Me and Ibn Taghrībirdī (1410-1470): The Intersecting Trajectories of a Court-Historian and a Young Researcher

By Rihab Ben Othmen

Beyond the many stories recounted about him who really was Ibn Taghrībirdī? This is, actually, one of the central questions that set off my three-year research journey exploring the fifteenth century Egyptian historian: Abū al-Maḥāsin Ibn Taghrībirdī. As a part of my contribution to the Ghent based project the Mamlukization of the Mamluk Sultanate II, which focuses on challenging queries regarding the socio-cultural practices related to power and history writing, I had to find out more about my author’s life and legacy. I must confess that in the very beginning of the process, my knowledge about him was broad and sketchy. When writing my dissertation, a couple of years ago, I was immersed in the world of the fifteenth century Syro-Egyptian women, and in this particular context Ibn Taghrībirdī was, it has to be said, not one of the historians that I had closely engaged with. In truth, the male dominated world on display in his writings prevented me, in some way, from being acquainted with him and also with his works. Nevertheless, what I got to know over the course of my doctoral researches is that he was a son of an august emir and a prominent court-historian. This first image that I had of him came to be steadily bolstered and even more fixed when I started examining the different biographical notes sketching his life and achievements in medieval historiography. By all accounts, Abū al-Maḥāsin was first and foremost a member of the awlād al-nās who embarked on a scholarly career just like the best of his peers. He was a man who was quite familiar with the military ruling elite, especially with different Turkish rulers, and, one who lived a comfortable life. Most importantly, he was a controversial historian who provoked hostility and stirred the resentment of his contemporaries, but subsequently became widely admired by later historians and modern researchers. In spite of the fact that important details sketching his life and achievements are available, widely known and established, Abū al-Maḥāsin remained, at least in my own view, an invisible historical character. As he has come to be recognized and approached as a notable son of an emir who engaged in the career of a historian, it simultaneously appeared to me as if he had been trapped in an overtly reductive and all-encompassing image of him. This preliminary assumption or first impression was inspired indeed by a close reading of his biographical dictionary Manhal al-Ṣāfī and chronicle al-Nujūm al-Zāhira. My charting of the numerous autobiographical notes and statements interspersed within these compilations, led me to evoke his personal experiences and the overall saga of his life, and ultimately introduced me to another Ibn Taghrībirdī. I have to admit that reading through his writings has been an amazing experience for me, and I guess it would be the same for any reader, all the more so, as Abū al-Maḥāsin is quite embedded and entrenched in his writings. Beyond the copious details and vivid descriptions provided in his works about courtly life, political struggles, and historical characters, which on their own may stir the interest of any researcher, what struck me the most about him is the way he spread himself across his texts and actively engaged with the world around him. As a result, it actually did not take long for me to realize that the biographical depictions devoted to him in medieval accounts were much more reductive than I had thought and that his rich life experiences and story remained yet unexplored. In order to try to figure out who was the man behind these depictions or at least to uncover the person he pretended to be and tried to be in the course of his life, I had to delve into his writings. How he represented himself –both-, his personal experiences and his professional undertaking- provided some of the guiding clues for his self-interpretation, which inspired me while reading his different works and which allowed me in turn to gain access into his world: the world of his individual experiences as he perceived it, represented it, and wanted it to be remembered by subsequent generations. Exploring Ibn Taghrībirdī’s varying and sometimes contrasting self-representation enabled me to contemplate the constant metamorphosis of his authorial persona. More specifically, it made it possible to see how he evolved from “a daddy’s boy” in his early career to a self-made man; or rather, I was able to perceive him as someone who tried to ride his daddy’s coattails, or to leverage his father’s memory, in order to find his way among his people and become a mature writer who forged his own path in life. While reading through different passages in his Nujūm I discovered more and more of his personal experience in the Cairene court. For example, I learned about his life-changing encounter with the prominent courtier Badr al-Dīn al-ʽAynī, which indeed inspired him to take on his life’s vocation and thus became one of the, foundational moments in his life. But I also learned about other times of uncertainty and hardship that he experienced while pursuing his dream of being a “second” al-ʽAynī. As is well known, this journey started for Ibn Taghrībirdī when he met his master al-ʽAynī at the court of sultan Barsbāy (r. 1422-38), and more precisely when he attended the former’s history reading session before the sultan. That was a turning point in his life and personal trajectory, as it represented the moment when he found himself, and identified goals along the lines of his master’s achievements as the sultan’s private counselor. This foundational moment significantly marked him and shaped his career as a historian. Ibn Taghrībirdī’s keen longing to be a courtier and a “second” al-ʽAynī was considerably and subtly projected in his writings, as well as in his versatility as a writer, his multiple and contrasted identity claims and his courtly-oriented approach to events and characters. Even though, he did not really succeed to become a “second” al-ʽAynī and failed to find his own Barsbāy, Abū al-Maḥāsin never ceased seeing and presenting himself as the perfect courtier. His many critical notes decrying the abolition of court rituals, ceremonials and symbols of royal sovereignty show us how he instead became a self-appointed expert and a memorialist of the Cairene court.

In brief, to better understand Ibn Taghrībirdī the historian, I have had to delve into his very inner impulses, expectations and emotions as they were expressed and projected in his different writings. Along the way, I have to confess that an intellectual affinity and a kind of friendship developed between us. To reach a close understanding of my author’s persona and writings, I could not avoid being somehow emotionally involved. The fact that I am spending some three years of my life as a young researcher working on him and assiduously exploring his works, play a considerable role in this. After more than a year and a half spent in Ibn Taghrībidī’s “courtly” world, and even in these hard times of confinement, I still enjoy sitting at my desk and reading through his works. Decidedly, the meeting between individual trajectories oftentimes produces a coincidental though formative experience, a foundational moment for both parties, in addition to a moment of inspiration and creativity. Perhaps, this may summarize how Ibn Taghrībirdī’s trajectory crossed and fused with that of al-ʽAynī’s as well as how I, as a fan of gender history, later on found myself immersed in his fifteenth century courtly and male-dominated world.