On the governor’s court in Late Mamluk Damascus

In the coming week, the German Historical Institute in Paris hosts a conference on new court history. Organized by Pascal Firges (DHIP) und Regine Maritz (Walter Benjamin Kolleg, Bern), “Towards a New Political History of the Court, c. 1200‒1800” will attempt, from comparative perspectives, to delineate “Practices of Power in Gender, Culture, and Sociability” (here is the direct link to the CfP).

The conference will be structured around eight themes, moving from “Global Historical and Transcultural Perspectives” through “Gender”, two panels on “Bodies, Sexuality, and Emotions”, also two panels on “Family, Household, State”, to—again—two sessions on “Religion, Intellectual Production, and Material Culture”.

There are unexpected contributions, for instance on music in court politics or on the politics of royal stables (and I don’t know what to make of the term “ink-shitter” given in one paper’s title). It also features one paper with relevance to the region in focus on this blog. Giulia Calvi (New Europe College, Bucharest) will speak on translation, medical practices, and scientific knowledge exchange between the Ottoman and the Medici court in the late 17th century.

This begs to ask what do we know about the court in Early Modern Bilād al-Shām. In contrast to the Mamluk court in Cairo, about much has been written (although by far not enough), the provincial governors’ courts have been largely sidelined in scholarship. Or rather their relevance has been rejected in the light of the high level of centralization in the Mamluk sultanate. Cairo was always the undeniable metropolis and political center under the Mamluks as well as Ayyubid, Fatimid, and Tulunid predecessors.

Yet, already the very first Mamluks in power without question invested in their provincial strongholds. Baybars, who is usually considered the first “true” Mamluk sultan, had the Qaṣr al-Ablaq constructed outside the walls of Damascus after the Mamluk victory over the Mongols. Ibn Tulun relates that he also died there in his Iʿlām al-warā bi-man wulliya nāʾiban min al-Atrāk bi-Dimashq al-Shām al-kubrā after which Baybars was buried in Ẓāhiriyya Madrasa which was named after his honorific, al-Mālik al-ẓāhir (Ed. Muḥammad Aḥmad Duhmān. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr 1984, 33-34).

The Iʿlam is an interesting text, a chronologically arranged list of governors of Damascus from the defeat of the Mongols—and thereby the beginning of Mamluk rule over the city— until the end of Ibn Tulun’s own lifetime. Therefore, it also includes several Ottoman governors, even more so as his student Akmal al-Din Ibn Muflih added several more from after Ibn Tulun’s death.

The first half or so (years 658 – 863) is an abridgment (ikhtisar) of an obscure notebook (taʿliq) by Shams al-Din al-Zamlakani. The second part (years 865-943) is Ibn Tulun’s dhayl to this text and presents information not anymore in concise biographical sketches but rather in a chronological format which moves from day to day. In form as well as content it shows overlaps with his chronicle, Mufākahat al-khillān.

By its sheer existence, the Iʿlam attributes to the governors of Damascus agency. It considers them worthy of their own prosopographical work, however short it might be. However, in its focus on the governors, it is not all that conducive to understanding the governor’s court as an institution nor its relevance for political decision processes of the time.

That is a more general issue in Damascene sources. Most of history in Damascus was written by people—as well as, arguably, for people—outside of the governors’ inner circles. The interest was in the consequences of a political decision, not so much in the processes that brought them about. More about effect and less about cause.

Admittedly, the case might be different for other authors of historiography, such as Abu Bakr al-Asadi a.k.a. Ibn Qadi Shuhba, whom Ibn Tulun cites on another biographical notebook which he himself was not able to consult, Muhammad b. al-khatib ʿAli al-Yaldani’s Nuwāb al-bilād al-shāmiyya fī al-miʾa al-thāmina (Iʿlam, 29). The relationships of impactful Egyptian authors to the sultan’s court in Cairo were much closer and connected. The former’s works were often meant to inform decisions made by the latter (see Meloy, John. “The Merits of Economic History: Re-Reading Al-Maqrīzī’s Ighāthah and Shudhūr.” MSR 7/2: 183-203).

We rarely see something comparable for Mamluk Damascus which is certainly related to the shorter periods individual governors ruled one city. Yet, as the Iʿlam repeatedly shows, governors could get several terms usually interrupted by stints in other places. Some scholars have argued that this was meant to keep them from creating too much of an independent power base which would allow them to challenge the sultan (or perhaps the Mamluk system in general). The late Mamluk governors Qansuh al-Yahyawi, Jan Bulat, and Sibay held two terms each (Iʿlam, 92-93, 98-102, 104, 114-120, 192-227).

So, what does this source then reveal about the governorship and the governor’s court? They mostly inform us about the interaction of the court with Damascene society at large (as well as sometimes with the sultan’s court or those of other governors). They mention interesting cases brought before the malazim court, the governor held near the citadel. They speak about armed conflict between the governor’s soldiers and (not always) unruly elements. And they relate the rituals that accompanied the appointment and dismissal of individual governors such as the following:

On Monday, 2.11.[905], the governor [Qasruh] led a military escort to al-Midan al-akhdar. With him were Sibay and his faction and others as it was common for lavish processions. Then they came to the new sanctuary (maʿqil) in al-Istabl. The judges were present, and he proclaimed to them an official announcement from the sultan, al-Malik al-Ashraf Qansuh Khamsamiʾa that he [ascended the sultanate]. The attendees were rejoicing and perfumed him with safran, and the heralds made it known throughout Damascus. (Iʿlam, 131)

Again, the governor’s court is only visible in the streets, through its interactions with the wider populace. Some information on its inner layout and components emerges, however, after the fact. This is the case in the context of both the aftermath of the first Ottoman occupation of Damascus and the the failed revolt of the last Mamluk governor Janbirdi al-Ghazzali, which ended with Sulayman’s reoccupation.

One of the first steps al-Ghazzali undertook when starting his rebellion, was to reintroduce Mamluk dress in his court (Iʿlam, 247). Albrecht Fuess has written about the importance of dress for the Mamluk self-image, especially the large turbans sultans and governors would wear and which were called ‘waterwheels’ (sg. naʿura).

Whereas dress was not exclusive, albeit important, to the courtly sphere, the destruction of the former Mamluk court by the seventh Ottoman governor, Lutfi Pasha sparks Ibn Ṭūlūn to write about one largely obscure aspect of it. Apparently it sported a zoo of sorts. Ibn Tulun writes it was this governor who, in 931, “killed off the wild beasts kept at the Dār al-Saʿāda [the governor’s seat]: panthers, peacocks, cranes, gazelles. He kept only the pigs, allegedly because they  got along with the horses” (Iʿlam, 259).

(source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anonymous_Venetian_orientalist_painting,_The_Reception_of_the_Ambassadors_in_Damascus%27,_1511,_the_Louvre.jpg)

At least the presence of gazelles as pets is corroborated by the anonymous contemporary painting, The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus, which is dated 1511.

The Ottoman governors seem to have had a more intolerant view of animals in the city. Or was it only Lutfi Pasha? When he returned as governor around 940, Ibn Tulun explains his response to an plague outbreak in Damascus as a rumi, i.e. Ottoman, customary practice. Lutfi ordered everyone to go kill dogs and exhibit them in front of their houses or shops. Whoever failed to do so was fined 80 ʿuthmani silver coins. Thus, a demand for dead dogs was created and people actually sold them. The Ottoman chief judge only called an end to it after three days, when about 1,000 dogs were slain. According to Ibn Tulun, “killing dogs is a custom in Rūm when the plague appears, and afterwards it abates or even disappears completely.” (Iʿlam, 260-61)

And with that, we see once more that Damascene chroniclers were much more concerned with the effects of courtly politics than with their internal makings.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "On the governor’s court in Late Mamluk Damascus", in Damascus Anecdotes, November 11, 2018, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/889.

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