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Denise Aigle (dir.) Le Bilad al-Šām face aux mondes extérieurs. La Perception de l’Autre et la représentation du pouvoir, études arabes, médiévales et modernes, PIFD 275, Presses de l’Ifpo : Damas - Beyrouth, 2012, 425 p.

Jo Van Steenbergen

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1This edited volume brings together research that was conducted in the context of the programme “Le Bilād al-Šām face aux mondes extérieurs : Croisés et Mongols. Réactions, adaptations, échanges (xie-xive siècle)”. Between 2008 and 2013 Denise Aigle, editor of this volume, pursued this research programme in close collaboration with the Institut français du Proche-Orient and with various other research groups and institutions in France and in Lebanon (UMR 8167 “Orient et Méditerranée”, laboratoire Islam médiéval, Paris ; UMR 5195 “Groupe de recherche et d’étude sur la Méditerranée et le Moyen-Orient, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée”, Lyon ; EA 4207 “Centre de recherche et d’études sur les pays de Méditerranée au Moyen Âge”, Montpellier ; université Saint-Joseph, Centre Louis Pouzet d’étude des civilisations anciennes et médiévales, Beyrouth). Papers presented at a sort of kick-off colloquium that was organised at the Ifpo in Damascus in December 2008 (“Le Bilād al-Šām face aux mondes extérieurs. La perception de l’Autre et la représentation du souverain”, organised by Denise Aigle and Katia Zakharia) make up a substantial part of the volume’s contributions. As the titles of this programme and colloquium as well as of this publication suggest, the broad question around which this research was organised concerned the impact on local communities in the Bilād al-Šām of, and their responses to, the pluriform confrontations with political, social, cultural and economic outsiders —Latin Christian crusaders and Mongol world conquerors in particular— throughout the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE. The twenty contributions that have been published in the volume Le Bilad al-Šām face aux mondes extérieurs demonstrate above all how this broad research question invited a great variety of intriguing approaches, opened up a wide host of textual sources in many relevant occidental and oriental languages for all kinds of new and old questions, and generated diverse novel perspectives on the social and cultural histories of medieval Syrian communities and of their perceptions of, and in, their wider world.

2As Denise Aigle explains in her introduction (“Les pays du Levant au carrefour des systèmes de représentation. Perspectives d’Orient et d’Occident”), some greater uniformity was generated in this diversity of approaches, sources and perspectives through the definition of a more particular focus that prioritised the study of the relationship between the cultural constructions of, on the one hand, Muslim rulers and of, on the other, newcomers and outsiders in medieval Syrian contexts of confrontation, invasion, migration, accommodation and precipitate transformation. Two related lines of research emerged from this focus and provided more coherence across the various contributions. The first, as also suggested in the introduction, consists of the problematisation of “cultural memories” of a particular set of Muslim leaders. This included their creative production as iconic agents of political norms and values, as well as their continuous and equally creative reproduction and consumption in line with and in function of changing socio-cultural circumstances and historical contexts throughout the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and beyond. Sultan al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Baybars (r. 1260-77), whose rule was in many ways indeed both product and producer of confrontations with Crusaders and Mongols in the Bilād al-Šām, appears in this context throughout the volume as one of the most emblematic subjects of such ideal medieval Muslim rule memories, as recorded, constructed and communicated through all kinds of literary and non-literary tools and media alike. The second more coherent line of research that emerged is that of a literary consciousness, of the active acknowledgement of the fact that realities as well as memories of engagements with crusading and mongol others coincided with a time and space that is increasingly singled out in scholarship for the “textualisation” of cultural life and of its many acts of communication and meaning-making, and for the concomitant “popularisation” of this textual production beyond the traditional boundaries of its cultural elites (for these processes, see especially Konrad Hirschler, The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands : A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices [Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2013]). The epitome of this substantial socio-cultural transformation undoubtedly was the Sīrat Baybars, the Romance of Baybars, collecting, adapting, updating and restructuring different sets of memories of sultan Baybars from, at latest, the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onwards and becoming in the process —as also explained and demonstrated in various contributions to this volume— an essential component of Syrian and Egyptian urban cultural identities.

3These two research lines of empowering memories of power and of innovative literary construction in the wake of medieval Syrian engagements with unexpected outsiders tie together, one way or another, most of the contributions to this volume. They have not, however, been adopted as the explicit mechanisms to provide for the volume’s structure. Four general themes have rather been chosen for this purpose, with the first two themes grouping nine contributions around ideas of contemporary historiographical and literary representations of Muslim rulers (and their counterparts) in contexts of confrontations with Crusaders and Mongols, and the last two themes grouping eleven contributions around the question of the appearances in the —mostly literary— imaginations of Bilād al-Šām of Christian and Mongol ‘others’.

4In the volume’s first part (“La fabrique des héros ou la perception du souverain”) Abbès Zouache surveys and compares memories of Saladin (r. 1171-93) in East and West, identifying highly relevant discrepancies between both ; Tahar Mansouri zooms in on the construction of sultan al-Manṣūr Qalāwūn (r. 1279-90) as conforming to the physical and moral ideal of a Muslim ruler in Šāfiʿ b. ʿAlī’s panegyric al-Faḍl al-Maʾṯūr ; Dīma al-Šukr analyses the imagination of Muslim heroes and their enemies in a wide range of medieval Arabic poetry ; and this perspective is opened up in Ağfān al-Ṣaġīr’s contribution towards a diachronic anthropology of heroism in the longue durée of the history of the Bilād al-Šām. In the volume’s second part (“Baybars, de l’histoire à la geste”) George Bohas and Salam Diab-Duranton demonstrate how the fact that today three series of manuscripts of three different traditions of the Sīrat Baybars have been identified can be put to analytical use to better understand the genesis and relative values of these traditions ; Katia Zakharia also engages with two of these traditions, presenting a cycle of stories constructed around diseases affecting the body of sultan Baybars as symbolising wider social concerns for misfortunes affecting the Muslim community ; Francis Guinle identifies and explains conversion as a recurrent theme that provides coherence in the Damascene tradition of the Sīra ; and Georges Dorlian presents a very different specimen of the same genre of popular epics, the Sīrat ʿAlī Zaybaq and the adventures of its anti-hero, interpreting it as an important medium for social and political satire, for questioning and even deriding the authority and concerns of rulers such as al-Ẓāhir Baybars.

5In the volume’s third part (“Présences chrétiennes dans le Bilād al-Šām”) Aboubakr Chraïbi identifies in ideological and narratological detail the creativity with which literary topoi —in this case the desire for money and women— travelled across time, space and community, time and again being adapted to local circumstances and memories, such as those of the Crusader presence in Bilād al-Šām and of Saladin’s historical role ; Munḏir Muḥammad al-Ḥāyik surveys in substantial detail some of the contemporary ‘othering’ discourses that circulated among and beyond the diverse sectarian and other communities that lived in the medieval Bilād al-Šām ; Yūsuf Ġawānmah argues in similar sweeping fashion how in the early thirteenth century such discourse was informed by basic attitudes of religious tolerance and pragmatism on the Muslim side, as exemplified by the case of Muslim and Crusader interaction in Acre ; ʿAmmār Muḥammad al-Nahār, in his turn, surveys the more practical interaction of diverse communities, with a particular focus on Jewish and Christian socio-cultural participation in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ; Julien Gilet zooms in on the battle of Marrī (1266) in the Bilād Sīs, the first direct attack from Egypt on the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, opposing sultan al-Ẓāhir Baybars and king Hetʿum, and Gilet explains how Arabic and Armenian historiography transform this confrontation in parallel and complementary ways into a paradigmatic moment in the remembrance of Egyptian-Armenian confrontations ; Denise Aigle focuses on how the late thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century Ilkhānid invasion of Syria was similarly explained, digested and translated into a plan of political action by political elites in Egypt and by religious elites in Syria, both constructing arguments that were informed by Christian presence in the Muslim Ilkhān’s entourage ; and Mireille Issa weighs fact and fiction in the presentation of Oriental Christian communities in the Journal de voyage à Jérusalem by Louis de Rochechouart in the fifteenth century. In the volume’s fourth and final part (“Perception des Mongols dans le Bilād al-Šām”) Thomas Herzog re-opens for consideration the multi-layered texts of the Sīrat Baybars, questioning, contextualising and offering an explanation for the shifting layers of —following the typology of Jan Assman— “communicational” and “cultural” memory that from the late fourteenth century onwards engaged in creative ways with the remarkable representation of the Mongols in the Sīra as Persianate Aʿğām, as Zoroastrian fire worshippers, and as Shi’ite Arfād ; Ray Mouawad traces the genealogy of the well-known Prestre John narrative among Syrian Christians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries ; Alaa Talbi presents a mainly lexico-semantic analysis of the notion and meaning of fear in four Syrian and Egyptian historiographical texts’ representations of the Ilkhānid campaigns against the Bilād al-Šām ; and Marie-Anna Chevalier engages from a very different angle with these same Ilkhānid campaigns, reconstructing in much detail how the Christian religious-military orders in the Levant were forced in the second half of the thirteenth century to adapt themselves repeatedly to radically changing geo-political circumstances that remained beyond their control.

6Not all of these twenty contributions have managed to engage in equally nuanced fashion with the volume’s purported two central conceptual angles —how historians’ understandings of the subjective dynamics of perception and representation, of memory and literary construction, are far more rewarding than almost meaningless positivist discussions of fact versus fiction. Neither have all of them managed to entirely escape from what Zouache identified as “la conception hégélienne de l’histoire” (p. 42). Nevertheless, many individual contributions, as well as the edited volume as a whole, did manage to escape from the pitfalls of such potentially too simple explanations for the extremely complex issues at stake here, taking a “cultural turn” that also in the Anglo-Saxon world is finally being given increasing and much needed priority (see especially Konrad Hirschler, “Studying Mamluk Historiography. From Source-Criticism to the Cultural Turn”, in St. Conermann [ed.], Ubi Sumus ? Quo Vademus ? Mamluk Studies — State of the Art [Mamluk Studies vol. 3] [Bonn : Bonn UP, 2013]). Le Bilad al-Šām face aux mondes extérieurs is therefore to be commended for leading historians of the ‘medieval’ world of Islam along important ways forward. These results not just from this crucial methodological feat, however, but also from the volume’s contribution in important ways to the currently reinvigorated study of the history and historiography of Bilād al-Šām, in a longue durée medieval perspective that does not feel too intimidated by the increasing political and socio-cultural gravity that was pulsating from Cairo and Egypt at the waning of Crusader and Mongol threats from the early fourteenth century onwards.

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Jo Van Steenbergen, « Denise Aigle (dir.) Le Bilad al-Šām face aux mondes extérieurs. La Perception de l’Autre et la représentation du pouvoir, études arabes, médiévales et modernes, PIFD 275, Presses de l’Ifpo : Damas - Beyrouth, 2012, 425 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], Lectures inédites, mis en ligne le 25 août 2016, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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