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)

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“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.

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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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Famous Historical Muslims of Hellenic/Greek Origin

Islamic civilization currently encompasses every major culture, ethnicity, race, and language on the planet. The pages of Islamic history are filled with the emergence of many different ethno-linguistic groups, from regions as far apart as West Africa and Central Asia, as important political and cultural forces, which greatly impacted the direction of Islamic civilization. Unfortunately, despite this reality, Muslim history has often been presented as a series of accomplishments revolving around Arabs, Persians, and Turks, to the exclusion of all other groups. The rich histories of hundreds of Muslim ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups have too often been overlooked or overshadowed by this mistaken approach towards Muslim history which has identified Muslim history with a very specific cultural and geographic context.

One particular group of Muslims that has played an important role within Islamic civilization as scholars, administrators and warriors have been Hellenes/Greeks. While the many contributions of Greek Christians to medieval and early modern Islamic/Islamicate/Middle Eastern civilization have been highlighted, especially in the context of intellectual exchange and the transmission of philosophical/medical knowledge, the history of Greek Muslims is all but unknown to most people. Greek, in the context of this post, is not meant in any ethno-nationalistic sense, but is intended to signify individuals or groups who belonged to lands and cultures where Hellenic languages and civilization predominated, whether 9th-century Sicily, 13th-century Anatolia, or the 19th-century Aegean. A variety of processes—ranging from enslavement and conquest to voluntary conversion and political opportunism—contributed to the integration of many Greeks into Islamic civilization from the seventh century to the present.

The following are only a handful of some of the most famous names of countless Greek Muslims who played an important role throughout Islamic history. As one will notice, a large number of the names come from the Ottoman period. This is largely due to the fact that there are far more historically-documented cases of Muslims of Greek descent during the period of Ottoman rule in western Anatolia and south-eastern Europe (areas where Greek speakers were concentrated most heavily) than there are for earlier periods of Islamic history. Significantly, many of the Greek Muslim men and women listed below who played an important role within this empire were a product of the devşirme system, which was one of the key aspects of the Ottoman imperial system during the pre-modern period. From the fifteenth century onwards, there was a major effort on the part of the Ottomans to lessen their reliance upon traditional military and political elites and concentrate power instead in the hands of those who had passed through the devşirme system. At a later date, I plan on providing some more concrete thoughts on the devşirme system, slavery and society in the pre-modern Islamic world. For now, however, I have attached a list of further reading below (feel free to recommend additional works) for those serious about learning more about the interrelationship between slavery, social mobility and socio-political developments in Islamic history. Continue reading

Fraxinetum: An Islamic Frontier State in Tenth Century Provence

The following is an updated and revised summary of my journal article on Fraxinetum which appeared in the UCLA Journal Comitatus in 2010 (the full article and the footnotes can be accessed here: http://www.academia.edu/3537846/Fraxinetum_An_Islamic_Frontier_State_in_Tenth_Century_Provence)

Political History

According to Liutprand (d. 972), the bishop of Cremona, the history of Muslim Fraxinetum began around 887, when a small vessel carrying about twenty Andalusi sailors landed on the Provençal coast near the modern town of St. Tropez.[1] The Andalusis forcibly seized the neighboring settlement of Freinet, and on the mountain above the town proceeded to occupy the fort, which had been called Fraxinetum since Roman times.[2] The subsequent fortress-city which they established was highly defensible and practically impenetrable, protected on one side by the sea from where the Andalusis drew their reinforcements, and on the other by large forests of thorny trees.[3] Consequently, the fort could only be accessed through a single, narrow path leading up the mountain.[4] Contemporary Latin authors, namely Liutprand of Cremona and the anonymous author of the Life of Beuve of Noyers, emphasize the Iberian origin of the raiders, but differ in naming them; Liutprand calls them “saraceni,” whereas the author of the Life of Beuve refers to them as “hispanicolae.”[5] Tenth-century Arab geographers, especially Muhammad Ibn Ḥawqal in his Surat al-Arḍ (977) and al-Istakhri in his Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik (951), refer to the fortified port of Fraxinetum as Jabal al-Qilal (“Mount of Lumber/Timber”) and describe it as a vast mountainous region blessed with rivers/streams and fertile soil that takes two days to cross.[6] Ibn Ḥawqal, like Liutprand, emphasizes the virtual impenetrability of the fortress and specifies that it was only accessible through one route on the side of the mountain. He also adds that it was dependent on the Umayyads of Cordova, as implied by his cartographic representation of Fraxinetum as an island at the mouth of the Rhone River and located close to the Iberian Peninsula, similar to the Balearic Islands.[7]  Continue reading

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]

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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]

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Muslim/Magyar Invasions, Liudprand of Cremona (d. 972) and Christendom in the 10th Century

In my previous post (https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/muslim-and-magyar-raids-in-western-europe-during-the-ninth-and-tenth-centuries/) I sought to briefly outline the political and military aspects of the Magyar and Muslim incursions into Latin Christendom during the ninth and tenth centuries. In this piece, I want to look more closely at how one Latin writer, Liudprand of Cremona (d. 972), reflected upon these events. From the outset it should be asked: how were the fact the major, destructive raids by Muslims, Magyars and Vikings on Europe interpreted by Latin Christians during this period? Did they view the raids as a consequence of the internal divisions and disunity that had become characteristic of the former lands of the Carolingian Empire or as a manifestation of God’s wrath against the impiety of Christians in Italy and Francia?

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Liudprand, the Bishop of Cremona, and one of the main contemporary sources for the raids of the Magyars and Muslims in Europe, provides a unique perspective on these questions. He presents the invasions of the Magyars and Muslims in a similar manner, as a consequence of the chaos and civil strife that had plagued Western Christendom since the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire. Liudprand also emphasizes that this lack of order has led many Christian lords (and commoners) to behave unjustly and act impiously. He views the Magyars and Muslims as divine punishment sent to chastise these Christians, and Christendom as a whole, for their sins. He blames both the “evil Christians” and “infidels” for the turmoil of his times, and throughout his narrative attempts to associate these two categories with one another in order to properly explain why these invasions have occurred. By narrating the history of these invasions, Liudprand not only provides a strong critique of the present reality, but also implicitly (at times, explicitly) asserts that only a powerful, just, and Christian sovereign, Emperor Otto I, would be able to defeat the invaders, regain divine favor, and restore unity and order to Latin Christendom. Continue reading