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Saadian Intellectual and Cultural Life

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SICLE (Saadian Intellectual and Cultural Life)

Reporting period: 2019-02-01 to 2020-07-31

The SICLE project intends to investigate in a completely new way the intellectual and cultural history of the Saadian period in Morocco (1554-1660). During that period, Morocco was directly involved in international politics and exchanges, having direct contacts with the Ottoman empire and various European countries (Spain and Portugal, but also France, England and the Netherlands). It even reached Central Africa when Timbuktu and the Songhay empire were conquered. The sixteenth century is also a period of economic success, with the sugar trade bringing in money from Europe.

The Saadian sultans’ library, exceptionally preserved as a ‘time capsule’ in the library of the El Escorial monastery in Spain, following its capture in 1612 under the reign of Mulay Zaydān (1603-27), serves as a basis for this study. The manuscripts kept in El Escorial mirror the interests and the tastes of the Saadian rulers and of the elite at large. We have no exact idea of the contents of Medieval or Early Modern libraries in the Islamic world and in the very few cases where a list or a catalogue has been preserved, the manuscripts are no longer available or only a handful of them. In the case of the Saadian library, we can examine the books, retrace their history and sometimes identify their readers, mainly thanks to notes or material evidence that has never been recorded in the catalogues of the collection.

The materiality of the manuscripts is providing now new elements for the cultural history of Saadian Morocco. A particularly significant example is that of the bindings. In Morocco, the sixteenth century witnessed a technical change in their decoration. Instead of tooling the covers with small tools requiring to be stamped many times in order to produce an ornament, Moroccan binders began to use engraved plates that allowed to print directly a complete composition. The technique as well as the style of the decoration are clearly borrowed from Ottoman binders. Actually, the plates (or at least some of them) were imported from the Ottoman Empire. This is a new proof of the taste for Ottoman fashions in Saadian Morocco. However, the bindings produced for the Saadian library keep a “Moroccan touch” and some of them show a tendency to reinterpret in a specific way the Ottoman models.

Fig. 1. Central ornament from two bindings in the San Lorenzo de El Escorial collection.
Left: Ottoman ornament. Right: Moroccan version of an Ottoman model.

The manuscripts are from various periods and places, many of them having been produced in the East. A pilot study of the poetry manuscripts shows how the global study of the library can provide a new understanding of the cultural interests of the Saadian elite. Among the many poems devoted to the praise of the prophet Muhammad, half of the copies have been produced in the Islamic West, a majority dated to the sixteenth century, which gives more weigh to what Muhammad Hajji called the “religious character” of Moroccan thought in Saadian times. If we turn now to the classical Abbasid and Andalusian poetry, the distribution of the texts according to the origin of the copies is quite different and the contrast with the religious poetry quite significant. The collections of poems by Abbasid authors are older and frequently produced in the East and the classical Andalusian poetry clearly has a strong local appeal.

Fig. 2. Maghribi manuscript of poetry.

The first results of the study of the collection confirms that it is an outstanding source for the study of the culture of the Moroccan elites in Saadian times and opens new perspectives about the circulation of texts and ideas in the Islamic part of the Mediterranean sea.
The first period of the SICLE project has been dominated by the Work on the Escorial collection, more precisely its Survey, the most important step towards the implementation of the research on Saadian cultural and intellectual life. As it had been scheduled to integrate the data collected into a database that would later be extended to other Saadian manuscripts, a short descriptive template has been devised, covering in priority the fields that were left unexplored by previous catalogues and publications. Two major fields were concerned:
1- The materiality of the book.
The entries concern codicological and palaeographical elements, such as paper, constitution of the codex (quires, marks related to their order, inks, binding, etc.) and the kind of script used for the main text as well as data about the ancillary marks employed by the copyist.
2- The paratextual elements.
It was decided to collect more precisely than our predecessors the information found in the colophons. The names of the copyists were not indicated in the catalogue, an information that is highly relevant for the intellectual history as some of the copyists are also scholars known from other sources. The title pages were taken separately into account as they turned to reflect local practices that could be used at a later stage of the research. The various notes were also meticulously recorded: ownership statements, waqf, reading/hearing certificates, but also dates of birth or records of astronomical peculiarities. A category was added during a second stage it turned out that some prices turned had been recorded on some of the manuscripts and could provide evidence for a groundbreaking research on the economy of the book. Finally, the decoration of the manuscripts was summarily described.

While the survey was going on, some research was already started on what was termed Specific cases, that is to say sub-fields in the survey. The PI started a research into a fifteenth century multiple text manuscript that was part of the Saadian library because it exhibited a selection of texts that could be related to those found in another MTM prepared in the second half of the sixteenth century for a Saadian prince, a compendium of texts that a member of the elite should master. Its contents could actually be paralleled with the list of works that were part of Aḥmad al-Manṣūr’s curriculum. In the same way, the TA drafted a report on the poetry manuscripts that was elaborated upon by the PI and the SC as a pilot project in the evaluation of the links between the contents of the library and the intellectual history of Saadian Morocco. In both cases, the findings were highly encouraging and challenging.
The project aims at producing a comprehensive view of the cultural and intellectual life in Saadian Morocco relying primarily on the global study of its books. The intellectual production, as it can be grasped through the literary works of the time, will be complemented by a full presentation of the texts which mattered for the contemporaries, either earlier compositions or works imported from abroad. In addition to the sources which have been used by M. Hajji in his Activité intellectuelle au Maroc à l’époque sa’dide (Rabat, 1976), we shall use not only the manuscripts of Mulay Zaydān’s library, but also the other Saadian manuscripts kept in Morocco –with a special attention for those which were part of libraries. Instead of looking at discrete items kept under the same roof, SICLE considers the collections as a whole and try to discover the relationship between the books as well as between them and the contemporary intellectual production.