Miri Shefer

title.none: Lev, Towns and Material Culture (Miri Shefer )

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.016 05.09.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Miri Shefer , Tel Aviv University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Lev, Yaacov, ed. Towns and Material Culture in the Medieval Middle East. Series: The Medieval Mediterranean, vol. 39. Leiden: Brill, 2002. Pp. xiii, 186. $98.00 900412543-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.16

Lev, Yaacov, ed. Towns and Material Culture in the Medieval Middle East. Series: The Medieval Mediterranean, vol. 39. Leiden: Brill, 2002. Pp. xiii, 186. $98.00 900412543-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Miri Shefer
Tel Aviv University

This collection of nine papers edited by Yaacov Lev, a well-known historian of medieval Egypt, originated in a one-day conference on the history of the Middle East at Bar Ilan University, Israel, during the summer of 1999. The editor should be commended for bringing this project to its fruitful conclusion in a relatively speedy manner. Three years later, in 2002, the outcome of that event appeared in the volume Towns and Material Culture in the Medieval Middle East. We are all familiar with examples of such projects dragging on and appearing--if ever--only years after the original conference, when the papers, sadly, are dated as far as scholarly research concerns. In this case, however, a volume on urban and material culture in the medieval Middle East is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the subject. This volume does not present over-arching conclusions and it is not an introduction to the field, although several articles could be used in a class setting. All the articles contain interesting information, some of it--like that on paper, textile and cordage, medical institutions and medicinal substances--is neglected in many historical studies.

The importance of material culture in world history has long been acknowledged, yet in Middle Eastern history it seems to have been relatively neglected as a field of study. Yaacov Lev, the editor of Towns and Material Culture in the Medieval Middle East has done us a service in assembling these nine articles which represent only the tip of the iceberg of what can--indeed, should--be done on this subject matter. As this is a collection of articles, I would like to consider the various articles as a mix, not solely for their own merit, to see how the collection stands as a whole.

The editor-to-be of any collection has to establish whether there is a substantial common link between the contributions (methodology, historical subject, period, sources, etc), one that justifies bringing them together in one volume. The conference which led to this volume included a wide range of topics in the history of the Muslim Middle East, but Lev chose to include in the collection only those papers dealing with urban society and material culture. Although this editorial choice gives the volume a common thread, it still allows for diversity among the papers. The diversity allows the authors to deal with different aspects of urban and material realities in the medieval Middle East. The papers present us with a picture that is composed of rulers and elites but also non-elites. However, the papers do not necessarily work together to create a unified whole, even when they deal with similar questions. Rather, they appear side by side, and the task of making inter-contextual links is left mainly to the reader.

The editor, in his preface, identifies three themes taken up by the authors: the interplay between the physical setting of a town and its social makeup (Y. Lev, Luz and Frenkel); Palestine before and after the Crusades (Gat, Ehrlich and Bahat); and production of--and trade in raw materials for paper, textiles, and medication (Amar, Shamir and Baginski, and E. Lev). This reviewer feels that an introduction, instead of a short preface, could have offered the readers more.

Some of the articles here are descriptive. They provide interesting information on details that so far have appeared in publications aimed at a very exclusive group of professionals. Here, however, all interested in material realities of the medieval Middle East can access them. A good example is the article co-authored by Orit Shamir and Alisa Baginski on textiles, basketry, and cordage in the medieval Mediterranean. At first glance it is a surprise to find such a paper in a volume not focusing on arts and crafts, and I rarely see such a paper outside specialized journals. Exactly because this is the reality of the field the editor was right to include it and open our eyes to interesting research hitherto unknown to many of us. Shamir and Baginski base themselves on evidence from excavations in five medieval sites throughout Israel. The evidence displays a wide variety of materials and working techniques. It attests to international fashion enjoyed by the upper classes as some textiles found were imported, whereas other garments were poorly made out of cheap materials. The varieties suggest the existence of local tastes as well as social and financial differences between communities. The paper thus opens a window also to daily life.

The volume offers more papers that provide interesting information. In the opening article Shimon Gat discusses several aspects of the Seljuk rule in Jerusalem focusing on the late eleventh century. Gat considers the Turkish rulers as well as local communities of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Jews receive most of his attention, maybe too much. When Gat mentions immigrants and pilgrims to the city he describes it as a Jewish phenomenon. Did not Christians and Muslims too feel a strong pull to the holy city? Michael Ehrlich writes about the influence of the crusades on the urban landscape in Palestine. He claims that in contrast to accepted wisdom, the Franks did affect considerably many cities during their two hundred year presence. They changed the layout of the cities, for example, by creating a new center. Literature on colonialism and urbanism has taught us that this act has social and ethnical motivation. The conquerors wish to segregate themselves, yet they are dependent on the local communities. By building a new center they somewhat remove themselves form the conquered but are near and close enough. Zohar Amar (originally in Hebrew, now in English) writes on the paper industry in the Levant. He traces it from the stage of manufacture till the trade in the final product.

As my own research focuses on Ottoman medicine and medical institutions I found particular interest in Dan Bahat's article on hospices and hospitals in Mamluk Jerusalem and Efraim Lev's paper on the trade in medical substances in the pre-modern Levant. Dan Bahat's contribution is on hospices and hospitals in Jerusalem of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He mentions several hospitals and hospices run by the Christian communities, but his main focus is to differentiate between three institutions. Two of them occupied the same site and third was near-by, and that caused some confusion: the old (ruined by the time) hospital of the Hospitallers; a hospice which existed later in part of the building; and the hospital erected by Salah al-Din on the basis of the Church of St. Mary 'La Latina.' (Bahat mentions that the Ayyubid hospital from the twelfth century continued to function till the Ottoman conquest, but Ottoman sources attest it functioned well into the seventeenth century, MS.) Efraim Lev concludes the volume in his paper on trade of medical substances (plant, animal and mineral) in the pre-modern Middle East. Lev starts with useful lists identifying the medicinal materials mentioned in various genres of sources (medical as well as literary), and than moves on to outline trade routes, balance of trade and means of transportation.

Another part of the articles focuses on methodological discussions. The papers by Nimrod Luz, Yaacov Lev, and Yehoshoua Frenkel try to further our understanding of concepts like urban life and community in the medieval Middle East. Luz explores the role played by the Mamluks in rebuilding the city of Tripoli in Lebanon as a provincial capital of Syria during the fourteenth century. He illustrates how geographic considerations affected the Mamluk cultural mindset of urban policy. Luz uses Tripoli as a case study to suggest more broadly that urban landscape is a product of constant dialogue, at times harmonious and times tense, between physical reality and the humans who occupy that space and try to enforce their concepts, wishes, needs and abilities on nature. Yaacov Lev analyzes the relationship between the qadi, the Muslim judge, and the urban community in medieval Egypt during the ninth to the twelfth centuries. He starts with the common wisdom that the qadi was more than a judge as he acted also as an administrator with wide financial responsibilities. Yet his judicial powers were limited: he had to share authority with the chief of police in criminal matters; with the inspector of the markets (the muhtasib) in moral and financial matters pertaining to the suqs; and the rulers who ran their own courts for people complaining against state officials. This bags the question, which no one raised and answered until now, to what extent the Muslim law indeed governed urban life. By tracing the qadi's involvement in the affairs of the orphans he shows a complex process. The transformation of the state towards centralization (especially in the Fatimid period) and the declining power of the urban notables are intertwined with the evolvement in the qadi office and his strengthening political power. Frenkel too focuses on the qadi courts to raise a very basic question: is there Muslim space or is it (only) an Orientalist construct? Basing his argument on records of cases heard by the Muslim court from the Mamluk period, for example in matters of construction, Frenkel illustrates that the role of the judge in day-to-day affairs of urban and rural communities was immense. This brings him to suggest that Muslim space did exist in the sense of a space around the Muslim legal court. Because of the central role of qadi in determining the norms and values of the public arena he legalized the activity which took place within the territory under his jurisdiction.

The nine articles comprising this volume are organized more or less chronologically from the eleventh century (the advent of the Turkish Seljuks to the Middle East) until the eighteenth century, as in the case of E. Lev. The Ottoman period should have been outside the scope of this volume--titled the Towns and Material Culture in the Medieval Middle East (my emphasis). The text is silent as to what drew the author to continue his discussion from the early Middle Ages to the late early modern period. This is curious as Lev devoted considerable space to another methodological issue: introducing the primary sources from which he selected his evidence. We could be harsh and interpret Lev's silence to indicate lack of sensitivity to historical changes and ignorance of the need to explain those changes. But there are other possibilities. We can take it as a subtle claim defying the political periodization in the history of the Middle East. If this is indeed the case, it is a good reminder that although the Ottoman arrival in the Arab Middle East in the beginning of the sixteenth century signified a new historical period in many respects, a continuum, for example in daily life, can still be traced. Or maybe the author is actually arguing that it is not really such a huge continuum; it just seems so since we know little about the subject. Could it be that the paucity of the sources necessitated a broad overview? All these answers could have lead Lev to interesting methodological discussions, a thread the author chose not to follow here. One of the happy outcomes of this volume is that it offers a stage to several younger scholars not known to the international community, making their work available in English. The contributors are all Israelis, some of them established scholars, others new names in the field, though most should be familiar to readers of Hebrew who may have already read some of their work.

Some of these studies use terminology, methodology or concepts from their own subject matter. It may be technological terms (like in the case of the weaving and basket article), geographical (Luz), legal (Lev and Frenkel) or botanic (Lev). Experts are fluent in this language, but specific jargon presents a challenge to those readers uninitiated in Middle Eastern studies. On the other hand many of the authors summarize for us the existing literature or relate to us the contents of their diverse sources. The volume is thus a useful springboard for those who already know something of the medieval Middle East but are looking for further reading. These could be professional scholars in related historical fields. Scholars of various fields, who recognize the importance of incorporating Muslim/Middle Eastern history into larger narratives or are interested in comparisons, will find this volume useful for learning something of the urban and material medieval Middle East.