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An Andalusi Mudéjar in 14th-c. Constantinople: The Travels of Ibn al-Sabbah

The following is a short translation of a short section of ‘Abd Allāh b. al-Sabbāḥ’s Nisbah al-Akhbār wa Taẓkirat al-Akhyār. Very little is known about the author apart from the fact that he was an Andalusī Muslim from Sharq al-Andalus, i.e the territory in eastern Iberia under the dominion of the Crown of Aragón. He was born at some point in the mid to late fourteenth century into a family of Mudéjars, a community of Muslims living under non-Muslim rule. At a young age, Ibn al-Sabbāḥ set out on his long journey to the East. His travels took him across Iberia to Nasrid Granada, Marinid Morocco, Hafsid Tunis, Mamluk Egypt, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Yemen, Syria, the Ottoman and Byzantine domains, as well as parts of Central Asia and Iran. He apparently returned to the Islamic West (although there remains a difference of opinion as to whether he returned to al-Andalus itself) early in the fifteenth century and wrote his travelogue shortly thereafter.

The text is unique because it provides historians with a detailed travel account by a 14th/15th-century Mudéjar from the Crown of Aragón and, thus, provides some insight into how an individual from this community perceived the various developments, institutions and personalities throughout the Islamic world. It also represents a perspective of the broader Islamic world by an Andalusī Muslim, who often sought to stress the relative military might of other Islamic dynasties vis-à-vis the Christian West in order to contrast it with the relative weakness of the dynasties in the Islamic West and the rather precarious position of Muslims in al-Andalus. Due to the nature of medieval travel accounts, it is of course impossible to verify with any certainty the specific details or claims made by Ibn al-Sabbāḥ in the text, but it nevertheless has important value in illuminating the worldview of a late medieval Mudéjar.


The section I have translated below deals with Ibn al-Sabbāḥ’s travels in Byzantine and Ottoman lands in the late fourteenth century, where (according to his account) he spent four years of his life. The reader will note how the text abounds with basic factual errors, myths and inaccuracies, underscoring the author’s lack of knowledge regarding the specific political history of that region. An illustrative example is his emphasis on the marriage alliance between the Kantakouzenos emperors and the Ottoman house. Ibn al-Sabbāḥ points out that the Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347–1354) married his sister Theodora Kantakouzene (d. after 1381) to the Ottoman sultan Orhan (r. 1326–1362); in fact Theodora was John’s daughter (although the confusion may stem from the fact that her brother also became emperor shortly thereafter). Moreover, Ibn al-Sabbāḥ does not realize that Theodora was not the mother of Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389). Rather, the latter was the son of Nilüfer Hatun (d. 1383), the daughter of a prominent Byzantine commander but not related to the Kantakouzenos family . Ibn al-Sabbāḥ’s knowledge of Byzantine imperial history is also lacking as he erroneously claims that the current ruling dynasty was descended from Heraclius (r. 610–641). The same lack of knowledge underpins his strange claim that the Ottoman royal family was descended from the Abbasids, a statement perhaps derived from a local legend in one of the many lands that he visited throughout his travels. At times, he even makes basic mistakes about early Islamic history, wrongly placing the first Arab siege of Constantinople (674) during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik b, Marwān.

As with many travel accounts, its usefulness to the historian is in its author’s specific interactions in the lands they visited. As such, the account about Ibn al-Sabbāḥ’s visit to the Hagia Sophia and his admiration for the relics and icon in that basilica demonstrate the genuine curiosity of this Andalusī traveler for the new lands that he visited. It is through this specific anecdote that the reader also discovers that Ibn al-Sabbāḥ was fluent in Catalan and (apparently) understood some Italian, thus giving us additional insight into interpersonal interactions in the Mediterranean world of the 14th and 15th centuries.


Translation

Now we will mention the kingdom of the North, the kingdom which encompasses the city of Constantinople. This is the city of the descendants of Japheth, the son of Noah (peace be upon him). Its kings are the Turks and its subjects are the Greeks who live under the authority of the Turkish Muslim rulers of the Ottoman house (Banū ‘Uthmān). The Ottomans are descended, through their mother’s line, from the Abbasid caliphs. There was an Abbasid caliph who married a Turkish lady named Muradāh, who is the ancestor of the Ottomans. It is for this reason that they named their current ruler Sultan Murad [I, r. 1362–1389]. Murad is an immensely powerful king who commands a force of 100,000 horsemen and has successfully subdued the Greek rulers, establishing his sovereignty over the great city of Constantinople. He conquered all the territory of Constantinople [i.e. Byzantine imperial domains] by the sword until he overcame its rulers and populace. Today, all of the lands of Constantinople have come under Islamic rule and its population pay the poll tax (jizyah) to signify their submission.


I traveled throughout the Ottoman realm and the kingdom of Constantinople for four years, residing in the college (madrasa) of the Sultan Murad. While resident here, I was provided with two meals consisting of ram meat, as well as clothing, books, and a stipend until I was overwhelmed. Verily, human beings can become overwhelmed by good things, just as they can be overwhelmed by bad things. I remained in this college for four years before crossing into the city of Constantinople itself where I stayed for fifteen days. Its inhabitants are Greeks and its ruler is descended from Constantine [the son of Heraclius [r. 610–641] who was Caesar of Syria. He [John VI Kantakouzenos, r. 1347–1354] married his sister [Theodora Kantakouzene (d. after 1381)] to the warrior-king (al-malik al-ghāzī) Orhan [r. 1326–1362], who was Sultan Murad’s father. This Heraclian princess became the mother of Sultan Murad and Orhan’s children Ibrāhim, Sulaymān and Khalīl, all of whom were the nephews of the king of Constantinople [Byzantine emperor].[1] The descendants[2] of the Sultan Murad are today the rulers of the realm but nevertheless allow the Byzantine emperor (al-malik al-takfūr) to rule the city of Constantinople since he remains under the authority of his nephews while both he and his countrymen pay the poll-tax to these same nephews.

(Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos presiding over a synod. Taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/John_VI_Kantakouzenos.jpg)

Constantinople is a city consisting of three parts and is triangular in shape…and its walls are eighteen miles long. However, most of the city is in disrepair today except for a few gardens, fields and vineyards where grapes and pomegranates are grown. The traveler is not provided with water until after he purchases some bread or fruits from the city’s vendors, who then give him a drink of water. Even though God has cursed this city with disbelief, the Sultan Murad has appointed a Muslim judge (qāḑī) who adjudicates between the Greeks and the Muslim merchants since it is a city where trade is widespread. The city has a thousand merchants from all religions and nations, including Arabs and non-Arabs. The tomb of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī [d. 674], dating from the time of the conquest [sic!] of the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān [r. 685–705],[3] is also one of the landmarks of the city.

(1422 map of Constantinople by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti. Taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/Map_of_Constantinople_%281422%29_by_Florentine_cartographer_Cristoforo_Buondelmonte.jpg )

The reason that I visited Constantinople was that I had been informed that some of the relics of the prophets could be seen in one of its churches, and thus sought to determine the truth of the matter. I arrived to the city in the company of a trade caravan from Syria. I entered the city after passing through the [Dardanelles] and first witnessed the city protruding into the sea. It was a massive city, encompassed by a wall 18 miles long and is triangular in shape, with two parts overlooking the sea and one part located on the European continent. I asked a group of the Syrian Christians about those relics and an Arabized man informed me that they were located within the basilica of the Hagia Sophia (Ayā Sofyā) but that Muslims were not permitted entry into that building. So I said “O ‘Īsa, assist me in gaining entry.” He was hesitant and replied: “I don’t know about that. The Christians may find out and prevent me from entering too!” As a result, I pretended to be part of a group of Syriac Christians from Syria until I found myself in the very center of the building. I noticed that the relics were suspended from the dome of the church by a metal chain. Thus, I was able to confirm with my own eyes that these relics did indeed exist. They included some white garments, a long rod and a copper or wooden box which was covered by a cloth of red silk. I asked one of the Christians: “O ‘Īsa, what are these white garments?” He replied: “These are the shirt of Joseph, the cloak of the Virgin Mary, and the robe of Aaron.” Then I asked: “And what is the box and rod?” He said: “The rod is the walking stick of Jesus and the box is his bag in which he would store food while traveling.”

I then looked up once more at the relics, at which point I aroused the suspicion of the church’s leading official who yelled: “Throw this Saracen (sarazīn)”—by which he meant Muslim—“out!” People responded: “How do you know that he is a Saracen?” He said: “I saw him admiring the garments and relics of the prophets and the icons of the saints. It is because of this that I knew that he is indeed a Saracen,” by which he meant that I was a Muslim. I found myself surrounded by a group of people who began interrogating me about my religious faith in the Frankish language. There were a few Genoese individuals present who questioned me so I told them: “I believe in Jesus and in the Holy Book that God revealed to him. Verily Jesus is the Spirit of God (rūḥ Allāh) and His Word (wa kalimatuhu) that he cast into Mary. I affirm that Mary was a virgin before becoming pregnant with Jesus and remained so after she gave birth to him.” After I said this, the Genoese Christian told the crowd: “This man is a native of the land of the Catalans (arḑ al-qatalān) who speaks Catalan and he says such-and-such about Jesus and his mother. He was looking at the various relics only out of love and admiration for the prophets and their sanctity.” But the priest declared: “In the name of the Christian religion, this man is really a Saracen! Throw him out!”

 

When I saw that they had begun to argue with one another, I crept away to the part of the church that had a copper icon depicting Constantine the son of Heraclius [r. 641] and his horse. The icon was elevated on an elegant marble column and was fitted with a wooden rod in the middle. In the center of the icon, there was a copper image depicting [Constantine] riding his horse while wearing a copper crown upon his head. The metal had turned a slight tinge of green due to the passing of time. Constantine’s left hand was extended while his right hand was elevated, with his gaze focused eastward. I asked some of the Syrian Christians: “Why is his left hand extended while his right hand is elevated?” It is intended to signify that in the beginning [of his reign] he sought to rule the world in his palm but [by the end] he was unable to do so. It’s as if the image is saying that he was unable to benefit from the luxuries and power of this world.”

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(Miniature painting of Sultan Murad I from the 16th-c. Kiyafet-i Insaniye Fi Semail-i Osmaniye)

Constantinople pays the poll-tax to the Ottomans and is under the nominal authority of their ruler, whose combined military force numbers 124,000 and who also possesses 5000 fierce hounds that he unleashes upon the enemy, who are often defeated by these beasts before the Muslim army even arrives. The Ottoman realm is vast and fertile. It has as an abundance of fruit trees, mountains and rivers. It has large orchards and all types of fig trees; almonds and chestnuts are also grown in large quantities. The people residing in the mountains often gather pears, apples, and figs to dry under the sun in order to store it for the winter months. When one enters a Turkish house, they will be immediately overwhelmed by the aroma of apples.

 


(Countryside between Bursa and Iznik, Turkey. Photograph taken from http://katrinkaabroad.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ano-902.jpg)

 

Turks and Greeks each wear distinctive headgear: Turks wear red caps to indicate their Islamic faith, while Greeks wear white ones, indicating that they are non-Muslims (dhimmīs). Sufi lodges (zāwīya) are plentiful in the Ottoman realm and each lodge is very hospitable and generous. The Sufi lodge established by Sultan himself is particularly generous and serves people dishes of lamb during both the day and night. Similarly, the entire land of the Turks is extremely generous and are Sunnis who follow the school of thought of Abū Ḥanīfa [d. 767]. The population includes large numbers of scholars, reciters of the Qur’an and jurists. Each year, nearly 50,000 horsemen—with commanders appointed by the Sultan himself—bravely and unwaveringly wage holy war (jihād) in the name of God. These men are charitable and gracious, and their generosity knows no bounds. As I myself witnessed, the land also abounds with various hot-water bathhouses.


(Great Mosque of Bursa, Turkey. Taken from http://www.tourmakerturkey.com/uploads/8/7/4/4/8744530/2300105_orig.jpg)

It takes two entire months to cross the expanse of the Ottoman realm, which is populated by both Turks and their Greek subjects who pay the poll-tax to signify their submission. Twenty-four Byzantine Greek commanders and governors also pay the poll-tax each year and provide 24,000 troops for the military campaigns of the Ottoman ruler. For its part, Constantinople—which is ruled by Sultan Murad’s uncle—provides 400 horsemen, while the Genoese city of Pisa provides one hundred horsemen for the Ottoman Sultan Murad. It takes two months on foot to journey across Ottoman territory in Europe (barr al-Andalus) and one month on foot to cross the Ottoman territory located in Asia (barr al-Shām).

 

[‘Abd Allāh b. al-Sabbāḥ, Nisbah al-Akhbār wa Taẓkirat al-Akhyār (Tunis, 2012), pp. 218–223]

[1] Theodora Kantakouzene was the mother of Orhan’s son Halil/Khalil, but not the others listed by Ibn al-Sabbah. The designation of the Byzantine emperor as the “uncle” of Murad I is therefore erroneous (putting aside the fact that it was the Palaiologoi, not the Kantakouzenos family that ruled Byzantium from the late 1350s onwards)

[2] This reference suggests the account was written at some point during the fifteenth century, possibly at the time of the Ottoman interregnum (1402–1413)

[3] This is a major historical error on the part of Ibn al-Sabbāḥ. According to Muslim historical tradition, Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī died at Constantinople during the first Arab siege (674), during the reign of Mu‘āwiyah b. Abī Sufyān (r. 661–680).


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