Narrative strategies, state-formation, and world-making in late medieval Egyptian chronicles

By Jo Van Steenbergen
Submitted to Session P4733 (Old Texts, New Methods: Innovative Methodologies for Medieval History, 2017 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
A handful of high-profile annalistic chronicles of Egyptian history that were produced in the course of the ninth century AH/fifteenth century CE display a remarkably systematic shared concern for opening their annals with an update on the year’s ruling elites. These lists of elites refer mainly to local hierarchies of power, but they also regularly engage with the political landscapes of their wider world, occasionally even including references to rulers in regions as far apart as al-Hind, Ethiopia, and Europe.
Introductory lists such as these are certainly not without precedent in late medieval Arabic history writing. However, the increasingly structured nature and the literary and political functionalities of these lists appear as something of a novelty, signposting the distinctive nature of the rich historiographical production of courtiers, scholars, and historians in ninth-/fifteenth-century Cairo. This invites for further analysis from literary as well as from historical perspectives.
This paper will present these lists, looking especially at the chronicles of al-Maqr?z? (d. 845/1442), al-?Ayn? (d. 855/1450), and Ibn Taghr?bird? (d. 874/1470). Taking inspiration from analytical practices advocated by New Historicism and Social Semiotics this paper will consider the functions and meanings of these lists. How did these lists participate in the construction of these annalistic literary texts? How were they, as representations of a strict political order, meaningful in their authors’ and audiences’ engagements with the socio-political instabilities of their time?
As far as the latter issue is concerned, it will actually be argued that these lists participated actively in the construction of the idea of some global political geography revolving around the court in Cairo, meant to be instrumental in the complex local politics of that court first and foremost.