Mamâlik – Spatial Dynamics of Islamic Polities, 12th to 16th Centuries (Kurt Franz)

The Mamâlik project explores the spatiality of state and society during the Islamic Middle Period as a dynamism. Sharing a productive movement in related humanities, geo-spaces are not understood as a given and steady factor that is basically separate from political and social change. Instead it is asked how physical environments, factual history and spatial mindsets as enshrined in geographic literature acted upon each other. Analysis is directed at three focal points:

  • spaces influential – physical landscapes as co-determinators of economic life, traffic, warfare, etc.
  • spaces affected – human development that is geared with spatial actualities and at the same time informed by pertinent knowledge, resulting in the creation and change of historical landscapes
  • spaces conceived – geographic knowledge and related conceptions of geo-space, nourishing inter-textual threads and mental maps in ways that are specific to their time

The principal research avenue aims at contextualising the so-called ‘post-classical’ geographic literature in Arabic language in the face of political, scientific, social and religious developments. The pertinent writings have for a long time been widely misconceived as a mine of factual information, the most frequent question reading simplistically “Where is this or that place?”. Moreover, most of the few in-depth investigations that there are have been dedicated to scholarship produced up to the year 1000. Mamâlik, in contrast, takes the little-studied geographic literature of the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods (1169–1517) serious: the literature of this period is not only rich in quantity, but also developed contents and compositions further and took on new significance. Moreover, antiquarian knowledge was combined with fresh contemporary observations during this period. Novel meanings were created, and it is argued that ‘geographic narratives’ can be disclosed which are tangible in, and informed by, the politics, social organisation and economy of the time.

While the stock of Ayyubid and Mamluk-period geographic writing is vast, no coeval or modern genre definition has emerged. Therefore, focus is first of all on expert geographies that lay claim, in the terms of the time, on scientific character. Besides, relevant sections included in larger works of diverse character are considered, e.g. in encyclopaedias or administration manuals. In addition, a plethora of geographic references is scattered over chronicles, biographic compilations, etc., that indicate a widespread preoccupation which spatial conditions. Among these, some outstanding specimens will be subject to case studies.

The initial steps of the project are first a study of the prosopography of Arabic-Islamic geographic writers, with a focus on specialised authors. Their background and position, their relation to state administration, and their potential acquaintance with each other will be the focus of inquiry. Next, the prolegomena of selected significant works are to be analysed. Here, the issue of genre is raised, that is whether, and how, geography formed a discipline of learning in its own right with distinct epistemological and methodological foundations. Third, the literary sociology of geography is questioned, asking for the nature of the readership, practical uses and the potential legitimation of governance.

In a further perspective, Mamâlik is committed to promote the study of spatial dynamics in Islamic history. Preparations are under way to establish an international collaborative geographic information system. This GIS will provide an interface for existing geo-database and mapping projects, allowing interactive historical cartography and spatial analysis. It shall thus provide methodical impulses and practical tools to the field of research in mediaeval geo-spatial documents that is presently emerging.

Mamâlik is an Arabic term that appears in many a geographic book title. A plural form, it applies to a plurality of kingdoms and thus addresses Islamic history in relation to the oecumenical. At the same time, it also points to imperial provinces, implying contemporary political order and events. Third, it refers to countries and large units of geo-space in general. For this encompassing quality, the term Mamâlik is emblematic of the range and nature of Arabic-Islamic géographie humaine (A. Miquel) – a sort of learning that equally involves description and conception.

Author: Dr. Kurt Franz