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14 - Culture and society during the late Middle Ages

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2008

Carl F. Petry
Affiliation:
Northwestern University, Illinois
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Summary

As his name indicates, Abū Hāmid al–Qudsī, an unprepossessing scholar of the fifteenth century, was a native of Jerusalem. In his youth, however, he moved to Egypt, where he studied with many of the leading traditionists and jurists of his day. Overwhelmed by the splendors of his adopted country, he wrote a treatise extolling its virtues and, in particular, comparing it favorably with his native Syria. Such compositions, celebrating the “wonders” (fadā’il) of a city or region, were of course common in the later medieval Islamic world, and the inhabitants of Damascus or Medina could draw upon comparable works to bolster their civic pride. But Abū Hāmid had a strong case when he identified Egypt as the “heartland of Islam,” and the last bastion of civilization. He was by no means alone in his admiration: the great historian Ibn Khaldūn, another immigrant to Egypt, had himself been attracted by the reports which reached him in the Islamic west of Egypt’s magnificence.

That Egypt should have emerged over the course of the Middle Ages as the fulcrum of the Islamic world is a matter which, despite the antiquity of Egyptian civilization, requires explanation. After all, for much of the first several centuries of Islamic rule, the country was politically and culturally passive, following political developments and decisions taken in the east, the occasional efforts of an Ahmad Ibn Tūlūn or Abu’l–Misk Kāfūr notwithstanding. Moreover, the astounding fertility of the Nile valley cannot obscure the non–agricultural poverty of medieval Egypt. Apart from its vast expanse of unproductive desert land, Egypt consisted of a utilizable land area roughly the size of Holland, and was almost completely lacking in those resources which fueled the rapid expansion of late medieval European civilization, such as undeveloped arable, iron and wood, let alone specie. Eventually, the scarcity of natural resources would take its toll.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1998

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