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Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg
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Sie sind hier: Startseite Kolleg Program


Topic area and research program of the second Phase of the Kolleg

During the research Kolleg’s first stage we concentrated, with regard to time, on the era from 1250 to 1517 and, with regard to content, on the four topic areas ‘The Mamluk Empire in its “global” context’, ‘Economic areas of interaction’, ‘“Rule” in the Mamluk Empire – a cross-cultural comparison’ and ‘Culture-specific narrative strategies in Mamluk-era historiographical sources.’ For the second stage, we now want to widen our perspective in two ways: Firstly, we will abandon the dynastically defined time frame in favour of a more flexible ‘Middle Islamic Period’ (12th–17th centuries). While we certainly retain our focus on the history and society of the Mamluk Empire (in Egypt, Syria and the Hijaz), this extension allows for process-oriented analyses that include both the Ayyubid and the early Ottoman eras. This has become necessary because, secondly, we are going to look into developments for which the establishment and fall of Mamluk rule, respectively, cannot be taken as absolute starting and ending points. In order to understand the dynamics and processes underlying e.g. questions of material culture, environmental history, im/mobility and frontier areas (but also intellectual history or poetry), it is necessary as a rule to go beyond the actual times of the Mamluk Sultanate.

5th year: Environment (in cooperation with BEMMANN)
Topic: Environmental history, which can be defined in as many ways as there are disciplines in the humanities, examines the relationships between human beings and their natural surroundings over the course of time. On the one hand, it gives insights on the impact of climate change and other environmental changes on societies; on the other hand it can contribute to our understanding of the innumerable ways natural resources are used, perceived, controlled and preserved. Since modern environmental historians reject the outdated models of environmental determinism they perceive the environment as either a powerful actor of socio-cultural change or an arena of social conflict. Environmental history can be an effective instrument for contextualising political change, explaining, for example, the complex web of factors behind the so-called ‘decline’ of dynasties in pre-modern societies. In short: environmental history takes up a unique position for the writing of integrated histories. However, environmental history is not a new research area. What began in the 1970s as the engagement of American scientists with climate change today has become an innovative field of research into – using the European terminology – modern, pre-modern, medieval, and ancient societies all over the world. In Ancient Oriental Studies and Ancient History it is a well-established discipline, and it has also begun to play an important role in the historiography of medieval Europe. Near Eastern Studies, on the other hand, have proved themselves surprisingly resistant against these research trends. Thankfully, over the last few years some Ottomanists have published various studies that use environmental history as a tool for examining questions on revolts among the rural population and tribal rebellions and describing scenarios of political decline as well as the way the Ottoman Empire worked on a regional level or the agency of local communities.
It is surprising that the research in the area of Mamluk Studies – with a few exceptions – has not taken up the ‘environmental turn’. In contrast, contemporary historians of the Mamluk era were certainly aware of the impact that various environmental changes had on the respective societies. Reflections on droughts, for example, were a constant and dominant topic with Arabic historians of the Middle Ages. The works of chroniclers attest to a real understanding of and worry about various climatic and ecological conditions (such as rainfall, temperature, appropriate and inappropriate use of land) that were regularly cited as direct causes of famines, revolts and political decline. The annals of Damascene historians in particular are full of detailed information on rainfall, the condition of roads, food prices and unrest among the rural population and the Bedouins – in their opinion, all these events were connected to each other. Many of these historians earned their living by administering rural foundations, while others maintained close connections to families in the villages (the historian Ibn Ḥijji al-Ḥusbāni is a particularly colourful case); as a consequence, they were sensitive to the relationship between people and their physical surroundings and understood the role played by the danger of natural disasters in the creation of economic suffering. The notion that there existed a connection between political, social and natural orders met with reasonable approval from contemporaries. Al-Maqrizi’s Ighāthat al-umma, an Egyptian treatise on famines, is a veritable lament about the misuse of natural resources by the state and mismanagement during times of drought. The Mamluk state also had a selfish interest in the environment, natural resources, and especially in the usability of agricultural lands and the maintenance of water systems. In some areas of the regime, the state pursued clear strategies in agricultural economy, and disagreements over natural resources would at times spark conflicts with the local population. Contemporaries were, as we would say today, eco-conscious.
Environmental research as it is currently done in Ottoman Studies is – and has to be – highly interdisciplinary. Examining the interrelationships of human beings, political and economic systems and their physical environment requires reference to a dazzling amount of textual sources, sources from the natural sciences and, yes, even from archaeology: a workload no researcher can cope with on their own. The key to an environmental history is cooperation and the readiness to ask questions that transcend the boundaries of a single discipline. This could well be one of the reasons why this kind of research has begun so late in Ottoman Studies, and the same certainly applies for the Mamluk Studies, which have long suffered from disciplinary isolation and a high degree of specialisation. This is not to say that Mamlukologists were no interested in environmental matters. The few publications that have appeared to date follow along lines that are in many regards parallel to those of current ‘Ottoman environmental history’. Among the topics are the adaptation of local communities to changing environmental conditions (with a growing corpus of archaeological literature centering around this theme), the impact of state politics on the environment, the social consequences of environmental disasters, changes in climate, the legal framework of urban water systems, economic studies on imperial water systems and environmental perspectives on rural history. However, the analysis of the complex, dialectic relationships between climate, land use and socio-political systems – which remains at the core of environmental history – has so far not captured the attention of many Mamluk experts.
The focus topic environment suggested for the first research year of the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg invites us to address this gap in Mamluk research, making the Kolleg a platform for vital collaborative research on Mamluk environmental history. The aim is to bring together experts from various disciplines who may otherwise never have had the opportunity to work and write together. Seen from another angle, environmental history opens new perspectives for Mamluk Studies by offering an effective way of examining rural societies with its highly interdisciplinary approach. Topics to be taken into account are e.g. the administration of natural resources, political ecology, socialized landscapes, agricultural history, and the resilience of the rural population. The concept of ‘resilience’ is very helpful, especially when it comes to understanding why certain societies survive political upheavals and which factors make other societies fail in various crises. Resilience thus describes the ability of a system to remain stable even under pressure and to recover after unrest. For environmental historians the concept refers to local societies’ competence to survive crises brought about by environmental disasters – especially droughts. On a more abstract level, the ‘resilience theory’ involves the analysis of the complex relationships between natural and man-made systems, that is to say between landscape and climate and human societies (in all their complex political, economic and cognitive contexts).
We are interested in the physical environment in all its forms: climate, landscape, agriculture and pasture, water systems and natural resources. This kind of environmental research does not want to make an – outdated – attempt to view climate as a decisive factor for every instance of human behavior, but rather considers it as a triggering impulse and as one among many factors that further pressure societies already in political and economic crises. Political ecology or the analysis of the fight for natural resources can also shed light on social conflicts at the time, particularly with regard to the local level. While the Mamluk era remains our main focus, large parts of this year’s research – like the other topics from phase II – will be considered comparatively and conducted together with Ottomanists and historians of ‘medieval Islam’. The archaeological ‘Middle Islamic Period’ comprises roughly the 12th–16th centuries and describes best the time that is of interest here. Ecological processes always work in the long term and are not limited by political or dynastic transitions.
Environmental history requires long-term, intensive and multidisciplinary cooperation both in the research and in the writing stages. For this reason, the structure of the Kolleg in that year will be adapted in a way that encourages a research climate which best accommodates this kind of work: research teams with experts from various disciplines and specialised workshops, a large-scale international conference and a multi-year field study based in several disciplines. Due to Bethany Walker’s very positive experiences with intensive cooperation over several months between writing groups of Norwegian and Palestinian researchers as well as similar co-operational work with French and American research teams, we will try to adopt this research model for the Kolleg. This will also serve to point out possible innovative ways of carrying on our research after the Kolleg ends. Without this kind of joint research work transdisciplinarity is not possible.
By dedicating the Kolleg’s first year of phase II to the topic of environmental history we hope to be able to make a contribution to the prevalent models and frameworks in Mamluk Studies that will help us find new ways to answer questions on rural societies, the complex processes of long-term socio-cultural change and state-regional relationships. Moreover, establishing and fostering research cooperation with natural scientists, archaeologists and scholars of historical geography may serve as a mechanism to improve the status of Mamluk Studies within global historiography and deepen its theoretical foundations.

6th year: From ‘Art History’ to ‘Material Culture’ (in cooperation with NOACK – WOLTER-VON DEM KNESEBECK)
Topic: (A) Starting situation. The material culture of the Mamluk era has been mostly treated within the subject of ‘Islamic Art History’. Since the pioneering studies of Oleg Grabar, however, we have known that directly attributing religion to art and vice versa raises a lot of questions. Art (like religion) forms a cultural subsystem within societies and sociologically has to be viewed in connection or reference to the areas of politics, economics, law, social order, institutions and other cultural patterns (such as knowledge, aesthetics, environment etc.). In traditional Mamluk Art History (MAH), three problematic areas are evident. (I) As is the case with other “non-European art histories”, MAH often sees its task as the recording, description and classification of objects. While this is of course an important and indispensable first step, it should not be taken as an excuse for not asking further questions about these objects, especially with regard to the socio-cultural context from which they originate and to which they must be set in reference. (II) Interpretations mostly remain within a ‘history of Islamic-Mamluk art’ which makes as much or as little sense as just about any intellectual history, resembling a common thread artificially singled out from its context. A more useful approach, it seems, is to carry out more analyses of individual objects in order to better understand their complex embedment in their social circumstances. Conducting several such qualitative single-work analyses enables us to draw connections between the social subsystems and the objects. (III) Another problem is that the patterns of derivation and categorization used today in MAH are largely based on research on non-European peoples and cultures from the 19th century and that these classification schemata have not been sufficiently called into question in current MAH research. The interpretation of MAH from the self-reflecting western perspective has its limits, as we know at least since Dipesh Chakrabarti’s ‘Provincializing Europe’ (Princeton 2000). The basic problem here is that the terms of one culture don’t fit in the other and that each culture would best be defined by using its own terms.
(1) Objects of art vs. cultural objects. A large part of the material evidence of the Mamluk era is considered mainly as objects of art in research and presented accordingly in museums. This view of the objects is connected to an art concept that has evolved historically in Western research and is transferred directly on a non-European cultural objects. As has been shown by a number of studies focusing on ‘Western’ history of art, an important question for Mamluk art history, too, is in how far artefacts of the early modern era can be classified as objects of art in the first place rather than products of craftsmanship. Particularly in regard to non-European pre-modernity it is problematic that the majority of art historical studies concentrate on objects exclusively produced by elite culture and thus viewed through the lens of ‘objects of art’ rather than ‘cultural objects’. Moreover, the focus on elite culture leads to a disregard of research on objects from everyday culture as sources of data on social processes and phenomena. A particularly problematic area is the transfer of Western perspectives and the methodical approaches to the objects derived from them. Indigenous attributions and terminology found in sources contemporary with the objects are rarely taken into account on a scale that allows challenging one’s own present-day perspective on the historical objects. Thus, a number of questions arise: What is ‘art’ in the Mamluk era in the first place? Which concept or concepts of art can be verified within the scientific system of classification? Here we have to take into account that an indigenous art concept is usually itself ‘alive’, not static, but heterogeneous and complex. In any case it has to be established which needs gave rise to this art concept. What are the meanings of indigenous attributions, and how can we deal with ‘cultural’ crossroads? In how far do the current stock of objects and the state of research on it permit approaches from a cultural-studies perspective? Do the objects thus serve as sources for social processes and manifestations? Does it even make sense to speak about art history, i.e. the history of ‘art’ and not solely of cultural objects, in regard to Mamluk society? In how far would it be necessary to have a common scientific language in the area of non-European and European art historical research to allow trans- and interdisciplinary as well as interconnected research? An area of particular importance in this context, which has rarely been discussed, is culture-specific aesthetics. Is it possible to identify the aesthetic norms and habits of Mamluk-era society? What we must not do is to judge pre-modern objects from a present-day aesthetic perspective. Then what should we call ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’, ‘bad’ or ‘good’? How did we arrive at the canon of ‘famous’ artefacts? Doesn’t this mostly represent the taste of Western researchers? In this context there is a need for studies on the ‘gaze’. How were the objects looked at, cultivated, described and represented in the textual medium? It would also be useful to extend the concept of aesthetics to include function and relevance as well as situativity instead of being confined to indigenously aesthetic approaches.
(2) Terminology. Two basic difficulties in analysing pre-modern cultural objects are (a) the use of modern categories and concepts and (b) the unreflecting adoption of indigenous terms. A conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte) looking for the semantics of terms hasn’t even begun to be attempted for the Mamluk era. The primary textual sources being made accessible by philologists could pave the way here. Concepts of art and definitions of colours, patterns, fabrics, surface structures etc. yield important information and often imply more than what we see. Dealing with linguistic evidence has been one of the basic preconditions of analytical source-based research since the development of the historical-critical method. Research approaches that can be grouped under the term ‘Historical Semantics’ and among which conceptual history plays an important role take this self-evident fact as a starting point to analyse the source language itself with regard to its historicity and to establish its role within and for historical change. Historical semantics asks for the historicity of the semantic content and change of cultural, and especially linguistic, utterances. As a historiographical approach, this research perspective explores and interprets the cultural, societal and political conditions and requirements of the attribution and articulation of meaning at a given time. The specific access of conceptual history does this by choosing isolated, condensing terms believed to have a key position in order to gather and contextualize linguistic conceptualisations. This will have to be the starting point for our analysis of Mamluk-era material culture.
(3) Research history. To tackle Mamluk-era material culture, we first have to deal with some of the fundamentals of the various histories of science (art history and archaeology): Who were their founders, what did their disciplinal environment look like, what was their cultural and intellectual milieu? Islamic art historiography mostly works along dynastical lines. The usefulness of this can be rightly put into question, since firstly these lines of presentation follow a European conception of history that cannot be directly transferred to a non-European context, and secondly they involve problematic essentialisations (‘Seljuk art’, ‘Abbasid art’ etc.). As a consequence, the potential to discover continuities and discontinuities is limited. Moreover, this politically oriented historiography obstructs the view on other (economic, cultural, religious, social) perspectives that would entail an entirely different periodisation. MAH, too, usually concerns itself with the material evidence of the respective governing elites. This is true for architecture as well as ‘portable art’ and painting. The selection of the latter two groups as a research object shows a particularly strong influence by the collection history and the presentation of these objects in the most important museum collections. New research perspectives could be gained from looking into the materiality of religious experiences. Religiosity, like all other social phenomena, leaves traces in the material world and is usually not limited by dynastic boundaries. Moreover, it is often the analysis of everyday objects that can tell us about daily life and give answers regarding religion, faith, customs and tradition, celebrations and habits of the society in question. Some important questions would be: Does ‘mass production’ contradict our concept of ‘art’ objects and make them cultural objects? Does this perhaps even make the whole question of objects of art vs. cultural objects pointless? Doesn’t the mere fact of the physical survival of the object and its presentation in a museum or in publications make the mass-produced salad bowl an objects of art? Apart from this, we have to ask for the perceptions of luxury, art, daily life and everyday objects immanent in the respective culture and how to explain them. Also, it would be helpful to gain more knowledge about the artisans, who have largely been neglected in previous studies. We know little about their workplaces, organisation, work and production processes, tools, chains of distribution and prices, which could give us valuable information on the artisans’ social status and the value of their works within the culture. Another important question is which spaces are more likely to be associated with a private sphere and which with a public one?

(B) Possible methodical approaches. The so-called ‘Mamluk’ art history often lacks a clear methodical approach. The traditional stylistic-descriptive method is fairly outdated and shows little innovativeness and adaptability. How much do we know about the context? How do we proceed? Stylistics and typology are an important basis for any research dealing with art, but they should be complemented by single-work analyses before we can start the contextualisation. The objects have to be seen as congealed social dynamic and used to define key discourses (poetics of culture). At the end of the day, the questions are: What function did an object have in society? Is art part of a culture? Does art fulfil a function in the cultural area? What about ‘travelling concepts’? Based on excellent recent studies on European material culture we have developed the following catalogue of questions as a working programme for the analysis of Mamluk-era artefacts: 1. The life cycle of an object. 1.1. The object and its production. Regarding the production of an object, the following points have to be taken into consideration: (a) Demand. How does demand and need for a specific object arise? Daily necessity (e.g. bread)? Fashion? Status symbol (e.g. silk gowns)? (b) Funding. Where does the money for the production of a specific object come from? Subsistence? Foundation? Individual work? Credits (hawala, salam contracts, ujr)? (c) Production as the consequence and result of demand and funding. Some issues here are: technical level, seasonal workers, migrants, manpower, specialized knowledge, etc. Who is involved in the process for which reasons? Keywords: family, employer, forced labour, contractual labour, bankers, institutions, etc. 1.2. The object and its intended use. Practical use, entertainment, science, vanity, decor, source of income, war, equipment, paraphernalia, magic, etc. Again: who is involved and why? Product chains, owners, renters, family should be looked into in this context. 1.3. The object and its further use (afterlife): recycling, re-use, sale, export, souvenir, decoration, etc. Once more: Who is involved why? Collectors? Complacency? Jewellery? Owner? State? Victorious army? 2. After having identified the object and its life cycle we have to ask further questions that may influence our choice of methods. 2.1. Questions of law. Keywords: Property, sales contracts, taxes, loans, credits, religious rules (wine, pork, interest), etc. 2.2 Questions of social order: family, slave labour, social environment (town, countryside, village), religious or trade networks, state, religious foundations, etc. 2.3. Historical questions: events, political borders, rulers with or without an agenda, wars, culture. 2.4. Art historical questions: style, fashions, ornaments, guilds, artisan schools, handicraft, taste, etc. 2.4. Questions on the environment of climatic conditions. Irrigation system, construction materials, grain, fruit, cutlery, nomadism/sedentariness, architecture, garments. 3. Analysis of the sources. 3.1. The artefact. A detailed analysis will give us a lot of information on its production, use and afterlife. 3.2. Archaeology. Explains the physical context, the artefacts’ use within a society, their geographic distribution, their chronological placement, etc. 3.3. Texts. Usually post eventum and of an explanatory, justificatory or normative character. Law treatises, chronicles, pamphlets, biographical dictionaries, manuals, chancellery works, etc. 3.4. Archival material. Letters, documents, foundation deeds containing information on all areas of the production, use and re-use of objects. 3.5. Climate dates. Information from the analysis of wood, bones, seeds etc., cotton production, distribution of grain and fruit, construction materials, textiles.

7th year: Im/mobility. Focus: migration (in cooperation with BEMMANN)
Topic: (A) Theoretical background. Mamluk Egypt and Syria are considered here not as a geographically clear-cut area but rather as a multiply interconnected space. This space is formed and re-formed by human acts and interaction crossing and transcending spatial, social and cultural boundaries. Mobility of every kind is characteristic for this space of (inter)action: the physical movements of individuals and groups, i.e. social mobility along horizontal and vertical lines; mobility between social positions and within hierarchies; but also intellectual mobility expressed in the ‘movement’ and transfer of ideas and images. A crucial topic for our third thematic pathway is migration during the Mamluk era, which can be derived directly from the overall context of mobility. Migration is usually understood as a particular kind of spatial mobility of people. To comprehend Mamluk-era migration patterns we must sufficiently take into account both external impulses such as compulsion or catastrophes and endogenous dynamics like motivation or desire. The individual act of migration, however, should not just be understood as a result of personal decisions. The decision for migration is taken within a social context; it includes a household, community or other group of people. A large part of the literature on migration addresses questions of mobility in detail while neglecting immobility. However, the two are sides of the same coin and directly linked with each other. Mobility and immobility are interrelated and mutually dependent. Not only do “all mobilities entail specific often highly embedded and immobile infrastructures”, but a rise in the mobility of some people often heightens the immobility of others. In short, the ‘non-movers’ are “critical to understanding mobility and the cultural, social and economic impact of migration”. Studies on mobility analyse and describe processes, strategies, motivations and circumstances of becoming, being or having been mobile. In fact, however, most people do not change residence even if they have the means and opportunities to do so. Remaining at a certain location and on a fixed position is often not just a standard opinion but the result of an active decision against becoming mobile – sometimes even in spite of attractive alternatives. Migrants, like all people, are part of social networks. Their relationships with other people are fixed in these networks. We consider social order(s) / societies as open, unlimited networks characterized by shifting power imbalances. Social networks also play a vital role during the Mamluk era, particularly in regard to migration and mobility. On the one hand, mobility leads to the formation and extension of networks, while on the other, networks enable and facilitate mobility. Migration networks can be understood as “sets of interpersonal ties that connect migrants, former migrants and non-migrants in origin and destination areas through ties of kinship, friendship, and shared community origin”. If we just imagine for a moment that migration networks started out from zero points, then these are probably laid by the arrival of ‘migration pioneers’ at new places of destination, establishing a first basis for the relationship between the place of origin and the new location. These pioneers often follow existing paths indicated e.g. by grazing animals, trade links, power relations or political relationships and draw on symbolical connections like those mentioned above, e.g. a common language, religion or ethnicity. Our research on questions of migration in the Mamluk era begins with the assumption that networks and mobility/migration enter into a dialectic relationship. The focus here rests on the multiplication of interdependent connections and network relationships as well as personal contacts and exchange relations on various interconnected levels of society, which trigger and dynamise acts of migration.
(B) Application and research questions. The historiography on medieval Europe has been paying increased attention to the areas of ‘mobility’ and ‘migration’ for some time now. In Germany it is especially Michael Borgolte who consistently advances this line of research. However, this is not quite the case in Mamluk Studies. Since Carl Petry’ was able to trace migration movements to Cairo on the basis of the great number of extant biographical dictionaries in his book ‘The Civilian Elite of Cairo in the Middle Ages’ back in 1981, the topic has rarely been taken up. While some authors do of course touch upon these questions, most recently in the volume ‘Everything is on the Move’, there is a near total lack of systematic treatments. One exception is Bethany Walker’s contribution to that volume, which therefore makes an excellent starting point for further research questions in the Kolleg’s seventh year. Focusing on the situation in rural Jordan, Bethany Walker manages to trace basic patterns of rural mobility by evaluating archaeological evidence and consistently correlating it with all available textual sources (biographical dictionaries, chronicles, foundation deeds, law documents, but also inscriptions, which in this region were usually left by comparatively uneducated travelers at their nightly resting places, as well as tombstones of travelers who died en route). The Mamluk-era peasant society was continually on the move: seasonal migrations for harvest and seed, travels to the local markets, pilgrimages or scholars travelling to visit colleagues in the larger towns. Apart from this there was a continuous exchange with the nomadic tribes of the area. Thus farmers did not live in isolation from their neighbors but in a highly interconnected and extremely mobile world. Still, as a rule, they only abandoned their houses and homes in response to political pressure, which apart from war could also be an administrator oppressing the population of his district, unbearable taxes, or the lack of security or jurisdiction. From the central perspective (Damascus or Cairo), such migrations were a financial and political disaster and were documented and commented by contemporary chroniclers accordingly. Bethany Walker detects three kinds of rural mobility: (1) Normative mobility based on the use of personal networks. Individuals or small groups left their villages for a shorter or longer period while remaining in close contact with their homes. Such movements often resulted from increased competition for food and water because of poor harvests or periods of drought. While the Mamluk central administration was at times well able to build up grain stocks and water reservoirs in the larger cities, it did basically nothing to anticipate times of need in the countryside. During such periods Syrian roads, paths and caravan trails were bustling with traffic of people in search of resources. As the examples of the Ḥisbānīs and ʿAǧlūnīs clearly show, this was a regularly recurring, socially accepted, traditional form of mobility, which served to strengthen the threatened communities. (2) Migration initiated by the state for financial or strategic reasons. Mamluk administrators could and would on occasion interfere quite insensitively in the local networks, causing some of the local groups to migrate in response to their measures. One example is the population transfer in the context of the relocation of the provincial capital from Ḥisbān to ʿAmmān by Amir Sarghatmish in 1357. In another instance, Tankiz ordered the repopulation of ʿAǧlūn after the great flood of 1328 in an effort to balance the losses resulting from the destruction of marketplaces and residential areas. (3) Autonomous migration. The large-scale abandonment of villages in Jordan during the 15th century was the result of a complex process involving a range of factors: changing environmental conditions (continuous droughts), insecurity because of a political and military retreat of the centre from the region, and economic developments (i.e. the ‘waqfization’ of rural areas as a consequence of the sale of state property by the Bayt al-Mal). The scale of migration movement was different from region to region, but there seems to have been firstly a tendency to abandon larger villages in favour of smaller and more dispersed settlements and secondly to move from the highland plateaus to the river valleys, where it was also usually easier to build a dependable irrigation system. Thus, a village can be understood as a node of local, social, economic and political networks flourishing through the regular movement of people. Rural mobility functioned as an instrument for the exchange of goods and knowledge and as a focus point for exercising local power. There were socially accepted forms of mobility, which could be beneficial or threatening to the life of a community, depending on the circumstances. Migration movements, on the other hand, were either imposed from the outside or decided autonomously in the face of massive problems.
Bethany Walker’s reflections show that it is very well possible to deal with the large subject area ‘mobility’ and ‘migration’ even on a regional level. Taking into account the theoretical considerations outlined above, this research shall also be applied to other regions (Qūṣ, al-Quds, al-Ḥiǧāz, Miṣr, Fayyum, etc.). Apart from this, a range of further groups (travellers, pilgrims, scholars, merchants, Mamluk amirs, sultans, slaves etc.) or the peoples entering the Mamluk empire in the course of wars (Iranians, Kurds, Mongolians etc.) offer themselves for analysis. Equally important would be an examination of the mobility of the many and structurally diverse nomadic groups resisting proper incorporation under the central administration over the entire middle Islamic period. Although Igal Shwartz managed to trace some nomadic migration movements for Egypt, we still have far too little knowledge about the complex tribal systems. Finally, there is a total lack of any serious study on the reasons, effects and conditions of ‘immobility’.

8th year: Frontiers – Boundaries – Borders (in cooperation with ANTWEILER)
Topic: (A) Theoretical background. Recent studies on border regions in the United States and historians working on southern Africa have developed the concept of the ‘frontier’, which is defined as a “zone of mutual permeation between two previously different societies” or alternatively as a “socio-political order differing from the empire’s institutions as a whole”. Socio-cultural borders are products of conflictual processes of exchange and adoption marked by figurative linkages transcending classical territorial etc. borders. In the context of power interests in geo-, national or local politics it is particularly the course of political borders which is subject to continuous negotiation processes, in the sense of communicative actions, between local, regional and transregional actors. The principle of drawing political borders, which states that only the central ruling organization can represent a functionally adequate system of order, has to be called into question in the face of massive localization processes. Thus, borders are not only or primarily physical demarcations but first of all social constructions. Political and socio-cultural borders describe transitional zones in which varying constellations of acting and thinking are possible. However, it would be short-sighted to view the emergence and re-definition of borders solely as the result of distancing oneself from a diffuse ‘other’ in order to constitute social units. Borders may also be drawn out of the need for belonging, security, or maintaining a certain material wealth. They do not only fulfil a separating function. By delineating a territory, they are also often said to represent a symbol for the relationship between an inside and an outside: Contained within their frame are strategically important spheres/zones that allow states, ethnic or social groups, networks etc. to negotiate their influence over a clearly defined territorial space and perform acts of belonging and difference. But borders do not just mark ‘spaces of sovereignty’ but also act as membranes filtering goods, persons, ideas, beliefs and knowledge. As the example of ‘borderland’ research shows, borders also form seams connecting things that were previously separated. Their meaning changes in the course of social, political and cultural developments, which in turn can not only have direct effects on forms of social interaction (and vice versa) but also underlines quite clearly that “boundary-making and weakening practices” are processual social phenomena. It is the complex interdependencies of both political and socio-cultural boundary-making and –weakening as well as their connection to contexts and possibility conditions of spatial and social mobility which will be in the focus of our research during the Kolleg’s 8th year.
(B) Application and research questions. As before, a good starting point for all further perspectives of this thematic pathway would be Bethany Walker’s research on Jordan (Walker 2012) since there is hardly any work on other provinces. Garcin focusses on Qūṣ, while the exciting studies by Heidmann and Eger concentrate on a different time period.
In our annual programme we want to examine Mamluk-era ‘imperial’ border regions in general but also shed light on the particular ambiguity of Jordan (and other frontiers) as seen from the perspective of the Mamluk ruling elite. What did ‘empire/state’ mean during the Mamluk era? What was a ‘frontier’ and how did the Mamluks deal with it administratively, politically, economically and socially? In the attempt to reconstruct ‘imperial’ perceptions in these areas Bethany Walker has analysed the ruling strategies of the Mamluks in Jordan and their long-term impact on this frontier in a pioneering paper. The Jordanian frontier can be seen as a contact zone between the state and tribal societies. This region represents the limits of state control: While it was formally within the empire’s area of competence, it was not fully included in the state’s governmental apparatus; it was not completely subjugated; it was allowed to maintain a substantial degree of autonomy; and it was not identified as an imperial entity. In this way, a frontier region is part of a state without being subsumed under it. However, a border is not of ‘marginal’ importance for the state interest; quite on the contrary, for a geographical frontier – and especially the one we are dealing with – always represents a particular, strategic matter. These ‘frontier lands’, which are defined as the accepted spatial boundaries of ‘imperial’ authority, were crisscrossed with defensive posts (garrisons, watchtowers) and communication networks (roads, post offices). Although their existence underlines the state’s attempt to protect its authority, they also bear witness to its inability to secure and incorporate such areas: Military force can never be as successful in securing a border as the implementation of an effective administration. Apart from geographical frontiers, there are of course other kinds of border regions, such as economic, social and political ones. They all stand for the limitation of state supremacy and thus at the same time for the strength of local identities and institutions. Frontiers may not only be places but can also designate local peoples, national economies or political entities that are not entirely under state control. For a variety of reasons, they are somewhat ‘remote’ from the centre geographically as well as culturally and politically. Still, the frontier has something to offer the state, even beyond its defensive and other strategic needs. In order to gain access to natural resources, markets and labor, the state will in an economically or politically urgent situation attempt to ‘open up’ the frontier by force or usurpation. The state actually needs the frontiers more than vice versa. In order to understand the relationship between the ‘imperial’ state and its frontiers, it is crucial to examine the perceptions of the ‘other’. Seen from the advantageous position of the state, the rural frontier poses a threat because it is not entirely under its control; there is a constant apprehension of rebellions or collaboration with the enemy. The border areas usually coincide with the empire’s borders, giving the state its physical frame, representing its greatest diversity on every level and thus offering a large potential. At the same time, the local communities of a border region build up their own images of the imperial power, which is conceptually as remote from them as they are from the empire’s capital. For example, Mamluk historians regularly mention local groups’ discontent with officials ‘giving a face’ to the state in rural areas: they are often incompetent or corrupt, offer little or no public services but are quick to collect exorbitant taxes, claim large parts of the provinces’ local resources and demand submission of the local tribes and their elites. At the same time, these chroniclers describe the Egyptian state as a necessary evil that can at least arbitrate in tribal disputes, while complaining about its alienness and its usually unwelcome and exploitative presence causing long-term damage through ignorance of local resources and peoples. Still, the centers of ‘imperial’ power (whether it is Cairo or Damascus) seem to be perceived as far-away, mysterious entities. In the best case, such a description means the state doesn’t meddle in local affairs, while in the worst case it means financial and administrative neglect. Both perspectives demonstrate an incomplete picture of the ‘other’ and real cultural differences. However, the dominance – as seen from the viewpoint of a frontier – of a foreign power will not remain forever.
In Jordan, ‘imperial’ structures, such as those of the Mamluks, were temporarily imposed regulations. Empires came and went, but it was the local aspect, the frontier, that survived. Seen from this perspective, Mamluk Jordan functioned as an ‘imperial’ frontier in every respect, just as it had at the time of the crusaders, and often for the same reasons. Thus, Jordanian groups acted with a considerable degree of autonomy, the region was only confined by garrisons and incorporated by roads and way-stations, its administration by the state not stable but changeable; its relations with the imperial power were under constant negotiation with local tribal structures requiring concessions from both sides; and the region had clear economic, political and strategic potential, which was regularly exploited by the state. One particularly important aspect certainly was the fact that Jordan was used as a place for experiments on every level: various administrative, financial and political reforms were first introduced here before being implemented in other parts of the empire. A frontier was thus a place for experimenting, where changes of both the imperial apparatus and the local society were possible. This may be the most important legacy of medieval Transjordan: Through its manifold relationships with its geographical, cultural and economic frontier the Mamluk sultanate developed its own concept of an ‘empire’. Mamluk sources do not call these border regions ‘Jordan’: there was no place of this name at the time. Interestingly, the region is also never mentioned by its various administrative designations, except in some highly specialized administrative documents. Instead, Mamluk officials and chroniclers refer to particular place names – towns such as Karak, Ajlun, Hisban (which hosted garrisons), or geographically autonomous regions like the Ghôr/Jordan valley (where the sultans owned agricultural farms). Still more often the sources refer to tribal regions like ‘Banu Mahdi’ or ‘Banu Sakhr’ (this meant ‘tribal area’ but included villages where the state did not have actual authority). The latter were not necessarily desert or steppe areas but simply designated places where the state was not firmly rooted. Thus Jordan at the time was an area made up of regions in which the state could exercise varying degrees of control: it represented multiple ‘border lands’. The Mamluks acknowledged Jordan’s particular cultural and geographical regionalism and acted accordingly. Relations to the more or less autonomous southern Jordan, dominated by the powerful town of Kerak with its castle, for example, stood in stark contrast to the relationship with the militarily vulnerable plains around Madaba (the ‘breadbasket’ of central Jordan) or with the agricultural estates in the Jordan valley; the relations with the northern uplands, which even under the Mamluks mostly succeeded in maintaining a certain economic autonomy, were managed from Damascus and had an even more individual character. By treating each of these frontiers according to their own conditions as a matter of necessity, the state tried to open them up politically, socially and economically. In the course of this process, each society – both the ‘imperial’ and the local ones – was to a certain degree compelled to make compromises in negotiating power relationships and methods of government. Defining the region in regard to ‘imperial’ interests is difficult as its roles were always ambiguous and changeable. The administrative structure of Transjordan was not clear-cut and was often adapted to the current geopolitical requirements in Cairo or Damascus. Moreover, ‘imperial’ investments in the region lacked long-term vision and often led to highly special, localized patterns of agricultural development. New administrative centres were erected quickly and perished just as fast when the ‘imperial’ interest in a region flagged. Another reason why it is hard to define the role Transjordan played for the Mamluk Empire is that there was a very real cultural and political-administrative separation between Kerak (the capital of its own province) and the rest of Jordan (which, taken together, formed the southernmost part of the province of Damascus).
Based on these considerations on Jordan by Bethany Walker, several questions arise for the thematic pathway in our seventh year: Which other frontiers can we identify besides Transjordan? What structural similarities and what differences are there? How can we describe the relationship between centre and periphery? What are the consequences of changes in political power (Ayyubids – crusaders – Mamluks – Ottomans), both in the regions and with regard to the spatial structure of an empire? What happens if a centre (Damascus, Cairo) becomes a frontier? What is the definition of ‘border’ anyway? Are there hard and soft borders? What can we say about local identities? How do they change over the course of time and in the face of ‘imperial’ power politics on site? What are the centrifugal and what the centripetal forces within a frontier?