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Author and Work

ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn, Abū ʿAmr, ʿUthmān ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Khālid al-Qurashī Ibn al-Nābulusī was born in Cairo on 19 of Dhū al-Ḥijja 588 AH (26 December 1192).[1] Al-Nābulusī’s maternal grandfather, a Ḥanbalī preacher from Damascus called Zayn al-Dīn al-Anṣārī, migrated to Egypt during the late Fatimid period, when Ṭalāʾiʿ ibn Ruzzīk was an all-powerful vizier (1154–61). After the overthrow of the Shiʿa dynasty, the staunchly Sunni preacher served under Saladin.[2] Al-Nābulusī himself was initially trained as a religious scholar but then joined the Ayyubid administration, where he advanced rapidly and gained the personal trust of the Sultan al-Kāmil (r. 1218–38).[3] By the late 1220s, al-Nābulusī became a chief financial advisor to al-Kāmil, and participated in his daily private council, together with the amir Fakhr al-Dīn ʿUthmān, who was then in charge of all bureaus and taxation.[4] Al-Nābulusī kept his position at the top of Egyptian administration until he was arrested in 1237, on what he claimed were false charges. He spent over a month in jail, during which time his family house was expropriated and sold.

Left outside the corridors of power, and also, according to his own testimony, with limited sources of revenue, al-Nābulusī turned to writing as means of currying favour with al-Kāmil’s son and successor, al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ (r. 1240–49). His first major work was an anti-Coptic treatise, Tajrīd sayf al-himma li-istikhrāj mā fī dhimmat al-dhimma (Unsheathing Ambition’s Sword to Extract what the Dhimmīs Hoard), where he lashed out at the dishonesty of Copts employed by the Ayyubid administration.[5] The second treatise, Kitāb lumaʿ al-qawānīn al-muḍiyya fī dawāwīn al-diyār al-miṣriyya (A Few Luminous Rules for Egypt’s Administrative Offices), outlines key problems in the fiscal administration of Ayyubid Egypt and sets out recommendations for increased efficiency and the prevention of fraud. The personal tone of these two works is very marked and allows us to reconstruct al-Nābulusī’s career prior to his Fayyum mission. Another work, which survives only in fragments, is Ḥusn al-sulūk fī faḍl malik Miṣrʿalā sāʾir al-mulūk (A Seemly Demonstration of the Superiority of Egypt’s King above All Others), apparently extolling the virtues of Egypt and its rulers.[6]

In 642/1245, eight years after his forced retirement from government service, al-Nābulusī was called to the Fayyum by orders of the Sultan al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ, who was travelling with his entourage through the province. The chronicles for this period in the reign of al-Ṣāliḥ are relatively sparse, and we have no independent testimony of such a royal visit or firm idea of its purpose.[7] According to al-Nābulusī, when al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ passed through the Fayyum and inspected it, he noticed that the province was less prosperous than it had been, and decided to call al-Nābulusī out of retirement and appoint him to audit the province and its cultivation.

Following his appointment, al-Nābulusī spent more than two months in the Fayyum. This was in the spring of 642/1245, almost certainly from March to May. The exact time of his stay is referred to only once, when he mentions the number of waterwheels in operation in the Fayyum at the time of writing, which is ‘the month of Dhū al-Qaʿda of 642’, corresponding to 31 March–29 April, 1245.

Al-Nābulusī’s main effort was to record the tax obligations in each settlement. This involved collecting fiscal documents from local tax-officials, or, when the tax-collectors were not in situ, from village headmen. His survey includes records for about 125 different settlements, and his description of the villages’ appearance suggests he must have visited them all. At least for part of this time, al-Nābulusī was accompanied by the provincial irrigation official, the khawlī al-baḥr (overseer of the canal), who furnished him with information about the complex irrigation system and local history. Al-Nābulusī complemented the information gathered locally by accessing some of the records of the central government in Cairo.

The striking omission from al-Nābulusī’s account is any record of actual payments. Al-Nābulusī compiled tax obligations but not the balance of payments at the end of the year. Sporadic information on unpaid or withheld payments is given only in seventeen villages, all of which either belonged to the royal domain of the Sultan at the time of al-Nābulusī’s visit, or had been part of the royal domain at some point over the previous decade. Otherwise, the absence of a record of actual payments gives the treatise a somewhat idealized tone. It is essentially the record of what should have been paid, not of what was actually delivered.

The Villages of the Fayyum fits no familiar genre in medieval Arabic literature, and there is no obvious model al-Nābulusī was trying to emulate. The desire to bring a region to life through detailed description belongs to the discipline of geography, and several Abbasid authors included fiscal data in their geographical accounts. But the ‘Abbasid geographers were interested in the imperial and the global, and their works are far removed from this micro-study of one individual province.

The treatise is a closer match with the genre of historical topography, which later culminates with al-Maqrīzī’s famous fifteenth-century account of Egypt and Cairo, the Khiṭaṭ. An early representative of this tradition is a younger contemporary of al-Nābulusī, ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn Shaddād (d. 684/1285). Ibn Shaddād had a career reminiscent of al-Nābulusī, serving under various Ayyubid rulers. He was also sent to conduct a financial audit of an individual province, Ḥarrān, in 640/1242–43. His historical topography of Syria and the Jazīra, known as al-Aʿlāq al-khaṭīra, was composed in the 670s/1270s for the Mamluk sultan Baybars. It similarly contains summaries of tax revenues and numbers of troops, but it lacks the fiscal focus of al-Nābulusī’s work, not to mention the minute detail at the level of the individual village.

The treatise has traditionally been considered as part of the uniquely rich administrative tradition of the Ayyubid and Mamluk dynasties, and its study was often ancillary to the study of administrative manuals. There is no doubt that the Ayyubid period saw the rise of a rich and novel type of administrative literature, and it is surely not a coincidence that the Villages of the Fayyum was composed in that period and in reference to it. The first work in this cluster, the administrative manual of al-Makhzūmī, Kitāb al-minhāj, was composed in 565/1169–70 and revised circa 581/1185. The surviving sections of this work deal with military organization and the regulation of international trade. Al-Nābulusī consulted al-Makhzūmī’s work, as he notes in his administrative treatise, the Luminous Rules. The next administrative work in this group was Qawānīn al-dawāwīn, composed by the chief administrator Ibn Mammātī (d. 606/1209). This work, of which a complete manuscript survives, is especially valuable for its explanation of agricultural taxation.[8] Unlike the Villages of the Fayyum, however, both al-Makhzūmī and Ibn Mammātī wrote prescriptive works, manuals of the procedures to be followed and not records of actual fiscal obligations.

We do not know whether the Villages of the Fayyum made any impression on the Sultan al-Ṣāliḥ. It is also noticeable that the Villages of the Fayyum is not cited by any other medieval author.[9] We have no further information about al-Nābulusī’s career, and it therefore seems unlikely that he regained a prominent position in the administration. He died in Cairo about twenty years later, on 25 Jumādā I 660 (17 April 1262), and was buried in the Muqattam Cemetery.[10]

[1] For the biography of al-Nābulusī, see also Luke Yarbrough, ‘Introduction’ in al-Nābulusī, Sword of Ambition.

[2] Yarbrough, ‘Introduction’, p. xix; Al-Nābulusī, ‘Kitāb lumaʿ al-qawānīn al-muḍiyya fī dawāwīn al-diyār al-miṣriyya’, ed. by Carl Becker and Claude Cahen, Bulletin d’études Orientales, 16 (1960), 1–78, 119–34 (p. 120 [Introduction], pp. 27, 43 [Arabic]).

[3] On al-Kāmil, see Hans L. Gottschalk, Al-Malik Al-Kāmil Von Egypten Und Seine Zeit: Eine Studie Zur Geschichte Vorderasiens Und Egyptens in Der Ersten Hälfte Des 7./13. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1958).

[4] Al-Nābulusī, Sword of Ambition, ed. and trans. by Yarbrough, p. 131.

[5] Here and elsewhere, we follow Yarbrough’s elegant translations of the titles of al-Nābulusī’s works.

[6] See ‘Kitāb lumaʿ’, ed. by Becker and Cahen, pp. 31–34.

[7] Richards, ‘al-Ṣāliḥ’. See Muḥammad ibn Sālim Ibn Wāṣil, Mufarrij al-kurūb fī akhbār banī ayyūb, ed. by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Shayyāl, Ḥasanayn al-Rabīʿ, and Saʿīd ʿĀshūr (Cairo, 1977), v, 323–47; Shihāb al-Dīn Abū Shāma, Tarājim rijāl al-qarnayn al-sādis waʾl-sāb‛ al-maʿrūf biʾl-dhayl ‛alā al-rawḍatayn, ed. by Muḥammad al-Kawtharī (al-Qāhira: Maktab Nashr al-thaqāfa al-Islamiyya, 1947), pp. 168–74.

[8] Ibn Mammātī, Kitāb qawānīn al-dawāwīn, ed. ʿAṭiya; Richard S. Cooper, ‘Ibn Mammati’s Rules for the Ministries: Translation with Commentary of the Qawānīn al-Dawāwīn’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1973)‏.‏

[9] Later authors of encyclopaedic works probably did not find it as useful as the works of Ibn Mammātī and al-Makhzūmī. See the comments by Cahen in his introduction to al-Nābulusī, Kitāb lumaʿ, ed. by Becker and Cahen, p. 123; and by Sayyid in his edition of al- Maqrīzī, al-Mawāʽiẓ, i, 231 n. 3.

[10] ʿAbd al-Muʾmin al-Dimyāṭī, Le dictionnaire des autorités (Muʿğam al-Šuyūḥ), ed. by Georges Vajda (Paris: CNRS, 1962), p. 164.