(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
One of the greatest benefits of learning about history is the nurturing of empathy for people very different from ourselves. By immersing ourselves in the past, we can try to understand how humans in distant times and places felt, thought, and acted. This can help us relate better to others in the here and now, especially those who appear much more or much less fortunate than we are.
A category of people who are particularly worth studying are slaves. In Middle Eastern history, they could be found at both the top and the bottom of society. Their lives thus seem particularly remote from many students in today’s universities.
As in the Atlantic world, African slaves, who frequently possessed immunity to malaria, worked on mosquito-infested plantations in the Arabian Peninsula. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, enslaved people from a variety of backgrounds could rise to positions of great power. The concubines in the harem as well as the eunuchs who guarded them were among the most influential people in Asian empires for thousands of years.
Outside the palace, the most skilled and luckiest slave soldiers could become generals or even rulers at various times, notably in the case of the Mamluks of Egypt. The Arabic word mamluk literally means “one who is owned.”
Being able to look through the eyes of somebody who is considered the property of someone else is a good basis for building solidarity and community across divisions of class, race or gender.
If the diverse stories of agricultural, domestic and military servants put together tell one lesson, it is that almost anyone can be enslaved. Mamluks were originally of Central Asian origins, but subsequently also drawn from Eastern Europe. Eunuchs had many different shades of skin colour, although the master of the Ottoman harem was typically called the “Chief Black Eunuch” because of his Nilotic origin. Many concubines, who would become mothers of subsequent Muslim rulers, had been taken as young girls from Christian families.
Forums for Discussing Slavery
With different forms of human bondage being unfortunately so prevalent in much of history, we should be able to include discussions of slavery in courses on many different topics. I have done so in classes on both European and Middle Eastern history on the Qatar campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. I have assigned material on such different figures as the gladiator-turned-rebel Spartacus in ancient Rome and the concubine-turned-sultana Shajar al-Durr (meaning “Tree of Pearls”) in medieval Egypt.
In addition, I have encouraged my students to visit the Bin Jelmood House, Doha’s museum dedicated to the history of enslavement and human exploitation in the Indian Ocean World. One of four heritage houses that constitute the Msheireb Museums, Bin Jelmood House includes a library sufficient for almost any student research paper on the topic. One of its galleries also highlights abuses of the sponsorship (kafala) system against migrant workers in the more recent past of the Gulf region.
The dramatic rise and violent end of men and women like Spartacus and Shajar al-Durr certainly provide enough thrill for any classroom. The gladiator’s rebellion was ultimately crushed by Roman legions, and the sultana had her second husband murdered and was then killed in revenge. Many films offer representations of such events, which make for entertaining classroom screenings.
If the diverse stories of agricultural, domestic and military servants put together tell one lesson, it is that almost anyone can be enslaved.
However, even the less brutal aspects of slaves’ lives should be of interest to students. In one of my Middle East history courses, we analyzed segments of “Magnificent Century” (“Muhteşem Yüzyıl”), a Turkish television series about Suleiman the Magnificent and his former slave girl and eventual wife Hürrem Sultan.
The Turkish show highlights both the many constraints on women from the imperial household, as well as their space for agency. Hürrem had little choice on whether to enter into a relationship with her owner. Nonetheless, she skillfully made her way to the top of the influential harem, becoming Suleiman’s chief consort, mother of his son and successor Selim II, and grandmother of Murad III. The Turkish production thus highlights the steep hierarchies and huge inequalities in wealth and power that existed in the Ottoman capital. In this sense, sixteenth-century Istanbul also had much in common with highly unequal contemporary global cities, despite the formal outlawing of slavery today.
It remains to be seen how much my students will use their knowledge about the past to overcome injustice in the present. However, if my learners are able to identify with people who lived hundreds of years ago, dressed and spoke very differently from them, they should also be able to take on the perspective of anybody who is currently alive. Being able to look through the eyes of somebody who is considered the property of someone else is a good basis for building solidarity and community across contemporary divisions of class, race or gender.
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