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21.04.03 Shoshan, Damascus Life 1480-1500

The Medieval Review

21.04.03 Shoshan, Damascus Life 1480-1500


As its subtitle indicates, Boaz Shoshan's monograph focuses on the diary of a notary, known as Ibn Tawq (d. 1508), who was active in a judicial court in Damascus in the late 15th century. [1] The study's main title, Damascus Life, presumably indicates a double-pronged project: life in Damascus at the end of the 15th century as reconstructed through the journal of Ibn Tawq, and a Damascene life, that is, the life of the diarist, Ibn Tawq himself. So, the book is both a history, allowing the author to "reconstruct the historical context" (17), and a microhistory that uses Ibn Tawq's quotidian, often intimate thoughts (13).

Damascus Life is divided into an introduction and six chapters arranged thematically followed by an epilogue. The choice of chapter topics seems to have been inspired by the content of the diary itself rather than by questions asked by the author. Therefore, chapters proceed without a necessary logical connection as follows: 1) Ibn Tawq's social world; 2) the city of Damascus in crisis between 1480-1500; 3) the institution of chief judgeship and the competition over judicial and academic positions by Damascene scholars; 4) the sources of wealth of the bourgeoisie; 5) the functioning of the judicial court with regards to disputes and crime; and 5) a final chapter about the family dealing with marriage, divorce, and the household. The epilogue offers a brief history of Damascus after the termination of Ibn Tawq's diary (and the death of its author) up to the point of its conquest by the Ottomans in 1516.

Clearly, the valuation of Ibn Tawq's diary by Shoshan is based on its unique information (102, 148, and 180). Most of the book is a narration of details within particular topics, ranging from the loss of a tooth by the diarist's eight-month baby (31); to Ibn Tawq's purchase of a slave (34); to the arrival of a giraffe in Damascus in 1495 (47); to the diarist's treatment of urban youth gangs (63-64); to the control of hashish consumption in the city (68); to the life and times of the chief judge of Damascus, who is "as solid as a rock" (82 and 101); to the fortunes of Ibn al-Muzalliq family (102-106); to a case of arbitration between a Christian litigant at a Muslim court (125); to a homicide that may have involved a European and several female slaves (129); to the marriage ceremony of "Najm al-Din, the son of...Taqi al-Din b. Qadi `Ajlun" (150)...ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, in conveying this information, Shoshan has not taken the opportunity to offer a new proposition or a framework or attempt to explain a phenomenon. The study remains relatively silent on the current scholarship with the exception of an attempt to challenge the conclusions of a classic study on marriage and divorce by Yossef Rapoport (163-18). [2] Other engagements are minor and pertain to local points to do with the particular subsection of a chapter. Missing altogether is reference to Michael Chamberlain's work, a pioneering monograph that offers a Bourdieusian framework for thinking about the competition between scholars in Damascus, [3] which would have been most relevant to a chapter that deals with precisely the topic of the "embattled world of scholars" (71-101). Thus, as a history the book under review remains mainly in the realm of a reportage of a 15th-century diary.

As a microhistory, Damascus Life offers similar challenges to the reader. Rather than placing Ibn Tawq's journal within the prodigious tradition of Arabic historical production and engaging with relevant studies such as the works of Dwight Reynolds et al., Li Guo, and Tilman Seidensticker and Stephan Conermann, [4] the author positions Ibn Tawq's diary in light of Florentine counterparts of the Early Renaissance (3-4). He ends his contextual discussion by citing Nathalie Zemon Davis's famous study the Return of Martine Guerre (13). [5] But, there is a problem. Microhistory does not mean the provision of more detail that allows us to see "the trees for the forest" (2). Rather is it about using the detail to illuminate structures, locate and explain new phenomena, reveal processes, or to put it in Zemon Davis' own words as quoted by Shoshan, "to establish a morphology of thought and experience" (13, italics in Zemon Davis as quoted by Shoshan and the underline mine). In short, microhistory is not about seeing "the trees for the forest," but about using the trees to see a new forest.

Also, a microhistory using Ibn Tawq's diary had already been undertaken in the form of an Alltagsgeschichte by Torsten Wollina in 2014. [6] Wollina recognized that Ibn Tawq's journal is not in and of itself unique. Rather, as shown by George Makidisi decades ago, it is a part of an evidenced textual practice of which few remnants survive. [7] In other words, the uniqueness of Ibn Tawq's journal is not that it was written at all, as Shoshan urges his readers to believe (2-4), but that such an extensive sample has survived. And While Shoshan is aware of Wollina's study, which he cites as early as in the preface to the book (ix), he does not provide further comment on it in the body of the text.

Who is the intended audience for the book? Lacking new propositions on Damascus or Ibn Tawq except for detail culled from the diary (and from two other contemporary chronicles), why is the author in effect reclassifying Ibn Tawq's information in English when specialists can and have read the journal in Arabic? If the monograph is intended to use data found in the journal to contradict major trends in the field, does a sole source suffice to refute studies that had been written on the basis of a larger volume and variety of sources? Is the study is meant for non-specialists? If so, it falls short of helping the reader into the exciting world of the notary, Ibn Tawq, and his city, Damascus.

The book under review is useful in two ways, in the opinion of this reviewer. The appendix that the author provides on food prices over the period 1468-1516 (187-189) is helpful and could be juxtaposed with James Grehan's work on Ottoman Damascus to be used for both teaching and research. [8] Also, for those of us who are frustrated by the lack of indices for the published edition of Ibn Tawq's journal, but are simultaneously patient enough to follow Shoshan's footnotes within the various themes, Damascus Life delivers a much-needed (English) "index" to the Arabic diary.

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Notes:

1. Ibn Tawq, al-Taʻlīq: yatwmiyyat Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Tawq, ed. Jaʻfar al-Muhajir, 5 vols. (Damascus: IFEAD, 2000).

2. Yossef Rapoport, Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

3. Michael Chamberlain, Knowledge and Social Practice in Medieval Damascus, 1190-1350 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

4. Dwight Fletcher Reynolds et al. (eds.), Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Li Guo, "Mamluk Historiographic Studies: The State of the Art," Mamluk Studies Review 1 (1997): 16-43; and Tilman Seidensticker and Stephan Conermann, "Some Remarks on Ibn Tawq's Journal Al-Ta'liq, Vol. 1 (885/1480 to 890/1485)," Mamluk Studies Review XI, no. 2 (2007): 121-136.

5. Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

6. Torsten Wollina, Zwanzig Jahre Alltag: Lebens-, Welt- und Selbstbild im Journal des Ahṃad Ibn Tạwq (Göttingen and Bonn: V&R unipress and Bonn University Press, 2014).

7. George Makdisi, "Autograph Diary of an Eleventh-Century Historian of Baghdād--II," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 18, no. 2 (1956): 239-260; and idem, "The Diary in Islamic Historiography: Some Notes," History and Theory 25, no. 2 (May 1986): 173-185.

8. James Paul Grehan, "Culture and Consumption in Eighteenth-Century Damascus" (The University of Texas at Austin, 1999).