Material Evidence and Narrative Sources: Interdisciplinary Studies of the History of the Muslim Middle East

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 Material Evidence And Narrative Sources
  • Book Author:
Daniella Talmon-hellerKatia Cytryn-silverman
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Thebook demonstrates the effectiveness of creative interdisciplinary research, applied to historical, cultural and archaeological problems in the study of the Middle East.

Ladies of Quseir: Life on the Red Sea Coast in Ayyūbid Times

The excavations at the port of Quseir al-Qadim, on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea, searched for evidence of commerce, both written and artifactual, and for its development over time. Objects of daily life as well as the private  correspondence of a mercantile community were recovered. The letters of the inhabitants of the “Sheikh’s house” have been studied by Li Guo, and Katherine Strange Burke has studied their clothing and other articles of daily use. One of the less explored aspects of this community continues to be the evidence for the daily lives of women and their contributions to the community.

The Sheikh’s house shows signs of occupation in the early thirteenth  century (1200–1250) and of interactions both direct—with upper Egypt, the eastern coast of the Red Sea, and Yemen—and indirect, with East Africa, India, and the Mediterranean.1 The broad archaeological goals of these excavations may have tended to ignore the small-scale processes of daily life that take place in households and in their communities.2 This is not to say that the research of Guo and Burke has avoided evidence of daily life, but that this aspect of the archaeology of the medieval Islamic world has tended to be given only second-ary importance in past publications.3

The Commercial Milieu

The archaeological site of Quseir al-Qadim first attracted attention due to its location, the closest point from the Red Sea coast to the Nile valley, the route traversing the Wadi Hammamat, famed for its inscriptions and Roman stations (Fig. 3.1a). This site is now identified with the Roman port of Myos Hormos, which Strabo made famous in the early first century when he claimed that 200 ships left the port yearly and engaged in trade with India.4

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Historical informa-tion in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1982) is inaccurate since the excavations produced no evidence of an early Islamic port nor for a Fāṭimid occupation.5 The periods of greatest prosperity came under Ayyūbid and Baḥrī Mamlūk rule, when artifacts testify to contacts with India, China, Syria, and even Tekrur (West Africa). The remarkable state of preservation at Quseir has allowed the recovery of nuts, fruits and spices, including peppercorns.6 Another east-ern import found in these excavations is the resist dyed textiles from India  (Fig. 3.2d), preserved due to the remarkable state of preservation of organics on the site.7

These archaeological finds from Quseir, as has come to be revealed, were accompanied by numerous letters written on paper and recovered in the same contexts. The most important comparanda for these letters come from docu-ments in the Cairo Geniza and excavations at Fusṭāṭ. The Geniza period refers to the 250 years from the eleventh century through the first half of the thir-teenth century; the majority of these documents therefore predate the Islamic occupation at Quseir. Goitein constantly emphasized that this evidence from the Jewish community should be seen as typical of the society at large. The artifacts and documents from Quseir would seem to confirm his assumptions regarding both commercial activities and family life.8

The Family of the Sheikh

In 1982, University of Chicago archaeologists were able to completely excavate a residential complex situated on a natural prominence in the center of this silted-in bay (Fig. 3.1b, c). Although totally lacking in architectural embellish-ments, these well-constructed residences obviously referred to an urban archi-tecture common to the Nile valley. Texts recovered from the so-called Sheikh’s house—at least 1,500 fragments—were found in all strata “of building, occupa-tion, and abandonment of the complex, mostly crumpled in wads and strewn about” (Fig. 3.2a). As Burke has noted, the typical context for the letters was a sturdy masṭaba, or bench, around which was often found “a layer of softer bricky material mixed with trashy organic debris (including chicken bones, date pits, citrus rind, and an almond).”9

The remarkable situation of the Sheikh’s house, with the recovery of the inhabitants’ correspondence and belongings, opens new possibilities to illus-trate the lives of women in this small port. When the excavations began in 1978, one could suggest that the port need not have been continuously occupied and might have been little more than a seasonal, or bachelor, facility. Even before the letters had been read, this hypothesis was put to rest with finds of clothing of women and children, for instance a small jallābiyya and shoes (Fig. 3.2b, c).10

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A complete woman’s veil made of common linen was particularly poignant (Fig. 3.3a),11 as was the recovery of a two-piece burquʿ of the type depicted in contemporary illustrations and known to have remained in fashion into the nineteenth century, as illustrated in E. A. Lane (Fig. 3.3b).12 Both of these veils are among the earliest known examples, especially recovered from an archaeo-logical context. A women’s cosmetic box was found containing a comb, kohl pin, beads, and a lump of henna (Fig. 3.3c).

Residential architecture throughout Quseir suggests small but discrete fam-ily dwellings, of which the Sheikh’s house is a more elaborate component. “The majority of these 168 documents consist of business letters and shipping mani-fests regarding shipping and brokerage transactions that Sheikh Abū Mufarrij and his son Sheikh Ibrāhīm Abū Isḥāq ran from their complex of houses and storerooms at Quseir al-Qadim.” In addition, “there were poems, prayers,  sermons . . . amulets . . . astrological dials.”13

The structure of the sheikh’s family is clear from a close reading of the let-ters. Sheikh Abū Mufarrij al-Qifṭī was the patriarch and founder of a trading/brokerage company. During the first phase of the house (1200–1215), his son Sheikh Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm, already a grown man, was running his own busi-ness. In the second phase (1215–1235), the house was divided into two house-holds, with the northern (newer) complex belonging to Ibrāhīm. Sheikh Abū Mufarrij passed away sometime after this phase (1235–1250), having lived to 

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