Catching Up - Part I: Bonn Spring School - 14-18 March 2016

After a very long break from blogging, I'm going to be making a serious effort in the coming weeks to get caught up and, more importantly, stay caught up. 

In doing this, I've decided to do a brief write-up of the Annemarie Schimmel Mamluk Kolleg's Spring School, which was held in Bonn from March 14th to 18th, 2016. The Kolleg itself is designed to advance Mamluk studies by bringing together Mamlukists from around the world to meet and collaborate on various topics related to the field. The center hosts a number of graduate students, fellows, and visiting professors under the leadership of Profs. Stephan Conermann and Bethany Walker. Each year follows a theme; 2016's organizing idea was environmental history in the pre-modern Middle East. In addition to fostering discussion amongst historians, the Kolleg also promotes a multi-disciplinary approach to Middle East history by bringing together archeologists and historians, of various disciplines, in order to create a more holistic view of the Mamluk period, specifically, and Middle Eastern history, generally. It was this interdisciplinary approach that guided the organization of the Kolleg's spring school program.

 A view inside the library of the Annemarie Schimmel Mamluk Kolleg, Bonn, Germany. 

A view inside the library of the Annemarie Schimmel Mamluk Kolleg, Bonn, Germany. 

Designed as an intensive, one week program of exploring different approaches to the environmental history of the Middle East, the spring school brought together a variety of instructors from various backgrounds. Each instructor, myself included, hosted a day of talks, workshops, and discussions. Using my own day as an example, I chose readings from the Mamluk chronicler al-Maqrīzī and the encyclopedist al-Qalqashāndī for the students to dissect in break-out groups. Coming together, we discussed these texts as a way of looking at the use of traditional Mamluk sources through the lens of environmental history.

 A write-up by Prof. Bethany Walker about the spring school in the Kolleg's newsletter from April 2016. 

A write-up by Prof. Bethany Walker about the spring school in the Kolleg's newsletter from April 2016. 

The spring school took place over five days. Each day was devoted to a separate theme contributing to a larger view of environmental history. On the first day, Prof. Bethany Walker (University of Bonn) opened the spring school by giving an overview of the current state of environmental studies in Middle Eastern history, as well as leading a discussion about the possible ways in which environmental history could be defined. Students had already prepared readings for the day and took part in lively discussions about the topic. As a key note lecture to end the day, Prof. Daniel Martin Varisco (University of Qatar) discussed date palm cultivation in Rasulid Yemen. Particularly interesting to me were the naming of the different palm varieties. With hundreds of names to specify the slightest differences in species, Prof. Varisco showed the intimacy with which local palm cultivators know their trees.

Day two featured discussions of Rasulid agricultural texts by Prof. Varisco. One of my first exposures to the Rasulids, we had the opportunity to examine a number of agricultural manuals as well as almanacs from Rasulid Yemen. The almanacs were especially interesting because of the detail with which they recorded astronomical events alongside weather and agricultural data. All of us struggled with some of the more obscure astronomical and agricultural terms used in the month-by-month playbook of planting, sowing, and harvesting. Having not previously seen an almanac, this was a wonderful opportunity.

 Professor Daniel Martin Varisco leading discussions of one of the Rasulid texts examined during a breakout session. 

Professor Daniel Martin Varisco leading discussions of one of the Rasulid texts examined during a breakout session. 

On the third day of the spring school, I led breakouts and discussions (as mentioned above) of a number of Mamluk texts that could be used for better understanding the environmental history of the period. These included the soil categories used by the Mamluk regime, which were presented in al-Maqrīzī and al-Qalqashāndī. Additionally, we looked at al-Qalqashāndī's listings of the various plants, animals (domesticated as well as wild birds and fish), and crops available throughout Egypt during the period. Using the same sections from al-Qalqashāndī, we also saw how these texts could tell us about waterbodies, mountains and geology, as well as other environmental elements of the Egyptian landscape. Finally, our group looked at al-Maqrīzī's discussion of the various markets in Cairo with an eye towards the food markets of the city. By doing this, I hoped the students would see how crops actually appeared in the market to the consumer and understand the ways in which Cairenes most directly interacted with their environment: by eating it.

 Prof. Yossef Rapoport discussing al-Nabulsī's  Tarīkh al-Fayyūm.

Prof. Yossef Rapoport discussing al-Nabulsī's Tarīkh al-Fayyūm.

On day four, Prof. Yossef Rapoport (Queen Mary, University of London) guided our group through the Ayyubid text of al-Nabulsī: Tarīkh al-Fayyum. Written as an administrative guide for the Fayyum, al-Nabulsī's text presents amazing details about the makeup of villages, agricultural production, and taxes. Looking at the text, Prof. Rapoport showed how an incredible amount of data could be mined from the source and how this information could be used to reconstruct a portrait of the environmental, social, and administrative history of the Fayyum in the late Ayyubid period. I found it particularly interesting that various tribes were connected to specific economic activities and geographic areas of the Fayyum. These tribes organized the life of the region, and they were also critical in ensuring fair water distribution. In combination to an earlier talk I attended by Prof. Rapoport (interestingly entitled, "Counting Sheep in the Fayyum"), I walked away with a much better idea of al-Nabulsī's work as a source to which I hope to eventually turn. 

 Prof. Corbino showing various animal remain specimens to the group for identification. The class examined specimens from the collection of the Alexander Koenig Zoological Museum in Bonn.

Prof. Corbino showing various animal remain specimens to the group for identification. The class examined specimens from the collection of the Alexander Koenig Zoological Museum in Bonn.

The final day of the spring school was dedicated to using plant and animal remains, uncovered by archeology, as a source for environmental history. The day was led by Prof. Chiara Corbino (Sheffield University) and Annette Hansen (University of Groningen). Prof. Corbino led the group through the various ways in which animal remains are identified and then discussed the implications of that information for understanding an archeological site. This was particularly interesting to me as Prof. Corbino's discussion showed the really practical connections that could be made between archeological evidence of animal remains and how archeologists and historians could apply this to reconstructing life at a site. For example, if a cow was young when it was slaughtered, it was probably eaten by people of a higher socio-economic stratum. (Bone size and joint fusing can be used to indicate age; knife marks, evidence of cooking, etc can show how the animal was killed). In contrast, the poorer inhabitants of a site would have used the animal for manual labor (also indicated in the bone record) and exhausted the practicality of the animal before slaughtering it for food. At one of the sites that Prof. Corbino excavated, younger, slaughtered animal remains were found in a high concentration around the citadel of the site, where the elite would have lived and eaten. Elsewhere, where mostly peasant and common people lived, older, worked animal remains were found in high concentration. By giving this example, amongst many others, Prof. Corbino showed how archeology can be valuable to historians as they try to imagine the occupation of a site, and this really cemented one of the overall goals of the spring school: fostering interdisciplinary approaches to history. 

Alongside Prof. Corbino, Annette Hansen (doctoral candidate at the University of Groningen) taught the group about the botanical side of archeological sites. Looking at the remains of various plants, wild and domestic, Hansen showed us how these remains could help us understand the nature of agriculture, diets, and other aspects in the lives of a site's inhabitants. Furthermore, she showed us the painstaking work of counting and sorting the various parts of a plant in order to create a quantifiable listing of the prevalence of the different species present. Complementing Prof. Corbini's animal-oriented approach, Hansen's presentation was extremely valuable in showing the actual evidence of the agricultural practices that we as historians read about in textual sources.

 Annette Hansen discussing the process of sorting plant remains at an archeological site.

Annette Hansen discussing the process of sorting plant remains at an archeological site.

Unfortunately this post is a lot less informative and detailed than it would have been had I began writing this in March. However, my goal is to give an overview of the spring school that I hope might pique a reader's interest to find out more about one of the instructors, their work, the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg, or environmental history generally. Hopefully as I catch up, my posts will be much more informative.