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A Christian-Muslim Dynamic that Changed History

Dmitri Korobeinikov stands on a plain in Armenia.

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 20, 2018) — Dimitri Korobeinikov wanted to hear voices. 900-year-old voices.

Korobeinikov, an assistant professor in History whose concentrations include the history of the Ottomans and Byzantines, looked several years ago at the traditional assessment of the political dynamics that created the history of Asia Minor in the 13th Century, and found that there were key players not being given their due.

The result was his monograph, Byzantium and the Turks in the Thirteenth Century, published by Oxford University Press in 2014, a year after he joined the UAlbany faculty.

This January, the work earned Korobeinikov the 2018 John Nicholas Brown Prize from the Medieval Academy of America. The prize committee’s three judge panel remarked that, among all entries, Byzantium and the Turks “stood out as a major reinterpretation of a crucial historical period, distinguished by the quality of its writing, the depth and ingenuity of its analyses, and its author’s remarkable mastery of languages and sources.”

“My book studies the period between 1204 and 1305, when the chief eastern neighbor of Byzantium was the Seljuk sultanate of Rum, a Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim state,” said Korobeinikov.

The Seljuks, like the Arabs before them, were a traditional enemy of Byzantium, which, although Christian, underwent a catastrophe in 1204 when its capital of Constantinople was taken by the forces of the 4th Crusade. The empire disintegrated, but its chief surviving state, the Empire of Nicaea, retook Constantinople in 1261, only to fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1304, with the Byzantine Empire collapsing in totality by 1453.

“Should the Seljuks have attacked Byzantium in 1204 along with the Crusades, then 1204, and not 1453, would have been the end of the Byzantine civilization,” said Korobeinikov. “But this did not happen. Why? The answer is that the Seljuk sultans, contrary to their supposed interests, established special ties with the Byzantine emperors.”

How had these relationships never been discovered before? It was because other historians, scholarly though they were, had not engaged in historical reconstruction and narration to the degree of Korobeinikov. (The field of Christian-Muslim relations, he said, is still not thoroughly studied.) By gaining a remarkable command of many languages and applying new ways of reading well-known chronicles and rhetorical works, he was able to listen to disparate sources summoned out of deep obscurity.

“If you are engaged in Medieval Studies of Western Europe, Latin is enough,” said Korobeinikov. “If you are a Byzantinist, you may need Greek and Latin. But if you study Byzantium and, say, the Caliphate, then you will need Greek, Latin, and Arabic.”

Korobeinikov dealt with the classical languages of Latin and Greek in their medieval forms and with what he calls “the classical Oriental triad of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish.” He also delved into many other heretofore-unexamined Arabic, Persian, and Turkish writings still in manuscripts. When in Oxford, he also engaged in Eastern Christian studies, using Armenian and Syriac as his chief research languages.

He ultimately read documents written in 16 different languages. “This offered an unprecedented level of freedom of research, and many discoveries on every turn,” he said.

The Russian-born Korobeinikov, whose name on his passport and history department roster is Dmitry Korobeynikov, but who employs as an author the spelling given to him during his four years as a research fellow at Oxford in England, said the John Nicholas Brown Prize will be of “tremendous importance” to his future efforts.

The Brown Prize is the second given to a UAlbany historian, the first being John Monfasani in 1980. No other university has claimed more.

“The Prize means recognition of a new field, of the synthesis of many primary sources of diverse traditions and in many languages,” he said. “This synthesis was the most difficult thing when I was writing my book. And this means a new way not only to me, but to many scholars who are working on merging different fields of research, which, as a new trend, still needs wider recognition.”

 

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