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)

Continue reading

“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” Exhibit (Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University)

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.

500x300-for-chicago-gallery-news Continue reading

A Fragment of the Lost History of al-Raqīq al-Qayrawānī (d. ca. 418/1028)?

Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm b. al-Qāsim al-Qayrawānī (d. ca. 418/1028), better known as Ibn al-Raqīq or al-Raqīq, was a high-ranking secretary and ambassador in the Zirid emirate (corresponding roughly to modern-day Tunisia, Libya and eastern Algeria), which ruled North Africa on behalf of the Fatimids following the latter’s conquest of Egypt. In addition to his influence within royal circles, he was also a celebrated poet and historian. His historical chronicle, Kitāb Tārīkh Ifrīqiyah wa al-Maghrib, had a profound influence on subsequent generations of Muslim historians, including Ibn al-Athīr (d. 630/1233), Ibn al-Abbār (d. 658/1260), Ibn ʿIdhārī (ca. 706/1306-7), al-Nuwayrī (d. 732/1331-2), Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) and al-Maqrīzī (d. 846/1442). Ibn Khaldūn, in particular, considered him to be one of the foremost experts on North African history. Although his work is now lost, many of these historians quote him at length and rely upon his chronicle for their narrations of the early Islamic history of North Africa. His history is therefore among the main sources of information for later historians seeking to understand the various developments in North Africa between the 1st/7th and 5th/11th centuries.

Continue reading