Thursday, January 23, 2014

An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam - Review

Antonio de Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612) - Edited with an Introduction by María Antonia Garcés. Translated by Diana de Armas Wilson

Few people outside of the academic world will have heard of Antonio de Sosa. This is a pity, because his writing in the 1570s is both riveting and instructive. Many of his views of Algiers at the time bare a remarkable resemblance to modern life in the Fez Medina in Morocco. Not only are his remarks about architecture and customs delightfully easy to read, but they are astounding for their observations of the minutiae of daily life.

Sosa was trained in Spanish Catholic tradition, but he could have had a career as a travel writer that would put most guide books to shame. Reading his observations opens a window onto our own understanding of life in a Muslim community.

A fine example is Sosa's brief description of a custom during Ramadan... "When midnight approaches, some Muslims, out of devotion, walk the streets sounding certain drums, whose sound awakens sleepers so that they can return to their food..." This custom still exists in the Fez Medina - as we reported last Ramadan, "To make certain you don't miss this meal is the job of the Bou Damdoum in Amazigh or D’kak in Moroccan Arabic, (the drummer), who uses his drums or N’ffar (a long horn that makes buzzing sound) to guarantee that everyone in the neighbourhood wakes up in time to cook and then enjoys their Suhoor meal."

Another example reported by Sosa is the saving of blood from a sacrificed ram. "The women catch the blood and guard it ... saying that it is holy..." This happens to this day in Fez. Sometimes the blood is used to anoint a newborn child.

Yassine Boudouàià - a young D'kak in the Fez Medina

The Topography was written by a Portuguese cleric, Doctor Antonio de Sosa, who was captured by Algerian corsairs in 1577 and held as a Barbary slave for over four years while awaiting ransom. Sosa’s work is a fascinating description of a city at the crossroads of civilizations, with a sophisticated multilingual population of Turks, Arabs, Moriscos, Berbers, Jews, Christian captives, and converts to Islam from across the world.

In the Topography of Algiers, Sosa meticulously describes the inhabitants’ daily lives; their fashions, pastimes, feasts, and funerals; their government; the landmarks of the city itself; and much more. Readers will be struck by the vibrancy of his narrative, rendered into English with crisp accuracy by Diana de Armas Wilson.

The Topography is a treasure trove of amazing customs, startling behavior, and historical anecdotes that will enthrall readers. The extensive introduction by María Antonia Garcés is a superb archival study of the Mediterranean world described by the Topography, as well as an exposé of the adventurous, even scandalous, life of its author. The introduction also discusses the fraudulent publication of Sosa’s Topography under another man’s name.

Sosa’s chronicle stands out for its complexity, vitality, and the sharpness of the author’s ethnographic vision. No other account of captivity in this period offers such a detailed and dynamic tableau of Algerian society at the end of the sixteenth century.

María Antonia Garcés is Professor of Hispanic Studies at Cornell University.
Diana de Armas Wilson is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Denver.


“Long overdue, this translation and edition of Sosa’s Topografia is an absolute gem. Sixteenth-century Algiers was the Mediterranean’s cross-roads, a meeting point and melting-pot for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Sosa’s survey literally brings this important city to life. It is all there: architecture, economy and religion, plus pirates, renegades, slaves, marriage customs, and more. Little escapes Sosa’s eye, and this discerning friar even offers comments on such details as make-up and dress. There is no better source for understanding the human complexity of the early modern Mediterranean world, and both Armas—for the translation—and Garcés—the introduction and notes—deserve credit for their masterful achievement. Scholars, students, and teachers, even the general reader will be forever in their debt.” — Richard L. Kagan, Johns Hopkins University

“This is a truly significant text for all scholars of early modern Europe, worthy of their greatest interest and attention. An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Antonio de Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612) marks a watershed in our understanding of the synergies of power and the nature of shifting identities along the borderlands of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe; this work stands as an example of interdisciplinary and cross-culture criticism at its best.” — E. Michael Gerli, University of Virginia

“Early modern historians are always pleased—indeed, excited—when they encounter firsthand descriptions and information regarding a particular society or country or, in this case, a prominent Mediterranean city: Algiers, a city that was literally a synthesis of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants. Wilson (who did the translation) and Garcés (who did the introduction and detailed notes) have produced exactly that with Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612). . . . Sosa’s writings provide a fascinating, unmatched picture of one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean, and Wilson and Garcés have done a masterful job in making it available in English.” — Choice

“In the growing scholarship on European perceptions of the Islamic Other and relations between Europe and the Ottoman Turks, Garces’s study and Armas Wilson’s translation offer an important . . . perspective from Iberia on the Mediterranean contact zone linking Christian Europe and Islamic North Africa. This outstanding [book] . . . will capture the attention of a wide range of scholars, including those pursuing research on the Moriscos of Spain exiled in North Africa, and those scholars seeking links between crosscultural Christian-Muslim interaction in the Mediterranean, and European-non-European exchanges in the New World.” — Renaissance Quarterly

“Equal parts history, ethnography, and literary work, the first book of Sosa’s Topography is a welcome addition to the body of translated primary sources on Muslim, Christian, and Jewish encounters in the early modern Mediterranean . . . Historians and literary scholars alike will find this edition to be a rich resource for the study of cross-cultural exchange in early modernity and will likely await with interest the next translated and annotated installments of Sosa’s Topographia, e Historia general de Argel.” — Sixteenth Century Journal

“[An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam] combines an extraordinarily erudite study with a long-due translation of the first part of the remarkable account of cultural, economic, social and political practices in Algiers, illuminating perceptions about North African renegades and the hardships of captivity at the time of Cervantes’s traumatic experience.” — This Year’s Work in Modern Language Studies

“The current political turmoil in the region and continuing controversies regarding Islam and the West render the publication of An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam all the more timely and, ultimately, of broader contemporary and thematic relevance to scholars, non-specialists, and students as well.” — Hispania

“An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam is two books in one: an indispensable historical resource for those interested in the early modern Mediterranean world, and a critical page turner, showing us the very best of what skilled, patient literary scholarship can produce.” — Modern Language Notes (Hispanic issue)

Purchase book here: An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Antonio de Sosa's Topography of Algiers (1612)

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