Ibn Khaldun asks tough questions, 1377

The Ibn Khaldun family were descended from a Bedouin, Khaldun, who settled near Seville in the early years of Muslim conquest. Under Reconquista pressure in the 13th century, they moved to Tunis, where they were among the educated governing elite. In 1332, the author we know as “Ibn Khaldun” was born there. He had a typical (and good) Islamic education, but just as he was about grown up, the plague struck Tunis. Both of his parents, and perhaps more of his family, died. Orphaned but with some inherited money, Ibn Khaldun set out on a career as a civil servant at the age of 20.

For twelve years, he held court and secretarial posts in Tunis and Fez. He was always clearly more brilliant and ambitious than the average civil servant, and this frequently got him in trouble. He would be suspected of rebellion and imprisoned; released, he would go to another court and after a few years the same thing happened. At age 32, he crossed to Granada, where he was a close friend of Ibn Khatib, the Vizier and plague documenter. He may have met Ibn Khatib when he, in turn, had displeased the Emir of Granada and fled to Fez. The culture and language on both sides of the Gibraltar Strait were identical.

It’s not clear if Ibn Khaldun was actually conspiring against his Emirs and Viziers. What we do know is that in his career, he crossed the Strait more than once and worked in every government in the region. In 1375, weary of the constant political fighting, he withdrew to the shelter of some Berber tribesmen in western Algeria. With his family, he lived in a desert fortress called Qalat ibn Salamah. There, he began to write a memoir that became a history of the world. Unfortunately, the Berbers were lacking a decent library, so after 3 years he went back to Tunis to complete his book. Wouldn’t you know, the Sultan of Tlemcen felt he was rebellious…and it all started again.

On pretext of going to Mecca, Ibn Khaldun went east to Cairo. Barquq, the first Burji (Circassian) Mamluk king, invited him to teach at al-Azhar School/University. Ibn Khaldun became the chief Qadi (Judge) of Maliki Islam. But personal tragedy struck: his family, who had safely followed him through his many political moves, were all lost on the ship that carried them to Egypt to meet him. Stricken, he completed his Hajj to Mecca. With a few more adventures, he finished his life in Cairo, teaching Maliki law and serving the Burji Mamluk. During his last years, he was arrested for political activism (say it ain’t so).

The reason we still know about Ibn Khaldun, who was only one of thousands of similar civil servants and judges in 14th century Islam, is that the books he wrote in Tunis were among the most original, philosophical, thoughtful works of all time. When he began to write the history of the Berbers, he started by thinking carefully about what it means to study and write history:

[The study of history] is dependent on studying numerous sources, understanding diverse subjects, having the best insight and analysis, and being able to verify the truth of sources as they can deviate and be filled with mistakes. Historical research must not be dependent on bare copying of all reports. It should instead be based on an understanding of local customs, politics, the nature of civilization, and the local conditions of where humans live. You must also be able to compare primary and secondary sources, as they can help you differentiate between the truth and falsehood, helping derive conclusions that are believable and honest. (tr. Firas Alkhateeb )

The Prologue, or Muqaddimah, lays out principles of history, political science, sociology and economics. After this first book, he went on to tell the history of “the world” in four books, and of the Berbers in the last two. Ibn Khaldun’s experience of the plague visitation shaped how he thought about writing a book. He recalled reading a book about the peoples of Europe written in the 10th century, and how that world had passed away.

When there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew. Therefore, there is need at this time that someone should systematically set down the situation of the world among all regions and races, as well as the customs and sectarian beliefs that have changed for their adherents, doing for this age what al-Mas’udi did for his. This should be a model for future historians to follow. In this book of mine, I shall discuss as much of that as will be possible for me here in the Maghrib. (tr. Franz Rosenthal)

Ibn Khaldun’s prologue lays out the errors that historians must avoid. They must be well-informed about the region and time, and the customs of the people, so that they don’t make ignorant errors. For example, we know that Ibn Khaldun was a judge, a Qadi, but if we read into that American norms of what a judge does, we’d probably completely misunderstand what he did in Cairo. Cultural understanding is the only way to avoid this kind of error.

He also questioned the way numbers are reported in many accounts of the past. He pointed out that numbers may be inflated according to someone’s hopes, such as overstating the size of an army. We need to take what we know about probability in the present, and apply it to the past: how likely is it that this size army could be raised from that size of a kingdom? How possible would it be for the King of Yemen to invade Morocco, as one legend claimed, given the amount of food and water he’d have needed to cross North Africa?

Ibn Khaldun applied his questioning not just to numbers, but to other claims. When we see a story about some historical figure, we must ask if it’s consistent with the customs of the time, what else we know about the person, and how human psychology generally runs. What is likely, what is probable? What is even possible? “For,” he said, “the past is more like the future than two drops of water.” His own past roles in so many kingdoms and Emirships made him highly aware of human political psychology.

He also criticized past legends that didn’t accord with observable natural science. We can hear echoes of his friend and rival, Ibn Khatib, who suggested that if a disease was obviously contagious, we must challenge hadiths that deny it. This may have been a leading topic among the intellectuals of the Spanish-Moroccan culture. They sought to apply what they could see and know, to work out natural and logical explanations.

Now it might seem, at this point, that Ibn Khaldun’s outlook was pretty modern. In his view, it certainly was: he was part of the post-plague new world. There are still some jarring points in which he isn’t in line with the modern world we know. In particular, he had a very strong sense of tribal and personal identity that trumped all of his other concerns.

When he evaluated Moses’ claim of his army’s size, he judged the possibility of such numbers against the timeline of Moses’ given genealogy. He knew of four generations from Jacob, so four it must have been, and no more. We’d never do this now, we’d assume that it was a truncated list that skips the forgettable names. But to Ibn Khaldun, the one non-negotiable was that you must never question someone’s claims of identity. It was almost a religious principle: “people are to be believed regarding the descent they claim for themselves.” (tr. Rosenthal)

It’s not hard to find the Ibn Khaldun family’s story traced in his principles. His family had been the nobility of Sevilla before it fell to Christians. If he made a claim about his descent, he was not able to prove it, because they had left Spain as refugees. He wanted to be trusted, so he set it out as a principle. Further, his family had been upper class, rulers; they expected to be such in Tunis, too. And they were. He felt it was only right, and he resented social climbers. In degenerate Spain, ever since they had lost their dynastic traditions,  “professional men and artisans are to be found pursuing power and authority and eager to obtain them.” They did not understand “group feeling.”

By contrast, he saw his social class as best able to understand history and perhaps the world. They had retained the “group feeling” of tribal solidarity as Arabs and, in Spain, as Umayyads.

…those who have experience with tribal conditions, group feeling, and dynasties along the western shore, and who know how superiority is achieved among nations and tribal groups, will rarely make mistakes or give erroneous interpretations in this respect.

It’s clear that Ibn Khaldun had an ambitiously thoughtful mind and a clear sense of his role in history. He was right, too. In 1377 when his book was published times had begun to change rapidly and the speed would only pick up. His record of Muslim history in the Maghreb cannot be valued. But he went beyond this: applying what he’d observed in his many political posts, he worked out principles of economics and sociology (we see a bit of this in his “group feeling” comments).

He saw cycles of history, in particular the same cycles we’ve observed in Muslim history: the influx and taming of nomads. Living among Berbers and Bedouins, and also in developed cities like Granada, Ibn Khaldun saw very plainly the tension between the two lifestyles. Nomads had a super-efficient lifestyle that made their religion burn intensely hot. They were the ideal practitioners of Mohammed’s faith, because their lifestyle still fitted his prescriptions precisely. So they would swarm a city, only to gradually adopt its ways, until another way of nomads came along who were still pure and hot. It was a novel way to look at history, to abstract a general plot from specific instances. It was moralistic but not in the old way. He was observing a natural explanation in customs and “group feeling,” rather than just saying that each losing group had been wicked.

After Ibn Khaldun’s death, no serious imitators arose. We know less about the region’s history after his time simply because he did his work so well. Probably everything I’ve ever blogged about Morocco and the Berbers, and perhaps about Spain and Cordoba, traces back to Ibn Khaldun’s hand. So here’s a big hat tip to Wali al-Din abu Zayd Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed  ibn Abī Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan ibn Khaldun.



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Ibn Battuta Sees the World and Meets Hermits, 1325-55

The Muslim world had grown so large that it was very hard for them to know all parts of their own lands, let alone the rest of the world. Around 1355, a Moroccan named Ibn Battuta dictated and published his travel notes, titled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling (in short, “Travels,” Arabic Rihla). He had made three long journeys through the Muslim lands, reaching as far as Indonesia to the east and Mali to the southwest. He became the Marco Polo of the Arabic world.

For a long time, his book was not available to Europeans. It was only translated even partially into German in 1819, and English in 1829. (I’m working from the 1829 translation.) Since this was an era of expanding European horizons, too, there was great interest in his book. Like Marco Polo’s book, it existed in multiple versions that had been hand-copied and translated, so they had to compare texts and create one authoritative version, which came out in French in 1853. The final authoritative unabridged volume did not appear in English until 1994!

I’m going to take the time to tell his stories, since we’re coming to the end of the Middle Ages and these are the last close-up pictures of many places we’ve touched on.

Ibn Battuta’s journeys were originally conceived as pilgrimages; his first trip at age 21 was intended to be a Hajj. He did go to Mecca, perhaps more than once, and he may have stayed there for some time. But he also wanted to visit Muslim saints, living and dead. His readers wanted to hear about the holy men (sheikhs) and shrines, so that’s a lot of what he documented. Then, on every trip, some opportunity would present itself, and he’d go off on long, sometimes dangerous jaunts—-still managing to catch any available Muslim saints.


Leaving North Africa, he traveled through Syria and Iraq, visiting many Shi’ite shrines to Ali and his family, and he saw many ruins caused, probably, by the Mongol invasions. Turning south, he toured Yemen and crossed into Africa. The highlight of his visit to Mogadishu was its strange food (roast plantains, pickled peppers, and green ginger) and fat people, each of whom ate “as much as a congregation.” Ibn Battuta claims to have seen “the island of Mombasa” and perhaps Zanzibar, but scholars doubt him: he probably just wrote what people told him. But if he even went around the Horn of Africa to Mogadishu, that’s pretty impressive.

Ibn Battuta returned through Yemen and wrote that he saw two great wonders in the town of Zafar: the people there fed fish to their sheep and goats (there was no grass); further they never injured anyone unless he hurt them first, a custom the North African traveler could scarcely believe. However, their town stank terribly and was filled with flies, on account of their sole food products, fish and dates. It’s details like this that give the work charm beyond the simple catalog of towns, sheikhs, and tombs.

Going toward the Indian Sea, Ibn Battuta saw the betel-nut and the coconut, both unfamiliar to westerners like himself. He was amazed at how many products were made from the coconut: rope, milk, “olive” oil, and honey. He also described the customs of Arab pearl-divers around Bahrain, noting that the Persian merchants gave 1/5 of the pearls to the king, but after they took their own cut, little was left and the actual divers, who risked their lives, lived in a state of chronic debt.


When he traveled through Anatolia among Turks, Ibn Battuta was shown a “stone that fell from heaven.” It was black and smooth, and so hard that four smiths hammering on it made no impression. In Konya, he heard a twisted version of the life of Rumi: This man was an esteemed teacher, they told him, but one day a candy-vendor sold him a piece that he ate in the classroom. Then he grew agitated and walked out. He was found wandering the countryside in a demented state, reciting Persian verses. Following him around, his students copied out the verses, and that’s how we got Rumi’s book Masnavi. It was all from candy laced with LSD or something. Um, yeah.

Ibn Battuta was generally treated like a high dignitary, close to royalty. He met the last Ilkhan of Persia, Abu Said Bahadur Khan, and also the King of the Golden Horde, Öz Beg (or Uzbek). Öz Beg’s Golden Horde territory in Russia fielded one of the largest armies of the time and left Ibn Battuta very impressed with his grandeur. Also, this Sultan’s wives went about unveiled! It was disturbing.

In Astrakhan and Sarai, the traveler heard tales about the “lands of darkness” where there was nothing but snow and people had to travel in sledges pulled by dogs, since other animals slipped on the ice. They described to him how there was a certain place forty days’ journey north, where a merchant could leave his trade goods overnight and the locals would take what they wanted, leaving furs in their place. The implication was that they never met the mysterious trappers. Ibn Battuta says wished to see this, and he did go as far north as the city of Bulghar on the Volga River; but scholars don’t believe him. He’d probably be more believable if he told some quirky detail he’d seen at Bulghar.


Then Ibn Battuta heard that King Öz Beg was planning a trip to Constantinople for one of his wives. She was the (illegitimate) daughter of Emperor Andronikos, and she kept begging to give birth to her baby back home in Constantinople with better medical care. Reluctantly, Öz Beg hired Ibn Battuta to lead her expedition, which gave him an expenses-paid trip to Constantinople.

Mrs. Öz Beg and Ibn Battuta began a three-week journey with a large retinue. At a halfway point, her escort changed from her husband’s Emir to her father’s General. Ibn Battuta was shocked to see that she stopped bothering with her traveling mosque, no more muezzin calls. She started drinking wine and even—if it can be believed—eating swine’s flesh! There was nothing the good Moroccan trip leader could do about it, since they were now trailed by 5000 Byzantine troops in armor. At their destination, he reported that the Byzantine Emperor asked him a lot of questions about the Holy Land and let him tour the city, including Hagia Sofia (from the outside; he could not go in without passing a big cross that he’d have to bow to). Mrs. Öz Beg now made it clear that she was not going back to Sarai with the baby. She sent the Turkish servants home, with Ibn Battuta again as leader.


The traveler went on to Khwarezm, where he saw a watermelon: hard green shell, bright red inside, “perfectly sweet.” He said they cut it into oblongs and dried it, sending cases of dried melon as gifts for kings in China and India.

Traveling in 1333, Ibn Battuta heard stories about the “Tartar” conquest as though a century had not passed. He saw ruined cities still not rebuilt, including Bokhara and Balkh. They were still telling legends about Genghis Khan. But Balkh still had a Muslim saint’s tomb, so it was all good. Ibn Battuta crossed into Afghanistan, and over the Hindu Kush passes to India. Guides told him that the mountains’ name meant Hindu-killer, since slaves brought from India generally died. He met many hermits and saw many exotic fruits, which he happily described. Then he arrived in Delhi, the capital, and unfortunately he met the current Sultan, Mohammed bin Tugluk.


That was a turning-point in his journey, because the Sultan appointed him to be the chief Islamic judge, the Qadi, in Delhi. He was stuck in this job for six years, and he found it frustrating. He had Maliki Sharia-law training among Hanafis, and he could not speak the language. Delhi’s court had limited influence, since it was a Muslim island in a Hindu sea. But he was a trophy for the Delhi Sultan: an Arabic-speaker, trained in Islamic law, from the other side of the Muslim world. He was a real celebrity and Mohammed bin Tugluk was not giving that up.

Delhi under Mohammed bin Tugluk was a sorry place. Like King Philip in France, the Sultan had decided to mix base metals into gold and silver coins without altering their face value. One result had been an eruption of counterfeiting, since now a half-copper coin was already in legal circulation. People lost trust in all coins and the economy collapsed. There were famines in northern India, and much of Delhi’s population fled. Ibn Battuta found a city with eerily vacant streets.

Worse, the Sultan had a terrible temper and no patience. There were many rebellions and attempted assassination, but he suspected even more, sometimes including Ibn Battuta. It was very dangerous. Ibn Battuta tells that he witnessed the execution of some would-be assassins: they were tossed and trampled by elephants who had been shod with sharp iron shoe-knives. Sometimes the victim was cut in pieces, sometimes flayed and then fed to dogs.

In Delhi, he witnessed miracles done by Yogis. They were not Muslims, of course, but the Sultan was on very good terms with them and asked them to demonstrate their powers. Ibn Battuta says that one yogi turned himself into a cube and floated in the air, which astonished him so much that he fainted and later suffered heart palpitations. After that demonstration, he believed whatever he heard about yogis who could take the shape of animals or kill someone with just a look. Battuta loved them anyway; they were holy men, object of his governing passion.

Ibn Battuta’s habit of visiting holy men in huts and caves was his near undoing. The Sultan suddenly mistrusted his favorite cave-living hermit; he arrested the sheikh and everyone who had visited him. Ibn Battuta waited for four days to know his sentence, fasting and repeating the Koran. In the end, he was the only person not executed. This narrow escape persuaded him that he had to leave Delhi.


He finally got away by leading a high-profile embassy to China, loaded down with extremely expensive and large gifts: 100 horses, 1oo Mamluks, 100 slave-girls, and a vast number of silk and jeweled garments. He set off with a very large party that included soldiers and Chinese officials. On the way to the western coast, to take ship from southern India, he met with some pretty bad setbacks.

In one city, there was a Hindu uprising against the Muslim rulers, and Ibn Battuta’s large, well-armed party joined the fray. Several key men were killed, and Battuta himself got lost for a week, captured then abandoned in the countryside. Somehow they pulled through all this and kept going, by land and sea.

Absolute disaster awaited him when he finally arrived at the Malabar Coast port where he was to sail for China. First, he saw that the largest ships in port were the Chinese junks that had woven-reed sails and looked, to him, like they were carrying whole towns on board. Second, they had to wait three months before anyone consider making shipping arrangements. Finally, when they started to board, even the huge junks appointed for them were not enough to fit the 100 slave-girls, so Ibn Battuta had to overnight on shore, waiting to see if another smaller ship could be sent. A storm blew into the harbor during the night. Several ships were smashed up against the shore, and sank; some Chinese and Indian officials drowned. The ship carrying most of the expensive gifts (including the horses and Mamluks?) disappeared, perhaps sailed out of port to avoid foundering. Ibn Battuta never saw any of it again, and just like that, his embassy had failed. He was terrified to go back to the unreasonable Sultan.

Ibn Battuta stayed on in southern India until Hindu revolts caught up with his host and he had to leave fast. All through India, this was the case: chronic local wars between “infidels” and Muslims. In places where some famous Muslim holy man had worked miracles, more had converted; and in some places they had reinforcements from the stronger outside Muslim world. In other places, the Hindus were stronger (and nearly always more numerous), and sometimes Muslim rulers bought peace with tribute to them. The pattern of religious conflict that continues today was already well-established.

His next stop was in the Maldives Islands, south of Sri Lanka. But the Muslim Sultan of the Maldives pressed him into service, again, as a Qadi. Think, though, about what you know about Moroccan Maliki Muslims, and what you know about the Buddhist-Hindu cultures of places like Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It was a really bad fit for Battuta: he had been shocked at the Golden Horde’s unveiled women, but these Indian women bared a lot of skin! He was supposed to make them into good Muslims? Sadly, they didn’t want to hear it. He lasted nearly a year and found a way to leave.

After leaving the Maldives, he traveled more in India because there were still more Muslim hermits to meet. One hermit made a huge impression by predicting the future in uncanny detail. He was wearing a goat-hair robe that Ibn Battuta admired, wishing it were his but saying nothing. The hermit immediately took it off and put it on Ibn Battuta, with a prediction: the robe was actually a gift for another holy man in China, but an infidel Indian king would take it from Ibn Battuta and give it to the holy man. When it all came true, Battuta was more astonished than ever. The last chapter of the goat’s hair coat, he said, happened in Khanbalik (Beijing)! There he met the new and final owner of the coat in a hermit’s cell.


Finally, he decided to go on to China. He sailed to Sumatra, where there was a coastal Muslim Sultanate. As he crossed the island to take another ship at an infidel port, he carefully observed all of the trees and shrubs famous in the west for their spices. Moroccans would want to know that the clove was the blossom on the nutmeg fruit, and that camphor only forms inside a reed if an animal is sacrificed at the roots.

Ships carried him mostly safely with a stopover in Vietnam, where he met a ruling princess who greeted him in Turkish, then to China. In every major Yuan Chinese city there was a community of Muslim traders. Ibn Battuta found people from Egypt and Persia; he stayed with them, visited their mosques, and of course inquired after their local holy men and tombs. He was up for visiting Buddhist hermits and touring all kinds of temples. Going north to Beijing, he presented himself as the ambassador of Delhi. It’s difficult to know exactly where Ibn Battuta went in China, because he transcribed place names that he heard in Arabic. Few of the places match with any modern city or even river names. In 1340, the Khan’s capital city was called Khanbalik by the Mongols and Dadu by the Chinese; it may have been called something else by the Muslim merchants.

Ibn Battuta was very surprised at some Chinese customs. Even in the 14th century, the Chinese were notable for their rich men dressing in simple colors, looking much like poor men. Their wealth was shown only in gold rings that specified their net worth. Further, the rich men dressed in cotton, because silk was so cheap that the poor could wear it. In a different vein, he got the shock of his life when he saw a portrait of himself hanging on a city wall. It had been drawn without his knowledge and served as a sort of hostage in case he broke some law, they could issue a Wanted poster. Personal property had to be accounted for to the smallest item: anything found on a ship that had not been listed in the ship’s manifest became the king’s. But there was no theft; merchants could travel anywhere with any sums and find no danger, because at each town, a magistrate made property lists and locked up foreigners overnight for safekeeping.

At Guangzhou (Canton), he met a 200 year old holy man who never ate, and who could make himself disappear. Everyone said he was a Muslim, but nobody saw him pray. Spooky! Hangzhou, the city of canals, was presented to him as the Emperor’s capital city. Ibn Battuta tells us that it was larger than any other city he’d seen on his travels. He got to see a magic show in which a boy climbed a rope hanging in mid-air, and was then cut to pieces with a knife and reassembled, perfectly alive. Ibn Battuta had heart palpitations, but his host, a Qadi, whispered that nobody had been cut up, it was all just tricks.

His Chinese stories and names become tangled at this point: There was a short civil war, with the Khan’s death and burial. But the details better match the story of a high-ranking official, Bayan, who was replaced by his nephew in 1340. In any case, it became too dangerous to remain. A few years later, in 1351, a major rebellion would break out that would lead to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty’s replacement with the native-Chinese Ming Dynasty.

Ibn Battuta left in 1346. He saw Mecca again, and then went straight to Morocco. He managed to be in the Middle East in 1348, the heart of the plague season. However, perhaps he had been exposed to similar germs in other places—-he had been very sick any number of times, in his travels. He did not get the plague, and he got home to Fez.


Ibn Battuta crossed part of the Sahara Desert and went to Sudan. He was shocked by the behavior of the sub-Saharan Africans and nearly packed up to leave. Black men frightened him; he felt they were hostile to “white men,” of whom he was one. He traveled along the Niger River in Mali, at one point meeting the great Mansa who controlled the gold market. After even minor kings had showered him with expensive gifts all over Asia, he was surprised that the Mansa gave him a simple meal and no more. He was even more shocked at the undress of the women: worse than in India, these girls went naked until they were married! And yet the society was very devout in their Muslim faith; every boy was forced to memorize the Koran.

In the Niger River, Ibn Battuta saw a hippopotamus herd. He thought at first they were elephants in size, but then they looked more like horses, only much larger. He was told they were “sea horses,” which is the literal meaning of their Greek name: river horses. Also in the Niger area, they warned him of cannibals who only ate black men, thinking men with paler skin were not ripe. The farthest south Ibn Battuta claims to have reached was the town we call Gao, which he knew as Kawkaw. Then he circled back up through Sijilmassa, and home.


Ibn Battuta had been traveling for 30 years. His parents had died while he was away, and he was now about 50. He probably married and fathered a few children in Fez. All through his travel notes, though, we hear of wives and children. Each time he stayed somewhere for more than a month, he took a concubine or married a local woman. In Delhi, his wife was related to the Sultan’s family; in the Maldive Islands, he also married into the king’s family. He may have married as many as four girls in the Maldives, all of them from the richest families. The king’s Vizier began to suspect him of plotting to overthrow the government, but he’d had his fill of drama in Delhi. He divorced all of the women except one who had given him a baby during his 9 months’ stay. He went back later to visit the child, leaving the mother with money. He had several more children, all left behind with their mothers when he moved on.

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The Plague on the Silk Road, 1330-1350

Some time during a world history survey course in high school, or perhaps in a good documentary on the History Channel, you learned that medieval Europeans didn’t realize that rats carried fleas that carried Yersinia pestis bacteria. They were used to rat infestations and flea bites, so when they all got sick, they were puzzled and believed it was “bad air.” I’ve seen so many pictures of the rats (who scurried off ships and swam to shore, infecting the rats of each passing city) and jokes about the rats…it’s weird to find that actually rats had little to do with it.

The deadliest infectious diseases are those that jump from animals to humans; they may not be serious to the animal, and in theory, they can’t survive in a human body. But they do. Just as some common foods are actually lethal to your cat or dog, these animal infections slay millions of people. Y. pestis is an infection of rodents, but different strains live in rats or in groundhogs—or to use the formal name for the ones in Asia, marmots. Marmots are the prairie dogs of the steppes. They live all across Asia and into Northern China; their habitat is the arid grassland. And marmots, not rats, are the primary carriers of the deadliest plagues.

Much of what we think we know about Bubonic plague comes from a modern pandemic. Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss-French doctor, isolated the bacteria at the root of an epidemic in Hong Kong in 1894. This plague is known as the Third Pandemic; it began in 1855 in China. It was during this 19th century pandemic that dead rats were observed, and the linkage between fleas and Y. pestis was made. But it’s also clear that the Y. pestis strain was much weaker during the modern Third Pandemic than it had been in the past. After trying out the idea that medieval writers exaggerated, we’ve mostly settled on the realization that Bubonic plague is at its weakest if you have to be bitten by a flea. When you really worry is when it goes airborne. “Bad air” indeed.

There had been two infamous ancient plagues, the Plagues of Athens and of Justinian, and we really don’t know if they were caused by Y. pestis. We can guess, but it’s only with the 14th century one that we can know, by digging up bones to test. Most of our information about the medieval plague comes from Europe, where it shocked the population into trauma that lasted for centuries. We know a lot less about its ground zero history in China, perhaps because it was taken for granted there. We also know less about its history in the Middle East, but we know a little. Let’s look now at the plague as it affected the Mongolian domains of China, the Silk Road, and the Middle East.

The first outbreak of the bacteria from the marmot population in northern China probably came around 1330. Yuan Dynasty China had not been doing as well under Kublai’s successors, but there was also a lot of severe weather in the early 1300s. It was severe in Northern Europe, too, but both trends are generally seen as regional. As part of a larger pattern, they were early signs of massive global cooling that we call the Little Ice Age. It’s arguable that we’re only now emerging from the Little Ice Age; it’s also possible that during times of climate change, microscopic populations go through shifts that we don’t understand.

The effect was that in both northern Europe and northern China, there were terrible famines that lasted for multiple years, and more routine epidemics of things like typhoid that left the population thinned by about 10% and weakened by malnutrition. When the marmot infection crossed over, perhaps through some hunters who killed a sick animal, it met the weakened immune systems of adults who had starved as children. Between 1330 and 1350, there may have been three separate waves of plague infection in China, in various regions, each recorded at the time as slaying over half the population. Modern estimates suggest as many as 25 million deaths in the vicinity of China. We have no detailed medical descriptions from the Chinese outbreaks, perhaps because it was mistaken for other common epidemics.

We’re pretty sure that the plague came to Europe along the Silk Road. It may not have been carried by infected travelers; it may have jumped from marmots again in the steppes of Afghanistan or Iran. We don’t know. We do have signs of early plague deaths along the Silk Road as early as 1345. Over the next two years, the infections came closer to Europe and at last some Tatars who were besieging a Black Sea port began to die. Then their corpses were used as weapons, perhaps with no understanding that these corpses were much more dangerous than the usual.

The siege wasn’t very effective; ships could and did leave. Some unknown number of ships set out for Alexandria, Constantinople, and Genoa. They tried to make provision stops along the way. But somewhere between the Silk Road and the ships, the infection became airborne. And the airborne form of Y. pestis is very rapidly lethal; death can come within 8 hours of infection. This rapidity may have helped it spread slowly at first, as whole families in isolation died out without spreading it. This could be why there’s no record of the plague spreading to India, although the Silk Road ran across its northern edge. But on ships, even two hours of asymptomatic infection were enough to infect ten more people.

Within a few stops, it was clear to every harbor that the ships had plague. Probably, a boat with a few “healthy” people met to discuss the situation, and that was enough to transfer the plague ashore even if nobody was allowed to land. By the time the Genoa-bound ship had gone around the boot of Italy, everyone knew; ports shot fire arrows at the plague ships to drive them off. But it was too late.

The plague hit Alexandria, Constantinople, and port cities of Italy within the same months of 1347. It spread rapidly through Turkey and Syria, and from Alexandria, it fanned out into Egypt and North Africa. It raged through the ancient cities, devastating economies that had already been suffering from repeated conquest. Baghdad was rebuilt after its utter sacking in 1258 and was now a dirty market town: want to catch the plague there? What about depressed, crowded Constantinople or Alexandria? Damietta, anyone? Ashkelon? Oh, I know, how about Jerusalem, which had been depopulated, burned, wrecked, and repopulated in cycles for the last few centuries?

In each city, the plague stayed in a highly infectious stage for a little over a year, then new infections and deaths began to slow. About two years after the first cases, there were no new ones. So in Italy, Alexandria, and Constantinople, the hot years were 1347 to 1348, while in Germany, there were places that saw no plague cases until 1349, and it lasted into 1350.

Christian and Muslim medical science was very similar at that time, since both were based on Greek texts translated into Arabic or Latin. If you went to medical school in Pisa, you’d read works by Avicenna, a great Muslim doctor. But cultural attitudes to the epidemic were very different.

Christian societies believed the plague was punishment for sin. They tried to fight it with repentance, both with parades of relics and with flagellation to demonstrate remorse. Those who could afford to flee from the “bad air” did so, and some survived for that reason (one Italian family sealed up their house and didn’t come out for two months, while the Pope at Avignon stayed very isolated near a fire). They saw the plague as coming from God, but also as something that the saints could stop if they chose. Doctors did their best to understand the disease process, but the problem was that so many people died so fast. A man might make a last will and call in a notary to see it witnessed, only to find the notary dead, and a few hours later, his witnesses dead. When his heirs tried to bury him, they couldn’t execute the will because they began to sicken and die, and there was no time to make a proper new will. You can imagine how chaotic medical observation was, in those conditions.

The Muslim world saw the plague as a God’s will, not to be changed or fled. Death could be a merciful release from this life, and hadiths said that plague deaths were a special kind of martyrdom. Their doctors observed and treated as they could, but they may not even have been called in for most cases. While individuals might flee the epidemic, their culture did not encourage their attitudes; one hadith of Mohammed specifically says “do not flee from the plague.” Instead, their leaders encouraged greater exercise of personal piety and prayer. They probably recited the hadiths (Sahih Bukhari 622-631) about the blessed state of death from plague more often than before. On the whole, they made their wills and waited to see if they would die or live. They attended weekly public funerals for large number of the dead, instead of keeping track of individual funerals.

Lisad al-Din ibn Khatib, Vizier to the Emir of Granada, wrote a book about his plague observations. Squarely facing the hadith tradition that plague was only an expression of God’s will, he stated that so many accounts of transmission by garments, earrings, eating/drinking vessels, and direct human contact just couldn’t be ignored. He stated that the hadith tradition must be modified if it’s in such “manifest contradiction with the evidence of the perception of senses.” In 1374, about 12 years after his book was published, he was executed for heresy in Fez, possibly for his medical opinions among others.

Ibn Khaldun, whose parents died in Tunis’s plague, saw the plague as a watershed in history. Everything was going along the same each century, until the plague hit:

It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out. It overtook the dynasties at the time of their senility, when they had reached the limit of their duration. It lessened their power and curtailed their influence. It weakened their authority. Their situation approached the point of annihilation and dissolution. Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed.

There’s no way to measure the devastating effect of the plague on the cities left behind. Whole houses were left empty, whole professions stripped of masters and teachers. In England, the routine teaching of French at school came to an end. Some large buildings lost their architects and had to be completed in simpler ways. So many priests died in Europe that the old apprenticeship training system fell apart; they had to found seminaries to train young men in larger groups. There were chaotic population transfers between farms and towns, as vacancies got filled. Within two generations and about four plague episodes, Europe’s feudal system was mostly dead and peasants began uprisings to demand wages.

Constantinople was gutted. The plague was the last blow to this city that was once the capital of its region, with the best of everything. After the Fourth Crusade burned much of it, and then the Byzantines spent 50 years battling back into power, there was much to recover from. In 1347, the recovery shut down. There’s a direct link between the plague and the city’s humiliation in having to pay tribute to the Turks around 1360. By 1371, when peasant revolutions began to roil Europe, Constantinople was officially a vassal state.

The last Ilkhan descended from Hulegu died of plague during early Silk Road outbreaks in the 1330s. His heirs all died with him, leaving a complete vacancy, which led to the break-up of the Ilkhanate into warring, impoverished cities. The new Mamluk Sultan, a 12 year old boy, survived but the city was weakened, which must have affected Mamluk politics.



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North Africa in the 14th century

North Africa’s Muslim story in the 14th century mostly stars a Moroccan dynasty we call the Marinids, after their founder whose first name was Marin. They were Berbers of the Zenata tribe, locked in long rivalry and conflict with other Berber tribes such as the ones who had become the ruling Alhomad dynasty. The Marinids spent some time in the mountains, then swept down into the valley and began assaulting the Almohads’ main cities.

The Almohads had one foot on the Iberian Peninsula, where the Reconquista led by Castile had powerful momentum. Losses in Spain weakened the Almohads generally, so that their dynasty was vulnerable. The Marinids over-ran their capital and key fortress of Marrakesh in 1269, overthrowing them as a ruling power.

They, however, centered their new capital on Fez. The Marinids built a new quarter onto Fez, called Fez J’did (“New Fez”), a center for civil administration. That’s now part of the Old City of Fez that tourists visit. Fez had a thriving Jewish section, too. Marrakesh remained an important city for Sufi pilgrimages, because it had the tombs of seven Muslim saints. But it never regained administrative or commercial power until after 1500.

The Marinids had a key problem: among the Berbers, Arabic nomads had settled during the early Conquest years. By now, they were as “native” as the Berbers, but they were ethnically distinct and felt superior by their genetic connection to the Prophet. They still kept track of themselves as tribes, often called the Bani Something—-the Sons of Somebody. Originally very small groups of no more than 200 settlers, they had become almost a majority in much of Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Southern Algeria. They’re still a large presence in those places. They speak a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniya, probably of much interest to linguists because it’s a transplantation of classical Arabic that developed in isolation from Arabia, with influence from African languages like Wolof. There are about 3 million Hassaniya speakers today.

The Berber Marinids wanted to rule over the Arab tribes, but the Arab tribes strongly believed that a descendant of Mohammed should be in power. They were the launch-pad of the Fatimid Dynasty around 900, after all; they may have adopted Sunni theology, but they still cared deeply about Mohammed’s genetic line. The Marinid solution was to talk up the lineage of Idris.

Idris had been a great-grandson of Mohammed’s grandson Hasan. He fled to hide among the Berbers after an unsuccessful rebellion of Ali’s descendants against the Abbasid Caliphs. He is known as the first Muslim king of Morocco, Idris I. He founded a town called Moulay Idris, and he conquered cities like Fez and Tlemcen. He married the Berber chief’s daughter but was poisoned by Caliph Harun al-Rashid in 791, two months before his son Idris II was born. The Berbers raised the child and kept him in power, establishing the first kingdom of Morocco. Their dynasty lasted until 985, when it had been wiped out by Abd al-Rahman of Cordoba.

Idris made a good founding myth for the Marinids. He was a Sharif, that is, a descendant of Hasan (Sayid means a descendant of Husein). Although his dynasty was not in power, plenty of men could claim to trace their ancestry back to the family of Idris. The Marinids encouraged and financed some official Sharifs to show respect to the line of Mohammed, while actually cutting the Arab tribes out of power. It seems to have worked some of the time, at least well enough to keep the Marinids in power.

Northwest Africa was divided into roughly four zones of rule or influence: the Empire of Mali and the Kingdoms of Ifriqiya, Tlemcen, and Fez. Fez, of course, was the perch of the Marinids, and we’ve separately looked at Mali with its caravan city, Timbuktu. The other two kingdoms were portions of the Mediterranean coast. Starting with Fez in the extreme west, next came Tlemcen, roughly modern Algeria. Next to the east, Ifriqiya was ruled by the Hafsid dynasty. It was a much larger area, expanding as far east as Egypt would tolerate.

Tlemcen’s independence from the Marinids lasted until 1337. Prior to the annexation, there had been chronic war. Starting in 1299, the Marinids had built a rival city to draw trade away from Tlemcen. Their city had nicer streets and a public bath, and it did succeed in emptying Tlemcen’s markets and port. But only for a while: after winning a battle, the rulers in Tlemcen tore the rival city down. With Tlemcen annexed, the Marinids had absolute control of the western end of the Saharan trade routes. Their control must have extended only so far south, with the powerful Empire of Mali jealously controlling its ability to tax and mine gold.

Ifriqiya’s fortunes went up and down, after it had become an independent kingdom in 1229 when its Alhomad governors dared the weakening Almohad kings to come stop them. It was the scene of the 9th Crusade, when King Louis landed at Tunis, then died. The resulting trade treaty with Sicily must have increased its wealth and security. It often controlled the islands off Spain, such as Majorca, too.

The Marinids’ Kingdom of Fez grew to its largest size under Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Uthman, between 1331 and 1351. His name in simpler form was Hasan, son of Uthman II (1310-1331). Both of these kings worked to stabilize the Kingdom of Fez. Uthman established many madrassas in Fez and cities like Rahat, to support the growth of a middle-class civil servant base. Uthman had a little breathing space from Arab tribal revolts because his mother had been a tribal leader’s daughter.

Uthman probably married at least one Arab girl, but the wife who became the next ruler’s mother was an Ethiopian. Her son Hasan was called “the Black Sultan.” I’m not sure what advantages were gained with this alliance, but you can be sure there were some. The Black Sultan then chose very strategically: he married a princess of the Hafsid dynasty of Ifriqiya, which left Tlemcen squeezed to death and probably aided its 1337 annexation.

Hasan had enough power to get back into the Spanish game. In 1309, Castile had captured the island of Gibraltar, the stepping-stone between Africa and Europe. Even while they were still busy fighting Tlemcen, Hasan’s navy managed to capture back Gibraltar in 1333. The Emir of Granada was worried that the Marinids would try to annex their foothold in Spain, too, in spite of past Marinids having renounced their Spanish land. But the year following the recapture of Gibraltar, a three-way truce was signed between Fez, Granada, and even Castile.  The truce was for four years, allowing all parties to rebuild their strength. It ran out in 1338, and in 1340, the Marinids had a major naval battle against Castile—-and won.

During the years when Granada’s Emir was building the Alhambra Palace, Granada acted more or less like a client state to the Kingdom of Fez. As long as the Marinids controlled the entire Mahgreb—-the coastlands and mountains of northwest Africa—there was a stable balance of power.



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The Alhambra Palace, 1333

In 1333, Emir Yusuf began to build the splendid palace that came to be known as The Red Fort, Qalat al-Hamra: the Alhambra. His reign and his son’s spanned most of the 1300s and established the palace that we tour today. There are other sections built by later Christian kings, but I won’t write about them here.

During the Reconquista years of the 1200s, the Emirs of Granada chose to move their residence to an ancient fortress on a hilltop. The first fort, the Alcazaba, had been built in the early years of the Muslim Conquest. It was seated at the point of the long hilltop, where steep hillsides fell away to the river valley, like the prow of a land-based ship. Of course, it was strictly practical, modeled after the classical world’s fortresses in Syria. There were few windows and no residential chambers.

To make it into a residence, the 13th century Emirs built three square tower keeps, each about 16 meters to a side. Interior arches supported four floors that included residential rooms. One of the towers had a bell that was used for many years to keep time for farmers who needed to turn on and off irrigation systems. In 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada, the hoisting of their flag over this bell tower was the symbolic “Mission Accomplished” moment.

The next important task was to bring water into the fortress, using canals and, I suppose, a system of pumps to get it to the hilltop. New warehouses held stores in case of a siege. During the next few Emirs’ reigns, they added public baths (complete with steam room supported by a copper boiler) and a mosque.

The technology used to pump water up to the hilltop and then keep pipes pressurized for fountains was a primary luxury of the time; Southern Spain is very hot and dry. The Alhambra managed the climate with interior courtyards (blocking hot dry wind) that offered shade and evaporative cooling. Keeping ponds full and fountains running took up a lot of the available water resources. The most famous fountain courtyard has 12 lions with water jets, while the Court of the Myrtles contains a large pool of water.

In Yusuf’s time, the fortified gate called Gate of Justice was the main entrance, completed in 1348. Visitors passed under a horseshoe arch with a carving of The Hand of Fatima. This hand is a charm against evil, and its five fingers represent the five principles of Islam. The same design, more stylized than in the 14th century carving, is used as a general good-luck symbol in the Middle East, even in Israel, where it’s known as a Chamsa (chamesh means 5).

The Emir’s private living quarters, known as the harem, used a lot of water. They had running water (early taps had been invented by the 1300s) both hot and cold, and both baths and pressurized showers! Female grooming had a long tradition in the Middle East; women were shaved, bathed and perfumed, often with plucked eyebrows and cosmetics. But the word “harem” originally just means “restricted,” the way White House tour guides never cross lines into the restricted private areas where the President actually lives, so it was not supposed to mean “women only.”

Emir Yusuf and his son, Mohammed, wanted their living quarters to amaze the world, so they were decorated more elaborately than any monarch’s palace until Versailles. The Alhambra Palace’s decoration with geometric figures really stands out to Western eyes, since European decorative traditions tended to use figures of humans, animals, and flowers. M. C. Escher was inspired by the tesselated tiles to develop his tesselation drawings. “Circle Limit” (1960) closely resembles the domed tiled ceilings of some Alhamabra rooms.

Instead of using color, yeseria technique uses carved plaster to create three-dimensional wall art. Where Greek sculpture had created bas-relief, in which figures are in half-round, Islamic yeseria actually cut through the plaster so that darkness behind the screen of carved plaster made the designs stand out very starkly. They showed geometric figures, leaves, and Arabic scripts, often in combination. The “Hall of the Boat” (actually “Blessing” in original, Arabic baraka –> Spanish barca) has walls and ceiling entirely covered in yeseria plasterwork.

An even more three-dimensional decoration can be found in the techniques of muqarnas and mocarabe, from Persian decorative tradition. The muqarnas uses concave surfaces to create texture, sometimes with colored decorations inside each concave bowl or cell. The mocarabe is an extreme form of muqarnas technique; it is like a honeycomb tipped to point its openings downward, hanging from above like a stalactite. One hall in the Alhambra is known as the Hall of the Mocarabes.

Finally, the Alhambra’s rooms were often decorated by poems in Arabic. The poems praised the artistry of each room, and many praised Mohammed V, the Emir whose long reign in the late 1300s saw the completion of the palace’s greatest beauties. The Alhambra Palace was the most beautiful king’s residence of its time.


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Game of Mamluk Thrones, 1290-1330

The Mamluks governed based on competence, in a time when governance was always based on inheritance. They didn’t come up with a framework for peaceful transfers of power or group selection of the leader. Instead, they functioned like a monarchy that’s constantly at risk of internal coup. Every Mamluk Sultan wanted to leave power to his kids if he could, but “if” was the big question. Let’s look at some of the stories.

Baybars oversaw the rising dominance of the Mamluk regime between 1260 and 1277; he is thought to have had ten children, including three sons. At his death, his son Barakah took control, so that at first it looked like the Mamluks might have started a new monarchist dynasty. Barakah understood how to use power; he started weeding out powerful Mamluk Emirs who might shoulder him aside as his father had done to Qutuz. After about a year, the Emir who was also Barakah’s father in law put a stop to it, forcing him to abdicate in favor of his seven-year-old brother. Barakah withdrew to Kerak,  Jordan, where the Mamluks had captured a Crusader castle, and later died there.

No child can rule a Mamluk kingdom, so the real ruler was Qalawun, the father in law. By 1279, the child was expelled to Constantinople and Qalawun simply became the Sultan. The Emir of Damascus thought this was very wrong, since his concept of government was still royal inheritance, but by the time the Mongols came around for the Second Battle of Homs, he was glad to accept a strong Mamluk Sultan’s help. Qalawun successfully negotiated with the remaining Latins of the Holy Land to pay tribute and accept restrictions on fortifying cities like Tyre and Beirut.

Qalawun had at least two sons, too. Like Baybars, he preferred to establish a family dynasty, and he had an idea to weaken the other Emirs around him. He started promoting Circassians, another ethnic minority from around Georgia, to power among the Mamluks. This disrupted the old-boy networks that his fellow Kipchaks had built up. It worked: his son Khalil inherited after him. Khalil was the conqueror of Acre in 1291.

Khalil continued to promote Circassians, probably rewarding those who were loyal to his family, until he was assassinated by other Kipchak Mamluks. And then the Circassians supported his brother an-Nasir Mohammed, so the family kept power. Qalawun’s family strategy not only worked, it also brought a wave of Circassians into Egypt, so that eventually they would become the rulers in their turn (and into modern times). Even before they took power, they became known as the Burji Mamluks, fighting the mainstream Bahris.

An-Nasir Mohammed’s nemesis was an Oirat Mongolian named Kitbogha, who had been captured as an adult fighter in the Second Battle of Homs. Although the Mamluks abandoned their ethnicity in theory, it seems like in practice they formed ethnic mafias. A whole group of Oirats (roughly equivalent to today’s Tuvans?) were in a conspiracy to cast down Qalawun’s legacy and put their own guy into power, and they succeeded twice—and failed twice.

Kitbogha had his own nemesis: his Vizier, probably a Kipchak Turk loyal to Qalawun’s family. The Burji faction drove Kitbogha out of Cairo, but he returned with the support of Mongolian and Kurdish Mamluks and besieged the Vizier in the Citadel. Qalawun’s Mongolian widow, mother to nine-year-old Sultan an-Nasir, sided with Kitbogha by locking the rival Emir out of the Citadel. A third Emir named Lajin (whose ethnicity is uncertain: his hair was blond) persuaded Kitbogha to depose and exile the child, after all, so they set up as Sultan and Vice-Sultan in 1294.

Lajin was a dangerous guy: not only had he been the assassin of Khalil, he then deposed Kitbogha in 1296. Not to worry: soon Lajin was also assassinated by another Mongolian Mamluk. Now what? One of the Mamluk Emirs had to rule, but there was no clear leader. They finally decided to reinstate the King: they brought back 14-year-old Nasir Mohammed from exile at Kerak Castle and agreed to two viziers: an Oirat Mongol and a Circassian.

Sultan Nasir Mohammed led the Mamluk army against Ghazan’s third Mongolian invasion in 1299, just in time to lose the battle. He won the peace, though, when Ghazan inevitably withdrew. In 1303, Ghazan and the Mongols tried one more time, but the young Sultan led an army to surprise them into defeat just south of Damascus. But unknown to everyone else, the Sultan was getting sick of power struggles with domineering Viziers. The Circassian Burji Mamluks had started a protection racket in Cairo, too, and nobody could call them to heel. In 1309, Sultan Nasir announced he was going on Hajj and just didn’t come back. Instead, he went “home” to Kerak, the Crusader castle in Jordan where he had been exiled as a child.

The Circassian Vizier, Baibars al-Jashnakir, ruled as Sultan for nearly a year. It was dreadful; the Mongols and Latins were still threatening war, while the new “Sultan” was greeted with riots in Cairo. So a delegation sent to Kerak, begging an-Nasir (now 24) to come back. He did, and his first act was to execute Baibars al-Jashnakir. Then he started on the rest, and boy he knew where the bodies were buried, as they say. He got rid of the Oirats, stopped the Circassian Mafia racket, and shut down a prison where the Mamluk Emirs had been disappearing their enemies.

This time, Nasir Mohammed ruled until his death in 1341. He oversaw the redigging of a canal in Alexandria and received envoys from the Pope and the King of France (who simply wanted Jerusalem back, please?). When he died, he left eight sons who all became Sultans in their turn, followed by four grandsons. Sounds good, right? But wait, why eight of his sons? If the family dynasty was really settled in now, like a real monarchy, what happened? Ah…

So in truth, although Nasir groomed and trained his oldest son to be the best Sultan ever, the Mamluk Emirs around him were still too much for them. It was only a peaceful power transition on the surface, and really another strongman was in control and used Nasir’s sons as puppets. Qusun was another easterner of some kind, who had come west with a Mongolian army, perhaps as a merchant or suttler. He was powerful enough by 1341 to have Nasir’s son, the new Sultan, arrested and executed. He installed the infant Ashraf Küçük (which means “little”) as Sultan, but dang if Little Ashraf didn’t need a strong Regent, you know?

It was a stormy year, and by the end, Qusun had been executed. The next living son of Nasir, who like his brothers had been trained in strict desert warfare at his father’s “home” of Kerak Castle, came to power. He only wanted to go back to Kerak, so the Emirs installed another brother. That one lasted a few years, then another (we’re up to 5 now) who was a terrible partier and made it only one year. Time for number six, who turned out to be an obsessive pigeon racer and gambler. Number 7 was a child but stayed alive long enough to have 11 children and rule as Sultan, twice (interrupted by #8).

The Mamluks were groping toward a system of oligarchy in which they’d privately elect an executive from among the dynastic potentials. They swapped out sons (and grandsons) as different factions seized power. Earlier, the Mamluks had actually taken a stab at peaceful power transitions by exiling former child Sultans, not killing them. During this period, usually the losing Sultan lost his life, but the last of Nasir’s sons was not executed during at least one coup, so that he was still there to return to power.

This last son of Nasir took steps to trim the powers of Mamluk Emirs, as his father had done. His weapon of choice was clever: he began promoting the descendants of Mamluks who had never been made into Mamluks themselves. The core “Mamluk” experience was to be enslaved then freed (or to free self via coup), but these descendants, the Awlad al-Nas, had not undergone this process, but had just lived as a sort of Cairo aristocracy. They now became Sultan an-Nasir Hasan’s civil servants, governing cities and heading up departments.

Naturally, by 1361, the still-young Sultan was assassinated by one of the Mamluks whose power he was trimming back. This murderer, Yalbugha (whose ethnic background is unclear), became the new strongman who chose which grandson of Nasir Mohammed to install at the moment. And so it went on, until the Mamluk Vizier Barquq ended the farce and just started a new Mamluk era, making himself the first Circassian Burji Mamluk Sultan.





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The First Ottomans and the Last Ilkhan, 1302-1337

In 1280, a Turk named Osman became the Bey of Söğüt, Turkey, and over the next 20 years, he took control of neighboring tribes and towns. His son Orhan named the new group the “Osmanlı,” or as we would say now, the Ottomans. In Osman’s time, they were just Turks, and perhaps not even much of a tribe, more like a political block. But any real estate agent will tell you what matters: location. Söğüt was far from the areas where Turks had clashed with Franks during the Crusades; it was in the heart of the old Roman empire, in Bithynia.

Bithynia is a long swath of land along the southern Black Sea coast; it was a kingdom in the Hellenistic period, then a Roman province. Its western edge touches the Bosporus Strait (at Constantinople), and its eastern edge is bounded by the Sakarya River. In the time of Emperor Justinian, they built a massive stone bridge where the military road met the river. The chief city of Bithynia, Nicaea, had just been serving as the seat of the Greek Byzantine government in exile. With the Greeks back in control of nearby Constantinople, Nicaea should have been a secure part of its territory. But Osman’s Turks were attacking many Byzantine towns to their north: Nicaea, Prussa, and  the port town of Nicomedia.

The Byzantine Empire was trying to recover its lost footing by crowning father-son pairs as co-Emperors, so that succession was clear and they could send one ruler on military campaign while the other secured the city. Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos had used marriages, including his own, to bring rival claimants into the family. He had resettled displaced persons from the long Venice-Crete-Constantinople wars around the Meander River (worth mentioning just for its name), and he had hired mercenaries from among the Alans (who were probably part of a Mongolian confederation, therefore loosely allies). Now in 1302, his son Co-Emperor Michael led a large force to confront the Turks on a field between Nicomedia and Nicaea.

The Battle of Bapheus was a simple engagement; the confederated Turks led by Osman overwhelmed the Byzantine army until it fell back to Nicomedia. From that point on, Bithynia was ruled by the Byzantines only from its forts, while the countryside became a no-go zone. When the town of Prussa fell, it became the Turks’ new capital. The name “Prussa” in Greek turned into “Bursa” in Turkish; it was also called “new town” in Turkish. Osman’s son Orhan ruled from Bursa and continued his conquests. In 1337, the port Nicomedia also fell to the Turks. From this point on, Osman’s line grew in power until now we can look back and see Bursa and Söğüt as the origin of the Ottoman Empire.

Also from this point, Muslim history is mostly the story of Ottoman growth. In 1335, still many years before the Black Death broke out in Europe, an early round of the plague carried off the last Ilkhan and his heirs. His territory broke into small fiefdoms and declined in power; Iran was not powerful again until the Safavid Empire in 1501. Everyday life went on as usual, but few Muslims in the 1300s enjoyed the privileges of Empire, as many had done in the past, and many would again in the future.

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The Last of the Templars, 1307

By the end of the 13th century, the Order of Knights of the Temple had received so much property as charitable gifts that they were wealthier than many kings. A large number of their members were involved not in protecting pilgrims in the Holy Land, but in managing the property, which included estates with farms and mines as well as cash invested in shipping. The Templars had become international bankers who first tried out the idea of traveling with a verified receipt for money deposited in one city’s Temple, to be withdrawn in another city’s Temple—-in other words, a banker’s cheque, or check as we say.

The end of the Order came suddenly with unexpected violence: hundreds of knights were burned alive. To understand why, we need some context of what was happening in Europe during the previous decade or so.

First, the Orders of Knights had lost their actual function when Acre fell in 1291. They hung onto a base in Limassol, Cyprus and a few islands, including the isle of Ruad just off the coast of Lebanon. The Templars and Hospitalers were using the island as a base to attack Tortosa, the nearest mainland city. In 1303, the Mamluks cleaned up a bit more, taking the fortress at Ruad from the Templars. About forty knights were captured and remained in prisons in Cairo for the rest of their lives, refusing to convert to Islam.

Second, the King in France was the grandson of King Louis IX, the great Crusader who died of dysentery at Tunis in 1271. Since the time of King Louis, France had become locked in territorial wars with England, as France tried to take portions of its Atlantic coast that had been ruled by Anglo-Norman kings. France also got drawn into war against Aragon. Philip IV (“the Fair”) inherited debt from his father and perhaps even his Crusading grandfather. He owed large sums to Jews and Templars.

Philip IV tried a number of tactics to become solvent again. He evicted the Jews in 1306, seizing their property, which included debts to other people—who now faced King Philip IV as their creditor. Next, he evicted bankers from Lombardy (northern Italy) in the same way. He minted new coins several times, cheating on the value of gold and silver to try to make a little profit. Some of that old saw about biting a gold coin to tell if it’s genuine might come from Philip’s 1295 mixture of copper with the gold, which made it harder than true gold. Currency lost so much value that riots in Paris forced the king to hide, at one point in the Templars’ headquarters.

But perhaps Philip’s most influential money scheme came first: in 1290, he tried out taxing the income of the church. They were a tempting target, since so much charitable giving in people’s wills had left them owning vast estates. But the Pope issued a bull forbidding the church to transfer any property to the French crown. Philip actually attempted to arrest the Pope near Rome. When this Pope passed away and the conclave elected a new Pope in 1305, their choice was a Frenchman who decided not to live in Rome. The new Pope Clement V set up his Papal court in Avignon, France in 1309. One of Clement’s first actions was to nullify the previous Pope’s decrees against the King of France. For the next 70 years, the Pope was always French, and always under the King’s thumb.

Pope Clement wanted to wind down the Orders of Knights; he thought maybe the Templars and Hospitallers could at least merge. The Grand Master of the Templars traveled to Avignon to discuss this with the Pope in 1307, and another small item came up on the agenda: a former Templar knight had lodged a criminal complaint against the organization. Although the Pope wasn’t inclined to believe the charges, he sent the King of France a letter about them, asking for his input.

King Philip acted quickly: he would inflate the charges to be as great as possible and use them to bring down the Temple. On Friday the 13th of October, he sent out an arrest order for the Grand Master and most of the other knights. He charged them with heresy and indecency: spitting on the Cross during secret ceremonies, worshiping idols, indecent homosexual practices, and financial fraud. Knights were questioned under torture until they admitted to anything the King wanted. In November 1307, at the King’s request, the Pope issued a bull instructing all Christian monarchs to arrest all Templars.

When Pope Clement V got involved, the torture stopped. He held trials, but some of the Templars defended themselves, and most of those who had confessed under torture recanted their confessions. This was a serious problem for Philip, so he made sure a French archbishop took control of the trials. With direct crown control restored, Philip could ensure that the original confessions were upheld as trial evidence. Those convicted were immediately burned at the stake in Paris.

Even as the King’s puppet, Pope Clement V was reluctant to continue suppressing the Templars. The King had to threaten military action, and then the Pope cooperated, outlawing the Order at the Council of Vienne (in France) in 1312. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, and the Preceptor of Normandy were sentenced to be burnt for heresy on March 18, 1314. Legend says that the Grand Master called out of the flames to the Pope and King, saying that God knew the right of it and would judge them. Both Pope and King did die soon, within 1314.

The Temple properties were made over to the Hospital Order, though I think the Hospital chose wisely to cancel and destroy any certificates of debt to the King of France. Many Temple knights and other staff who had not been swept up in the heresy charges became Hospitallers. These knights continued on with headquarters on the islands of Cyprus, Rhodes, and Malta.

The King of Portugal started the Order of Christ in 1317 with the remnants of the Templars in his region. He still needed them for the rest of the Reconquista. This Order still exists in Portugal.

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Mamluks vs. Mongols, 1299

I have it marked down as an important battle: the Third Battle of Homs in 1299, when the Mongols defeated the Mamluks after two previous losses at the same place. But when I look at it more closely, I’m not sure there’s much of a story here, more of a status report.

The Mongolian Ilkhans had invaded Syria in 1260 and 1271. Both times, the Mongols were at a disadvantage on the terrain, small in numbers, and were defeated. But the narrative of the Mongol invasion that began with Hulegu’s grandfather Genghis Khan had come to an end. After their 1258 victory over Baghdad, the Ilkhans of Persia continued to contest for territory against the Mamluk government in Egypt, but the lines were no longer clearly drawn, the story was no longer developing.

The Golden and Blue Hordes of Batu Khan’s lineage converted to Islam and aligned with the Mamluks against their own kin. Then after Hulegu’s son Abaqa died, another son took power and he, too, had converted to Islam. Traditional Buddhist/Christian/Tengri Mongols took back power and installed Abaqa’s non-Muslim son, but eventually Abaqa’s grandson Ghazan converted to Islam, again. Being a Muslim didn’t mean he couldn’t ally with Mongols, Franks, or anyone else; but it became a matter of one regional power balancing against another. It wasn’t about religion, and sometimes not even about ethnicity.

So when Ghazan’s Mongols allied with Armenians and some remaining Templars and Hospitallers, and won a battle against Egyptians near Damascus in 1299, it was not game-changing. Mongolian cavalry still couldn’t actually hold the region, and shortly they retreated to places less dry. Ghazan’s ambassador joined the knights at sea, where they tried to establish a base on Ruad Island. Ghazan made plans with Pope Boniface VIII for a new Crusade in 1302, but it never materialized: the Mongols just could not operate in the region.

Ghazan’s brother Öljeitu was baptized Christian by his mother, tentatively converted to Buddhism, then became a Muslim like Ghazan. At the same time, as the next Ilkhan he was very friendly with the Pope and never dropped the intention to help re-establish a Frankish Holy Land. The old Greek dynasty had finally taken Constantinople back from its Latin Crusade rulers and was trying to rebuild its power. Öljeitu married a Byzantine princess (illegitimate, but that never bothered the polygamous Mongols), allying with Constantinople against their local Turks. Those local Turks would become the main story shortly.

In China, Kublai Khan’s grandson Temür became Emperor in the new city of Khanbalik, and in 1304, the other lineages of Genghis who had been in rebellion against Kublai decided to accept Temür as Great Khan.  Unified, the Mongols could have organized a new giant expedition as they had done before, but they probably recognized the geographical limits. It was enough to just go on maintaining what they had, and the Great Khans of China became more and more Buddhist and Confucian as they assimilated to their conquest.

And that’s about how things continued until 1370, when Amir Temur (Tamerlane) revived the Mongol invasions.

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Marco Polo and the Golden Ticket, 1299

We owe the first descriptions of Xanadu and Khanbalik (Beijing) to Marco Polo of Venice, whose book was published in 1299, co-written by Rusticello of Pisa. The book was quickly translated into many languages; the oldest manuscript we have is in Old French. The copies were not controlled by a publisher, but were hand-copied and later printed at will. It first came into English in 1503, but by then it was very well-known (if not always believed) in Italian and French, and it had begun to influence map-making.

Marco was one of the Europeans living at the court of Kublai Khan. He told his story while in POW captivity in Genoa, after taking part in a Venice vs. Genoa battle shortly after he got back to Europe. In 1260, his father and uncle had set off on the Silk Road and eventually came to the Great Khan’s court in China. They were gone for ten years, while Marco grew from 6 to 16. In 1271, Marco went with them. He served Kublai Khan in various official posts while his father and uncle traded and, at times, helped build siege engines.

After 17 years, the Polos and the Khan were both growing old, so they wanted to return to Italy with their wealth before the Khan’s death might throw the Silk Road into anarchy. The Khan reluctantly gave them leave to go as escorts for the princess Kököjin. They traveled by ship, going through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Kublai Khan did die shortly, and their portion of travel through Iran was dangerous. Their protection along the way came from a tablet of gold that stated a death penalty for anyone who did not honor the Khan’s name. This golden ticket was a foot long, and it was still listed among Marco’s possessions when he died in 1324.

There are some questions about Marco’s authenticity, partly because his name is not mentioned in Yuan Dynasty records. Also, his account of China tells less of China than it might; he didn’t talk about the Great Wall or tell much about native Chinese customs. On the other hand, the Yuan Dynasty was not a time when the Wall was important, since the Mongols were some of the invaders it was meant to keep out. Marco’s family apparently learned languages that were spoken along the Silk Road, and perhaps Mongolian, but not Chinese. They mixed with the ruling class, not the farmers, and his reports about Mongolian customs seem accurate.

Marco loved the Chinese city of Hangzhou, which was filled with canals like Venice. He was very impressed with paper currency and the Yuan postal system. He described a system of first, second and third-class mail; first-class mail was the Khan’s own urgent business, carried by relays of riders without stopping. Marco was also very impressed with Kublai’s summer palace, a giant tent made of bamboo and cords, which had a hall that seated thousands. That’s what he was describing when he wrote about Xangdu, or Xanadu, as it appeared in English.

Marco saw several natural resources for the first time, too. Europe had coal, but there was no mining until the 15th century. They just found lumps of “sea coal,” a burnable rock, here and there. But China was mining coal for an additional fuel source, and Marco was amazed to see black rocks that burned like wood. He also reported seeing an asbestos-making industry among the Uyghurs; to his surprise, asbestos fabric was cleaned by throwing it into a fire!

Marco’s book’s greatest value to Europe was its geography. On the journey toward Cathay, his family party had chosen to go the long haul overland, across Afghanistan and eventually across the G0bi Desert. He reported on these places with realistic detail, effectively adding them to European maps. As a Yuan official, he traveled to Karakorum and saw parts of Siberia. These places had been so unknown to Europe that a century before, scholars had literally not known where the Mongols might be coming from, since their maps showed China but nothing beyond it.

Read more here

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