The Iconography of Royal Power in 12th-c. Norman Sicily

The reign of Roger II (r. 1130-1154), who had began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130, has long fascinated everyone interested in Mediterranean history. It marks a particularly significant period for the consolidation of Norman rule in both Sicily and southern Italy. Roger II instituted a strong royal administration, overcame various challenges to his authority (in the form of rebellions) and inaugurated an expansionist foreign policy that resulted in the incorporation of substantial territories in North Africa into his realm (discussed further here).

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(Image source: http://almostforgotten.squarespace.com/podcast/2018/3/13/episode-35-norman-in-italy-part-2-roger-ii)

In addition to overseeing the transformation of the Norman kingdom into a Mediterranean power that controlled Sicily, southern Italy and parts of modern-day Tunisia and Libya, Roger II’s reign is also distinguished by his patronage of a courtly culture colored as much by Arab-Islamic and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) influences as by Latin Christian culture. This is unsurprising, given the rich Islamic and Eastern Roman history of Sicily in the preceding centuries. Indeed, the island’s large population of Christians, Muslims and Jews was predominantly Greek and Arabic speaking during the early 12th century.  This variety of cultural influences and convergence of diverse communities is indicated by the distinctive culture of the Norman kingdom, perhaps best embodied by the wonderful architecture patronized and constructed by Roger II and his successors during the 12th century.

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(Muqarnas in the Palatine Chapel/Cappella Palatina in Palermo, constructed between 1132 and 1180. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bautisterias/24595747119/)

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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.

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Michael Kritovoulos of Imbros (d. 1470) on the Fall of Constantinople (1453)

The Ottoman Turks were originally based in western Anatolia and had risen to prominence as a frontier principality on the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire during the thirteenth and fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Ottoman sultanate had conquered much of Anatolia, Greece, Thrace, and the Slavic-speaking regions south of the Danube; in effect, they had replaced the Byzantine Empire as the dominant power in the Balkans and the Aegean. The culmination of Ottoman expansion in southeastern Europe was the conquest of Constantinople on May 29th 1453, which was accomplished after a fifty-four-day siege by Sultan Mehmed II (r.1451–1481), known as “the Conqueror” following his capture of the Byzantine capital.

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Mavia’s Revolt: An Arab Warrior Queen and the Roman Desert Frontier during the Late Fourth Century

This short piece follows from my previous post about the Limes Arabicus in Late Antiquity (https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/limes-arabicus-and-saracen-foederati-the-roman-byzantine-desert-frontier-in-late-antiquity/) and seeks to revisit the sources for Mavia’s revolt in order to explore the various dimensions of the Arab-Roman relationship in the Limes Arabicus during the fourth century. Although the existing textual sources are quite limited in what they can tell us, they can still shed light on several aspects of the role of the Arab tribal confederations on the south-eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

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Limes Arabicus and Saracen Foederati: The Roman-Byzantine Desert Frontier in Late Antiquity

The question of the Roman-Byzantine desert frontier in Late Antiquity has attracted the attention of various scholars in the past several decades. This frontier, known as the Limes Arabicus, spanned more than 1,300 kilometers from northern Syria to southern Palestine and the edges of the Arabian Peninsula. Recent research and excavations have done much to augment scholarly knowledge of this frontier, which served as the south-eastern defense of the Roman Empire for over six centuries, until it was eventually overrun by the Arab Muslim conquerors in the 630s. This frontier consisted not only—nor even primarily—of fortifications and watchtowers, but also of major nomadic tribal confederations, allied to Rome, which patrolled the desert and ensured the security of the eastern provinces by exercising control over nomadic movements both within and, to a certain degree, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Although much attention in recent years has been devoted to the Ghassānids, which served as a major tribal confederation allied to Rome well into the seventh century, the fourth century has been relatively less discussed.[1] Those scholars, including Irfan Shahid, Greg Fisher and Glen Bowerstock, who have devoted their scholarship to understanding this period have indicated its importance and have sought to underscore that the fourth century witnessed both the rise of major Arab tribal confederations along the desert frontier and the establishment of Roman foedus agreements, or alliances, with them.

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