Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Kenneth G. Holum, Hayim Lapin, Shaping the Middle East: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in an Age of Transition, 400-800 C.E. Studies and texts in Jewish history and culture, 20. Bethesda, MD: University Press of Maryland, 2011. Pp. ix, 263. ISBN 9781934309315. $50.00.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht (pwvdh@xs4all.nl)

Version at BMCR home site

This volume contains 15 essays that were originally presented as papers at a 2005 conference held at the University of Maryland. Illness and long periods of administrative duties caused a serious delay in publication. Holum, who has spent many years in excavating Caesarea Maritima in Israel, found out that this city can stand as a model for the changes many other cities in the Middle East underwent in the four centuries between ca. 400 and 800 CE. Hence no fewer than three papers focus on this city.

After a general introduction by the editors, Holum argues, in a richly documented study, that both archaeology and literary sources show that Caesarea prospered at a high level in the period from the fourth century through the first four decades of the seventh, up to the Muslim conquest. After 640, there is a precipitous fall, even though there are no layers of destruction. There clearly are, however, abandonment layers since almost immediately after the Muslim occupation there was a large scale flight of the elites. Rapid empoverishment and decline followed. It is a pity that Holum could not consult the inscriptions he mentions in the new standard edition in volume 2 of the series Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2011) which contains all the epigraphic evidence from Caesarea (more than in Holum's own edition of Caesarean inscriptions from 2000).

Joseph Patrich, too, is a veteran archaeologist of Caesarea,2 and he deals specifically with archaeological evidence from the southwest zone of the city that he himself excavated in the nineties. In a very detailed and technical contribution he shows that Holum's thesis is by and large correct but that nevertheless there is evidence for a sharp break in settlement: both archeological evidence and literary sources (including a newly discovered part of the Samaritan chronicle of Abul 'l-Fath) alike imply that more allowance should be made for the fact that the Arab conquest of Caesarea, after a siege of six or seven years, also entailed destruction of parts of the city and the killing of many of its inhabitants.

Donald Whitcomb discusses Qaysariyah as an early Islamic settlement and argues that it was largely unrelated to, and hardly resembled, ancient Caesarea. Interestingly he suggests that already before 640 Arabs inhabited urban space in and near Caesarea that the rebellious Samaritans had forfeited.

In a very useful survey, Jodi Magness deals with the evidence for the Sasanian Persian invasion of Jerusalem in 614 CE. She concludes that "an analysis of the archaeological and literary evidence indicates that the Persians breached the city wall by the Damascus Gate. Otherwise, evidence for the destruction of buildings in Jerusalem at the time of the invasion is more limited than is generally assumed" (98).

The late Franciscan Father Michele Picirillo (1944-2008) treats the Provincia Arabia (roughly Jordan and surrounding areas) during the Persian occupation of 613-630 CE and gives an even rosier picture by stressing that archaeological discoveries (especially of church buildings erected in exactly this period) prove that the Transjordanian territory was spared by the Persian invasion and remained peaceful under the mild Persian government.

In his study on continuity and change in the cities of Palestine during the early Islamic period, Gideon Avni first shows that accumulating archaeological evidence in Jerusalem indicates clear continuity of the main urban components from the Byzantine to the Islamic periods with a very gradual process of change; especially the continuity of the Christian presence in and around the city does not seem to support the claim of an Islamic dominance and an ongoing decline of the Christian population. (The Temple Mount is, of course, an altogether different story.) The city of Ramla was created in the early 8th century to be the capital of Islamic Palestine (replacing Caesarea) and shows a new type of urban planning with an orthogonal grid system. "These parallel lines of development represent the major feature of continuity and change in the urban tradition of Palestine during the first millennium" (133).

Alan Walmsley deals with Pella, Jarash, and Amman in Jordan in the period 550-750 CE and argues that these sites exhibit no archaeological evidence of destruction in the conquest period. In spite of some gradually emerging new patterns of arranging urban space and the erection of mosques, the new Islamic city had been almost seamlessly accommodated with the old one.

Milka Levy-Rubin deals with changes in the settlement pattern of Palestine following the Arab conquest. She shows that this conquest caused a mass exodus of the Christian population from coastal cities such as Gaza, Ashkelon, and Caesarea, and that the result of this depopulation of the area was that trade along this coast came to an almost total standstill, leading to a serious decline of the economy. The coastal communities that had formed the backbone of the Christian society of Palestine fled to Byzantium or Transjordan and their possessions were given to Muslim invaders. It is very puzzling to me why the author repeatedly stresses that all this "was not a traumatic event" (155, 157, 172). What else could a mass expulsion have been than an enormous trauma?

On the basis of his multi-volume work, Byzantium and the Arabs, Irfan Shahîd discusses the cultural interactions between Byzantium and on the one hand the Ghassanids, a pre-Islamic Christian-Arab tribe that dominated the Byzantine Oriens in the 6th century, and on the other hand the Islamic Umayyads, who took over control of this area in the 7th century. Both Arab cultures adopted many elements of Byzantine origin.

In a sophisticated essay, Hayim Lapid deals with the rabbinic movement in Palestine after the completion of the Jerusalem Talmud (early 5th century CE) in the period 500-800. He argues that this period saw the transformation of the rabbinic movement from an urban, voluntary, religious confraternity in Palestine into a normative and widespread, if not entirely hegemonic, sector of Jewish communities across the Near East and the Mediterranean.

Sidney H. Griffith discusses the reactions of Arab Christians to the program to claim the public space in Syria/Palestine for Islam and focuses on the iconophobic measures by Muslim rulers and the defense of the veneration of crosses and icons by Christian scholars such as Theodore Abu Qurrah (ca. 800).

In a fascinating contribution, John C. Reeves deals with the Muslim appropriation of a biblical text, Isaiah 21:6-7, which they interpreted as a prediction of the coming of Muhammad, with the consequence that the Masoretes, the rabbinic scholars who fixed the biblical text, slightly altered it so as to secure this text against future abuse.

Martha Himmelfarb discusses Sefer Eliyyahu, a Jewish apocalypse, from the time of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in the early 7th century and argues for Christian influence on its imagery.

Finally, in "The Many Facets of Middle Eastern Art: Late Antique, Christian, Islamic," Oleg Grabar briefly presents some theoretical musings, with special attention being paid to Umayyad art.

These all too brief summaries cannot do justice to the rich contents of this volume. On the whole the contributions are of a high level and the illustrations, both in color and black-and-white, are of good quality. What is somewhat problematic is that some of the essays might give the impression that the period under discussion was one of rather smooth transition and that the Muslim conquest of the Middle East was mild rather than catastrophic ("not a traumatic event"). The many literary testimonies (Jewish and Christian) from the 7th and 8th centuries that speak of violence, destruction, and massacres by the Muslim armies (easily accessible in Hoyland's magnum opus2), however exaggerated their complaints may be, should not have been neglected in some of these essays. Archaeology cannot tell the whole story because terror does not always result in "layers of destruction." So the picture drawn here is a bit one-sided, but perhaps it is unfair to say that of a conference volume. There is surely much to be learned from these essays.


1.   See his recent book, Studies in the Archaeology and History of Caesarea Maritima, Leiden: Brill, 2011
2.   R.G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam, Princeton: Darwin Press, 1997.

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