Game of Thrones, one of the most popular television shows in history (based on the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire), is coming back! To celebrate, we’ll be covering some of the most interesting locations in Essos – the large continent to the east of Westeros (and the Seven Kingdoms). We covered the history and culture, key locations, and economy of the Seven Kingdoms prior to the beginning of season 6 last year.
Spoiler Alert: While written just before the seventh season, this guide will detail cities, regions, and other landmarks in Essos in their state prior to the beginning of the first season (and first book). It will not reveal any major plot points, however some minor spoilers may be hinted at. When it comes to differences between the books and show, we follow the show. Note that pictures don’t always relate to the location they’re next to.
Across the narrow sea lies the largest continent in the known world…Essos. While our knowledge of this vast land diminishes the further east we travel, you’ll find that it’s home to the magnificent, the mysterious, and the dangerous.
You can also explore the Seven Kingdoms to the west!
Where is Essos?
Essos is located directly to the east of Westeros, with its western half bordering the southern part of the latter. The narrow sea separates the two, while the Shivering Sea lies to the north, the Summer Sea to the south, and the Jade Sea further to the east. To this day it is not known how far to the east Essos goes.
When should I go?
Being so vast, there is extensive variation in climate and weather throughout the continent – so when you want to go depends on your destination. That being said, winters have less of an effect here than in the Seven Kingdoms since the continent doesn’t stretch very far to the north. Summer is generally nicer, though you should be wary in many of the deserts lest the heat become too much to bear.
How do I get to Essos?
Your most likely port of call will be one of the Free Cities, often Braavos or Pentos, as they are the closest to many eastern ports in the Seven Kingdoms. You can book passage with merchant ships for ample coin, though your comfort will depend on how many silver stags and gold dragons you’re willing to spend.
How do I get around?
Whether you choose to travel by land or by sea depends on where you want to go. Most of the major cities are ports, meaning you can happily sail from one to the other aboard the multitude of trading ships that ply the waters. On land, the old Valyrian stone roads still connect many of the major cities throughout the continent – and purchasing horses or a carriage can allow you to move swiftly or comfortably.
The Free Cities
Ask any Westerosi which part of Essos they’re most familiar with, and the answer will almost certainly be the Free Cities. These nine city-states are found largely along the western coast of the continent (though two lie inland). As hubs of trade and commerce, it is necessary for the cities to maintain a close relationship with the Seven Kingdoms. Each city is distinctive in some way, while prosperity and culture varies across all of the nine. However, they all trace their origins back to the Valyrian Freehold – with eight once part of the Freehold (while the ninth sought to escape its watchful eye). As we journey through the nine, we’ll encounter beauty and danger in equal measure – so stay alert at all times.
Our first stop is perhaps the most impressive of all – Braavos. Founded by escaped slaves, the ‘Secret City’ as it was sometimes known avoided detection from Valyria for years – until it finally threw off its shroud and revealed itself to the world. Built on around a hundred islands in a lagoon, this network of docks, buildings, streets, and canals is today perhaps the most powerful and richest of all nine free cities. A visitor can find nearly anything they desire, with merchants from all corners of the world, inns, music, theatres, brothels, artisans, temples to every faith, and even, if tales are to be believed, a shadowy guild of master assassins. Of course, no landmark compares to the Titan – a massive colossus welcoming ships to the city (and also waiting to defend it when called upon). One of the most enduring intuitions in Braavos is the Iron Bank. With vast amounts of funds and shrewd money lending practices, the Iron Bank has grown to become one of the preeminent powers in the world (there are even whispers that the Iron Throne remains on the hook for debts unpaid). Those who fail to repay the loan soon learn the folly of their ways – the Iron Bank will have its due…one way or another.
From the pinnacle of the Free Cities, we arrive on the other end of the spectrum. Lorath is the smallest and poorest of the nine – but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete backwater. The city makes a living by trading local resources – namely fish, sealskin, and whale oil from the nearby waters – though its isolation makes even this a tough ask. There is a grim bleakness to Lorath, but it is still worth visiting thanks to the ancient works of the long gone ‘mazemakers’ (as they were called). While the purpose of these constructions is not known, they remain the most striking landmark in the city.
Called Great Norvos by the people who inhabit it, this inland city does its best to live up to the moniker. Immediately noticeable is the fact that Norvos is a city divided. A theocracy dominated by the ‘bearded priests’ holds the power (choosing a council of magisters to rule), and the nobility lives in the shadow of their temple in the upper city. Across the Sinner’s Steps is the ramshackle lower city – a maze of brothels, taverns, frantic trade, and debauchery. In the wider world, Norvos is mostly known for its tapestries and axes. The latter especially is a symbol of power, with large Norvoshi honored to carry these beautiful weapons.
Qohor is a dark, mysterious place. Located to the east in the vast eponymous forest, the city has garnered a reputation for black magic and dark sorcery that extends as far as Westeros. While these rumors can neither be confirmed nor denied, it is clear that the Black Goat (the deity of Qohor) is offered blood sacrifice daily. Much of the city’s revenue comes from the forest – with wildlife and timber available in vast quantities. However it is the forges that give Qohor its claim to fame in the wider world. The armor produced in the city is second to none. Most importantly however, the smiths here are the only ones left who can rework Valyrian steel to forge new swords. With the secret behind this fabled metal long since lost, the Qohorik smiths’ adapting what remains represents the pinnacle of weaponsmithing in the known world.
The closest of the Free Cities to King’s Landing, Pentos is unsurprisingly a major, and wealthy, trading port. Ruled by the magisters, they elect a prince (a now largely ceremonial post). While the position comes with certain perks, a downturn in fortunes for the city results in the prompt sacrifice of the prince and subsequent new election. Though slavery is outlawed here, many wealthy men circumvent the restriction with ‘servants’ that are free in name only. Beyond this, Pentos usually opts to avoid war in recent times (partly due to past conflicts with Braavos going very poorly), and they are known for paying tribute to passing Dothraki hordes. In so doing, Pentos and its rich magisters are able to continue the pursuit of wealth.
The first of the cities that formerly made up the ‘Kingdom of the Three Daughters’, the now independent Tyrosh often fights with its former sisters, Myr and Lys, over the Disputed Lands that lie between them. It is a powerful city with high walls, a large fleet, and a predisposition for greed. While often finding itself in conflict, mercantile pursuits are valued more highly than the art of war (though sellswords are very common here). Pear brandy, a unique sea snail, and, regrettably, slavery are some of the most renowned facets of the city’s trade. Ruled by an archon, he is responsible for guiding Tyrosh against its rivals and filling the pockets of the wealthy.
The second part of this sibling rivalry, Myr is mostly known for its craftsmanship and artisans (many of whom were born slaves and trained all their life). This, combined with a reputation for education, means that Myr is often considered the most advanced of the Free Cities. Lace, blankets, lenses, tapestries, and wine are just a few examples of the fine goods that the city produces and sells throughout the continent (and back across the narrow sea).
The last sister, Lys, is almost unanimously considered the most beautiful of the nine Free Cities. The island upon which it rests is fertile and sunny, with bountiful waters and tropical plant life abundant. The main claim to fame for Lys these days however is what goes on indoors – or more specifically within the walls of the city’s brothels (pillow houses as they are known). In a city where slaves outnumber free men, it’s the bed-slaves Lys raises that are perhaps the most renowned in the world. In order to fight Myr and Tyrosh over the Disputed Lands, Lys hires foreign mercenary companies to win its battles – ensuring the life of its citizens remains relatively undisturbed.
The oldest and largest of all the Free Cities, Volantis is the only one that can challenge Braavos when it comes to sheer power and might. A wealthy port that deals in all sorts of goods, the city is home to a little bit of everything. Slavery is commonplace here, and slaves are often differentiated by facial tattoos according to their intended purpose. Volantis, like Norvos, is divided in two. The eastern half is the oldest section – with the famed Black Walls only open to those who trace their ancestry all the way back to Old Valyria. Across the famous Long Bridge (a den of shops and traders of all kinds), the western half of the city is newer. The city’s elite is often split between two factions: the elephants who seek power through trade and the tigers who would rather wage war and conquest to the same end. While some older families keep to the gods of Valyria, the faith of R’hllor (the red god) has been gaining traction among the newer population.
The Dothraki Sea
Travel to the east of the Free Cities and you’ll find yourself in the vast grasslands known as the Dothraki Sea. A massive region of steppes and plains, it is largely devoid of settlement with ruined castles and towns the much more common sight. The grass here often grows higher than a man, making it easy to get lost unless you know your way. It is here where the great nomadic khalasars of the Dothraki roam. These horsemen travel the endless grass ocean, riding into neighboring kingdoms to raid and collect tribute before returning to their own world.
The only permanently inhabited settlement is Vaes Dothrak – a capital of sorts for the Dothraki. Here, the khals and their people meet, while foreign merchants trade all sorts of goods from the four corners of the known world. Be warned however, weapons are forbidden within Vaes Dothrak, with the punishment (much like the people) a harsh one.
Other Lands in the West
While there are many other regions (both ruined and alive) throughout the more western part of Essos, we feel obligated mention a few.
First, there is Ibben, a northern island kingdom quite unlike anywhere else we know. Upon the largest island (Ib), the Ibbenese (a squat, hairy people) have made use of the resources of their forests and the Shivering Sea to create a thriving maritime-based culture. The Port of Ibben even uses whale oil to power gas lamps throughout the city – an advancement we could use in Westeros to be frank. While the Ibbenese trade in cities around the world they are a notoriously unwelcoming people, with invitations for foreigners to visit beyond the Port rare.
North of the Dothraki Sea we stumble upon the once great Kingdom of Sarnor. While it previously thrived across many great cities, the people of Sarnor underestimated the Dothraki during the Century of Blood (a period following the Doom of Valyria). One by one, their great cities fell to the horse lords until only the port city of Saath remained. A shadow of what it once was, Saath would not exist without the support of Ibben and Lorath.
Perhaps those who suffer most under the hooves of the khalasars are the people of Lhazar, the Lhazareen (or Lamb Men as the Dothraki call them). A peaceful people who are known for sheep herding, they make their home in villages amongst the pastures and hills south of the grasslands. An easy target for any khal, the Lhazareen are often slaughtered or enslaved, with what few valuables they have taken by the horde.
In the south of Essos we find what was once the center of perhaps the most powerful civilization the world has ever known – the Valyrian Freehold. Extending into the Summer Sea, the city of Valyria was located here; a place of power home to fabled magic, dragons, and mystery. Valyrian roads (or dragon roads as they are sometimes called) snake out from the city across Essos even to this day. The Fourteen Flames (a ring of volcanoes) is also found on the peninsula and, while we may never know for sure, could have caused the Doom – as the cataclysm that destroyed Valyria is called.
Whatever happened those many centuries ago, Valyria is now a ruined and ominous place. Dark tales are told by those lucky enough to come back (such as ones of the vicious greyscale infected stone men), though most fail to return at all. If you find yourself sailing past the ruins of Valyria, take a moment to recite this old song which captures the final moments of the once great city.
They held each other close, and turned their backs upon the end.
The hills that split asunder, and the black that ate the skies;
The flames that shot so high and hot that even dragons burned,
Would never be the final sights that fell upon their eyes.
A fly upon a wall, the waves the sea wind whipped and churned,
A city of a thousand years, and all that men had learned;
The Doom consumed it all alike, and neither of them turned.
To the east of Valyria, also on the south coast of Essos, is the aptly named Slaver’s Bay. A place of wealth and misery, the Bay is home to three large cities, which are all that remains of the Old Empire of Ghis. The Empire, which was known by its harpy emblem, was the most powerful in the world – until the Valyrian Freehold crushed them under heel (and wing). Following the Doom, these three cities have grown in stature and wealth thanks to the sale and trade of flesh. While the methods from which these cities prosper are outdated and barbaric, the magnificence of Slaver’s Bay can’t be denied – especially when it comes to the massive pyramids common within the city walls.
Our first stop in this tour of woe is Astapor. Built with red brick, the city has seen better days, but that hasn’t stopped the Good Masters who rule from procuring a preeminent position in Essos. This is largely due to Astapor being the only place on earth where you can purchase Unsullied. These are male slaves taken and raised from a young age to be the perfect soldier in a process famed for its brutality (including castration). Once fully trained the Unsullied are obedient and nigh unbeatable as a unit. In a notable event, three thousand once held off more than fifty thousand Dothraki at Qohor.
The second city we visit is Yunkai, the smallest of the three. A yellow brick city ruled by the Wise Masters, it does not have the same martial prowess and history as Astapor, instead relying on a small slave army and mercenary companies. The main export here instead is bed-slaves, who are trained in the art of pleasure.
Our final stop in Slaver’s Bay is the largest and most powerful of the three cities – Meereen. Ruled by the Great Masters, the city is famous around the world for its Great Pyramid. The Fighting Pits are also well known, and a place for gladiators to fight for the entertainment of the Meereenese citizens. Unlike Astapor and Yunkai, Meereen deals in all sorts of slavery – from tutors to warriors to bed-slaves.
“The Greatest City that Ever Was or Will Be”…or at least according to those who live here, Qarth is undeniably a stunning place. Located at the meeting of the Summer and Jade Seas, it is a busy port that connects all the lands mentioned previously to the more mysterious locales far to the east. Surrounded by the barren red waste, the three walls of Qarth keep the city from the neighbouring ‘Garden of Bones’, a desert so named since all who are refused entry to the city never find solace elsewhere.
Within the walls, the powerful Thirteen (a council of rich merchants, traders, and even a so-called warlock) rules and makes decisions to benefit the city’s mercantile industry and direction. While Qarth claims to be the oldest city in the world and birthplace of civilization, these claims cannot be verified. What we do know is that Qarth is old, powerful, and dangerous.
As we move to the east, our knowledge of Essos becomes even more limited. Much of what we base our understanding of these foreign lands on is rumor (though in some instances we can be more certain). While we will cover a few of the better-known places, rest assured that many more strange and otherworldly destinations await further east.
The border between the known and the largely unknown is the Bone Mountains – a massive spine of a range that runs down Essos for five hundred leagues and stretches a hundred leagues across. There are three main paths through the mountains: the Steel Road, Stone Road, and Sand Road. Each is guarded by a fortress city that was once part of the legendary Patrimony of Hyrkoon. The Patrimony, famous for its warrior women, fought many a war against those from the plains of the Jogos Nhai to the east of the mountains where the eponymous strange race of men with pointed heads (the product of skull binding) ride zorses across the land.
Further beyond is one of the most storied and perhaps powerful nations in the world, the Golden Empire of Yi Ti. They are believed by many to be both the oldest and the largest of all civilizations in Essos. While ruled by a God-Emperor, the numerous disparate princes are able to run their smaller kingdoms largely as they see fit. It is a large country, with a Jade Sea coastline, dense rainforests, large plains, and more. Even in the Seven Kingdoms, it is known as an exotic and unique land of mystery and great wealth. Within the capital city of Yin, the azure emperor resides in a palace that dwarfs the size of all King’s Landing – that is if the tales can be believed.
It is also worth mentioning the nearby isle of Leng. Though descended from the people of Yi TI, the Lengii maintain a unique culture and independent rule.
During our travels we unfortunately had to pass over many a city or forgotten kingdom. Essos is a big place after all, and to see it in its entirety would take many more lifetimes than we have. Instead, we’ll end our journey in perhaps the most mysterious location yet – Asshai and the Shadow Lands. A grim, dark place (as you might expect), the Shadow Lands represent the eastern edge of Westerosi knowledge of Essos, though even that is greatly limited. Here, the unfathomable lurks in the tall ghost grass. From the corpse city of Stygai to the foreboding Mountains of Morn, there is no telling what sorts of demons call this place home.
Asshai itself is a massive city, larger than King’s Landing, Oldtown, Volantis, and Qarth combined, though the small population means that it remains eerily empty. Here, magical practitioners dabble in the darkest arts while the mysterious shadowbinders are among the few who dare to venture out beyond the walls. The city does maintain a port, which is visited by merchants making the arduous trek to Asshai in search of the large quantities of gold held here. The merchant’s return west with hushed whispers of dark rumors – the bulk of which we pray aren’t true.
Language in Essos
There are as many languages as there are cultures in Essos – and then some. From Dothraki and Old Valyrian to Ghiscari and Ibbenese, you’ll hear many different tongues throughout – so getting by could be difficult in some places. The closer you are to Westeros, the more likely you’ll be able to speak the Common Tongue, though you shouldn’t always count on it.
How much does it cost?
Like in the Seven Kingdoms, expenses will vary considerably depending on your station and how you like to travel. Want to stay in the palace and rub shoulders with magisters and archons? You better by willing to wager a small kingdom. Of course, you can always live the life of an itinerant adventurer – just be prepared to rough it out in some less than reputable establishments.
For more on prices, check out our Continental Cost Guide.
Is Essos safe?
Generally speaking, Essos can be very dangerous. Even in the nicest and wealthiest of the Free Cities, danger can lurk around any corner; but further east you travel, the greater the danger grows. You will also have to contend with slavers who won’t hesitate to kidnap you in search of profit.
You would be smart to arm yourself and keep a low profile if travelling alone or with only a few companions. If you have the money, there are many sellswords and mercenary companies available – and purchasing a small army to keep you safe could be the most prudent course of action.
As you travel east, our knowledge of what’s out there diminishes greatly, and so does our knowledge of the beasts and threats you might face. We hear tale of basilisks, forgotten monstrosities, and worse (especially in the Shadow Lands). While the Seven Kingdoms is by no means a wholly safe place, we recommend you think long and hard about trading the relative comfort of Westeros for the unknown dangers of Essos.
The World is Vast
We have now traveled through both the Seven Kingdoms and most of Essos (at least the part that is known to us) but the world holds many more strange, wondrous, and terrifying places. Even here in Westeros, we have minimal knowledge of what awaits in the frozen north Beyond the Wall.
The third continent, Sothoryos lies to the south of Essos. A harsh land of which little is codified; we hear stories of savage men, numerous killer diseases, snakes that grow to over fifty feet, and even ferocious wyverns.
The nearby Basilisk Isles are a brutal and lawless place, usually serving as a home for pirates and men of ill intent, while the inhabitants of the island of Naath are often taken by these dastardly villains to be sold into bondage. The Summer Isles on the other hand is a lush land, famed for a wealth in natural resources, shipbuilding, and a vibrant culture that reveres the act of…lovemaking.
The fourth and final continent, Ulthos, is located far to the east, south of Asshai (though it could be connected to Essos for all we know). Of this land, little is known except that it’s covered in jungle. There are many more lands to discover…and perhaps some day a brave adventurer will have the chance. For now however, our journey is done.
Our guide to ‘Game of Thrones’ covers the real world filming locations used to create the series.
Sources: ‘The World of Ice & Fire’ by George R. R. Martin, Elio M. García Jr. and Linda Antonsson as well as ‘A Wiki of Ice and Fire’. In addition, knowledge of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’.
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