Why, and How, History (Sometimes) Matters

I do not generally consider the kinds of history I do, either academically or for the wider public, to be especially ‘political’ (in the ordinary sense of the term at least) nor driven by a concern for activism. My own ideological and philosophical profile has become much more convoluted and much less clear over the years- in part because of the challenges my study of history has presented to many of my earlier presuppositions- and while I do not imagine that some pure ‘objective’ stance exists from which to do history, I do aim at letting the past in all its complexity and heterogeneity guide my own approaches as much as possible.

Of course, the fact that I do not put a great deal of energy into shaping the political profile of my scholarship or its possible political and cultural uses does not mean that my scholarship isn’t politically charged or that it might not make a difference (not necessarily predictable) in a given political or cultural situation. My focus on Islamic history arose in no small part out of the context of post-9/11 America and even more so the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. I hoped that my scholarship, and perhaps also the whole tenor of my life, could act as a corrective, a sort of reparation even, for what my country had done and was doing to people across the Islamic world. That wasn’t my only motivation, to be sure, but it was- and is, in modified and I would like to think somewhat more sophisticated form- a part of why I embarked on the path upon which I still find myself.

The political potency and even importance of the sort of scholarship that I and many others in history, religious studies, and other disciplines do was driven home today with the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch upon Muslims praying the Friday prayers. Last night, before the news had broken about what was happening on the other side of the world from me, I posted the following tweet, a rather casual observation about medieval artistic patterns in Iraq and points north into the Armenian lands:

On the surface this is not an especially ‘political’ observation. Late medieval Armenian art, even to a relatively untrained eye, displays many differences from earlier periods, with many components that appear ‘Islamic,’ even if the exact analogues in non-Armenian art are not always clear. It seems likely to me that the 13th century Maqāmāt painting tradition revealed in the Baghdad manuscript above can be connected to the 15th century Armenian Gospel and similar productions, as part of a shared cultural sphere that extended through the Jazīra into the Armenian lands and west to Syria, a shared sphere that can be seen in many other instances of art and architecture.  ‘Armenian’ culture more broadly, in medieval and early modern periods alike, is marked by creative interaction with, and active integration within, the ‘Islamic’ cultures in which Armenian communities lived, creating a complex cultural world that cannot really be reduced to ‘Armenian’ or ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arabic’ or any other homogeneous-sounding appellation.

What does this have to do with the fascist terrorist in Christchurch? While the mimetic (in more than one sense) culture of online fascism is itself quite complex and notoriously slippery, it is very clear that the terrorist (possibly terrorists) in Christchurch, and their political kin elsewhere, draw upon a very particular ‘narrative’ of history, particularly Islamic history. I hesitate to call it a coherent narrative since it is really more an emotionally-charged bundle of stories, sentiments, memes, and fragments of narratives, images and moods. It does not depend so much on a structured account of history as an overall mood or sentiment, one in which ‘Islam’ is a looming and deadly mass, consuming and leveling all before it. Islam and everything non-Islam are imagined only in terms of conflict and violence and terminal struggle. The Christchurch terrorist emblazoned his weapons with verbal images of some of this imagined history- the Armenian genocide, the fall of Acre- which summon up images of stark conflict, of zero-sum interactions. There is no room in this historical imagination for ‘Islamized’ Armenian Gospels, or, say, the role of Muslim troops in the wars of the British Empire. He did not invent these images, nor did he devise the historical narrative of which they are a part. Rather, they have been put together by various actors, mostly online, and exist in the ethereal space of (mostly) social media. Given the right circumstances and agents, they can have real power, as today’s events reveal.

Which is why, I want to cautiously argue, presenting alternative images, alternative narratives, such as the very sort I suggested- rather offhandedly- on Twitter right on the cusp of the terrorist in Christchurch bringing his own historical narrative to bloody life. Now, the historical narrative I presented has the advantage of being true, or at least inclining towards historical truth, constructed carefully and as the result of much research and analysis. In the online world of meme and image and mood, however, if we’re being honest, the possession of historical truth or something like is not necessarily an advantage. What counts is the degree to which certain moods and imaginaries and narratives can capture people’s attention, structure their sense of what is real and what matters. Good historical scholarship, because it captures historical reality better and more fully and hence more powerfully than the manipulations of fascists or other ideologues for whom history is nothing more than raw material for politics and socio-cultural struggle, can put forward images and narratives and moods that can stand in opposition to the tendentious ones of fascists and others.

In other words, this machine of historical scholarship may not kill fascists, but it can create different emotional and imaginative spaces, one that can neutralize the narratives and emotional spaces that feed fascism (and other ideologies, too, I would add, such as militant ‘Islamism,’ itself a fascist-like tendency). ‘Public history,’ whether that means tweeting, writing books for a wide audience, participating in community events, giving lectures, or whatever, puts the narratives and spaces that arise from scholarship out into the wider world, where they can potentially have very real power. It would be naive, of course, to imagine that historians can somehow by themselves stop the next mosque shooting, or prevent ISIS from re-organizing. These movements and tendencies are multi-causal and complex, like everything in human society. However, I do think that we- self included- as historians, particularly of Islam, have a role to play, that even small things like presenting different images (sometimes quite literally), of making worlds and realities visible that would not otherwise be seen by the wider public, that such things can make a cumulative difference.

 

Muslim Saints and Dogs: A Sampler

That the position of dogs in Islamic societies has often been an ambiguous one is relatively well known. However, the ambiguous and sometimes hostile attitudes and practices directed at canines by some in the Islamic world down through the centuries is but part of the story of the place of the dog in Islamic societies and Islamic traditions. The role of dogs in elite culture is relatively well known- the modern day saluki, for instance, probably traces its ancestors back to dogs owned by members of elite groups in the Middle East and elsewhere- with such dogs often being employed in both hunting and as every-day animal companions. But dogs could be found in many other capacities as well: any town or city would have its street dogs, animals who show up in the story from Rūmī’s life (1207-1273) illustrated below, and in the tale from the life of Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî (1519-1597), while guard and herding dogs would be found in the countryside. And, as the following stories indicate, dogs could have a more intimate relationship with humans, even to the point of close companionship.

I’ve arranged these accounts, taken from Persian and Ottoman Turkish sources, in chronological order, each reflecting a somewhat different stance towards dogs and their relationship with humans, each involving ‘friends of God’ in an Islamic setting, as described by a hagiographer. The first, written sometime before 1291, concerns the canine companion of Rūmī’s grandson, Chalabī Amīr ‘Āref, a dog named Qeṭmīr after the famed canine companion of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a dog who is described as being effectively a saint in his own right. The second story, from the life of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Ardabalī (1252–1334), the eponym of the Safavī sufi order and later Shi’i dynasty that would rule over the Iranian lands for some two and a half centuries, is the oddest and most ambiguous of the two, as it suggests a sort of sanctity on the unnamed dog’s part, but in a very ambiguous way. The final story is from a compilation of saints’ lives produced in the late 17th century Ottoman Empire, and may very well be ‘in dialogue’ with the preceding two, since both the menâkıb of Rūmī and of Shaykh Ṣafī, in both their Persian originals and in later Ottoman Turkish translations, were well known in the Ottoman lands.

It is also transmitted that, having received Qeṭmīr [the dog] from Shaykh Nāṣeh al-Dīn, Chalabī [Amīr ‘Āref] set off and instructed Qeṭmīr: ‘Come along with us!’ When the dog had gone a few steps, he turned around and looked at Nāṣeḥ al-Dīn, who said: ‘What are you looking at? Would that I were in your place and might become the dog of that royal court!’ Then Qeṭmīr rolled about, let out a yelp, and set off running.

Similarly, in the city of Lādīq during the samā’ he would enter the circle of the companions and turn about with the noble disciples. Another of his miracles was that whether at home or abroad no dog ever attacked him, nor did any dog bark at him. When they sniffed him, they would form a circle around him and lie down. And whenever Chalabī sent a messenger somewhere, he would join Qeṭmīr to him. Indeed, whether it was a journey of ten days or a month, Qeṭmīr would escort him to his destination and then return. Moreover, they [burned] his hair and used the smoke to treat fever. The fever would depart.

Whenever he saw a denier, without mistake he would piss on him. And he would never eat food from deniers of [Mowlānā Rūmī’s] family. If they secretly mixed that food from the companions and gave it to him, he sniffed it and wouldn’t eat it!

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad Aflākī, The Feats of the Knowers of God: Manāqeb al-ʻārefīn, translated by John O’Kane (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2002), 659

Commentary: This is just a selection from the ‘biography’ of the dog Qeṭmīr, who receives fairly extensive treatment from Aflākī- who was himself a companion and disciple of Shaykh Chalabī. In this section, Qeṭmīr is treated much as a saint would be, with a description of his entry into the company of Shaykh Chalabī, himself sanctified primarily through his descent from Mavlānā Rūmī, followed by practices typical of a ‘friend of God,’ only here in canine form: entry into ecstatic dance (the samā’), recognition of his inherent sanctity by others of his kind, the ability to heal diseases, and preternatural recognition of interior human dispositions and other things otherwise impossible to discern. To my knowledge this is the only dog so depicted in Islamic hagiography, though the dog below comes close- if anyone out there is aware of other instances do let me know in the comments!

Another account involving dogs in the Manāqeb al-ʻārefīn: Rumi addresses the dogs of the marketplace, from a c. 1590 copy of the Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s menāqib (Morgan Library MS M.466, fol. 66v)

The custom of this dog was that if a hypocrite was in the midst of the [Sufi] assembly this dog would enter and would smell the men gathered, one by one, and upon the one who smelled of hypocrisy he would urinate, so that the person would be completely humiliated. One day a man of great reputation sat in the assembly, and when the dog smelled from this man the scent of hypocrisy, he urinated on him, so that the man was greatly embarrassed and mortified. The shaykh was angered by this, and cursed the dog that ‘He go to pieces!’ Then the dog disappeared and was not seen for one or two days. When they searched for him, they found him under a rosebush, dead, all gone to pieces.

Ibn al-Bazzāz al-Ardabalī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā ([Tehran]: Intishārāt-i Zaryāb, 1376 [1997 or 1998]), 612. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

Commentary: The dog described here is described in a previous section as well, as being a black dog who hung around the zawīya of Shaykh Ṣafī as something of a regular fixture. The entire account is part of a chapter devoted to Shaykh Ṣafī’s miraculous interactions with the non-human world, including animals, which receive a sub-chapter. The unnamed black dog described here seems, at first glance, to be almost a facsimile of Qeṭmīr from a few decades previous: he can preternaturally detect ‘hypocrites,’ presumably meaning here people who did not believe in the sanctity of Shaykh Ṣafī or in the legitimacy of sufi practices. Yet when he seemingly righteously takes a piss on just such a person, Shaykh Ṣafī grows incredibly angry with him, employing his ‘jalāl,’ or power of divine wrath, upon the hapless animal. What are we to make of this? I am honestly not entirely sure. That Shaykh Ṣafī accumulated lands and goods and influence is not disguised in this saint’s life, so perhaps we are meant to understand him as being properly angry at alienating a man whose wealth could potentially be turned to the good use of Shaykh Ṣafī’s community. It is possible as well that the story is meant to distinguish Shaykh Ṣafī from Rūmī, though this seems a bit of stretch to me. Doubtless other things are going on in these accounts, with which I am generally less familiar than the other two examples- again, comments or suggestions are welcome!

From among [Şeyh Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî’s] miracles was the following: the people of Karahisâr-ı Şarkî [modern Şebinkarahisar] sent messengers to Şems asking him that he honor them with his preaching, counsel, [performance of] zikr [remembrance of God], and his blessed noble beauty. In answer to their supplication he came, and was honored immensely, being given a fine place to stay as well as much feasting and amiable conversation. For some time he preached, gave counsel, and led zikr, then announced that he was returning to Sîvâs. When the scholars, şeyhs, merchants, notables, and ordinary people of the town all came together to give him a farewell with honor and respect, numerous dogs also came before the saint, and, as if presenting complaints, began barking! When Şems asked why they were barking so, the people replied, “Because there has been plague and pestilence in our town, the kadi [judge and administrator] of our town ordered the killing or banishing of the dogs, so that we killed some and we banished some. These are dogs that we banished.”

The saint cried out, “Your kadi was heedless of the hadith which says, If dogs were not a community (umma) from among the communities, then I would order them killed.” Saying that, he addressed the dogs: “Go safely and soundly back to dwell and to be at rest in your former places!” As the townspeople returned from bidding the saint farewell, they saw these words fulfilled as the dogs, understanding the command, followed after the people back into town to their usual places—and having done so, by the command of God, the plague was lifted on that very day!

Şeyh Mehmet Nazmî, Osmanlılarda tasavvufî hayat: Halvetîlik örneği : Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, edited by Osman Türer (İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları, 2005), 359-360. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Commentary: In this story we see dogs recognizing someone’s sanctity, but this time that of a human saint. In recognizing Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî’s holiness the dogs also engage in another typical action directed at saints, that of supplication in the face of unjust ‘secular’ authority, thus reinforcing the saint’s authority. This interaction with the dogs also allows Şeyh Şemseddîn to enact his saintly authority over the entirety of the town in a dramatic way: when he discovers that the dogs of the town have been unjustly displaced by the unkind and implicitly irreligious kadi, he rebukes the kadi and intervenes miraculously so as to restore the dogs to their rightful places in the town, restoring harmony, as indicated by the lifting of the plague. In returning the dogs to their places Şemseddîn also, at least temporarily, displaces the Ottoman kadi from his sultanically designated place, not only nullifying his anti-dog decree but also casting aspersion on the kadi’s knowledge of the Prophetic sunna, a reminder of Şemseddîn’s mastery of both the exoteric and the esoteric, mastery which could shape the very configuration of the places through which he passed, mastery to which even dogs might respond.

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The Shaykh and the Wrestlers

Wrestlers in a Persianate context, similar to that of the story below, as depicted in a sixteenth century Safavid illumined copy of Sa’di’s collected works (Walters W.618.31B)

Sufism has developed over the centuries a vast technical vocabulary, with many elements filtering out into wider Islamic (or, better, ‘Islamicate’) societies and languages. One of the more difficult terms that makes up this stock of words describing sufi practice and theology is the Arabic word himmah, taken into Persian as himmat. Its basic lexical meaning is, per Steingass’ Persian dictionary, ‘Inclination, desire, resolution, intention, design,’ with the additional meanings of ‘ambition, aspiration; mind, thought, attention, care; magnanimity; power, strength, ability; auspices, grace, favour.’ The sufi usage of himmah encompasses all of these: when a shaykh is said to possess or wield himmah, we might say that he exerts the power of his mindful intention, power which is invested in him by virtue of his relationship with God. It’s a bit like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, in that through the use of his himmah the advanced master is able to psychically- so to speak- manipulate things in the physical world outside of his body, similar to the way a Jedi master might employ the Force to move objects or change a person’s thoughts or will.

The ambiguity of himmah is not simply the case of being at a remove from the original languages of sufism- it’s clear from the sources that medieval and early modern sufi authors felt a need to explicate what precisely was meant thereby to contemporary audiences. The story I’ve excerpted and translated below comes from a Persian-language collection of lives of Inner Asian Naqshbandī saints, entitled Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, by Fakhr al-Dīn ʿAlī ibn Ḥusayn Wāʿiẓ Kāshifī Ṣafī (1463 – 1532-3). The story is part of longer clarifying discussion by Kāshifī about himmat, as an introduction to the miracles of the important fifteenth-century Naqshbandī saint Khwāja ‘Ubayd Allāh Aḥrār. It also speaks, by the by, to a major component of wider Persianate culture during this period and afterwards, namely, the role of wrestling, a sport which provides the setting for the miracle story.

From a somewhat earlier period, two wrestlers, as depicted on a 13th century Ilkhanid tile (Walters 48.1283)

One day we came to the wrestling-grounds where two people were wrestling—one was powerfully and immensely built of frame, while the other was weak and scrawny of body. The big fellow was making easy work of the weak one, so that we felt merciful towards him, and I said to Mawlānā Sa’d al-Dīn [Kashgārī], ‘Use your power of mind (himmat) and send out a thought (khāṭir) so that that weak one can triumph over that powerful one!’

He replied, ‘You pay heed, and we will also lend aid.’ So his thought turned in that moment to the weak one, and in a flash the weak one was invested with great strength so that he was able to extend his arm and with dexterous skill lifted the powerful-framed man from the ground, hoisted him overhead, then threw him down into the dust of the ring. A great exclamation went up from the crowd, the men watching amazed and bewildered by what had transpired, none of the spectators aware of the secret of it.

ʻAlī ibn Ḥusayn Kāshifī Ṣafī, Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, ed. ʿA.A.’ Muʿīniyān (Tehran: Bunyād-i Nīkūkārī-i Nūriyānī, 2536/1977-8), v. II, 517.

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Horses, Herdsmen, Wolves, and Otman Baba

A seventeenth century imagining of another late medieval ‘deviant dervish’ saint, Seyyid Ali Sultan, usually affiliated in later memory with the Bektaşîs.

The early Ottoman Empire was home to a dizzying array of Islamic holy men, wandering dervishes, strange renunciants, and other figures whose practices and identities were often quite different from the expectations of ‘proper’ Sunni behavior and belief. This diversity had deep roots in medieval Anatolia and beyond, and would undergo many interesting and complex permutations during the early modern period, with traces of the diverse and sometimes rather wild milieu of the late medieval world remaining down to the present. The following story is taken from the extensive menâkıb (hagiography) dealing with Otman Baba (d. 1478-9), written by Otman Baba’s disciple Küçük Abdâl in 1483. Otman Baba was a saint and leader of a radical dervish group known as the Abdâl-i Rûm, who, like many such groups, combined socially rejectionist practices with an itinerant lifestyle. In Otman Baba’s case, he seems to have ranged among the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Anatolia and especially the Balkans for much of his life, being buried after his death in the village of Teketo in what is now Bulgaria. His tomb, pictured below, was built during the first decade of the sixteenth century under the auspices of Sultan Bayezid II- hence the distinctively ‘classical’ Ottoman style- and remains a site of pilgrimage, despite a twentieth century interval under Communism in which it was converted into a museum.

In this story, Otman Baba encounters herdsmen on the Black Sea coast west of Constantinople, and after initially being mistaken as a possible fugitive (perhaps fleeing punishment for a crime?), one of the young men, ‘whose heart was open to heaven,’ recognizes him to be a saint, and Otman Baba takes up temporary residence with them. The story exemplifies Otman Baba’s relationships with, and veneration by, the rural populations scattered across Anatolia and the Balkans- people he and his followers seems to have deliberately sought out instead of city dwellers.

Then that Source of Sainthood (kân-i vilâyet, i.e. Otman Baba) abandoned that place [a hill near Constantinople] and struck out by himself along the shore of the [Black] Sea, to a place called Terkoz [mod. Terkos]. In this locale there were some young men (birkaç yiǧit) grazing their horses in the meadow, spending the days and nights there. The Source of Sainthood, being manifest (zahir olup) there, approached these men. When they saw the saintly leader they said to one another, ‘Who is this who has come, is he a fugitive (kaçgun)?’

However there was one among them whose heart was open to heaven, who said, ‘Do not be unjust! This one who has come is a saint (er)! Do you not see his awe and might?’ Saying so he went towards him, and took the hand of the Source of Sainthood and kissed it, then invited him to his house, hosting and entertaining him and saying, ‘From whence did you come O sun of the two worlds?’ He answered, ‘I came in the wake of Arık Çobanı [‘stream shepherd’], coming to the shore of this sea.’ The young man replied, ‘What man can travel the sea without a ship?’ He said, ‘This visible sea does not rise up to the heel of Arık Çobanı.’

It is so, and there is no veil covering sainthood. The world is like a ring on the finger of the saints (evliyâ). This Arık Çobanı that the Source of Sainthood referred to is Koyun Baba of Osmancık [on the Anatolian Black Sea coast], the locus of the manifestation of sainthood. Then the Source of Sainthood stayed with them for some days. One morning upon rising the Source of Sainthood said to the young man, ‘Get up, brother, wolves want to eat your horse!’ So in that moment the young man arose and, not seeing his horse among the other horses, climbed a hill and saw that a group of wolves had taken hold of his horse in their midst, but in that moment, with a sudden jerk, his horse was lifted up away from the wolves [to safety]! Prostrating himself in thanks he made heartfelt supplication to the Source of Sainthood and knew that this Source of Sainthood was the inner secret of the two worlds!

Küçük Abdâl, Vilâyetnâme-i şâhi Göʼçek Abdal, edited by Turgut Koca, and Murat Açış ([Turkey]: [Bektaşi Kültür Derneği], 2002), 28-29. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Otman Baba’s tomb, built in the early 16th century, in the village of Teketo, modern Bulgaria (source)

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Early Modern Campaign Life: Through the Eyes of Margriet Van Noort

the siege of the city of alesia melchior feselen
Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage below.

The excerpted text below comes from the autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries. This passage describes aspects of her childhood, one spent out on campaign alongside her father, a soldier fighting under the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years’ War. Margaret provides a powerful and moving look into what everyday life was like for the families of the soldiers, families that, as in many other early modern wars, went on campaign as well, sleeping in tents, dodging bullets, and contributing to combat in various ways, including, as Margaret later describes, digging trenches. Margaret’s mother sought to give her children some semblance of normalcy, Margaret notes, even if her children could not avoid being swept up in the chaos and danger of an early modern army on the move, as Margaret’s account of her three days separated from her family suggests.

the-siege-of-the-city-of-alesia-melchior-feselen-2.jpg

Since my father was a soldier, my mother always followed him with all the children; there were seven of us. We went with him in every campaign where we suffered hardships of every kind, as you can imagine, from heat and other trials. We often lacked food, and even when we had money there was often nothing to buy. At times when we had no money, we would that a horse might be shot so that we could have something to eat. One time we ate meat with no bread because we did not have any; we could not even find a loaf to buy. Other times we would eat raw meat because we had no time, fire, or proper conditions for cooking. And we usually slept four or five months of the year in our clothes on the ground with a bit of straw for a soft bed. Our home was a tent, but my mother took pains to keep us all gathered together as if we were in a house. There we recited our devotions, did our handwork, and read religious books, to which I was always greatly devoted. We never missed Mass when it was said. It was in a tent set up in the open countryside and there were thousands of people who attended. The enemy would shoot artillery and the bullets would fall in the middle of all those people. No one was ever hurt.

About the age of nine, I had a desire to stay in a monastery of the Order of Saint Bernard that was near where we were garrisoned. But my father did not want me to because he said that Friesland was sure to revert to heresy, and so I stayed with my parents. My mother saw that I was quite a young lady at eleven years old, and she had me make my First Communion. At twelve, my father had contracted marriage for me with a young man from a good family; but he was a military man and he died in battle, and I was very happy.

We used to go every summer on a campaign that sometimes lasted until Christmas with a lot of snow and cold. I was very fond of walking and since my parents had carts and horses in which to carry us, when I would see other soldiers’ small children crying so and dying of cold, I would ask my mother to allow me to walk so a little girl could ride in my place. Sometimes she would scold me and tell me that I was going to get lost among the crowds and it happened just so. I had walked all day and at nightfall the companies split from each other with each company camping together. I stayed seated by the road where I thought our people would be passing. But only the Walloons came. I began to ask if the Germans were not passing by there also, and they told me no. I was very distressed and started to cry like a girl of thirteen would. And God willed that a good man might pass by, a captain who asked me why I was crying. I told him of my trouble, that I had thought my father would have come by there. And God willed that this good man should console me, and he took me with him and pampered me, and I spent three days with him while he took care of me as if I were his daughter. He was a captain of the Wallons, and he asked me my father’s name. I said he was an ensign with a German regiment and his name was Sebastiaan Van Noort. Finally my mother came searching for me with two other people. On the third day the companies were reunited and my mother and everyone was very happy that I was found. After that, I always stayed with them.

Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. (Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015). 66-67.

Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries

Hayrapet Jul'ayec'i bible
Fig 1.: Manuscript Bible, illustrated by Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i, 1649 in New Julfa. (“Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots Instutute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, ms 189) .

The four images in this post- two from Western Europe, two from the Safavid Empire- paint a picture of the inter-connectivity of places, religious communities, and cultural traditions of early modern western Eurasia, inter-connectivity that took place without any single power or region dominating, as would be true from the nineteenth century forward. These images also illustrate the problems with the language of ‘influence,’ as well as the fact that religious communities and traditions that were at odds in some respects could still participate in shared cultural paradigms and draw upon the work and concepts of others in creative ways. In particular these images demonstrate the complicated place of ‘print culture’ in a Eurasian context, printed texts co-existing and interacting with non-print modes well through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In this first pair of images, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, illustrating the first chapters of Genesis, the Armenian illustrator Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i has drawn upon the images of Johann Theodor de Bry for his own illumination of the Bible. The relationship is obvious upon even casual examination, such that one might be tempted to call the Armenian paintings ‘copies.’ But slightly closer examination reveals something more subtle going on. Jul’ayec’i has followed the general form and many of the details of de Bry’s engravings, but has done so in a transformative way: the images have been placed in a new arrangement, one that proceeds in chronological order from left to right, the borders dividing the scenes employing motifs with deep roots in Armenian illumination. Most significantly, Jul’ayec’i has rendered these scenes in color, in brilliant color which calls to mind earlier illumined Armenian Bibles. The entire production has furthermore been placed within a manuscript Bible, instead of the printed Bible of de Bry. The reference to de Bry, and by extension, Western European art conventions, remains unmistakable- but in rendering them in the bright splashes of Armenian painting they have been translated and re-appropriated (there is literal translation as well- note the inclusion of Armenian text in Jul’ayec’i’s painting). ‘Remix’ is one way of thinking about such a piece, the form remaining but the interpretation rendered making the piece an effectively new creation, the mood and resonances it conveys departing dramatically from the original ‘cited’ imagery, even as the new art depends on the original to some degree.

Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3
Fig. 2.: Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3, engravings by Johann Theodor de Bry, Mainz, 1609 (General Research Division, The New York Public Library).

What is particularly notable about Jul’ayec’i’s art, and that of the many other Armenian artists and manuscript producers who employed similar techniques vis-a-vis print culture circulating in Armenian communities (which in itself reminds us that it was not unusual for a Bible printed in the Netherlands to end up in the Safavid lands), is that Armenians were not themselves strangers to print culture. The first Armenian book was printed in 1512, with an increasing pace of printing in a number of presses across the vast Armenian world of western Eurasia. Simultaneously, Armenians produced, sponsored, and purchased manuscripts such as that from which contain Jul’ayec’i’s illuminations. Print culture was useful for some things, while manuscript culture and its associated arts continued to play an important role, from liturgical texts to diaries to magical scrolls. And just as manuscript arts and traditions left their imprint in Armenian print culture (and many other iterations of print culture across early modern Eurasia), the new possibilities that printing opened up could find their way into manuscript production.

In the Safavid world, Armenians were not the only people creatively adapting and ‘remixing’ Western European print culture material. Persian-speaking Muslim artists, such as the seventeenth century painter Muhammad Zaman, were also making interesting use of imagery circulating out of Western Europe. Witness Zaman’s rendering of the iconic scene of Judith with the head of Holofernes:

MSS 1005
Fig. 3.: Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, Muhammad Zaman, c. 1680,
Isfahan, Safavid Iran (Khalili Collections MSS 1005).

Zaman’s depiction of this scene incorporates material from an etching of a painting by the fifteenth century Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (fig. 4). But just as his Armenian contemporary had done with de Bry’s etchings, Zaman has transformed the scene. It is now in bright and vivid color, reminiscent of more traditional forms of Persianate miniature (which itself had long been in dialogue with Armenian painting). Just as Jul’ayec’i reframed his source material, Zaman has not only filled out the scene around Judith and her maidservant with lush vegetation, vivid flora, and a scene of a camp and a city in the background, but in keeping with the conventions of Persianate art he has embedded his painting within a series of frames, frames that are as much a part of the painting as the main image itself. Particularly strikingly, he has filled the upper panel with realistic flowers, flora typical of alpine Eurasia such as primroses and irises. The result is a striking contrast between the delicate beauty of the flowers and the gory sight of Holofernes’ head being held aloft, a somewhat incongruous scene. What would Zaman’s viewers have taken away from this painting? Would they have known to what it was referring, whether in terms of story or in terms of the source in Andrea Mantegna’s depiction? The Western European elements, as in the Armenian imagery above, are unmistakable, diverging as they do from the canons of Persianate art: yet they have been rendered into a Persianate style and frame (literally and figuratively). Some of the meaning is retained, while other aspects are transformed- for instance, it is possible that most viewers would not have known the story itself, leading them to imagine their own story or to connect the image with stories they did know. Continue reading “Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries”

Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb

Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)
Sultan Selîm II (r. 1566-74) visits the shrine of Ebû Eyyûb, from the poet Lukmân’s Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)

Perhaps the best-known, and most-visited, Islamic place of pilgrimage in modern-day Istanbul is the tomb-shrine complex of Ebû Eyyûb (Ar. Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī), located in the eponymous quarter of Eyüp, just north of the Theodosian  land walls along the Golden Horn. Ebû Eyyûb, an early Muslim (one of the Anṣār, the ‘helpers,’ who joined the fledgling community later than the Companions), was said to have died during the unsuccessful Muslim siege of Constantinople in 669, being buried where he fell without the walls. His tomb, whose ‘discovery’ is described in the text below, would become a center of visitation soon after Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453, and over time there would be built up the sprawling array of mosques, medreses, tombs, cemeteries, and so on that encompasses the main tomb-shrine complex. The tomb itself has gone through many permutations since the above image was painted in the early 17th century, but the tomb remains at the center of it all. Its discovery is described in the following story, an account taken from a menâkıb of one of the major Muslim saints of the fifteenth century Ottoman lands, Akşemseddin (1390–1459). The saint’s life was written down by one Göynüklü Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî in the mid-sixteenth century, drawing upon oral narratives circulating in his native Göynük, the small west Anatolian town where Akṣemseddin eventually settled and where he would die and be buried, and elsewhere, in including in Constantinople. This story picks up from Akṣemseddin’s close relationship with Mehmed II, who has just led the conquest of the city from the Byzantines:

Ottoman Velvet

Then Constantinople was conquered. Sultan Muhammed [Mehmed Fatih] sought from Akşemsüddin the exalted tomb of Ebû Eyyûb. The Şeyh, finding a thicket growing in the midst of the exalted tomb, marked it out by placing his staff to the right side of Ebû Eyyûb’s body. But someone took the staff, so that the marker that the staff had provided of the place was hidden, and it was said to the Şeyh, ‘The marker has gone away, do designate it once again!’ So they Şeyh returned to the place. He set up his staff, and they began to dig, and he stood up the hidden markers [under the ground].

Akşemsüddin then said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! The evident sign of this is that the night that Ebû Eyyûb was buried, an ascetic monk (bir ehl-i riyâzat ruhbân) saw in a dream the Prophet, upon whom be peace. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, indicated his desire for the monk to become a Muslim, saying: “One of my companions, Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî is buried in such-and-such place. It ought not remain unmarked in this foreign realm,” he said. The monk awoke, his heart filled with the light of faith: ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is his servant and his messenger,’ he said. He tasted the savor of faith, and with love and purity before morning he went out from the fortifications, and looked for the indicated place. In the place of the exalted tomb he saw a light. Dawn was approaching. This was the exalted tomb. He rubbed his face [upon it]. He built a place of visitation (mezâr) over it, and digging down close by to the tomb uncovered an ayazma [1].

This being so, Sultan Muhammad Hân and all the lords of the devlet [2] came to the exalted tomb and dug, and clearing away the rubble in accordance with the Şeyh’s words uncovered the exalted tomb and the ayazma. Sultan Muhammed Hân then built up the exalted tomb and built for the Şeyh built a hânigâh and a tekye, but the Şeyh did not accept them, and they were made into a medrese later [3].

After having excavated Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî’s place of visitation (mezâr), in support of the evidence that the Şeyh had adduced a shepherd came forward and said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! For I was driving my animals along, and upon coming to this place, the sheep would not pass over this exalted place of visitation, but split up to go around it, coming back together afterwards.’ [4]

Ottoman Velvet

There is much to uncover (pun intended) from this story. Ebû Eyyûb was known to have died before Constantinople from a wide range of Arabic sources dating back to the formative period of Islam, but those sources gave no indication of exactly where he was buried, and the conquering Ottomans clearly could find no visible trace of his tomb, as much as they may have hoped to establish its location and so have at hand the holy tomb of a warrior from the earliest days of Islam and who was in direct contact with Muhammad himself, evidence of the long-standing ‘Islamic-ness’ of the city. We can see similar ‘strategies’ at work elsewhere in Anatolia and in the Balkans, through the ‘discovery’ of tombs of figures from early Islam, and the elaboration of stories about them, such as Battal Gazi.

The intervention of Akşemseddin provides saintly authority as to the tomb’s location, which is presented here as being in a basically rural area (as indeed parts of the district, in Byzantine times known as Kosmidion, were devoted to various forms of agriculture well through Ottoman times). Note that he presents a very particular argument with ‘evidence,’ and not just the presentation of his word as authoritative in itself or as a result of a dream-vision delivered to him. He claims instead to have knowledge (though he does not describe how he came about the knowledge) of how the tomb was originally discovered, by a Byzantine monk. This monk, while he (secretly?) converts to Islam through a dream-vision, is notably depicted as already being pious and ascetic even as a Christian, the phrase ehl-i riyâzat one that might be applied to Muslim saints as well. And when he uncovers the tomb of Ebû Eyyûb, he also uncovers an ayazma, a holy well, a typical feature of Orthodox Christian holy places in Constantinople (as discussed in this post), and which is still accessible at the tomb-shrine. The story suggests an awareness of continuity and a need to deal with the existence of Orthodox Christian holy places in the vicinity, such as the monastery and shrine devoted to the saints Cosmas and Damian that stood nearby (the name Kosmodion in reference to this shrine). Even more, it suggests a continuity among the Ottomans from the Orthodox Byzantines of ideas of what constituted a holy place, ideas that would continue to be re-manifest from time to time, as the account of Merkez Efendî’s ayazma indicates. Continue reading “Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb”