Posts Tagged ‘Abbasids’

Jodi Magness on the Archaeology of Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine

December 17, 2017

One of the other books in the winter edition of the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue for Winter 2017 is Jodi Magness’ Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine. The blurb for this says

Archaeological evidence is frequently cited by scholars as proof that Palestine declined after the Muslim conquest and especially after the rise of the Abbasids in the mid-eighth century. Instead, Magness argues that the archaeological evidence supports the idea that Palestine and Syria experienced a tremendous growth in population and prosperity between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

Eisenbrauns, 2003, 9781575060705, Hardback, was £49.99, now £14.95.

Magness is an Israeli archaeologist, who has written some brilliant, very accessible, popular books on the archaeology of the Holy Land. I recognise that my own religious views mean that I have a bias towards Biblical archaeology and the Ancient Near East, as opposed to the later, Muslim periods. However, western concerns with these periods have meant that precious later evidence of Muslim culture and towns have been destroyed as archaeologists have dug through them to get to ancient Egypt, for example. The British archaeologist John Romer was particular critical about this in one edition of his series on the history of archaeology for Channel 4, broadcast in the 1990s, Great Excavations. In one sequence, he sifted through the sand around one excavated ancient Egyptian monument, picking out pieces of Islamic period pottery, and sadly remarked, ‘There was a whole town here once.’ And explained that it had been either destroyed, or at least its remains had, by archaeologists determined to get at what was underneath from antiquity.

Which of course, may partly explain – but does not justify – the Islamist rage against pre-Islamic Egypt and its monuments. Like the pyramids, which they’d love to destroy.

Magness’ conclusions don’t really surprise me. There’s an argument about the demographic and economic conditions of the late Roman Empire at the time of the Muslim conquests. Part of the reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire was economic stagnation, as I’ve pointed out before to combat the rubbish spouted by right-wing politicos and classicists like Boris Johnson. During the late Byzantine Empire, towns shrank, and many disappeared completely as they were abandoned. Those that survived tended to consist of a castle or fortification and a church around which was a much smaller settlement.

The nascent Islamic Empire put the region in touch with an expanding state that grew to cover the Near East and spread into parts of India. It gave merchants the opportunity to establish trade networks across a vast area. Furthermore, even when the Byzantines and Muslim emperors were still at work, Christians in the early caliphate were not prevented from contact with their spiritual superiors and coreligionists in Byzantium. Also, the official Byzantine ‘Melkite’ church, as it was known in Egypt, had persecuted the various ‘Jacobite’ or ‘Nestorian’ sects, which they considered heretical, often with horrific tortures. The result was that when the Muslims conquered the region, the persecuted masses opened the gates to them and welcomed them as liberators.

At the moment, however, Netanyahu, the Likudniks and the other members of the Israeli religious right in his coalition seem to be determined to erase any history of Palestine, that challenges its exclusive Jewish character. There are any number of books and articles by western historians attacking this and comparing it with militant nationalist movements elsewhere. Such as by Philip Rahtz, a very respected British archaeologist from my part of the West Country in his book, Invitation to Archaeology. This is not anti-Semitic, and Rahtz himself has always been anti- or at least, non-racist. He describes in the above book how shocked he was when an apparently liberal Australian student he was teaching was deeply surprised by his interest in the archaeology of Aboriginal Australians. ‘But they’re just apes!’ she exclaimed.

Netanyahu and his thugs are determined to close mosques and churches, or at least keep them very tightly controlled, just as the illegal settlers they support seize Palestinian land and homes in the Occupied Territories. So I really don’t know how long a genuinely open archaeological investigation of the Islamic period will last.

The Churches and Monasteries of Medieval Nubia: The Church at Arminna West

June 25, 2013

The Town of Arminna West

One of the Nubian churches excavated by archaeologists was that of Arminna West. This township lay on the west bank of the Nile directly opposite Khor Usha in the middle of the modern Arminna East, a large and prosperous town on the east side of the river, four km south of Toshka, ten km south of the post boat station at Duki Dawur and 26 km north of Abu Simbel. The township was 600 m in length and 300 m in width. It was excavated in preparation for the construction of the Aswan dam from 1961 to 1963. During the Classic Christian period at Arminna West, between 850 to 1100, the town had a population of between 100 to 200 people. It had large, finely built houses with eight or more rooms and barrel vaulted roofs, which were well plastered. These were probably occupied by nuclear families, rather than extended clan groups. The houses in medieval Nubian villages are located extremely near to each other. This, however, may have been due to the fact that ancient Nubian society was highly integrated, rather than for defensive reasons. Under a treaty with the Ummayyad caliph Abdallah ibn Saad in 652, Nubia traded 400 slaves with Egypt annually in return for cloth, horses and food. This trade nearly vanished completely from the middle of the eighth century, possibly due to the overthrow of the Ummayyads by the succeeding Abbasid dynasty, though there was a brief revival around 1000. The Nubians also imported wine from the Egyptian monasteries. There is also evidence of animal herding in Arminna West during the Classic and Late Christian phases of the town’s history. A map of the town’s remains from its Classic Christian phase is shown below.

Arminna Township

The church lay about 54 m north of the town, as shown below.

Arminna Church and Town 1

Sources

Bruce G. Trigger, The Late Nubian Settlement at Arminna West (New Haven and Philadelphia: The Peabody Museum of Natural History of Yale University/ The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania 1967)

Kent R. Weeks, The Classic Christian Townsite at Arminna West (New Haven and Philadelphia: The Peabody Museum of Natural History of Yale University/ The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania 1967).