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  • Sara Ameri Mahabadi

Politics and the Plague in Medieval Persia: A Non-Western Perspective of Pandemic History

Sara Ameri Mahabadi on Persia's perspective of the Black Death

The Black Death is still the deadliest recorded pandemic in human history, spreading across Eurasia and North Africa in the 14th century, decimating up to 60% of the population. Yet, what we know of this event mostly comes from European sources, owing to linguistic limitations and biases in a Eurocentric academia. But there is another story of the plague. Dispersed among a host of other details across volumes of Persian history, the story of the Black Death is closely intertwined with a narrative of war, social collapse, conquest, and eventual victory both against the plague and against oppression.

Like COVID-19, the Black Death halted trade, affected arts and sciences, and instigated hostile scapegoating of racial and ethnic minorities, but it also fused with each nation’s unique history, habitus, and systems of knowledge to take on new meanings and trajectories. In other words, COVID-19 affected every cultural sphere, and though the pandemic was global, its complex connection to shifts in politics and power created different historical narratives in the East and West.

The Black Death is still regarded as a European phenomenon, contained within the cultural and ideological discourses of Western Christianity. Ironically, however, the plague is also a disease that, according to 19th-century scholarship, marked Europe’s advance from its “Dark Ages” to the age of Enlightenment by its disappearance, becoming a distinctly Eastern malady after the 18th century (and a sure sign of the East’s ignorance and backwardness!). One of the most enduring narratives of the Black Death—Gabriel de Mussis’ account of the plague’s arrival to Europe—is a perfect example of this limiting, Western view.

De Mussis’ story goes like this: In 1347, the city of Caffa, occupied mostly by Genoese merchants, was besieged by a Mongol army. The plague that had already consumed “the countries of the East” ravaged this army, but before abandoning the siege, the Mongol Khan orders the bodies of his plague-ridden soldiers to be catapulted over the walls into the city. The rotting corpses “tainted the air and poisoned the water supply.” The few who could, fled Caffa on ships toward Italy, unaware that the plague was already travelling with them. Although de Mussis does not name this Mongol king, we know that it was Janibeg Khan, one of the last rulers of the Golden Horde. Janibeg appears in this account as the Villainous King from the East who brought the pestilence with him across the Mediterranean and inaugurated the unstoppable devastation of the Black Death in Europe. From here, scholars follow the evidence westward to witness the ensuing horrors of this moment in Florence, Avignon, London and other European centers. But no one has ever seemed to ask, “What happened to Janibeg and his army?”

Searching for the answer to this question takes us to the other side of the Mediterranean where non-European sources offer a different version of history. Persian chronicles write of Janibeg Khan’s victorious conquest of Tabriz, a prosperous trade center in the Northwest of modern Iran, in 1356. Janibeg was “cheered by the people” as he entered their city, and the previous ruler, Malik Ashraf, was greeted with ash thrown over him from the roofs before his decapitated head was erected on a spike at the entrance to Tabriz (D̲h̲ayl-i jāmiʿ al-tawārīk̲h̲). So the plague took one victory from Janibeg in Caffa and handed him another one in Tabriz.

In 1356/57, a preacher who had fled the city was preaching to a crowd among whom was King Janibeg Khan. He gave an account of the tyranny of Malik Ashraf so heart-rendering that

“the King and the congregation began to weep.” The preacher then went on saying, the King has the power to stop this oppression and rid the people of this tyranny, and he will be accountable on Judgment Day if he does not attend to this … and as he further embellished [his account], King Janibeg commanded his generals to mobilize the army and in one month, the forces were assembled, and the king was on his way [to Tabriz]” (Matla’ al-sa’dayn va majma’ al-bahrayn).

This account is unique in that it paints the picture not of an invasion but an invitation. Janibeg is represented as responding to the desperate pleas of a displaced people and acting out of religious and moral duty. As heavily romanticized and diplomatic as this narrative is, it nevertheless reflects—and perhaps manufactures—the active role of the people in the changing political landscape of their city. Commensurately, here, Janibeg is portrayed not as a tyrant but a morally motivated ruler who was acquiescing to the people’s request to take over. This is a radically different picture of Janibeg from that of the unnamed villain of Caffa by de Mussis.

Already in these chronicles, plague and politics are interlinked; with one kind of catastrophe comes the other. Pandemics can exacerbate pre-existing challenges, such as social oppression, as we see in the case of medieval Tabriz. But they can also be used to push narratives of history that serve specific political purposes—whether it is to solidify national and religious identity by casting the “other” as the agent behind a deadly disease; or to legitimize a regime change.

Pandemic history, then, is shaped by local and global power relations. COVID-19 brought us face to face with this truth. We witnessed the inseparability of disease from governmental rules and policies. Political landscapes not only determine what the pandemic meant but also the human response to it. More subtly, they affect how people represent this catastrophe to themselves. Whether some see COVID as a malicious force brought upon them by external agents or they take it as an opportunity for social change and political freedom depends largely on the socio-political influences through which they live.

One function of these narratives is to make sense of the senseless chaos of catastrophe. In de Mussis, the occasion of the war between the Genoese and the Mongols is used to ascribe a clear cause to a disease that appeared out of nowhere. By constructing a history where the plague is the fault of the enemy, the plague is made less unintelligible, and the enemy more intensely hated. Similarly, the ideal of freedom from oppression during times of pandemic bestows a purpose on an otherwise arbitrary suffering, a silver lining in a time of gloom. Both these solutions are at best temporary, and at worst illusionary, made possible by omitting and obscuring parts of history.

What we witnessed during COVID, then, is not entirely new. Blaming others, attempting to dismantle the status quo, or looking for saviors are instincts that have accompanied human societies for as long as they have been visited by pandemics. And the two divergent stories of the Black Death convey just how grounded in our past these instincts are. They show us that creating heroes and villains in the atmosphere of loss, and confusion accompanying collective disease is a recurring pattern in the human response to suffering. But what this history also emphasizes is that the story of pandemics changes based on who’s telling it, based on who gets to record history, and based on the ever-shifting, complex mechanisms of power. These mechanisms affect the way collective crisis is perceived, addressed, and remembered, and as such, create different narratives in different parts of the world. Thus, pandemics are not, and never have been, just a disease. These global health crises ripple through the fabric of societies, interacting with various apparatuses to shape the stories we tell of our loss.

Reflecting on the example of our past can help us recognize these patterns in our present. The opposing versions of one small episode in the history of the Black Death is a reminder of how a shared human suffering can be broken into innumerable, often irreconcilable narratives, each with their own specific agenda. Thus, understanding how pandemics have impacted and have been defined by structures of power alerts us to the workings of these structures in our modern encounter with global disease. Conceptions that we construct to mitigate the horrors of collective mortality are recurrent parts of the human response to crisis, but they are often the product of limited perspective and belied narratives. By learning the histories of others and expanding our horizons beyond frameworks that are familiar to us, we can begin to see the gaps, contradictions and biases in our own versions and better identify the tangled discursive webs behind pandemic stories—past and present.


Sara Ameri Mahabadi is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation focuses on the mystical writings of women in medieval Christian territories.


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