From Turks to Mongols: David Ayalon’s Vision of the Eurasian Steppe in Islamic History

Lecture: Institute of East Asian Studies: Mongolia Initiative | February 20 | 4 p.m. | 180 Doe Library

 Reuven Amitai, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 Institute of East Asian Studies (IEAS), UC Berkeley Mongolia Initiative, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

This lecture seeks to survey and critically engage some of the ideas of David Ayalon (1914-98), and then to see where they might further be developed and applied. Although Ayalon is primarily known as a Mamlukist, and in fact can be called the father of Mamluk studies, he also turned his attention to other weighty matters in the study of Middle Eastern and Islamic history. Among these was the important relations between the Muslim dominated Middle East and the Eurasian Steppe, or rather between the Muslims and the nomadic peoples of the Steppes, the Turks and the Mongols. In a short but important article published in 1963 in Moscow (in the proceedings of the World Congress of Orientalists held there), entitled “The Eurasian Steppe: A Major Reservoir of Power for the Islam World,” Ayalon laid clearly but concisely his vision of these relations lasting for many centuries. Ayalon clearly showed how military slaves (known usually as Mamluks) starting in the ninth century, Turkish tribesmen (led for a while by the Seljuq family) beginning in the eleventh century, and finally the Mongols in the thirteenth century and afterwards, all made a decisive impact on Islamic history, not only in the realms of politics and warfare, but also in society, economics and culture.
A related subject that Ayalon explored was on the relations between the mostly Turkish Mamluks of Egypt and Syria with Mongols in general, and the Ilkhanate in Iran and the surrounding countries in particular. In the early 1970s he published a series of articles called “The Great Yasa of Chingiz Khan – A Reexamination,” which looked critically at the question of Mongol law in general, while focusing on whether Mongol law (the Yasa) indeed was implemented to a degree in the Mamluk Sultanate. Ayalon’s conclusion was a resounding negative answer, but along the way, he opened up new vistas of source criticism, together with innovative ideas on both Mongol and Mamluk history. From reading Ayalon’s study we might suggest that there really is no proper understanding of Mamluk history without taking the Mongols into account, nor no study of Mongol history without the extensive use of the Arabic sources written in the Mamluk Sultanate.

Speaker bio:

Reuven Amitai is Eliyahu Elath Professor for Muslim History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was dean of the Faculty of Humanities from 2010 to 2014. He specializes in the history of the Middle East from ca. 1000 to 1500 CE, and has written on the history of the Mongols in the Middle East, the Mamluk Sultanate, military history, processes of Islamization, and the history of medieval Palestine. His recent books are Holy War and Rapprochement: Studies in the Relations between the Mamluk Sultanate and the Mongol Ilkhanate (1260-1335) (published 2013); Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors (2015), co-edited with Michal Biran; and Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, 11th to 15th Centuries (2017), co-edited with Christoph Cluse. He is currently writing a book on the history of Gaza in the late middle ages., 510-642-2809