Mamluk Cairo, a Crossroads for Embassies: Studies on Diplomacy and Diplomatics
MAMLUK CAIRO A CROSSROADS FOR EMBASSIES – Book Sample
Mamluk Diplomatics: the Present State of Research
Diplomatics, one of the ancillary disciplines of history, aims at “studying the textual tradition, the form and the issuing process (or genesis) of written docu-ments.”1 Its goals are to critically analyze documents, establish their authentic-ity and identify the common and peculiar elements in their texts, and to date and edit them.2 Historically, its main, if not sole, object was the study of orig-inal documents issued by (religious or secular) state chanceries in medieval Europe.
In the twentieth century, diplomatics started to focus on administra-tive and private documents, including copies; more recently its temporal and geographic scopes have widened to the extent that they now include non-European diplomatic traditions, like the Islamic or the Japanese traditions.3 While this openness certainly contributes to the renewal of diplomatics, it also means that the discipline has witnessed several developments that helped to broaden its horizon.
Moreover, just as the field of diplomatic studies, i.e., those studies that concentrate on diplomacy, resumed over the last decades, lead-ing to a reformulation of the field as ‘new diplomatic history,’4 several ‘turns’ (archival,5 performative6) and technological tools have impacted diplomatics in a similar way, making it even more appealing to new scholars, in spite of its deep roots in positivism.7
Over the past two centuries, diplomatics in the field of Islamic studies has seldom been addressed. It has been repeatedly argued that this disinterest was mainly due to the paucity of Islamic documentary sources before the Ottoman period, more specifically before the beginning of the eleventh/sixteenth cen-tury. However, as the last century has witnessed the identification and discov-ery of thousands of documents mainly written on papyrus, parchment, and paper covering larger chronological and geographical limits, the notion of a relative scarcity of documents must be moderated. A
s a consequence, the dis-cipline witnessed a renewed attraction in the 1960s and 1970s; some of the most active scholars in this respect include Samuel Miklos Stern (d. 1969), Lajos Fekete (d. 1969), Adolf Grohmann (d. 1977), Claude Cahen (d. 1991), Hans Robert Roemer (d. 1997), John Wansbrough (d. 2002), Victor Louis Ménage (d. 2015), Heribert Busse, Valery Stojanow, and Rudolf Veselý. These scholars seeded hopes that the works of pioneers like Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (d. 1838) and Michele Amari (d. 1889) would not remain in vain, nor would they go unchallenged.
These scholars not only contributed to an increase in the body of documents published, they also approached questions linked to diplomat-ics as a discipline, by drawing inspiration from the achievements of medieval European diplomatists.8 Unsurprisingly, the period witnessed the publication of several articles and books in which these scholars tackled diplomatic issues for a given period or dynasty, particularly that of the Ayyubid,9 Ottoman,10 Timurid,11 Aq Qoyunlu,12 and Safavid documents.13 Some more general con-clusions about diplomatics could also be drawn.14
The generation of scholars that followed in the 1990s, mostly represented by Yūsuf Rāghib and Werner Diem, continued the efforts of their predecessors, but focused their attention on unpublished documents, rather than improving the conclusions reached on diplomatic issues. In a way, they addressed the main problem posed by diplomatics; namely, that the discipline needs documents. More editions are thus required before a handbook of Arabic diplomatics can be written with confidence.
The work of these scholars to publish previously unpublished (or unknown) documents has also included several—mostly Mamluk—chancery manuals and formularies, which, despite their prescriptive/normative inclina-tion, constitute valuable tools to shed light on features observed in these docu-ments. Consequently, it is no surprise that several publications have appeared since 2000, mostly dedicated to Arabic documents,15 and, in some cases also dealing with diplomatics and diplomacy.16
Nevertheless, the documents of the Mamluk period that are tied to diplo-matic relations between the sultanate and other Muslim and non-Muslim pow-ers have been of less interest to modern scholars for the simple reason that most of these documents were published between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century. Rather than questioning their predecessors’ work, modern scholars have generally taken for granted the accuracy of the edited texts and the proposed identification of the categories to which these docu-ments belong.
This indiscriminate confidence has generated misunderstand-ings that have had consequences on studies dedicated to both diplomatics and diplomacy. To face these misunderstandings and correct their consequences, diplomatists must, in most cases, start from the beginning. This implies going back to the sources, i.e., the documents themselves, checking the readings and the translations, and reinterpeting their nature and their symbolic value. This process began a few years ago and will certainly yield groundbreaking results.
While the quantity of data available has increased, and in turn our knowl-edge of the chancery rules applied by the secretaries has benefited, it is also true that several idées reçues are difficult to counter. Scholars continue to believe misconceptions based on a Eurocentric point of view or interpretation. Words like peace treaties, capitulations, and privileges are still used to describe doc-uments or parts of documents that were never intended to mean that for the Mamluk chancery.
In such cases, reference should be made to the technical terms describing these documents in the Mamluk diplomatic tradition. In this volume, several contributions engage with these diplomatic issues in a variety of ways,17 leading to what diplomatics can achieve, even in reassessing the work of the past.
This state of research, a necessary update, aims at presenting an outline of the results garnered during almost two centuries of research, and focuses exclusively on documents related to diplomatic exchanges with the Mamluk sultanate. It provides a detailed survey of the literature available on the doc-uments preserved in archival repositories in Europe and Turkey; this should be read together with a census of these documents found in the appendix.
At the same time, we emphasize the accomplishments made and the flaws identi-fied in the works of the past. Notwithstanding, Mamluk diplomatics cannot be addressed on the sole basis of the preserved documents, not only because their number is relatively limited (thirty originals and one hundred translations), but also because their variety does not reflect the whole range of categories that were produced by the state chancery.
Consequently, diplomatists have no choice but to consider other types of texts that may enhance their knowledge of the rules applied by the secretaries and broaden the corpus of documents. In a subsequent section, I have detailed in chronological order the prescriptive and normative texts, which include the chancery manuals and the formula-ries.
I then list the descriptive works, i.e., collections of letters, which may be regarded in various respects as registers of documents. In both cases, I stress that while a large part of these texts has been published and studied, the value of others that remain in manuscript form still await assessment. On the basis of these sources, in the next section I delineate the main elements pertaining to Mamluk diplomatics, based on what can be derived from the examination of the documents identified in archival repositories and in textual sources.
In so doing, my aim is not so much to detail all the rules that can be derived from the diplomatic study of these documents as it is to indicate the steps that still need to be taken in order to reach a satisfactory level of knowledge that could lead to the publication of a manual of Mamluk diplomatics.
because diplomatists must rely on a significant number of written witnesses that also highlight the processes linked to their preservation. Archival processes are instrumental because, beyond providing answers to questions related to the practicalities of the preservation of documents, they also shed light on the reasons behind their preservation.18
Given these premises, one might argue that, in the absence of archives in Islam before the dawn of the tenth/six-teenth century, diplomatic studies are an impossibility in this field before that period. Such a position is too extreme, because, in terms of diplomatic rela-tions, documents issued by the various Muslim chanceries are available in the archives of the recipients—almost exclusively European repositories.
On the Muslim side, copies of letters received and the replies penned by the chanceries are also accessible in various kinds of sources. Several prescriptive works—chancery manuals and formularies—redacted by those who were active at the state chancery have also reached us. Notwithstanding the existence of these witnesses, it is clear that the task of diplomatists working in the Islamic realm is, if not impossible, more complicated than that of their colleagues working on the European side, mainly because of what has been termed ‘the silence of the archives.’19
The lack of archives before the Ottoman imperial age has puzzled schol-ars for decades. The debate has raged among historians of Islam who have tried, in many ways, to provide answers, putting forward various arguments that could explain the disappearance, rather than the lack, of archives in pre-modern Islam.20 With very few exceptions, historians have accepted the idea that, on the basis of the data given by the textual sources (prescriptive and narrative) and the documents themselves, archives did exist.21 The disappear-ance, whatever the processes lying behind it—loss, destruction, disposal—, is a challenging issue and thus far, no definite answer has been proposed.
However, in this respect, the position of historians of Islam seems to have been mainly predicated on a Eurocentrist—and at times anachronistic—view. Given that archival repositories exist on the European continent, some holding docu-ments that date back to the eighth and ninth centuries, it is generally assumed that the same practices were applied everywhere at the same time. European diplomatists and historians explain the survival of large quantities of docu-ments by an ‘archival mindset’ that prevailed in many European states from the end of the eleventh century onward.
The main reasons outlined for this sur-vival in the Middle Ages are the great significance given to written law, which went hand in hand with a larger preservation of deeds and an increase in the production of documents due to notarial activities. Additionally, the emerg-ing powers of medieval Europe began to rely more on documents to govern while, at the same time, the spread of the use of paper favored the growth of written evidence of all kinds.
These factors were concomitant with the time the documents were issued. Other factors related to the later exploitation of the documents, when these started to be used for political and ideological pur-poses, leading to the reorganization of the archives in the modern period.
The study of documents in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for political reasons contributed to create a centripetal movement in which more documents were collected from various sources (religious and private archives, among others) and integrated with what had become national archives. The development of archives in Europe thus took place on a par with the notion of the nation-state.22
Historians of European archives also stress that the situation that prevailed across Europe was far from uniform.23 The discontinuous character of dynas-ties and the destructions and damnationes memoriae, all reasons that hinder the construction and preservation of archives, also existed in Europe.24 In fact, the issue of lost memory25 was not peculiar to Islam.
The survey of documents linked to the diplomatic exchanges between the Mamluk sultanate and other powers that have been preserved in archives shows that the European coun-terparts of the Mamluks did not necessarily pay particular attention to the preservation of the original documents they received. For instance, the archives of the Crown of Aragon in Barcelona hold the greatest number of original Mamluk documents starting from the end of the seventh/thirteenth century; nevertheless, it is clear that archival practices were not uniform over the cen-turies. Catalan documents addressed to Mamluk authorities (the last one dated 1508) demonstrate that while relations with the Mamluk sultanate lasted until its downfall in 1517, the latest Mamluk document preserved in Barcelona dates from 833/1430 and the latest (in translation) dates from 842/1439. This decline in preservation not only shows that archival practices were applied unevenly; it also helps us to envision the number of documents that were lost.
Original letters have rarely survived in the European archives,26 and when they did, it is because they were related to specific cases or for political or ide-ological reasons.27 Our knowledge of the correspondence between the Mam-luk sultans and the European powers is much better because of the copies of the translations that were recorded in the European registers.
The Venetian archives, which are well-known for the richness of their collections, is a case in point: while they have only one original Mamluk letter from the end of the ninth/fifteenth century, its registers contain seventy-four translations of Mam-luk documents covering the whole period of Mamluk rule. This translation and registration activity certainly helps to explain why the archivists disposed of the original Mamluk documents. The language barrier—documents in a lan-guage and a handwriting that could only be interpreted by a very few people—also played a role in this respect.
In the Islamic world in general, and during the Mamluk period in particular, other strategies were at play.28 Recently, several scholars have proposed various keys by which to interpret and apprehend the question of the disappearance of archives
. I also emphasized that the number of documents that has survived indicates that the Mamluks were also fond of red tape.29 Tamer El-Leithy has proposed that we consider the concept of archives from a different perspec-tive.30 More recently, Konrad Hirschler has stressed that scholars should rather focus their attention on the provincial chanceries, which were no less active than the state chancery in Cairo.31
In another contribution, I address the ques-tion of the fate of the archives of the dīwān al-inshāʾ, i.e., the state chancery where foreign letters were archived in bundles according to the month dur-ing which they were received.32 According to al-Qalqashandī (d. 821/1418), who worked for the state chancery in Cairo starting from 791/1389,33 this archival system had already been downgraded, at least in comparison to earlier periods, when the contents of letters were recorded in registers in addition to the archiv-ing of the originals.34 The use of registers for diplomatic letters seems to have been reinstated at the beginning of the ninth/fifteenth century, when, under the reign of al-Muʾayyad Shaykh (r. 815–24/1412–21), Nāṣir al-Dīn Ibn al-Bārizī, the chief secretary between 815/1413 and 823/1420, restored the practice of copying the contents of the most significant of the incoming and outgoing let-ters in a register in his own hand.35
The reestablishment of an old practice such as this may also explain the presence of several collections of letters, which may have functioned as registers, for that very century.36 Moreover, it might give us a clue about the disappearance of the original letters.
One letter from the Qara Qoyunlu ruler and another from the Rasulid sultan that reached Cairo during Ibn al-Bārizī’s period found their way into the holographs of the Egyptian his-torian al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442) who reused them as scrap paper.37 In the case of the Rasulid letter, Ibn Ḥijja (d. 837/1434), who was in charge of the redac-tion of deeds and letters (munshiʾ), recorded its text, and the answer he drafted at Ibn al-Bārizī’s request, in his personal collection of documents (Qahwat al-inshāʾ).38 Both original letters were thus discarded because they were lent or given to al-Maqrīzī by Ibn Ḥijja or Ibn al-Bārizī who had already recorded a copy of them.39
The language barrier may also provide another hint about the reason for the disposal of diplomatic letters in the Mamluk period.40 When al-Qalqashandī describes letters received from Christian rulers in his magnum opus, he quotes only three examples that arrived at the chancery in 814/1411–2, i.e., the year he completed his manual, as if he could not access older letters.41 Other, definitely more tragic, events may have impacted the archives. One momentous example was reported by al-Maqrīzī, who also worked at the state chancery in his early career.
Thanks to his testimony, we know that around 791–2/1389–90, at a time of great political turmoil for the sultanate, the documents stored in a room of the state chancery were looted and sold by weight. In order to stress that these were documents and not just blank paper, he specifies that their contents were lost.42 In addition to what this report tells us about the sit-uation that led to the disappearance of one section of the state archives (the one that held the diplomatic letters, among others), this episode enlightens us about the fate of these documents. Al-Maqrīzī does not detail the categories of documents that were stolen (original letters and/or registers).
Whatever the case may be, they were clearly still valuable because they could be reused. The…..
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