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A New View of Syria-Palestine

Posted On February 05, 2018 | 11:12 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Alan Walmsley brings a lost century back into focus

Alan Walmsley, a member of the Ancient History Department at Macquarie University, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. On December 11, he delivered his research report, “Syria-Palestine in the Seventh Century: Reparenting a Historical Orphan,” which discussed his efforts to reexamine the false narrative of a “lost” century in the region.

Q&A with Alan Walmsley

I’m wondering if you could talk more about the development of this bias that there was little happening in the seventh century.

Virtually from medieval times there was a fracturing of understanding between the Christian west and the Muslim east. In the nineteenth century it got particularly tied up with colonialism, and the attempt to justify the occupation of the east. Part of that was done by discrediting the advent of Islam in the middle east, making it into a violent conquest, replete with the destruction of cities and the massacre of Christians. Eventually this was carried through into intellectual life; Gertrude Bell, for instance, in The Desert and the Sown contrasts a marauding Bedouin perception with urban settled populations. Islam was always depicted as a religion of the desert, and of the Bedouin, whereas it’s not—it actually came from two Arabian towns, Mecca and Medina.

Particularly with archaeological missions working in what today are Palestine, Jordan, and Israel, biblical archaeologists and archaeologists looking at early Christianity haven’t been interested in the arrival of Islam (630s CE) and what happened after. They knew they’d have no support from their funding bodies to look at material that postdated the periods that interested their supporters. And that created, in effect, a denial of any significant occupation of sites, both urban and rural, after the arrival of Islam. Early reports talked about destruction levels and depopulation, which worked well with the narrative developed with the colonial occupation of Syria, where economic and social conditions were poor compared to Europe at that time. There was this sort of transposition back in time, the idea that this poverty had almost happened straight away after the arrival of Islam, and was directly the consequence of the arrival of Islam.


How does rethinking this narrative play out at the level of archaeological sites?

Pella, the second major site I worked at in Jordan, had this wonderful area on the top that we excavated: two story domestic buildings with a top floor of mud brick and the lower of stone.  There’d been earthquake destruction in 749 CE, and these buildings had collapsed in on themselves. It was a very violent earthquake that caused a lot of damage throughout the region. The paradigm at the time we were excavating posited that, after the arrival of Islam, there was a period of rival Islamic and Christian communities followed by dissipation. So the idea that Islam is not compatible with urbanism had, once again, reared its head. But as we were excavating this house, we kept finding goods from all over the place – Egypt, Arabia and Palestine. At that time the standard tax, a head tax, was four gold coins, or dinars, for each adult. In that one house we found eleven denars, which is a lot of money to be carrying around. Together with the coin hoards I discussed in my talk, that’s naturally just a fraction of what money was circulating.


Why is the seventh century in particular interesting to study?

There’s a really major event that starts it. A popular Byzantine emperor, Maurice, is overthrown, and then the usurper, Phocas, in turn is overthrown and suffers a very nasty execution. That led to war with Sassanian Persia, a powerful empire which had supported Maurice, so eventually you have the Sassanid Persians occupying all of Syria Palestine and Egypt (which once belonged to their empire in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE).

The seventh century CE ends with Abdul Malik, who sets off a series of major social and economic changes. The political and administrative system that had been used during the seventh century under the first caliphs was no longer working because of the empire’s size and diversity. Abdul Malik’s reforms were all about making a new empire. Before Abdul Malik there were two systems at work in the empire, one of which was influenced by Byzantine culture and Christian administrative systems, the other of Persian origin. Abdul Malik tries to bring a single system to the empire. Of course, history is more complicated than that; you can’t just impose a system and expect the ways people behaved and acted previously to disappear. It’s a very interesting period that’s been written off by archaeologists; the most that would have been admitted is that things were sort of just plodding along. What I’ve tried to show is that the seventh century was a diverse and experimental period—things were tried that, though they often didn’t quite work, created an indispensable foundation for the later reforms of Abdul Malik that made his new empire.