Material cultures of writing in the Indian Ocean world: a palm leaf letter at the Mamluk court




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Routledge India


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Peer reviewed


This contribution centres on writing technologies in the western Indian Ocean before 1500; more particularly it explores the communicative role of writing supports in long distance, transcultural interactions through a case study from late thirteenth century Mamluk Cairo. The article focuses on Mamluk accounts of the receipt at court of what was ultimately an illegible letter from a Sri Lankan ruler. The embassy left a remarkable literary trace for several generations afterwards, a sign if it were needed that an illegible letter can nevertheless communicate powerfully. The fact that even in the late thirteenth century, after centuries of diplomatic exchanges along the length of the Indian Ocean, a letter might arrive in a language that no one in Cairo could read is a healthy reminder first and foremost of the central importance of envoys and oral missives in diplomatic exchanges at this period. This study also highlights scholarly neglect of the containment of epistolary texts, and more generally any form of writing containment that is not “book” binding in the strictest sense, or related to the containment of written amulets. Like the much neglected envelope, there is ample room for studies of other types of document container.



containment, Indian Ocean, Medieval, writing, writing materials, palm leaf, document cases


Lambourn, E. (2020) Material cultures of writing in the Indian Ocean world: a palm leaf letter at the Mamluk court. In: Ray, H.P. (Ed.) The Archaeology of Knowledge Traditions of the Indian Ocean World. Routledge India.


Research Institute

Institute of History