The lessons in ruins and wonders

April 26, 2004 12:00 AM

One of the most important books of Arab social history, architecture and art was written in the late 14th and early 15th century by Taqiyyouddin Ahmed Ibn Ali al-Maqrizi. Maqrizi was one of Ibn Khaldoun's best students; he believed in the circular movement of history, where the rise and fall of empires was driven by what we would call today the modes of production and their superstructure of ethics. All states were bound to fall after reaching certain levels of luxury. Like Ibn Khaldoun, Maqrizi was living in such a period.

In the 13th, 14th and early 15th centuries, the Mamlouk Empire in Egypt and the Levant was one of the region's most luxurious. Before the European geographical discoveries, the revenues of world trade had to pass by the lands of Arabs, and the Mamlouks collected the revenue. The Mamlouk state was also self sufficient in food, textiles and all raw materials needed for medieval life. Nevertheless, the state was morally corrupt. The Mamlouks, whose name, literally, means "the ones owned by others" were a clique of slave warriors brought into the Middle East from the Caucasus or Central Asia. They had overthrown the Ayyoubid dynasty in the second half of the 13th century.

Being a class of uprooted soldiers, the Mamlouks did not develop any form of the moral associations that result from settling down and stability. Their relations were strictly pragmatic. Making and breaking alliances, saving peoples' lives or killing them in cold blood, all depended on their calculation of what would bring them power.

To strengthen their positions, each of the Mamlouks, after having secured considerable fortunes from the spoils of war or from extracting the agricultural surplus of Egypt and the Levant, would use the best part of his money to buy more warrior slaves from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Supposedly, those newcomers would be loyal: An owner would teach the slave the arts of war and politics. In the first 10-15 years of their apprenticeship, the new Mamlouks would be economically dependent on the person who bought them. On the other hand, he would be greatly dependent on them as far as his military and political weight in the society was concerned. In essence, Mamlouk politics revolved around such units of old Mamlouks and their apprentices. Those gangs of slave warriors fought frequently, and the Mamlouk sultan had little power over the rest of the ruling elite.

All this created an atmosphere of insecurity, where every thing was temporary; the joys of the Mamlouks were susceptible to random attacks by newcomers or old rivals. Even the sultan's powers were held hostage to the delicate balances of power between factions that supported him and those that didn't.

Moreover, the safety and well-being of the normal peasant, who had nothing to do with the ruling class, was subject to the random attacks of the Mamlouks plundering his land to feed their mini armies. The world was so random that it seemed to defy reason. A sense of fatalism developed and trickled down into people's understanding of religion.

Islam, which had been a revolutionary force throughout its first three centuries, and a social doctrine of justice morality and fairness, became filled with beliefs in demons, possession, evil eyes and millions and millions of rituals. The religion was totally isolated from the sphere of politics and morality; it was also quarantined outside the realms of interpretation and philosophical debate.

Everything was heading toward disaster, yet the state was still extremely luxurious. This made people like Maqrizi believe in Ibn Khaldoun's analysis about the corrupting effects of luxury: Once people start buying others to defend them, their fortunes - politically or intellectually - start to decline.

Obsessed with destruction, Maqrizi decided to write a history of Cairo by describing the buildings of the city. His famous Book, The Lessons in Ruins and Wonders, is a great record of how Cairo looked in the 14th century.

Despite the fact that the book has been usually dealt with as a nonpolitical description of the buildings, I think there is much more to it. In telling the story behind each building, how it was built, who owned it, how it changed owners and what conspiracies took place in or around it, Maqrizi was delivering a subtle Khaldounian message that every building held the seeds of its own destruction - a concept his professor applied to whole societies.

In a sense Maqrizi was taking his professor's ideas one step further by stating that they were not only theoretical but rather were applicable to each an every palace in the city. In one of the very few incidents where he betrays his neutral mask, Maqrizi notes that a certain house built by the Fatimids was annexed by the Ayyoubids, and then by three different Mamlouk warlords. He then wrote about the consecutive owners of the house: "If you looked carefully, you'll see that they were but thieves robbing thieves. May God forgive us all!"

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::