The Occidental Tourist
History Professor Janet Sorrentino will spend part of the spring in Turkey and Spain, following the footsteps of Muslim scholar-travelers of the late medieval and early modern period. The trip is part of her sabbatical study of what these erudite observers had to say about worship and places of ritual in their time, and it follows a month-long Dumbarton Oaks fellowship in Washington, DC, where the archive of Byzantine and Mediterranean materials helped provide primary research for her project. In mid-March, Sorrentino presented an early reading of her work at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies’ Mediterranean Programme in Athens, Greece.
“Travel writing was very much a part of scholarship and a shared literary culture, and also a spiritual pursuit” of Muslims of the late medieval and early modern period, Sorrentino says. “The Qu’ran bids the believer to seek knowledge ‘even as far as China.’ The idea is that seeking knowledge through travel is a good and pious thing to do.” Often these men, who were usually of high standing—a qadi, cleric or vizier, for instance—would travel for professional reasons, but their journals also reflect this deeper spiritual purpose, an intention to observe and consider all aspects of the world. “They see that very much as a part of their calling as children of God,” Sorrentino says. “I find them endlessly fascinating.”
Sorrentino’s diverse background includes a nursing degree, and her scholarship often combines her medical knowledge with her expertise in religion and world history, from the Ancient world through the Reformation. “My original background was working in medieval monastic Latin liturgy. But there’s a way of approaching worship that crosses borders, some basic methods that are transferrable between prophetic religions,” she says. Scholar-travelers like Ahmad bin Qasim, Ibn Battuta and Abd al-Wahad al-Ghassani recorded discussions with believers from diverse faiths and theological backgrounds, a kind of open-minded intellectual and spiritual investigation—all done as part of their belief that knowledge is one of the privileges given to humanity.”