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Saadian Intellectual and Cultural Life

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - SICLE (Saadian Intellectual and Cultural Life)

Reporting period: 2020-08-01 to 2021-09-30

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. The sultans' "Ottomanophily" is not restricted to the bindings: in the art of the book, illumination or lay-out also evince sings of Ottoman influence.

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 results of the study of the collection allowed to better understand the way in which it was acquired. The paratexts prove very valuable in this sense, but also provided an important amount of data about the prices of the books bought in Cairo for the sultan's library. The analysis of the various thematically contents of the library shows its encyclopedic nature: it covers the various aspects of Islamic literature and culture
The main result of the SICLE project are in two books, to be published in 2022:
1- Les livres du sultan, Matériaux pour une histoire du livre et de la vie intellectuelle du Maroc saadien (XVIe siècle).
The book offers a history of the library, from its beginning in 1578 until the moment it reached the Escorial library. Then comes a catalogue of the manuscripts of the Saadian collection that are kept in the Escorial library; this serves as a basis for a study of manuscripts production during the period, a paleographical study of the scripts of the period and an analysis of reading and readers in Saadian times. The third part, divided into 12 chapters, analyses the contents of each of the thematically sections of the library. Two annexes include data from the physico-chemical analysis of some manuscripts.

2- Libros sin lectores.
The book is devoted to the books of the last Muslim communities of Spain, before they were expelled to North Africa in 1609-10, at about the same time when the library was captured by Spain.

In addition to various papers published so far, these two books provide entirely fresh views about the period and try to put Saadian Morocco in the frame of the contemporary history, looking for the links with its environment.
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.