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.
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.
About two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” exhibit at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. It was a truly wonderful experience and the curator Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock should be congratulated on such a monumental achievement. As many observers have noted, this is the first major exhibition in the United States to closely consider the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to offer strong evidence of the central but little-recognized role Africa played in global medieval history. Among the materials on view are sculptures, jewelry, household and luxury objects, manuscripts and architectural remnants, all united by their connections to routes of exchange across the Sahara from the eighth to the 16th centuries. The exhibit includes an excellent collection of treasures and artifacts from West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East & Europe from late antiquity to the 20th century. It showcases the immense importance of trans-Saharan Africa as a pivotal part of the medieval world, and embodies the heart of the interconnected universe that many scholars are increasingly referring to as the Global Middle Ages. Weaving together art, archaeology, cartography history and literature to tell the story of an economically-vibrant and culturally-diverse medieval Africa, the exhibit has received an overwhelmingly positive reception, with one reviewer stating that
“Caravans of Gold” creates new points of reference by not only reveling in the beauty of the objects but also introducing viewers to the idea of a vibrantly interconnected global culture, including the sophisticated social, political, cultural, and economic systems of West Africa. So much of Africa’s relationship to Europe has involved defamation, appropriation, and control. Narratives highlighting the agency of West African people in the medieval period allow for a rediscovery of the continent’s rich history, cultures, and contributions to the evolution of global trade and culture. “Caravans of Gold” is an important gesture in helping people understand that Africa has always been connected to the world and can share its story on its own terms.
Another reviewer observes that the exhibit
doesn’t aim for less than decentering the idea that the medieval epoch should only be envisioned through a European lens, which are typically stories of feudalism, war, chivalry, and the Bubonic plague. These European sagas are the ones I grew up with, saw dramatized on television, and valorized in film. Caravans of Gold also seeks to put Islam at this reconstructed world’s fulcrum and regard it as a force which impelled cultural advance, rather than to associate it with iconoclastic destruction of historical patrimony — stories we know too well. Even more, it subtly raises up the entire African continent, which becomes through this retelling, a force of profound socioeconomic change at the global level.
I’ll be heading back to Madrid for a few days. Greatly honored to be participating in what looks like an excellent set of conversations with leading scholars about questions of lineage, race, and religion in the late medieval and early modern Iberian worlds. Full program available here: http://www.proyectos.cchs.csic.es/corpi/es/activities/blood-and-milk-race-and-religion-late-medieval-and-early-modern-iberian-worlds .
There have been a number of works in recent years that have highlighted the close diplomatic relations and cultural exchange between England and Morocco during the early modern period. Although the relationship between the two monarchies varied considerably between 1570 and 1800, including both periods of friendship (as in the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Aḥmad al-Manṣūr) and tensions/hostility, there was nevertheless a maintenance of commercial links and diplomacy throughout the entire period. As a result of this political context, Islam and Muslims were interwoven into the broader cultural history of early modern England just as European Christians were an integral part of the story of early modern Morocco. Among the treasures that have survived from this period that attest to the evolving mutual perceptions and representation of these societies are portraits of five Moroccan ambassadors who were tasked with securing trade agreements or political-military alliances between the 16th and 18th centuries. They were:
‘Abd al-Wāḥid ben Mas‘ūd ben Muḥammad al-Nūrī
‘Abd al-Wāḥid ben Mas‘ūd was sent as the ambassador of Aḥmad al-Manṣūr of Morocco (r. 1578–1603) to Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558–1603) in 1600–1601. He was formally tasked with securing a trade agreement, but it appears that he was also involved in negotiating a possible military allegiance between Morocco and England against Catholic Spain. The painting was completed around 1600 by an unknown artist and is preserved in the University of Birmingham.
The Alcazar (from the Arabic al-Qasr meaning palace) is the royal residence of the kings of Spain. The Alcazar is considered a World Heritage Site, like many other extraordinary pieces of architecture in Spain, and is magnificent to behold. It is one of Spain’s lesser known sites, since most visitors often consider the Alhambra in Granada or the Mezquita-Catedral in Cordoba to be more significant. However, the Alcazar is not only an amazing piece of work in its own right, but even rivals the Alhambra as a palace. The palace is built almost entirely in Hispano-Muslim style and, in many ways, resembles the Alhambra. Thus, there is a natural tendency to assume that this was a palace built by and for Muslims. This is both right and wrong. Yes, the palace was initially constructed in the taifa period and served as the royal residence of the Banu ‘Abbad dynasty, whose most famous son was al-Mu’tamid (the poet-prince). However, in its current form, the building was commissioned by a Christian king, Pedro I of Castile, in the late fourteenth century. Pedro (or Peter) hired a number of Muslim artisans and architects from among his own population in the kingdom of Castile, but also some from the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, to work on the palace. Interestingly, some of the very same artisans who worked on constructing and beautifying the Alhambra were also those who worked on the Alcazar, hence the similarities. Also worth noting is that Pedro I was a close friend and ally of Muhammad V, the Nasrid sultan who commissioned the major parts of the Alhambra palaces(Patio de los Leones, etc.) which have become the hallmarks of the structure. The building itself also integrates northern Spanish influence. As such, the building itself–in addition to underscoring the power and legitimacy of Pedro I–is also a demonstration of the medieval Spanish cultural co-production in which various medieval Iberian Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures interacted with one another and formed different parts of a unique whole.
After Burgos, I headed for León, a city with an immensely important history for Christian Spain. León was perhaps the single most important contributor to the political and religious identity of the Kingdom of Castile-Leó. Historians and clergymen from this city were instrumental in reinforcing the idea that the conquest of al-Andalus was in fact a “Reconquista”, thereby linking the newly-established Christian kingdoms in the tenth and eleventh centuries with the illustrious Visigothic past. León also had an important identity as an “imperial city” since it was in the Cathedral of León that Alfonso VII (d. 1147) was crowned “Emperor of All Spain” (imperator totius hispaniae) in 1135. Naturally, the first place I headed the evening I arrived was to that very cathedral.
The next morning, the first thing I did was go back to the cathedral to explore it some more. It was perhaps one of the most stunning examples of Gothic architecture I’ve seen in all of Spain.
The rest of the city, like the cathedral, was also bursting with history. Here are some pictures.
Finally, I spent the last couple of hours in León visiting the Basilica of San Isidoro, where Isidore of Seville is buried along with a long list of illustrious Christian kings and queens of Spain.
Burgos is not a very well-known city to most travelers today. But it has immense historical importance. It was the political and cultural heart of the medieval Kingdom of Castile, the entity which conquered the majority of al-Andalus and which was instrumental in laying the legal, cultural, religious, and institutional foundations of the modern Spanish state. The city also lies on the Camino de Santiago, a major pilgrimage route, which adds to its importance.
When I arrived in the city, I could tell it was immensely different than Andalusia. The architecture was obviously the clearest indicator but the cool weather and unique dialect of its inhabitants also made this obvious. As I walked through the city’s gates, the first thing I saw was the massive cathedral. It is within this cathedral that the 11th-century hero Rodrigo de Vivar (“El Cid”) is buried. One cannot help but admire this incredible piece of architecture and the massive effort that went into its construction. Truly one of the wonders of Spain.
Another place of interest in Burgos for me was the Monastery of Las Huelgas, which is famous for a variety of reasons (namely all the royalty buried there.)…but personally I was mainly interested in seeing the Penon/Banner of the Almohads, captured by the Kingdom of Leon-Castile at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), which is kept in the monastery. This battle was the death knell of most of al-Andalus, since the defeat shattered the Almohad empire and led to the conquest of the vast majority of Islamic Spain: Cordoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Jaen (1246), Sevilla (1248) all fell to Christian rule soon after. As such, the victory (and the captured banner which is the emblem of that victory) is immensely significant in the modern consciousness of the Christian Spain, since it marks THE fateful moment in their history when the tide turned eternally in the favor of the Christian states in the peninsula, at the expense of al-Andalus. Hence, it lies at the heart of the myth of the Reconquista. Each year, in a solemn ceremony, the banner is removed from the monastery by the state’s highest military officials and paraded through the streets in commemoration of that victory against Islam (I’ve found a picture online of the ceremony, which I posted below).
During the rest of my time in the city, I strolled around town and took in a few of the sights, which include the remains of the tenth-century fortress, the statue of El Cid, and the lovely mix of medieval and modern architecture.