Essos is the name of the great continent lying to the east of Westeros, across the Narrow Sea. It is the largest of the known world's four continents, extending for many thousands of miles into the distant east. No map yet exists of the entire continent. The continent is bordered by the Shivering Sea to the north and the Summer Sea and the Jade Sea to the south.
Unlike Westeros, Essos is not controlled by a single political entity. Instead its different regions are controlled by a mixture of city-states, nomadic tribes and a few small kingdoms.
Essos is divided into several distinct cultural and geographic regions.
The western-most part of the continent is held by the nine Free Cities, namely Braavos, Lorath, Pentos, Norvos, Qohor, Myr, Tyrosh, Lys and Volantis. Each is a powerful mercantile city-state, many of them controlling wide swathes of territory around them. Lying between the southern cities are the Disputed Lands (which have been fought over by Lys, Myr, Tyrosh and Volantis for almost four centuries). In the north-west of this region is Andalos, the ancestral homeland of the Andals which is now mostly uninhabited wasteland. The north of this region is mountainous and home to rich mines, particularly in the Axe and the Hills of Norvos. These mountains are the sources for several rivers which come together to form the immense Rhoyne, which flows south for hundreds of miles before emptying into the Summer Sea at Volantis.
East of the Free Cities, beyond the Forest of Qohor, lies the vast Dothraki Sea, the home of the nomadic Dothraki people. Living in large clans known as khalasars, the Dothraki are a feared race of horse-riding warriors who frequently raid surrounding lands. The Dothraki Sea extends for over two and a half thousand miles into the east, before ending at the immense chain known as the Bone Mountains.
South-east of the Free Cities lies the peninsula of Valyria. Formerly a warm and pleasant land, this region was shattered in a titanic volcanic cataclysm known as the Doom of Valyria some four centuries ago. The city of Valyria itself now lies on an offshore island, separated from the mainland by the forbidding Smoking Sea. Volcanic activity has continued unabated in Valyria for the past four centuries, preventing any attempt at resettlement. Only in the north of this region do permanent cities exist, most notably at ill-omened Mantarys and the coastal cities of Elyria and Tolos. To the east of the Valyrian Peninsula lies Slaver's Bay, with the great slave-cities of Meereen, Yunkai and Astapor clinging to its eastern shores. These rich and powerful cities serve as the center of the world's slave trade. The Dothraki often sell their captives there, if they require gold for some enterprise.
South of Slaver's Bay lies the nation of Ghiscar, which claims to have inherited the mantle of the ancient Ghiscari Empire. So far the Ghiscari have claimed a few small settlements along the coast of the Gulf of Grief and the offshore island of Ghaen.
East of Slaver's Bay, separated from the Dothraki Sea by the Skahazadhan River, lies the peaceful kingdom of Lhazar. The Lhazareen are a notably unwarlike people, preferring a peaceful life raising sheep. The Dothraki call them the Lamb-Men and frequently raid them to steal cattle and take slaves.
East of Lhazar lies the Red Waste, a harsh desert dotted with ruined cities and few sources of water. The Red Waste extends east to the Bone Mountains and south to the Summer Sea. South-east of the waste lies the great city of Qarth, which sits on the Straits of Qarth (or Jade Gates). The straits separate the mainland from the large island of Great Moraq, and join the Summer Sea to the Jade Sea.
North of the Dothraki Sea lies the large island of Ib, or Ibben. The Ibbenese are noted sailors whose ships can be found in many ports of the world. They mostly survive by whaling. The Ibbenese also have small colonies on the north coast of Essos.
East of Ibben, the Bone Mountains and Qarth, hard facts give way to lands of rumour and song. Along the northern coast, beyond Ibben, lies a vast archipelago known as the Thousand Islands. Nestled in the eastern foothills of the Bone Mountains lie the fabled cities of Kayakayanaya, Samyriana and Bayasabhad. Beyond them still lies the vast chasm known as the Great Sand Sea and the Shrinking Sea, once a great inland sea that is now a collection of small lakes. North of them lies the Plains of the Jogos Nhai, whilst to their east lies the forested lands of Mussovy. What lies to the east of Mussovy is not known, even to legend. South of Mussovy lie the Grey Waste, the canyon known as the Dry Deep and the red-hued lake known as the Bleeding Sea.
East of Qarth and south of the Great Sand Sea and Shrinking Sea lies the fabled kingdom of Yi Ti. Yi Ti stretches along the northern coast of the Jade Sea, consisting of great cities and hot jungles. It is the center of wealth on the Jade Sea, with ships sailing from across the known world to trade there.
East of Yi Ti and south of the Grey Waste and Dry Deep lie the Mountains of the Morn. South of them lies a forbidding area of mountains and hills shrouded in darkness, known as the Shadow Lands or Shadow. This area extends southwards along a mountainous peninsula, at the very tip of which is the port city of Asshai. Asshai sits at the point where the Jade Sea meets the Saffron Straits. What lies beyond Asshai and the Straits to the east is not known, whilst the little-known continent of Ulthos lies south of the Straits.
Climate and seasons
Like Westeros, Essos is prone to the lengthy and unpredictable seasons of the world. However, as it lies further south than northern Westeros, these seasonal variations tend to be much milder. That said, the winters are still cold enough to cause the canals of Braavos to freeze over.
In terms of climate, Essos tends to be warmer than northern Westeros, due to its more southerly location. Essos's greater size gives rise to considerably larger mountain ranges than anything in Westeros, inland seas and, most notably, large plains such as the lands of the Jogos Nhai and the Dothraki Sea, as well as deserts such as the Red Waste.
Essos is larger than Westeros, but given that its eastern coast has never been mapped working out the full size of the continent is impossible. The mapped portion of Essos extends for approximately six thousand miles eastwards from the Narrow Sea, with the continent being three thousand miles across from north to south at its widest point (between Asshai and the coast of Mussovy). The continent is narrower in the west, with less than two thousand miles separating the north and southern coasts of the Free Cities region.
Given the lack of a central controlling government, estimating the population of the continent of Essos is impossible. However, it is known that most of the Free Cities and the cities of Slaver's Bay have populations in the hundreds of thousands, with Dothraki khalasars running into the tens of thousands (Khal Drogo's khalasar, noted as being unusually large, consisted of forty thousand riders and sixty thousand unmounted followers). The population of Essos must thus be greater than Westeros's, which runs into the millions or tens of millions.
The Free Cities are ruled by a mixture of councils, elected individuals and hereditary rulers. The khalasars of the Dothraki are ruled by khals, warleaders who have earned their position through battle prowess and cunning. The cities of Slaver's Bay and Qarth are ruled by the richest merchants. The Golden Empire of Yi Ti is, in-name only, ruled by a God-emperor, with hundreds of princes, priest-kings, warlords, and even tax collectors ruling various domains of the nation.
There are numerous military formations in Essos. Unlike Westeros and its levies, many of the Essosi powers prefer to retain standing armies, around which additional troops can be raised. The Essosi also employ mercenary companies, freelance armies which fight for coin. The most famous such companies include the Golden Company and the Second Sons.
Despite their armed might, most of the Essosi powers live in fear of the Dothraki. The Dothraki are the most feared cavalry force in the world, able to field vast armies of tens of thousands of horsemen. Though they lack heavy armor, they make up for it in maneuverability, numbers and discipline. The only military force in Essos that rivals the Dothraki in reputation is that of the Unsullied, warrior-eunuch slaves bred and trained in Astapor and notable for not being able to feel pain (thanks to drugs). Unsullied are notable as the only foreign force that the Dothraki respect, after the Unsullied defeated them in battle at Qohor several centuries ago.
Essos is a hodgepodge of numerous, sometimes competing religious beliefs. Braavos hosts a number of temples to numerous different gods and permits the worship of all. Braavos is the only place outside of Westeros to host a sept for the worship of the Faith of the Seven. The Free City of Lys worships a native love goddess, whilst the citizens of Qohor worship a god called the Black Goat. The Drunken God and Trios are deities known in Tyrosh. A lunar deity is also worshipped by the Moonsingers, who are the most popular religion in Braavos (as they led the founding of the city eight centuries ago).
R'hllor, the Lord of Light, is a popular deity across Essos. The religion has temples in Lys, Braavos and Volantis, is known in Slaver's Bay and also has a center of worship in distant Asshai.
The Lhazareen worship the Great Shepherd, whilst the Dothraki worship the Great Stallion, a deity that respects strength and stamina.
The Ghiscari follow a religion based around the Temples of the Graces, which are located in each of their major cities (including Meereen and Astapor). Each temple is led by a Green Grace. This religion seems to be largely made up of priestesses, with few or no priests.
Qarth is notable for not having any major temples or native religion. This may be due to the Undying, an order of warlocks, instead providing many of the services that a religion might.
Essos is home to numerous ethnic groups and races (although, unlike Westeros, no non-human races that are known of). The Free Cities are dominated by people of Valyrian descent, though some surviving Andal and Rhoynar blood is likely. The Dothraki are the dominant group of the central part of the continent, but there has been cross-pollination between them and other peoples they have conquered. The cities of Slaver's Bay and Ghiscar to the south are Ghiscari in blood and origin. Beyond the Bone Mountains lie more rarely-encountered peoples, such as the Jogos Nhai, Asshai'i and the people of the Shadow, who go masked amongst outsiders.
For a more detailed history of Essos, see the timeline of history.
Twelve thousand years ago, Essos and Westeros were linked by a land bridge, the Arm of Dorne. When the First Men crossed the Arm and invaded Westeros with weapons of bronze, they were opposed by the Children of the Forest. When they could not stem the invasion, the Children destroyed the Arm with sorcery, creating the Stepstones.
Four thousand years later, the Children and the First Men united to defeat the Others in the War for the Dawn. Although this war was fought predominantly in Westeros, it became part of Essosi legend when a great hero, Azor Ahai, helped defeat the Others using a sword called Lightbringer. This act became instrumental in the myths of the faith of the Lord of Light.
According to tradition, more than six thousand years ago the Seven appeared to a warlord of north-western Essos called Hugor of the Hill. They inspired him to conquer the surrounding region and forge the realm of Andalos. Some centuries later, the Andals chose to cross the Narrow Sea and invade Westeros, landing along the coast of the Vale of Arryn. They overran Westeros over a period of centuries, eventually coming to dominate most of the southern half of the continent.
Five thousand years ago the Ghiscari Empire was the dominant power of south-central Essos. Shepherds living peacefully on the Valyrian Peninsula discovered dragons lairing in the Fourteen Fires, a chain of large volcanoes stretching across the neck of the peninsula. Possibly using sorcery, the Valyrians tamed these dragons and began riding them, using them in war. The Valyrians fought five great wars against Ghis, eventually destroying the capital city of Old Ghis and bringing about the downfall of the Ghiscari Empire. The Valyrians began expanding in their own right, inheriting the lands of the old Ghiscari Empire and establishing their own colonies, the first of which was at Volantis.
One thousand years ago the Valyrians made war upon the Rhoynar, destroying their cities with dragonfire. The Rhoynar fled by sea, escaping to Dorne in Westeros. The Valyrians overran western Essos, establishing eight colony-states along the coast and in the rich hills and forests of the north. Two centuries later, a religious sect known as the Moonsingers led an exodus of people opposed to Valyrian rule to found the Secret City of Braavos where they could live free of Valyrian rule.
Four centuries ago the Valyrian Freehold was destroyed in a single night of fire and chaos. The Fourteen Fires erupted, destroying the Valyrian Peninsula and raining fire down on all the lands of Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer to the north. Almost all of the Valyrian dragons were destroyed. Most of the Valyrian nobility was wiped out, save only for the rulers of the colony cities to the north-west and the Targaryens, a noble family living in self-imposed exile on the island of Dragonstone in the Narrow Sea.
For a century after the Doom Volantis led the way in attempting to rebuild the Freehold, at one point seizing control of Myr and Lys for several decades. An attempt to take Tyrosh saw them overextend and they were defeated in a bloody war, losing all of their lands save Volantis itself. At the end of this period the Targaryens invaded Westeros with their dragons, uniting it under the rule of Aegon I Targaryen. Also during this period the Dothraki emerged from the east, beginning their rise to power that would see most of the former colonies cower before them. The exception was Qohor, which hired an army of Unsullied warrior-eunuchs who defeated the Dothraki in open battle.
Following the fall of Valyria, the Ghiscari became more resurgent. They founded the city of New Ghis and proclaimed the rise of a new empire. However, the Ghiscari cities of Slaver's Bay refused to join this new nation and remained independent.
A century ago there was a bloody civil war in Westeros known as the First Blackfyre Rebellion. After the defeat of the rebels at the Battle of the Redgrass Field, their surviving leaders fled to Essos. Under the leadership of Aegor Rivers, better-known as "Bittersteel", they established a mercenary army known as the Golden Company, vowing to one day return him from exile. However, the fifth such attempt, the War of the Ninepenny Kings, ended in disaster. Their then-leader, Maelys the Monstrous, was slain by Ser Barristan Selmy on the Stepstones, ending the male line of the Blackfyres. Since then the Golden Company has remained active in Essos, fighting for coin.
More recently Essos has been plunged into chaos by the rise to power of Daenerys Targaryen. The daughter of the Mad King of Westeros, Aerys II Targaryen, Daenerys was born on Dragonstone and taken into exile in Braavos when still a child. With her older brother Viserys, she spent her childhood avoiding the threat of assassins sent after her by King Robert Baratheon, who had usurped her father's throne. Just before her fourteenth birthday she was married to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki and fell pregnant with his child. Drogo was slain by a maegi of the Lhazareen and Daenerys's child stillborn, but she recovered to hatch three dragon eggs given to her by Illyrio Mopatis. Daenerys led her followers across the Red Waste to Qarth, where she defeated an attempt by the Undying of Qarth to kill her. Then she sailed west to Slaver's Bay. Winning the allegiance of the Unsullied, she conquered much of the bay and made her capital at Meereen, hoping to learn the art of rulership before pressing on to Westeros.
Unfortunately, Daenerys's capture of Slaver's Bay and shutting down of the slave trade earned her the enmity of much of Essos, as the slave trade was economic lifeblood of much of the continent. Armies and fleets from Volantis, Elyria, Tolos and New Ghis began marching against her, whilst her enemies also tried to induce the Dothraki into attacking the city. At the same time, the Golden Company unexpectedly turned westwards and invaded Westeros, landing a large army in the Stormlands. The resolution of these conflicts remains to be seen.
In Westeros and most of the lands west of Valyria, magic is held to be a mythical force. There has been no recorded use of magic in Westeros since the Doom of Valyria, and those records are considered unreliable.
However, in the lands east of Valyria magic remains a potent force. The Undying of Qarth command uncanny and bizarre powers, whilst shadowbinders from Asshai are capable of great and terrible feats (including restoring life - of a kind - to the dead and commanding shadows as assassins). In past centuries individuals representing these and other groups have come to Westeros only to find their skills deserting them, but in the past two years the power of magic within Westeros appears to have increased and abilities that were long thought lost now appear to be returning, although this is commonly neither known nor accepted. It is possible the return of magic to the west is related to the return to the world of dragons, but this is not confirmed.
- The eastern continent did not have an official name until mid-2008, when George R.R. Martin confirmed the name at a signing in Spain.
- In early 2012 HBO published a map of Essos on the Game of Thrones website. However, this map was supersceded by the publication of The Lands of Ice and Fire in October of that year. Between his very early drafts (which the HBO map was based upon) and the publication of The Lands of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin radically reconceptualised his image of Essos. In particular, the Jade Sea was changed from being a semi-landlocked body of water within Essos to a separate ocean running to its south, with a corresponding shift in many locations.