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L’exercice du pouvoir à l’âge des sultanats. Production, manifestation, réception, Dossier sous la direction de Irene Bierman et Sylvie Denoix, Annales islamologiques 46 (2012), Institut Français d’archéologie orientale, Le Caire, 2013, 289 p.

Jo Van Steenbergen

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1From the 5th/11th century onwards the representation of political power in Islamic West-Asia was increasingly monopolised by new institutional forms, topped by the sultanate. These forms accommodated substantial shifts and changes in the identities, practices, discourses and contexts of the elites of the Nile-to-Oxus region. Sultans and martial leaders and their followers, Sunni leaderships and intellectual communities of scholars and mystics, and various agents of land, commerce and tribute all joined forces in an ever changing but yet particular pattern of complex relationships that distinguishes the period from that of the caliphates. “Exercising Power in the Age of the Sultanates: Production, Manifestation, Reception” is a collected volume of fourteen articles that engages with power relationships as an integral part of this pattern. Circulating around the gradual spreading of that institution of the sultanate as a regional political norm, these relationships took shape in particular social practices of power that connected elites (and non-elites) in ever-changing constellations and that continued their westward move across West-Asia until they eventually also became part of early modern North-African political landscapes.

2As Sylvie Denoix explains in the introduction, the volume seeks to explore how the practical power of elites in this “Age of the Sultanates” manifested itself, and how it was received by all kinds of social groups. The hypothesis within which the volume is set, is then explained in terms of social distance, putting forward the (perhaps somewhat over-generalising) argument that what sets this age apart above all is a much more direct engagement between rulers and ruled. This relationship is then conceptualised as one of mutual, symbiotic agencies, with the reception of power being as constitutive of it as its production and manifestation. Above all, the relational mode of power is emphasised, as circulating in a networked complexity of local and trans-local relationships with, beyond and against the interests of central power elites, giving way to various effects, including all kinds of manifestations of sultanic power.

3A particular understanding of the exercise of power in the “Age of Sultanates” is thus explored in this volume, as a relational, symbiotic and perhaps even more complex multidirectional mode of social organisation by which central, local and peripheral West-Asian and North-African elites were all simultaneously subjects and agents of political power. Even though this idea was certainly not picked up in equally nuanced fashions in all fourteen papers, it certainly stands as a successful framework that gives coherence to the variety of individual topics. These topics are moreover sufficiently connected in time and space to avoid making such a coherent framework look superficial, meaningless or essentialist. The whole volume is actually pragmatically organised around a focus on Egypt (8 papers) and on the later medieval period (9 papers), with other papers adding enriching flavours from early modern and modern periods and from diverse Yemeni, Syrian, North-African and Anatolian experiences of power. Further organisational clarity is achieved by dividing up the papers in three distinct thematic sets of legal and legitimate productions, of urban and regional manifestations and of cultural and especially written receptions of the exercise of power.

4The majority of the volume’s contributions (7 papers) are identified as connected by some form of spatial turn, with diverse and shifting centre-periphery perspectives informing most of these papers. The two final papers in this thematic sub-set are somewhat different, since they do not seem to problematise the issue of political power’s spatial boundaries. At least, they do not do so in similar analytical terms. Hampikian’s contribution on Mamluk sultan Mu’ayyad Shaykh’s (r. 1412-21) commissioning of two enormous and impressive architectural complexes -the one religious, the other a hospital- on both sides of Cairo’s Darb al-Aḥmar route actually argues that this project actively partook in the gradual transformation of those spatial boundaries, making the East-West axis of the Darb al-Aḥmar the central artery that the North-South route of Bayna l-Qaṣrayn had been before. McGregor’s paper on the ritual presence in Cairo of the Sādāt al-Wafāʾiyya Sufi brotherhood links up with Hampikian’s in its evaluation of ritual processions along this and related urban arteries. Driving the volume’s conceptualisation of power to a richly informed and very inspiring higher ground, McGregor moreover demonstrates how other than spatial boundaries -such as between manifestations of leadership in the Cairo citadel and in the Wafāʾiyya brotherhood- are rooted in widely shared practices, overlapping discursive meanings and, at the same time, non-hierarchical or even segmented varieties of social agency. As explained, perspectives of and on the spatial manifestations of such social boundaries are given priority in the five other papers in this sub-set. Walker reminds us how also agrarian communities -as in Mamluk Jordan- possessed a level of local agency that should not be underestimated or neglected; she furthermore makes the important point that such political agencies and social practices were always also qualified by economic and ecological contexts and that these transformed substantially over the 14th and 15th centuries. A more traditional echo of this approach and understanding of the local production of power is found in Tlili’s paper on the changing and multi-level mechanisms of integration of oasis communities of Gafsa (Tunisia) into the early modern Ottoman empire. Watenpaugh explains how an urban periphery of early Ottoman Aleppo transformed from a liminal space -in social, religious and political terms- into a central space of power, reminding at the same time how this is not just a socio-economic and political, but above all also a cultural process of transforming memories, identities and meanings. Al-Ibrashi describes a reverse process of political and religious meaning-making on the city’s edge, or rather reminds that social memories and cultural identities are more powerful tools to make such liminal spaces —in this case mausoleum or turba complexes in Cairo’s cemeteries— socially meaningful than political and economic intentions are (perhaps inadvertently demonstrating more the intensely transformative and amorphous particularity of politics and related political memories in Mamluk Cairo than a general rule of the ephemeral character of political practices in the Age of the Sultanate). Denizeau and Denoix finally reconstruct in substantial and documented detail how the appearance of new liminal urban spaces as a result of ecological change -as in the area West of the ancient boundary of the city of al-Qāhira, the Khalīj canal, at the time of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s reign (esp. 1310-41)- generates opportunities for development and planning that up to certain extents are automatically integrated in the endless negotiations of power and authority between rulers and urban elites.

5Four papers of the volume are identified as connected by their seeing a normative dimension in the production of power. Bacharach and Anwar survey connections between substantial formal changes in the production of especially gold coins struck in Egypt and political transformations, over a millennium of direct or indirect and mostly sultanic rule; their conclusion that such political connections are quite elusive may then however have as much to say about the problematic epistemological categories (including traditional and very narrowly defined dynastic periodisations) within which modern historians operate as about the authors’ suggestion that “in all these cases the market or monetary role of the currency was far more important, initially, then their specific political messages”. Eychenne and Loiseau each detail the remarkable empowerment of non-military sultanic agents in Mamluk Cairo, two cases that even though separated by more than a century of historical change are not really dissimilar in their demonstration of the uneven distribution of tools and mechanisms of power at particular moments of strong sultanic rule -perhaps even irrespective of whether these were explained in patrimonial (Eychenne) or in legal (Loiseau) terms; these explanations by contemporary observers from such changing normative frameworks and within particular narrative paradigms certainly require further careful analysis for understanding the suggested processes of sultanic absolutism or legal rationalisation. Ghazaleh in the closing paper of this section makes at least eminently clear that even qualified modern mechanisms of power such as a revenue tax introduced in 19th-century Egypt was part and parcel of that circulation of power and multiplicity of political agencies that defies any Whiggish readings of practices of power and social reproduction in the “Age of the Sultanates”.

6The third and final thematic sub-set, consisting of three papers, takes this perspective on norms and the production of power most thoroughly to this rich cultural level of analysis. They follow in an unconscious way McGregor’s claims about performativity, and about norms as a central battleground for all agents negotiating the endless circulation of power. Inadvertently these papers take this even further towards Foucault’s ideas about ‘disciplinary’ power, as resulting from the implementation of strategies that aim to organise, define, divide, control and thus ‘discipline’ things to acquire a particular, normative appearance of order and power. These ideas have been formulated in contemporary contexts of specifically Western modernisation, state formation and cultural change in particular. Bouquet demonstrates, however, how also indigenous and long-standing Ottoman cultural traditions of biographical, literary and administrative practices informed, defined and enabled the very new disciplinary mechanism of the sicill-i ahval of Abdülhamid II (1876-1908), a system of autobiographical registration by the state that empowered the sultan as much as his targeted bureaucratic subjects. M’hamed and Vallet explain furthermore how in late medieval Yemen Rasūlid practices of social reproduction generated similar ‘disciplinary’ effects. The contested production through Rasūlid endowments of particular claims to political legitimacy and of particular cultural agents for those claims (M’hamed, focusing on Ashrafiyya madrasa of Taʿizz) and the related unique organisation of Rasūlid territories and courts in various princely texts (Vallet, for Rasūlid “archives”) display engagements with performing a Rasūlid normative order of things that analytically parallels so-called modern manifestations of ‘disciplinary’ power. These many different ‘pratiques de l’écrit’, performed through varieties of literary, administrative and legal texts, tell then not just about the manifestation and reception of power, but also about its continuous production, reproduction and consumption by those various and diverse elites in the many centres and peripheries of the “Age of the Sultanates”.

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Electronic reference

Jo Van Steenbergen, « L’exercice du pouvoir à l’âge des sultanats. Production, manifestation, réception, Dossier sous la direction de Irene Bierman et Sylvie Denoix, Annales islamologiques 46 (2012), Institut Français d’archéologie orientale, Le Caire, 2013, 289 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [Online], 140 | December 2016, Online since 01 June 2015, connection on 24 September 2017. URL :

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Les contenus de la Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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