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Recovering Submerged Worlds

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Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Art Library
A relief depicting the triumph of the Sassanian Emperor Shapur I over the Roman emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab, one of seven large reliefs showing Sassanian monarchs at Naqshe-e Rustam, Iran, third century CE

These three books, each in its different way, deal with the centuries in which a very ancient world suddenly and unexpectedly turned upside down. In Empires in Collision and The Throne of Adulis, Glen Bowersock takes us far to the south of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean—to Yemen, Axum (the capital of the nascent empire of Ethiopia), and to the dangerous waters between the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, better known to Somali pirates than to classical scholars. Patricia Crone’s Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran takes us further east—in a huge sweep of diverse, little-known landscapes from Mesopotamia across the Iranian plateau as far as Central Asia.

Both Bowersock and Crone are supremely accomplished scholars. Each deals with the dramatic sequence of events that preceded and followed the unforeseen emergence of Islam in a corner of the world to which the ancients had paid little or no attention.

Bowersock has long shown how much we can learn about the ancient world by viewing it from its peripheries. Like Sir Ronald Syme, but going further afield than he did, Bowersock has insisted on seeing Rome from its provinces: in the provincial elites of the Greek world; in Roman Arabia; in the strange mutations of Hellenism in non-Greek regions; in the delicious joie de vivre of the mosaics of the late antique Middle East. And every time that Bowersock looks back into the centers of the classical world from his carefully chosen viewing points along its edge, the Greco-Roman world as a whole (center and periphery alike) is made to seem more diverse, more adaptable, more filled with surprises.

The Throne of Adulis shows Bowersock at full bent. In it, he reveals an unimaginably distant world, where the Indian Ocean touched societies caught between equatorial Africa and the deep desert of Arabia. Byzantines knew of these strange lands as sources of their incense, gold, and ivory. Occasionally, even a giraffe from the wide savannahs of East Africa and the Sudan would appear in Constantinople, to be placed in the menagerie of the imperial palace. There the gangly and voracious beast would be fed with leafy branches from the hand of the emperor himself, to symbolize the wide reach of a ruler capable of taming exotic beasts from the far ends of the earth—whether these were giraffes or barbarians.

This is where Bowersock begins—in Adulis (on the modern Gulf of Zula, in Ethiopian Eritrea) and in Axum, a royal capital set back from the coast, in the foothills of the mountains of Ethiopia. He studies a remarkable series of inscriptions. These inscriptions are in three languages—in Greek and in two languages that were outliers from the great Semitic languages of the Middle East: Ge’ez (Ethiopic) and Sabaic. Greek was then still a lingua franca beyond the territories of Rome. Looking beyond these unusual monuments, Bowersock draws on similar inscriptions from both sides of the Red Sea to add a whole new chapter to the history of the ancient world in its last century. He shows how, throughout the sixth century AD, the kingdoms on either side of the Red Sea—the Kingdom of Himyar in southern Arabia and the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, just across the sea—were locked in conflict, with momentous consequences for their neighbors.

Bowersock also shows how the two great empires of the north came to be embroiled in the conflict. The eastern part of the Roman Empire (“East Rome”) and the Sassanian Empire of Persia were driven by competition to reach ever deeper into the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea. Their representatives came no longer for giraffes, but in search of allies and, even, in support of coreligionists. For the Red Sea Wars in the sixth and seventh centuries quickly took on the explosive quality of religious wars. The kingdom of Axum (the future African Zion of Ethiopia) became Christian in around 340. A century later, “suddenly, remarkably, and inexplicably” the kingdom of Himyar adopted Judaism.

The bitter fighting between the two powers became holy wars that pitted Christians against Jews. Each side was as brutal as the other. The memory of this spasm of holy violence was still vivid in the Hijaz in which Muhammad was born in around 570. In this way, “the tumultuous events in sixth-century Arabia may reasonably be called the crucible of Islam.” And so Bowersock’s excursion to the apparent fringes of the ancient world leads back to the ground zero of the detonation that created the Islamic world of medieval and modern times.

Empires in Collision examines the grand finale of the fateful confrontation between East Rome and the Sassanian, Persian Empire for control of the Middle East. In the 610s and 620s, East Roman and Persian armies marched back and forth from Constantinople and Alexandria to the hills of northern Iraq. Jerusalem itself was sacked in 614. It was, indeed, a mighty collision. Edward Gibbon himself had spoken of this war as having “prepared the revolution of the East, which was speedily accomplished by the arms and religion of the successors of Mahomet.”

Bowersock has brought a novel freshness to this grand narrative. He fastens with delight on new pieces of evidence, from each of which he derives conclusions that significantly alter our view of the whole story: “We have finally reached a point at which once-fashionable dogmas have spectacularly dissolved one after another.”

It is worthwhile stressing the importance of these discoveries. First Bowersock shows, through a combination of archaeological and textual evidence, that the short-lived Sassanian conquest of the Middle East did not leave the former provinces of East Rome desolate. When their armies arrived (in the early 630s) the Arabs “did not find a shattered civilization and a ruined economy.” In fact, they walked into a world as complex and as wealthy as it had ever been, “with its rich traditions of Judaism, Christianity, paganism, and Hellenism.”

More remarkable still, Bowersock shows the extent to which, as “believers,” the Muslims entered the settled lands of the Middle East not only as conquerors, but as well-informed and, even, well-disposed participants in contemporary debates between Christians, Jews, and pagans. For adherents of these religions had penetrated the desert oases of Arabia, largely as a result of the face-off between Jewish Himyar and Christian Axum in the deep south. In an acute analysis of crucial suras (or chapters) in the Koran, Bowersock shows that Muhammad had followed the war between East Rome and Persia with alert eyes. He had acclaimed the victory of the East Roman Empire over the Persians. For he saw in the mighty collision between a Christian and a Zoroastrian empire a mirror image of his own struggle against polytheism in Arabia.

Furthermore, drawing with generous acknowledgment on the incisive work of a younger scholar—Maria Conterno of Florence—Bowersock shows that the earliest Greek accounts of the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem, in 638, implied that the Muslims appeared to have come as friends rather than as foes. They portrayed the Muslim leader, Umar, as having entered the Holy City, in all sincerity, in the humble dress of a pilgrim anxious to worship at the holy places of fellow monotheists. Only later did Byzantine chroniclers (their attitude toward Islam hardened by centuries of war) dismiss this pious gesture as an act of “satanic hypocrisy.”

With these two discoveries alone—quite apart from the formidable, carefully controlled erudition of both books—Bowersock has taken us back to a moment of time when the future of the Middle East still hung in the balance.

For another side of the story we must turn to Patricia Crone. Her book, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, is the story of an immense and mysterious landscape, intermittently rocked, throughout the late antique and early Islamic periods (effectively from around 250 to 850 AD), by detonations of religious fervor sparked by social unrest. The task she sets herself is to trace these upheavals back to their concrete origins in the social and physical landscape of the Iranian plateau. By doing this, she has given a voice to a hitherto silent land, which had been as distant from the classical world as were the kingdoms of Axum and Himyar. The Sassanian Empire has usually been treated as the dark side of the moon in late antique studies. The thrill of this book is that it brings the Iranian world into the mainstream of late antique history. Iran is seen as yet another participant in the religious and intellectual upheavals of the time.

This is not how we had been accustomed to see the Sassanian Empire. It is usually treated as a venerable dinosaur, as an Oriental prelude to the Middle Ages: landlocked, feudal, and largely brain-dead. It has been presented as a place of armored cavalry and castles, dominated by noblemen devoted to war and to the hunt. Its Zoroastrian clergy (content to mumble immemorial prayers) are said to have manned a state church that enforced (largely on Iranians alone) a mindless respect for tradition.

Crone makes plain that this is far from the truth. The Zoroastrianism that we associate with the Sassanian Empire represented only one strand within the great “language family” of Zoroastrian beliefs and practices that stretched from northern Iraq to Central Asia. It was not a state church. It had difficulty enough ensuring the ritual correctness of its own clergy without having to mess with the beliefs of others. Rather, to use the words of Edmund Burke’s “Speech for the Conciliation with the Colonies” of 1775, the one maxim of extended empire, “a wise and salutary neglect,” worked well for the Sassanian territories.

In Mesopotamia, in particular, we find a world of rich villages and prosperous foothills. In this environment, the great religions of the Middle East thrived side by side under the distant rule of the King of Kings. Altogether, as Crone points out, we are dealing with a landscape

where a multiplicity of religious groups coexisted and argued with each other without a shared authority to decide what they should or should not believe.

The situation in Sassanian Mesopotamia is well enough known. What Crone argues is more daring. She shows that Iran and the eastern territories of the empire contained many “Mesopotamias.” These zones of religious dispute arose from internal debate within Zoroastrianism itself. The debates derived their force from a veritable magma of ideas and practices that swirled beneath the surface of the villages perched in great mountain ranges that ringed the Iranian plateau. Altogether, “Iran…was a very different place in antiquity from what it is now.” One could add: Iran was already a very different place from how outside observers and even its own rulers wished it to be seen in the centuries immediately before and after the rise of Islam.

Where did this seismic pressure come from? Crone is explicit on this and magnificently concrete. As her title indicates, this book is a tribute to the power of local Zoroastrianism as a contributor to rural revolt, in both the pre-Islamic and the post-Islamic periods. As she presents it, Zoroastrianism as practiced preserved one basic principle: the world was good. It was good because it was suffused with an energy of light that was a direct continuation of the energy of God himself. As Crone puts it with memorable crispness: to Zoroastrians, the light of the sun and of the holy fires that they worshiped was not a symbol—it was a sample. It was a living piece of God. A world permeated with so precious a substance had to be kept pure. The safety of a divine order, fully present in the here and now, was at stake in every aspect of nature and of human society.

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