09.02.09, Richards, The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athîr, Part 3

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David Bachrach

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.009


Richards, D. S., trans.. The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athîr for the Crusading Period from al-Kâmil fî'l-ta'rîkh. Part 3: The Years 589-629/1193-1231: The Ayyubids after Saladin and the Mongol Menace. Crusade Texts in Translation 17. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. viii, 331. ISBN: 978-0-7546-4079-0.

Reviewed by:
David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

Ibn al-Athîr (1160-1233), author of The Complete History, was a remarkably well-informed observer of contemporary affairs. Although he lived most of his life in Iraq and Syria, he had extraordinary sources of information ranging from Spain in the West to India in the East. The History, as a whole, covers the entirety of the Muslim period, almost up to the moment of the author's death, ending in the Islamic year 628, western calendar 1230-1231. In translating the History for Ashgate's Crusade Texts in Translation series, D. S. Richards has focused on the final portions of Ibn al-Athîr's text beginning with the crusader siege of Antioch in 1097. In this third and final installment, the reader is taken through the period immediately following the death of Saladin in 1193 up through the conquest of Azerbaijan by the Mongols in 1231.

The History, which is organized in an annals style year by year, is focused largely on inter-Muslim relations with substantial portions devoted to the conflicts among Saladin's heirs in Syria and Egypt. The various Turkish principalities in Asia Minor and Iran also receive considerable attention. As the brother and son of bureaucrats, Ibn al-Athîr shares considerable insights regarding the administration of the various Muslim polities he discusses. He provides numerous details about a wide range of local and regional officials, their duties, and their incomes, usually derived from "fiefs." He also discusses a variety of community-based conflicts and episodes of public disorder in a number of cities, including Baghdad and Herat.

Ibn al-Athîr's far-ranging interests include Muslim campaigns in India, as well as campaigns against Alfonso VIII of Castile (died 1214). It may well be part of Ibn al-Athîr's parti pris to discuss Muslim victories rather more than Muslim defeats, as his discussion of Alfonso (19-20), treats the defeat of the Christian king at the hands of the North African ruler 'Abd al-M'min in 1195, but neglects to mention the overwhelming Christian victory over the Muslims at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 in which Alfonso played a leading role.

As his treatment of Spain suggests, one of Ibn al-Athîr's secondary themes in the text is the wide-ranging Christian-Muslim conflict beyond the Levant, including not only Spain, but also Georgia and Armenia. Ibn al-Athîr provides considerable discussion, in particular, of Muslim campaigns against the Georgians, as well as of Georgian campaigns against the Muslims in several theatres. He had detailed information concerning the names of the Georgian military commanders, their routes of march, and their tactics in battle.

Perhaps of greatest interest to western medievalists, however, is Ibn al-Athîr's frequent discussion of the ongoing series of struggles against the rump crusader states in the Levant, and the periodic crusading efforts that helped to sustain them. The author provides a fascinating example of a Muslim's perception of the failure of a Muslim emir, in this case Usâma of Beirut, to keep the terms of a negotiated settlement with Christians (29). Usâma regularly violated truce agreements with the Franks by raiding Christian shipping along the Levantine coast. Ibn al-Athîr has nothing openly negative to say about this behavior, merely commenting that Usâma's actions led to a large-scale punitive expedition from Europe, which was dispatched by Emperor Henry VI of Germany (1190-1197). This force was commanded by Bishop Conrad of Hildesheim and was meant, in some measure, to atone for the failed German campaign under Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, who died on the way to the Holy Land in 1190. Ibn al-Athîr also discusses the arrival of crusaders in the Levant who refused to participate in the Latin siege of Constantinople in 1204 (79), as well as several major Christian raids into Syria and Egypt. The longest section of the text that is devoted to western Christians concerns the first campaign to Damietta which was the focus of the Fifth Crusade (1219-1222) (174-182).

In addition to the struggle against Christians, Ibn al-Athîr also was very concerned with the threat of the Mongols, which was becoming increasingly acute in his own day. The single longest section of the entire text (202-231) is devoted to the Mongol invasions of Muslim territories. Here, Ibn al-Athîr provides blow by blow accounts of Mongol atrocities, as well as the failed efforts of various Muslim leaders to defeat them.

Richards' translation of the Arabic text is clear and engaging, permitting easy access to the wealth of material provided by Ibn al-Athîr. In its present form, this volume will be welcomed by scholars who work on the crusading period, or are interested in the complex political relationships across the broader Near East during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The text will also be invaluable for military historians who will find a treasure trove of material concerning warfare. Of particular importance in this context is Ibn al-Athîr's emphasis on the capture and defense of fortifications, and particularly fortified cities, as crucial to territorial conquest. Specialists in western military history will find here a clear parallel with conditions in Latin Europe where a similar level of military technology also led to the dominant role of sieges in military campaigns.

The text also can be a valuable addition to undergraduate and graduate courses on the crusades, medieval surveys, and even western and world civilization surveys. It might be particularly useful when paired with texts by western/Christian authors. A comparison, for example, of Ibn al-Athîr with Oliver of Paderborn's Relatio Magistri Oliveri Coloniensis Scolastici de Expeditione Jherosolimitana and the anonymous Gesta Obsidionis Damiata may be very illuminating for a discussion of conduct of the Fifth Crusade campaign.

There are several ways, however, that a future edition of this volume in paperback may make it even more valuable, particularly for undergraduates. Richards does a fine job of providing notes to identify individuals the first time they appear in the text. However, even professional medievalists may have some difficulty keeping track of the very large number of unfamiliar Arabic, Turkish, and Persian names. This difficulty likely will be acute for undergraduates. A section of genealogical charts and dynastic charts would help alleviate this difficulty. Similarly, the addition of several maps would help students to navigate the complex political relationships charted in the text.

A more substantial addition that would vastly increase the utility of the volume for undergraduate teaching would be to expand the introduction. Ideally, Richards would go beyond the brief introduction included in the first volume of his translation to include a more detailed discussion of Ibn al-Athîr as a historian, including a fuller assessment of his sources, and his manner of composition. It would also be helpful, for undergraduate teaching, to have a brief discussion of the major territorial, ethnic, religious, and political divisions dealt with in the text, as well as brief biographies of the most important actors.

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David Bachrach

University of New Hampshire