Monday, July 25, 2011

Al-Tartushi, A Cordoban Traveller in the Ottonian World

“It is extraordinary that one can find at Mainz, at the extreme end of the West, perfumes and spices that only take their birth in the deepest end of the East ...”. Born into the Jewish community of Tortosa (Turtush) sometime in the second quarter of the tenth century, Ibrahim ibn Ya`qûb (al-Tartushi) has left us a rare account of journey he undertook in 961-2 through parts of western and central Europe. His original text does not survive. Fragments of it - themselves interpolated at points - are embedded in later texts, specifically those of Abu `Ubayd al-Bakri al-Andalusi in the fifth/eleventh century and Abu Yahya Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini in the seventh/thirteenth century. Whilst the former copied al-Tartushi’s account of his time in Slavic territories, the latter reproduced the accounts of West and East Francia, Hedeby and other western European centres. (The interpolations are interesting in their own right: not least, al-Udhri’s detailed account of Icelandic - or perhaps Irish - whaling techniques.)Al-Tartushi’s ‘original’ work was probably a report drafted for the Umayyad caliph of Spain, al-akam II (r. 961–976), following a visit to Germany as head of a delegation to Emperor Otto I. His interests in matters of trade and medicine have contributed to him being identified as both a merchant and a doctor. (Both are certainly plausible occupations for a tenth-century traveller, but his no less recurrent interest in buildings might lead to the conclusion on the evidence of the text that he might just as well have been a Cordoban builder or architect.. .)  The chronology of his meetings with Otto I remains contested. Many things caught al-Tartushi’s interest: animal sacrifice, infanticide, the relative empowerment of the women at Hedeby - they could divorce at will. He approved of the habit of both sexes wearing indelible eye-makeup. An appreciation of Scandinavian singing, however, was beyond him. It was worse than dogs howling, he reported. (Historians and theorists of Scandinavian black metal, take note...). Trading networks were a recurrent source of fascination for al-Tartushi. In Prague he noted dirham in circulation that had been minted in Samarqand decades earlier, around 913. In Augsburg it was the odd system of establishing prices that piqued his interest. The type of goods in circulation and local crops, diet  and novel creatures were noted. Of Francia ('Ifrandiya'), he observed: ‘the cold is very strong, and the climate harsh. Nevertheless the country is rich in cereals, fruits, crops, rivers ...’. Frankish armies were brave, though, and their soldiers' swords stronger than those available from India. (Our traveller seems to have been an inveterate comparative anthropologist.) Al-Tartushi was less impressed, however, by Frankish personal hygiene. Franks washed in old water once or twice a year; they wore their clothes until they fell apart (comments reminiscent both of Ibn Fadlan on the Rus and Liutprand on the Constantinopolitan court.) Al-Tartushi was told something of the miracles of St Martin and found Fulda particularly impressive: he described it as a large stone-built city  possessed of the largest church he had seen. Forbidden to women, he explained, Fulda was populated only by churchmen. Fulda's liturgical furnishings caught his eye, too, including a reliquary (of Boniface?) "an idol ... representing the martyr, his face turned to the west”, crucifixes, and church plate. Even for someone from wealthy Umayyad Spain Fulda's riches - or perhaps more accurately its concentration of them - seemed remarkable. The excerpts from al-Tartushi to be found in al-Bakri address Eastern Europe exclusively, and rely upon both first-hand experience and the reports of others: “On the West of the Rus there is a town of women. They possess land and slaves, and when one of them delivers a son they kill him. They ride horses, take the field in war in person, and possess courage and bravery. Says Ibn-Yaqub [al-Tartushi]: ‘The information about this town is true. I was told it by Huta (Otto), the king of the Romans'” A town of women, then, in contrast with Fulda, the holy city of men. (Female religious, incidentally, don't seem to be present in al-Tartushi's world view.) Al-Tartushi’s account harmonizes with Cosmas of Prague’s account of the Amazonian ‘city of girls’ called 'Devin' in Bohemia, part of his discussion of Prague’s foundation myth: Chronica Boemarum, ed., B. Berthold, Die Chronik der Böhmen des Cosmas von Prag, MGH SRG, n.s. II  (Berlin, 1923) , I.4. (For more on Cosmas'  text, without, I think, reference to this earlier report of it, see  P.J. Geary, Women at the Beginning. Origin myths from the Amazons to the Virgin Mary (Princeton, 2006), pp. 39-40; H. Wolfram, ‘Origo gentis’, RdGA 22 (2003), 174-8. Coherent and genuinely cross-cultural studies of such cross-cultural travel in the early Middle Ages remain rare; largely, one imagines, because of the range of linguistic competency required for the work to be undertaken properly. No full English translation and commentary of Al-Tartushi currently exists. The works below, however, do allow scholars of the Latin West some mediated access to an invaluable 'outside' perspective on tenth-century Europe. French translation of the passages on West and East Francia, Hedeby and Ireland (recte: Iceland, surely): A. Miquel, A.,  L'Europe occidentale dans la relation arabe d'Ibrahim b. Ya'qub (Xe siècle) Annales ESC 21(1966), pp.  1048-1064.German translation: George Jacob, 'Zwei arabische Reiseberichte über Deutschland aus der Zeit Kaisers Otto des Grossen', Studien in den arabischen Geographen 4 (1892), pp. 127-49. English translation of the passages on the Slavs: S. Rapoport, 'On the Early Slavs. The Narrative of Ibrahim-Ibn-Yakub',  Slavonic and East European Review, 8 (1929-1930), pp. 331-41, JSTOR required for full access.  Further (recent) studies: Ibrāhīmb.Yaʿḳūbal-Isrāʾīlī al-urūs̲h̲ī, Encylopedia of Islam, 2nd edition; N. Profantová, ‘Archeology and written sources on eighth- to tenth- century Bohemia',  Early Medieval Europe 17 (2009), pp. 286–310; P. Charvat and J. Prosecky, eds, Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub at-Turtushi: Christianity, Islam and Judaism meet in East-Central Europe, c.800-1300 A.D. Proceedings of the international colloquy 25-29 april 1994 (Prague, 1996); P. Engels, ‘Der Reisebericht des Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub (961/966)’, in A. Von Euw and P. Schreiner, eds, Kaiserin Theophanu. Begegnung des Ostens und Westens um die Wende des ersten Jahrtausends. Gedenkschrift des Kölner Schnütgen-Museums zum 1000. Todesjahr der Kaiserin (Cologne, 1991), pp. 413-422; F. Sezgin with M. Amawi, Studies on Ibrāhīm ibn Yaʿqūb (2nd half 10th century) and on his account of Eastern Europe. Publications of the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science. Islamic Geography 159 (Frankfurt-am -Main, 1994).

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