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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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Bridgeman Art Library
Detail from a fresco in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Axum, Ethiopia, fifth–seventh century

This amounted to a call to action. A Zoroastrian was a militant for the right order of things. Given the ravages of a constant, opposing force of evil, the order of things had to be defended and restored by means of constant efforts of reform. The world demanded not flight but perpetual vigilance, even social engineering. Only in this way would creation recover its original, undamaged radiance. It would shine again like gold, “excellent, without decay.”

And the Zoroastrians of the villages had no doubt as to how this radiance would be restored—by community of property combined with equal access to women. To outside observers, Christian or Muslim, this seemed either hilarious or obscene: “abstemious wife-sharing is always reported as if it were a merry free-for-all.” But this was not how the villagers saw it. What mattered for them was how to keep together the precious deposit of family land. For family land to break up; for each portion to follow a separate household; worse than that, for these portions to be irrevocably lost to outsiders, through the violence of the powerful and the pressure of agrarian debt: this was the sure way to impoverishment and the death of the village. Polyandrous marriage was the solution. For the Zoroastrians of the village, only a community of women could maintain the divine integrity of the land.

In reflecting on these topics, many Zoroastrians proved themselves to be far from boneheads. They examined the origins of private property with considerable moral rigor. They claimed that private property had been caused by the cold, life-denying impulse of “desire”—by an antisocial lust for land. They also denounced the swaggering “resource polygyny” of the nobility—the corralling of women as wives and concubines at the expense of potential non-noble spouses. Both desires caused “envy.” And envy lay at the root of the conflicts that destroyed the harmony of God’s creation. This was what a shadowy intellectual, Zardūsht son of Khrōsak, had thought already in the mid-third century. These ideas were taken up by Mazdak in the 530s. As a result of the preaching of Mazdak, a protracted jacquerie rocked the Iranian plateau. The villagers emptied the granaries and the harems of the nobility, until the Mazdakites were suppressed with exemplary (and much-praised) savagery by the great shah Khosrau I (531–579).

At the time, the sheer size of the Sassanian Empire muffled the shock of these remarkable events—“one of the most striking examples of pre-modern communism.” But Crone shows that these dangerous ideas and customs continued to explode throughout the territories of Iran long after the Muslim conquest. In the eighth and ninth centuries, they threw up an extraordinary succession of millennial leaders, of charismatic thugs, and of nativist prophets of a renewed Zoroastrianism. Only gradually did the fervor of these movements abate, scattering Iran with eccentric village communities. Most prominent of these were the Khurramīs—the upholders of the “Joyful Religion.” Traveling in the Zagros Mountains in the tenth century, an Arab writer observed the inhabitants of these villages: they were “extremely clean, tidy, and kind people.”

Both Bowersock and Crone have left us with a dilemma. Worlds to which we had not given much or any thought have come to crowd in on our estimate of the origins of Islam. By pointing to the religious wars that had swept the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Bowersock has provided a further dimension to the story of the emergence of the idea of holy war among the first Muslims. Furthermore, by drawing attention to Muhammad’s alert interest in the progress of the collision between East Rome and the Sassanian Empire, Bowersock shows that Islam did not develop in splendid isolation in the depths of the desert, as if on the face of the moon. Muhammad saw himself as involved in the conflict between East Rome and Persia. It was the same battle between paganism and monotheism as he himself was waging against the polytheists of Mecca and Medina. Last but not least, the tantalizing glimpse of the first Muslim conquerors of the Holy Places as pilgrims who had come to pay homage at Christian shrines, and not as conquerors wrapped in the certainty of a newly minted religion, places the early Muslims in a new light.

We are dealing with conquerors (often brutal and arrogant). But we are not dealing with a ready-made religion, hermetically closed (by its origin in a seemingly alien environment) to the concerns of the conquered. Of the many “once-fashionable dogmas” that have been dissolved by Bowersock, this is the one that we gain most by leaving firmly behind. Furthermore, by opening up Iran to scholars of late antique religion, Crone has made us realize what a strange world the early Muslims must have faced as they crossed the Zagros to enter the Iranian plateau.

How we think the first Muslims reacted to this situation depends on how we are prepared to imagine their relation to the religions of those they had conquered. Did they come only as conquerors, bearing a fully formed religion? Or were they prepared to be listeners as well as conquerors? Altogether, what was the extent of the “intervisibility” between rival religions (and rival confessions within these religions) in the seventh- and eighth-century Middle East?

It seems to me that the balance of learned opinion is that the early Muslims were both conquerors and good listeners. They were proud to have been conquerors. They had watched a Middle East where the collision between East Rome and the Sassanian Empire to their north and the bitter Red Sea Wars to their south made plain that God showed his favor on entire kingdoms by granting them victory over their enemies. Their own stunning success confirmed (in a language that all seventh-century persons could understand) that theirs was a religion “victorious over all religions.” But victory was not enough. Muslims needed to be reassured. Far from leaving their subjects alone, out of proud indifference or sheer ignorance, they wanted to prove the superiority of their own religion by participating vigorously in the debates of others. They knew how to pick up the religious twittering of the age.

And there was a lot of twittering to pick up. Here our view has been blocked by a particularly tenacious stereotype. While the idiosyncrasy of post-Islamic Iran has been amply acknowledged by modern scholars, the Christian communities of what became the Arabic-speaking Middle East have remained largely invisible to us. It is as if the large Christian churches of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt had fallen silent at the moment of the Muslim conquest. They are treated as having become religious “minorities” overnight. It is assumed that they were cut off as much from each other (by confessional rivalries) as they were cut off from their now-dominant Muslim neighbors. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did Christianity remain the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of the Middle East until the year 1000; the rival Christian churches continued debates among themselves into which Muslims were drawn by the sheer vigor and openness with which these debates were conducted.

One of the great triumphs of modern scholarship has been the recovery of this hitherto submerged world. In particular, there has been growing appreciation of the diversity and intellectual resilience of the Syriac communities of the early Middle Ages. The Syriac Reference Portal (Syriaca.org), directed by Professor David Michelson of Vanderbilt University, has opened up for us an entire new world of published and unpublished manuscripts. Like ecologists studying the ground cover of a region, such academic ventures can report that the Christian culture of the post-Islamic Middle East had not withered with the coming of the Arabs. It had remained as rich and as springy as good tundra moss.

Nor had the business of theological and philosophical debate come to a halt. In an article recently published in the volume History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East,* Jack Tannous conjures up the sheer range of topics that linked one Christian community (that of Miaphysite/Monophysite Christians connected with the monastery of Qenneshre—the Nest of Eagles—on the banks of the Euphrates) with their neighbors. Everyone was drawn into a continuous questioning and debate—members of every Christian denomination, Jews, pagans, and Muslims alike. As Tannous makes plain, when we read this evidence we are made constantly aware that we are only looking at the tip of an iceberg: “there must have been a whole layer, now almost entirely lost, of lower-level arguments, disputes, debates, and doctrinal wrangling.”

This is exactly what Patricia Crone says about the formation (at much the same time) of the Khurramī communities in far distant Iran:

The overall impression one gets is of Zoroastrians, ascetic Christians, and Gnostics…living cheek by jowl and merging in countless ways of which only a tiny fraction was recorded.

In a world where the pre-Islamic Middle East, Arabia, and the Red Sea have been thrown open for us by Glen Bowersock, and where Patricia Crone has done the same for the Iranian lands, it is time to stop and look again. Conventional accounts of the origin and texture of Islamic civilization in the early Middle Ages present only a two-dimensional image of that world. We need a third dimension. Patient listening to snatches of debate on all levels and between all groups in the great echo chamber of the Middle East may finally give us this dimension. This is the path forward. Bowersock and Crone have led the way. Given the resources of modern scholarship, there is no reason not to follow.

  1. *

    Edited by Philip Wood (Oxford University Press, 2013). 

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