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Home arrow Geography arrow Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin West : tracing the emergence of medieval Europe


Soon Arabic-Islamic scholars became less dependent on material recorded by Oriental Christians. From the early tenth century onwards, fresh information about the bishop of Rome was acquired in the border regions between the Arabic- Islamic and the Latin-Christian sphere, i.e. in Byzantium, al-Andalus, Sicily, and Hungary.

Via Byzantium: ‘The Pope’, Local Ruler of Christian Rome

In the texts discussed so far, the bishop of Rome held the title ‘patriarch of Rome’ (batrakl batrakhl batrik Rumiyya) and was defined as one of four patriarchs in the Mediterranean. Ibn Rustah (d. after 300/913), who mentions an alternative title associated with another function, provides the earliest Arabic-Islamic description of the pope that does not depend on late antique source material. Ibn Rustah asserts that the city of Rome ‘is a city governed by a ruler called the pope (a/-bab)53 Its huge church:

contains the graves of two apostles in the west and the east of the church, inlaid with gold. It is said that they belong to Simon Peter and Paul. Every Christian Easter, which is on Thursday, the ruler opens and enters the grave armed with a razor. He then shaves Simon’s head and beard, cuts his nails, exits and distributes one hair to each man among the people of his realm. This is an annual custom since 900 years.[1] [2]

Ibn Rustah seems to have drawn on the report of a person called Harun b. Yahya who visited parts of the Byzantine Empire during a period of captivity.[3] Ibn Rustah mentions him at the beginning of his chapter on Constantinople, which also contains the passages on Rome and the pope cited above. Parts of the chapter are written in the form of a dialogue between a first-person narrator and his interlocutors from Rome. That these interlocutors were really Latin and not Byzantine Christians is suggested by the fact that they are described as beardless.5[4] [5] According to the first-person narrator,

the people of Rome, big and small, shave their entire beard, not missing a single hair. They also shave the middle of their head. I asked them concerning the reason for shaving their beard, telling them that the beauty of a man lies in his beard, asking them also concerning the purpose of their behaviour towards themselves. They said: “Anyone who does not shave in this way cannot be considered a true Christian. This is the case because Peter and the apostles came to us without staff and pouch, since they were weak and poor whereas we were kings at that time, clothed with brocade and sitting on golden chairs. They called us to the Christian religion, but we did not respond to them. Instead, we seized and tortured them and shaved their heads and beards. But when it dawned on us that they had spoken the truth, we in turn began to shave our beards to compensate for what we committed when we shaved their beards.”5[6]

Although Harun b. Yahya is never explicitly equated with this first-person narrator, scholarship generally accepts that he acquired the above-mentioned information.5[7] This does not seem far-fetched, considering that eyewitness accounts from Rome appear to have reached the Islamic world occasionally in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani (d. after 290/902), for example, mentions a group of monks who spent a year in Rome as sources of information.5[8] Regardless whether Harun b. Yahya led the above-mentioned conversation, and irrespective of whether he really communicated with people from Rome, it is apparent that Ibn Rustah’s description of the pope has a very different and rather ‘medieval’ flavour. Carrying a new title, Ibn Rustah’s pope seems detached from Byzantium and the patriarchal network of the late antique Mediterranean mentioned by al-Ya'qubi and al-Mas'udl. He is the local ruler of a wealthy urban community, a ruler who upholds a 900-year-old miraculous tradition and religious customs that date back to the early period of the Roman Empire’s Christianization. Only in this sense is Ibn Rustah’s description of the pope still linked to the Roman heritage.

  • [1] Ibn Rustah, a/-a4aq a/-nafisa, ed. de Goeje, p. 128: ‘yudabbir amraha malik yuqal lahu al-bab’.Copied by al-Bakri, a/-masa/ik, ed. van Leeuwen and Ferre, § 803-5, pp. 478—9; al-Himyari, a/-rawda/-mitar, ed. 'Abbas, pp. 275—6.
  • [2] Ibn Rustah, a/-aiaq a/-nafisa, ed. de Goeje, pp. 128—9: ‘wa-fi l-kanisa qabr rajulayn minal-hawariyyin ma' mul min dhahab . . . yuqal li-ahad sahibay al-qabrayn Sham' un al-safa wa-l-akharBalus fa-idha kana fish al-nasara fi kull sana wa-huwa yawm al-khamis jaa al-malik fa-fataha babal-qabr wa-nazala ila l-qabr wa-ma'ahu musan fa-halaqa ra's Sham' un wa-lihyatahu wa-qallamaazfarahu wa-sa' ada wa-qasama li-kull rajul min ahl mamlakatihi sha' ra hadha ' amaluhum fi kull sanamundhu tis' a mi'at sana . . . ’.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 119.
  • [4] 2 Beards are regularly regarded as a distinctive feature of Latin Christians in Byzantine, Latin, andArabic-Islamic sources, cf. Procopius, Anekdota, ed./trans. Veh, cap. VII,7, pp. 60—1; Nikephorus
  • [5] Gregoras, Historiae, ed. Niebuhr (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 19,1), cap. IX,2, p. 396,trans. van Dieten, vol. 2,1, cap. IX,9, p. 83. I would like to thank Lutz Rickelt for providing me withthese two references. Also see the picture of ‘notarii greci’, ‘notarii saraceni’, and ‘notarii latini’, thelatter without a beard in: Petrus de Ebulo, Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus siculis, ed. Kolzer andStahli, trans. Becht-Jordens, fol. 101; Yaqut, mujam, ed. Wustenfeld, vol. 1, lemma ‘Bashghird’, pp.469—70, on Muslims from Hungary who do not shave their beards ‘as do the Franks’ (kama taf alal-Afranj).
  • [6] 57 Ibn Rustah, alalaq al-nafisa, ed. de Goeje, pp. 129—30: ‘wa-ahl al-Rumiyya saghiruhumwa-kabiruhum yahliquna lihahum kullaha la yatrukuna minha sha'ra wahida 'ala adhqanihimwa-yahliquna wasat hamatihim fa-sa'altuhum 'an al-sabab fi halq lihahim wa-qultu lahum anna zaynal-rajul fi l-liha fa-ma muradukum min hadha alladhi taf alunahu bi-anfusikum fa-qalu anna kull manlam yahliq lihyatihi lam yakun nasraniyyan khalisan wa-dhalika annahu ja'ana Sham'un al-safa wa-l-hawariyyun lam yakun ma'ahum 'asa wa-la jirab innama kanu masakin du'afa' wa-kunna nahnu idhdhaka muluk 'alayna al-dibaj wa-nahnu 'ala karasi al-dhahab yad'una ila din al-nasraniyya fa-lamnujibhum fa-akhadhnahum wa-'adhabnahum wa-halaqna ru'usahum wa-lihahum fa-lamma zaharalana sidq qawlihim sirna nahliq lihana kaffaratan li-ma irtakabnahu min halq lihahim.’
  • [7] 58 Izzedin, ‘Harun b. Yahya’ (1971), p. 232; Lewis and Hopkins, ‘Ifrandj’ (1971), p. 1044.Mohring, ‘Konstantinopel’ (1989), p. 71 n. 66, formulates doubts.
  • [8] 59 Ibn al-Faqih, mukhtasar, ed. de Goeje, pp. 149—50: ‘wa-dhakara ba'd al-ruhban mimmandakhalaha wa-aqama biha sana wahida . . .’.
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