The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxvii.

Concerning the City of Esher.

Esher is a great city lying in a north-westerly direction from the last, and 400 miles distant from the Port of Aden. It has a king, who is subject to the Soldan of Aden. He has a number of towns and villages under him, and administers his territory well and justly.

The people are Saracens. The place has a very good haven, wherefore many ships from India come thither with various cargoes; and they export many good chargers thence to India.1

A great deal of white incense grows in this country, and brings in a great revenue to the Prince; for no one dares sell it to any one else; and whilst he takes it from the people at 10 livres of gold for the hundredweight, he sells it to the merchants at 60 livres, so his profit is immense.2

Dates also grow very abundantly here. The people have no corn but rice, and very little of that; but plenty is brought from abroad, for it sells here at a good profit. They have fish in great profusion, and notably plenty of tunny of large size; so plentiful indeed that you may buy two big ones for a Venice groat of silver. The natives live on meat and rice and fish. They have no wine of the vine, but they make good wine from sugar, from rice, and from dates also.

And I must tell you another very strange thing. You must know that their sheep have no ears, but where the ear ought to be they have a little horn! They are pretty little beasts.3

And I must not omit to tell you that all their cattle, including horses, oxen, and camels, live upon small fish and nought besides, for ’tis all they get to eat. You see in all this country there is no grass or forage of any kind; it is the driest country on the face of the earth. The fish which are given to the cattle are very small, and during March, April, and May, are caught in such quantities as would astonish you. They are then dried and stored, and the beasts are fed on them from year’s end to year’s end. The cattle will also readily eat these fish all alive and just out of the water.4

The people here have likewise many other kinds of fish of large size and good quality, exceedingly cheap; these they cut in pieces of about a pound each, and dry them in the sun, and then store them, and eat them all the year through, like so much biscuit.5

NOTE 1. — Shihr or Shehr, with the article, ES-SHEHR, still exists on the Arabian coast, as a town and district about 330 m. east of Aden. In 1839 Captain Haines described the modern town as extending in a scattered manner for a mile along the shore, the population about 6000, and the trade considerable, producing duties to the amount of 5000l. a year. It was then the residence of the Sultan of the Hamúm tribe of Arabs. There is only an open roadstead for anchorage. Perhaps, however, the old city is to be looked for about ten miles to the westward, where there is another place bearing the same name, “once a thriving town, but now a desolate group of houses with an old fort, formerly the residence of the chief of the Kasaidi tribe.” (J.R.G.S. IX. 151–152.) Shehr is spoken of by Barbosa (Xaer in Lisbon ed.; Pecher in Ramusio; Xeher in Stanley; in the two last misplaced to the east of Dhofar): “It is a very large place, and there is a great traffic in goods imported by the Moors of Cambaia, Chaul, Dabul, Batticala, and the cities of Malabar, such as cotton-stuffs . . . strings of garnets, and many other stones of inferior value; also much rice and sugar, and spices of all sorts, with coco-nuts; . . . their money they invest in horses for India, which are here very large and good. Every one of them is worth in India 500 or 600 ducats.” (Ram. f. 292.) The name Shehr in some of the Oriental geographies, includes the whole coast up to Omán.

NOTE 2. — The hills of the Shehr and Dhafár districts were the great source of produce of the Arabian frankincense. Barbosa says of Shehr: “They carry away much incense, which is produced at this place and in the interior; . . . it is exported hence all over the world, and here it is used to pay ships with, for on the spot it is worth only 150 farthings the hundredweight.” See note 2, ch. xxvii. supra; and next chapter, note 2.

NOTE 3. — This was no doubt a breed of four-horned sheep, and Polo, or his informant, took the lower pair of horns for abnormal ears. Probably the breed exists, but we have little information on details in reference to this coast. The Rev. G.P. Badger, D.C.L., writes: “There are sheep on the eastern coast of Arabia, and as high up as Mohammerah on the Shatt-al-Arab, with very small ears indeed; so small as to be almost imperceptible at first sight near the projecting horns. I saw one at Mohammerah having six horns.” And another friend, Mr. Arthur Grote, tells me he had for some time at Calcutta a 4-horned sheep from Aden.

NOTE 4. — This custom holds more or less on all the Arabian coast from Shehr to the Persian Gulf, and on the coast east of the Gulf also. Edrisi mentions it at Shehr (printed Shajr, I. 152), and the Admiral Sidi ‘Ali says: “On the coast of Shehr, men and animals all live on fish” (J.A.S.B. V. 461). Ibn Batuta tells the same of Dhafár, the subject of next chapter: “The fish consist for the most part of sardines, which are here of the fattest. The surprising thing is that all kinds of cattle are fed on these sardines, and sheep likewise. I have never seen anything like that elsewhere” (II. 197). Compare Strabo’s account of the Ichthyophagi on the coast of Mekran (XV. 11), and the like account in the life of Apollonius of Tyana (III. 56).

[Burton, quoted by Yule, says (Sind Revisited, 1877, I. p. 33): “The whole of the coast, including that of Mekrán, the land of the Máhi Khárán or Ichthyophagi.” Yule adds: “I have seen this suggested also elsewhere. It seems a highly probable etymology.” See note, p. 402. — H.C.]

NOTE 5. — At Hásik, east of Dhafár, Ibn Batuta says: “The people here live on a kind of fish called Al–Lukham, resembling that called the sea-dog. They cut it in slices and strips, dry it in the sun, salt it, and feed on it. Their houses are made with fish-bones, and their roofs with camel-hides” (II. 214).

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24