wathiq and recounted the story, showing him the piece of iron I had scraped from the gate. He praised God and ordered that alms and charity be given and that each man who had accompanied me be given a thousand dinars. The journey to and from the wall took sixteen months and our return took twelve months and a few days. Sallam the interpreter told me all these details and dictated to me from a book he had written for Al-Wathiq Billah.[9]

The last sentence emphasizes Ibn Khordadbeh’s assertion to validate the report. He states that in addition to hearing the information verbally from Sallam the interpreter, he compared it with the written text that had been prepared for al-Wathiq, and in fact, Sallam read that text to Ibn Khordadbeh: “We reached the wall in sixteen months and returned in twelve months and some days. Sallam the interpreter told me this whole story, then dictated it to me from a book that he had written for al-Wathiq bi-Allah.”[10]

Later sources have written this report based on Ibn Khordadbeh. If the book Al-Masalik wa Al-Mamalik was written around 280 to 300 AH, one of the first people to quote it was Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani (d. 365 AH), who quoted the exact Arabic text. It is evident that he trusted it and naturally considered it important.[11]

The report of Sallam the interpreter in ancient geographical texts after Ibn Khordadbeh.

The mentioned report in “Al-Alaq Al-Nafisa” by Ibn Rustah (3rd century) refers to this account of Ibn Khordadbeh.[12] However, his wording regarding the validity of the story is somewhat ambiguous. In fact, he both doubts and asserts its correctness: “Ibn Khordadbeh said, ‘Sallam the interpreter told me, and he used to translate the Turkish books that were sent to the Sultan for Al-Wathiq bi-Allah. He said when Al-Wathiq bi-Allah saw that the wall built by Dhul-Qarnayn between us and Gog and Magog was open, he summoned me and said, ‘Inspect it and report back to me,’ and he assigned a group to accompany me… Ibn Khordadbeh said, ‘Sallam the interpreter told me this whole story, then dictated it to me from a book he had written for Al-Wathiq, and we wrote it down to highlight the errors and exaggerations because such a story cannot be accepted as true. However, I found it consistent.’ … Such statements are, of course, not accepted, but I found him to be in agreement with me.”[13]

Maqdisī (d. 380), another geographer, also reported this account from Ibn Khordadbeh’s book: “The wall of Gog and Magog is located beyond it, about two months’ journey from the wall built by Dhul-Qarnayn. I read in the book of Ibn Khordadbeh and others about the story of this wall in a uniform manner, and the wording and attribution are to Ibn Khordadbeh because he was the caliph’s minister and more capable of accessing the knowledge in the library of the Commander of the Faithful. He also says that Sallam the interpreter told him that when Al-Wathiq bi-Allah saw in a dream that the wall built by Dhul-Qarnayn between us and Gog and Magog was open, he sent him and said, ‘Inspect it and report back to me.'”[14]

The Dispatch of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi to Discover the Cave of the Seven Sleepers

It is interesting that right at the beginning, from the words of Sallam the interpreter, it is mentioned directly after the above phrase: “And Al-Wathiq dispatched Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi the astronomer to Tarkhan, the king of the Khazars.”[15] This sentence appears as a parenthetical statement and is unrelated to the main story, except to show that Al-Wathiq made a similar effort for another type of geographical information. Anyway, the story of Sallam continues, but the final part is summarized.[16]

It is worth mentioning that the story of the dispatch of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi is also narrated by Ibn Khordadbeh himself. He writes: “And Al-Wathiq bi-Allah sent Muhammad ibn Musa the astronomer to the lands of Rome to observe the Companions of the Cave, and he wrote to the Great Roman to send someone to guide him to them. Muhammad ibn Musa told me that the Great Roman sent someone with him to Kara, then they traveled four stages, and there was a mountain with a base less than a thousand cubits, and it had a tunnel from the surface of the earth leading to the place where the Companions of the Cave were.” (And the story continues).[17]

If this story is also true, it is clear that Al-Wathiq Abbasi, who was a follower of the Mu’tazilite school, was pursuing a specific line of inquiry. Although it appeared to have a religious aspect, it could be considered an independent scientific movement in the field of geography and geographical explorations. This story is also mentioned by Mas’udi in Muruj al-Dhahab[18] and by Biruni in al-Athar al-Baqiya[19] and other sources. For more on this, see: The History of Geographical Writings in the Islamic World by Krachkovsky.[20]

The Report of Sallam the Interpreter in Later Geographical Texts

Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi (d. 560 AH) mentions in Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq that he took the account from Ibn Khordadbeh’s book and also references the book of Jihani: “As for the barrier of Gog and Magog, it is something that has been mentioned in books and has been continuously reported. Among those who reported it is Sallam the interpreter, as related by Ubayd Allah ibn Khordadbeh in his book, and also by Abu Nasr al-Jihani, who said….”[21]

Al-Bakri (d. 487 AH) also includes the story of Sallam the interpreter in his book al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik and introduces him as “he was the one who translated the Turkish books that were sent to Al-Wathiq”[22]

A surprising point in Al-Bakri’s account is that before reporting Sallam the interpreter’s story, he mentions Ibn ‘Afir saying: “Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan sent 25 people to the barrier of Gog and Magog to see its condition. He wrote to the king of the Khazars to allow them passage and sent gifts for them. They went until they reached two mountains….” This report is five lines long but indicates that a similar account existed before Sallam the interpreter’s story.[23]

Later geographers have uniformly included the story of Sallam the interpreter, and this narration continues until the time of Yaqut al-Hamawi, although he presents it briefly and ends with a question mark: “I have written what I found about the barrier in books, and I do not assert the truth of what I have presented due to differing accounts, and Allah knows best its authenticity. In any case, there is no doubt about the truth of the barrier, as it is mentioned in the holy book.”[24]

Yaqut’s critique is based on the discrepancies in the details of the reports, which is surprising considering that all sources refer to Ibn Khordadbeh. It is necessary to admit that we are not fully aware of these discrepancies, and aside from the slightly more detailed account by al-Idrisi (who might have had access to a more extensive version of Ibn Khordadbeh’s al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik), the other reports are very similar. However, all texts should be compared to understand Yaqut’s critique precisely, and if the minor discrepancies should not be considered grounds for outright rejection, it might be possible to respond accordingly.

Sallam’s report is also mentioned in the book by Ibn Wasef Shah, who probably died in 599 AH.[25]

After Yaqut, sources like Kharidat al-Aja’ib wa Faridat al-Ghara’ib[26] and the author of al-Rawd al-Mi’tar (Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Mun’im al-Himyari, d. 900 AH) also included this report.[27]

The Report of Sallam the Interpreter in the Historical Books

Tha’alibi Marghani (350-429 AH), one of the literati and historians who reported this account, states: “The report by Sallam the interpreter about the barrier, including the description of the gate, the hinge, the lock, the key, and the cylindrical rods, is not reliable because it does not align with the description given in the Qur’an…”[28].

Gradually, the narration of this story extended from geographical works to historical books as well. Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597 AH) was one of the first to include it in his major work “al-Muntazam”[29]. Naturally, his source was also Ibn Khordadbeh.

The author of “Mujmal al-Tawarikh” (6th century AH) included it in Persian without mentioning Khordadbeh’s name.

The translation is beautiful, so in this virtual space where there is little cost, it is best to include this summary translation as well:

“And it is narrated by Sallam the interpreter that the Commander of the Faithful, Al-Wathiq Billah, saw in a dream that the barrier of Gog and Magog had been opened. Then he ordered me to prepare and go there to see it firsthand. He gave me fifty men, fifty thousand dinars, ten thousand dirhams in provisions, and ordered one thousand dirhams for each man. He also gave me a year’s supply of food and two hundred camels to carry the provisions. He wrote a letter for me to Ishaq ibn Isma’il, the ruler of Armenia, and we went there. Ishaq gave me a letter to the ruler of Sarir, and we reached there. He made arrangements and sent a guide and a letter to the king of Alan, who then sent us to the king of Filan Shah. From there, they wrote a letter to the king of Tarkhun. We went there and stayed for a day and a night. He sent fifty men with us and made arrangements. We traveled for twenty-five days until we reached a black land with a terrible stench of decay. We had prepared fragrant substances to counteract the smell, guided by the Khazars, and we traveled in this condition for twenty-nine days.

We asked about the situation and the place, and they said: ‘In this land, countless people have died.’ Then we reached ruined cities and traveled for twenty days. They said: ‘These are all cities that were destroyed by Gog and Magog years ago.'”

Afterward, we reached numerous fortresses near the barrier, on a ridge of it. There, we found a people who were Muslims, recited the Quran, had mosques, and schools for teaching, as was their custom, and they spoke Arabic and Persian very fluently. They asked us about our situation. We said: “We are the messengers of the Commander of the Faithful.” They were astonished and, in amazement, asked each other: “The Commander of the Faithful?” Then they asked: “Is he young or old, and where is he?” We said: “He is young and resides in the city of Samarra in Iraq.” They said: “We have never heard of this before.”

Then we headed towards the barrier and the mountain. We found a smooth mountain without any vegetation, very massive, and a mountain cut off by a valley, its width being one hundred and fifty spans. Opposite it, there were two iron pillars built on each side of the valley, each being twenty-five spans wide and ten cubits thick, extending outwards like a tray. All of it was made of iron bricks and soldered with molten copper, and fifty spans high. There was an iron gate built into it, with its corners resting on the pillars, extending one hundred and twenty spans across these pillars. On each side of the gate, there was a segment ten cubits high and five cubits wide; above this gate, there were iron bricks, as far as the eye could see, rising up to the top of the original mountain, with battlements constructed on top and iron horns interlocked. There was an iron door hanging on it, consisting of two panels, each fifty spans by fifty spans and five spans thick, with hinges as wide as the gate.

Above this door, fifteen cubits high, there was a lock weighing seven minas and a span in circumference, and five cubits above this lock, there was a ring longer than the lock, with enormous hoops, and a key one and a half spans long with twelve teeth, each as large as a powerful pestle, hanging in an eight-span chain, and its circumference four spans, hanging in a larger ring than a catapult chain. The threshold of the door was ten spans long, extending a hundred spans wide, straight between the two pillars, and what was visible was five spans, all measured by the black cubit.

The leader of these fortresses would ride out every Friday with ten riders, each carrying an iron mallet weighing fifty minas. They would strike the lock three times forcefully, so those near the barrier would hear the sound; thus, they knew that the guards were still present. They could hear the sound and the commotion of those on the other side. Near this mountain, there was a large fortress, ten parasangs by ten parasangs in area, and near the barrier were two other fortresses and a water spring. In one fortress, there were remnants of construction tools from the time of Dhu al-Qarnayn: large cauldrons for melting copper, like soap cauldrons, iron ladles, and iron bricks soldered with copper, each brick measuring one and a half spans long and the same width and about a handspan thick. We then asked if they had ever seen any of them (the people of Gog and Magog). They said: “At one time, many of them came to the battlements, each person no more than a handspan and a half tall. Then a black wind arose and blew them back. After that, we never saw them again.”

When we had seen all this, we decided to return. They provided us with guides and provisions. We emerged seven parasangs east of Samarqand and came to Abdullah ibn Tahir. He gave me a hundred thousand dirhams and five hundred dirhams to each of the men who were with me.

From there, we returned to Samarra and reported this story to the Commander of the Faithful. Our journey, from departure to return, lasted twenty-eight months. There is no account closer to the sight and description of the Barrier of Alexander than this one – and Allah knows best.”[30]

The final sentence is interesting from an epistemological perspective: “There is no account closer to the sight and description of the Barrier of Alexander than this one.”

Minhaj Siraj (d. 698) also briefly wrote that Al-Wathiq Billah sent Sallama(Sallam) the interpreter to bring him news about the Barrier of Alexander, as he had seen in a dream that the Barrier of Alexander had collapsed. Al-Wathiq gave Sallama a great amount of wealth and sent fifty thousand men with him. They traveled from Samarra to Khorasan and from there, according to one account, towards Khazar, and according to another, towards Karaj. They remained on that journey for two years and seven months and then returned. They brought back descriptions of the barrier, its length, width, height, the key, and the people assigned to guard it since the time of Dhu al-Qarnayn, as recorded in the stories.[31]

It is evident how much this story has taken on a legendary aspect. Qazwini also recounted this tale in both Aja’ib al-Makhluqat and Athar al-Bilad.[32] In later periods, it was also mentioned in Nihayat al-Arab[33] and al-Bidaya wa’l-Nihaya.[34]

Views of Researchers and Orientalists on Sallam the Interpreter’s Report

But what do modern scholars think about this report? On this matter, Kratchkovsky (d. 1951), in his outstanding work, “The History of Geographical Writings in the Islamic World” (translated by Abolghasem Payandeh, Tehran, 1379), provides an account of various researchers’ (especially Russians’) positions on the subject, which can help us evaluate their assessment of this report. Kratchkovsky writes:

“The famous journey of Sallam the Dragoman (translator) to the northern regions is associated with Caliph al-Wathiq, who was previously mentioned as an encourager of such travels. This travelogue holds particular significance for our Soviet homeland, and it is no surprise that it attracted attention more than two centuries ago. Bayer, one of our earliest academicians, wrote about Sallam the Dragoman in the first academic descriptions. Over the past seventy years, the scholarly community’s view on Sallam has not changed much. Although Sprenger considered it a ‘deliberate misleading’ in 1864/1281, and Grigoryev and Minorsky in 1937 viewed it as a mythical tale with several geographical names, opposing views should not be ignored. Since 1888/1306, de Goeje regarded this journey as a historical and undeniable event worthy of scholars’ attention, a view supported by Tomaschek, a reputable specialist in historical geography.

More recently, Vasiliev, a Byzantine scholar, believes that Sallam reported local narratives seen during his travels to the Caliph. This recent view seems justified, but the travelogue, like all other works of this kind, cannot be considered a geographical treatise. Instead, it is a collection of narrative materials and some personal observations presented in a literary form. First and foremost, the travelogue should be seen as credible because Ibn Khordadbeh recounts it in Sallam’s own words, adding at the end that he first heard it from Sallam and then transcribed the report Sallam gave to the Caliph. Al-Maqdisi’s commentary on Ibn Khordadbeh in this context also supports the narrative’s authenticity, stating, ‘He was the Caliph’s minister and had access to the Amir al-Mu’minin’s scientific treasury,’ and he heard the story directly from its author. This story was widely disseminated in Arab geographical writings, and early and later geographers such as Ibn Rustah, Yaqut, Abu Hamid al-Gharnati, al-Idrisi, al-Qazwini, al-Nuwayri, and others recounted it with minor variations. Al-Idrisi mentioned some parts that apparently were in Ibn Khordadbeh’s original text but have not survived in the current abbreviated version of his book.

The motive for sending this embassy, like that for sending Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi to investigate the news of the Companions of the Cave, was purely imaginative. The Caliph dreamt that the barrier Alexander the Great built to block Gog and Magog had been breached. This frightening dream might have been caused by rumors following the fall of the Uyghur state to the Kyrgyz in 840, regarding Turkish movements in Central Asia. Regardless of all the details, Sallam’s route was from Armenia and Georgia to the Khazar lands in the north, and from there eastward to the Caspian Sea, Lake Balkhash, and Zungaria, returning through Bukhara and Khorasan to Samarra in Iraq. Undoubtedly, he saw the famous Caucasian barrier at Derbent, and as de Goeje has demonstrated, it is entirely possible that he reached the Great Wall of China. The confusion in his report between the two walls can be explained by the fact that in al-Khwarizmi’s time, contemporary with Sallam, there were two narratives about the wall of Dhu al-Qarnayn, one placing it in the east and the other in the north. Sallam probably intended to record his observations while also conveying the Quranic narrative about the wall of Gog and Magog in a literary form. It is certainly impossible to limit his travel area to the region between Crimea and the Ural Mountains, as suggested in recent years by Zichy, a Hungarian scholar, who identified the wall with a mountain pass fortified by the Bulgars.

One of the historians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia concludes the discussion of Sallam as follows: ‘Undoubtedly, around 842-843, Sallam traveled eastward from the Caucasus and Khazar territories and then returned from his route through Berskhan, Taraz (Talas), and Samarqand to Khorasan, observing a wall or mountain pass resembling a wall during this journey.’ Thus, it can be said that recently, Sallam has gained some trust in scholarly circles. Some have tried to dismiss Sallam’s travelogue as merely a fictional tale, but we should not forget that the sources of geographical myths in Arabic writings are elsewhere and related to sea stories from the East such as India and the Malay Archipelago or the Maghreb, especially the eastern coasts of Africa. These stories flourished in the ports of the Caliphate like Basra, Siraf, and particularly Baghdad during the ninth/third century AH. Storytellers rarely included their tales in books, and these tales often survived through the writings of others, sometimes contemporaries or subsequent generations.”[35]

Thus, we become familiar with some of the perspectives on this report, with some considering it a myth and others trusting its authenticity.


[1] Tafsīr al-Tabari, v.18, pg. 526

Tāj al-Tarājim,  v.2, pg. 706 (Farsi, Tehran edition)

[2] Tafsīr al-Tha’labi, v.6, pg.192

Tāj al-Tarājim,  v.3, pg. 1331

[3] Banāt al-Na’ash refers to the Great Bear Constellation

[4] Tarīkh al-Khamīs, v.1, pg.103, Tāj al-Tarājim,  v.2, pg. 1341

[5] Tafsīr al-Tabari, v.1, pg.146, fn.1

[6] ‘Umdat al-Qāri Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, v.15, pg.233

Mustadrak ‘ala Sahihayn, v.5, pg.689

Tarīkh Al-Tabari, v.1, pg.70

[7] Tafsīr al-Tabari, v.18, pg.530

Bidāyah al-Nihāyah,v.19, pg.233

[8] Sahih Muslim, h. 2937

[9] Al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, pg.153-157

[10] Al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, pg.162-170

[11] Akhbār al-Buldān, pg.595-600

[12]  al-‘Allāq al-Nafīsah, pg.149

[13] al-‘Allāq al-Nafīsah, pg.149

[14] Ahsan al-Taqasīm fi Ma’rifah al-Aqālīn, pg.362

[15] ibid.,pg.362

[16] ibid., pg.365

[17] Al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, pg.106

[18] Murūj al-Dhahab, v.1,pg.348

[19] Athar al-Baqīyah, pg.360

[20] The History of Geographical Writings in the Islamic World, pg.116

[21] Nuzhat al-Mishtāq Fi Ikhtirāq al-Ãfāf, v.2, pg.934-938

[22] “Al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik, v.1, pg. 455-458

[23] ibid.,v.1, pg.455

[24] Mu’jām al-Buldān, v.3, pg.199-200

[25] Mukhtasar Ajā’ib al-Dunyah, pg.192-194

[26] Kharidah al-Ajā’ib wa Faridah al-Ghara’ib, pg.186

[27] Kitab al-Rawd al-Mitar, pg.310-311

[28] Ghurar al-Sayr, pg.440

[29] Al-Muntazam,v.1, pg.294-297

[30] Majmal Tawarīkh Wa Qasas, pg.379-380

[31] Tabaqāt al-Nāsiri,v.1, pg.115

[32] Athar al-Bilād wa Akhbār al-‘Ibād, pg.597

[33] Nihayah al-Arab Fi Fanūn al-Adab, v.14, pg.309

[34] Bidāyah al-Nihāyah, v.7, pg.125

[35] The History of Geographical Writings in the Islamic World, pg. 113-114