Muslim Refugees in Medieval Malta (ca. 1463)? Mobility, Migration and the Muslim-Christian Frontier in the Mediterranean World

The following is an excerpt from my recent contribution to the Medieval Studies Research Blog, hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. It looks at an instance of economic migration from North Africa to Malta during the mid-15th century.

Cantino World Map, 1502.

As a modest contribution to a larger scholarly discussion about migration in the medieval world, this piece seeks to draw attention to one particular author, the Muslim traveler Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl (1440-1514), whose writings constitute a valuable source for the history of a late medieval Mediterranean world defined by mobility and migration. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ, a scholar and merchant, was born into a family of administrators and statesmen in Malatya, in eastern Anatolia. He traveled across Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Islamic Spain during the 15th century, and meticulously documented his experiences and observations in his monumental four volume work titled “The Joyous Garden: A Catalogue of the Events and Biographies of the Age” (al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim), written around 1483. The pleasant and cheerful title of the work, however, does not reflect its contents, which depicts a complex world that was defined by mass violence, political turmoil and social injustice, as well as by religious coexistence, trade and intellectual exchange. ‘Abd al-Bāsit also provides important evidence for migration that was shaped by economic and political necessity. Perhaps the most important example of this can be seen in two particular anecdotes about a small wave of migration from North Africa to the island of Malta:

“On Wednesday 4 Jumādā II 867/February 24 1463, news spread that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 60 in total, set sail on the Mediterranean and made for the Christian [lit: Frankish] island of Malta, in order to place themselves under their protection and power. They did this because they sought refuge from the oppression and injustice of the military commander Abū Naṣr [b. Jā’ al-Khayr], the governor of Tripoli appointed by the [Hafsid] ruler of Tunis [Abū ‘Amr] ‘Uthmān [r. 1435-1488], who seemed unconcerned and untroubled by this. Verily, there is no power or strength except by God![5]

[…]

“On Thursday 19 Ramadan 867/June 7 1463, we were informed that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 15 in total, sailed for the island of Malta in small boats, along with their families, children and elders in order to settle there under the protection and power of the Christians of the abode of war, in order to flee from the oppression and injustice of the governor of Tripoli. There came news from Malta that the Christians were welcoming, permitting them to settle and granting them land. The [Maltese] stipulated that [the migrants] would pay them as a land tax about one-third or slightly less, as they had been accustomed to paying to the governor of Tripoli, while being protected from injustice and secure in their lives and property. Verily, we are from God and unto him we will return!”[6]

Grazioso Benincasa, Portolan Chart, 1470.

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Library of Arabic Literature Blog: A Connected World: Exploring the Early Middle Ages with Ibn Faḍlān

The following is a short blogpost that I wrote on the Library of Arabic Literature’s blog about my experiences using Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga to teach about travel in the medieval world. The following is a short excerpt, and the full blog can be read here: https://www.libraryofarabicliterature.org/2021/exploring-with-ibn-fadlan/

Travel was a central feature of the medieval world. Whether the motivation was exploration, piety, diplomacy, knowledge, survival, or profit, the act of travel involved the travelers in larger processes of interaction and exchange between cultures and contributed to the diffusion of ideas between Europe, Africa, and Asia. These travelers’ surviving writings and accounts illuminate the realities of the medieval world and provide windows into the travelers’ own worldviews, providing students with the tools to question assumptions about a “clash of civilizations” and the supposed uniformity of either Latin Christendom or the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.

For the Early Middle Ages, in particular, an emphasis on interconnectedness, mobility, and exchange undermines and problematizes antiquated notions of “the Dark Ages.” This endeavor to better understand medieval travelers and their world has been facilitated by the translation and publication of medieval texts over the past several years, which has contributed to the emergence of the field of the “Global Middle Ages.” One such text is Mission to the Volga by Ibn Faḍlān, translated by James E. Montgomery, which I have used in courses with my students at Stony Brook University over the past two years.

The Catalan Atlas, ca. 1375, produced by Abraham and Jehudà Cresques in late fourteenth-century Majorca, provides a vision of a highly connected medieval world characterized by ethnic, cultural, and political diversity woven together through a web of trade routes and mercantile networks. The full manuscript has been digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b55002481n

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MESA 2019–Medieval and Early Modern Panels

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is holding its annual conference, one of the largest gatherings of scholars working on the history of the greater Middle East and North Africa region from Late Antiquity to the present, in the amazing city of New Orleans this November. Based on the conference program (available here or here),  it looks like a particularly good year to attend, with excellent panels covering a wide range of topics and chronologies.

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Open Access: Igor de Rachewiltz’s translation of “The Secret History of the Mongols”

https://cedar.wwu.edu/cedarbooks/4/

igor

The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century is a shortened version of the three volumes of Igor de Rachewiltz’s similarly-titled work published by Brill in 2004 and 2013. It includes the full translation with a few notes, but omits the extensive introduction explaining the nature and origin of the text, the detailed commentary concerning linguistic and historical aspects of the text, and the exhaustive bibliography of the original. Included are the genealogical table and two maps from 2004, a shorter version of two indexes, and a very brief list of works cited.

Open Access: C. Ansorge, “Faith & Fable: Islamic manuscripts from Cambridge University Library”

https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/262096

faith and fable

The first Islamic manuscript to enter the Library was a copy of the Qur’an donated in 1631 by the Arabic scholar William Bedwell. Since that time the Library’s Islamic manuscripts collection has grown in size and diversity to over 5,000 items. They shed a light on many aspects of the culture of the Islamic world, its beliefs and learning. Such a collection was amassed over subsequent centuries either from scholarly collectors or purchased by skilled librarians to add more depth to the already impressive range of treasures. But this extraordinary collection has remained relatively unknown outside the Library. Today, the aim is to change this with a number of different approaches. We are creating a fully searchable online catalogue of the manuscripts and digitising a selection of the most beautiful and interesting texts to make them available to the international scholarly community anywhere in the world via the internet. At the same time, the practical care of the original items, carried out by our own skilled conservators, will ensure their long-term survival for future generations. The Islamic manuscripts collection is supported within the Library by a team of specialists whose knowledge and skills, whether academic, practical or technical, aim to bring them to the attention of researchers. But only with a sustained programme of scholarly co-operation with experts outside the Library can the full content and significance of these texts be realised and their place in the wider context of Islamic scholarship become established.

A Piece of Medieval Iberia in…Kansas City.

This may not be news to many people, but I recently found out that Kansas City has its own version of the Giralda of Sevilla. The Giralda was originally a minaret constructed by the Almohad dynasty during the late 12th century and was part of the Great Mosque of Sevilla. Following the Castilian conquest of the city in 1248, the mosques was transformed into a cathedral and the minaret was re-purposed as a bell-tower.

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(Giralda, Sevilla. Source)

This structure has inspired many imitations across the world, including one in Kansas City.  Its  reflects the Spanish Colonial Revival Style, a phenomenon that witnessed the construction of buildings in the United States that were modeled on medieval and early modern Spanish styles. In 1967, the association between Sevilla and Kansas City was formalized when the cities became Sister Cities. For more on the history of this structure in Kansas City and the plaza where it’s located, see https://www.visitkc.com/2017/06/27/today-i-learned-history-behind-country-club-plaza

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(The Giralda of Kansas City. Source)

Some Life Updates

Greetings everyone! It had been my hope to upload some new content, but life has been a bit busier than usual over the past year or so.  After (finally!) completing my PhD in History at the University of Chicago, I’ve had the honor of being appointed as a Junior Fellow in the Dartmouth Society of Fellows (Dartmouth College) during the past year. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to spend time among such eminent scholars, from whom I learned a great deal.  As a lifelong city dweller, it took some adjustment to appreciate life in western New Hampshire over the past year, but it quickly started to feel like home. The intellectual exchanges at Dartmouth, to say nothing of the excellent resources provided by the fellowship, allowed me to spend some much-needed time rethinking my various projects, and beginning work on my book manuscript. This helped make the last year among the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating of my life.

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Summer Reading

These are some books I’m planning to read over the summer.

1) Joan A. Holladay, Genealogy and the Politics of Representation in the High and Late Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

“Images and image cycles with genealogical content were everywhere in the high and later Middle Ages. They represent families related by blood as well as successive office holders and appear as family trees and lineages of single figures in manuscripts, on walls and in stained glass, and in sculpture and metalwork. Yet art historians have hardly remarked on the frequency of these images. Considering the physical contexts and functions of these works alongside the goals of their patrons, this volume examines groups of figural genealogies ranging across northern Europe and dating from the mid-twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century. Joan A. Holladay considers how they were used to legitimize rulers and support their political and territorial goals, to reinforce archbishops’ rights to crown kings, to cement relationships between families of founders and their monastic foundations, and to commemorate the dead. The flexibility and legibility of this genre was key to its widespread use.”

https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/history/european-history-1000-1450/genealogy-and-politics-representation-high-and-late-middle-ages?format=HB

holladay

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Il-Kantilena: A 15th-century Poem in Medieval Maltese

Il-Kantilena by the Maltese poet and philosopher Pietru Caxaro (d. 1485) is the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language, and dates to the late 15th century. Since its discovery in the 1960s, much has been much written about this text and the implications for the historical understanding of medieval Malta. Unlike modern Maltese, which has a large number of loan words from Italian and English, Il-Kantilena is notable for its extensive Arabic vocabulary, demonstrating its relationship and proximity to the Sicilian Arabic spoken in Sicily during the 11th-13th century. The earliest comprehensive study of the poem is G. Wettinger and M. Fsadni. Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena (1968).

Il-Kantilena(Manuscript of Il-Kantilena. Source)

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