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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

The Qiyan: the Singers, Poets, Dancers, and Courtesans of Medieval Iraq


by Miftin Al-Hadithi





Some of you may remember Morjana from the Arabian Nights Tale "Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves." But, who were the slave girls, really? Miftin Al-Hadithi, has very kindly written this wonderful piece to introduce us to the legendary Qiyan of Baghdad.

Click on any of the images on this page to see more detail.

ABOUT THIS PAINTING: This painting of two dancing girls appears on the wall of Jausak Palace in Samarra, Iraq.



The Qiyan: the Singers, Dancers, and Courtesans of Medieval Iraq

A girl as fresh as the new moon
Has charmed my heart away.
I beg her slake my passion soon,
But she'll not name the day.
From burning passion though I swoon
No word of love she'll say.
I sigh for her, dawn, night and noon,
Her love's my strength and stay.

(Glubb, John Bagot, "Haroon al Rasheed and the Great Abbasids", p.124/125)

The above lines, according to the scholar Al-Suyuti, were addressed by the Caliph al-Mahdi to a singing girl, or qayna.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, the cultivation of music and poetry was at one of its heights in the Middle East, specifically in Baghdad. The courts of the caliphs were made up of a variety of different roles, but one of the most romanticized was that of the singing girl, or the qayna, known collectively as the qiyan.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows the Abbasid palace in Baghdad, Iraq. Courtesy of Oxford University. Copyright ER 2001.

The qiyan were the singing girls and courtesans of dynasties across the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. They performed in the tents and towns of pre-Islamic Arabia, and later in the imperial courts of Damascus, Cordoba, Samarqand, and much later in Cairo and Istanbul. Their legend, however, reached its height in early Abbasid era Baghdad. The Abbasid dynasty ruled in Baghdad from 750 to 1258 AD, and their time saw the rise of an unprecedented golden age of the sciences and philosophy, as well as music and poetry. Wealth, knowledge, and prosperity thrived in the fabulous 'City of Peace', and it was in this atmosphere among the gardens, the streets and the souqs that the names of the singing girls found unrivalled fame. The qiyan of this period might be compared to the hetaerae of ancient Greece, or the geisha of Japan. They were highly educated from a young age in all fields of study, from the sciences to the arts, and in philosophy and poetry. They were exceptionally gifted poets, dancers, musicians and singers, and the very best were usually trained in Medina or Kufa. They were expected not only to perform music and poetry, but to be able to converse with the most educated elites, nobles and diplomats from around the world. Only the very best made it into the courts of the caliphs, and the palaces of Baghdad.

In keeping with the cosmopolitanism of Baghdad at the time, the qiyan were of numerous cultural backgrounds. They came from all over the world, from Rome to Africa, Greece to India, and Persia to Arabia. They would be bought and sold for outrageous sums of money, but their status in society frequently allowed them to lead the lives of royalty. Sometimes their status as slaves would be such a grey area that they were often released as slaves yet remained as qiyan in the palaces. The most famous qiyan held so high a status that we might compare them to modern day musical stars. Children looked up to them, girls wanted to be them, boys wanted to marry them. Often, the children of the caliph's household would surround them when they saw them, just to be near them, to say that they had caught a glimpse or met one of them. Names such as Dhat al-Khal (literally "the one with a beauty spot"), Sihr, Qabiha, and Diya stand among the most illustrious of the history of the qiyan.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This sculpture in Baghdad by artist Mohammed Ghani Hikmat shows Morgana, the heroine of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," pouring boiling oil into the jars the thieves were hiding in.

Hollywood and Western imagination, like the Orientalist paintings of the Victorian era, often depict them as being nothing more than silent sexual servants, simple concubines who danced half naked for the pleasure of the lounging elites, but this does them a huge disservice. The poetry and musical talents of the qiyan compare to some of the greatest male poets and musicians of the era. They were among the most highly educated characters of the time. Known for their beauty, talent, and intellect, the qiyan also took part in athletic pastimes, including archery, racing, and horse riding. They, along with the princesses and ladies of noble birth, were icons of fashion across the early Islamic empire. Girls far away in Cordoba might cut their hair short or grow their hair to their hips because the ladies of Baghdad had set the trend. Famous poets often challenged the qiyan to verse after verse of sharp couplets and flirting rhymes, and they were rarely beneath the task. A qayna could very easily put a boorish noble man down with just a few words of wit.

Some of the qiyan became the most powerful women of the empire. The domineering Khaizuran was a qayna from Yemen, and was among the most talented of her time. After joining the court in Baghdad, she married the Caliph al-Mahdi, and gave birth to perhaps the most famous caliph of the Abbasid age, Harun al-Rashid. Khaizuran, like many queen mothers of the time, operated independently of the Caliph, employing her own staff and owning her own properties. It was she who played a big part in her son's rise to power, and she continued to be the force behind the Caliphate until her death in 789. The Caliph Harun al-Rashid went on to become the most historically recognized of the Abbasid caliphs, and his legendary exploits were the subject of many fictionalised tales of the Arabian Nights.

Indeed, the tales of the Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla Wa Layla) regularly featured fanciful stories of the qiyan. Very often they were the characters who confounded and confused, tempted or aided the heroes of the tales. Among them there were the ladies who enticed and mystified the Porter of Baghdad. They were often depicted as resourceful and ingenious, like the quick witted Morjana, whose cunning helped and eventually saved the unassuming Ali Baba from the imminent danger posed by the leader of the forty thieves. It was she who recognized the leader of the thieves in Ali Baba's household, and her dance with a dagger that caught him off guard and saved the titular character's life.

Over the centuries the image of the qiyan, particularly in the West, has been somewhat reduced to nothing more than sexual servants, who had no role in the courts other than to hide in the harems and serve the men of power. Little is known in modern popular culture about their impact on medieval society. Rarely do we hear about the educated athletes, the witty poets, songwriters, queen mothers, political players, master musicians and famous dancers. Their names and exploits can mainly be found in the writings of the medieval Arab scholars, most notably Al-Jahiz and his Risalat al-Qiyan (Epistle of the Singing Girls). Perhaps we should give them the recognition that the male poets and musicians of the time received, and remember them, not as mere slave girls, but as some of the most fascinating characters of the early Abbasid era.

"Morgiana Dancing" by Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1865
Wood engraving by the Dalziel Brothers.
Illustration for Dalziels' Arabian Nights' Entertainments, p. 711.
Scanned image and text by Simon Cooke

From the web site The Victorian Web



About the Author

This article appears here on this web site by permission of its author, Miftin al-Hadithi.

Miftin Al-Hadithi is a London born Iraqi who has researched the Abbasid era as part of his studies as a writer. Miftin comes from an artist background, being the son of renowned Iraqi vocalist and folklorist, Dr. Sadi Al-Hadithi. Miftin is pursuing careers in writing and photography.

Copyright © Court Of Morjana, Miftin Al-Hadithi. All Rights reserved.




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