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Narrating Premodern Islamic Diplomacy: Imperial Strategy or Authorial Agency?

Panel I-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Arabic historiography in the Ayyūbid and Mamlūk periods (12th-16th centuries) increasingly includes references to diplomatic contacts as an integral part of the sultanates’ daily life and activities. Diplomacy (i.e., the exchanges of envoys) was after all considered as the sovereign activity par excellence, hence the need for sultans to portray their realm at the center of the Islamicate world and end station of embassies. Geographical works and administrative works all attest to this trend and vouch for the sultanate’s legitimacy and superiority. The diplomatic material included in the historiography of that period has so far mostly been used by scholars to support those claims. If the accounts of reception of embassy or of negotiations were certainly part of a broader imperial strategy, the authorial agency of the recorder should not be underestimated either. Following a recent trend in the field of Arabic Islamic historiography that aims to revive and redefine Ulrich Haarmann’s famous concept of Literarisierung and to investigate the context of both authorship and audience, this panel proposes to analyze how diplomacy in the Ayyūbid and Mamlūk periods was narrated. We are here mostly concerned with the various narrative strategies deployed by various authors to describe diplomatic events, but also with the authors’ contexts and motives. What was the role given to diplomacy by those authors? To which ends? Which kind of material did they include in their accounts? How did authors copy from each other and how? Did the genre of work written impact the type of account provided? The panel thus aims to investigate the accounts of embassies found in narrative sources in a new light, and this beyond the factual data those can provide. Doing so, it wishes to show how context could act as a bridge that attempted to reconcile imperial strategy and authorial agency.
  • Mamluk chronicles are well known for the rich and numerous accounts they provide us of the arrival and reception of foreign ambassadors in Cairo. This material has been increasingly used in the past decade to inform us of the Mamluk sultanate’s diplomatic practice as it contains precious details regarding the identity of the ambassadors, the modality of reception and exchange and sometimes even the motives underlying the contact— that is, for the factual data it provides. Those accounts have often been linked to the imperial ambitions of the Mamluk sultans and the material they present has thus been read as a legitimizing tool. They however have never been analyzed on their own as part of a broader narrative project of the various authors. Influenced by the concept of “literarization” developed by Ulrich Haarmann, the present paper argues that the accounts of embassies found in Mamluk chronicles of the 15th century also demonstrated the great expansion of the field of historiography and its inclination towards diversification — a trends that was already initiated in the previous centuries. But more importantly, the paper aims to investigate the construction of these narratives and the role those accounts may have played in historiography more generally to support various agendas. The paper will analyze a series of Mamluk chronicles of the 15th century and their accounts of arrival and reception of foreign embassies in Cairo. A distinction will be made among the authors from secretarial background and those from a military one. For each source, we will ask which embassies are mentioned? How are the account organized? How do the accounts relate to the other recorded events? Which kind of additional material is used to document those accounts? How does the author’s profile influence the account? And finally, what is the role given to diplomacy by those authors and to which end? Unlike previous studies focused on the external use of diplomacy as a mere legitimizing tool, this paper addresses the internal use of diplomacy as a narrative tool that was staged to a broader audience. By switching the focus from the factual data to the structure and discourse of those accounts, as well as the context of the various authors, the paper ultimately aims to shed a new light on diplomacy.
  • In 1512, two diplomatic missions were sent to Cairo by the Republic of Venice and the French Kingdom. The Venetian ambassador Domenico Trevisan and the French envoy André Le Roy met the sultan Qānṣawh al-Ghawrī (1501-1516) to claim different and partly conflicting interests related to the economic and political dynamics in the Near East. Two years earlier, the Knights Hospitallers of Rhodes had attacked and captured some Mamluk ships that were carrying material from the Ottoman territories for the construction of a military fleet, after a defeat suffered by the Mamluks at the hands of the Kingdom of Portugal. In fact, the Portuguese Monarchy was defending the new trade route to India opened a few years earlier. For a short period, the Ottoman sultanate had helped the Mamluks to counter Portuguese power, before returning to threaten Egypt and Syria. Sultan Qānṣawh had responded to the attack of the Hospitallers, who were allies of the French Monarchy, by ordering the arrest of all the Christian merchants active in Mamluk territories as well as the closure of Christian places of worship in the Holy Land. The diplomatic missions carried out by Trevisan and Le Roy were organized within this framework, involving the interests of the mentioned political actors. Besides trying to solve the diplomatic crisis, the two embassies aimed also at gaining exclusive privileges by the sultan. On one side, the Republic of Venice was attempting to maintain its primary role as a commercial partner of the Mamluks. On the other side, the French Monarchy was trying to defend the good diplomatic relations that had established with Cairo during the 15th century. The sovereigns of France, who had assumed the significant title of “kings of Jerusalem”, attempted to present themselves as the guarantors of the rights of Christians living in or making pilgrimages in Holy Land. My paper will examine the two travel journals concerning the embassies of Trevisan and Le Roy, along with other diplomatic sources related to these missions, with the aim of understanding how the two northern Mediterranean powers, from different perspectives, conceived, narrated and represented their relations with the Mamluk sultanate in the last years of its existence.
  • In the year 1282 a letter arrived in Cairo from the new Mongol Ilkhanid ruler of Iraq and Iran, Aḥmad Tegüder (r. 1282-84), bearing the news of his conversion to Islam as well as an invitation to cooperate (and/or a veiled threat to submit to Mongol suzerainty, depending on the interpretation). This letter set in motion a period of tense diplomatic exchange of letters and envoys, eventually cut short by Tegüder’s early demise. The letters pertaining to this exchange survive exclusively in historiographical contexts. They have been studied extensively before by scholars such as Adel Allouche, P.M. Holt, Anne Broadbridge and Judith Pfeiffer, who offered divergent interpretations of the letters and their purport. Much less studied are the narrative and compilatory strategies employed in the unusually detailed accounts of this diplomatic exchange in some of the Arabic sources. This presentation will focus on these contextualisations and their historiographic and narrative processes of meaning-making. I present a narratologically inspired and material reading of four major accounts of these events and their citation of the relevant diplomatic documents. The first two are given by contemporary scribes Ibn ʿAbd al-Ẓāhir (d. 1293) and Shāfiʿ b. ʿAlī (d. 1330) in their respective biographical monographs devoted to sultan al-Manṣūr Qalāwūn (r. 1279-1290). They are followed by the accounts of Baybars al-Manṣūrī (d. 1325) and Ibn al-Dawādārī (d. after 1336), both of whom compiled large scale universal histories in the early 14th century. All of these texts have been preserved in holograph manuscripts which allows for a holistic analysis of the texts and their material container. In this presentation I will pay attention not just to the documents and their narrative framing, but also to how these sections use different strategies of manuscript layout to communicate layers of meaning. It will be shown that the historiographical format chosen by these four historians had significant impact on how they presented these particular events, allowing them especially to strengthen or undermine the discursive particularities of the letters themselves. A close study of such narrative and material strategies helps us better understand the functions of compilation and authorial agency beyond positivist evaluations of originality and stemmatic relations. Rather, the compilation of documents presented significant opportunities to develop discourses of identification and categorisation along the lines of Persianness vs. Arabness and Mongol authority vs. Islamic authority.
  • In Medieval Arabic Historiography, Konrad Hirschler presents two different modes of emplotment used by the chroniclers Abū Shāma (559-665/1203-1258) and Ibn Wāsil (604-697/1208-1298). Hirschler argues that Abū Shāma constructed ideal representations of the rulers Nūr al-Dīn ibn Zengi (541‐565/1146‐1174) and Salāh al-Dīn (570-589/1174-1193) in his main work, Kitāb al-rawdatayn fī akhbār al-dawlatayn al-Nūriya wa l-Salāhiyya (“The Book of the Two Gardens Concerning the Two Regimes of Nūr al-Dīn and Salāh al-Dīn”). In contrast, Ibn Wāsil—Hirschler argues—did not limit his discussion of exemplary rule to particular persons in his Mufarrij al-kurūb fī akhbār Banī Ayyūb (“The Disquiet Dispelled by the Dealings of the Ayyūbid Dynasty”); rather, he framed instances of ideal rulership as recurring events within a much broader scheme of history. The implication of these two “modes of emplotment” is variance in the use of sources and in the representation of individuals, like Salāh al-Dīn. In this presentation, I will apply Hirschler’s comparative approach to assess how Abū Shāma and Ibn Wāsil used two sources, ‘Imād al-Din al-Isfahanī (519‐597/1125‐1201) and Bahā’ al-Dīn ibn Shaddād (539‐632/1145‐1235), to describe and ultimately reframe negotiations between Salāh al-Dīn’s court and King Richard I “Cœur de Lion” during the Third Crusade. My aim is to track how depictions of amicable relations between the king and commanders in the sultan’s court changed over time on the basis of each chronicler’s narrating priorities. I will focus on three series of negotiations beginning in Ramadān 587/October 1191 and lasting until the “Treaty of Jaffa” was ratified in Sha‘bān 588/September 1192. The period 587-588/1191-1192 was a particularly tense time in Frankish-Muslim relations in the Levant that witnessed occurrences of both extreme violence and peaceful dialogue. The period was a particularly trying time for Salāh al-Dīn and its sources provide historians with extensive material for analyzing Muslim perspectives on the Franks and on interfaith relations. The overall objective is to analyze how processes of selection, abbreviation, and commentary employed by Abū Shāma and Ibn Wāsil—as both authors and compilers—were based on a complex set of criteria that corresponded to their interests, perspectives as well as modes of narrative emplotment. I will also explore whether change in the representation of personal relations across the Christian-Muslim divide might have reflected later Mamlūk-period perception of Muslim rulers who engaged in diplomacy with Christian sovereigns.