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A Game of Thrones History Lesson Part 5: The Free Cities and Essosi Civilizations (Continued)


A Game of Thrones History Lesson Part 5: The Free Cities and Essosi Civilizations (Continued)

Let’s continue this week with information on the remnants of Valyria that became the nine Free Cities, as well as the other civilizations we’re exposed to in the series.

A Note on Spoilers: I won’t spoil things past Season 3 of the HBO series in terms of plot. Of course, the whole point of this series of posts will be to give some extra information to non-readers about the history of this wonderfully-constructed world, so most of what will be here is taken from the books, even if it contains no spoilers.

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[ Map for those who want to keep track of locations ]



Qohor is situated on the main continent in the vast Forest of Qohor. The smiths are known to be able to reforge Valyrian Steel. The Qohorik worship the Black Goat god. Qohor’s city guard has been comprised of Unsullied since the Battle of 3000, where 3,000 Unsullied successfully defended the city against a Dothraki horde of over 25,000. Guardsmen tie Dothraki braids to their spears to commemorate the Dothraki who had to cut their hair when they lost the battle.

Qohor is yet another city that Dany and Viserys spent time in before ending up in Pentos.

The only notable Qohorik in the book is Vargo Hoat, a sellsword who leads the Brave Companions (known as the Bloody Mummers behind their backs). They were first employed by Tywin Lannister to raid the Riverlands after Catelyn kidnapped Tyrion. They eventually served Roose Bolton before going rogue. One of Hoat’s mummers is the one responsible for cutting off Jaime’s hand in the books. Readers miss him because of his lisp, and some funny moments when he says things like “Thapphireth” (about Tarth being the “isle of Sapphires”) and “Kingthlayer.” He ends up getting killed by the Mountain in a gruesome fashion: parts of his body are cut off and fed to him until he finally died.


Norvos sits among the Hills of Norvos, along one of the tributaries of the Rhoyne. It is mostly a city that travelers stop at, though it controls a lot of farmland. Norvos is ruled by a High Magister and a council of religious protectors. It is divided into two with the High City on the tallest hill and the Low City located at the base of the hill by the river.

There are three bells throughout the city, each with a name. Noom has a deep sound, Narrah has a strong sound, and Nyel has a high pitched sound. Norvoshi are known for tapestries and silks. There are no known Norvoshi in the TV series.


Lorath is the final Free City, although next to nothing is really known about it. Jorah Mormont considers it economically insignificant. It sits on the northern coast of Essos. In his time with Arya, Jaqen H’ghar poses as a Lorathi.



Note: Qarth is not a Free City. It sits at another part of the continent. The map I’ve provided is a bit inaccurate where Qarth is concerned, because, before GRRM released a map book, there had been no map of the area there.

Qarth is situated in the middle of the continent. To its west lies Slaver’s Bay, the Free Cities, and Westeros. To its east lies Yi Ti, the Shadowlands, Asshai, and Ulthos. To its north is the Red Waste and Dothraki Sea, to its south is the continent of Sothoryos. If there is a center of the known world, it is Qarth.

Because of this, Qarth is a very rich city. Qarth has a complex political and economic structure, however, much of which was simplified in the TV show. In the show-canon, we know all we will likely know of Qarth. My explanation will be the book-canon.

Qarth is ruled nominally by the Pureborn, the descendants of Qarth’s ancient kings and queens. They rule from the Hall of a Thousand Thrones, and command the city’s defenses: the Civil Guard. This includes a camelry and a great military fleet.

If there is a center of the known world, it is Qarth

There are three principle merchant groups that battle amongst themselves and against the Pureborn for dominance of the city: The Thirteen, the Ancient Guild of Spicers, and the Tourmaline Brotherhood. The only known member of the Thirteen in the books is Xaro Xhoan Daxos, though it includes the Spice King, Quaithe, and Pyat Pree in the show. They are the rulers in the show. They own roughly a thousand ships.

Because Xaro acts as Dany’s (and the reader’s) guide of the city, not much is known about the other groups. The Ancient Guild of Spicers commands around 1,200-1,300 ships, while the Tourmaline Brotherhood commands 800. The TB is made up of pirates, and after Dany sets fire to the House of the Undying, they demand she leaves.

For reference, Qarth does have many slaves. Now that Dany is on a crusade against slavery, it is important to remember that Qarth deals extensively in slaves.

Unlike in the show, all the Qartheen (including Xaro) are tall and pale. So much so that the Dothraki call them “the Milk Men” for their complexion. The Qartheen pride themselves on sophistication and consider weeping in times of strong emotion to be a mark of civilization.

Xaro Xhoan Daxos from the second season of Game of Thrones.

A little bit of Xaro from the books. It is heavily implied he is gay. At one point, he has dancers dance for Dany naked, and his eyes are more on the guys than the gals, if you catch the drift. Still, he petitions her for marriage so he can control her dragons. In Qartheen tradition, a man and woman’s possessions remain separate after marriage, though each is allowed to ask one thing of the other that the other cannot deny. Xaro would ask for dragons, so Dany refuses him. He is something of an actor, crying fake tears to help make his point.

Another note, the Qartheen fashion for women is a dress that leaves the left breast exposed. Why HBO didn’t capitalize on that, I have no idea.

One of the more interesting groups in Qarth are the Sorrowful Men, a group of assassins. Their shtick is to say “I’m so sorry” before killing the victim. In the show, Barristan saves Dany from a warlock’s manticore in Astapor. In the books, Barristan is parading as an old squire named Arstan Whitebeard (wanting to decide whether he thinks Dany is a good Queen before declaring for her), who saves her from the Sorrowful Men’s manticore.

Another group is the Warlocks of Qarth, known as the Undying. They are world-famous and both feared and respected. They drink shade-of-the-evening, which turns their lips blue. The warlocks stronghold is the House of the Undying, which house the Undying Ones, the most mysterious, ancient, and powerful warlocks.



The Dothraki are a culture of nomadic warriors, with a history going back shortly before Aegon’s landing. They came from the east, driving smallfolk from their hovels and nobles from their estates, until only grass and ruins remained from the forests of Qohor to the headwaters of the Selhoru. They range across the vast grasslands of the Dothraki Sea in hordes known as khalasaars, with a khal as the leader. They are analogous to the Mongols.

The Dothraki rely on horses as a core part of their society. They are used for food, transportation, clothing, and weapons. They worship the Great Stallion, mirroring the importance of a horse in Dothraki culture. It is said Dothraki learn to shoot a bow from horseback at the age of ten.

Each khal has captains known as kos. When a khal dies, khal can take control of the khalasaar, or the khalasaar may break apart and form new khalasaars led by their former kos.

Each khal has bloodriders, part guardian, brother and companion. They are like the Kingsguard of the Dothraki. Ancient traditions proclaim that when a khal dies, his bloodriders die with him. Should the khal die in battle, the bloodriders live only long enough to avenge him, and then die shortly after. Khals and bloodriders refer to each other as “blood of my blood.”

Interesting note: after Drogo’s death, Aggo, Rhakaro, and Jhago stayed with the intent on returning Dany to Vaes Dothrak, the Dothraki “capital” (which I’ll get into more in a bit). She proclaimed herself khaleesi and asked each to be her bloodrider, but they all refused because she’s a woman. When she came out of the fire pit with dragons, each one of them knelt to her and proclaimed her “blood of my blood.” In the show, Jorah got the line, but it was much more awesome in the book.


Let’s talk about Vaes Dothrak, the only permanent city of the Dothraki. While khalasaars are rivals on the plains, they act as brothers in Vaes Dothrak. No one can draw a sword or spill blood in the city (Drogo gets around this by crowning Viserys with molten gold, no blood, after Viserys pulls out a sword on Dany).

The wives of the khals live in Vaes Dothrak once widowed, which is why the men Drogo had guard Dany chose to not be her bloodriders at first. Even now, if Dany ended up a captive of a different khal, she would not be killed, but returned to Vaes Dothrak. The former khaleesi rule over all the khals as the dosh khaleen.

The Dothraki language is one of the few that is not influenced by Valyrian. Oftentimes, khals lead their khalasaars to the Free Cities. Rather than fight them, the Cities usually pay the khal in goods to keep them from attacking. The Dothraki attack the Lhazareen (more on them in a bit) quite often. Many of the slaves they take are sold to the slavers in Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, where they are trained. Dothraki rarely go to Qarth, as they would have to cross the Red Waste.


The Lhazareen are a culture of peaceful shepherds who live south of the Dothraki Sea and north of Slaver’s Bay. Because they are a peaceful people, they are often the prey of the Dothraki, who call them “Lamb Men.” They are often the ones sold to be slaves in Slaver’s Bay.

Not much is really known about their culture, but they have a distinct language from the Dothraki and Valyrians. They are one of the major cultures of Essos.

Next time around in A Game of Thrones History Lesson: Aegon’s Conquest and after that the Targaryen kings. Keep on reading.

Thirsting for more Game of Thrones History Lessons?

Westerosi History Lesson Hub:

[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 ]

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