Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Chris Chism, Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall: The Afterlife of Crusade in the Travels of Ibn Battuta

A proverb still circulates in the Arab world: `UTlubu-l-‘ilm wa lau fi-s-Siin: “Seek knowledge even in China.”   In 1325, in pursuit of this injunction, Ibn Battuta extended his original itinerary from a performance of the hajj to a twenty-nine year circumnavigation of three continents.  This journey occupied the greater part of Ibn Battuta’s adult life between 1325-1354, and he vowed to cover no identical route twice.  The resulting narrative, dictated after his return at the order of the Sultan of Morocco, has become known as the Rihla [Travels] of Ibn Battuta and it has beguiled and frustrated historians for two centuries by providing lively, unreliable, fascinating historical witness to events, cultures, and urban geographies extending over three fourteenth-century continents. 

In the section of the Rihla where the narrator ventures toward the northern and western contact zones of the Dar al-Islam, the narrator performs the memory of crusade by exploring the work of walls and boundaries.  Though walls are often seen as separators, the Rihla of Ibn Battuta, shows how they become sites for rearticulating the relationships between and within the many forms of Islam and Christianity in the fourteenth century, with their long reciprocal histories of violence and desire.   This paper discusses two sections of the Rihla: first, the traveller’s oddly decentered and cursory descriptions of the Levant, where two centuries of crusade have taught the ruling local emirs about the dangers of leaving defensible walls standing.  Second, I discuss the description of the guarded, gated communities of Constantinople, where the Muslim traveller has an extraordinary encounter with a Christian monk, who performs his reverence and longing for the lost Christian shrines of the Holy Land by reverencing the body of the Muslim traveller who has recently passed through them.  In these sections, the traveller’s  need to know and exchange knowledge with non-Muslim interlocutors at times exceeds decorum and comes to threaten very the boundedness that sets off Islam and Christianity as mutually inimical religions.  I argue that the Rihla’s very careful attention to boundaries and boundedness is riven and impelled by intimations of  open-endedness that de-absolutize religious differences between Islam and Christianity, and even religion as a primary mode for knowing the world. 

This paper draws selectively on performance theory, especially that of Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks in Theatre/Archaology, postcolonial theory, and theories of memory and commemoration, as well as its historical and literary sources.

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