Pre-modern Arabic foundation legends for ancient cities in the Bilad al-Sham

13 February 2019 18:30 to 20:00

102 Uhod Street,
Tla' al-Al

How did pre-modern Arabic writers conceptualise the origins of the ancient cities which Muslims, Christians, and Jews continued to inhabit through the pre-modern period? Perhaps the greatest encyclopaedia of places in pre-modern Arabic, Yāqūt’s seven-volume Muʿjam al-buldān (Dictionary of the lands), consistently assembles and compiles the various understandings of cities’ origins found in the vast archive of Islamic knowledge which was available to a 13th century Muslim.

Alternative historical and linguistic epistemologies are invoked to make etymological assertions that might not have seemed strange to Isidore of Seville, while Israelites, Amalekites, and Hellenistic kings rub shoulders in foundation narratives making various claims about the cities whose beginnings they narrate. This paper presents some preliminary research undertaken as part of the ‘Impact of the Ancient City’ ERC project at the University of Cambridge, asking whether these apparently different antiquities served different purposes in the Islamic urban imaginary, whether and how contradictory rigin-stories for these cities were resolved, and the extent to which pre-modern Muslims remembered a specifically Greco-Roman antiquity for certain cities and the means by which they did so.

About the speaker: Dr Edward Zychowicz-Coghill completed a DPhil in History at Oxford University, working on the emergence of the tradition of Arabic historical writing in early Islamic Egypt. He is now a Junior Research Fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge.

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