What Medieval East Africa Can Teach Us About Realism


Old Dobgola Kingdom of Makuria, Throne hall. Author: Hans Nilsen


By: Matthew Petti

In 625 AD, two armies met along the Nile. Muslim warriors led by Abdullah ibn Saad ibn Abi-Sarh marched south from Egypt towards Dongola, the capital of the Christian kingdom of Makuria, which ruled over Nubia in modern-day Sudan. But the advancing Muslims were met by the infamous “pupil-strikes,” King Qalidurat’s elite corps of Makurian archers. Historians don’t agree on what happened next; according to the earliest sources, Abdullah ibn Saad either reduced Makuria to paying him tribute, or suffered such a defeat that he was forced to sue for peace. But whatever happened, the two sides came to an agreement called the baqt. No copies survive today, and it may not have even been a written treaty, but the baqt lasted for at least six centuries—making it the longest-lasting peace agreement in history.

Although it is obscure today, this piece of medieval East African history has a lot to teach Internet-age international relations (IR) scholars. After all, the nation-state has only been around for a few centuries—and some people think that it’s going out of fashion already. Examples of earlier history might tell us what a post-national world looks like. But even if the nation-state is here to stay, pre-nation history can still tell us how our own IR theories fare as universal explanations of man, the state, and war.

The earliest source on the baqt is the 9th century history of ibn Abd al-Hakam; Charles Cutler Torrey reprinted the original Arabic text under the title History of the Conquests of Egypt, North Africa, and Spain, which I translated. Like many historians in the early Arabic tradition, ibn Abd al-Hakam doesn’t give one authoritative narrative, but instead lays out all the different versions supported by his sources. In one version, the Makurians fought Abdullah ibn Saad “heavily,” causing the loss of Muslim fighters’ eyes. According to this version, the two sides agreed on a truce (hudna) wherein the Muslims would not “raid” the Nubians and the Nubians would not “raid” the Muslims. Furthermore, the two sides agreed that “the Nubians would send the Muslims a certain number of ‘captive heads’ [slaves] every year and the Muslims would send a certain amount of wheat and lentils every year.” This specifically states that there was no promise (ʿahd) or treaty (mīthāq), but rather a “ceasefire” (hudnat amān, or “security truce”). Interestingly, this “truce” is not between Abdullah ibn Saad and King Qalidurat, or the Islamic caliphate and the state of Makuria, but between “the people of Egypt” and the “Nubians.” The Abbasid bureaucrat Qudama ibn Jaafar of Baghdad and the Persian historian Mohammad Tabari elaborated on this version, adding luxury goods like clothing to the Muslim side’s payments. These sources wrote two centuries after the baqt was created, but the agreement would outlive them by four hundred years!

The other version of the story in ibn Abd al-Hakam’s history mentions a written treaty—and a Makurian defeat. According to ibn Abd al-Hakam’s informant, the Muslim son of a Makurian POW saw and memorized this instrument of surrender in the archives of Cairo before it was “burnt” by an unknown cause: “we have bound you to provide 360 ‘heads’ every year, and you enter our lands as visitors, not settlers, and we enter your lands in the same way [i.e. the borders are open for travel but closed to immigration].” The agreement—which is referred to as both a “promise” (ʿahd) and a “truce” (hudna)—is only valid as long as the Nubians agree to return Egyptian refugees and fugitives to Muslim jurisdiction, and punish anyone who kills a Muslim. This account is backed up by later historians such as the Mamluk era writer Taqi-al-Din al-Maqrizi, as well as an 8th century diplomatic message from the governor of Egypt to the king of Makuria: “you do not bring to us that to which you are liable according to the baqṭ on the basis of which/about which agreement was made with you: nor do you return those of our slaves who run away to you; nor are our merchants safe among you; nor do you hasten to permit our messengers [to return] to us.” But archaeological evidence shows that Makuria was able to field a formidable army for centuries after the Battle of Dongola, according to The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia: Pagans, Christians and Muslims on the Middle Nile by Derek Welsby, suggesting that the baqt was not a form of forced tribute. Africanist historian Jay Spaulding argues that the tale of Makurian surrender was necessary to justify the failure of “God’s holy warriors” to defeat a tiny Christian state, and that the baqt was really a reciprocal trade. But neither version can be dismissed out of hand on the historical evidence alone.

Despite the differences, both versions share a few details in common. The baqṭ followed the Muslim conquest of Egypt, when the Muslim army traveled south to Makuria. After the initial encounter, the Muslim army and Makurian forces fought a drawn-out battle at the Makurian capital of Dongola in 652 AD. After the battle, Makuria continued to exist as an independent state, and the two sides made an agreement called the baqt. This agreement, either oral or written, ended the war for an indefinite period of time. It involved an exchange of wealth and captives, whether we consider it “tribute,” a gift, or a two-sided exchange. The baqt was “in force” for at least six centuries.

Even though Egypt passed between different dynasties—Umayyad, Abbasid, Ikhshidid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk—the Muslim rulers of the northern Nile Valley were always recognized as the heirs to Abdullah ibn Saad under the baqṭ. In fact, resuming baqṭ payments was a way for Makurian rulers to signal their recognition of new regimes in Egypt, according to PM Holt and MW Daly’s History of the Sudan. This arrangement was not totally successful at preventing violence. Not to mention the brutal structural violence of the slave trade, “raids” between the Muslims and Makurians continued after the baqt, “both sides being the aggressors on occasion,” according to Welsby. But the baqt was renewed after each round of fighting, and neither side attempted to conquer the other until Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, took power in Egypt in 1171 AD. His invasion failed, and the baqt resumed for another century.

The permanent breakdown of the baqt began in 1268 AD, when King Murtashkar’s nephew David seized the Makurian state in a coup d’etat. After four years of escalation, he attacked the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, and Mamluk forces responded by invading Makuria, deposing David, and installing a Mamluk puppet in his place. They were the first Muslim army to reach Dongola since the initial Nubian-Muslim contact. However, the weakened kings of Makuria continued to send “gifts that both contemporaries and modern scholars have recognized as baqṭ payments,” according to Spaulding. Dongola was abandoned in 1365 AD after a long period of civil wars (with frequent Mamluk intervention) between the Nubians and various nomadic groups, including the Beja and Bedouin Arabs. Historians do not know when the last baqt payment was made, but the archaeologist William Y. Adams found a piece of cloth labeled “baqt” in Arabic while excavating a 13th century Nubian tomb. No other diplomatic arrangement in recorded history—except for the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373—has ever carried real force for that long.

Conventional theories about international institutions can’t explain why the baqṭ lasted so long. Under most schools of IR, the baqṭ would be defined as an “institution,” which Mearsheimer defines as “a set of rules that stipulate the ways in which states should cooperate and compete with each other” rather than “the organization per se that compels states of obey the rulers” or “a form of world government.” Liberal institutionalism, “built on the assumption that international politics can be divided into two realms—security and political economy,” according to Mearsheimer, is irrelevant in the case of the baqṭ, which ties peace to economic incentives. The other major school of institutionalism, collective security theory, is a prescriptive rather than descriptive theory, and the baqṭ falls short of its prescription (again defined by Mearsheimer) that “an attack on any state [must be] considered an attack on every state.” In fact, in Maqrizi’s version of the baqṭ, the Muslims specifically “do not undertake to drive away enemies who [may] attack” Makuria.

Defending realism, Mearsheimer writes that institutions are “basically a reflection of the distribution of power in the world,” and because international politics is “a state of relentless security competition” in which actors “aim to maximize their relative power positions over other states,” institutions such as the baqṭ are inherently unstable. At a first glance, the baqṭ was tied to the balance of power. It came into existence because neither the Muslims nor Makurians totally dominated the Nile Valley. The two parties also did “look for opportunities to take advantage of each other” in the “brutal arena” of diplomacy, as Mearsheimer puts it. Qudama ibn Jaafar, for example, wrote that the Nubians used the lack of written records to claim that their annual obligations actually had to be paid once every three years. And a 13th century Syriac bishop, Gregorius bar Hebraeus, quotes a 9th century Makurian king who had to force the Muslims to hold up their end of the bargain: “as much as they have cut off [their tribute], we also have cut off [Ours].” But the overall structure of the baqṭ remained in place for 600 years, and no large-scale invasion attempt occurred for at least 520 of those years. The modern system of nation-states has never maintained this kind of regional balance for more than a few decades, let alone six centuries.

To understand the baqt, scholars should go beyond modern Western concepts of diplomacy and statecraft. Alexander Wendt’s “social constructivism” introduces the basic insight is that “people act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them.” States’ reactions to the balance of power are always based on “intersubjective understandings and explanations…that constitute their conceptions of self and other.” Wendt shows that the “competitive, self-help world” of “the contemporary state system” is not the only way societies can interact. While it’s not clear how possible it is to change international anarchy through ideas, as Wendt seems to suggest, it is clear that very different political constraints applied to medieval Nubian and Muslim states.

Ifi Amadiume explains in Re-inventing Africa that European colonialism has “imposed” a system of governance based on the absolute monarchies of the early colonial period, in which “the bureaucracy rules” without regard for “the African moral and holistic philosophical order of balance,” onto the rest of the world by force. The medieval kingdoms of Nubia, on the other hand, were not European-style absolute monarchies based on the principle of sovereignty. As the UNESCO General History of Africa explains, the vassal kingdoms of Maris and Alodia floated into and out of the Makurian orbit; other semi-sovereign entities—including Arab merchant-rulers, nomadic tribes, and the Coptic Orthodox Church based in Alexandria, Egypt—held power within the territory of Makuria proper. While the Muslim state in Egypt was more centralized and bureaucratic, it wasn’t a nation-state bound by territorial borders. “Unilinear developmental evolutionism” would assume that these states are “lacking something,” as Amadiume puts it, but they were able to conduct war and peace just as well as modern nation-states.

The Muslims and Nubians even held different ideas of statehood while they interacted with each other—and the differences between these ideas mattered. As Wendt writes, “[t]he process of creating institutions is one of internalizing new understandings of self and other, of acquiring new role identities, not just of creating external constraints on the behavior of exogenously constituted actors.” For the Makurians, Spaulding argues that the baqt fit into a general northeast African system of statecraft, where kings had a complex language of diplomatic gifts. (Perhaps the kings mentioned by Qudama ibn Jaafar and Gregorius bar Hebraeus were not looking for “opportunities to take advantage” of the baqt, but trying to communicate subtle messages to their Muslim counterparts.) Spaulding also compares the baqt to Nubian-Roman interactions before Islam; traditional Nubian kings were suspicious of markets and private property, but wanted the luxury goods of the Mediterranean region, so they initiated gift exchanges on a state-to-state level with the Romans. In fact, the word baqt (not native to Nubian or Arabic) probably derives from the Greek pakton, related to the English word pact. For the Makurians, the Muslims were just another Mediterranean empire ruling over the northern Nile Valley, and they could be “dealt with” in the same way as the Romans. In this light, Spaulding’s view of historians like Maqrizi is too harsh. By rewriting the baqt as a Makurian surrender, Muslim historians were not covering up embarrassing history—they were just keeping the peace. After all, there was no need to attack the Makurians if they were already paying “tribute” to the Muslims! The baqt allowed both parties to believe that peace put them at an advantage, which kept the peace going for so long.

This doesn’t mean that realism is entirely useless at explaining the baqt. If we take Spaulding’s version of the history to be correct—the baqt began because the Muslims could not conquer Makuria, and ended when they could—then the balance of power “won out” in the end. But the history of the Nile Valley during the baqt is not a story of “relentless security competition” and fragile peace. Although the long peace eventually ended in the brutal reality of conquest, generations of Makurians and Egyptians were born and died without ever seeing interstate war. People’s ideas about power cannot overpower the material reality of physical force in the long run, but the “short term” consequences may last a lifetime.

Matthew is a senior and Foreign Language Area Studies (Arabic) fellow at Columbia University, and a former documentary production intern at CNBC. Matthew’s work on minority rights and migration has been published in Reason Magazine, the National Interest, and America Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewpetti!







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