Tuesday

The Library at El Escorial is Moroccan

In his short text The Inspiration of Evidence, وحي البينة, Moroccan historian Mohammed al-Fassi discusses travel literature, أدب الرحالات, which is one of the many genres of Classical Arabic literature. He focuses on Morocco's contributions to this literary tradition, citing Moroccans' unique propensity for travel and exploration. We see this in Ibn Batuta, the Tangier native born in the 14th century, whose 30 year journey, or رحلة, epitomizes the spirit of travel and discovery idealized in the pre-Modern Muslim world.

Included in his survey is a discussion of the travel literature written by pre-Modern Moroccan diplomats who used their diplomatic missions as opportunities to study European society. We will look at this literature in more detail in future, but today we have a story from the pages of history.

In his discussion, al-Fassi includes an interesting account about the Library of famed Moroccan Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour and how it ended up in the Spanish Royal Seat at El Escorial:



The Library at El Escorial is Moroccan
The story of these books is both interesting and enlightening. The library at El Escorial is filled with valuable Arabic manuscripts that many think were left behind by the Arabs who once lived in Andalucia. However, in reality, the Spanish Inquisition's courts made a point of burning all of the Arabic texts they found, which meant no significant collections of Arabic texts remained in Iberia after the departure of the Muslim population in 1492.  
The great Sa'adian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour, who ruled from 1578 to 1603, was fond of acquiring books and amassed a great library over the course of his reign. His son and successor Zeidan Abu Maali also held a keen interest in books and so added to and grew his father's literary collection.  
When one of his relatives rose up against him, Zeidan was forced to flee his capital of Marrakech. The first thing he thought of was his library, which he packed into boxes to transport with him. He sent them to Safi to have them shipped in a boat there owned by a Frenchman. He ordered the boat to take the books to a harbor in the Souss, in Southern Morocco, where Zeidan's supporters were located. When the boat arrived, the Captain waited for the Sultan to pay him his salary. We waited for a long time. When it seemed like he would not be paid, the Captain left in his ship, taking the precious cargo with him. 
At sea, a band of Spanish pirates intercepted his ship and forced him to hand over the boxes he was carrying. When the pirates opened them they found only books. Fortunately, they thought to present them as a gift to their King. Otherwise, they could have thrown them overboard, because the texts were worthless to the marauders. 
At the time, Philip II, King of Spain, was busy building the Basilica de San Lorenzo de El Escorial. When the books were delivered to him, he dedicated them to his new monastery. Scholars from around the world have traveled there to study these texts, which remain in Spain to this day. 
Since that time, the Sultans of the Alaouite dynasty, who succeeded the Saadians, have, at every opportunity, demanded for the return of these precious texts and manuscripts.

This story sheds light on the relationship between Morocco and Spain in the pre-Modern period in particular, and, in general, the changing dynamics of trans-Mediterranean politics as Europe entered Modernity.

In the late 15th and 16th centuries, Europe achieved naval superiority in the Western Mediterranean. This came to define political relations between Southern Europe and North Africa, the latter becoming ever weaker.

Al-Fassi describes piracy as one of the biggest security challenges to the Alaouite Dynasty, which came to power in 1664. European pirates posed a great threat to Morocco's trade as well as the safety of Muslims emigrating from Europe.

According to al-Fassi, the purpose of Moroccan diplomat al-Ghassani's famous mission to Spain in 1690 was to negotiate the safe passage of Moorish emigrants and to ask for the return of Arabic texts remaining on the Iberian peninsula.

Obviously, as the story above illustrates, this diplomatic mission failed to bring back the texts, as have subsequent attempts to do so.

As time progressed, Europe continued to use its technological superiority to define increasingly exploitative diplomatic and economic relationships with the rest of the pre-Modern world.

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