Muslims in medieval peninsular southern Italy; Part 3- Bari: the Italian Emirate

Italy, it’s not a place that’s normally associated with Islamic Emirates, but for 24 years in the ninth century a small Emirate was carved out of southern Italy based in the coastal town of Bari. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the Emirate of Bari had humble beginnings being found by a Berber Aghlabid servant. It eventually received recognition from the Abbasid Caliph as a bona fide governorate of the Caliphate. It was the only Muslim settlement in Italy to receive this level of formal recognition however due to its modest beginnings, initially unsanctioned establishment as well as its short lifespan, this episode of history has been largely forgotten by both Muslim and Christian chroniclers.

Three Emirs ruled Bari starting with the founder Khalfun, then the second Emir Mufarrag ibn Sallam who expanded the Emirate and obtained the official recognition from the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, and finally the last Emir Sawdan who was a charismatic personality and lead a very colorful life even after the fall of Bari.

Bari was always an important commercial center in the Adriatic. However under Muslim rule the city reportedly flourished both in terms of economy and public works projects. It has been suggested commercial products included slaves and wine though the actual extent of these activities is questioned. Certainly the regional economy would be injected with luxury items from the Muslim world as well such as papyrus scrolls, glassworks, tapestries, fabric, spices, pottery and other such items.

Professor Barbara Kreutz remarks that there are only four sources that mention the Emirate and life in it. Arab sources are very scarce and only Al-Baladhuri mentions it in any detail but is mainly limited to names of the founder and his two successors. A southern Italian Jewish source, the Chronical of Ahimaaz also known as the Chronicle of Oria, narrates the story of the medieval southern Jewish scholar Abu Aaron. He reportedly spent six months with Sawdan who was impressed by his knowledge and treated him as an honored guest. He was finally heartbroken upon the departure of Abu Aaron from Bari. Although the story obviously a work of fiction it is interesting that it portrays Sawdan as a wise and noble ruler of a civilized Emirate as opposed to some of the monastic chronicles where he is an arch villain. The tone of the chronicle is also surprising given that some southern Italian Jewish settlements would surely have also been sacked by the Arabs.

The final reports are from Christian sources. The first, the Chronicon Salernitanum, recounts the curious tale of some Muslim envoys from Bari visiting Salerno. Although this alone might seem a little strange (though not necessarily if you’ve been reading the previous posts!) the story really takes a dramatic turn where the apparently honored guests were lodged in the house of the local Bishop against his will and much to his dismay. The Emirate reportedly also hosted a Spoletan rebel against Emperor Louis II for some time.

The other source is the Itinerarium Bernardi relating the travels of Bernard a Frankish monk. He and two companions came to Bari seeking safe passage to the Holy Land. There they were courteously received by Sawdan who agreed to assist them in their travels by issuing official letters from him to the princes of Baghdad and Jerusalem. They eventually traveled to Egypt via Taranto. They would be astonished by the highly organized and expensive bureaucracy where they were required to purchase new letters and to carry identification. Bernard was however perturbed by eleven ships carrying twelve thousand Beneventan Christian captives headed for the Egyptian slave markets. Though the numbers seems an exaggeration, other elements of the narrative are fascinating including the given matter-of-fact acceptance of Muslim rule in Italy as well as the overall unhostile depiction of Sawdan and the Emirate of Bari.

The Emirate fell after the very decisive actions of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis II. Louis went on a diplomatic offensive in 866 to the Lombard rulers of Benevento, Salerno and Capua, though notably not Naples, and eventually got support and raised a joint Frankish-Lombard army. He first took the strategic interior Muslim strongholds of Matera and Oria in 867 before setting his sights on Bari. He initially tried to negotiate Byzantine naval support, but due to disagreements with the fleet commander Nicetas this alliance dissolved. Finally in February of 871, and with Croatian naval support, Bari fell and Sawdan was taken prisoner and sent to Benevento.

These neutral and even positive depictions of the Emirate of Bari by both Jewish and Christian sources as well as the apparent normalized relations with neighboring Christian states displays the complex reality that was ninth century southern Italy where cooperation and coexistence were present at least for a time. Even after the fall of Bari many commercial and diplomatic relations between Muslims and southern Italians continued. In particular Sawdan would go on to some very comical and flamboyant exploits with his captors who were both former adversaries and partners.



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