Thursday, November 15, 2012


A. Borrut, M. Debié​, A. Papaconstantinou, D. Pieri, J.-P. Sodini (ed.), Le Proche-orient De Justinien aux Abbassides: peuplement et dynamiques spatiales. Actes du colloque "Continuités de l'Occupation entre les Périodes Byzantine et Abbasside au Proche-Orient, VIIe-IXe Siècles", Paris, 18-20 octobre 2007. Bibliothèque de l'antiquité tardive, 19​. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011. Pp. xv, 384. ISBN 9782503535722. €75.00.

Reviewed by Richard Payne, Mount Holyoke College; Trinity College, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site

What impact did the establishment of Early Islamic political institutions have on the societies, cultures, and economies of the Middle East? If the Muslim conquerors were once seen as uniformly disruptive to the rhythms of Roman life, the scholarly consensus has shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum over the past three decades. Broad continuities in the history of the first Islamic century have supported a now generally accepted redefinition of "Late Antiquity." The "ancient" world now ends not with Umar's arrival in Jerusalem, but with al-Mansur's foundation of Baghdad (which moved the political center of gravity away from the Mediterranean) or, better still, al-Mutasim's retreat to Samarra (which marked the beginning of the end of a fiscally robust empire). The present volume refreshingly takes this shift for granted and seeks to nuance interpretations of sixth- through eighth-century continuities on the basis of the particular histories of individual settlements. In place of a narrative of passive continuity, the contributors present early Muslims as active participants in the development of Near Eastern cities, landscapes, sacred sites, and rural settlements.

Kenneth Holum provides a corrective to blanket descriptions of gradual urban change with the evidence of Caesarea in Palestine, whose dramatic contraction "from its maximum in Late Antiquity [111.5 ha] to the roughly 12.2 ha within the 'Crusader' fortifications" began immediately after the conquest (175). In particular, the sudden abandonment of the praetorion and "mansions" in the city's southwest zone attests to the flight of the Roman elite after Caesarea's fall in 640 (181). The conquerors, for their part, appear to have viewed not only Caesarea, but all the coastal cities of Palestine as sites more suited for fortification against continuing Roman incursions than for the development of markets. Yumna Masarwa traces the transformation of the once urbanized Mediterranean coast into a "maritime frontier zone," with the string of interconnected ribats known from Arabic historiographers (149-167). Masarwa identifies these with excavated fortified enclosures along the coast in an article whose findings could productively be put into conversation with recent work on ribats in Central Asia and North Africa.1

But Muslims more often stimulated urban developments of a more positive kind. Gunnar Brands and Alan Walmsley describe how Muslim officials consciously preserved urban monuments, not least cathedral churches such as Basilica A at Rusafa alongside which Hisham b. Abd al-Malik erected his well-known mosque (59-76). In both the Decapolis and Rusafa, encroachments and the placement of production centers in the city—modifications to the urban fabric still often viewed as evidence of "decline," for example in Nancy Khalek's contribution (141)—are presented as signs of "urban renewal" and "economic growth" as Muslims intentionally placed urban space in the service of economic exchange and production (271-284).

New economic practices and networks imply the presence of new elites, and Nancy Khalek turns to the twelfth- century historian Ibn Asakir to show how the Roman "patricians" abandoned their Damascene residences in the decades following the conquest and Muslim settlers replaced them, presumably with a rather different conception of a city's purpose. One wonders whether closer attention to the literary sources would reveal more about the composition of urban elites elsewhere. Walmsley suggests bishops became the principal non-Muslim power brokers in the cities of Palestine. Did their secular aristocrats go the way of Damascus' patricians, leaving churchmen to tax their hinterlands? Or did they assume positions in the church? Who were the Muslim elites that engineered the urban transformations Walmsley and Brands describe?

The early Muslim impact on rural spaces was no less consequential. The last century of Roman rule was an age of agricultural intensification across the Near East, as even the most marginal of lands were brought into cultivation. Bernard Geyer and Marie-Odile Rousset's study of north-central Syria's arid steppes reveals the extension of settlement into regions almost entirely devoid of rain, thanks to investments in irrigation (77-92). There was a parallel development in Egypt's Eastern Desert, where Timothy Power argues the indigenous Arabic-speaking, pastoralist population settled to farm terraced wadis in the sixth century (331-344). In Jordan, villages proliferated in Petra's hinterland, according to Khairieh Amr and Ahmad al-Momani, as well as at Dharih to the north, where François Villeneuve has documented the sixth-century development of a village and church in the space of a Nabataean temple (305-330). Along the Via Traiana Nova the village of Khirbet es-Samra demonstrated its prosperity through the construction of at least 11 churches, each associated, in Jean-Baptiste Humbert's view, with a particular family or clan of newly sedentarized pastoralists (299). Whether through investment, sedentarization, and/or demographic growth of the kind Georges Tates outlined for the sixth-century Massif Calcaire, the story of the expansion of rural settlement throughout the Roman Near East is a consistent one.

It is at the extensively excavated site of Androna in northern Syria that the dynamics of growth in the sixth-century Near East is most evident (93-122). Within decades of 541, the kome of Androna expanded to encompass 160 hectares and perhaps 16k persons and to acquire the accoutrements of a city, such as walls, roughly a dozen churches, and an ornate bath complex. To account for the sudden growth of Androna's population and cityscape, Marlia Mundell Mango points to "private" investment in qanats to intensify agricultural production for the Roman military (122). When Roman markets and capital withdrew after the Muslim conquests, Androna, the settlements of the Syrian steppe, and other sites dependent on sixth-century networks contracted. Umayyad elites appear to have invested their capital in different spaces, for different markets.

With an overwhelming—and entirely understandable—focus on Syro-Palestine, cases of settlement contraction during the first Islamic century predominate in this volume. If in recent decades the discovery and publication of a surprisingly rich corpus of Christian monuments, mosaics, and inscriptions from the seventh and eighth centuries has led some to posit an Umayyad Christian revival in the Syro-Palestinian countryside, the contributors are less upbeat. The excavators of the Monastery of St Hilarion in Gaza, René Elter and Ayman Hassoune, stress the settlement's continuous occupation until at least the end of the eighth century, and Robert Hoyland speaks neutrally of the abandonment of a monastic site near Ramallah—possibly to be identified as the Monastery of the Prophet Samuel—at some point before the end of the seventh (187-204, 219-231). But the remaining studies place a notable emphasis on Christian decline.

In an exhaustive catalogue of known Christian cult sites in Jordan, Anne Michel presents a portrait of irreversible decline: 91.8% of sixth-century sites were still in use at the time of the conquest in 636, 81.3% in 660, 52.3% in 720, and a mere 28% in 74 (251-252). The much celebrated church at Umm al-Rasas whose mosaics date from 756 represent, for her, an aberration, and even there 11 of the town's 15 churches were defunct by 800 (248-250). Pierre-Louis Gatier warns in a masterly survey of Greek inscriptions from the early Islamic period that the vast majority of these texts were placed on mosaics, evidence of renovation not construction. Indeed, "[o]n ne connaît pas, pour l'instant, d'église construite à l'époque islamique sur un terrain vierge" (27). The fate of the monasteries of the Judaean desert was, in Joseph Patrich's account, even more precipitous, with only several hundred monks enduring to the beginning of the ninth century in comparison with several thousand at the time of the conquest (205-218). Beyond Palestine, the flow of pilgrims to the shrines of Symeon Stylites outside Antioch and Menas at Abu Mina outside Alexandria slowed dramatically, as Jean-Pierre Sodini, Cécile Morrisson, and Josef Engemann demonstrate, never fully recovering from the early seventh-century invasions even if the sites remained occupied (123-138, 345-353).

François Villeneuve's discussion of the site of Dharih in southern Jordan well illustrates how a church could come to an end. The church in this modest village reoccupied a Nabatean temple—without disrupting its stucco decor—in the sixth century, but was transformed into "le centre d'un domaine, au sens socio-économique du terme" before the end of the seventh (327). An Arabic inscription proclaims Hāshim b. Shābūr—a fascinatingly Iranian patronymic—the master of the village in 79 AH, at which time a stable, storage room, and quadriclinium replaced the church. But these striking facts provide as many questions as answers. Did Hāshim b. Shābūr appropriate the space to establish his estate, or occupy buildings already abandoned? If the latter, did Christians leave their church under financial or political pressure?

It is in explaining the contraction of Christian institutions that the aforementioned contributions depart from the volume's innovative focus on the "the recurring force driving the succession of phases of prosperity and decline....namely the weight of the market created by major urban centres" (back cover). Joseph Patrich offers the lachrymose narrative of Moshe Gil to account for the decline in monastic fortunes, according to which oppressive Muslim policies—jizya payments, arbitrary levies, and outright "persecution"—resulted in attrition due to flight, apostasy, and violence (209). Pierre-Louis Gatier more modestly suggests Muslims restricted (re)construction (27), while Anne Michel refers to the deleterious effects of Muslim administration and conversion as well as unspecific social and economic factors (253).

And yet the volume as a whole attests to a fundamental reorientation of economic networks away from the Syro- Palestinian littoral toward Mesopotamia that better accounts for Christian institutional decline in Palestine. Monasteries and churches clearly continued to flourish along this new economic axis. The "Christian" town of Tall Mahra in the Jazira that prospered into the ninth century with both a church and a mosque serves as a salutary counterpoint to the Palestinian evidence (51). Inclusion of work on the expanding Christian institutions of eighth- century Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf would have given the volume greater balance and strengthened what this reviewer sees as its key arguments.

There was a conscious shift in Muslim investment priorities that lies behind many of the changes discussed in the volume. In an account of Muslim adaptation of Roman agricultural practices, Michael Decker highlights a geographical shift in production away from coastal Syro-Palestine to the Upper Euphrates "due to the patronage of the aristocratic families, who completed sizable irrigation projects that brought new lands under cultivation and generated agricultural surpluses that fed the Umayyad and Abbasid cities along the river" (4). Stefan Heidemann's survey of the Khabur river valley documents the region's steady growth from the initial investment of Umayyad elites in the first decades of the eighth century until the collapse of the Abbasid fiscal system at the end of the ninth (43- 57). Estates established by men closely linked to the dynasty, such as the commander Maslama b. 'Abd al-Malik, expanded into "towns" over the course of the century as agricultural production increased to supply the new cities of al-Raqqa, Baghdad, and Samarra.

Hugh Kennedy's introduction provides the interpretative key to the volume: markets (xi-xv). The conquests may not have disrupted social, economic, and cultural life as dramatically as an earlier generation of scholars imagined, but they did subtly reorient economic networks away from the Mediterranean towards new centers of political power, especially the Hijaz and along the Euphrates. For Kennedy, the foundation of Baghdad in 762 ensured the gravitation of foodstuffs to the city of peace, and elite Muslim capital drained from regions located inconveniently in relation to this new Euphrates axis. Proceding meticulously and prudently from the ground up, the evidence presented in the volume wholly supports this new master narrative of the last Roman and first two Islamic centuries whose coordinates are capital, industrious elites, and consuming urban populations. It is to be hoped that more studies of the religious and cultural history of the period take the plot lines the present volume has given us as their own. ​


1.   Etienne de la Vaissière, "Le Ribat d'Asie Centrale," in idem (ed.), Islamisation de l'Asie centrale: Processus locaux d'acculturation du VIIe au XIe siècle (Paris, 2008): 71-94. ​

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