The Past, Panegyric, and the Performance of Penmanship: Sultanic Biography and Social Practice in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria

Document Type



Department of History, Ghent University


This dissertation evaluates a corpus of six sultanic biographies (sīra) written by Muḥyī al-Dīn b. ʿAbd al-Ẓāhir (d. 692 / 1293) and his nephew Shāfiʿ b. ʿAlī (d. 730 /1330). Both authors were prominent scribes at various courts of the late seventh / thirteenth and early eighth / fourteenth century (so-called Mamluk) sultanate of Cairo. The sīra’s discuss the lives and reigns of sultans Baybars (r. 658/1260-676/1277, two texts), Qalāwūn (r. 678/1279-689/1290, two texts), al-Ashraf Khalīl (r. 689/1290-693/1293, one text), and al-Nāṣir Muḥammad (r. 693/1293-694/1294, 698/1299-708/1309, 709/1309-741/1341, one text), although the historical coverage is incomplete due to not all manuscripts surviving in full. While five of these texts have been studied before in varying degrees of thoroughness (the sixth, a sīra of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad written by Shāfiʿ b. ʿAlī, is a new discovery made within the framework of this doctoral research), this dissertation proposes the first systematic and in-depth analysis of the full corpus of preserved sīra’s written by these two authors. It does so by taking into account the full complexity of their textual construction, giving equal attention to the historiographical accounts as to the documentary and poetical pieces contained within these wide-ranging texts, as well as to the material situation of the preserved manuscripts. The textual analysis is embedded within a thorough contextual understanding of political developments, social practice, and literary culture of the period, and understands these texts as communicative works that engaged in detail with these contexts. Instead of only looking at these works from an angle of sultans’ projects of legitimisation and their (attempts at) establishment of personal or dynastic hegemony, as the majority of scholars have done so far, this study proposes a performative analysis of texts and contexts in which the many-sided processes of patronage and participation, individual authorship, intra-elite communication, and the reproduction of literary discourses on political legitimacy are taken into account.