Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume II, Part 1: Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography and Frontier Studies

By MacCoull, Leslie S. B. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume II, Part 1: Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography and Frontier Studies


MacCoull, Leslie S. B., The Catholic Historical Review


Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume II, Part 1: Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography and Frontier Studies. By Irfan Shahid. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 2002. Pp. xxxvi, 448; 6 plates. $50.00.)

The epic continues. After BASIC I parts 1 and 2, in which we were given a narrative of the political, military, and Christian ecclesiastical history of the Ghassanids, Byzantium's principal Arab allies against Persia, we come to the second volume, which deals with cultural history and the Ghassanids' role as limitanei. Once again the very few items of evidence we have, of whatever kind, are squeezed to yield the last possible drop of extrapolation that can be got out of them. (Mark Whittow, "Rome and the Jafnids: Writing the History of a 6th-c. Tribal Dynasty," in The Roman and Byzantine Near East, ed. J. Humphreys,JRA Suppl. 31 [Oxford, 1999], 207-224, is, though outspoken, a salutary counterbalance.) Now Professor Shahid presses into service archaeological remains (including churches and papyri) and Arabic texts, pre- and post-Islamic. On these small remnants, contemporary and later, he builds his imposing superstructure of narrative, doubling back and repeating earlier points, always with his aim in view. That aim is to convince the reader that the Christian Arabs were Byzantium's last best defensive hope, and that the Chalcedonian emperor Maurice's wrong-headed dismantling of the Monophysite Ghassanids' federate "shield" helped bring about the disaster of the seventh century.

Sections I and II insist strongly and repeatedly that the Ghassanids were sedentary, not nomadic; water-engineers and structure-builders, not pastoralists. (The bibliography does not include Warwick Ball, Rome in the East [London and New York, 2000], esp. pp. 101 - 105: a work nearly as Eastern in its emphasis as Shahid's own.) Could sixth-century Semitic peoples have been both? In any case, the stress on their settled, civilized nature leads into Sections III and IV, a survey of the important places of "Ghassanland" and a listing of the churches and monasteries associated with them (the fifteen maps are helpful). The latter is a poignant echo of a world that has hardly survived.

Section V brings to the eyes of Western readers what may be unfamiliar material (see also Robert Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs [London and New York, 2001], pp. 117, 241, and elsewhere): recuperable evidence from eight Arabiclanguage poets, Christians of the sixth century (two of whom adopted Islam later). …

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