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Islamic Studies

Illuminating snippets of history

Munich, 02/14/2014

A tax receipt from the 9th, and a marriage contract from the 11th century are two of the entries in a database of Arabic documents, which is being set up by LMU researchers, and throws new light on daily life in Egypt hundreds of years ago.

A much later letter of recommendation, dated 9. November 1469, written by a senior official for a colleague who was setting out for Egypt.One day in the ninth century, al-Ḥasan b. Saʿīd made out a receipt for a tax payment on a fragment of papyrus: “I have received 200 dinars from you,” the note says. The 1200-year-old tax return has not only survived, it is now online and freely accessible to all in the Arabic Papyrology Database (APD). The document also mentions the name of the payee, Muḥammad b. as-Sarīy, and the tax collector confirms receipt of the full amount due by adding the endorsement: “All my officials or assistants who may meet him are hereby enjoined to treat him well.”

More than 1500 such texts, including letters, contracts and business accounts, have already been incorporated into the APD, which is being constructed under the supervision of Professor Andreas Kaplony at LMU’s Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, in collaboration with colleagues at the universities of Zurich and Vienna. It is the first database to be devoted to utilitarian, non-literary texts in Arabic, inscribed on papyrus and paper, and provides a unique source for the understanding of everyday life in the Arab world, beginning in the early decades of the expansion of Islam.

“The Arabic Papyrology Database opens up for study a rich treasure-trove of documents that have remained virtually unknown,” says Kaplony. The texts deal with commercial transactions, as in the case of sales and rental contracts, but also with affairs of the heart and with family matters – for marriage contracts, records of divorce settlements, and personal correspondence are also represented. For example, the database lists a papyrus dated to around the year 800 CE, and this document suggests that not all that much has changed in the life of a salesman – whose livelihood depends on persuading prospective customers to part with their money – in the meantime. The text describes the sale of a female donkey. The transaction was obviously a hard sell but, in the end, the animal changed hands for 6 dinars, but only after “we had almost given up hope of ever being able to sell her, although we made every effort to praise her qualities and arouse interest in her”. Several people had taken a closer look at her, but they had only wanted to know if animal was in fact female!

The researchers’ immediate objective is to incorporate into the APD all previously published historical documents of this kind written in Arabic. The database is already proving its worth as a powerful research tool for linguists and historians. In addition to the original Arabic text, each entry includes a translation, which allows the user to follow the process by which the editors arrived at their preferred interpretation of its content. Furthermore, each lexical element is linked to an online dictionary. “We want to make each step in the editorial process transparent, and we include alternative readings – a feature that no other database offers,” Kaplony remarks.

Women and children come into focus
In all, approximately 130,000 historical documents relating to everyday life in Arab lands are now known, of which only about 3500 have been published. Untold numbers of texts still await discovery in “the scorching sands of the desert”, as Kaplony puts it. The new database gives scholars of Islam a tool which affords new insights into the history of the Arabs, partly “because it complements the information available from literary sources,” Kaplony says. The rich tradition of Arabic literature and historiography provides a very incomplete picture of the environments in which it was created, as it leaves out the modes of life of whole sections of their societies. The documents listed in the APD, on the other hand, reflect everyday experience. This is what makes them so valuable as sources of insight into the lives of women, children and peasants.

“The APD also enables us to tease out valuable information about linguistics, about colloquial, everyday Arabic and how it was refashioned for literary purposes. The database makes it possible to study large samples of particular types of document too, permitting us to answer more general questions. – How was a sales contract structured? How were letters composed? What differences in form and register are there between a letter addressed to “my dearest slave” and one sent to a wayward son, pointing out politely but unequivocally that it is time for him to return home? Questions like that can only be answered when one has a large collection of sources to study,” Kaplony explains.

Thus the documents “on file” in the APD can tell us a great deal about the nature of social structures and how they evolved. Dr. Daniel Potthast of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at LMU is using the documents to probe aspects of cultural history. He is currently examining the texts of letters written in Arabic and exchanged between Muslim and Christian rulers, in order to learn more about diplomatic relations in the 14th century. “These provide information of a kind that cannot be obtained from literary sources,” he says. Among other things, they contain new information about maritime trade and measures taken to protect shipping from attack by pirates. – And this can lead to surprising insights. “The analysis of these documents essentially overturns all our existing ideas regarding diplomatic relations in the Mediterranean world in the 14th century. It shows that a culture of diplomacy which transcended language barriers did in fact exist at that time,” says Kaplony.

Humanities go digital
At LMU’s Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, the work on the APD goes hand-in-hand with two other internet-based projects, the Arabic Papyrology School and the Arabic Papyrology Webclass. Both of these ventures utilize digital communications technology to bring together young researchers and established investigators based in various parts of the world, including scholars in Arab countries. “These internet-based projects facilitate regular international exchange of information and insights, which would not be feasible otherwise,” says Kaplony. For example, the researchers, who use Skype to “attend” the virtual classroom, are presently engaged on a collaborative analysis of documents that are related in one way or another to the history of childhood. And more than 1000 students are enrolled in the Arabic Papyrology School, where they learn to decipher documents written in Arabic.

“The APD is a part of what is now called ‘Digital Humanities’, an area in which LMU is certainly among the leaders,” says Kaplony. The term refers to ongoing efforts to develop digital tools specifically to meet the needs of researchers in the Humanities. The great advantage of online databases such as the APD is that they make enormous amounts of data and supplementary information available in a form that can be utilized for a multitude of purposes.

The work of Professor Kaplony and his 10-man team on the APD is made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has long supported the project, and has just agreed to extend its funding for a further 2 years, until the end of 2015. nh

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