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The sources for the study of medieval Libya: the corpus diversity and the problematics linked to its exploitation

The sources for the study of medieval Libya:

the corpus diversity and the problematics linked to its exploitation

Hafed Abdouli (Sfax University)

Session II — 15 December 2021

https://independent.academia.edu/HafedAbdouli

Our colleague Hafed Abdouli (Sfax University, Tunisia) gave a talk in Arabic — المدونة المصدرية لتاريخ ليبيا خلال العصر الوسيط: تنوع المخزون وإشكاليات/محاذير الاستعمال — in two parts. Firstly, he reviewed in details the richness and variety of the corpus available to work on medieval Libya. Secondly, he deeply and critically revised the Islamic conquest of Tripolitania as a case-study. This innovative approach opens the way to a fruitful rereading of the accepted traditional narrative.

I. The diversity of the corpus for Tripolitania 

The written sources, i.e. the discourses, could be gathered under three questions: When? Who? Where? Respectively for historiographies, biographies and geographies.

Historiographies are mainly centered on events basically organized chronologically. They comprise subgenres like the conquests (futūḥ), histories (aḫbār and tawārīḫ), chronicles (ḥawliyyāt). For the present purpose, we could distinguish between different areas. They are listed in the LibMed Zotero database (https://www.zotero.org/groups/2901756/libmed). Primo, Eastern texts, among them Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam’s Futuḥ Miṣr will be extensively discussed. Secundo, Western texts (Ifrīqiya and the Maghreb), where we will refer to al-Raqīq’s lost TaʾrīḫTertio, Shia writings, e.g. al-Qāḍī l-Nuʿmān. Quarto, the genealogies (ansāb).

Biographical dictionaries (tabaqāt and tarāǧim) are chiefly centered on actors. We could divide them between Western ṭabaqāt — ʿulamāʾ Ifrīqiya and ibāḍiyya, e.g. Abū l-ʿArab, al-Mālikī and al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ or al-Darǧīnī and al-Šammāḫī — and Eastern tarāǧim.

Geographical works are finally centered on places. They encompass different shapes, be they itineraries (masālik wa-mamālik) — see the editions by de Goeje and their subsequent revisions, adding that al-Bakrī and al-Idrīsī play a part in our reflections —, encyclopaedias (maʿāǧim ǧuġrāfiyya) — Yāqūt being a major one — and the numerous travelogues (raḥalāt): al-ʿAbdarī, al-Tiǧānī/al-Tuǧǧānī (see A. El Bahi’s convincing recent article on this orthography), al-ʿAyyāšī, etc.

The archeological sources, i.e. the field or material evidences, allow a decisive “cross-checking” with the texts. As will be noticed, LibMed has strongly invested in the discipline with conferences planned this year and next year.

The extant reports and studies started under the Italian colonization, to be developped by other surveys and explorations after WWII. The moutains of Tripolitania received attention at the end of the 40s, to be lately updated by Muftāḥ al-Ḥaddād (Tarhuna University, Libya). The predesertic zone was searched via British cooperation. As for the coastal area, mainly in the vicinity of Leptis Magna, joint missions with Italian archeologists began at the end of the 20th century and stopped with the war.

Given the nature of the corpus considered above, some problem(atic)s arise and result from the following aspects. These points will be illustrated in the subsequent case-study.

There is a huge temporal gap that separates the events of the first centuries from their documentation. Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam (ca 182-257/798 or 9-891) exemplifies this issue, especially as we will see for the referential question. The meaning of words (technical expressions, toponyms or patronyms) can be understood in a way that misses the original context. The same would apply for relations between groups and authorities.

The selection of the first sites to be excavated and the methodology employed during these early phases is not devoid of biases and their reports have to be reassessed.

The elitist approach of the men who wrote down the texts we are relying on, focusing mainly on the active groups, politically and ideologically speaking, tend to leave aside the rest of the population. The Riḥla of al-Tiǧānī/al-Tuǧǧānī betrays this aspect blatantly.

The contradictions found in the narratives should make us aware of the urgent need to handle the texts we use with care and try to examine the lemmata and decide for the most reliable.

The mistakes made by the authors who tried to localize some toponyms is more frequent than thought, even when it touches well-known sites (cf. Leptis Magna in al-Bakrī’s Masālik).

II. A case-study: the transition from Antique Tripolitania to medieval Tripoli/Ṭarābulus

The book of Isabella Sjöström, Tripolitania in Transition: Late Roman to Early Islamic Settlement (1993) was a milestone to study the evolution of the region of Tripoli from Antiquity to the early Islamic period, and more generally the issue of how the cities were tranformed in the course of this passage.

Interrogations remain, chiefly the transfer of the capital from Leptis Magna to Oea/Tripoli. Was there a break (qaṭīʿa) as is commonly accepted? This would be explained by the decline of Leptis Magna and the rise of Oea at the end of Antiquity, or was even simply caused by the Islamic expansion. The first step requires returning to the sources. 

ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀṣ conquered Tripoli for the caliph ʿUmar between 21 and 23 AH/642 and 644 CE. Four sources have to considered: Ibn al-Ḫayyāṭ who quotes Ibn Lahīʿa (d. 194); Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam who quotes al-Layṯ b. Saʿd (d. 179); al-Balāḏurī who quotes Bakr b. Ḥayṯam; Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam who quotes ʿUṯmān b. Ṣāliḥ quoting Ibn Lahīʿa, the most detailed version so far.

But Tripoli returned to the Byzantine domination until a new and final conquest. The consultation of an Armenian Geography by Ananias of Shirak corroborates this situation. In the meantime, Barqa (and Cyrenaica) had remained controlled by the Muslims led locally by ʿUqba b. Nāfiʿ.

ʿAbd Allāh b. Abī Sarḥ is credited for the capture of Tripoli. The mention of the city walls (sūr pl. aswār) on the landside is a key to understand the problem of toponyms. Leptis or Sabrata had such fortifications. What about Tripoli/Oea? Nothing has been found — whether in Procopius or through excavations — to sustain any. Does it mean that we have to look for another Tripoli? Yes. A hint to this could be that Leo Africanus, drawing on a lost part of al-Raqīq, mentionned an “old Tripoli”.

It must have been Leptis Magna. It was called Tripoli at the time of the conquest. It had a wall on the landside, as was shown on the map. Leptis was the only city to be taken twice in the Arabic sources, in 22 AH/642 (under ʿUmar) and in 43 AH/663 CE (under Muʿāwiya), to expel once for all the Byzantines from Tripolitania. 

The toponymic confusion is explained by the discrepancy between the events and their written relation. Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam was not aware that Ṭarābulus meant in illo tempore Leptis Magna. How did Oea become Tripoli then?

It was known as Nubāra, even if Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam and his editor, Charles Torrey, had a problem with that. The latter had to changed the text and equate Nubāra with Sabrata. His manuscripts — see mss 1686 and 1687 kept at the BnF in Paris — are however clear: after reading Tripoli, you have the parenthetical phrase “and its name was Nubāra”, where the Lisān al-ʿarab defines al-Anbār as a seaboard. The local memory can also be helpful: al-Mālikī (5th/11th c.) calls Leptis the old sūq, understanding that it had been the main place before the capital was transferred to Oea.

This must have happened under the rule of the governor ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ḥabīb around 131-2 AH/749-50 CE, after the repression of an Ibāḍī Berber revolt. Only then did Oea become the regional capital and was called Tripoli.

A conference by Hafed Abdouli on Wednesday 15 December 2021.

Wednesday 15 December 2021 (18.00 CET/19.00 Tripoli Time) is Session 2 of our monthly webinar Revisiting the History of Medieval Libya.

On Zoom, our colleague Hafed Abdouli (Sfax University, Tunisia) will deliver the following talk (in Arabic):

المدونة المصدرية لتاريخ ليبيا خلال العصر الوسيط: تنوع المخزون وإشكاليات/محاذير الاستعمال

The sources for the study of medieval Libya: the corpus diversity and the problematics linked to its exploitation

Webinar link on demand at : libyemedievale@gmail.com

Feel free to spread the news.

See you there!

The study of medieval Libya in the 21st century. The LibMed project: scope and perspectives.

The study of medieval Libya in the 21st century.

The LibMed project: scope and perspectives 

Sébastien Garnier (Centre Jean Pépin) and Aurélien Montel (CIHAM)

Session I — 17 November 2021

The LibMed project aims at revisiting the history of Medieval Libya. It focuses on three key aspects: Sources, Analyses and Projects.

The sources bring us to tackle biases that can be summarized as follows. We precise that what we call “medieval Libya” encompasses the lands that compose the modern state of Libya. We distinguish three types of approaches in the texts available so far. 

Primo, we’ll talk about “a space under influence”. This is the dominant view. It can be divided into three sub-categories. First, we have the picture of a territory to cross, when we think about the conquests (Futūḥāt) or the travelogues. These genres generally describe medieval Libya as a passive route. Second, we have the picture of a buffer zone disputed between two major powers, seeing medieval Libya as a mere hinterland. Third, we have the picture of a land between two poles, denying any inner initiative to medieval Libya. As a whole, this first classical approach places the lands we study in the middle of an East-West framework (more in Session VI, April 2022).

Secundo, we will consider a “space at the crossroads” when we reconsider the importance of the networks and the roads that support them. In this regard, we exhume centres that had been minimized or dismissed and show their interconnections. Besides, it offers a new axis, more dynamic: the South-North one (more in Session VIII, June 2022).

Tertio, we will envisage “an autonomous space” as a result of taking into account internal views and narratives. These contradict the traditional centre-periphery discourse and brings us to elaborate on these periods when specific areas were enjoying a king of independence but also to identify the local actors (ʿulamāʾor saints, e.g.) who shaped regional history on a longer term. The first local history we have dates back to the 12th/18th century. It is the Tiḏkār by Ibn Ġalbūn. It raises a big question: don’t we have any older comparable text? We are quite confident that we could come across an insider testimony in the near future (more in Session II, December 2021).

Last but not least: we shall not forget non-textual research: archeology is beyond any doubt the field that will considerably enrich our knowledge on medieval Libya in the next years (more in Session III, January 2022).

The challenges to come lie in the corpuses that have been less explored — the jurisprudential (fatāwā) and biographical (ṭabaqāt) literatures opening a wide scope. We add the necessity to cross Latin and Arabic documentations: this will certainly uncover the intermediary role played by medieval Libya between two world-wide economic spaces, the Mediterranean and the Saharan. The concept of a margin seems outdated.

The analyses rely on a necessary state of the research. 

To this purpose, Aurélien Montel has created a collaborative bibliographical Zotero database that gathers the publications dedicated to the medieval period, with regular updates. The references — mostly in Arabic, English and French — are open access (https://www.zotero.org/groups/2901756/libmed/library). 

The Islamic era remains understudied. We wish to be associated to the research that has been produced for more than forty years by the Markaz [al-maḥfūẓāt al-lībiyya wa-dirāsāt al-tārīḫiyya, Tripoli] and other academic institutions. Their milestones deserve a greater circulation. The ultimate goal of LibMed is to help reconnecting different and parallel historiographical traditions. A basis of monographs exists and will sustain further joint undeavours on three levels: local, regional and global. 

Local. For Tripoli Idrīs Ḥmōda or Michael Brett (among others) offer good leads. Barqa has Abū Labīd and calls for more. Saharan cities (Ghadames and Ghat, e.g.) need people to continue what Qāsim Yūšaʿ initiated and develop the pre-Ottoman times. 

Regional. On top of major contributions for Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, we would like to stress that the seminal opus of Jacques Thiry, Le Sahara libyen dans l’Afrique du Nord médiévale (1995) — it has been translated into Arabic —, demonstrates what could be done with a wide range of sources. The field of Ibadi studies (Paul Love, Virginie Prevost) also plays its part on this level.

Global. The founding father of a national perspective is probably al-Ṭāhir al-Zāwī (1890-1986). We will also signal that The Markaz of Tripoli published books asking for a reprint and a better diffusion. They must be read.

The challenges to come result from the survey above. Some spaces weren’t investigated, like non-urban or semidesertic zones or the rural societies. Some eras remain a kind of blind spots, like the 2nd-3rd/8th-9th or the 9th-10th/15th-16th centuries. Some themes suffer from underrepresentation, like the insertion of the Libyan littoral into the maritime trade or the junction made between neighbouring countries.

The projects imply different settings of cooperation, none of them being pyramidal or hierarchical. They require colleagues from various horizons sharing knowledge and competence on specific issues. Here are some examples of what has begun and what is planned.

The sources being the essential material we need to sketch and figure out what happened between the 1st/7th and the 10th/16th centuries in medieval Libya, we devote much energy to their preservation and provision. We see as a necessity the design of a general index online that would involve key actors like al-Markaz of Tripoli and universities. The manuscripts have been partly inventoried (al-Markaz, 2476; Benghazi University, about 2500; Ghadames, 937) and a merging of these datas belongs to the academic expectations. 

Many collections (public and private) await their cataloging, as testifies the entry written by Mīlād Šambaš in Ropper’s World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts (vol. 4, 1994). A joint enterprise has been set up between Dār al-kutub al-waṭaniyya (Benghazi) and the Abjad database (Centre Jean Pépin, programme PhASIF) in order to catalog the ca 120 mss kept there (more in Session V, March 2022). Operations of digitization will complete the cataloging.

Some libraries have been clearly identified and documented. Besides, it should be remembered that Libyan sources are also extant abroad in foreign institutions. Implementing an access of quality to their gathering represents a way to encourage scientific studies of high level. The case of the Jebel Nafusa illustrates this aspect (more in Session IV, February 2022). As a rule, the low level of political centralization in the premodern period of our domain is reflected in the relative scattering of written artefacts of diverse nature. This suggests the existence of many unrecorded archives (linked to families or zāwiyas e.g.) and prospections have to be conducted in this direction.

The expanding digital humanities will not be forgotten: datamining medieval texts for lexicological purposes, extracting and analyzing isnāds from Ḥadīṯ literature, OCR softwares applied to Arabic corpuses, etc., the list is long. LibMed intends to use these tools and promote them.

The building of prosopographical databases is underway and we plan to relate it to a network visualization software. That way, we hope we can better grasp the relations binding notable groups like scholars, traders and sufis, to quote a few.

A spatial database documenting medieval settlements known in Libya through the geographical works as well as the archeological findings could articulate textual and ground elements. Producing maps through GIS would finalize the whole process.

As a conclusion, we invite the researchers working on medieval Libya to join the LibMed project. libyemedievale@gmail.com