Monday, December 17, 2018


Nestor Kavvadas, Jerusalem zwischen Aachen und Bagdad: Zur Existenzkrise des byzantinischen Christentums im Abbasidenreich. Jenaer mediävistische Vorträge, 6​. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017. Pp. 116. ISBN 9783515118798. €29,00.

Reviewed by Mary Alberi, Pace University (

Version at BMCR home site

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Nestor Kavvadas' book highlights the paradoxical fortunes of the Greek orthodox community in late eighth- and early ninth-century Palestine. On the one hand, three of Jerusalem's patriarchs, Elias II, George, and Thomas, acted as intermediaries, making possible a series diplomatic exchanges between Charlemagne's court at Aachen and Harun-al-Rashid's court in Baghdad. As a result of their activities, the prestige of Jerusalem's patriarchs rose to such an extent that they were able to send their own envoys to Aachen. On the other hand, despite the patriarch's enhanced prestige, increased use of Arabic and widespread conversion to Islam threatened the cohesion of the caliphate's orthodox Christian community. Kavvadas argues that Christians in Syria and Palestine began converting in such large numbers that Islam rapidly became the region's majority religion in these same years. Rather than offering a systematic account of diplomatic exchanges between Charlemagne, Harun al-Rashid, and Jerusalem's patriarchs, Kavvadas explores this paradox, with occasional forays into its larger implications for long-term relations between Franks and Muslims.

Amid the endemic violence and destructive raids which damaged a number of orthodox communities, Kavvadas singles out as most representative of the difficulties confronting the orthodox community a destructive Muslim raid on the monastery of Mar Saba, the caliphate's largest Greek orthodox monastery, located about ten kilometers from Jerusalem, in March 797. Mar Saba's aristocratic monks left their monastery for high ecclesiastical office in Jerusalem and abbacies in neighboring monasteries and, as in the case of John of Damascus in the dispute over icons, influenced the outcome of theological controversies in Constantinople. The damage inflicted on Mar Saba in this raid precipitated a major crisis throughout the caliphate's Greek orthodox community by weakening the monasteries upon which Jerusalem's patriarchal church relied for stability and for maintaining Greek orthodox identity in a rapidly changing environment. In Kavvadas' view, the Muslim raiders who attacked the monastery in March 797 understood the monastery's importance to the patriarchal church and acted out of political motives. According to the account written by the monk Stephanos, the Muslim raiders ordered the monks to hand over one of their number, Thomas, later abbot of St. Chariton and patriarch of Jerusalem (807-820). Kavvadas interprets this singular demand as evidence of the raiders' determination to capture a monk who had played a leading role in negotiations leading up to Charlemagne's dispatch of ambassadors to Harun's court that same year. When the monks refused to surrender Thomas, the raiders killed twenty of Mar Saba's monks.

For Kavvadas, this raid exemplifies the untenable position of Jerusalem's patriarchal church in the chronic intertribal wars between the Yamani and Quais, the "southern" and "northern" Arabs, in Palestine and Syria. He identifies the raiders of March, 797 as Yamani, members of an Arab military elite still resentful of the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyads and the loss of power which followed, as Palestine and Syria became remote provinces in a caliphate centered on Baghdad. The raiders wanted to take Thomas prisoner because of his contacts with their enemies at the Abbasid court, the Barmakids, with whom he had cooperated in arranging diplomatic exchanges between Harun and Charlemagne. Yet by 797 the factional disputes of Harun's court had weakened the Barmakids, and they could no longer protect their clients, including the monks of Mar Saba, in Palestine. Kavvadas also considers the attack on Mar Saba as an expression of ethnic and cultural conflict between Arabs and the eastern Iranians, led by the Barmakids, who had risen to prominence under the new Abbasid regime centered on Baghdad. Wary of secular learning, the Arabs rejected the Greek and Persian philosophy and science introduced into Islamic culture through Barmakid patronage. Kavvadas considers Barmakid support of diplomatic contacts with the Franks, for which they sought the cooperation of Jerusalem's patriarch, to be another sign of their openness to the world outside the caliphate. Such emphasis on the Barmakids, however, tends to push Harun's motives into the background. Kavvadas attributes the mutual hostility of Franks and Abbasids to the Byzantines and to the Umayyad regime in Spain, perhaps too briefly. By omitting consideration of Constantinople's political weakness, however, Kavvadas misses an opportunity to broaden his examination of Jerusalem's wider significance for what he suggests was a major shift in the relationship of the great powers of the early medieval Mediterranean and the transformation of Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages.

Kavvadas argues that the conversion of Christians to Islam in large numbers occurred rapidly as a direct response to Muslim attacks on Mar Saba, Jerusalem, and many other Christian communities in the closing years of the 790s. Yet given the history of decades-long unrest in Syria and Palestine, the conversion of Christians to Islam in large numbers, if it occurred at this time, seems less a sudden change than a response to chronic insecurity and a desire to avoid increasingly burdensome restrictions on the Christian community's religious autonomy.

More problematic is Kavvadas' assertion that Charlemagne's patronage of the Jerusalem church and the presence of Frankish monks and nuns in Jerusalem signaled the arrival of a third major power in the region. Kavvadas revives the old, and now discredited, notion of Charlemagne's protectorate over Jerusalem and suggests that the intrusion of Frankish power into the region destabilized Palestine, provoking Muslim attacks on Christian communities like Mar Saba. It is hard to see how this might be so, for Charlemagne lacked the military resources necessary to intervene decisively in Palestine. Moreover, much of the evidence Kavvadas brings forward to support his views about the effects of Frankish power in the eastern Mediterranean comes from eleventh-century France, where legends about Charlemagne were incorporated into contemporary crusade ideology.

Kavvadas' discussion of Charlemagne's interest in Jerusalem centers on the importance of the Holy City in his court's imperial ideology and for his imperial coronation in Rome in 800. Kavvadas highlights Alcuin's leading role in affirming Jerusalem's significance for this imperial ideology in a discussion of Alcuin's Letter, Epistola 214, written shortly after Charlemagne's imperial coronation by Pope Leo III in Rome.1 A brief reference in this letter to his joy at the imperial coronation, which monks from Jerusalem attended, supports Kavvadas' argument that Alcuin considered their presence essential for the coronation's legitimacy. Yet Alcuin's letters mention Charlemagne's diplomatic contacts with Jerusalem twice only, without much elaboration, and his reticence about the presence of envoys from Jerusalem at Charlemagne's imperial coronation may not support Kavvadas' sweeping claims. Perhaps Kavvadas is correct in suggesting that Alcuin's reserve arose from his unwillingness to associate Charlemagne too openly with Jerusalem's patriarchate on account of its extensive ties to a rival imperial capital, Constantinople. In placing so much emphasis on Alcuin, however, Kavvadas seems to disregard Michael McCormick's recent findings in Charlemagne's Survey of the Holy Land, which point, instead, to the influence of Adalhard of Corbie, Charlemagne's cousin and one of his foremost advisors, in promoting diplomatic contacts with Jerusalem and, by implication, with Charlemagne's imperial coronation.2

Kavvadas' book appears at a time of increased scholarly interest in ties between the Frankish kingdom and Abbasid caliphate. A short study, it offers an interesting assessment of the role played by Jerusalem's patriarchs in diplomatic contacts between Aachen and Baghdad in the late eighth- and early ninth centuries. In effect, Kavvadas redirects the focus of studies on this topic, offering new insights into the patriarchal church's insecurity as well as its vital role in high-level diplomacy. His book raises important questions about the significance of Jerusalem for Charlemagne, beyond his obvious intention to provide material assistance and support Frankish foundations in the Holy City. Moreover, Kavvadas offers insights into the lines of patronage which linked Jerusalem, on the frontiers of the Abbasid caliphate, to its political center in Baghdad. He demonstrates that court politics and factionalism in Baghdad had a direct influence upon the welfare of Jerusalem's patriarchal church. Kavvadas' study is also significant in affirming the importance of Jerusalem and its network of monasteries in the Judaean desert in sustaining orthodox Greek identity, as the Arabic language and Islam were spreading more widely through Palestine.


1.   Acuin, Ep. 214, ed. Ernst Dümmler, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae IV: Karolini Aevi II (Berlin, 1895), p. 358.
2.   Michael McCormick, Charlemagne's Survey of the Holy Land: Wealth, Personnel, and Buildings of a Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Washington, D.C., 20ll). ​

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