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Descriptions of Cities within the Texts of the Early Medieval Muslim Writers

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Abstract:

With the absence of extant drawings, descriptions of cities within medieval texts may be our only access to the conception of a city as it was imagined and understood by the medieval mind. While a city’s immediate reality defined by the form of its buildings and location of streets poses a serious challenge to those who wish to capture them through the elusive medium of text, the medieval authors were able to reveal dimensions of cities which the snap-shot mode of a drawing would not convey. Through metaphors these writers were able to express specificities which differentiated one city from another, while tales about a city’s mythic past allowed them to blur the distinctions between the definition of a city as a concrete reality and one that was imprinted in the imagination of its local inhabitants. The end result is the city’s portrayal as a multilayered collection of its topography that is interwoven with historical facts, personal observations about the cities’ inhabitants and information about the city’s manufactured and natural goods. This essay focuses on the characterization of the medieval Islamic city as it was defined by a selected number of writers. Four texts have been chosen to represent three different genres of medieval literary sources. These texts include: A geographical treatise titled, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, written by Al-Muqaddasi’s in circa. 986 A.D.; a travelogue by the Persian poet Nasir-e Khosraw, completed in 1047 A.D.; and two local histories, one a history of Nishapur, written by Al-Hakim Nishaburi, and the other, History of Bukhara, written by Ibn Narshakhi, both completed in the latter quarter of the 10th century.

In this analysis the disciplinary boundaries separating the literary traditions within which each text is produced merit special attention. Travelogues, history books, geographic treatises and books of poetry are examples of the varieties of medieval writing traditions in which descriptions of cities are included. Often a larger premise lay at the base of what medieval codices aimed to achieve in describing a specific city. The literary requirements of a particular genre in most cases determined the character of the text, while influencing the ways in which descriptions were composed. Important to note is that the purpose of this paper is not to reconstruct or understand the local conditions of a particular city. Rather, this paper informs the historians of medieval Central Asia by questioning literal interpretations of medieval texts as direct sources of factual information.
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Name: American Historical Association
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MLA Citation:

Etemad Yousefi, Arash. "Descriptions of Cities within the Texts of the Early Medieval Muslim Writers" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Hilton Atlanta, Atlanta Marriott, and Hyatt Regency, Atlanta, GA, Jan 04, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-16 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p105733_index.html>

APA Citation:

Etemad Yousefi, A. , 2007-01-04 "Descriptions of Cities within the Texts of the Early Medieval Muslim Writers" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Hilton Atlanta, Atlanta Marriott, and Hyatt Regency, Atlanta, GA <Not Available>. 2013-12-16 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p105733_index.html

Publication Type: Poster
Abstract: With the absence of extant drawings, descriptions of cities within medieval texts may be our only access to the conception of a city as it was imagined and understood by the medieval mind. While a city’s immediate reality defined by the form of its buildings and location of streets poses a serious challenge to those who wish to capture them through the elusive medium of text, the medieval authors were able to reveal dimensions of cities which the snap-shot mode of a drawing would not convey. Through metaphors these writers were able to express specificities which differentiated one city from another, while tales about a city’s mythic past allowed them to blur the distinctions between the definition of a city as a concrete reality and one that was imprinted in the imagination of its local inhabitants. The end result is the city’s portrayal as a multilayered collection of its topography that is interwoven with historical facts, personal observations about the cities’ inhabitants and information about the city’s manufactured and natural goods. This essay focuses on the characterization of the medieval Islamic city as it was defined by a selected number of writers. Four texts have been chosen to represent three different genres of medieval literary sources. These texts include: A geographical treatise titled, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, written by Al-Muqaddasi’s in circa. 986 A.D.; a travelogue by the Persian poet Nasir-e Khosraw, completed in 1047 A.D.; and two local histories, one a history of Nishapur, written by Al-Hakim Nishaburi, and the other, History of Bukhara, written by Ibn Narshakhi, both completed in the latter quarter of the 10th century.

In this analysis the disciplinary boundaries separating the literary traditions within which each text is produced merit special attention. Travelogues, history books, geographic treatises and books of poetry are examples of the varieties of medieval writing traditions in which descriptions of cities are included. Often a larger premise lay at the base of what medieval codices aimed to achieve in describing a specific city. The literary requirements of a particular genre in most cases determined the character of the text, while influencing the ways in which descriptions were composed. Important to note is that the purpose of this paper is not to reconstruct or understand the local conditions of a particular city. Rather, this paper informs the historians of medieval Central Asia by questioning literal interpretations of medieval texts as direct sources of factual information.

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