A frontier comparison no-one’s made

In the aftermath of the workshop on frontiers recently described, I seem for a while to have flung myself back into relevant reading on the field. Now, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in the Iberian Peninsula – which I do – then sooner or later you will run up against someone writing about the quintessential and indeed semi-legendary Iberian frontiersman, Rodrigo Díaz or el Cid, usually as epitomising the way in which that frontier worked.1 Likewise, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in Byzantine Anatolia – onto which subject I have been known to venture – you will sooner or later run across someone writing about the quintessential but actually legendary folk hero Digenes Akritas as if he also somehow typified that border zone.2 And once you’re watching either field, every few years or so you’ll see someone trying to compare the two.3 I have developed quite strong views by now about why that is a waste of effort, and I will write about them here before long, but this is not that day. Instead, this post was prompted by my reading about something that looked like a much better point of comparison, but about which no-one seems to know (except, obviously, the person from whose work I got it, Sara Nur Yıldız).

Political map of Anatolia c. 1300 CE

Political map of Anatolia  1300 CE, by Gabagoolown work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The text in question is known as the History of the Karamanids, by someone we only know by a pen-name, Şikari.4 The Karamanids ruled the southern part of Cilicia when they ruled, and at the height of their power, which came very close to their end, their control stretched over a considerable area. The map above shows them under pressure from the Mongols in a world where lots of polities were their size; the one below gives the full extent, a full extent that would soon be abrogated by a somewhat shortsighted attempt to bounce the now-substantial power of the Ottomans out of the crucial city of Konya. Nonetheless, for a while they were major players.

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE, by MapMasterown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

But the world picture that Dr Yıldız draws from the History comes more from the earlier patch, which she describes as follows:

“We are confronted with a frontier devoid of central control, a no-man’s land dominated by fortresses and those who held them, petty warlords operating in a world of fleeting political and military loyalties and fluid, often unstable, vassalage relations. Power is played out between fortress lords of various ethnic backgrounds, whose loyalty is demanded and bought by those ruling from the faraway centres. Although fortress lords in the frontier region theoretically ruled in the name of a greater sovereign, whether it be the Seljuk sultan or the Armenian king, in practice they operated independently. The sultan, in Şikari’s account, although the power at the centre with large forces at his disposal, is a less than powerful ruler on the frontier. At most, he can only hope to coerce the various fortress holders along the periphery into nominal loyalty. The sultan, at the same time, is obliged to keep the various local rulers from attacking one another, primarily in order to avoid the difficult situation of having to choose between defending one vassal over another….5

And this sounds awfully familiar. This is not the land or politics of el Cid, of course, where big armies led by kings or people of that weight are a regular feature and the hero’s achievement is to become one of them. This is instead the land of Digenes, where there is an emperor and there is a sultan and you might meet them but you never aim to equal them, you just want your little patch of border where no-one else dares to challenge you.6 In the tenth century, as we saw long ago, when the Byzantine emperor was back in the ascendant, you might have to deal with him in order to secure that relative autonomy against your fellows.7 But by the time of which Dr Yıldız is writing, that kind of power had receded. It would return with the rise of the Ottomans, of course, and that would end that, but still, this is the kind of source material with which I underpin my James-Scott-like sense that a lot of political communities would rather aim for autonomy than connectivity.8 The area is good turf with which to do that, and Nik Matheou, among others, has done so.9 (I mention Nik not least because he is the person I’ve seen actually applying Scott to this area and period, but Dr Yıldız also gives a good account of the vexed historiography of Armenian autonomy in this area.10) So, why is there so much ink used on comparing Digenes Akritas, which is actually set in Anatolia in a period not too far from this text, to the foreign and rather different Poema del Mio Cid when there’s this much better comparator so close by?

First page of the manuscript of the History of the Karamanids

The first page of the manuscript does admittedly make the prospect of working with it a little offputting… Image from “Karamanname of Şikari /History of the Karamanids (Mid-16th century)” in Janissary Archives for 15th October 2015, linked through

Well, there are lots of good reasons this text is not more widely used. The primary one of these is that it’s in Seljuk Turkish and is preserved only in one mid-16th-century manuscript, in Konya (ironically), which was only edited in 2004.11 As a result, I myself obviously know nothing that’s in it except through Dr Yıldız’s report. Secondly, it’s a history of a single Turkmen dynasty who were removed from power by the time of the manuscript; so even its original readership was probably pretty small, wherefore, I suspect, only the single copy surviving. Thirdly, as Dr Yıldız puts it in a footnote:12

“Şikari’s History of the Karamanids, significant for being the only internal work dealing with Karamanid history, has been dismissed as unreliable by historians of Anatolian Turkish and Ottoman history. The work is characterized by an idiosyncratic mix of history and legend, and contains much tendentious, chronologically absurd, and anachronistic material. The circumstances as well as the date of this work’s composition remain unknown, although internal textual evidence suggests that it was produced some time in the mid-sixteenth century, with much of its contents possibly based upon an earlier source dating from the late fourteenth century.”

This is, of course, the luxury of having other sources; if this were all that survived from the zone and area I expect more would have been made of it, as witness Digenes Akritas. Still, you can see why people haven’t prioritised getting it into the discourse. Even Dr Yıldız only adds it as a kind of epilogue to a chapter which is mainly about Armenian Cilicia. I can also see why, given the opposed historiographies and nationalisms, it might still be a while before we get scholars of Greek literature reaching for Turkish pseudo-history as comparative material or scholars of Turkish political history looking to Greek literature either. Still, I very much wish there were an English version of this text, as I personally would go a-plundering in it…

Since I can’t, however, all I can do from here is speculate and wonder. In particular, I wonder what political control actually was in such an area. Did the Karamanid lords take tax? They presumably didn’t farm or raise livestock themselves, so they must have had some means of appropriating surplus, and they raised armies, but did they raise them through obligations laid upon their population or by paying the troops from tax? Did they hold courts of justice? Did people bring quarrels to them? Outside their towns, did anyone know who they were? Or were they actually surviving on the kind of local solidarity that means that everyone knew who they were locally even if the Sultan or King of the Armenians might struggle to pick them out from their fellows? What kind of power did those greater lords have here? Was it only as much as they could persuade the Karamanids to wield for them or were they alternative power sources that the wily subjects could use to limit the Karamanid grasp in the way that the lords of Taron had used the Byzantine emperor against their family rivals? Were the Karamanids’ towns centres and the countryside periphery, or were they nomad lords of whom the towns were somewhat terrified? Why did they want Konya, for state-building or simply because it was a source of tolls and jurisdictional revenue? Were they aiming to place themselves as indispensable local partners for the bigger players here or did they aim to push themselves up to the point where the bigger players couldn’t displace them? (Are those questions even different?) There is a lot I could do here even with a “semi-historical Turkish work”, “ultimately based on oral traditions.”13 Short of acquiring a suitably-interested Turkish-reading Ph. D. student, I can’t see how I do in fact do it… But the world’s full of interesting things all the same, isn’t it?


1. For the basic story of el Cid, see even now Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (London 1990); for a recent and useful treatment of him as frontiersman see Pascal Buresi, “Frontière politique et appartenance religieuse dans la Péninsule Ibérique : les communes frontalières et le phénomène des « Cid » (XIe-XIIe siècles)” in Henri Bresc, Georges Dagher and Christine Veauvy (edd.), Politique et religion en Méditerranée : Moyen Âge et époque contemporaine (Paris 2008), pp. 137–163.

2. For the actual text, see best John Mavrogordato (ed.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), though there are other translations (and even a graphic novel). For a reasonable example of someone using him as an archetype, see Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “The Byzantine-Arab Borderland from the Seventh to the Ninth Centuries” in Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis: Frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 12 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 13–22.

3. I’m sure I’ve seen it done more than this, but two cases that I have stored are Ioannis Kioridis, “The wife’s prayer for her husband in the Cantar de mio Cid and the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis” in Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 1 (Stockholm 2015), pp. 65–80, and Marina Díaz Bourgeal and Francisco López-Santos Kornberger, “El Cantar de Mio Cid y el Diyenís Akritas (manuscrito de El Escorial). Un estudio comparativo desde el legado clásico” in Estudios medievales hispánicos Vol. 5 (Madrid 2016), pp. 83–107.

4. Covered in Sara Nur Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier: Armenians, Latins, and Turks in Conflict and Alliance during the Early Thirteenth Century” in Curta, Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis, pp. 91–120 at pp. 114-119, details on the text at p. 115 & n. 107.

5. Ibid., p. 117.

6. This is very much my own reading of the text; cf. Lilie, “Byzantine-Arab Borderland”, pp. 18-19.

7. Recounted in Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 1, 2nd edn (Washington D.C. 1967), c. 43 (pp. 188-199).

8. Referring to James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven CT 2009), online here.

9. Admittedly Nik hasn’t actually published his work on the Armenian Zomia yet, but I think it will be in the volume of papers arising from the 50th Sping Symposium of Byzantine Studies on which I reported a while back.

10. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, pp. 93-113 with pp. 93-94 explicitly covering historiographical approaches.

11. Şikârî, Karamannâme: Zamanın kahramanı Karamanîler’in tarihi, ed. Metin Sôzen & Necdet Sakaoğlu (Istanbul: Karaman Belediyesi, 2005), online here.

12. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, p. 115 n. 107.

13. Ibid., p. 115.

6 responses to “A frontier comparison no-one’s made

  1. I loved Scott’s address: Rosenkranz Hall.

    My old English teacher: “it will be obvious to you what Guildenstern will have meant to many in Shakespeare’s audience. I leave Rosencranz to your conjecture”.

  2. That the groundlings won’t have looked up a dictionary of Scandinavian surnames and will instead have made somewhat lewd interpretations of the names. WS was entertaining a huge social mix with his plays.

  3. In which case do not dwell on Hamlet’s remark to Ophelia about country matters.

    • Yeah, not that innocent, but even if I had been, one of my English masters took a particular joy in making sure his charges got that one. And all the jokes in Measure for Measure about syphilis. Possibly not all of them, indeed, for they don’t seem to run out…

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