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Slave Trades and Diaspora in the Middle East, 700 to 1900 CE  

George La Rue

In the Middle East, Africa was only one of multiple sources of enslaved and servile labor. Building on the legacy of earlier civilizations, the region drew on all of its immediate neighbors for slaves. Local kingdoms and empires arose, clashed, expanded, and adapted old and new slaving strategies from internal and external rivals. From the 7th century, the rapid expansion of Islam and the building of Muslim empires are salient features in this history, but many other historical developments played key roles. Ensuing encounters with other civilizations, empires, and trading networks frequently resulted in friction, mutual adaptation, or new cultural, political, or economic synergies. In the Middle East, Islamic practices toward slaves influenced all regional cultures, yet many variants emerged due to local customs; changing economic and political considerations; specific environmental conditions; and the experiences, cultures, and talents of the enslaved. Slaves were captured directly or purchased. In wars and raids, Middle Eastern armies captured enemy combatants and civilians to ransom or enslave. The mix of enslaved and servile persons brought into the region varied in its composition, reflecting the geographical areas of military actions, the development of powerful trading partners, and the extent of trading networks. Foreign merchants imported additional slaves from the Balkans, the Black Sea region, the islands and shores of the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and Africa—including the West African savanna, the Lake Chad region, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa, particularly via the Swahili coast. These practices brought new servile populations as workers, domestic staff, concubines, soldiers, or bureaucrats to serve in imperial outposts, trading towns, or centers of agricultural, handicraft, or industrial production. The constant demand for servile labor was driven not only by expanding empires and new economic enterprises but also by growing urban populations, the multiple options for manumission under Islamic law, high mortality rates and low rates of reproduction among enslaved populations for social and medical reasons, and the resultant scarcity of second-generation slaves. Broadly speaking, enslaved Africans were more common in the southern tier of the Middle East and demand for them generally increased over time, as northern and internal sources of slaves dwindled. Enslaved persons, including Africans, served in numerous capacities and were dispersed throughout the Middle East and its areas of slave supply.