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Les non-dits du nom. Onomastique et documents en terres d'Islam

Christian Müller
Muriel Roiland-Rouabah

Manuscrits et documents

Three (twelfth-century?) guarantees issued for the monks of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai

Donald S. Richards

Texte intégral

  • 1 Heidemann, Müller, Rāġib 1997, p. 95.
  • 2 Photographs were supplied many years ago, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

1It is easy to sympathize with the disappointed comments of the editors of a very handsom decree issued by the Ayyubid sultan al-‘Ādil. The information it provides about the monks of St Catherine’s does not match the impressive length of the scroll or its handsome calligraphy. As the editors express it : “[S]a forme est supérieure à son contenu1”. To some extent this is true of the whole collection of documents preserved in the monastery. It is a cruel irony that one of the largest caches of material dating from pre-Ottoman times is so uniform and repetitive, for ever confirming the rights of the monks which were, one presumes, equally often disregarded. Nevertheless, these thoughts do not lessen the pleasure it gives me to offer to my colleague and friend, Jacqueline Sublet, this modest addition to studies of the St Catherine’s documents2. My hope is that she can enjoy the challenge of decipherment. Indeed, I suspect that for many who indulge in epigraphical studies the main delight is found in those moments when an hitherto indecipherable series of words resolves itself into a meaningful phrase — or a phrase one convinces oneself is meaningful!

  • 3 See Wansbrough 1971 which is largely based on Qalqašandī, vol. xiii, p. 325-355, and also Schacht, (...)

2The three items presented here are in the same mould. They display much the same phraseology and content as the bulk of the decrees preserved in the monastery, although they do have some differences of form, especially Document n° 3 which takes the form of an amān, frequently but not always appositely translated as “safe-conduct”. The body of the text of Document n° 2 declares itself to be a grant of amān, although, since the exordium is not extant, it is not known how it actually identified itself. To translate as “safe-conduct” is not suitable in these cases, as the amān is granted to confirm the protection due to a fixed institution, the monastery, and cannot be equated with a safe-conduct as normally understood, the guarantee of safe, unimpeded travel to and from a certain place3. Of course, in theory the monastery was already sufficiently protected within the dār al-Islām on account of its status under the ḏimma.

3The three documents also give the impression that they may have been written under some particular circumstances and that they may have been issued by authorities directly on the spot, rather than being standard reiterations of basic privilegies from the central administration. N° 1, probably emanating from a local governor (wālī), is directed towards “the officials (nuwwāb) dispatched to Fārān and the coastal region of al-Ṭūr”. In line 3 of n° 2 there is a dubious word, which may have been intended to be al-mujarradīn, “those dispatched”, that is, on expedition. There is no indication that any of the three was issued by the sultan or another high officer. The drawing-up of the amān, n° 3, was ordered by a fully named but otherwise unidentified emir, who was perhaps a local governor or the commander of a local force.

  • 4 See e.g. the use of the term for the Kurdish and Turkish army led by Šīrkūh, see Abū Šāma, k. al-Ra (...)

4Only one of the three (Document n° 1) has preserved a date, which makes it undeniably Fatimid. Document n° 2 is defective at the beginning and end but the general look of the script and the use of the phrase umarā’ al-Ġuzz suggest that it may be from the end of the Fatimid period, when “the Ghuzz” was the term used for Turkish and Kurdish military personnel coming into Egypt4. The document could also be early Ayyubid. The date of document n° 3 has unfortunately be torn off just where the digit is indicated by the first three letters of ṯamānin. However, the issuing emir has the epithet al-Nāṣirī, which probably associates him with Saladin, whose ruling title was al-Malik al-Nāṣir. See below for further discussion of its dating.

Document n° 1

  • 5 Atiya 1955 gave the date as “13th century A.D.”

Atiya n° 1062 Add. Dated 20 ǧumādā I 523/11 May 11295.
Paper. Length 31,5 cm, width 16 cm.


(1) بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

(2) يعتمد النواب المجردين الى فاران وساحل الطور [ادام الله]

الله املي

(3) عزهم وسلامهم حمل الرهبان بطور سينا المقدس على

(4) ما جرت به عادتهم فى ملكهم ورعاية جانبهم وتكريمهم وتخفيف الوطاة

(5) عنهم وسلوك الواجب معهم وكف الاذى والايدى العادية

(6) عن نخلهم والشد منهم فى تحصيل ثمرة ملكهم وموازرتهم على ذلك

(7) وهم يحملون الامر على ما مثل لهم ولا يخرجون عما رسم لهم والله يوفقهم

(8) ويسددهم وكيف جرت العادة لهم فى اللقاطين فى طرح الريح يحملوا

(9) عليه ولا يعدلوا بهم عنه والذى ذكروا ان اللقاطين لهم عشره

(10) فيحملوهم عليه كما جرت عادتهم ويقدموا قطع نخلهم ولا يوخروا

(11) امرهم قصدا فى حمايتهم وحفظ متحصل نخلهم وما يحتاجون الى

On the right margin, written from bottom to top :

(12) تاكيد (رجاء سببهم) ان شا الله تعالى

(13) وكتب بتاريخ العشرين من جمادى الاول سنة ثلث وعشرين وخمسماية

(14) الحمد لله وحده وصلواته على سيدنا محمد نبيه ؟ وسلامه


(1) In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate

(2) Let the officials dispatched to Fārān and the coastal area of al-Ṭūr be sure ([may God continue]

(3) their might and their well-being) to treat the monks at holy Mount Sinai according to

(4) what has been their custom concerning their property, to show consideration for them and respect for their persons, lessen pressure

(5) on them, follow a proper course with them, keep damage and hostile hands

(6) from their palm trees and oversee them in the collection of the fruit of their property and assist them in that.

(7) while themselves carrying out their task as they have been instructed and not diverging from what they have been ordered. May God give them success

(8) and guide them aright. Their customary practice concerning the gleaners during “the casting of the wind”, let them keep

(9) to that and do not make them diverge from it. What they have mentioned, namely that the gleaners have a tenth,

(10) let them hold them to that, as has been their custom. Let them advance the cutting of their palms and not delay

(11) their task with the aim of protecting them and maintaining the income from their palms. They do not need

(12) emphasis on the desire for their [the monks] sustenance (?), if God Almighty wills.

(13) Written on the date of 20 Jumādā I in the year five hundred and three and twenty.

(14) Praise be to God alone and His blessings be upon our Lord Muhammad, our Prophet, and His peace.

Between lines 2 and 3: God is my hope


  • 6 The typical later ṭurra was a note at the top of the recto, followed by from one to three blank seg (...)

5It is not possible to say whether there was an identifying note (ṭurra) at the beginning of the scroll (and also of the other two documents), which might have mentioned the source of this order and the recipients6. The contents themselves do not name any authorizing source but the manner in which those called upon to obey the order are described (in line 2) leads me to believe that it was issued for a particular expedition. Their own instructions appear to be alluded to in line 7 and one should note that there were particular instructions concerning local agricultural practice.

6Lines 2-3: If the first two words of line 3 have been read correctly, then some such words as I have added are necessary to complete the benediction formula. Between these lines the authentication is found in the form of the motto (‘alāma) of whoever issued the order. A motto of the same wording, but not in the same hand, appears in Document n° 3.

7Lines 8-9: The phrase “casting of the wind” presumably refers to a winnowing process. It is not clear to me how the gleaners can be said to have a tenth since their activity takes place in the fields after harvesting, not on the threshing floor.

  • 7 Zaid, De Wet, 2002, chapter viii, section ii.

8Line 10: “The cutting of their palms” is quite probably a reference to an important and labour-intensive part of the cultivation of date palms, that is, the thinning of the fruit or of bunches (even the removal of whole bunches) to increase fruit size and to avoid low production in a following year. “The earlier thinning is practised, the more effective it is in increasing size7”.

9Lines 11-12: The cannot be understood as a relative pronoun, for that would require ilay-hi. The reading of line 12 is not certain but the sense seems to be that the recipients were expected to look after the interests of the monks without further prompting.

Plate 1 : Document n° 1

Plate 1 : Document n° 1

Document N° 2 (see Plates 2 and 3)

Atiya n° 110. Paper. Length 75 cm, width 12,5 cm. Defective at the beginning and end.


توكلى (؟)

(1) الصادر عن المجلس السامى الاجلى

(2) الفضلى النجمى ادام الله ايامه

(3) من الولاة والغزاة والمـ[ـجـ]ردين وسائر امرا الغز

(4) ومقدمى العرب اجمعين اننا قد امنا

(5) سكان دير طور سينا الاسقف

(6) وجماعة الرهبان بامان الله عز وجل

(7) وامان رسوله صلى الله عليه وسلم

(8) واماننا على مكانهم وارواحهم وابدانهم

(9) واموالهم وقوافلهم والمترددين فى خدمهم

(10) الى جميع المواضع وان تكف كف كل

(11) متطاول بالاذية اليهم فمن قراه او قرى

(12) عليه من طبقات الناس كلهم اجمعين

(13) فليكف عن اذيتهم ويعلم اننا من ورا

(14) معونتهم ويعمل بحسب المكتوب ويحذر من

(15) [تجاوره وتعديه] .....

The following text is added between lines 12 and 13 :

وليمتنع العربان من دخول الدير المذكور



(1) emanating from his Honour, the high, the excellent,

(2) al-Afḍalī, Naǧm [al-Dīn] (may God lengthen his days)

(3) on behalf of the governors, the troops, the expedition members (?) and all the emirs of the Ghuzz

(4) and all the chiefs of the Bedouin Arabs, that we have duly given our guarantee

(5) to the inhabitants of the monastery of Mount Sinai, the bishop

(6) and the community of monks, with the guarantee of God (mighty and glorious is He!)

(7) and the guarantee of His Prophet (God bless him and give him peace!).

(8) Our guarantee is for their site, their souls and their bodies

(9) and their property, their caravans and those travelling on their business

(10) to all places, and let the hand of each person be restrained

(11) who presumes to do them harm. Whoever reads this or has it read

(12) to him from all classes of people,

(13) let him refrain from harming them and know that we are behind

(14) support for them and act according to this document and avoid

(15) [going beyond it and overstepping it]

The text inserted between lines 12 and 13:

and let him prevent the Bedouin from entering the aforesaid monastery.


10Before the first line of the existing text there is what appears by the slightly larger and thicker script to be the remnant of an ‘alāma. Very tentatively it has been read as tawakkulī (My trust). One might even speculate that in full it continued with ‘alā llāh (is in God). There is no doubt that before the bayt al-‘alāma (the space for the signature) some text is missing, as the al-ṣādir ‘an (“emanating from”) must be qualifying a lost preceding noun with the sense of “order” or “written communication”.

11In line 3 the word which has been read as al-muǧarradīn does not suggest any acceptable meaning as it stands originally (see plate 2). Muǧarradīn is paralleled elsewhere, as in Document 1, line 2, but it could also be intended as al-mutaraddidīn, although this is less likely in this context, as opposed to its clearer meaning in line 9 and in document 3, line 5. The final phrase in the line (“and all the emirs of the Ghuzz”) by its position and letter size could well be an addition.

12Lines 11-12: the formula “Whoever reads this or etc.” is found in Fāṭimid Decrees, n° 5, line 26; n° 7, line 13; n° 8, line 37; n° 9, line 32; n° 10, line 29.

13The text in line 15 has been supplied on the basis of parallel usage in Fāṭimid Decrees, n° 8, lines 40-41, no. 10, lines 32-3; “Two Ayyūbid Decrees”, p. 27; “Un decret d’al-Malik al-‘Ādil”, p. 96.

Plate 3 : Document n° 2, lines 6-14 / Plate 2 : Document n° 2, lines 1-7

Plate 3 : Document n° 2, lines 6-14 / Plate 2 : Document n° 2, lines 1-7

Document N° 3 (Plates 4 and 5)

Atiya n° 16. Paper. Length 67 cm, width 21,5 cm. Date defective.


(1) بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

(2) امان تقدم بكتبه الامير المقدم الامير الاسفهسلار مقدم الجيوش سيف المجاهدين


الله املي

(3) شجاع الدين ابو الحسن على بن سكل الناصرى [ا]دام الله توفيقه

(4) وتسديده وتمكينه الى جماعة الرهبان المقيمين بطور سينا جبل الله

(5) المقدس على قوافلهم والمترددين منهم شرق البلاد وغربها جارين

(6) على ما جرت به عادتهم من الاكرام والاعزاز والرعاية

(7) وعلى الواصل اليهم فى قوافلهم من بلاد الشام

(8) وديار مصر وما يختص بهم من النخل وغيره امانا من الله سبحانه

(9) ومن نبيه محمد صلى الله عليه وسلم بحيث اننى لا اغير عليهم ولا

(10) ابدل ولا انكث ومن نكث فانما ينكث على نفسه

(11) قال الله تعالى ومن بدله بعد ما سمعه فانما اثمه على الذين يبدلونه

(12) والله غفور رحيم وهذا خطى معهم ولكل واصل اليهم قاصى

(13) ودانى فتطيب قلوبهم ويشرحوا صدورهم ....... على

(14) تقدم عادتهم وكتب فى جمادى الآخرة من شهور سنة ثما[ن] .........

(15) والحمد لله وحده وصلواته على سيدنا محمد وآله الطاهرين

(16) وحسبنا الله ونعم الوكيل


(1) In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate.

(2) A guarantee of security the drawing up of which was ordered by the emir and commander, al-amīr al-isfahsalār, commander of the armies, sword of the warriors for the faith,

(3) Šuǧā‘ al-Dīn Abū l-Ḥasan ‘Alī ibn Sakal al-Nāṣirī (may God continue his success,

(4) his right guidance and his strengthening) for the community of monks dwelling at Mount Sinai, the mountain of God

(5) the holy one, for their caravans and those of them who travel east and west, proceeding

(6) according to the consideration, esteem and respect they have customarily received

(7) and for any visitor in their caravans from Syria

(8) and Egypt, and for the palm trees and other things that belong to them, a guarantee from God (glory be to Him!)

(9) and from His Prophet Muḥammad (God bless him and give him peace!), inasmuch as I shall not change towards them, nor

(10) vary, nor break faith. “Whoever breaks faith only breaks faith to his own hurt”.

(11) God Almighty said: “Whoever changes it after he has heard it, then surely the sin of it is upon those who change it”

(12) and God is Forgiving and Compassionate. This is my signed order towards them and for each person who comes to them, from far or

(13) near. Let their hearts be at ease and let them make their breasts untroubled…… according to

(14) their former custom. Written in the month of ǧumādā ii in the year… 8 (?).

(15) Praise be to God alone and His blessings be upon our Lord Muḥammad and his pure family.

(16) God is our sufficiency and an excellent steward is He!

Between lines 2 and 3:

God is my hope


  • 8 See Khan 1993, p. 404-405.
  • 9 Qalqašandī, vol. vi, p. 451 ; vii, p. 108.
  • 10 Ibid., vol. v, p. 543.

14The dating of this document is open to question, whether to consign it to the Fatimid or Ayyubid period or indeed to place it on the cusp between them. The employment of the nisba al-Nāṣirī in line 3, even if it genuinely indicates service for Saladin, whose title was al-Nāṣir, does not settle the question. The term al-isfahsalār (line 2), which is Persian in origin and means “army commander”, could suggest the Ayyubid period since it was introduced into Abbasid titulature by the Seljuqs and spread westwards through successor regimes such as the Zengids and Ayyubids and is well represented in their titulature8. However, there is doubt here too, as the term was not unknown to the Fatimids. It occurs in hand-book copies of the correspondence of caliphs with emirs9. Al-Qalqašandī states that titles of mixed linguistic origin, which arose in Baghdad, such as al-isfahsalār, were either adopted “by imitation” (muḍāhātan) as under the Fatimid regime, although sparingly (‘alā qilla), or otherwise such titles were employed “by succession, continuity” (taba‘an), as in the case of the Ayyubid state10. Furthermore, regarding the taṣliya in line 15, one might think that its Shiite character indicated a Fatimid date for the document, but the same formula is to be found in the Ayyubid al-‘Ādil’s decree dated 592/1195 (“Two Ayyūbid Decrees”, p. 12).

15Line 2: This opening phrase is almost the same as one form of words set out in Qalqašandī (vol. xiii, p. 324-325), namely hāḏā amān amara bi-katbihi fulān (“This is a guarantee which… ordered to be written”).

16Qalqašandī (vol. xiii, p. 343), states that according to the practice of his day “safe-conducts” issued from the central administration were all signed with the sultan’s personal name. Here, as in n° 1, the authentication is by means of a motto signature.

17In line 6, the relative pronoun is added above the line.

18In lines 10 and 11 the document quotes Koran, xlviii, 10 and Koran, ii, 181. In the original context of the second quotation the “it” refers to a bequest or testamentary disposition. In the Koran the verse ends with “Verily God is Hearing and Knowing”.

Plate 4 : Document n° 3, lines 1-11

Plate 4 : Document n° 3, lines 1-11

Plate 5 : Document n° 3, lines 4-16

Plate 5 : Document n° 3, lines 4-16


Arabic Sources

Abū Šāma, Kitāb al-rawḍatayn fī aḫbār al-dawlatayn, éd. Ibrāhīm al-Zībaq, 5 vol., Beirut, 1418/1997.

Qalqašandī (Al-), Ṣubḥ al-a‘šā fī ṣinā‘at al-inšā, 14 vol., Cairo, 1331-1346/1923-1928.

Secondary Works

Atiya, A.S., 1955: The Arabic Manuscripts of Mount Sinai; a hand-list of the Arabic manuscripts and scrolls microfilmed at the library of the Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai, Baltimore.

Dozy, R., 1881 : Supplément aux Dictionnaires arabes, 2 vol., Leiden ; reprint Beirut, 1968.

Heidemann, S., Müller, Ch., and Rāġib, Yūsuf, 1997 : “Un décret d’al-Malik al-‘Ādil en 571/1176 relatif aux moines du Mont Sinaï”, Annales Islamologiques xxxI, p. 87-109.

Khan, G., 1993: Arabic Legal and Administrative Documents in the Cambridge Genizah Collections, Cambridge.

Schacht, J., “Amān”, The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition, vol. I, p. 429-430.

Stern, S.M., 1964: Fāṭimid Decrees. Original Documents from the Fāṭimid Chancery, London.

— 1965: Two Ayyūbid Decrees from Sinai, in Stern S.M. (éd.) Documents from Islamic Chanceries, Oxford.

Wansbrough, J., 1971: “The safe-conduct in Muslim chancery practice”, BSOAS xxxiv, p. 20-35.

Zaid, A., De Wet, P.F., 2002: Date Palm Cultivation, FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 156, Roma;


1 Heidemann, Müller, Rāġib 1997, p. 95.

2 Photographs were supplied many years ago, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

3 See Wansbrough 1971 which is largely based on Qalqašandī, vol. xiii, p. 325-355, and also Schacht, “Amān”.

4 See e.g. the use of the term for the Kurdish and Turkish army led by Šīrkūh, see Abū Šāma, k. al-Rawḍatayn, vol. ii, p. 61-63, 291, and also see Dozy, s,v.

5 Atiya 1955 gave the date as “13th century A.D.”

6 The typical later ṭurra was a note at the top of the recto, followed by from one to three blank segments of the scroll before the basmala, which indicated the nature of the signature to be used, the identity of the recipient(s) and the matter of the communication, see Qalqašandī, vol. viii, p. 21.

7 Zaid, De Wet, 2002, chapter viii, section ii.

8 See Khan 1993, p. 404-405.

9 Qalqašandī, vol. vi, p. 451 ; vii, p. 108.

10 Ibid., vol. v, p. 543.


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