Ḥācım Sulṭān, the Questing Dervish, and the Troublesome Nomads

Fourtheenth Century Anatolian Carpet
Surviving traces of late medieval nomadic material culture are, unsurprisingly, few and far between, but this probably fourteenth century carpet of probable western Anatolian Turkman origin is an exception. The fronted animal motifs are reminiscent of Inner Asian nomadic art of much earlier times down to the present; however, the survival of this rug, by way of trade to, apparently, Tibet, as well as the presence of very similar rugs in Western European paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth century points to the fact that these Anatolian tribes were already connected to emergent global networks through which people, practices, objects, and non-human organisms moved. For another example of this style of rug, see the even further-flung in final destination ‘Marby rug.’ (Met. 1990.61)

Hailing from the world of late medieval and very early modern Anatolia are a group of hagiographic texts, often titled vilāyetnāmes (roughly, ‘sainthood-books’), which deal with a wide range of holy people loosely tied together through similarities of practice, discourse, and claimed lineage. Many of these saints, who are often collectively referred to as the Abdāl-i Rūm, are today associated with the Bektashis and Alevis, though until the modern period they were widely venerated, including by ‘respectable’ Sunni Ottoman Muslims. Ḥācı Bektāş Velī is by far the best known of these saints, the majority of whom are described in the hagiography as hailing from Khorasan in Inner Asia. In what follows below I have translated a selection from the vilāyetnāme of one of these saints, the (probably) 14th century Ḥācım Sulṭān, whose hagiography was written down in the fifteenth century, with the earliest copy hailing from the sixteenth. As such, it is a wonderful snapshot of what rural Islam looked like in western Anatolia during this transitional period in which the late medieval beyliks were being progressively incorporated into the expansive Ottoman Empire. It is one in which wandering saints are common, as well as cases of opposition to those saints, and contestation over the meaning of sainthood and who ought to wield it. It is a world in which nomadic peoples remain prominent, with the saints themselves effectively nomadic much of the time.

Before reading the story it is helpful to know what precedes it: in the opening pages of the vilāyetnāme we learn how Ḥācım Sulṭān was sent to Anatolia (that is, Rūm) along with Ḥācı Bektāş Velī by the famed Central Asian saint Aḥmet Yesevī. The two saints spent some time in Mecca and Medina before coming to Anatolia, where they first met with the saints already resident in Rūm, displaying their own saintly credentials before setting off to build up their base of followers. Ḥācım Sulṭān split off from his more famous companion (and the hagiography clearly builds upon the relationship to legitimize Ḥācım Sulṭān), traveling towards the territory of Germiyān in southwestern Anatolia. He herds cattle, deals with opponents, miraculously manipulates rocks, and so forth, all the while seeking out a place called Ṣūsuz (that is, ‘waterless’) which he has been told in a dream-vision is the place he must set up his headquarters, as it were. When he finally comes to Ṣūsūz (located south of the town of Uşak) he finds that a group of Aq Qoyunlū Turkman nomads are already using the area as their summer pasture, setting up a clash between the wandering dervish and the resident Turkmans. In the meantime, it should be mentioned, a miraculous black bull enters his service and attracts wonder everywhere he goes.

The story I’ve selected and translated here describes a new character entering Ḥācım Sulṭān’s fold, a dervish from far-off Khurāsān, a tale which is followed by one describing the resolution of the conflict between saint and nomads. Late medieval Anatolia was already a place intimately connected with other parts of Eurasia, whether through trade- as the above carpet suggests- or through the circulation of nomads, wandering dervishes, and the like, often coming, ultimately, from Inner Asia. It is not implausible that the outbreak of death in the nomadic camp as described below can be interpreted in light of the circulation of epidemic disease across Eurasia, an issue that remains very much acute in our own world.

This hagiography, like others of its sort, was written in a form of Turkish intermediate between late West Oghuz and the emergent Ottoman literary form, with what appear to be sixteenth century interjections here and there explaining words that had become obscure. These hagiographies were assembled out of oral reports and stories, something that frequently comes across in the written text, and reflect the intermingling and cross-fertilization of standard Islamic practices and ideas, elements of Persianate sufism, and local Anatolian motifs and traditions. As such, the meanings and significances of these stories are not always obvious, coming as they do from religious and cultural worlds that feel far distant from our own in many ways. I hope that my translation has retained some of that strangeness.

Folio from a Divan (Collected poems) by Sultan Ahmad Jalayir (d.1410); verso- Nomad camp; recto- text
Filling the margins of this c. 1400 Divān of the poetry of the Jalāyirid ruler Sulṭān Aḥmad Jalāyir (d. 1410) are depictions of an encampment of either Turkman or Mongol nomads. While probably produced in Iraq or Iran, this ink drawing gives a good idea of what the Turkman community described in Ḥācım Sulṭān’s vilāyetnāme might have looked like. (Freer and Sackler F1932.34)

There was a pure-hearted, worshipful, ascetic dervish saint in the lands of Khurāsān, whose name was Burhān, and who was a lover of the Folk of the illustrious House, and was in heart and soul a lover of the Friends of God. His heart was filled with passionate love (muḥabbet-i ‘aşıḳ). He constantly prayed, ‘O God of the worlds, make me to obtain to the skirt of one of the children of the Messenger!’ He consigned his heart to the divine unicity of God, exalted is He. One night while performing tesbīḥ, ‘ibādet, and zikr, he fell asleep. In his dream he saw that he had come to the lands of Rūm, where he saw that the saints of Rūm had all gathered together in one place, performing acts of worship and conversing about divine matters together. This dervish came up to them, and they offered him a place, so he sat down and saw that their khalīfe was one of luminous face and such that in seeing him one’s heart was struck with passionate divine love. This their khalīfe was Ḥācım Sulṭān. He said, ‘Welcome, my friend and loyal one, Dervīş Burhān!’ Hearing this answer [Burhān] arose and kissed Sulṭān Ḥācım’s hands and knees, saying, ‘You are my şeyh and my saint!’ Then the venerable Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘Yā Burhān! If you wish to be with us, come to Rūm, to the region of Germiyān, and you will find us.’ In that moment Dervīş Burhān awoke and found himself still in his room in Khurāsān. Immediately he arose and Dervīş Burhān became mad with love (divāne), passionate love encompassing him. Asking no one [for direction] he set off in the direction of the qibla. Will not anyone overtaken with divine passionate love (‘aşıḳ-i ilāhī) become divāne? Will not such a one vigorously search out for his şeyh? Not even the crossing of a great stony mountain phased Dervīş Burhān’s mind. In accordance with the saying ‘For the lover Baghdad is not too far away,’ day by day he traveled on the way, and in time one day he reached Rūm. Divine attraction towards the saints of God befell his heart (evlīyā’-i Allāhiñ cezbesi ḳelbiñe duşdi). One day he reached the region of Germiyān and said to himself, ‘Now, how shall I find his exalted side?’ It came to his mind that ‘Having taken me from Khurāsān shall I not reach his feet?’

Then by God’s decree he came to the graveyard (gūristān). He saw that some of the nomad households had made their summer pasturing grounds in the wild country there. Finding someone he asked, ‘What is this place?’ This person answered, ‘This place is Germiyān and is our summer pasture. Upon that hill there is a dervish like you who spends forty days neither eating nor drinking. He continually tells us, “In this place I am going to build my āstāne [lit. threshhold, but also indicating a sufi lodge or a shrine].” He refuses to go to any other place.’ Dervīş Burhān replied, ‘Now where is this dervish?’ The person answered, ‘He’s on that hill.’ So Dervīş Burhān set out towards him, which was known to Sulṭān Ḥācım. He rose from his place and went forward by three steps. Dervīş Burhān beheld the beauty (cemāl) of Sulṭān Ḥācım, so that his heart was illumined and he knew that he was the person he was seeking and whom he had seen in his dream. He walked towards him. He greeted him. Ḥācim Sulṭān reverently returned his greeting, saying ‘Welcome Dervīş Burhān,’ and he [Burhān] kissed his hands and feet, and in mutual love for one another they busied themselves with remembrance (zikr) of God. [Dervīş Burhān] reverently served Ḥācim Sulṭān. Continue reading “Ḥācım Sulṭān, the Questing Dervish, and the Troublesome Nomads”

Simēon of Poland Does Not Have a Good Time in Quarantine

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The lazaretto at Livorno, Tuscany, Italy: panoramic view. Coloured etching by Pompeo Lapi. (Wellcome Library no. 24279i)

The practice of quarantine- or at least quarantine as we now think of it- was first developed in late medieval Venice, and was gradually developed in early modern Europe with increasing legal and infrastructural support and method. One such institution was the lazaretto, an example of which, that of Livorno, is pictured above, as it looked in the 18th century. From the sixteenth century forward lazarettos were built in a number of European cities and ports, generally with a similar layout: something of a combination between a merchants’ caravansarai or khan and a fortress, designed to accommodate travelers and their goods while monitoring them for diseases, particularly the plague.

The Armenian traveler Simēon of Poland (b. 1584), whose travels primarily took place within the Ottoman Empire, left the Ottoman lands in 1611 for a sojourn in Rome, a city with which he was much impressed. However, upon departing the Ottoman Empire and entering Venetian-controlled territory, Simēon found himself forced into involuntary quarantine in the lazeretto (no longer extant) of Split, modern-day Croatia. His account, translated by George A. Bournoutian, describes his reaction to this practice, one unfamiliar to a traveler used to Ottoman customs, which did not yet include quarantine, his apprehension compounded by the language divide he encountered on the Venetian side of the frontier:

When we crossed the other side of the river and entered the fortress of Split, soldiers came out to meet us. We were overjoyed and thought they had come to honour us. But they took us to a house, which is called Nazaret [1], shut the door on us, and left. Not knowing their language or the circumstances surrounding the event, we remained there in depressed sorrow and cried all day. In the evening, looking out of the windows, we saw many merchants- Christians and Muslims- from various cities: Istanbul, Angora, Edirne, Julfa and other regions. Conversing with them, we asked, ‘Why have they detained us?’ They replied that such was their custom; even if the Sultan of Turkey came they had to put him in quarantine. Hearing this we became so distressed and such an irreparable melancholy came over us that our entire being was disturbed and our tongues dried out. We suffered thus in jail and in chains and even avoided each other; no one came to visit us and we did not see anyone. On the second day they brought a gvardian, that is, a nāẓir [2], and said that he shall carry out and buy whatever we wish. However, we did not know his tongue, nor did he know ours. We, therefore, explained to him via hand signs, like dumb people. If we asked for food, even fruit, they handed it to us through the window and we threw out the money…

They came every week, examined our worn clothes, bags, silk, shook them and hung them on ropes. They hung thus till evening. We somewhat comforted ourselves by talking to the Armenians who stood at a distance. They told us that there were different quarantines: those who have beeswax, hides, or morocco leather, and other similar goods, but do not have mohair, they keep twenty-five days. Those who have goods made of felt, leather, wool, or items made of mohair, are kept for forty days. We had nothing, but the vardapets had several rolls of wool to present as gifts to the Pope; because of that they detained us for forty days. Alas! Alas! Alas! Woe is me!

Simēon of Poland, The Travel Accounts of Simēon of Poland, trans. and ed. by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2007).

[1] Simēon no doubt mixed up the unfamiliar Italian word lazarett with the very similar sounding Ottoman Turkish naẓāret, meaning view or supervision.

[2] Here Simēon more or less accurately translates the Italian term into Ottoman Turkish, nāẓir meaning a superintendent and hence in this case one who looks after the quarantined travelers.

Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983 iv
Miḥrab page, Dalā’il al-khayrāt, completed 1705 (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 19r).

The famed late medieval book of prayer and blessings upon the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, known as Dalā’il al-khayrāt, written by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465), would become one of the most popular texts of any sort across the early modern Islamicate world. From modern-day Morocco, where al-Jazūlī lived, worked, and died (he completed Dalā’il in Fes, while he would ultimately be buried in Marrakesh), his most famous work would rapidly spread to points east, with copies appearing by the mid eighteenth century as far afield as Eastern Turkestan and the Indonesian archipelago. As this text and its devotional regime spread, the text itself took on what was in some regards a relatively stable visual schemata- depictions of Mecca and Medina, schematics of Muhammad’s tomb and minbar, and an overall ornamentation and careful, often fully vocalized script could all be found in copies across the Islamicate world. At the same time, different regions drew the text into their own traditions of art and manuscript production, while in some cases adding additional material. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Ottoman copies of Dalā’il would often come to include hilye-i şerif panels, calligraphic ‘verbal icons’ of Muhammad (which themselves had originally existed in a medieval treatise).

In the Maghrib- the Islamic ‘Far West’- where the text originated, copies of Dalā’il would often include unique to the region elements, elaborated in a variety of styles. One such unique (so far as I can tell) element was the inclusion, in the opening pages of the manuscript, of an illuminated genealogy of Muhammad. Here is a relatively plain example, making use of name roundels (which were also common in Ottoman productions and may have their origin in such a milieu) and extensions of names into the neutral space of the illumination:

Library of Congress. Arabic manuscript, SM 85.
A genealogy page from a copy of the Dalā’il made in the Maghrib during the second half of the 18th century. (Library of Congress, Arabic manuscripts, SM 85)

However, the manuscript that I want to focus on here, now classified as BnF Arabe 6983, is another Maghribi version of the famous prayer book, and was completed in 1705 in what is now Morocco and held in the library of the Nāṣiriyya sufis in Tamegroute on the edge of the Sahara until it came into the collection of Hubert Lyautey, the French Resident-General of Morocco in the early twentieth century, and thence to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript, which in its provenance history already bespeaks to much historical change, has one of the most spectacular and beautiful visual schemes of any copy of Dalā’il I have come across. The mihrab page above- an unusual feature in itself- hints at some of the artistic vigor and cultural exchange visible in this manuscript, which is very much oriented towards the Ottoman world, even as its core features speak to its Maghribi origins. The following page, an example of the above-mentioned genealogy component, demonstrates the Ottoman stylistic aspects especially well:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983
Dalā’il al-khayrāt. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 6r)

Here, the illumination’s neutral space, while like the first example containing the winding names of Muhammad’s ancestors attached to calligraphic roundels, has been filled with a delicate swirling floral pattern. Anyone with some familiarity with Ottoman history is likely to recognize that pattern- it originated in the illumination of the sultanic calligraphic emblem, the tuǧra, as visible in the following example, from the late sixteenth century:

A firman (imperial decree), paper, written in Divani Istanbul, Turkey; 981 H = 1573 L: 295; W: 56 cm
The tuǧra of Sultan Selim II, as affixed to a fermân issued in 1573. Note the intricate floral ornamentation filling the interior of the calligraphy- this is an especially colorful example. (David Collection Inv. no. 51/2002)

Continue reading “Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West”

On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collectionimages/AN00048/AN00048819_001_l.jpg
A satirical print of a Quaker preaching session, after a work by Egbert van Heemskerck I, produced c. 1690, and while satirical in intent, an accurate enough depiction of both Quaker clothing styles as well as the ubiquity of women in Quaker life and practice, their authority on ‘religious’ matters not a given as the very existence of such satirical prints would indicate. (BM 1854,0812.49)

Across the early modern world- in Afro-Eurasia and in the Americas, their population of European and African descent rapidly increasing- the world of the dream was an important ‘place’ in which people of all origins and backgrounds might receive knowledge of things unknown to them, prescience of events to come, and even divine inspiration. The importance of the dream world- a ‘landscape’ at once like and unlike that of the physical world of waking life- resonated among Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, and others, often in forms and in contexts of striking similarity. The following two dream accounts- one from an English Quaker woman, Elizabeth Webb (1663-1726) , the other from the Ottoman Syrian sufi, saint, and frequent presence on these pages ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731)- come from milieus in some ways quite different from one another. Webb was a Quaker preacher whose career took her on a journey through the still young North American colonies along the Atlantic Coast; she passed but a few miles south of where I am now writing in fact, spending some time among the Quaker communities of Maryland and Virginia (sources of the tobacco that would feature quite prominently in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s career, in fact). ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s travels took him throughout much of the Ottoman world, threading together communities of sufis and saints in the process, not unlike Webb’s work of joining Quaker settlements through her journeys. Both wrote accounts of their travels, and both presented themselves as beneficiaries of some degree of divine inspiration, not least of all through the medium of dreams.

In both the world of Ottoman Islam and of trans-Atlantic English dissenting Protestantism, dreams were potential sources of the resolution of confusion and of answers for outstanding questions. While dreams could also be themselves sources of confusion and in need of interpretation, particularly for people possessed of sanctity (or who claimed as such for themselves at least) the dream, sent by God to the dreamer, could just as easily be an agent of interpretation. In both of these dreams the dreamer had an outstanding issue- not only that, but their issues were remarkably similar, as were other features of their dreams. Let’s consider Webb’s dream first, which she related in the course of an autobiographical letter to the German Lutheran pietist Anton Wilhelm Böhme (1673–1722), long resident in London as a chaplain:

Oh! it is good to trust in the Lord and be obedient to him, for his mercies endure forever; so about the middle of the twelfth month [1], 1697, through the good providence of the Almighty, we arrived in Virginia, and as I traveled along the country from one meeting to another, I observed great numbers of black people, that were in slavery, and they were a strange people to me, and I wanted to know whether visitation of God was to their souls or not, and I observed their conversation, to see if I could discern any good in them, so after I had traveled about four weeks, as I was in bed one morning in a house in Maryland [2], after the sun was up and shone into the chamber, I fell into a slumber, and dreamed I was a servant in a great man’s house, and that I was drawing water at a well to wash the uppermost rooms of the house, and when I was at the well, a voice came to me, which bid me go and call other servants to help me and I went presently; but as I was going along in a very pleasant green meadow, a great light shined about me, which exceeded the light of the sun, and I walked in the midst, and as I went on in the way, I saw a chariot drawn with horses coming to meet me, and I was in care lest the light that shone about me, should frighten the horses, and cause them to throw down the people which I saw in the chariot; when I came to call them, I looked on them, and I knew they were the servants, I was sent to call, and I saw they were both white and black people, and I said unto them, why have you stayed so long? And they said the buckets were frozen, we could come no sooner, so I was satisfied the call of the Lord was unto the black people as well as the white… [3]

At root here is the question of how Webb- and by extension, other Quakers- were to understand people of African descent, and how they were to relate them (or not) to the Quaker community. Webb is also making an argument for her own authority: in this dream God- implicitly, as she does not say so in so many words- authorizes her to incorporate blacks as well as whites into the Quaker community, resolving through a direct intervention her question. Continue reading “On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers”

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.

 

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”

Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

Kadi Sünbül Ali
Kadı Sünbül ‘Ali, as depicted in a c. 1620 Ottoman book of costumes for Western European use, The Habits of the Grand Seignor’s Court, British Museum 1928,0323,0.46.8

Among the circles on Twitter that I follow- and occasionally participate in- in recent weeks the issue of the relationship between ‘the Enlightenment’ and modern notions and practices of racism has emerged as a popular and contentious topic. Now, while I have my own thoughts and theories about the Western European Enlightenment (which was as you can guess from my use of quotation marks a much more complicated affair than either its boosters or detractors tend to make out), what I would like to address here is the question of how race was perceived in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment context, specifically, within the Ottoman Empire at a particular time (and among certain groups, not necessarily all, given the sheer diversity of the empire). As such, the example I give here doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another about whether or not the Enlightenment ‘invented’ racism or racialized slavery. Rather, what I hope my comments here demonstrate is the complicated ways in which racial, or racial-like, categories, ethnic difference, and practices of slavery (all of which certainly intersected long before the Enlightenment to be sure) interacted. It does not make sense, ultimately, to say that early modern Ottomans were racist, or, for that matter, that they weren’t, or, in terms of slavery, that Ottoman slavery was totally different from slavery in the Americas, or that it was very similar: the reality is, as we historians are (obnoxiously to some!) fond of saying, complicated, and while our modern categories (themselves certainly shaped by, among other things, the Enlightenment(s)) are not totally foreign to early modern Ottoman (or any other) worlds, they must be applied with care if they are to be applied at all. Likewise, while we can often find parallels- unsurprisingly- between Ottoman practices and attitudes and those developing in contemporary Western Europe and the Americas, we ought to be equally sensitive to the differences and divergences.

I’ve taken a single late 17th century encounter, recorded by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and translated below along with my commentary, as my main point of departure, a story which I think illustrates well these complexities of racial origin, slavery, and the social limitations and possibilities contained within Ottoman practices of race and slavery, all oriented within a concern for sainthood (a category early modern Ottomans of all confessional varieties would have recognized to some degree or another, incidentally). There are a lot of ways in which we might explore race and slavery in the Ottoman lands: in thinking about race and ethnicity, for instance, we might want to consider the genealogy of ideas about phenotype and human geographical origin in the wider Islamic sphere, a genealogy that we could well trace back to the heritages of the ancient world. In terms of slavery, we might consider the various mechanisms whereby slaves were brought to market in Ottoman cities, the different ways that slaves from different places were perceived and employed, or the interaction of legal norms governing slavery, lived practice, and differing attitudes based on skin color or gender or other characteristics.

Historians have not tackled these issues to the degree that they deserve; Ottoman slavery, while the subject of a handful of monographs and edited volumes, remains poorly understood and overly polemicized. On the question of race and racial identity and prejudice, perhaps the best treatment has come from Baki Tezcan in his article ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’.’ [1] Mullah ‘Ali, who is almost certainly the ‘kadı’ pictured above, was an Ottoman scholar and jurist of African origin who rose to extreme prominence in the ‘ilmiyye hierarchy, coming close to claiming the highest rank in the scholarly system, that of shaykh al-Islam, the personal patronage-based politics of the Ottoman elite intervening. While he was subject to some degree of insult and prejudice due to the color of his skin- his detractors drawing upon a venerable genealogy of notions within the Islamic world about the supposed inferiority of Africans- Tezcan argues that these insults and prejudice (which Mullah ‘Ali, also following a long genealogy within Islam, combated in writing) were mostly strategic, his opponents not being motivated by racial prejudice but instead deploying it because it was available. This suggests that something like ‘racism’ was culturally available to Ottomans, but with the stress on ‘available’: it was not systematic in any meaningful sense, and it need not bar a well-connected scholar with black skin from rising to the heights of power. That said, Mullah ‘Ali’s story primarily concerns the situation of the rarefied elite of the Ottoman world. What of race and slavery at the level of more ordinary people?

The story that I’d like to focus on in order to approach some aspects of slavery and race at the non-elite level [2] is one that I’ve shared before, but for a different purpose: The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel. There is a great deal going on this little story, with insights about matters from how sacred space was performed in the Ottoman world to the role of coffee culture and its penetration even into the rural Palestinian countryside. But here we will focus on Shaykh Zā’id – the subject of the account – and his relationships with others. We begin with ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s initial encounter, during his passage through northern Palestine during the late 17th century:

And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely drawn (majādhīb) lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, in a cave there at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that the cave used to not be there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back, and place it in his cave. Continue reading “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives”