The Rise of Islam (1)

24 November 2010

The Byzantine-Sassanian War: Heraclius defeating Khusrau II (Louvre)

What happened when Antiquity came to an end? What marks the beginning of the Middle Ages? It will be hard to enumerate all aspects, but at least it’s certain that the imperial institutions disappeared from western Europe: no Roman state, no Roman taxes, no Roman armies. In the East, the transition was less abrupt. The Byzantine Empire continued to demand taxes, continued to build armies, continued to exist. Yet, it had to give up territories: the Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There was also a mental change: for the ancients, ‘us’ and ‘them’ had been identical to ‘Graeco-Roman civilization’ and ‘barbarians’, but after the transition, the basic opposition was ‘Christianity’ versus ‘Islam’.

This makes Muhammad one of the most influential people of Late Antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages. Without him, no Islam and no loss of eastern provinces for the Byzantine Empire. The prophet, his message, and his followers are extremely important subjects to any student of Antiquity, but they are very hard to understand. Our main sources are the Quran, which is not a work of historiography, and the traditions (hadith), which were written down many years after Islam had come into being. Even worse, many traditions have been regarded with suspicion from the outset. Using what he believed to be reliable traditions, Ibn Ishaq wrote the extremely influential Life of the Prophet in the 750s, more than a century after the death of Muhammad.

Until quite recently, modern western scholars have accepted the events mentioned by Ibn Ishaq as essentially historical. Although the miracle stories were ignored, the other anecdotes were considered to be reliable. The result was a more or less rationalized legend; an example is the book by Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad (1960). This approach was not unlike the way Thomas Jefferson dealt with the gospels. Rodinson’s view has become more or less canonical – Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad. A Prophet for Our Time is an example – but we might have expected something more critical than “believing everything in the sources except that which presupposes a suspension of the laws of nature”. Accepting sources in this way, without asking why they were written down in the first place, is called “naïve positivism”.

Because rationalized legends became untenable, there have been new quests for the “historical Muhammad”. There is, for example, the Luxenberg thesis, which implies that the Quran is not written in Arabic, but in a mix of Syriac and Arabic. This is not as far-fetched as it seems, because Syria was certainly important in early Islam and the Quran is written in a “defective script” without vowels and with possible confusion of several consonants (e.g. bt, and th). The Luxenberg thesis indeed helps to expel some minor problems, but also creates one big problem: we have to assume that the Quran was not recited for a sufficiently long time to forget its original language. This seems extremely implausible (more…).

Yet, the Luxenberg thesis is not the worst new idea. There are also a couple of nonsensical theories. Although it is certain that Nestorian and Monophysite Christians left the Byzantine Empire and settled in the Syrian and Arabian Deserts, and although it is certain that many warriors in the early Islamic armies were Christians, it is ridiculous to assume that Islam was created when people no longer understood the Monophysite hymns and prayers. Granted, the name “Muhammad” means “the blessed one”, but it is unlikely that people, after singing a Syriac or Arabic version of “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” asked “who is that Mr Blessed?” and started to invent both the anecdotes about and the person of the Prophet.

I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. But I was wrong, as I will show in my next posting.


The Story of a Cuneiform Text

30 September 2010

A Babylonian Brick

About two years ago, my friend Ellen contacted me. She had obtained a fragment of an ancient Babylonian brick, which one of her friends had given to her. Was I interested? Certainly, and I became even fascinated when I noticed that it contained an inscription.

How did a Babylonian brick come to Holland? It turned out that the father of Ellen’s friend had been working in the off-shore in the mid-1960s, and had on one occasion visited Baghdad and the ruins of Babylon. He had bought the brick in Hillah and had left the object to his son, who contacted Ellen.

The Leiden Brick

My friend Bert van der Spek identified the signs as archaizing Babylonian, which means that the brick dated to the glory days of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He told me to ask another assyriologist for more information, but she never replied to my request, and I did not really know what to do. I offered it to a museum, which didn’t reply either, and decided to offer it to the Leiden Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, which immediately accepted it after I had told them about the way I had obtained it. (A museum cannot buy antiquities that have come to Europe after 1970 or 1971.) Today, I traveled to Leiden and left the brick at the museum.

When I returned home, there was already an e-mail from the director, who had immediately handed over the object to the curator. He must have been amused when he read the text, because it turned out to be a copy of a much better preserved brick that was already in the museum (more…). It is now also possible to restore the full text, which is not really surprising: “Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, keeper of Esagila and Ezida, oldest son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon”. A standard text, but it’s nice for Ellen and her friend to know what they have had in their hands, and what, thanks to their care, now is where it belongs: in a museum.

Announcing the Destruction of a City

29 August 2010

Defenders of Niniveh, killed in action while trying to prevent the sack of their city

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture in which someone discussed the speech of the Rabshakeh, an Assyrian commander who besieged Jerusalem in 701. In 2 Kings 18.25, he announces that he will sack the city: “Is it without the will of the Lord that I have come up to this place to destroy it?”

At this point, the lecturer paused and asked to those present if they could name another example of the announcement of the destruction of a city. No one knew. The speaker mentioned Thucydides‘ Melian Dialog, in which the Athenians threaten to destroy the city of Melos, which my friend found surprising. He summarized the lecture for me, and I got the impression from his words that the speaker had suggested that there were only two examples of a direct threat.

That turned out not to be the case, but since I read his summary of that lecture, I have been wondering how often commanders announced that they would destroy their opponents’ city. After all, it seems like a nice adhortation to your own men that they will be allowed to plunder. At the same time, it must be demoralizing for the besieged if they know that they will be molested, raped, killed. I would have expected that there would be evidence for threats like these, and indeed remembered Censorinus’ speech at Carthage (Appian, Punic Wars 81).

And that’s it. I’ve posted it at RomanArmyTalk (here), but even the guys over there, who are usually well-informed, could not mention a fourth instance. Anyone any thoughts?

Common Errors (33): Cradle of Civilization

23 May 2010

Bronze Age city Ebla

One of the things that made me smile in Damascus was the use of slogans. Tourists are attracted with the sincerely brilliant “Come to Damascus. Get a vision”. (The place where Paul of Tarsus saw the light is along the main road to Bosra.) Less felicitous was a series of posters that showed the president, apparently modeled on Harvey Dent and even including a paraphrasis of his slogan (“I believe in Syria”).

Another slogan states that Syria was the “cradle of religions” – which indeed attracts visitors. Western Christians come to Damascus to see the place where Paul escaped across the city wall. I once flew from Tehran to Damascus in the company of a group of pilgrims who wanted to visit the tomb of Huseyn, the third imam.

Most relics are of rather doubtful authenticity – the window from which Paul was lowered is medieval – but there is a more serious problem with this religious tourism. To understand it, we must go back a while, two centuries, to Berlin. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the government of Prussia was reorganizing its educational system, and founded a new university that was not based on a medieval model, but on the needs of science and scholarship. Generally speaking, this reform was a great success, and many modern universities are based on the Berlin model.

However, for ancient historians, the new model was disastrous, because it became part of two faculties. People studying ancient Greece and Rome had to learn Greek and Latin first, and had to visit the subfaculty of classical languages; those who wanted to study the ancient Near East, had to attend courses at the subfaculty of Semitic languages. What had always been a unity, now became divided – and unfortunately, this division became popular in other countries.

In those days, the Greeks and Romans were a source of inspiration to the civilized, liberal bourgeoisie, which believed that the ancients had been free people who thought rationally. Classical Athens and Rome were, therefore, studied from a humanist point of view. On the other hand, scholars interested in the Near East studied the past to better understand the Bible. This was considered to be so important that, once the cuneiform script had been deciphered, priority was given to the publication of those tablets that helped to illuminate the rise of Judaism. Administrative documents, for example, were neglected.

So, in the nineteenth century, one part of Antiquity was explored from a humanist point of view, and the other from a religious perspective. Texts were selected accordingly, and it was inevitable that the difference was projected on the past itself. People started to think that the ancient Near East was the cradle of our religions and that Greece marked the rise of rationalism.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, all this started to change. Cuneiform tablets have shown beyond reasonable doubt how much the ancient Babylonians had achieved as scientists, echos from Semitic poetry have been found in the oldest Greek literature, and books like Eric Dodds’ famous The Greeks and the Irrational have made it clear that it is silly to think of the ancient Greeks as Enlightenment philosophers avant la lettre. No professionally trained historian can accept the previously mentioned dichotomy.

Unfortunately, they are still employed in the mass media – think only of Frank Miller’s 300 (review) and a book like Tom Holland’s Persian Fire (review). Occasionally, a serious scholar succumbs to the charms of simplicity, like classicist Paul Cartledge and political scientist Anthony Pagden, who are apparently serious when they write that East and West are involved in an eternal struggle between freedom and despotism, rationalism and mysticism.

The truth is that there is not so much difference between on the one hand Greece and Rome, and on the other hand the ancient Near East. It is quite ironical that the Syrians have accepted the western prejudices about the “cradle of religion”. Syria has a lot more to offer than that.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Portrait of Artaxerxes II Mnemon

20 May 2010

Artaxerxes II

Achaemenid art was not very innovative. In the days of Darius I the Great, the basic forms were established, and later artists did not really change these patterns. A king was shown sitting on a throne (example), or killing an animal (example), or sacrificing (example). On seals, there is some variation, but essentially, the Achaemenid artists preferred to emulate good art instead of inventing something new.

As a consequence, they never invented the portrait, and all kings look like Darius, with the same beard. Until now, I knew only one representation of an Achaemenid king by an artist who wanted to show what the ruler really looked like: the portrait of Artaxerxes III Ochus in the Amsterdam Allard Piersonmuseum, made in Egypt. We may perhaps add the Darius III Codomannus on the Alexander mosaic, although I can hardly believe that the Greek painter whose design was used as a model, had really seen the great king.

In the Archaeological Museum of Antalya, I discovered another candidate: Artaxerxes II Mnemon is represented on the tomb of (probably) the Lycian leader Pericles of Limyra. Unfortunately, it is very damaged, but the man clearly has his tiara tied up so that it stands erect. You can also recognize the diadem. Did the sculptor really see the great king?


30 April 2010

The church of Mar Jacob

The history of ancient Nisibis, modern Nusaybin in southeast Turkey, is almost a summary of everything there’s to be said about Antiquity. The town is mentioned in Assyrian and Babylonian sources, the Achaemenids waged battle near Nisibis, Alexander and Antiochus III passed through the city, the Parthians, Adiabenes, Armenians, and Romans tried to capture it. Once it had become Roman, it was defended by two legions, and one of the greatest Latin historians, Ammianus Marcellinus, was an eyewitness when the city was finally ceded to the Sasanian Persians. Pagans, Zoroastrians, Jews, Manichaeans, and Christians of almost every type – they’ve all been there.

There’s not much that reminds the modern visitor of the past glory. In fact, it shockingly resembles another city that summarizes a substantial part of world history: Berlin, which is a miniature of the twentieth century and was, like Nisibis today, a divided city. The northern part is Turkish, the southern part is Syrian, and there’s a lot of barbed wire in between (satellite photo). And right there, in the no man’s land, are the remains of an ancient Roman gate – inaccessible.

I wrote a new page about Nisibis, with some photos we made in September 2007; it’s here.

Tepe Sialk

23 April 2010

Tepe Sialk

Kashan is best known for the lovely Fin Gardens, which are certainly worth a detour, but people who like archaeology will also be interested in a visit to Tepe Sialk. It’s one of the most important excavations in Iran, because it helped to establish the chronology of the Chalcolithicum. However, the high hill we see today, is younger: it is an eroded ziggurat from the 29th century BCE.

Fourth millennium vase (Louvre)

Some beautiful pottery has been found in Tepe Sialk, which can now be seen in the Louvre and the Archaeological Museum of Tehran. I was surprised to discover that even the Rijksmuseum van oudheden in Leiden, which is not really famous for its Iranian collection, owned a splendid beak pot.

My new page is here. As always, I liked bringing together photos from the museums with photos from the site itself, which I visited in 2004, when the excavations were still going on, and in 2009, when everything was ready to receive visitors.