An Unnamed Tahirid Sultana’s Legacy in Yemeni Tradition and the Early Modern Western Male Gaze

Lily Filson is a Renaissance historian whose work seeks to include Yemen into the emerging view of a global sixteenth century. She received her PhD from Ca’ Foscari in 2018 and has held fellowships from Syracuse University, the European Research Council, and the Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic. This blog post draws from her research funded by a 2020 Renaissance Society of America Short-Term Grant on depictions of Yemen in the woodcuts of Jörg Breu which accompany sixteenth-century German editions of the Itinerary of Ludovico de Varthema.  


The life of a Tahirid Sultana in Rada’a, Yemen (Fig. 1) unfolds in dramatically different keys when Yemenite sources are juxtaposed with an Early Modern European’s first-hand sensational and problematic account.

Figure 1. Rada’a (in blue square) among Ludovico de Varthema’s other documented locations in Yemen in the Itinerary (1510). Image generated by the author.

Their commonality resides in what is not present on either side of this divide, and what it says speaks volumes about the Tahirid Sultana’s ultimately mutable historic identity and agency. Most glaring of omissions is a proper name or title that would distinguish her beyond the role of one of three wives of the last Tahirid Sultan ‘Amir II, for whom ample historical documentation exists in the form of inscriptions and the contemporary chronicles of Abu Makhrama and Ibn al-Dayba.[1]  The late Selma al-Radi, the modern scholar and lead restorer of the ‘Amiriyya Mosque, the Sultan’s namesake in Rada’a, however relayed an intriguing detail preserved in local memory attributing the crumbling Baghdadiyya Madrasa (Fig. 2) to this otherwise anonymous figure; namely that its name derived from the Sultana’s hometown.[2] 

Figure 2. Baghdadiyya Mosque and Madrasa in the foreground of a 1925 image of Rada’a. The citadel is in the background. Image from Creative Commons.

Female patronage of mosques and madrasas in Yemen began as early as the late twelfth-century with the Sulayhid Queen Arwa’s endowed mosque in nearby Jibla,[3] and Rasulid royal women of the later Medieval period also left their mark on monumental architecture. The Mu’tabiyya Madrasa of Ta’iz, still extant despite its recent damages due to war, [4] was constructed by 1392 C.E. by the wife of the Rasulid Sultan al-Ashraf Isma’il. She was known in court documents and public monuments only as Jihat Mu’tab (d. 1393-94).[5]  Her name reflects a uniquely Rasulid convention of nomenclature which combined the title al-jihah with the name of the eunuch in charge of their household, in this case a certain Jamal al-Din M’utab.[6] Among what remains of female-commissioned Rasulid monuments,[7] the Mu’tabiyya is unique in its use of the Rasulid royal emblem, the five-petalled red rose (Fig. 3), in its unrestored painted domes.

Figure 3. Rasulid royal emblem of a five-petaled red rose visible on Mamluk era Syrian-blown glassware vessels from the 14th century (1325 to 1350 C.E.) from the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Washington D.C. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Furthermore, Venetia Porter identified the Mu’tabiyya’s raised clerestory as the direct model for later specific Tahirid madrasas, the Mansuriyya and ‘Amiriyya in Juban and Rada’a, respectively.[8] Could the female patronage of this monument also be read as the precursor, perhaps inspiration for the Tahirid Baghdadiyya in Rada’a as well? The Tahirids without a doubt emulated the court culture and monumental architecture style of the earlier Rasulids, yet the full picture of the patronage of elite Tahirid women of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Yemen, our unnamed Sultana included, remains to be explored.

If local tradition is the modern scholar’s only encounter with the otherwise unknown patron of the crumbling Baghdadiyya Madrasa, Varthema’s page-turning account of the Sultana in Rada’a, by contrast, tells a sensational story of seduction and intrigue. This story captivated European readers in the many translations of the work in the sixteenth century through to the present (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Table of Language Distribution of the Itinerary of Ludovico de Varthema in Sixteenth-Century Editions and the Present-Day Total of Works. Image generated by the author.

In the Second Book of the Itinerary, an imprisoned Varthema in Rada’a takes turns with his cellmates violently feigning madness, which furnishes the subject of a woodcut by Jörg Breu that accompanied German printings from 1515 and beyond (Fig. 5). In the split-scene, Breu illustrates Varthema’s text, which recounts garbled Arabic exhortations to come closer, to take off his shirt, to eat choice morsels of food, and to accept her generosity in all of its forms, with a crowned female figure in a well-appointed bedroom embracing to a reluctant Varthema, who does not reciprocate the gesture.[9] The chapter “Of the Liberality of the Queen” sees Varthema’s refusal of a life of luxury- “gold, silver, horses and slaves, and whatever I had desired.”

Figure 5. Jörg Breu, Image in the chapter “Concerning the Partiality of the Women of Arabia Felix for White Men.” Woodcut illustration from the 1515 Augsburg edition of the Itinerary of Ludovico de Varthema, 18v.  Digitized and accessible by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

Varthema articulates a precociously Orientalist sexualization of the Sultana alongside equally problematic Early Modern distinctions of race.[10] Whereas historians of this phenomenon mostly analyze colonial contexts for this phenomenon brought to light by Edward Said, Varthema’s early sixteenth-century travelogue is a rich but untapped resource for its long roots in the Early Modern European consciousness. In text and image, through the two male and European interlocuters Varthema and Breu, the historically-anonymous Sultana in Rada’a is reduced to a stock character and foil for Varthema’s own validation as both man and light-skinned European. Varthema’s contact with the Sultana in Rada’a provides little for the historian of Lower Yemen’s Medieval Golden Age before centuries of decline under Ottoman and Imamic rule, and much for the historian of the construct of gender, race, and colonialism in Early Modern Europe and beyond.

[1] Abu Muhammed al-Tayyib ibn ‘Abdallah Abu Makhrama, Qiladat al-nahr fi akhbar a’yan al-dahr. A section of this manuscript is published by Lein Oebele Schuman, Political History of the Yemen at the beginning of the 16th century (Groningen: V. R. B. Kleine, 1960);  al-Hafid ibn al-Dia‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Ali al-Dayba’ al-Shaybani al-Zabidi Ibn al-Dayba’, Qurrat ul-‘Uyun bi-Akhbar al-Yaman al-Maymun, ed. Al-Qadi Muhammed ibn ‘Ali al-Akwa, 2 vols. (Cairo: 1977, reprinted in one volume in 1988).

[2] Selma Al-Radi, The ‘Amiriya in Rada’: The History and Restoration of a Sixteenth-Century Madrasa in the Yemen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 45.

[3] Delia Cortese and Simonetta Calderini, Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 116-7.

[4] Though the structure still stands, its northern wall was seriously damaged by a tank shell launched by Houthi and pro-Saleh forces on July 15th, 2015. “Al-Maatbiya Mosque” in Mwatana Organization, Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property, Nov. 2018. https://mwatana.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/The-Degradation-of-History-English.pdf

[5] Noha Sadek, “Rasulid Architecture” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye, ed. Trevor H. J. Marchand (London: Gingko Library, 2017), 42.

[6] Noha Sadek, “Rasulid Women: Power and Patronage,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 19 (1988): 122.

[7] Other Rasulid queens were even more prolific patrons of monumental madrasas within the greater footprint of their dynasty’s territory; Jihat Salah (d. 1364) not only built three madrasas, one mosque, and one khanqah (sufi hostel), the members of her entourage- three female slaves in all- each built a mosque of their own in Zabid; none of these survive, but two later madrasas erected by female members of the Rasulid royal family still stand in Zabid: the Fatiniyah (built by Jihat Fatin, d. 1366-7) and the Farhaniyah (built by Jihat Farhan, d. 1432/33). Idem, 124.

[8] Venetia Porter, “The Bani Tahir and the ‘Amiriyya Madrasa: Architecture and Politics,” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye, ed. Trevor H. J. Marchand (London: Gingko Library, 2017), 53.

[9] The text of the Itinerary used as primary reference in this study is the 1863 English translated by John Winter Jones and edited and annotated by George Percy Badger; in case of doubt about its fidelity to the original Italian passages, I’ve checked it against the text of the 1535 Italian edition, digitized in 2014 by Progetto Manuzio and Liber Liber. See The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopoa, ed. George Percy Badger; trans. J. W. Jones (London: Hakluyt Society, 1863), 68-73.

[10] For example, the “Chapter Concerning the Partiality of the Women of Arabia Felix for White Men” records the Sultana’s lament of the blackness of herself, her husband, and her son while praising Varthema’s own whiteness. Race, or more accurately skin color, is a theme never far from Varthema’s consciousness; other segments of his Itinerary in Yemen and beyond class the people he encounters by their relative darkness.


Bibliography

Al-Radi, Selma. The ‘Amiriya in Rada’: The History and Restoration of a Sixteenth-Century Madrasa in the Yemen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Badger, George Percy, ed. The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopoa, trans. J. W. Jones (London: Hakluyt Society, 1863).

Cortese, Delia and Simonetta Calderini. Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

Ibn al-Dayba’, al-Hafid ibn al-Dia‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Ali al-Dayba’ al-Shaybani al-Zabidi. Qurrat ul-‘Uyun bi-Akhbar al-Yaman al-Maymun, ed. Al-Qadi Muhammed ibn ‘Ali al-Akwa, 2 vols. (Cairo: 1977, reprinted in one volume in 1988).

Mwatana Organization, Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property, Nov. 2018. https://mwatana.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/The-Degradation-of-History-English.pdf

Porter, Venetia. “The Bani Tahir and the ‘Amiriyya Madrasa: Architecture and Politics,” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye, ed. Trevor H. J. Marchand (London: Gingko Library, 2017), 51-60.

Sadek, Noha. “Rasulid Architecture” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye, ed. Trevor H. J. Marchand (London: Gingko Library, 2017), 41-50.

__________. “Rasulid Women: Power and Patronage,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 19 (1988): 121-136.

Schuman, Lein Oebele. Political History of the Yemen at the beginning of the 16th century (Groningen: V. R. B. Kleine, 1960).

Varthema, Ludovico de’. Itinerario nello Egitto, nella Soria nella Arabia deserta, & felice, nella Persia, nella India, & nela Ethyopia (Vinegia: Francesco di Alessandro Bindone & Mapheo Pasini, 1535).

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