Fine China Meant Dining on Asbestos Plates in Medieval Central Asia
A new Department of History professor has some stories that are hard to believe, and his research in early Islamic history is only building up his cache.
By: Ryan Varney
Phone: (513) 556-4190
Photos By: Ryan Varney
Robert Haug, new educator assistant professor of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences'
history department, studies the relatively undocumented field of early Islamic history. His research has led to a treasure trove of unusual stories.
|Robert Haug studies early Islamic coins.|
While studying the province of Badakhshan, in northern Afghanistan, he discovered that asbestos was used for dishware in Islamic nations during the 9th and 10th centuries. “It’s horrifying to read things like in Badakhshan they mined asbestos for things like placemats. They would eat off them and then when they’d get dirty they’d throw them in the fire to clean them. [In doing research] you get descriptions of things that people at the time had no clue what it was, but we know now.”
Haug is interested in early Islamic history in part because it hasn’t been documented as widely as European, American or even Roman history.
“If you’re working on more modern history you have a much larger source of documents and much more detail,” he says. “The period I’m working in has a very limited set of resources. I don’t have administrative records, court records or anything even resembling a newspaper. What I have are big chronicles and broader texts that force you to think more creatively. There’s a lot more room to imagine and think about ways to explore this information.”
One resource that is beneficial to Haug’s research is coins. Islamic coins are full of meticulous detail and information that often tell the story of the town where they were minted.
“They always include the date they were minted, where they were minted and the names of the political authorities at the time. You might have the caliph—similar to an emperor—or the governor or even the head of the city, mine, or mint. I’ve seen some with eight different names attached to them. It’s something that fills in the gaps of local histories,” Haug says.
Another thing he discovered through his numismatic research is that medieval Islamic coins have been found quite far from their mint of origin.
|Left: A silver dirham from Jayy (modern Isfahan, Iran) minted in 779 AD. Right: A silver dirham from Andaraba (in northern Afghanistan) minted in 889 AD. Both coins feature religious inscriptions, information about the mint and names of authorities.|
“In the 10th century, Afghan mines produced so much silver, and the coins minted were traded a lot through Russia along the Volga River and all the way up into Scandinavia. Sometimes you’ll find places in Eastern Europe or Russia where they even tried to imitate the style of these Islamic coins. There was no imagery on these coins, just inscriptions, so people faked the Arabic to make it look like a prestigious central Asian coin.”
This discovery led Haug to realize there was a global connectivity even as far back as 5,000 years ago.
“We like to think of ours as this globalized age where we’re all connected, but the fact is we always have been. Another example is lapis lazuli, a shimmering blue gemstone, mined in Badakhshan. It was traded halfway across Asia. And this was before writing and yet people knew about these connections.”
Haug has many more stories that demonstrate the connections between different parts of the world and students interested can hear more either in his fall quarter class World History I: Worlds Forming or his winter quarter class on Afghanistan: Crossroads of War and Peace.
The Middle Eastern Studies
program is growing and Haug is helping it reach its fullest potential. He’s excited to bring his expertise, honed at DePaul and Michigan, to UC’s Department of History
“I’m excited about introducing students to the history of the early Islamic world. It’s something we forget about or doesn’t get brought up. When Europe had its dark ages, this was the high point of Islamic civilization when science and the arts were flourishing,” Haug says, before adding, “Did you know that algebra was created in the medieval Islamic world?”
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