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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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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Castilian “Reconquista,” Ottoman Expansion and the Christianization of al-Andalus

Since its initial conquest by Arab and Berber armies in 711–715, most of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) had been under Umayyad Muslim political control between 756 and 1031.[1] Following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, however, al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled portions of Iberia, had disintegrated into over two dozen emirates, known as taifas.[2]

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Al_Andalus_%26_Christian_Kingdoms.png

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8b/Taifas2.gif

This fragmentation and weakening of Muslim political authority facilitated the rise of the northern Christian powers of Portugal, Navarre, Castile, León, and Aragón. Attempts by local (Andalusi) and foreign (“Berber” Almoravid, Almohad and Marinid) dynasties to resist the southward expansion of these Christian kingdoms ultimately failed, and the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, ending in an overwhelming defeat for the Muslims at the hands of a Christian coalition, sealed the fate of most of al-Andalus.[3] Beginning in the eleventh century, Castile and Aragón in particular had capitalized on the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba and succeeded in conquering major Andalūsī cities such as Toledo in 1085, Zaragoza in 1118, Lisbon in 1147, Cuenca in 1177, Majorca and Badajoz in 1230, Cordoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Jaén in 1246, and Seville in 1248, Algeciras in 1344, Antequera in 1410 and Gibraltar in 1462.[4]

https://ballandalus.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/mapa-reconquista-siglo-xiii.jpg

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