Space, Time, and Movement (in Athens)

By Mustafa Banister

Space, Time, and Movement (in Athens)[1]

“Try to create something original, you’re in for a surprise.” –Bob Dylan[2]

Did you know that the Ottomans made the Parthenon into a mosque?

Twice actually. The first time- not long after the conquest of Constantinople in the late 1450s; they seized the duchy of Athens with its 10,000 inhabitants and converted the entire structure of the Parthenon into a minaretted mosque. In the process, they added their own meanings to the ancient temple after it had already been repurposed as a Catholic church following the Fourth Crusade, and before that as the church of the Holy Virgin of Athens. During its life as a mosque, the Parthenon was also used to store armaments. When the Venetians bombarded the Acropolis in 1687, the weapons exploded and a sizeable portion of the ancient structure was completely destroyed. After removing the wreckage and incorporating what they found into a new building – this time within the Parthenon’s pillars – the Ottomans built a somewhat smaller second mosque which lasted until Greek independence in the nineteenth century when some of the original meanings of the form were returned, or, perhaps, “restored”.

It’s an old game for conquerors. Go to the biggest, shiniest symbols of the subjugated enemy and imbue them with new meanings and messages; commandeer them for new purposes that announce your arrival, presence, and position. There’s also the question of repurposing spolia– is it always deliberate and meaning-laden, or rather sometimes more pragmatic or even accidental? It makes sense to build new structures from what’s to be found lying around in the wake of destruction or torn asunder by the ravages of time. After all- it’s hard (and maybe even a waste of time) to carry newbuilding materials up an ancient hill.

In early September I flew to Athens to attend a symposium hosted by the University of Southern Denmark (Odense)/University of York’s Centre for Medieval Literature entitled “Moving Forms: The Transformations and Translocations of Medieval Literature” held at the Danish Institute. It was an excellent chance to take another deep dive into the baḥr al-balāgha (al-Maqrīzī’s words, not mine) and slip once again into the persona of my fifteenth century alter ego, Aḥmad ibn ʿArabshāh, who, although he never made it to Athens, spent a solid decade 600 km across the Aegean in eastern Thrace (Ottoman Edirne) where he first encountered a Turkish translation of the thirteenth-century Marzbān-nāma and later set it loose to live a new life (in Arabic) in the Cairo Sultanate and beyond.…

After arriving in Plaka and checking into my room, I took in what I could of the nearby Acropolis, its temples, and the adjacent museum full of ancient artifacts that had been found close by. One wall of the museum told the story of a wedding in shards of pottery and surviving materials. Across from the wall was a hall of eyeless votive korai statues; the ancient paint having long since been worn away or otherwise erased. I looked at their tiny empty, almond-shaped sockets for a long time trying to imagine what had once been painted there.

The next day, on the first morning of the symposium, Dr. Ingela Nilsson delivered a key note that struck a chord that reverberated with many of the participants, encouraging us to remember that not all recycling (literary, material, or otherwise) is deliberate, and that sometimes things land as they land, and that localized practicality may dictate that an upturned stylite fragment gets to live a second life as a modern basin for prayer ablutions. Applied to the question of agency in intertextual relationships—we must likewise ask if the repurposing of text is something deliberate or accidental?

“Translation”, or more aptly re-interpretation in my own case studies of Ibn ʿArabshāh’s various textual transplantation projects on the micro-level, ought then to pursue the agency of the author’s texts on the socio-cultural level to get at how various stories can often be reshaped culturally for local purposes, in which (to inversely paraphrase Nilsson), the global can become local.

Another interesting lead I jotted down from the keynote, was on the existence of Mieke Bal’s piece on intention (for artists in her case, but nevertheless relevant to authors of late medieval Arabic historiography as well). During my undergrad days, I remember often being told by history professors that we could never know anything about why anyone did anything. That the intentions of historical actors were highly problematic and effectively “off limits” to modern scholars. Thus we could never really know what motivated the likes of Saladin or Napoleon… Nevertheless, there seems to have been a paradigmatic shift somewhere along the way; intentions are indeed in play, and we can now begin to (cautiously or uncautiously) explore possible reasons why our authors wrote as they did, when they did, how they did, etc… this can be equal parts freeing/startling.

In Athens, I was happy to see the familiar face of another veteran of the MMS-II project, Dr. Gowaart Van Den Bossche, now of the Aga Khan University, London, who had taken a lengthier (though far more scenic) land route to the symposium that brought him through Italy, across the ferry, and down into the mountains of Greece. As it always is, it was nice catching up with Gowaart, who first brought the symposium to my attention back in December. Pleasantly, both of our papers were accepted and rather than put us together on a token, predictable “Islamicate” panel, the organizers split us up after considering our abstracts. To their credit, the organizers of the symposium did a great job grouping papers together in a way that encouraged a natural harmony between presentations; Gowaart situated late medieval Arabic epistolography and chancery literature alongside discussions of Old Norse kingly anecdotes and medieval Irish narrative construction. When my turn came on the second day, I spoke about Ibn ʿArabshāh’s translocation and transplantation of a work of early thirteenth century Persian advice literature into the Arabic cultural milieu of fifteenth century Egypt along with early modern Norwegian legal literature and women as transcultural agents in High German translation. There were certainly many parallel threads running through our engagement with moving textual forms, paratexts, and authorial networks. We know that the fifteenth century Islamicate world in particular was a time of great movement for texts and one in which scholars had the relative freedom to move from one political jurisdiction to the next, bringing new genres, ideas, and textual forms along for the ride. Places like Ottoman Edirne were enriched by the migration of Iranian and Central Asian scholars, while Cairo with its madrasas and Sufi hostels also had a magnetic pull on intellectuals and scholars.

My paper touched on themes of translation, movement, and context via the traveling and transformation of one particular kind of literary form, specifically a textual template in the guise of a work of so-called ‘Mirrors for Princes’ kingly advice literature across time, space, and language and its transplantation from one cultural context into another which ultimately resulted in an entirely new text: the Fākihat al-khulafā’, remade according to the specific tastes of the late medieval Syro-Egyptian social world that Ibn ʿArabshāh found himself in during the late 1440s.

Despite the old familiar contextual unfamiliarity that Europeanists may sometimes feel toward the Islamic world (and, often vice versa) I found a warm reception for my paper. To be sure, one of the quickest ways into the hearts of medievalists of all stripes and specializations, is to discuss animal fable Fürstenspiegel for 20 minutes. It really is the perfect universal academic ice-breaker — not unlike showing someone a picture of your baby or a kitten. As a social historian at a conference on medieval literature, however, it was hard not to feel like a humble tourist in an unfamiliar place.

Many colleagues seemed inspired by and interested in the approach of Bruno Latour and his Actor Network Theory. The Q&A for my panel raised interesting questions including one comment that encouraged us to consider our texts as networks (in and of themselves) in which transcultural agents and liminal figures such as women or animals could converge to play unique literary roles. Another audience member suggested that Ibn ʿArabshāh may have linked or anchored his Fākiha to the Kalīla wa Dimna (which he mentions in the introduction) as a way of ensuring the survival of his text through association with a civilizational classic.

Overall it was a serene meeting of scholars at different points in their careers, gathering for a few extra days of stolen Summer: fresh phd students, those about to defend, postdocs, freshly appointed faculty, and seasoned professors. In all, we were a group of about 30. It was nice again to see yet another venue in which specialists on the Islamic World were also actively engaging. So much so that during a break on the second day I chatted with one of the participants, another postdoc who, leaning in, observed, “there sure are a lot of Arabists here!” “Three?” I asked, thinking of Gowaart, myself, and a third senior colleague. “Wouldn’t you say that’s a lot?” “Well, out of 30 medievalists, I suppose you’re right!”

The symposium proved to be a wonderful chance to catch up with old colleagues and meet new ones under the shadow of the Acropolis. As I fell asleep in my room on the final night, I thought again of the eyeless korai statues in the museum and the attempts of the research staff to recreate new digital eyes for them on modern computer-recreation videos. The video allowed you to watch as the blank spaces were slowly filled up with color. Like water filling up a room, a new digitally-sketched eye suddenly appeared based on the ancient producer’s imagined intent. The idea of creating something similar to what had once been before, filling out a form with one’s best guess in the hope of adding relatable meaning capable of bridging past with present was all around us.

[1] N.B. For this installment of our project blog, I (have tried to) affect the style of Celâl Salik, Orhan Pamuk’s newspaper columnist character in The Black Book… Apologies in advance.

[2] From Bob Dylan’s Q&A with Bill Flanagan, quoted in our keynote by the Swedish Byzantinist/Narratologist Dr. Ingela Nilsson. Quote in context here: (worth checking out for Dylan fans and budding narratologists alike).