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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Nadia Maria El-Cheikh


From : “Byzantium through the Islamic Prism from the Twelfth to the Thirteenth Century”, included in The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh, Dumbarton Oaks © 2001 - Here published with title and subtitles by Elpenor.

Historiography ||| The twelfth and thirteenth centuries ||| al-Rum ||| Byzantine skills ||| General character ||| Constantinople ||| Constantinople and Jerusalem ||| 1204 ||| Symbols of Constantinople ||| Islamic monuments of Constantinople 




The historiography of Muslim-Byzantine relations suffers from major gaps. The two major figures who have dealt with the subject are A. A. Vasiliev and Marius Canard. Vasiliev’s monumental work, Byzance et les Arabes, concentrates on the military and political relations between the Byzantines and the Arabs. Marius Canard’s publications are more varied; his bibliography includes pioneering works on various facets of the socio­economic, diplomatic, and cultural relations between the two empires. Important gaps remain, however, concerning the life and conditions on the Arab-Byzantine frontier,certain aspects of sociocultural and economic interactions,and the respective images of the two warring societies.

This study addresses the latter topic, the Islamic view of Byzantium during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The literature on this subject is still limited in spite of the growing number of published works on various aspects of East-West interactions and mutual perceptions during medieval times. Works instigated by both the debate on Orientalism and the activation of the Christian-Muslim dialogue have also tackled the issue of perception and representation, but only a few have handled it from the perspective of Arab­ Byzantine relations. Works on Byzantine perceptions of the Arabic-Islamic culture, people, and history remain few,while studies on Arab perceptions of Byzantium have witnessed a slight cumulative increase in recent years.

By the eleventh century, a certain tradition depicting Byzantium and the Byzantines had been elaborated in the Arabic-Islamic sources. Later sources juxtaposed contemporary perceptions side by side with earlier views. A major characteristic of the Arabic-Islamic sources of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is an approach that favored compilation and systematization. As a result, in a wide variety of sources, there is often duplication and reproduction from earlier works.

In order to delineate the Muslim representation of Byzantium in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, I review a collection of important and well-defined prose sources from this period, including universal chronicles and local histories, geographical works and biographical dictionaries, as well as monographs on individuals and dynasties. Ihave avoided the genre of the hero cycles, such as Sirat ‘Antar and Sirat Dhat al-Himma, be­cause of the uncertainties concerning the identity of the authors, the date of com­position, and the manuscript tradition. Not only are these texts filled with additions and interpolations, they also do not exist in critical editions. There is no doubt that once these obstacles are surmounted, the epics will provide a great amount of material relevant to the popular Arab medieval mentality.

It is necessary to take into account the limitations of such an approach. One such factor is that Arab culture, during these centuries, was mainly a palace culture. We see the age through the eyes of the senior bureaucrats and of the ‘Ulama’ who had drawn close to the centers of power. The information and views are thus limited socially. Another important consideration to keep in mind is that although the individual contemporary authors could emphasize a particular aspect of Byzantium, or bring out a new facet, they still conveyed entrenched images extant in a wide variety of sources. I try to distinguish between those authors who related firsthand accounts, having visited Byzantine territories during this period, and those who relied solely on secondhand information, whether oral or written. The present task is thus to look at the texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in order to detect continuities and changes in these depictions, in light of the new historical context created by the onslaught of the Crusades.


Cf.  Christianity and Islam - Two related, yet different religions * Koran – the invention of an artificial religion * Turkey * The Orthodox Church * Byzantine history * On the Byzantine Military Strategy * Greek Language

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